Sunday, June 17, 2012
Tales from the Furnace: Mike Morton Pre-Race Q&A
In 1997, Michigan-born Mike Morton jolted the ultrarunning community when he won the Western States 100 miler and set a course record of 15 hours and 40 minutes, despite the prevailing knowledge of the time that one had to train on the Western States course in order to have a chance of winning the race. Soon after his legendary victory, he dropped out of the ultrarunning scene almost completely due to an exacerbated hip injury. Through his military career, first as a Navy diver and now as a member of the United States Army Special Forces, Morton has deployed around the world, including to Afghanistan and Iraq. Living in Florida now, he finds himself in the advantageous position of being able to resume his racing career. He has since turned out some incredible performances, including running 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24 Hour Run in 2011 - just two miles shy of Scott Jurek's American record. He has won and set course records at the Umstead 100 miler and the Long Haul 100 miler. Most recently, he won the Keys 100 miler with a time of 13 hours and 42 minutes. Now at the age of 40, Mike talked with me about life, family, running, and his next big goal - a race he has wanted to do for 14 years - the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon.
Congratulations on your win at the Keys 100. I hear there was lots of rain.
I was hoping the overcast skies would kind of break up the heat. It did rain really hard early on. But, to be honest with you, it didn’t really bug me. I changed my shoes a couple of times just because they were getting soaked and I could feel my socks balling up. But, other than that, it didn’t really bother me too much mentally or anything like that.
Is that the only 100 miler you have planned before Badwater?
Yeah, that’s it. I’m going to back off now. No more races from here on out. For the month of June, I’m just going to do my standard routine and just kind of stay focused.
Mike, why do you run?
I started running when I was 15 years old. I was hooked pretty much from day one. I started doing three miles every other day. About three months later, it was every day. I would run from my house to my grandparents’ house. I would ask my gramp to give me a ride back home. Finally, he got sick of it. He was like, “You know what, turn around half way because I’m not giving you a ride no more.” Eventually, it just turned into me running to my grandparents’ house, kind of hanging out and visiting, and then running back. Probably about a six mile run. To me, it was very normal, just a part of my day. Then, I ran all through high school. When I joined the military, it obviously carried over into the military lifestyle. I’m a person of routine. Running just became part of my daily routine. In the past ten years, being in the Army, deployed all the time, it became a mental safety net. Kind of like my recreation when there was nothing else to do. I would say that in the past ten years, it became even more important as part of my daily routine. For mental health.
How did you get interested in ultramarathons?
I think what intrigued me about ultras – back when I started in the 90s – was that it was a challenge, a physical challenge: what I thought was the extreme. I’m still challenged by it, but it’s not the driving force anymore. Nowadays, I’m more intrigued by what I can do personally. Back in the 90s, I used to think, “Okay, who am I going to race against?” When I go to a race now, it is totally irrelevant to me who is there. I don’t even think about it. I don’t get race day jitters. I know that I’m there competing against myself. I’m trying to see if I can push through each race.
Where did you grow up?
What did your parents do when you were growing up?
My dad was an iron worker in Detroit. My mom was a nurse’s aid for years, but eventually, once they separated, she became a stay-at-home mom.
Was athletics a big part of your childhood?
When I was in the sixth grade, my parents divorced. After that, we moved to a small town in northern Michigan. I started playing football. Pee wee football. I loved it. I played from sixth grade until my junior year of high school. I played basketball, also, but I basically played because I had to: I went to a Catholic school and there were only five boys in the class. Obviously, you need five boys to play basketball, so I was kind of coerced into playing.
I understand that you read about Ann Trason when you were in high school and that she made an impression on you.
I remember reading about her in Runner’s World. I remember sitting in math class, and my math teacher was a runner and a sports enthusiast. Have you ever heard of Dan Majerle, the basketball player?
Sure. The Phoenix Suns, right?
Yeah. And he was on the Olympics team, too. His brother was my math teacher. Their whole family was a huge sports family, and so, this guy encouraged sports. He was always advocating sports and running. He was the one who showed me that Runner’s World article. And that was the only exposure I had to this stuff. We didn’t have the Internet back then. And it was hard for me to get Runner’s World back then in Michigan. That stuff just wasn’t on the magazine racks. So, when I saw that one little article, I thought, “Wow! Man, there are races longer than a marathon!” And then, that interest resurfaced in 1994. I was stationed in Norfolk and I met a guy – he was a chief diver – who was running ultras. That was my first exposure to that world.
Do you remember your very first race?
I do. I ran a 15k in Cheboygan, Michigan in 1988. I ran it in, like, 54 minutes. There were about 20 or 25 people in the race. I was very young. But, I remember running with the front runners. They were talking about pacing themselves and what their strategy was, and I remember thinking, “I’m just going to run this thing as fast as I can.” It was an interesting experience.
What was your first ultramarathon?
The Uwharrie 40 in North Carolina.
And you only run ultras now, right? The shorter distances don’t interest you.
Yeah, I’m not interested in the shorter stuff.
What is it about the ultra distances that you don’t get out of the shorter ones?
The gratification seems to be greater. I don’t want to belittle the shorter distances and the people who run those things. But, for me, the reward is in the distance. I don’t even like going running unless it’s going to be for at least an hour. If I can’t get at least an hour in, I won’t even mess with it: I’ll just wait. Each time I start a 100 miler, I am intrigued to see how I handle it and what kind of performance I can scrape out of it. Every race has its own set of variables. It’s interesting to see how I will perform given the variables in a race.
When did you enlist in the Navy?
