Thursday, June 7, 2012
Tales from the Furnace: Bradford Lombardi Pre-Race Q&A
When I called Brad Lombardi on May 29, 2012, he was in his one-bedroom apartment in Stuart, Florida, eating a green salad while perched on a plastic lawn chair his neighbor lent him. You see, Brad doesn't own any furniture. No table. No chairs. He doesn't even own a TV. Just a foam pad to sleep on and an air conditioning unit that is left perpetually unplugged. It is all part of a conscious style of simple living that he has adopted; what Brad doesn't have in material possessions, he makes up for by living life to the extreme. The 43 year old ultrarunner and ex-smoker has tackled the 100 mile distance with some incredible results. I talked to Brad about life, relationships, and running. This summer, he is set to run the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, California.
I want to start by congratulating you on your performance at the Keys 100 miler.
Well, I’m a little disappointed, but I’ve learned that you don’t get greedy with these things and you take what you can get.
Disappointed? You finished in, what, 19 hours?
A lot of people would consider that to be a pretty good time.
Well, I was shooting for 16:30, so…
And this was your second time doing Keys, right?
Yeah. It was actually my one year anniversary of doing 100 milers. The Keys 100 in 2011 was actually my first 100 mile race. In that 12 month period, I toed the line for seven 100 milers. And I went five-for-seven.
What do you think went wrong this time?
It was the rain. My feet got wet. We hit my time targets in the beginning. I was at 3 hours and 30 minutes at the 25 mile mark. My target was 7 hours and 40 minutes for 50 miles. I came in at 7 hours and 41 minutes. So, I was right on schedule. But, then my feet got wet, and it just went all downhill from there. I actually got cold during the race. The last thing I expected during that race was that I was going to get cold and that I was going to be wet. I had prepared myself for the heat. I love the heat. I was expecting it to get up to 100 degrees, maybe even 110. I thought, “The hotter the better.” And as soon as the rain came out, I was just laughing to myself. I was like, “Are you kidding me right now?”
Have you always been an athlete?
Pretty much. The main thing that has kept me in shape over the years has been surfing. I’ve been surfing for about 25 years now, and that’s kind of all I did for a long time. I had run a few marathons before. In my early 40s, I did a few 5k and 10k races. Stuff like that. But, I was a pack-a-day smoker less than three years ago. That’s kind of my claim to fame. I quit cold turkey on July 25, 2009. Since since that day, I have done over 50 marathons and ultras, including my seven 100 milers. It just sort of progressed. I didn’t even know what the hell an ultramarathon was until my friend told me about them.
Tell me about surfing. Do you still ride the waves?
I do, but not like I used to. My friends in San Diego still don’t understand how I have put surfing on hold to do this whole Badwater thing. For a long time, surfing was, literally, all I ever did. From the ages of 22 to 40, that was who I was. A surfer. I left every girlfriend; I left every job; I left every stable situation I was ever in to chase waves around. Every job I’ve ever had has been, basically, near the surf, in the four corners of the United States: the Pacific Northwest, New England, Florida, and California. I worked on boats mostly so that I could be close to the water.
How do you relate surfing and running together?
I just love to do both. Surfing and running are the kind of sports that just keep you happy and fit because you like doing them. They are not a painful tasks. You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to go out and run or surf. I do it because I like doing it. They are also very similar in the sense that they very individual sports.
I find a lot of runners I talk to tended to shy away from team sports when they were younger.
It’s kind of a selfish sport. I don’t like team stuff. My girlfriend always says that I’m a loner. I don’t like groups. I don’t like too much interaction. I do a lot of these Ragnar Relay Races. But, the only way I will do a relay is if it is totally paid for, if I don’t have to spend a dime, and if I don’t have to drive. That’s kind of my rule because I just don’t really like it. But, I do them because it’s forced miles.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a traditional wooden boat builder by trade and I worked as a shipwright and carpenter for many years. But, presently, I work as a test driver for emerging amphibious vehicles. It’s actually a pretty cool job. I’m like the Chuck Yeager of these kinds of vehicles. They haven’t really hit the market yet. I’m not really allowed to talk too much about them. We’re not allowed to take photos or talk too much about them, but imagine a cross between a four-wheeler and a jet ski. These things cruise around on land, and then, when they hit the water, you push a button and they turn into a jet ski. Basically, my job is, for ten hours a day, I go drive them around and push them to their limits until they break, and then try to figure out why things are breaking. It’s pretty much a dream job.
