You know him as a 27 year old short-track speed skater, but did you know that he is also a runner? In the March 2010 issue of Runner’s World, he talks to Nancy Averett about how running helped him go from being nicknamed “Chunky” at the Olympic Training Center to later winning 2 Olympic gold medals.
If you can spare an extra few minutes to read this interview, I promise that you will find it motivating. I love that he visualizes himself skating while on a run. It’s a testament to the fact that running transforms each of us in different ways, but with the same magic sparkly dust!
When did you first start running and did you like it?
I first started using running for cross-training when I was 14 while training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York.
I was a terrible runner. I hated running out of all the off-ice training. I was probably the worst runner on the team. Eventually, I realized it was something that I could use to help my skating and that changed everything. The next summer, I really concentrated on increasing my running, pumping up the volume, and I became one of the top runners on the team.
I read that when you were first training in Lake Placid and you went out on runs with the team that you often snuck away to eat pizza. Can you share that story?
(Laughs) We would leave the training center in Lake Placid and I would always be running next to a friend of mine. Neither of us was a very good runner. We would lag toward the back of the pack. The team would always run a loop around the lake and come back. On the way out, we would pass a pizza place and my friend and I would just hang in the back and duck in there and eat some pizza, and then when the team came back that way, we would jump in near the back of the pack. My coach told me that he never knew we were doing that until years later.
I heard that at the end of that year, the coach measured each member of the team’s body-fat index and that you had the highest.
Oh, no doubt. You know my nickname back then was “Chunky.”
A few years later—after you failed to make the 1998 Olympic team—your dad dropped you off at a cottage in the wilderness in Washington state to spend a week by yourself because he wanted you to really think about whether you could dedicate yourself fully to skating. You ran a lot during that week and even had an epiphany about skating while on a run. Can you talk about that?
I was there for a little over a week and there was no ice so there wasn’t any skating. The only other option I had besides dry-land training was to run. I ran quite a bit. I hated it, hated every minute of it. I was at my lowest point physically and mentally. One day, in the middle of a rainy, cold run, I stopped and asked myself how much I wanted to be a speed skater. If I was going to fulfill my dream, I knew that I needed to finish my run, no matter how many blisters I had or how bad I felt. That was the turning point for me.
What is your running routine now?
I run almost every day and love it. My regimen depends on what I’m trying to do with my skating. Right now I’m doing more interval training, more high-intensity and less volume. This means a lot of hill sprints. But last summer I was running anywhere from 50 minutes to two hours at a time. Running is crucial for me. I need to stay light and lean for my sport. I tend to build bulk and muscle easily, and running seems to make sure I stay kind of stringy, if that makes sense.
Do you run with other people or on your own?
I usually run on my own. A lot of times some of my best ideas happen when I’m running. That’s when I do my best thinking. About three weeks ago, I was struggling with an equipment issue and I couldn’t figure out what I needed to change. Then, 70 minutes into my run, it came to me, and the next day I felt like a different person on the ice. I wouldn’t have come to the same conclusion in the sauna or on the bike. I don’t know what it is about running that does that—everything seems to flow so easily. It’s almost a spiritual thing for me.
What was the change you made?
For the past four years, I’ve skated with a flat (heel) cup on my skate. But years before I used to skate with an angled cup—an angled cup helps you lean more but coaches and biomechanics experts have always said don’t put an angle on your skate, it breaks the line of power going into the turn. But I made the change and it feels right. I realized I have to listen to myself.
There’s a lot of wilderness around Salt Lake City where you’ve lived since 2007. Do you run on trails or in the city?
I do run from my house up into the mountains. I love trail running in the mountains.
And do you ever worry about encountering wildlife?
I try not to think about wildlife (laughs). I spent eight weeks by myself training in Colorado Springs and in nearby Manitou Springs. There’s definitely animals up there that if you run into them, you’re in trouble. I just crank up the music and try to not to worry about it (laughs).
Speaking of Manitou Springs, I read an article about a notorious trail that gains about 2,000 feet from the bottom to top that a lot of Olympic athletes train on.
It’s called “The Incline,” and it goes straight up. You can’t necessarily run the entire way up. I would love to watch someone do that. It’s just these railroad ties that are staked into the ground all the way up. It’s a very, very mean workout. No matter how far you go, whether you walk it or run it, it’s going to hurt bad. But for a speed skater it’s worth it. It’s all lower body. I used to bike there twice a week from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, run it, and ride back. It was a staple of my training for many years.
You do an awful lot of physical working out. Do you ever have to psych yourself up to go on a run?
No. I love it. If anything I have to back off from my running because I run so much. Generally speed skaters don’t run that much. I’m a little bit of an exception in that I run a lot.
I know this can’t be true. But when I watch speed skating, it looks so effortless. Can you explain why you need to be in such good shape cardiovascularly?
I try to explain it like this: With running, it’s you against the pavement. With speed skating, it’s like doing one-legged squats over and over again, with that one leg absorbing more than 80 percent of your weight. It takes an enormous amount of strength, and you’re in such a weird position. When you’re running, everything moves and flows easily. When you’re skating you’re basically tucked into this ball that isn’t natural for your body. Since the position makes it harder for me to process oxygen, I need to be really fit.
I read that you sometimes visualize yourself skating while you’re out on a run.
Absolutely. I even changed my running style to mimic skating. I tilt my pelvis in and my hips forward, which for running looks really funny. People watching me must think I’m crazy. “There’s that guy doing that weird running thing.”
Have you run many races?
To be honest with you, when I was younger and training in Colorado Springs or Lake Placid, my teammates and I, we would not sign up for an event, we’d just jump in during the middle of it and use it like a training session—5-K, 10, 15-K—whatever. Then when it ended, we’d just keep running, all the way back to our car (laughs). I’m sure people were wondering ‘Who the hell are those kids?’
Have you run any races “legitimately” since then?
Oh, yeah. I have. I’m not a great runner, but I try hard. I push myself. There’s no other workout in the world that would make you want to throw up except an extremely hard interval run.
Did you run while you were competing on “Dancing with the Stars”?
Yes. It helped me to stay slim and get in a good, quick half-hour workout when I needed it. That’s what I like about running: You can do it anywhere.
Did you find “Dancing with the Stars” to be the same kind of workout as your regular routine?
No (laughs) not even close. From a mental standpoint it was hard, practicing the routine over and over again and thinking about the competition, but in comparison to how we train, not even close.
Do you ever get recognized when you’re out running?
Yes, people will honk their horn and wave or maybe give me a thumps up. Maybe it’s because I’m running weird. Who knows? No one ever asked for my autograph.
When is your favorite time to run?
My favorite time to run is when conditions are really strange, when it’s really hot or extremely cold. I like running in the snow.
You travel a lot. Do you have a favorite country, city where you like to run?
We (U.S. Short Track Speed Skating team) compete in 12 world cups a year, two in Asia. I love running in Asia, doesn’t matter whether it’s China, Japan, Korea. I like to run by the markets and the downtown areas. I like the sights, smells, people. It’s hard to explain but no matter how hard we are running through the city, it always puts a smile on my face.
Will you taper off your runs before the Olympics?
No, I’ll keep running. The day before a race, I always go for a run by myself to clear my mind and get ready. It’s part of the process of preparing.