Friday, September 26, 2008

What’s Next? – An Interview with Erik Skaden and Graham Cooper

When the forest fires canceled the 2008 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, it was a tough break for many. It was especially difficult for runners like perennial top finisher Erik Skaden and 2006 winner Graham Cooper, who were running faster than ever this year and eager for the showdown. Would this have been Skaden’s year after finishing 2nd in 2007? Would Cooper get the kind of hot day that leaves him all alone in the front? Or would they both have to work together just to not get smoked by the rookies and road runners?

(Erik Skaden and Graham Cooper)

Both managed to quickly refocus their goal races to take advantage of their Beijing-level fitness, with Skaden co-winning the 2008 Tahoe Rim Trail 100 to claim his first USATF 100-mile National Championship, and Cooper smoking the 2008 Ironman Canada course in 9:39 to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in October. I caught up with both of them on e-mail to get their thoughts.

(1) First, congratulations on your respective top notch finishes! I’m sure you were both looking forward to the heavy line up at States this year. How did it feel to have it canceled when you were in such good shape, and how did you get refocused?

ES: Wayne Miles is quoted in the 2008 WS Participant’s Guide as saying: "Running Western States hurts for a few days. The ride from an aid station to the finish hurts all year." The cancellation though disappointing, does not reach the level of disappointment Wayne acknowledges. To refocus, I began the planning process for WS 2009. For me, this involved at least completing the 100 mile distance on foot as quickly as possible, therefore, Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). Then, I wanted to reset my clock. This involved a vacation from running for the balance of the summer. The running vacation is now over and I am refocused.

GC: After Western States got canceled, I drove out to the Foresthill Bridge, tied a rock around my ankle and was about to end it all. Just as I started to heave the rock over the bridge, guess who ran by. That’s right, Skaden. He said “Don’t do it Graham. You’ve got too much to live for. In fact, I hereby challenge you to a face-off at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. If you’re anything close to a real man, you’ll untie that rock and accept my challenge.” So, not wanting to concede my manhood, I untied the rock. But then I went home, had a six pack of beer and few bowls of pralines & cream ice cream. And TRT didn’t hold quite the same allure as Western States, so I decided to start training for Ironman Canada. Skaden will have to wait until 2009 for that face-off.

(2) I know you have occasionally raced together, such as when you shared the win at the Diablo 50-miler, and Skaden even shared his TRT100 title this year. When is it better to work with another runner, or is it always best to go head to head?

GC: It is never better to tie. Unless it’s a race you don’t care about. I only tied with Erik at Diablo because he has a funny little picture of me that I’d rather not talk about, and he threatened to post it to the Ultra List if I beat him. Actually, that was more of a training run for both of us, and we had a great time up until the point at which I yard-saled coming down the mountain toward the end. He was cool to stick around and make sure I didn’t get dragged away by a cougar or a bear. I don’t know why he tied TRT. Maybe he was afraid.

ES: I prefer always to go head to head. At Diablo, Graham and I had a lot of catching up to do so we ended up talking the entire day, and since Graham and I were both way out in front running more than fast enough for a training run anyway, why not just run together. We managed to keep each other entertained throughout the day. How many 50’s can you run hard in a seven day period anyway? For me that was AR50 the weekend prior. TRT involved a unique set of circumstances. Given that no pacers are allowed in the event, and that running alone all day and night does not appeal to me anymore, I enjoyed the company on the trail and getting across the finish line with a respectable time. Plus, without Graham in the race, I did not have any motivation.

(Graham Cooper and Erik Skaden at the Diablo 50)

(3) You guys are friends but fierce competitors. How would you size up each other’s strengths and weaknesses? What does it take to beat them?

ES: First, now knowing a Graham Cooper exists in the world I can point to him when defending myself that I am not crazy to train so hard. His strengths – he is driven for success, is methodical, has a large dose of pride and determination, and knows how to execute a strategy that gets himself across the finish line ahead of me at Western States as he did in 2006. With that said, now knowing a Graham Cooper exists in the world, I have benefited from our friendship to leverage to a greater degree, these strengths in my own training. To beat Graham you have to be better prepared than Graham, execute a flawless race strategy, and have more of all of the above strengths. I learned these lessons at the Rucky Chucky crossing in 2006 when Graham pasted me on the climb to Green Gate.

GC: Erik is a great runner and a nice guy. He and I have become good friends over the past year and have developed a healthy respect for one another. Erik trains super hard and he’s physically resilient. He puts in long miles, has generally avoided injury and somehow maintained motivation. He races with a clear head, and does not get swept into a fast early pace. As a result, he usually finishes strong. I hate running with him behind me.

Having said that, I have to tell the story of him passing me at Western States in 2006, around Last Chance (mile 42). He was talking smack about all these sponsored runners wilting in the heat. This was only my second Western States, so I was feeling a little more circumspect, especially as the mercury rose. I stuck to my game plan, and worked through the canyons patiently. When I passed him at the river crossing (mile 78), he had the distinct look of a wilted flower.

