Monday, May 14, 2007

The Ultra-Fast Greg Crowther (An Interview)

To win a single USATF championship is worthy of any ultrarunner's dreams. But how about winning two in five weeks? That's exactly what Seattle, WA's Greg Crowther did when he won the USATF 50k Road Championships in Long Island, NY this March (3:04:34, a course record), and followed it up with a weather-challenged win at the USATF 100k Road Championships in Mad City, WI (7:14:31). This was right on the heels of his win at the 2006 Sunmart 50-mile (5:37:39!), one of the most competitive ultras in the US. In case this wasn't enough, 33-year-old Greg and his wife welcomed their first child, Philip, into this world in October, 2006.


Greg also has a fantastic blog where he shares tips and stories about how speed demons like him (2:22 marathoner, 30:57 10k bests) transfer their skills to the long distances. I caught up with him over e-mail, just before and after his 2nd place finish at the 2007 Miwok 100k (8:31:31, 4th fastest time ever).

(Greg on his way to a win at the 2006 Sunmart 50-mile; photo courtesy of John Welch)

1) First, congrats on your 2nd USATF championship this year! Did both races go as you had hoped?

I had three goals for the 50K: win the race, break the course record (worth an extra $350), and save something for the 100K, which was only five weeks later. I accomplished the first two but had to work quite hard to stay on pace at the end, so I may have gone into the 100K with a bit of residual fatigue and/or damage left over from the 50K and my other hard training runs. My main goal for the 100K was to run in the 6:45-6:50 range, and I stayed on pace for the first 70K or so but fell apart after that, so my final time of 7:14 was, to be honest, a big disappointment.

2) Do you consider the 50k and 100k similar or quite different? How does it compare to your marathon/10k background?

All road races from 10K to 100K are similar for me in that I basically try to settle into a sustainable pace and then hold it for as long as possible. However, starting an ultra at that "sustainable pace" generally feels quite comfortable for quite a while. Thus ultras are more relaxed in a way, but also more suspenseful in a way, because feeling good during those early miles tells you very little about how things will ultimately turn out.

Like many people, I think of the 50K as a "long marathon" requiring little preparation beyond what you'd normally do for a marathon. The length of the 100K forces you to worry more about issues of fueling, hydration, muscle damage, and also boredom. Some people don't love running enough to want to do 100 kilometers of it in one day, which is perfectly understandable.

3) You are the master of the road ultras for sure. Do you race trail/mountain ultras as well? What is your favorite racing distance?

Regarding the "master of the road ultras" title, I personally would assign that to Howard Nippert, who has led the American men at the last five 100K World Cups.

I've only done a limited number of serious trail ultras thus far because I'm fairly clumsy on the trails. You know how the experts say not to brake when running downhill? Well, I _always_ brake. I suppose I should practice cutting loose more often, but I have a strong self-preservation instinct that is hard to cast off. Anyway, I did the White River 50 back in 2005 and then the Miwok 100K earlier this month, and I'm signed up for the Western States 100 on June 23rd. I was pleasantly surprised with my climbing ability at Miwok, so I think the 18,000 feet of climbing at Western States will go OK. The 23,000 feet of descent could get ugly, though.

My favorite distance is currently the 100K. That's mostly for competitive reasons; the longer the race, the better I tend to do. (I haven't explored this trend beyond 100K yet.) When I race 5Ks or 10Ks, I run in fear of the guys with more footspeed and better kicks. When I race 100Ks, _I_ get to be one of the fearsome speedy guys, which is a lot more fun.

(Greg with Caumsett 50k RD Vinny Croce just after Greg's course-setting 2007 USATF 50k win;
photo courtesy of Greater Long Island Running Club)

4) With a baby and full-time job (research scientist at the University of Washington, soon after press time), it must be hard to find time to train. But you've managed to stay at the top of your game. How do you balance it all?

There are probably several factors that help me perform well despite a tight schedule.

