Thursday, December 15, 2005

Go Speed Racer! An Interview with Mountain Runner Simon Gutierrez

When it comes to mountain running, few can keep up with Alamosa, CO-based Simon Gutierrez. A four-time Teva Mountain Running Team member with a sub-30 minute 10k PR, Simon has been known to devastate course records at some of the world’s toughest climbs, such as the Pike’s Peak Ascent (he won the 13.8 mile climb in 2003 with an age group record of 2:13), the Mt. Washington Hill Climb (three- time winner), and the 9-mile La Luz Mountain Race (which he has won 7 times). His performance on the world circuit has also been amazing, with top 20 finishes in World Trophy events in Italy, New Zealand. He was recently named the 2005 USATF Mountain Runner of the Year.

(Simon Gutierrez, #200, leading the pack in New Zealand, photo courtesy of Rowan G)

I caught up with Simon on e-mail to talk about his season, and give us some tips on mountain running.

First, congratulations on your performance in New Zealand at the World Championships! Can you tell us a little about how that race went?

Thanks, Scott!

Well, I had a solid start and by the top of the first climb I was in the top 5 or 6. The pace was intense for the first 5 min or so then it felt comfortable. Then came the descents and I lost some ground on the leaders by the end of the 1st lap. It is no secret that I don’t enjoy downhill racing but I was pleased that I was not totally useless on them. In after thought it may have been better to have gone out harder for the first climb. From then on, for the last 2 laps my focus was on running strongly on the uphills and staying on my feet for the downhills. I lost a place or two each lap (again…my downhill skills , though much improved this year) the last 1/2 mile was all fun and I got goose bumps knowing I had accomplished my year long goal of a top 10 finish. I was pleased with last years 17th place but to get top 10 on an up and down year really opened my eyes to the fact that I can compete with the top mountain runners in the World.

Do you try and stay 100% focused on mountain running, or do you fit in road races/ultras/etc. as well?

I consider myself a good road and xc runner at the 5km- 10km -1/2 marathon distances year round. Basically, from May to September my training is geared towards the mountain races that I will be competing in. I only do a couple of trail/ mountain runs a week, but they are quality runs usually mimicking upcoming races.There is a treadmill session every 10 day’s or so (15% incline for an hour of fartlek) to work on my ascent running. The rest of my training is done on flat dirt roads with an emphasis on 10km training. I was probably in 14.20 5km / 29.30 10km shape just prior to New Zealand. I ran 30.28 for a 10km in July( 6000ft elevation) right smack in the middle of the mountain season.

I understand you were a cross-country star and a road marathoner (PR of 2:18) before your mountain running days. What led you to the hills?

I’ve done alot of different types of running through the years...... In 1983, third at Footlocker/ Kinney Nationals. A 29.45 as a 17year old on the roads. Was 16th in the world junior xc champs in 1984. I went to four straight NCAA XC Championships at the university of Arizona (1984-1988), although never making All – American. During the 90’s I was living in Sweden and ran alot of European XC / track races. I’ve run some marathons, lots of roadracing and even a PR 63.48 half marathon in Holland.

As for the mountains, I grew up in Albuquerque and my coach used to take me out on Sundays and we’d have these incredible runs that were so fun. I’ve always been more competitive in XC, so when you throw in the altitude, longer race times and the ascents, I tend to do quite well. Plus after so many years competing, it was a nice change to get back to the mountains. You are out there trying to run as fast as you can… very unsuspecting elements!

It’s hard to imagine you fit time in for job. Can you tell us a little about what you do outside of trail running, and how you keep it all balanced?

The morning hours are “Simon time” when I relax and get in my main workout of the day. 10-12 miles varied between easy runs and hard intervals etc….. I get in another 35- 45 min workout in the evenings after work.

I work as a outpatient Physical Therapist, from 11.30 – 5 pm or so. This fall I have been working with rehab and prevention of running injuries with the Adams State College XC and track teams for 5-6 hours a week. It is nice to be able to share my experiences and apply my manual skills with the men’s and women’s teams. It's a priviledge and a unique opportunity for the runners that has come about through the cooperation of the schools athletic trainer, my employer and Coach Martin, whom I can't say enough about!

When I first got out of PT school, I tried working 8-5 and running competitively. It was not a good scene. I was tired at work and tired on my runs. I would get to races wishing I was still in bed. Now I can focus on my training and when I get to work I feel refreshed and motivated to do a good job. My evening workouts are a flush-out session for the mind and the legs. I really appreciate my situation because I have the time to look forward to my training and actually enjoy going to work each day.

