“When I graduated high school, I was not one of the top recruits in Massachusetts. I ran 4:32 in the mile and 10:09 in the 2 mile but trained like a lone wolf. I knew my best days were still ahead of me. I knew I had some talent and just needed to be in the right atmosphere in order to start to really improve.” – Ruben Sanca, 2012 Olympian
By Michael J. Atwood – CoachAtwood.com HistoryofSantaMonica.com
Mike is the author of HiStory of Santa Monica: Stories, founder of CoachAtwood.com and a freelance blogger from the Boston, Massachusetts area. He ran Division 1 Track and Cross-Country for Boston College earned his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and now teaches and coaches at Middleboro High School in Massachusetts. He can be contacted at CoachMikeAtwood@me.com or by phone at (508) 243-2591 for comments and blog ideas. His recent blog on Autistic high school miler has had almost 10,000 views in the last week.
1) Thanks for chatting with me, Ruben. So I believe you will be running your third marathon at Boston this year, your second on the BAA course. I know you debuted with a 2:18 at Rotterdam, and ran 2:19 at Boston last year for a 21st place finish. I know you ran a 2:34 at the World Champs in Daegu but it was a hot day as I recall. Your 1/2 best is a 1:05 at New Bedford so your performances all seem consistent. How do you predict you’ll race at Boston 2015?
I consider the training for Boston 2015 to be my 4th full marathon cycle. In 2011, I was fresh out of college and being a big mileage guy in college, my natural instinct was to try to move up to the marathon. I was fortunate to complete the marathon cycle, but I was very conservative with some of the workouts as I was afraid of being injured and not being able to fully complete the cycle. For example, the recovery time in between my marathon paced intervals were a bit slower than they should have been. Although I still went into the Rotterdam Marathon very fit, there were still some circumstances on race day they didn’t permit my best showing. It was nearly 70 degrees at the start of the race and I found myself going out a bit too fast with what I thought was the 3rd slowest group during the race. I finished in 2:18:47, not a bad debut time but not what my coaches and I thought I was capable of.
From 2011 to 2013, I went through a stretch of series of injuries. I competed at the 2011 World Championship at the end of the summer when I was basically on my heels as far as injuries. I was never able to do even a quarter of the marathon cycle because I was bothered by so many injuries. I had a VERY bad stretch of plantar fasciitis that lasted eight months and pretty much almost ended my days of running. The plantar fasciitis injury was overlapped by knee injury, which took nearly 15 months from diagnosis to treatment. I had been running large benign tumor on my right knee dating back to the Olympic Games in 2012. I eventually had knee surgery in 2013. It was a very frustrating time with recovering from the surgery, doing rehab and thinking I would not be the same again. In addition to rehab process being very time consuming and really took a lot of mental strength and energy from me.
I was able to comeback to running normally, but I couldn’t do the quantity and quality of workouts I wanted to do. If I did a hard workout, I would have to cross my fingers and wait days with easy running before I could attempt the next workout. I had a lot of scar tissue around my knee from the surgery which prevented me from training at full capacity and that was hard for me to accept. I didn’t think I would ever be able to fully complete a marathon cycle. With balancing a full time job and having so many other options at my age, I got to the point where I almost quit running. At the very end of 2013, the Cape Verdean national team was competing at the Lusophone Games. I was called up and felt that it was my duty to represent the country.I had accepted in my mind that this would likely be my last international competition. I trained limited over those next few months, but somehow was able to win a gold medal at the 5,000m at those games. With the little training i had done, I was very happy with the result which prompted me to give running one more chance. I decided to see Dr. Donovan, whom I had been recommended by UMass Lowell Coach Gary Gardner. After several treatments of ART and Graston technique, the scar tissue was finally going away! I slowly was able to start doing marathon workouts again. It wasn’t until March of 2014, after winning the New Bedford Half Marathon that I said ‘OK, I can get back into marathon’. It was an emotional win for me there because that is where I began my marathon career in 2011.
This year I feel that my Boston 2015 training has gone very well – pat of that has been because of my natural progression of healthy running over the last year. In the fall of 2014, I ran the Twin Cities Marathon but had to withdraw at mile 17 with a pulled hamstring. Although I did not finish the race, I had fully completed a marathon cycle, which for me was a major mental victory. During that cycle I was able to take my workouts to a whole new level, and it inspired me going into this year’s Boston 2015 training. I feel a bit more confident in the way training has gone this year. I have been working very closely with Nate Jenkins and it has helped me tremendously from many different aspects. I’ve been more consistent and have had enough time to really layout the cycle. I think 2015 is going to be something special.
