Monday, February 12, 2007

Interview with Mark Tanaka, 2006 PA/USATF and Fuel Belt Series Champion

Dr. Mark Tanaka is a familiar face in the California Ultra scene since he races just about everything on the schedule. Sometimes he goes fast (2nd at the 2006 Rio de Lago 100-miler in under 18 1/2 hours) and sometimes he takes his time (last one the cross the finish line at the 2006 Tahoe Rim Trail 100-miler), but he always has fun. Mark recently edged out Jon Olsen in a close race for the 2006 Fuel Belt Series that came down to the wire at the Helen Klein 50-miler, as well as winning by close margin the Men's Senior (age 30-39) division of the PA/USATF Ultra Running Grand Prix.

(Mark Tanaka at the 2006 Skyline 50k)

I caught up with Mark shortly after he finished 4th at the 2007 Jed Smith 50k, the first race of the 2007 Grand Prix.

First, congratulations on a great season! You sure raced a lot. How is it that you can race competitively so many times in one year? Any injuries?

Thanks, Scott. I was lucky and pleased to be able to race often (and race hard) without getting hurt last year. I knew of several others racing a lot in Northern California who were hindered by injuries. A few times my iliotibial band started complaining, but it never flared outright like it did few times in the previous two years.

You won both the race series as well as the 30-39 Open Senior Men's Division of the PA/USATF Ultra Grand Prix. Were those goals of yours from the beginning of the year?

Definitely not, as I doubted I would win either. I didn't even sign up for PA/USATF until after the American River 50, where I finished a lot faster than I had anticipated, and noticed that I would have received Series points for it. I thought it would be fun to sign up, see how the points stacked up, as well as support a good cause. After a few runs, I found myself at or near the top. Obviously there are lots of faster runners, who, by running just a few more races, could have beaten me in the series. Perhaps because I knew this--that this might be my only chance-- when it looked like I had a chance at winning near the end of the year, I really wanted it, and lucked out.

With the Ultrarunner series, it was a similar story. I knew I wanted to do the Tahoe 100 miler since I didn't get into Western States, and that I wanted to run Rio del Lago again. So I thought I might as well enter some of the other races and maybe win something. Robert Mathis had to cancel Rucky Chucky Roundabout, and then the results for the Overlook Run, where I would've come in 3rd, were thrown out. I suspect a lot of potential series competitors got frustrated by that. I later noticed that the point totals weren't accurate for the Tahoe 100, so it looked like I was way ahead of everyone. I emailed Robert, who corrected it, and then offered double points for Lake of the Sky in mid-October, forcing me to really work to stay on top. I got lost in the last mile or two, adding 15-20 minutes to my time. Jon Olsen was neck-and-neck throughout the whole season. Had Jon Olsen run the Tahoe 50 mile instead of the 50 km, I wouldn't've have had a chance. But fortunately I ran a good race at Helen Klein (50 mile), staying within 20 minutes of Jon.

What were your highlights of the year?

It was all fun. I lowered my times in every race I'd done before, sometimes to a suprising degree. My two 100's, being 100's, were more memorable. Barely finishing Tahoe was an accomplishment I will always be very proud of, given that for more than 16 or so hours, I really doubted if I was going to finish. I'm guessing it was the altitude that made me feel so weak the second half--it seems many of the 40% that didn't finish were lowlanders like myself. Being able to come back to Rio del Lago and run well was huge. I guess I redeemed myself placewise, but more importantly, I corrected and improved lots of things from the previous year, my first attempt at the distance.

(Mark climbs Marlett Peak for the second time at the TRT 100;
photo courtesy of Matt Chamberlain)

I felt pretty good about some of my quick turnarounds from race to race. Finishing 4th at Quicksilver 50 mile and then 4th (under 5:15) at Ohlone 50k the next weekend. Also coming in 4th at Firetrails (50 mile) two weeks after Rio. Actually in October I ran Lake of the Sky a week after Firetrails and would've come in 3rd until I got lost near the end; then the following week I initially finished in 2nd until I figured out I'd missed a whole aid station and cut about 1 1/2 miles from the course. So I contacted the race director and asked him to nuke my results. Sort of frustrating, but apparently it wasn't totally my fault, and I still had fun on a beautiful course.

Your family must be very supportive. I think I met your son at Ohlone this year. Is he your crew chief?

Well, for better or worse, Peter often calls the shots at home, so I guess that makes him my chief. He's always drinking from my water bottle, so he might not make the best crew chief (in truth, I've never had a crew for even the 100 mile races).

My wife has been very accomodating and supportive, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you all this racing has and always will require compromise and negotiation, even if can win a deluxe king size mattress that she loves (the grand prize for the Fuel Belt Series). I don't ask her to crew, since taking care of our toddler without me around is enough responsibility. If there's stuff for her and Peter to do near the race then she'll come along. Otherwise I go alone.

