32-year-old Todd Braje has risen quickly in the world of ultrarunning. Now thanks to his 5:30 finish at the Jed Smith 50-mile, has gone right to the ranks of the Top 50 American 50-mile performances of all time. Rumors that this 2:26 marathoner was tearing up the trails began in 2007, when he was finishing his PhD at the University of Oregon and breaking records on local 50k courses. In 2008, he won the Way Too Cool 50k in 3:32, cementing his status as one of the top ultrarunners in the country. He has now relocated to McKinleyville, CA, to teach anthropology, but shows no signs of slowing with a 5:49 at the windy 2008 Helen Klein 50-mile and his record-setting run at Jed Smith.
I caught up with Todd over e-mail to see what's up next.
1) First, congratulations on your finish at Jed Smith! You looked great out there. Was 5:30 your goal?
Thanks, Scott. It ended up being the perfect day to run fast. The race was exceptionally well organized and having lots of runners on the course helped to keep me motivated. A friend also sacrificed his morning to come out and crew for me, which was a huge help. Going into the race, the goal was to go after the sub-5:40 US 100k World Cup team standard. The four weeks before the race I was dealing with some injury problems, I missed some long runs, and I spent a week in the field doing some archaeology research and very little running. So I wasn’t feeling very confident on the starting line, but was hoping for the best. I wanted to give myself the chance to run fast so the plan was to run 6:30s from the gun and see how it felt. I feel like I’m still learning how to run ultras – what’s too fast or too slow at the various distances – and fortunately it worked out this time.
2) How did you get so fast? Have you always been a runner?
I’ve been a runner since eighth grade when I began running a two mile Saturday cross country race once a week, with no training in between. I only started to do that after my older brother went out for the high school cross country team. Being from Indiana, I wanted to be a basketball player in the worst way, but I was only 5’3 and a buck ten (soaking wet) as a freshman. I had some success on the cross country and track teams my first few years of high school, made some friends, and decided to stick with it. From there I competed at a small D3 school in Wisconsin, Beloit College, and for various club teams after school.
Through my entire running career, I’ve never felt that I was very fast. I never qualified for the state meet in high school, I never qualified for nationals in college, and I was never the fastest guy on my club team. When I moved to Eugene in 2003, I joined Team Eugene, a now defunct elite club team coached by ultrarunner Matt Lonergan (husband and coach to two-time Olympian Marla Runyan). I was always getting destroyed in workouts with the team. I think what keep me going through high school and beyond as this belief that if I worked a little harder, I would accomplish some of these goals, win state titles, qualify for national races, etc. I finally figured out, however, that I needed to enjoy the process and not worry about the results. I enjoy running fast and having success at races, but more important are the daily training runs that keep me balanced and happy.
I also have a daily reminder that fast is relative in my wife (Sopagna Eap). She is the fast runner in the family. She’s a 2:40 marathoner, finished 22nd at the 2008 US Olympic marathon trails, and flies around the country to different marathons and US championship road races. Plus, she just finished her PhD in psychology. She’s exceptionally talented and hardworking and I am just trying to keep up with her!
3) I know you've earned a slot for Western States this year. Is that on the schedule? What else will you be tackling?
Western States is on the schedule for this year, however, it is only eight days after the 100k World Cup. If I’m selected for the World Cup team, I might put Western States on hold for a year and try to get another Montrail Cup qualifier for 2010. I honestly have no idea whether or not I’ll be selected. From what I understand, the committee takes individuals with 100k qualifiers before they consider any 50 mile qualifiers, regardless of the relative strength of the performances. There are a number of people with the 100k time, so it’s possible that I will not be selected. Also, there are some solid 50 mile times that were run on courses that are much more difficult than Jed Smith, so it might depend on how the committee ranks these performances.
After June, I’m considering the Where’s Waldo 100k. Other than that, I usually play it by ear and try to get to races that were recommended by friends or if I’m invited. I’m always excited to run new courses and try out new races.
4) What draws you to ultrarunning? Do you like the trails or the road best?