First, I seem to have more talent than some, so I can get by on fewer miles.

Second, my wife is a runner too, so she understands my competitive drive and allows me to give it wings, even though the desire to outrun others sometimes seems like the most juvenile thing in the world.

Third, after my son was born, I switched from commuting exclusively by bike to doing a mix of running and cycling. That's a more efficient use of my time, since I'm actually accomplishing something with those runs rather than just winding up where I started.

Fourth, my training is very cyclical, so big workout days are followed by days when I have more time to catch up on other things. If I do a long and hard run, I'll spend a large chunk of the day preparing for it, doing it, refueling afterwards, taking a nap, etc. But then I'll be able to focus on other priorities for several days, since my running during that time will be limited to easy recovery jogs.

5) When did you start running? When did you start running ultras?

I discovered at a young age -- like eight or nine -- that my love of sports far exceeded my aptitude for them, except that I seemed to have good endurance. Because I was eager to excel in _something_, I started running a mile at a time on a semi-regular basis. I ran cross country and track in junior high school, and things progressed normally from there. I didn't catch the ultra bug until 2004. Scott McCoubrey, the owner of the Seattle Running Company, was picked to be a US team leader for the 100K World Cup that year, and he told me that, based upon my marathon credentials, I might be able to make the 100K team. I didn't exactly salivate over the prospect of running for seven hours straight, but I liked the national team idea, so I ran my first 50K that fall and my first 100K the following February.

6) How long have you been in the state of Washington? Do you ever train with the other ultra Gods up there (Steidl, Jurek, etc.)?

I came to Seattle for graduate school in the fall of 1995 and have been here ever since. I train alone for the most part, partly because of scheduling constraints and partly because my workouts aren't that appealing to others. For example, in preparing for a road 100K, I might log 30 or 40 miles at 6:25/mile pace around a 2.5-mile road loop that mimics the terrain of the race course. That's not the sort of training run that draws a big crowd, although Jurek did join me a few times leading up to Mad City.

(Greg tackles the elements at the Houston Ultra Event Weekend 100K, Feb. 2006;
photo courtesy of Chris Eckert)

7) Can you take us through a typical training week?

My most impressive-sounding weeks might include, say, a 15-miler with five or six miles of hard tempo (maybe 5:30/mile) on Tuesday, two runs of 6 to 7 miles on Friday with a few one-minute pick-ups during one of them, the above-mentioned long run on Sunday, and one easy 6- to 7-miler on each of the other days. The week after that would consist mostly of easy 6- to 7-mile runs, with a bit of extra speed or distance thrown in just for variety. Thus my weekly mileage is in the 80-95 range for my heaviest weeks and more like 60 for my recovery weeks.

8) What are your favorite foods/drinks, both before, during, and after a race?

In the last couple days before a race, I'll supplement the usual high-carb fare (pasta, bagels, etc.) with licorice or jellybeans, since 100% of their calories are in the form of carbohydrates. During races, I consume the usual sports drinks and gels, but none of them stand out in my mind as being particularly tasty. Afterwards, if the weather is cold, hot soup and hot chocolate are both very satisfying. Otherwise, I usually crave fried or grilled meat and other fatty, salty stuff, like potato chips. Pringles deserve special mention because, the way they are stacked, you can eat six or eight of them at a time.

9) What is it about running ultras that inspires you to stay with it?

Aside from the fact that I'm good at ultras, they appeal to me because of their novelty. They offer a bunch of new challenges that I hadn't previously encountered in 20 or so years of racing at shorter distances. How can I train my muscles so that they don't break down after 40 or 50 miles? For trail races, can I win by running fast enough on the uphills and flats to compensate for my incompetence on the downhills? How many more minutes can I shave off of my road 100K time?

I've been doing the shorter races for so long that I have a pretty clear sense of what I can and can't do in them, but ultras are offering me a whole new realm in which to explore my limits.