And the funny thing is, they found me. At first, I thought it was a joke. But, the guys that run it are really cool. They know what I’ve got going on here and they are very accommodating. If I’ve got a race to do or whatever, they give me the days off. It’s good money. And it’s a lot of work. You ride these things for a lot of hours. It’s kind of good cross training. So, that’s an added bonus.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Rhode Island, and I grew up in New England: Rhode Island and New Hampshire. I went to high school out in Seattle. Then, I went to Boston for college.
Was athletics a big part of your childhood?
I grew up playing hockey. I started running when I was probably around 12 years old. I did some road races. In junior high school, I was actually a pretty good cross country runner. I think I got 12th place in the Rhode Island state championships. But, when we moved out to Seattle, I didn't run in high school. It’s kind of funny because now I’m friends with all these guys from high school still, and they were all these big track stars in school and they see what I am doing now and they ask me, “Why the hell didn’t you run in high school?” I really don’t have an answer for that. Because I was going to dance clubs and smoking cigarettes probably.
Yuck. Of all the vices, why cigarettes?
I don’t know. Coming out of the water when you’re done surfing and having a butt and some coffee; being around a boatyard; being a carpenter. It all just went hand-in-hand with smoking. Really unhealthy. And I got bigger. Not necessarily fat, but muscular from swinging a hammer, moving big wood and big boats and stuff. I was up to about 205 pounds, smoking butts regularly. I smoked not so much as a social activity or to be cool or anything. I just liked smoking by myself and working on wood and working on boats. I don't anymore though. [Laughs]. I hate it. I’ll never go back.
What made you quit?
It was my high school girlfriend. She got cancer. She was doing chemo treatments in Seattle, and I was in Boston at the time. She has since passed away, but at the time, we talked on the phone a lot. She would call me up during her treatments at 3 a.m. - it was midnight where I was. And we would talk. She convinced me to turn my life around. She got got me to quit smoking. And she convinced me to get into running. She was my catalyst. I envisioned her just sitting there in that hospital, dying to get out and do something. But, she couldn’t. And here I was, clowning around with my life. I had to change.
And what a change! You were an occasional recreational runner and now you are running the world's toughest footrace.
I've really enjoyed the journey. I've gotten pretty far in just a short period of time. I went from toeing the line of my first 100 miler to running Badwater in just 14 months.
What attracts you to these extreme events as opposed to shorter distances?
The 100 mile distance, for me right now, is the distance that really gets my attention. It’s difficult for me to even consider doing the little races. A lot of my friends are triathletes and super fast 5k and 10k people. They are always trying to get me to do these little races, but it doesn’t turn me on. The 100 mile distance is just such a daunting distance. I don’t care if you’re Mike Morton or any of the other big guys: every guy that toes the line realizes what he is in for for that day. It’s so frickin’ hard. But, when it’s over, it’s pretty satisfying. It’s tough to top. I’m sure with Badwater, if I can somehow find that finish line in the time I’m looking to do, it’s probably going to be a peak thing. It’s going to be an epic moment in my life, I’m sure.
You were telling me earlier about your difficulties financing Badwater. Tell me more about trying to strike that balance between work – trying to earn money – and going off and doing these races, which can be quite costly.
It’s tough. I give my girlfriend a lot of the credit because she helps with so much of the financial stuff. I only get paid once a month. So, I get paid tomorrow for the month of May. Then, I’m going to have to wait another 30 days for the next paycheck. Which means this will be my last paycheck before Badwater. It totally – excuse my French – fucks me. I had a friend who was able to pull a few strings to get me into the San Diego 100 mile race on June 10, but I don’t have the cash to get there. It kind of sucks.
You’re also going to school now.
Yeah, I’m a part-time student. Over the years, I moved around so much that I never finished my degree. I have three classes to go in a degree that I started twenty years ago at Boston University. Because of the online program through Southern New Hampshire University, I am able to finish it. The degree is in English language and literature. The idea was that once I stopped running around I was going to go teach abroad or something. At this stage, I may parlay this whole running thing into some kind of teaching or coaching deal. Or something along those lines. It’s never too late, you know. I essentially started running at the age of 40, and I kind of went back to school at age 40, too. It's funny: I feel younger now at age 43 than I did at age 23. It really is relative. A lot of people think I am in my late 20s or something. But, I was born in 1969. I’m an old dude.
What is your girlfriend's name?
How did you meet?
I met her two years ago when I was in Florida. I was actually dating another girl at the time. Brooke was friends with my next door neighbor, and we met because I had a dog and she had a couple of dogs. Well, time went by. I left Florida and went on a road trip out west. I went and worked on a boat in Washington for six months. I broke up with the other girl, and then decided to come back to Florida about a year and a half ago. It just happened we were both single, and boom! I just started dating her! So, it’s been about a year and a half.