2) Tell me about training with Nate Jenkins, your unusually talented for coach from UMASS-Lowell.
Nate has been a great friend of mine, a training partner and a coach.
As a coach, Nate is probably one of the most underrated marathon experts in U.S. It’s too bad that he actually doesn’t have many elite athletes to coach and not many people would be able to be coached by him. Nate has a huge knowledge on marathon training that he has gathered for over 15 years. He is a natural running historian and has been able to capture and analyse a lot of training methods, effective and ineffective ones for certain individuals. Even though the US has produced good marathoners, a lot of the training by the athletes have been more of 10k training rather than marathon training. A lot of coaches in the US don’t understand that and Nate does. He is a true disciple of Renato Canova’s training program and has been for many years. I have been very lucky to know him and he has been a tremendous resource and played a huge role in running accomplishments.
As a training partner, he is one of the toughest out there. It’s hard to find a true “blue collar” training partner who is as tough as Nate for workouts. He never complains and never thinks that something is “impossible”. He gets me thinking that I’m way more talented than him and reinforces the ” If Nate can do it, then I can do it ” attitude in me. There are so many advantages of us training together. We are both have similar marathon goals and we find ourselves in similar lifestyles. We both respond very well to the Canova type of training. I’m more of a speedy guy and Nate is more of a strength guy. I like uphills and he likes downhills. He loves a harsh cold run outside to build “character” and I prefer a treadmill run on snowy days. Out training compliment each other very well and we keep a good balance.We have done some very hard workouts this year that I’ve never done in the past. We have both reached some new levels in training the the past two months and I feel that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.
3) With the terrible winter, do you still feel New England is the best place to train for distance running?
It’s tough. There’s no other way around it. If I was a full time professional runner, I’d have more options for winter running. I work as a full time employee at UMass Lowell which can make training in the winter a little more inflexibility around weather. My early morning runs have to be very early, which means they will be much colder and much darker than someone who just has a part time job. I do double runs almost every day, which means I can’t switch my AM run to a PM run if there’s a snowstorm. I never run in the afternoon during a typical workweek. Most of my runs are done at night. It is bitterly cold and I am forced to use the treadmill for a lot of my workouts. Chances of injuries are increased and sickness is almost inevitable. However, with all said and done, there is something in New England bigger than the weather. The running community and atmosphere around make running very special. The people are very supportive. A lot of runners who are born here sometimes take it for granted. having traveled and lived in different places, I truly appreciate being a runner in New England. It is not the best place to train, but it s a a great place to be a runner.
4) How was your experience as an Olympian in London 2012? You finished 21st in the heats in the 5000.
I had a great experience in London being surrounded by great athletes and learning from them. It was surreal moment in my life that I will never forget. What I came to realize is that all athletes in the Olympic Games have unique stories of overcoming challenges and odds to be there. While I was there, It was a at a very low point in my career. I was injured and had no right diagnosis for my injury. I spend the vast majority of my time there in rehab at the Olympic village hospital. The experience from being there and not being at full capacity has inspired me to train very hard and focus on Rio 2016. I don’t want my last Olympic experience to be running injured i the heats of 5000.
5) You have bounced around from the BAA to the GBTC and Whirlaway. What’s your sponsorship situation like these days? How hard is it to survive for a distance runner these days?
After graduating college, I realized that I could not make a living out of running road races. The running industry is so weak that if you’re not an Olympic medal contender, you really don’t have a stable source of income. With that said, I also knew that it would be extremely difficult to continue running at a high level while working a full time job. My college coach strongly advised me to be careful during the transition process. I’m very fortunate to have a great group of people around me that have made my post collegiate running experience an enjoyable one. With their help, I’ve been able to rely less on trial and error method. I completed my graduate education and now own a home in Lowell. I have a full time job that allows discretionary running expense such as travel. I don’t rely on any road race prizes as income, which means I can cherry pick my races based on personal preference and competition. I feel secure knowing that if I break a leg, I have health insurance to cover the payments. I understand that living the sort of the ” blue collar runner ” lifestyle can be tough with limited time to train, recover and for social life. However, I put high expectations on myself to have a self sustainable training environment. I have to be very careful with my time management skills but also very disciplined about my decisions. With that said, I’m very fortunate to be a part of the 2015 Brooks Running ID Elite Program, which I believe is one of the best programs in the country for providing athletes like myself with support. In 2012 , I joined Whirlaway Racing Team and it’s been a great experience. the club is local and carries some pride of the Merrimack Valley where I live. Both compliment my running needs as far having the right equipment to train in to prevent injuries and being on a team environment.
6) Do you cross-train at all? How does this help you and what activities do you include during the winter to stay fit?