I’ve always enjoyed running on trails more than the roads or track. I also think that my talents lie in the distances from the marathon to 50 miles; I’m still trying to figure out the 100-miler. I certainly prefer running on trails, but I would much rather run a non-technical trail where you can get in a groove. Overall, I enjoy ultrarunning’s more relaxed, friendly, less crowded atmosphere. Our sport places more emphasis on individual accomplishment and improvement rather than wins and losses. Certainly this is not true across the board and there are exceptions. But, I try hard to keep my running and ultramarathoning in perspective, if you could make a living doing this sport I would not be winning races. I enjoy running along beautiful trails, going for a run with my wife, and relaxing after a race and meeting people.
5) How is training in McKinleyville vs Eugene, the track capital?
The Eureka/Arcata/McKinleyville area has some nice trails and low-key road races. Right out my office door is a beautiful, hilly 10 mile loop through a second growth redwood forest. I have enjoyed my first seven months here, but it’s impossible to compare any city to Eugene for running. I absolutely loved Eugene, the trails, the atmosphere, the weather, it’s hard to beat. I especially miss all the great training partners I had in Eugene, I rarely went three or four days without running with someone – this made long runs and workouts much more enjoyable. I also learned a lot about utlramarathons and trail racing from Craig Thornley and the other ultrarunners in town.
6) Can you tell us a bit about your training? What does a typical week look like?
My weeks vary considerably depending on the time of the year, the type of race I’m training for, and how my body is feeling. But when I’m focused on a build up for a big race and I’m in the heart of my training cycle, I typically run between 90-110 miles in singles, alternating between two workouts and a long run and one workout and back-to-back long runs. Since I have been focused on 50ks and 50 milers, I keep my long runs under 35 miles. I’ve learned the hard way (seven stress fractures in my right and left tibias) that I would rather be cautious and make it to the starting line. I try to adjust my goals, workouts, and long runs based on how I’m feeling. This sounds like it should be easy but, as we all know, it’s a fine line between not pushing yourself hard enough and pushing too hard.
7) What do you think is your most important workout?
I try not to get too excited or disappointed about any one workout. When I ran my marathon PR, I never ran a tempo run 10 miles or longer faster than 5:40 pace but ended up running 5:36 pace in the marathon. I focus on the cumulative effects of solid mileage and workouts, and trust that my workouts are not a good indicator of fitness because my body’s fatigued from training. If I can put together a 12 week build up of three high weeks, one low week, I am usually pretty confident going into a race, no matter my workout splits. Because of this, I rarely (anymore) run on the track or along a measured route. I try to do the workout that my body will allow on any given day and I always try to leave feeling like I could have finished one more repeat or another mile of the tempo run. That said, I do have a trail loop that I think is about a mile. I like to do an 8 x 1 mile with 60 seconds rest or a 3 x 3 mile with 3 minutes rest a few weeks before a big race. I also try to get in a series of tempo runs of 8, 10, 12, and 15 miles.
8) Any favorite foods/drinks/gels/gear?
During races and training, I’ve tended to stick with gels. That will change when I run more 100s, but I’ve had some success with Roctane GU, which Greg Soderlund introduced me to during last year’s Western States training camp. A friend also introduced me to Vitargo, an energy drink, which seems to work well. As for gear, I never race or do a long run without a pair of Moeben sleeves. Hot or cold weather, they’ve been great and each pocket holds up to two gels.
9) What tips would you give other track/road speed demons getting into ultras?
I would say go for it, but be patient. It takes a couple of 50 mile or 100k races before your body adapts to the distance. I imagine the same can be said for 100s. Also, get some advice on how to approach an ultra both in training and in a race. Moving over to the trails and to the ultra distances requires that you let some things go – like the importance of mile splits, not pausing at aid stations, and never walking.
10) Where will we see you running next?
I just finished the Old Pueblo 50 miler in Sonoita, AZ. It was a beautiful race and a wonderful event. I was happy with my race, but missed a turn and added about 2.5 miles to the course right before the half way mark. It was disappointing to miss out on the course record, which, I think, would have fallen if not for the detour. Nevertheless, I was happy that I composed myself and battled my way back. It was a nice learning experience, especially since so much of ultras are mental, and my metal state was severely deteriorated after I realized I was lost and no longer in front.
Right now, my body is pretty beat up so the plan is to rest and recover for a couple of weeks, after which I should know whether I am running the World Cup 100k or Western States. Either way, I’ll gear my training for one of these events. I may run a local 50k in April or May, but the plan is to go into one of these races as healthy and fit as possible. Both races should be exciting and very competitive.
Thanks, and best of luck!