Is she involved in your running career?
When I met her, she didn’t know anything about this ultra stuff. She liked being around it, though. She crewed me for my first 100 miler. And I’m tough to deal with. I’ll warn you right now. Towards the end of race, I can be quite nasty. But she put up with it. She is incredible. She knows what I need during the course of a race. I don’t stop anymore during 100 milers. I used to have to sit down and eat something or change. But, now, I just grab whatever she gives me. I don’t even have to ask. She just knows me that well. The thought of going out there to races without her is very scary to me. I’m pretty confident that I couldn’t do it without her there.
Not to change the topic from your girlfriend, but what do you mean you are difficult to deal with during a race?
I can be kind of moody. Everyone knows that about me. My crew knows what to say and what not to say. My pacer knows when to open his mouth and when to shut it. I actually tell my pacer that: “Don’t speak until you are spoken to.” I don’t sugarcoat stuff. Some people hate me because of that. If I don’t like something about you, I’m not going to pretend. You’re going to get an honest answer out of me. I’m brutally honest. Abrasively honest. And when things aren’t going my way, it’s pretty tough to be around me. During these races, I can be a total jerk. During Iron Horse, there was a stretch where I missed my girlfriend for about 4 miles. It was between miles 92 and 96. I ran out of food and water. And that cost me a sub-17 hour finish time. I was on track for a 16:50 finish. But, my tank went on empty and I had nothing. I was crawling. When I finally met up with her and she got me food and water, I was a dick. I was screaming at her.
And how does she handle all this? The races. All this training time you’re putting in. Is that strain on the relationship?
At the beginning it was, but she understands. She’s really easy. She’s also very independent. She has all her own stuff going on. So, we don’t have that tension that a lot of couples do. And I know a lot of people do have it. A lot of my friends do. It’s a lot of hours. My training runs 25 to 30 hours a week. Plus working. Plus my class. Plus sleeping. It doesn’t leave a lot of extra free time. Fortunately, I live very simply.
What do you mean by living simply?
I haven’t owned a TV in 23 years. I don’t even have any furniture in here right now. Essentially, all I’m doing is sleeping on a foam mattress and trying to stay really simple and focused on getting fit. I just recently got a phone. I didn’t even have a phone for a year and a half. But, now I do. So, I guess I’m kind of rejoining society a little bit.
And just to be clear: this lifestyle is by design. It’s a chosen philosophy more than a default one. You choose to live this way.
Absolutely. And I’ve lived this way for a long time. It’s funny; a bunch of triathlete friends of mine all came over to my place the other day to give me a ride. My friend Gavin had to step inside because he had heard stories about my place but had never seen it for himself. He looked around and said, “Well, you do have an air conditioner, but it’s unplugged!” I actually have Christmas lights plugged in the wall, and that is kind of my lighting situation right now. My parents would see me when I was living in San Diego or Boston or wherever the hell I was – I’ve moved over 40 times in 43 years – and they would feel bad for me. They thought I was living in this unhappy poverty-stricken state. They’d go out and they’d buy me all this shit, and I’d come home from work and there would be a little bed and a little table with some chairs. And three months later, I’d move someplace else; so, I’d sell the stuff. They’d get all pissed off. They probably did that about ten times over the years.
Do you find there is a lot of pressure to conform to the “normal” lifestyle of our materialistic culture. House. Car. That sort of thing.
No. People don’t get it. Like my friend Gavin. He was just blown away. They call my apartment “the monastery.” The average American household has the TV on for seven hour a day. The average American individual watches TV for four hours a day. One day, I just got out a calculator and I multiplied 4 hours by 30 days by 12 months by 40 years. And the amount of hours TV takes up in our lives is just ridiculous. I realized at the age of 19 that that was something I just didn’t want to do. That was the last time I owned a television. I gave my TV away, and that was it. I’ve had people give me TV sets over the years and I ended up just giving them away. I won’t do it. I won’t spend my life like that.
And yet, non-active people are often astonished that ultrarunners can devote hours a day to training. It’s because we don’t spend that time in front of the television.
Absolutely. I’ve had people ask, “How the hell do you do all this? You must have some fancy trust fund set up. Where do you find the time?” If you just turn off your TV! The average American watches TV for four hours a day. Four hours. That is my training for the day. People always talk about these new shows on TV. I have no idea what they are talking about... I read. I do read a lot.
It must be liberating to live that way.
