Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Rod Bien Gets Super Fast! (An Interview)

Bend, OR’s Rod Bien has always been fast, often placing in the top 5 of nearly every ultra he has entered. But lately, he’s been getting REALLY fast in some of the world’s most competitive races. In 2007, Rod has battled with the elites at Miwok 100k (8:43:17, 4th overall), Way Too Cool 50k (3:53:15, 7th overall), and the Peterson Ridge Rumble 60k (4:42, 1st overall by nearly 30 minutes). In nearly all of these, the few folks who could out-kick Rod reads like the who’s who of ultrarunning (50k/100k national champ Greg Crowther, Lon Freeman, sometimes Eric Skaden, but not Scott Jurek, Andy Jones Wilkins, and a long list of others). His results are showing that his impressive run at the 2006 Tahoe Rim Trail 100m (21:30, 2nd overall), only his fifth 100-miler, was not a fluke and that we can expect even more from this 34-year-old Hawaii transplant.

(Rod Bien on his way to a 4th place finish at the 2007 Miwok 100k;
photo courtesy of Tyson Purdue)

Rod is tapering down for Western States this week, so I caught with him to see if he had some insight to share on how he has brought his “A” game for this season.

1) First, congratulations on such a tremendous season so far! Have you been happy with your performances to date?

Thanks so much, Scott! Yes, I’ve been really excited about my season so far. I’ve really tried to pick up both the mileage and the intensity of my workouts this year so it has been rewarding to have some stronger results. I will say, it has been a bit intimidating to run with some of the guys at the front of the pack who I have looked up to for a long time, but very gratifying as well.

2) You have picked some competitive races to prove your mettle, and I understand Western States is coming up. What else do you have on the agenda for this year?

Yes, I really like to run the races where the best runners are going to be there. For me, it actually helps me to relax knowing that I am really a “nobody” in the running world and that I can just worry about competing with the goals I have for myself and not having to stress about what place I am in. Running in a lot of the “big” ultras also allows me not to put too much emphasis on just one race. For instance, if I didn’t have a perfect race at States, I would be very comforted looking back at my performances at Way Too Cool, Peterson Ridge, and Miwok and still be really excited about my season.

As far as for the rest of the season, I will really plan it after I run Western States. I will probably run Leadville later in the summer. I say probably because if I do hit my “goal time” for Western States, I may just take the majority of the summer off and play with my two kids, Fisher and Ava, and get some gardening in. Other than that, Sean Meissner and I are going to try and get a few long adventure runs in as well.

3) In your opinion, what have been the contributing elements to you having such a stellar season? Have you made any dramatic training changes?

As far as training goes, I just seem to find a few building blocks to improve on each year. I have been running ultras for a little while now since my first (McDonald Forest in 2000). I came from not having a running background AT ALL. When I started running I weighed 180 pounds and was thrilled to just run in the top half of races I entered. Each year I have gotten more comfortable with the distances and have been able to really race the events rather than just finish.

This year, I think the biggest changes that I have made fall into several categories. First, I definitely increased the mileage. I used to peak my mileage at about 80 miles per week. Now, I try to get my mileage in the 80-110 miles per week range. Secondly, I really increased the intensity of my workouts. I never do “time on my feet” training. I try and always push when I am out. I think it is especially important on longer runs. I just feel like you will race how you train. If on all your long runs, you are used to a mellow pace; that is either how you will race or you will be semi-shocked going into race mode. I have very little leg speed so I just try and get used to running a fairly hard pace for me all the time. I also do one treadmill workout per week where I run 7 miles at a 6 min/mile pace. Though, admittedly not very exciting, it does help on my turnover. I have about 8 running videos that help me through this torture. And, by the way, I still get teary about 9 out of every 10 times that the woman doesn’t get her buckle at the end of the “Race for the Soul” video!

Lastly, figuring out nutrition has been huge for me. I have found that in ultras, it really works for me to keep it simple; Water, gels, and a little fruit and potatoes. My motto is that if I don’t normally eat it (candy, chips, etc), probably the time to put it in my system is not in a race when my body is under a lot of stress!

4) What is a typical training week for you? Any cross-training?