I don’t do much cross training because I don’t have the time. If I were a full time professional athlete, I most likely would. I’ve done some stints of elliptical and pool running which I have both enjoyed. However, I realize that being a full time employee and a full time runner, I have to give up some things. In place of cross training, I use the time to get regular massages and PT check ups to avoid injuries.
7) At 6’3, 155 lbs. you are skinny to American standards. However, I remember when Chris Solinsky ran 26:59, he was ranked as the tallest and heaviest runner to do that in the world at 6’1, 160. Tell me about your diet and how it fuels your training.
I may be skinny by American standards, but I may be considered heavier by Kenyan standard. It’s all relative, but that doesn’t bother me at all. Too many people tend to focus much on their bone structures and weight, and they start finding excuses and putting limits on themselves. That’s something I’ve had to learn after many years of running. Some runners are just naturally heavier or skinnier than others. Runners come in many shapes and sizes. However, you do need to eat healthy. You need to get the iron, the protein, the right fat and avoid things like sugar. I always think of food as fuel rather than “diet”. I have a balanced eating habit that surrounds fueling for my runs and recovering from my runs. I eat at least five times during the day in different amounts. I always make sure I have plenty of protein after my workouts and stay away from unhealthy foods as much as I can. I eat salads and plenty of fruits, however, I’m not a health freak. I enjoy “comfort” food, rice, beans, etc. Whatever the body is craving from workouts, is most likely because it really needs it in order to function properly. When racing or doing workouts, I’m particularly careful about what and when I eat in order to avoid stomach aches and cramps. The body is a machine and needs be fueled the right way in order to produce results and avoid disasters.
8) What’s the race strategy with Nate for Boston? Will you guys pace each other or is it every man for himself out there?
We haven’t really drawn up any strategy yet and probably won’t until the week before the race. I think it’s still too early to be able to make plans as far as pacing without knowing our full fitness, the competition and what the weather will be like. We most likely will be working together along with other runners and then it will become every man for himself after a certain point in the race. I’m hoping to be a bit more competitive this year than last year. I ended up doing most of the race alone last year and in marathons it certainly helps to have someone there with you.
9) I’ve spent most of my life in Massachusetts and I’m proud to have had MIAA X-C and track experience at Franklin Park and in Boston. You, like I did, chose to stay in Massachusetts and run for Gary Gardner at UML. How has all of this helped bring you to where you are as an athlete now?
When I graduated high school, I was not one of the top recruits in Massachusetts. I ran 4:32 in the mile and 10:09 in the 2 mile but trained like a lone wolf. I knew my best days were still ahead of me. I knew I had some talent and just needed to be in the right atmosphere in order to start to really improve. Gary was one of the few college coaches that realized the little talent I had. I think he was very impressed with my work ethic and he understood the difference between being a 10-minute two miler from the Boston City League versus the Dual County League. Given Gary’s background as a runner who improved by a huge margin in college, he knew exactly I needed to do in order to improve. He understood my strengths and weaknesses better than me at the time and he knew exactly what I needed to do in order to improve. I was looking to go into a program where I would be challenged and improve in the long term as well. I also wanted to be in a program that had a track record of transforming average 10 minute 2-milers into low 14 minute 5k runners. Being at UMass Lowell allowed me to build the foundation of my training regiment. I was able to learn not to put limits on myself by being patient and believing in the process. The first two years were very tough because I was learning to adapt to the program. There were times that I could have just settled and said “oh I’ve improved 1 minute from 5k in high school, that’s more than most of my high school rivals”, but I wanted more because Gary knew I had more in me. After good or bad races, it was personal for both of us because of how hard we both knew I trained. In the end, If I had to make the decision again, I don’t think I would have picked any other college.
10) The Cape Verde record for 10-miles is 50:23. If we have clear roads on Sunday, March 8th at the Old Fashioned 10-miler in Foxboro, what are you running for a new record, my friend? By the way, the course record is 49:34.
I would certainly like to challenge both records. Having run 50:23 there four years ago and considering how my training is going, I feel that I’m capable of running well under 50-minutes there. On the other hand, my training cycle is geared fully towards the Boston Marathon, and the OFTM is just another checkpoint run. I will do my best to go after both records on that day, but given the fact that I’m in the middle hard training cycle, I’m not really sure exactly what to expect out of my legs.
Author’s Note: Sanca took a good shot at the record today but after breaking away from training mate, Nate Jenkins his 50:54 was shy of the record. The course did have some snow and ice but was otherwise clear run. Coming off a hard training week with three workouts, he was dealing with some cumulative marathon fatigue.