Right now, I have 52 cents in the bank. I guarantee you that I am the poorest person doing Badwater this year. I am a hiccup away from living in a cardboard box. But, I am also a hiccup away from greatness. I am very lucky compared to a lot of people. Even though I don’t have a lot of shit and I don’t have any money, I am very healthy and I am very happy. A lot of people get up in the morning and they think about a fancy car or a big house. I think about running. I’m just very content living this way. I’m very content not having a lot of shit.
That probably makes it easier to relocate!
It's funny: I’m actually about to move out of this place in about two weeks. I am going to put all my stuff in storage, and I’m going to get a travel trailer and drive out to Death Valley. When you live like this, it allows you the opportunity to roll up the carpet and go. I went and paced my friend, Sergio Radovcic, at Ultraman UK this year. He called and said, “You’re the only one I know who’s crazy and stupid enough to roll up the carpet and leave for ten days. Wanna go?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” Now, if I had a wife and kids, I wouldn’t be doing this.
I want to talk now about Badwater. How did you first hear about the race and what sparked your interest?
The funny thing is, I knew nothing about Badwater. I used to date this girl, and she told me one day, “Hey, I got this movie. Why don’t you watch this while you’re running on the treadmill today. It’s called ‘The Distance of Truth’ and it’s about this guy named Ferg Hawke.” I threw the movie in, and when that movie was over, I said, “I’m going to do that.” And this was long before I even did an ultra. I’ve probably seen that movie 50 times now. I correspond with Ferg now. He’s been really encouraging since I started doing this.
What made you apply this year?
I actually had no intention to apply for Badwater this year. I was actually supposed to crew for Chris Roman. Chris asked me a long time ago, and I said yes. I figured I would go grew this year and 2013 would be my year. But, I was getting better and better at the 100 mile distance. I ran my first 100 miler in 23 hours. Then I took it down to 21 hours. Then, 19 hours. Finally, I dropped down to 17 hours. That was at Iron Horse. After that, I was like, “You know what, I’m just as fast, and, in fact, faster than a lot of these guys doing Badwater.” And I’m super fit right now. So, I figured, why not throw my name in there? I’ve got a decent backstory. I’ve got the credentials. Write a couple of essays. I got a letter of recommendation from Mimi Anderson, who I crewed for last year. It was just kind of a long shot.
Tell me about your relationship with Mimi Anderson. What was it like crewing for her?
It was awesome. I had never met Mimi before going out to crew for her. She was going for the record for the Badwater Double.
Which she got.
Easily. I think she broke it by like 20 hours. When I met Mimi for the Double, I thought, “This is insane. I don't know how someone can even finish Badwater once, let alone turn around and run back to the start. You’re going to run across Death Valley, summit Mount Whitney, and then run all the way back?!" I was actually the first pacer on. I got on at Furnace Creek, at mile 17. At that point, she was hauling ass. I think she was running 8:30 minute miles. And I remember going, “Mimi, you are going way too fast. I know I’m kind of green at this whole thing, but I don’t think this is a good idea.” And by the time we got to mile 30, she was really getting weary. I even said to one of the other crew members, “How is she going to do a Double? I don’t even think she’s going to finish this thing.” And then, I watched this little lady – 5-foot-nothing, 100 pounds, fueled by nothing but grapes and almonds and water (her diet during this race was just so small; it was ridiculous) – just get stronger and stronger. When she got to mile 75 and then cracked 100 miles, all of a sudden, she transformed into this machine. She was just relentless. It was so cool to watch the whole evolution of it. She powered through the thing. Super tough lady. Incredible. And she’s a grandmother! I’m 43 years old, and I'm a pretty tough dude, but I was watching this grandmother run me into the ground. As a pacer, I was just amazed. I needed relief, and she just kept on going. And it’s not like it just ends at Badwater with her. She’s done some insane races. She just finished the Jungle Marathon yesterday.
You draw inspiration from her.
Of course. All that just gets put into your memory bank. She’s been instrumental in keeping me inspired to do this thing. When I get into trouble during these races, I start thinking Ferg. I start thinking Mimi. All these people that you’ve seen come back from the dead and power through these things.
Are you being coached?
Yes. I am doing the Furnace Creek 508, too. I am going for the Death Valley Cup, so I actually have a fancy Belgian coach now. His name is Dr. Peter Vervoort.
How did you come into contact with him?
A friend of mine owns a bike shop called Belgian Bike. And he’s his doctor. He hooked me up with this guy. And the two of them have kind of taken me under their wings to try and hone my skills a little bit because I’ve really never trained before. Up until about two months ago, I’ve never really trained for a race. I would do my running, but there was no rhyme or reason to it. No structure.