(Crew chief Peter helps Dad with his water bottle at the Ohlone 50k)

You are an emergency room doctor, yes? Aside from lots of practice at all-nighters, how does your career help your running?

Being an "ER doc" is often very stressful and intense, involving trying to make a lot of people happy and alive and well at the same time, often when there is no time. If anything, my job probably more than trains me to deal with the stress of running. You have to multitask a ridiculous amount.

It's something more mundane, my schedule, that most impacts my running. Shift work means irregular hours. Half of my shifts end around midnight and at least one of my weekends is completely shot working night shifts each month. For every race I'm able to schedule, I need to reciprocate to my wife by giving her personal time another weekend while I take care of our son. Any other time I'm off in the evenings, I want to spend it with my family, whom I might not see for days otherwise, save for frenetic morning encounters before my wife goes to work and takes our son to daycare and then I try to go back to sleep. Therefore it's hard to make group training runs, usually held in the evenings or on the weekend. It would be nice to enjoy more of the social aspect of this sport, and maybe that's another reason I like to race.

As if my work weren't intense enough, a few times a month I work an especially long shift made up of two 8-hour shifts back to back. These can be really really draining and take a lot of mental endurance, and remind me that running for 16 hours straight is actually fun.

The Rio del Lago 100 in 2005 was your first 100-miler, and you raced a couple more this year. How has it been stepping up to the big distances?

It's really awesome. I remember during my first AR50 run in 2004 talking to a bunch of guys who had done States or other 100 milers, and being awed by both the idea and by how normal they made it seem. Until then, I thought it was something that maybe I would want to do, but probably it would be too painful or difficult to try. Eventually I got the nerve to try it. Running longer than 60 or so miles makes the experience not only quantitatively, but qualitative different. You have to think about nutrition thing a lot more, you have to prepare those drop bags, and there's the running in the dark. I feel like I haven't fully "stepped up" yet, having tried only 2 different 100 milers.

Have you always been a runner? When did you get into ultras?

I ran cross country in junior high and high school, but was never particularly fast. My high school coach seemed convinced if I weren't such a wimp and actually was willing to undergo some real pain, I could run sub-14 minute 5-k's, but that's something I never came close to.

I probably learned the most about pain and endurance from wrestling practices in high school, as well as practicing a martial art when I studied abroad in Japan during college. We would do crazy stuff like do knuckle pushups for 2-3 hours straight, or at least try to.

I bandited the Boston Marathon my senior year of college-- I doubt if they still tolerate unofficial runners at the back of the pack. I finished writing my graduation thesis and then ran like crazy to try to train in a few weeks for it. Needless to say, I got injured before the race even started and limp-ran most of the 2nd half. I think it took me over 4 hours and I couldn't run for months. I finished two other marathons, less stupidly, over the next decade.

I started running marathons regularly after med school, during my internship and residency in Chicago, and was able to finish more than half the time under 3 hours. But not much faster, which sort of gives me an idea of my limits at longer races. My last two springs there I tried my first ultras with the Chicago Lakefront 50km, basically flat and an extension of the marathon, without all the hoopla. I liked how most of us were encouraging each other as we passed each other by on the 3 times out and back course, the informal friendly atmosphere. I heard about the Kettle Morraine ultra runs in nearby southern Wisconsin and was intrigued, but had neither the time nor the guts to try to train for something as long and crazy as 100km or 100 miles.

Once I accepted a job back in the Bay Area, I found the Pacific Coast Trail Runs website and signed up for the Skyline to the Sea (renamed Big Basin)50k. I showed up in road shoes already falling apart, and without a water bottle like they recommend. Within the first 1/2 mile I followed a bunch of rabbits maybe doing one of the shorter distances, who ran off the course. Maybe about a mile and a half down the hill, this other guy and I figured out we needed to turn back. I got lost a few other times, fell 3 times, and just when I thought I was getting the hang of things, made the mistake of eating 2 whole full-sized Cliff Bars at an aid station, forcing me to walk with an unhappy GI tract during the flattest part of the course for about 20 minutes. But I finished alive, my longest run in distance and time up to then. Needless to say I was hooked.

A couple of week later, I barely completed the Vineman, an Ironman distance triathlon in Sonoma, for which I had been swimming and running, and as much biking as my poor equipment would tolerate. I thought I'd trained enough, but my body starting shutting down halfway through the marathon, which in hindsight was due to hyponatremia, since it was hot and I wasn't taking any sodium other than the watered-down sports drink. After barely finishing before the cutoff, I ended up in an ER, perhaps my first time as a patient rather than a doctor. Unfortunately no labs were drawn, so I was thinking I just bonked.

