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Alan Culpepper and Running Like a Champion

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Run Like a Champion“One instance stands out for me because it ultimately sealed my fate for my senior cross country season. … I did as instructed for about 6 miles, but then I could not resist any longer. I ended up pushing my pace for the final 13 miles, running 1:57 for 19.6 miles, or 5:58 mile pace for the entire run. … It was an audacious effort, to be sure. … By the time I got to the NCAA cross country championships a month later, I was cooked. In reality, I probably burned my national championship chances up on Magnolia Road that day.”

Earlier in the morning I had read the above paragraph in preparation for my interview with two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper, and now I was sitting across the table from him talking about his new book “Run Like A Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner” (VeloPress, 2015). At first I wasn’t sure what to expect – Culpepper is perhaps one of the most consistent and versatile distance runners in American history – yet after reading most of his book and learning that he too has regular human faults, I felt like I could talk to the guy without making a fool of myself.

Interviewing a runner of Culpepper’s caliber and historic stature is never an easy task. What do you ask someone who has had a 25 year long racing career that includes 8 All-American and NCAA Championship titles, two Olympics, three U.S. Cross Country Championships, and multiple other records and titles? How he trained? What his philosophy is around racing? No, those questions have all been asked and answered multiple times, and they are also covered in his new book. Rather, it’s his personal stories and experiences as a runner – someone like me who gets up every morning, puts on his shoes, and goes out for a run – that draw me in. To some extent, running is the easy part, finding balance in one’s life on the other hand, especially at the Olympic level, is what reveals the kind of person an athlete is.

Two-thirds of the way through “Run Like a Champion” I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the kind of person Culpepper was and is. Humble, sincere, driven, yet human – those were the qualities that I had arrived at in my head.

“I’m really proud of the book. At first I was hesitant, but after writing for a while and working with Dave [Trendler], Casey [Blaine], and Brian [Metzler], I’m really pleased. I think it captures what I was trying to convey. It’s a holistic approach – starting with the psychology necessary for success, going through training, nutrition, racing, and injury prevention, all while keeping a focus on creating balance.”

It’s that last aspect that stands out when talking with Culpepper. He obviously has what it takes to be one of the best runners in American history, but he also constantly strives towards balance. He lets Dave, Director of Sales and Marketing for VeloPress, talk almost as much as himself during the interview. He readily shares personal stories of triumph and tragedy, just like he does in his book. And he seems almost as interested in my running goals as he does in sharing his stories of perseverance and glory.

“Run Like a Champion” contains a lifetime of knowledge from one of the sport’s greatest athletes. Although that might sound like a cliché, after talking with Culpepper for some time, I really came to trust in that. As he stressed during the interview, “there are no secret workouts, no special tricks concerning hydration or nutrition. It’s about sharing what I’ve learned while being at the highest level of the sport with everybody. People still have an interest in getting better, faster, and what I’ve learned from some of the best coaches, to my own personal experiences, can really help anyone who is interested in improving.”

After about an hour and a half, I figured I’d better wrap up the interview and let Culpepper get back to his busy day. Just as he did during his outstanding running career, he works to find balance in his life and I had already taken up plenty of time. I thanked him and went to a local coffee shop to finish reading the last 30 pages of his book. Eating a bagel and sipping on some strong coffee, it seemed like the interview was still going on as I read another personal story of how Coach Wetmore threw some psychological play into Culpepper’s mind at the last minute before an important college cross-country race which allowed him to be mentally acute, but emotionally detached from the moment – balanced and ready to race. I may not have balance in my running or my life, but “Run Like a Champion” sure does provide enough material for me to aim for it.