10) Congrats on becoming a father. Have you found a way to work Philip into your training? If so, please share!

I'm afraid not. That's a level of multitasking I have yet to achieve!

(Greg at the 2005 PNTF Cross Country Championships, photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama)

11) What other races do you have on the agenda for 2007? Any other grand plans beyond that? Perhaps we will see you at Comrades?

Western States will be my first 100-miler ever, so I may need to take the rest of the year off! But I'd like to go back to the 100K World Cup, which this year is in the Netherlands on September 8th. It would be really expensive to get over there, and even moreso if I take my family, so we'll see.

Long-term, I will probably go to Comrades someday. I don't want to plan too far ahead, though, because I'm still figuring out how to maximize the fun and fulfillment I get out of ultras. As of this past January, I was hoping to do Comrades _this_ year, but as I trained for Mad City, I started getting tired of the roads and decided that I needed a break from them, which is how Western States wound up on my schedule.

12) I really enjoy your blog, and you clearly put lots of time into it. What is it that you enjoy about blogging?

I'm glad you like my blog, because yours sets the standard for trail/ultra running as far as I'm concerned!

I like blogging as a means of filtering life and preserving the "good stuff" -- the things you want to remember because they're important or interesting or funny. I think it's a good exercise to look back at a race or a vacation or whatever, to ask, "What was the most interesting aspect of this experience?", and then to try to capture that in words, both for oneself and for friends and family.

I couldn't have said it better! Best of luck on your training for States! - SD


  1. Scott -

    Great interview. Greg is a very articulate man who has put a lot of thought into what works well and what doesn't. If you go to his blog; there's actually a link to his training log. I'm impressed that Greg not only takes the time to learn from his training, but is happy to share with others.

    I'm really impressed at his performances given his baby. When my first was born, my training slipped quite a bit - lost about 1/2 hour on my marathon times. Now I have 2 kids; but they're a little older, more predictable, and allowed me to set a 50 mile PR last weekend. But as a baby? You also lose sleep!

    I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do on the trails.

    Keep up the great blog and the excellent interviews.

  2. You're right about his blog - lots of good stuff there. I'm not sure how to react to sub-7 min "recovery runs". Sheesh! - Lori

  3. Greg -

    Nice job at Miwok! You, Scott, Rod, and Lon went by so soon I didn't even think you were in the same race. Looking forward to seeing all of you at States!


  4. As always, I love the interviews (especially with runners whose blogs I already frequent).

    Hope Quicksilver went well!

  5. another great interview! Thanks Scott.

  6. Thanks for another great interview. I was really looking forward to reading this one - as was Aaron, my son, who's totally intrigued by Greg's times from elementary & middle school!

    Both you guys have great blogs - I can't tell you how thankful I am that people like you and Greg take the time to put your thoughts 'out there' for the rest of us to read!

    Thanks, as always, Scott.


  7. Sarah & Aaron -

    If we didn't have races to run (like the wonderful PCTR ultras), we wouldn't have anything to write about! Thanks for reading, and I look forward to hitting Mt. Diablo with you guys in June.


  8. How does Greg feel after running a 3:04 50k? The picture looks like he felt great afterwards! After seeing the comment in the interview about "more natural talent than others", I'm wondering if he's completely spent at the end and needing a week off, or if he just goes faster than anyone at the same effort.

    Greg S

  9. Greg S: Despite appearances to the contrary in that photo, I indeed am completely spent at the end of my races. Afterwards I generally need 3-4 days off followed by 7-10 days of short, slow runs before I resemble my old self at all.

  10. Great Interview Scott...and Congrats Greg on your success in Ultra's ur a machine!!!

  11. Greg moves so fast he makes me look like I'm going backwards! Hope to see him again (well, the back of his head a few times) at the next Bridle Trails run. :-)

    Wonder if he's going to be at White River? That's the next race on my list.


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