What inspires you to run? And keep up the training?

Hmmm, I honestly enjoy being out on my daily runs…just running. There is so much to see and experience, regarding nature and wildlife that I never get bored. Here in Alamosa we have the most spectacular surrounding mountains I can just stare at them on my runs and dream. Also there is a part of me that enjoy’s a good challenge. I am always setting goals for myself that are challenging and I do my best to accomplish them. These day’s I am not so heartbroken if things don’t turn out as planned. I still get to go for a nice run the next day and that is where my enjoyment of running is. After many years of running, I know my body and know what works for me. If I want to excel in a certain area of running whether it is mountains, roads or XC I am very relaxed knowing that if I do the training that the results will come. I enjoy speaking with other runners and continue to learn new things about training and my physiology every year.

What are some of your favorite races/locations?

For sure Mt Washington Road Race ( 7.6 miles at 11-12 % incline …a sick grind) then probably the Challenge Stellina in Susa, Italy (15km ascent trail) and, of course, my hometown race La Luz Trail run which has everything any race I have run has as far as difficulty, elevation and vertical incline. Lastly, just about any XC race I can find…..

(Paul Lowe, #1, and Simon, #2, battling at the Mt. Washington Road Race, 2005; photo courtesy of AP)

Mountain running seems to be much bigger outside the US. Would you agree? Why do you think that is? Do you think it will change?

I ran into this while living in Sweden and I think it is similar for mountain running. Europe has a club system which is evident in just about every small town or village. Each club put on races and every now and then there are bigger races with prize money and such. For mountain running, there is a governing body in Europe which coordinates a Grand Prix and these races draw the worlds top mountain runners every year. You look at Europe geographically and it is like traveling from US states to state…So if you live in Europe you can race each weekend without going broke and maybe even come out ahead financially if you are running well.
Here in the USA most mountain/trail races do not have prize money and even more seldom do they not have travel/lodging etc. So the athletes are doing it for other reasons than monetary. We have so many other sports here in the USA that sponsorship etc is limited.

However, things are changing for the better here in the USA. The general athletic public seems to become more and more interested in trail running and that has added numerous events nationwide to compete in. I am grateful for the races that exist and definitely hats off to all the runners because without the numbers there would be no opportunity to have the competitions we have now.

Lastly, a few training questions. What’s a typical training week look like for you? How many miles? What kind of hill/speed work prepares you for mountain running?

I do about 100-110 miles a week year round. The only thing I change is the intensity/quality depending on what I am preparing for. Usually 2-a-days unless I do a long run on Sunday….I’ve gotten away from a 7 day training cycle. Mine is more 12-14 days where I get in one long run…some mile repeats on the ditchbanks , hill/trail or mountain sessions and some fartlek or races …We used to joke around in college that the week was not long enough to get in all the type of training one needs, so I have learned to make the week longer.

I am very consistent in my training. I am out at 9 am and 6pm daily. As for workouts, they are geared toward 10km type racing. I like to feel that I can run a fast 5km then I train specific for races that are coming up. The last 5 weeks prior to Wellington, NZ I was hitting some steep hill repeats, up and down for an hour, to get my muscles ready for the course. All summer I did gradual up and down mile repeats every 10 days or so at 10000 ft elevation.
Here is a sample week I did in September, one week after returning from Italy where I realized I was ready to crack the top 10 at the World’s if I could improve my downhill technique:

(Usually I don’t do as many quality sessions…. Probably one every 3 day’s on average.)

Monday AM 70 min flat and easy PM 35 min easy

Tuesday AM Hills mountains 10 -12 % incline…7 min up 5 min down repeat 5 times ( race course similation for worlds in 4 weeks) PM 40 min easy….flat….

Wednesday AM 70 min PM 35 min

Thursday AM fartlek on flat dirt…..10 x 1minute fast 1 min jog , then straight into a mile in 4.38, 1 min jog and a 800 in 2.21 then 3 min recovery to the track and a 1000m in 2.53…PM 40 min easy

Friday AM 60 min slow….pm 31 min slow

Saturday AM XC race here in Alamosa ( 7544 ft elevation ) with the college guys XC team 24.52 for aprox 8km PM 45 min treadmill run at 15 % incline ( 75% effort heart rate based)

Sunday AM 70 min PM 35 min……..3 weeks to go until world champs

What are your favorite foods/race snacks?