He got his revenge in 2007. After the 2006 experience, I kept thinking that I might catch him on my way down to the river. I was pushing hard, but I just couldn’t close the gap. Over the last 20 miles, he extended his lead on me and actually put some time on Hal. This was a gutsy performance which resulted in a great time. I didn’t do anything wrong; I just didn’t have the legs to catch him.

In terms of beating him in 09, I plan to hire Jeff Gillooly to help me out a couple days before the race.

(4) Had WS100 happened this year with dry and hot weather, what would you have predicted for the Top 3?

GC: I think Erik and I would have been there. He had a good chance to win. He was in good shape. I will never discount Hal again either.

ES: I believe it was going to be Graham and I cresting Robie Point in with one of us getting the win. Graham and I were both ready to run a low 16 hour race potentially even going under 16. The possibility did exist of someone else being in the mix and having a surprise performance. That individual will forever be unknown since the race was canceled.

(5) Graham, you’re heading off to Kona in a few weeks for Ironman Hawaii. Do either of you have any big ultras planned for the remainder of the year? Will the focus be back on States for 2009?

GC: Kona is it for me. Then it’s time to get re-acquainted with my family. Yes, I will be back to Western States in 2009.

ES: Most likely I will participate in the California International Marathon in December. I will save ultra running for the spring of 2009. And yes, in 2009 the focus will be back on Western States.

(6) What would you recommend the other focus on for 2009 WS100?

ES: Graham knows what he is doing. I can’t say that about many other top tier ultra runners competing today. I do hope Graham and I will have the opportunity to coordinate a few training runs at Foresthill next spring. I believe these runs would be mutually beneficial since we can train together in our workouts. Plus, we can each leverage from one another those strengths in (3).

GC: It is obvious from his performances that Erik knows how to peak for Western States. He knows when to push, how hard to push, when to back off and when to taper. I think pretty much everybody, Erik included, can benefit from cross-training, especially cycling. If nothing else, it provides a little variety and reduces the risk of injury. I think a lot about longevity too.

I expect that he’ll come back even stronger next year and be in the mix at Western States in 2009. Until then, our face-off will have to wait.

Thanks for the interview! Hope to see you both on the trails.

- SD


  1. Great interview....It is fun to see those two during the winter and spring in Foresthill...both are monsters in the canyons..Lets all hope 09 is fire free so all can race...


  2. Anton would be numero uno. Maybe these dudes would place in the top 5.

  3. Great idea for an interview Scott.

    I watched these two run together throughout the spring on Diablo and on the trails on the Western States trail, they are both incredible athletes. I know that Erik trained more consistently, harder and longer this year than anytime in the past. I had the opinion (respectfully disputed by some) that Erik and Graham were the two outright best runners for THAT course on that year.

    Those two talk a lot of smack. In May Erik turned up to WS training camp, he did not have a great run that day and to rub it in Graham had (good naturedly) told him he lacked mental toughness. Within a few minutes we had an elaborate training program in place for Erik. The Skaden brain foundation was going to put copies of the Sunday NY Times crossword and a Rubik’s cube in the canyons for him to solve while running and simultaneously listening to the Feynman Lectures on Physics on his iPod.

    Erik and Graham, I seriously hope both of you can repeat the training commitment of this year and the fire to hammer those canyons still burns strongly.

    See you all next year sometime.

    Cheers, Paul Charteris

  4. I've been watching Erik get faster and faster over the last couple of years. Pretty amazing that he could run sub-6 hours at AR50, win Diablo the next weekend, and still crank out the big miles before the States weekend. I thought for sure this was his year.

    I find it interesting that Graham suggests cycling. I heard that Jasper Helakas does the same - a lot of long run/long bike weekends. Scott, didn't you do tri training as part of ultras too? I remember seeing the Death Ride on your schedule last year. Do you still do it?


  5. Glad Graham changed his mind about the Foresthill bridge! Although I am wondering Scott, if you have a copy of that "funny little picture" he mentioned. Maybe you could post it? ;)
    Nice interview, it'll be interesting to see how WS '09 plays out!

  6. It sounds like both of them put in a lot of time on the course beforehand. Erik lives up there, right?

  7. Kyle -

    You're right that Jasper and Graham both do a fair amount of cycling. Jasper says it's a good workout that is easier to recover from. Both of them are also known to bike to the starting line of an ultra.

    I didn't do as much cycling this year as last year - only a couple times a month vs a couple of times per week. I'm now back in the saddle about 1-2 times per week, more so for variety than training.

    I'm not sure if Erik cycles...will ask him.

    Thx for stopping by!


  8. Thanks for a great interview Scott - Graham's qualifying for Kona is a huge deal, I don't think too many ultrarunners appreciate how tough that is.

    When WS was canceled, I was bummed for myself of course, but I was also sad that we didn't get to see what was shaping up to be one of the best races in years. There was crazy talent on the 2008 start list; I hope they all stay healthy and return to WS in great shape for 2009.

  9. What did Erik think of Krupicka being in States after taking 2nd at AR50? I imagine he got a pretty good read on Anton's capabilities.

  10. If you happen to email Graham, wish him well for the Ironman. Awesome interview with 2 great runners.


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