And you felt you needed that for the Death Valley Cup?
Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down. It’s kind of nice: every morning, I just click on my phone and it tells me to ride “X” miles or run “X” miles. My coach has incorporated 200 to 300 miles of cycling per week into my running routine. So, I am running about 100 miles a week. And I am cycling about 200 miles. But, what I am going to do for the next few weeks is up my running mileage and just keep my cycling where it is at. I try to stick to what my coach gives me as much as possible, but I adapt it to what I feel I need. Like yesterday I wasn’t supposed to run, but I ran anyway because I felt like it. What they put out there, I treat as a general guideline, but it is not the Bible. When Badwater is over, then, I will quit running and focus on cycling until the 508 in October.
Where do you like to do your training runs?
I really love Florida. I like the Treasure Coast around here. Hutchinson Island is also a good place. Jensen Beach. It’s an 18 mile long island and I love to run there. I kind of feel like a local celebrity when I go run there. I get a lot of honks. A lot of thumbs up. I get a lot of support in this community.
I understand that you have a nickname. What do they call you?
They call me “The Peacock.”
Why do they call you that?
Well, they call me “The Peacock” because – it’s kind of a long story. I’ll give you the short version. The friend I told you about who asked me to pace him at Ultraman UK, Sergio, well, when I met him, it was for a Ragnar thing about two years ago. I’d never met him in person, but he needed a guy to run it, so I said, “As long as it’s paid for, I'll do it,” and he said, “Yep. I got a hotel. I got a van. Everything.” So, my friend Will Glover and I got on this relay team. They picked us up. We started running our leg. And we got really competitive. We set the tempo pretty fast. And when I run, I run very upright and just take off like a peacock. Sergio said it to Will while I was running. He has a European accent. He said, “[Imitating the accent] Will, what is it with Brad? Look at him. Look at the way he runs. He looks like a fucking peacock!” And from that moment on, it kind of stuck. So now, I am the freaking peacock. I went with it. Now, I go to races and I hear people yelling, “Go! Peacock!” It’s pretty cool.
What time of day do you usually run?
Whenever I can get the hours, basically. I belong to a running group, which I attend every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 a.m. I like running with them. And then, I’ll maybe run in the middle of the afternoon if I’m not working. And then, run at night.
Are you doing any specific heat training?
Martin Memorial Hospital is the gym I go to. The trainer there, Scott Morrison, gave me a year's free membership as part of an incentive to, basically, do well at Badwater. He wants to help me. And he gives me a lot of pointers on nutrition and stuff. But, the only sauna in the country is at LA Fitness. So, I was forced to join. And I go there about 4 or 5 times a week.
Is it active or passive sauna time?
I just sit there like Buddha Brad. I’ve worked my way up to where I can sit in there for 60 minutes. I take two big jugs of water in with me that I put in the freezer the night before. And I just sit there and try to control my breathing and stay relaxed and take the heat. I try to be happy with the heat. But, it’s tough because there are so many yahoos who come in and they are kickboxers and they juice the thing up to 240 degrees and sit there for like three minutes. And here I am trying to log in time. It's so frustrating! I’ve come to the point where I just tell them, “Dude, if you are in here for just three minutes, jumping around like a monkey at 240 degrees, it doesn’t do you any health benefit.” I’ve had that conversation with a lot of guys in there.
Do you have a time goal in mind for Badwater?
I do, indeed.
Do you care to share it?
I don’t want to disclose it.
Fair enough. I want to talk now about your mental preparation. We’ve talked about training your body, but how do you prep your mind for an event like this?
That’s funny you say that because people always ask me what my biggest training secret is and that’s it. Mental training. I do a lot of relaxation techniques. I do it in the sauna, and I do it when I go to bed and when I get up in the morning. It’s just kind of realizing and reflecting on where I was and how I got here and what I am doing. Staying focused on the present moment is super important.
Any fears going into this thing?
I think it would be the biggest regret of my life if I don’t come home with that buckle. I even told the guys at work, “At this point, with 45 days left to go, I am willing to walk away from everything in order to know that I’m prepared when I show up on race day. The last thing I want is show up to Badwater Basin and toe that line at 8 a.m. with reservations that I haven’t prepared myself. I want to take the line with confidence, and with a little pinch of fear, that I can cover the distance. I think if I give it my best and if I prepare myself my best and something goes horribly wrong and I don’t finish, then I could probably live with it. But, I will use all 48 hours if I have to.
Brad, I have no doubts that you will be amazing. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and I want to wish you all the best in your training.