Well I eat pretty healthy most days. Lots of chicken, lean beef, vegetables, salads…oatmeal, blueberries and peanut butter for breakfast. My mother’s enchilada’s are a favorite. I have no problem going out for a burger or pizza with friends and I don’t think I have ever turned down a good Microbrewery beer. The trick is to turn down the 2nd or 3rd one…I’ve also got a sweet tooth for cookies….and I don’t turn those down after 1 or 2 !

Pre-race or workouts are usually some good strong coffee, a bagel with peanut butter and honey and if it is a long race , a balance bar. I also drink a carbohydrate/protein sports drink before during and after my training sessions.

Do you cross-train at all in other sports, or stay specific to trail running? I’ve heard rumors about your Stairmaster competitions…

I think you heard of a treadmill run off in Salt Lake City. No stairmasters for me. I do like the elliptical because it mimics “uphill running”.

The last 2 years I have done more of my recovery runs on an elliptical trainer. I don’t differentiate between 40 min of easy running or an evening on the elliptical, especially now in the winter when it is dark and cold. I recover faster and definitely have better quad strength for hill climbing. Of course as the season progresses I do more and more “running” after work, it works out great as the daylight increases I gradually do more outdoor "runs".

I also have a home Nordic Track which I use in the winter when and if the weather is bad or the gym is closed. I am lifting weights twice weekly trying to bulk up a bit… My friends are gonna laugh at that part but honestly, I tend to drop more weight than I like to towards the end of the mountain season. I think my clothes are fitting better this winter….I like to think it is because of the weight training but it could be extra insulation as well...ha ha :)

I do 3-4 snowshoe races in Jan to March. It is tough and we often race at 10000ft elevation which is a nice way to get into the mountains when the trails are snow packed.

(Simon rounds the corner at the 2005 New Zealand World Mountain Running Championship,
photo courtesy of Rowan G)

A lot of the blog readers love to hear about “lessons learned” (ie, things that didn’t go right that perhaps they could avoid). Any you would like to pass on?

Oh my, I could probably write a book about the blunders I have made through the years.
What to avoid….definitely overtraining. It is easy to go out and train as hard as you can , but are you getting anything out of all your hard work ?

It may look like I train hard but I have built up to this level over 20 years. On my easy day’s I run as slow as needed to allow for recovery. I get ribbed about this all the time cause I can run real slow some days......I rarely go all out in training. Most efforts are controlled and I pick up speed over the course of several months of training.

I really believe that by giving the the body time to adjust, we can avoid most overuse injuries. It is just difficult to find the right individual balance.

If you enjoy running , then you should focus on what makes you happy and keep doing it. My career has had many ups and down. I had a great HS career, followed by a dismal collegiate career. Then all of a sudden I made the senior USA world xc team in 1989 and I was back on track so to say….My first 2 world trophy races were disasters and finally I have gotten it right the last 2 years…I forget who told me this but we all have adversity, it is what you do with it that matters most.

Lastly, you got to put your health first, then training. Staying healthy is my main goal year after year.

Any tips you would like to pass on to somebody trying their first mountain run?

Just have fun and enjoy the tranquility. Make sure you know about the course and have adequate gear for the race. Train on the surfaces you will be running on......Usually the weather is always changing here in Colorado so don’t be surprised if it snows/ rains or is blistering hot. After your first one, go back for more !!!

What’s next on the race/run agenda? Any plans for ’06?

Right now ( December) I am in an base building phase for Nov/December ( 100-110 miles weekly with 2 hard sessions a week) . My immediate goals after the New Year are a sub 15 min 5km here in Alamosa ( 7600ft ) and then getting close to 14 min for 5km and 29.30 for 10km in March / April / May.

I can’t believe it but I will be 40 in March! I want to run some PR’s next spring and hope by being a master runner I will get the chance to go to a handful of the top road races in the country.

I will be back on the mountain tops come June – September with plans to improve on my 10th place finish at the world trophy race and there are a couple of mountain races that I know I can run faster on …... Most of all just having a lot of fun, meeting my old friends and new faces all over the world.

Best of luck. Thanks for a great interview!



  1. I saw this guy at Pikes Peak in 2003 and he just looked awesome. That high-altitude stuff is a whole different ball game than our California ultras.

    Thanks for the great interview.

  2. Awesome! It's great to see our fastest road runners head into the mountains.


  3. He just keeps getting faster! What's his secret????? I don't think 40 is going to slow him down one bit.

  4. Kudos to Simon (and the rest of the US team) for taking the US to a whole new level at these races! I read the article in TRail Runner, and it was great. Kami

  5. That guy is FAST!!!

  6. Wow! What a great runner! I can't even imagine logging 100+ miles a week, that's awesome!


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