I signed up for the first PC Trail Run Diablo 50 miler the next month. Probably a bad choice for a first 50-miler. It was really hot, like upper 90's, and I didn't take any extra salt, thinking the sports drink was enough. Severe muscle cramps were followed by diarrhea, nausea and eventually the inability to think straight. Wendell Doman pulled me off the course at the summit at mile 41, and after a hellish drive down the tortuous road, I ended up spending the night in the ER with hyponatremia and rhabdomyolysis (a condition resulting from too much muscle breakdown, which probably all ultrarunners have after any race). My then fiancee still in Chicago was very upset when she got the 2nd call in 2 months from me, very out of it, unconvincingly telling her I was alright. With every race after that for the next year through my first 100 miler, I had to prove that this ultrarunning thing was something I could actually do without killing myself.

What races are your favorites? Steep, fast, trails/road?

The variety of terrain is what makes this sport so interesting. It's hard to comprehend I used to enjoy just running flat road marathons. My learning curve for running technical trails hasn't flattened out, which makes for an added challenge and ability to improve even if my physiology plateaus from middle age. I try to train on trails as much as possible for the sake of my joints. And there is nothing like starting the descent as you finish a long climb with the whole world stretched below you. Topography is part of the reason I could never seriously entertain moving back to Chicago, despite occasionally grumblings from my wife, whose entire family still lives there. But I'm not a trail purist, and will probably continue to run a few flat road or loop courses every year, for series points or just to see how fast I can run a certain distance. I just set my 50k PR this past weekend at Jed Smith, despite a tough schedule and poor sleep the week before.

What is it that you enjoy the most about the sport?

Communing with nature and repeatedly appreciating the beautiful scenery out here in California and elsewhere. If I weren't doing this I'd still be hiking a lot. I'm always amazed that people live their whole lives in the Bay Area without seeing the beauty so close to them. My trial running addiction lets me enjoy it regularly and often, and with a wide variety of settings and terrain. I enjoy feeling very familiar with and connected to my local geography. The continual challenge and opportunity to push yourself to your limits and learn more about yourself.

There are a lot of cool, nice and amazing people who do ultras. Even the elite runners seem down-to-earth, not full of themselves, and supportive of everyone. One of the best parts of racing a lot is that you learn the names of people and get to know them. And they are all great.

Let me ask about your training. What does a typical training week look like for you?

As I mentioned earlier, given my ever-changing work schedule I don't really have a typical week. I end up getting a decent proportion of my mileage running to and from work, which usually involves a jaunt to a BART station less than 4 miles away or running all the way, which varies from 7 1/2 to 18 miles, depending on which hospital and how I go. I try to run off the pavement, but it's unavoidable, plus all the traffic, so I wouldn't call these quality workouts.

People at work love making fun of my skinny legs in my shorts when I arrive or leave. I suspect a few think it's unsafe and think of that part of Hayward as a warzone, but so far I've never been shot at. I do have access to a very small network of trails with only a few stretches of pavement accessible from my house that I can do as quickly as 75 minutes. But real quality training runs, where I go and do trails for hours, are harder to arrange--I don't hit those local East Bay Regional Park trails as often as I'd like. I wouldn't consider myself particularly high-mileage, although I never know how far I've run in a week. In my training log I record the route and the time running, without trying to figure out the mileage, which means less when you're on hills.

Any cross-training, or do you mostly run?

Mostly run. If I'm lazy or rushed, I'll bike the commute instead of running it, which isn't that much of a workout, but it sure beats driving and not getting any exercise at all. I finally bought a road bike this fall. It's sort of fun seeing new places and going farther, but my skinny unpadded ass hurts like hell after an hour or so.

Theoretically I'd like to swim once a week, but the lagoons near my house are only open in the summer, and the pool I use has limited hours that are usually not convenient for my schedule. We spent a week vacationing in Mexico before Christmas and I swam as much as I could at the resort, amidst too many cocktails and being crazy with my son. But I also managed to run about 6 or 7 hours over the week.

I'd like to do another Ironman distance triathlon again. Hey, does snowboarding count as cross-training?

Absolutely. Do you peak for a few races, or just try and run consistently all season for the Series?

If I were fast enough to consider, say, placing top ten in Western States I would probably try to peak for that to get in every year. But I doubt I could ever come close. Series are nice because they often reward consistency. Plus, I can place like 12th in some big race, but come in 2nd or 3rd in my division for Grand Prix points.

(The Tanaka family lends support at the Cool aid station of the 2005 Rio del Lago 100)

So what are your plans for the future, both this year and in the years to come?

This year I'll probably need to limit my racing since we're hoping to have another baby this fall (nothing official yet). Robert Mathis appears to have added several new interesting races to the Series and if you've looked recently at the Pacific Coast Trail Runs website, Sarah and Wendell Doman have come up with some very exciting new longer runs. I'll probably concentrate on PA/USATF races, for which I get 1/2 off this year, though I doubt I'll be winning that again in the near future. But that's what I thought when I first signed up last year, right?