As I said earlier, a typical peak training week for me is around 100 miles per week. I try to run two 8-10 milers, 2 12-15 milers, 2 longer runs of 18-30 miles, and one treadmill workout. As far as cross training goes, I don’t really do much. Early in the season I do lift some weights and I am always pretty religious about going to a 30-minute abs workout class at my gym three times per week. Nothing like getting your butt (or abs) kicked by the soccer moms! I really only cross train when I am injured. I have had several smaller injuries this year and have done spin classes and the elliptical machine to keep myself from going bonkers.

(Rod gets some help from his son, Fisher, at the finish of the Peterson Ridge Rumble 60k)

5) I understand that you grew up in Hawaii. Have you always been a runner? When did you start doing ultras?

I did grow up in Hawaii! However, I was not a runner. Interestingly, my father was a Navy SEAL and an incredibly tough runner. He ran the entire Appalachian Trail completely self sufficiently and was the first person to run the entire California Costal Trail completely self sufficiently—both in his late 50’s. However, growing up, I just thought running was ridiculous. My dad would run the 15 miles to work each way over the Pali Highway. My friends would give me a hard time about it and I was quite embarrassed about it! At the time, I just wished my dad did a mainstream sport like surfing!

Later in life, my dad really became my hero as I came to admire what an amazing runner he was and how humble he was of his accomplishments. And, since I have the soapbox of your amazing blog, may I also add that my dad (who did not drink or smoke) tragically died of heart disease while out on a run a few years ago. He was only 59 years old. So, if I can get anything across to the people reading your blog, it would be this: even though we are all running lots of mileage and thinking we are very healthy, it is so important that we also are checking our hearts by having the occasional EBT heart scan and blood tests. We are not invincible and sometimes heredity is more of a factor than we would like to accept.

6) What led you to Bend, OR? It seems like it is quite a mecca for endurance training. Do you run with other ultra-elites in your area like Sean Messiner, Jeff Browning, Kami Semick, etc?

I have been living in Bend for about 10 years now. Bend is becoming quite the mecca for trail running on the west coast. The network of trails can almost be intimidating as there are so many trails and so little time! It is one of those towns where you don’t want to drink one too many beers and start spouting off. There are so many great athletes here that you never know who is on the next bar stool but they are probably elite at something!

I also feel lucky to have such a high quality of people to work out with. I am lucky enough to train with the likes of Kami Semick, Jeff Browning, Sean Meissner and Rob Edde among others. Sean Meissner is probably my main training partner and whom I admire the most among runners. He is truly a great steward to ultra running. He is supportive, modest, and really just truly loves to run. He has a great sense of being competitive but never takes himself or the sport too seriously, which is what I try to emulate.

7) Where do you work in Bend, OR?

I am fortunate enough to own a “Patagonia” concept store called Patagonia by Pandora’s Backpack. That means that we are basically a Patagonia store but I am the owner. There are only a handful of these stores in the country.

Patagonia is truly an inspiring company to be affiliated with. Both from the standpoint that they are still privately owned to their environmental influence in the world, I feel lucky and privileged to be able to work there everyday. It also allows me to surround myself with other people who are as attracted to the outdoors as I am.

(Fisher, Rod, Katie, and Ava Bien literally balancing family on a Hawaii beach)

8) What does your family think of your hobby? Is your wife an ultra-runner as well?

Man, I need to word this delicately! Luckily my wife, Katie, is a runner too. Though she has not run any ultras, she does boast a sub 3:30 marathon time and runs 40-50 miles per week. It is all a balance and running really keeps life pretty simple to me. My priorities are always: family, running, and work. I’m nothing without my family but my health really keeps my balance in the world. Without it, I wouldn’t be as good a father, husband, or as happy of a person. So, running in some ways is a very integral part of my life. I know sometimes that the traveling and training gets a bit old, but my wife and kids are good sports about it!

9) What is it that keeps you motivated to train? What do you enjoy the most about ultrarunning?

I really just love to run. I love that we can run a normal persons’ backpacking trip as a morning run. I love the mountains and I love being on sweet single track! I get a peace out there that I don’t get from anything else. I am always so excited to see a new view, a new stream, I’m always stoked out there! If I was the last person on earth, I’d still be running. And, as you say, I love to eat! I’m a huge sushi man! I love big portions and feel that I can eat large portions
and still weigh in at a wimpy 140 lbs!

10) What are your favorite distances to race? I saw you ran a 2:51 at the CIM Marathon this year. Do you have a favorite race distance?

Its probably cliché, but I really do enjoy the challenge of all of the distances. There’s no doubt that the high (and low) I get from a 100 miler is the most powerful. I can live on the bliss from that for quite some time. But, while I’m running a 100, I always swear that I’ll never run another. Running a 100 is definitely the biggest goal of each season.

11) You have run Western States twice before (find Rod’s '04 write-up here); what goals do you have for 2007?

Well, I was quite a bit slower the last time I ran Western States so I’m hoping my time will be dramatically faster and in accord with the improvement I’ve had at other races I did in 2004. Just so I don’t jinx myself, my goal is to be “comfortably” under 20 hours. However, I’ve never put too much pressure on myself to hit a certain goal or time.

Running 100 miles is such an amazing accomplishment. Whether I run 18 or 29 hours, I will be thrilled at my accomplishment. When you lose perspective of that, you might as well go back to running marathons where every second counts!

12) Any tips you would like to share for those of us tackling the TRT 100?

Ah, the TRT. I really enjoyed that race. Probably the two biggest obstacles I would warn you of is: 1. Loop courses are tough for me. It’s hard to run 50 miles and then start over again. You need to be mentally prepared to look at the 50-mile aid station as “just another aid station” and not get bogged down by the thought of doing another lap. Get out of that aid station fast! 2. The altitude bothered me a bit more than I thought it would. Since Bend is at a bit of altitude, most of the runs I do start out at about 4,500 feet and head up. However, just being in the 7,000-9,000 range for a long time just saps some energy from you. I didn’t ever feel horrible but I never felt great. So, if you can get some time running at altitude, it definitely wouldn’t hurt! Oh, and hope that Jasper isn’t there!

13) Rumor has it that Jasper will be back, faster than ever. Alas! Last question - what else would you and Katie like to achieve in the next few years of ultrarunning?

Keep having fun! There is no real prize money (and I wouldn’t win any when there is) and I’m no poster child for ultra running. So, I just try and keep having fun out there and am trying to improve my times from previous years. I love meeting new people and making new friends on the trail. One thing I have always vowed to do is whenever I catch someone in the last mile (and they’re not completely dying) is to offer to finish with them. It’s such a cool feeling to finish a tough race with someone else. No one will ever remember who was 4th at Miwok this year (well, I might….) but they will remember someone who is just a good person. We’ll all get slow eventually and I’d like to have some great friends I’ve made on the journey of these trails rather than being thought of as just being a little fast at one point in time.

Thanks, Rod. Best of luck at States this weekend!

- SD


  1. Rod is always one of the smileyest people at the finish. I didn't know he ran so fast!

  2. Another terrific interview Scott.

    Impressive runner & person...that last answer is brilliant.

    Best of luck in WS100 Rod.

    Will G.

  3. Great interview again. Thanks for the inspiration. Keep them coming.

  4. Another great interview Scott.
    I really appreciate all the hard work you put into your blog.

    I don't know where you get time to write all these great articles and interviews!

  5. Great as always Scott. Could you post something this week running down the top contenders for the States? Thanks for the blog.

  6. Awesome interview with a great guy! The father is so admirable, wish we all had fathers like that. Go, Rod, kick butt!

  7. I, for one, feel lucky to have made Rod's acquaintance on the trail. Rod is one of the quality guys in ultrarunning, and it has been awesome to watch him put the pedal to the metal this year. Rod, good luck at States. You're going to kick butt.


  8. Sounds like an amazing guy with things in the right perspective.

  9. I go back and forth about what is the best part of ultra running - the outdoors or the people? It's so rare that the elite in a sport are consistently grounded and humble, and Rod is setting a great example along with so many others. Good luck this weekend, Rod!

  10. Dude, great piece. I also wanted to get everyone to check out Dean Karnazes attempt to break the 24-hr record for most miles on a treadmill. Check out http://www.accelerade.com/endurance-run/ for a live look in at Dean's quest. Also, Scott, if you could do a follow-up interview with Dean, that would fantastic. As always, top shelf stuff. Keep it up.

  11. 'It’s such a cool feeling to finish a tough race with someone else.'


  12. Rod's '04 WS100 race report of going under 24 hours was a big motivation for my sub-24 hours at States this year. And, what a great person!
    Paul Brunner

  13. 2011 has been a great year for Rod! 2nd at San Diego 100, 1st at Cascade Crest 100.


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