In the long term, I'd like to do more races, all distances, but particularly try to increase my 100-milers. Lots of them seem to be at altitude, so somehow I'm going to figure out how to deal with that. But I want to balance racing with my family needs too. I'd be content to enjoy the wide variety of races just in the area, but hope to combine races with travel where my whole family can have fun, such as H.U.R.T., being at low altitude and a tropical vacation location.

What are your favorite foods/supplements both for training and racing?

When I'm racing or on a long training run, if it's hot at all, I make sure I'm taking salt (usually with potatoes) or a lyte capsule every hour. If I know ahead of time I'm running more than 3 hours I'll carry a bottle, gels, powdered sports drink to mix at a drinking fountain, and maybe a sandwich or some energy bar. But usually I don't bother since for an ultrarunner, a 2-hour training run isn't a big deal. The problem is when I end up running lots longer than I anticipated, and I'm unprepared--makes for some brutally tough runs, in some ways tougher than races. I prefer stuff without a lot of artificial colors and additives, like GU2O or Clif products. I really haven't experimented in any sort of controlled way, and doubt it matters that much. I have a feeling salmon or unagi (eel) would make a great, easily digested 100-miler food, but don't expect to see that at any aid stations soon.

This isn't quite nutrition, but this year I got an iPod Nano for my first loop course, Ruth Anderson 100k, and used it also some during the nighttime hours of my 100 milers, especially helpful since I don't use pacers. Otherwise, I rarely feel the need to run with music.

Any recommendations for first time ultra runners? First time 100-milers?

If you mean general advice, there's too much to say, and I'm probably too new at this. In any case, everyone's different, so what works for one person often doesn't for another. One thing I've noticed novices get into trouble, especially at longer races, by not getting enough nutrition or going out too fast. Master the distance first, before working on speed, unless you don't mind not finishing. The important thing is to have fun, and try not to sacrifice too much other fun to have ultrarunning fun.

Thanks, and have a great 2007 season!



  1. GREAT stuff Scott...these interviews are what makes your blog the best of it's kind.

    Mark Tanaka is an impressive athlete, looking forward to competing against him in the 2007 Ohlone 50K...I think he turns 40 this year, so we're in the same age group classification. ;-)

    No 40+ competitor has run the course in under 5 hours, that's my aim, and where my training is focused, I'm guessing he may have a similar goal in mind.

    Thanks for another excellent interview. Hope you'll consider an entry on Lon Freeman in the near future, he's unbelievably FAST.

    Will G.

  2. Great interview, Scott, Mark. Just shows how almost anyone can fit exercixe into their life- Mark does a good job with such a tight schedule.

  3. You're right that Tanaka is everywhere. He was in all four races I did last year, and he did very well in all of them. Plus he was super nice to the volunteers. Thanks for letting us get to know him a bit better.


  4. I saw the "Marks" (Tanaka and Lantz) at Helen Klein last year. They are both super fast! I think that's great that both Marks have a lot of respect for Jon Olsen too. Jon was top 10 at States this year.
    - ANDY

  5. Thanks for this interview Scott, and Mark! It's really inspiring to hear about the challenges faced by top athletes. To accomplish all that as an ER doc, and husband, and!

  6. Scott, terrific interview. I'm a big fan of your blog. It's always interesting. Thanks.


  7. 2nd place at Rio is pretty outstanding for a guy who just started doing 100's. I heard at Helen Klein that he even fit in a 30 minute phone call to his wife!


  8. Great post. Thanks for sharing the interview.

  9. Thanks for another great interview, Scott. The interest you take in the broader ultra community is one of the things that keeps me coming back to your blog.

    It's reassuring to know that even a physician can have trouble balancing nutrition and hydration with racing.


  10. Thanks for sharing another great interview. I have thought Mark will be in your interview some day.

    I knew Mark in a couple of races. Mark and I happened to share similar family-race issues. On the other hand, my family still remember how they happened to meet Mark's family at HK 50, while we were running hard. :-)

    Wish Mark a wonderful year in 2007!


  11. Wow, I never knew that Mark had such a busy schedule. It really did seem like Mark was everywhere as he was in almost every ultra I ran last year. Each time he ran well, making it hard to tell that he ran an ultra or marathon a week or two before. Amazing!

    Thanks for sharing the interview!


  12. Great interview, Scott.

    Peter is adorable!

  13. I know this interview is 3 years old, but I met this dude on the beach at Hilton Head Island, SC in April (2010). He was camped out a few feet away from my folks, I spotted his Mohican Trail 100 t-shirt, struck up a conversation. He's a really nice dude. And skinny. Why am I saying this? I guess as a testament to how ultra-marathon runners have a kinship the world over.


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