In 1990, I went to boot camp.
What made you want to enlist?
My older brother was in the Navy. He did the same thing. He actually had a full scholarship to Michigan Tech, but he dropped out of school to join the Navy. It was just kind of my way out of northern Michigan.
What was it like to be a Navy diver?
I had a good time in the Navy. I always had good duty stations. Tropical. There were some long hours sometimes. If you’re working on a ship or a submarine, you just go in and get the job done. It was always challenging. It was mechanical type stuff. Working underwater. But, I've always enjoyed working on stuff in the garage, so that kind of carried over.
When you started running ultras in the early 90s, the sport was very different.
Oh, man, it’s totally different now.
What do you think about the growth of the sport? Do you have any sense of nostalgia for the days when the races were these small, almost underground events?
I have a place in my heart for it, just because of the people I met and what a small community it was. But, I don’t despise the growth. I guess if there is a downside, it’s that every major race now is a lottery. Before, short of Western States, you could sign up for a race a couple of days before. I kind of think ultras have evolved just like how triathlons have evolved. It’s human nature, you know. The goal of a housewife or a working guy used to be the marathon, but now it’s a 50 miler. There are so many of them. They are in every mainstream magazine, too. It’s great that people are getting out there and being active. There is no downside to that.
You ran with people like Eric Clifton, Dave Horton, and Courtney Campbell. They were kind of like your ultra family back in the 90s. Do you still keep contact with them?
Yes. Eric and I are good friends. It’s funny you ask that because after the Keys 100 miler, that Tuesday, I flew out to California to stay with him and his wife. We went to the Grand Canyon and we ran the Grand Canyon. The Rim to Rim. I consider Eric and his wife family. In fact, as soon as I got into Badwater, they offered to crew, which, obviously, I took them up on because of their immense knowledge of the race: Eric has done Badwater three times and he won it in 1999 and set a course record. I didn’t keep in contact with Courtney, but we talk on Facebook and stuff now. David Horton and I email back and forth.
Eric Clifton, of course, is a legend in the sport. So is Dave Horton. Have you learned anything from running with people like them?
Definitely, man. David and Eric provided a ton of knowledge. But, everyone who races these things has his own strategy and his own way of seeing the race and mentally metabolizing it. For instance, Eric fuels off other people in the race. And like I said earlier, I don’t. I’m fueled internally. And Dave was an extremely competitive guy. I’m sure he still is. He’s done some extreme things: multi-day stuff, his run across America, and the Appalachian Trail record.
In 1997, you set the course record for Western States, and after that, you gained this kind of legendary status yourself. You did something that everyone thought was impossible, which was to win the race and set the course record despite not being from that region. And even today, you seem to have this aura of legend, sort of a come-back-kid figure who just might win Badwater this year. I’m wondering how you take this reputation and if you feel like an elite athlete?
No. I think the reputation is unwarranted, especially with the whole come-back kid thing. Where the sport is now, with the number of competitive people, on any given day there are people doing the same thing as me and on the same level of performance. I think that in 1997, it was a big deal to win Western States the way I did because no one else had ever done it. And that wasn’t my motivation at all for doing it. I didn't draw inspiration from the potential to be the first non-Californian to win Western States. See, I’d been all over the world by then from being in the Navy. So, I didn’t tie myself to any piece of geography. And I didn’t realize the gravity of it until after it happened. I didn’t even realize that it would be a big deal. In my mind, the Western States performance was a good performance, but I had other performances that went unnoticed that were better performances athletically. I mean, the Western States record has been broken multiple times now.
Well, I think part of the reason people really respond to your story is that you were, and in some sense you still are, relatively undetected in the sport. Where a lot of these elite runners are getting big time sponsorship deals, you simply aren't going that route. To give another example, in 2010, Scott Jurek set the record for the 24 hour run with 165 miles. And of course everyone knows who Scott Jurek is. But, what a lot of people don’t know is that in 2011, you came and ran almost the same distance – 163.9 miles - in 24 hours. It’s kind of like you are the unsung hero of the sport.
Surely some people view it that way. I’ve had people try to motivate me with the whole 24 hour thing – the fact that Scott has that record and he’s the one who broke the Western States record the first time. But, I just don’t sit around and think about that kind of stuff. My motivation for getting back into ultrarunning has always been personal. I don’t pay attention to what other people are doing in a race or anything like that. No one out on the course is going to affect how my day goes except me. I actually prefer going undetected. I’m not a fan of any attention or even sponsorship. You know, nowadays, a lot of guys have these relationships with people in industry. Maybe I would have gone for all that back in the 90s when I wasn’t financially secure, but I’m at a point now where, with my career in the military, I feel safe. I don’t want to taint my reasons for running with all that sponsorship stuff. I don’t want any implied or specified obligation to anybody. I embrace it just being a personal endeavor.
And now might be a good time to mention that when I asked you to do this interview, the first thing you said to me was that you thought that anything that promoted the sport of ultrarunning was a good thing, and that is why you agreed to do this interview.
It’s healthy that people hear the story of ultrarunning. I truly think that someday the 100k thing is going to catch on here in America like it has in Europe. There is potential here. Maybe not the same kind of challenging trail races, but just the distance. People will keep pushing the distance beyond the marathon. I think eventually it will be embraced internationally and hopefully by Americans and by governing bodies. You know, I can’t understand why there isn’t a 100k Olympic event yet. We’ve got everything else. A competitive distance that truly elite people could run would be great. I personally don’t think I’m suited to a 100k road race, but there are people in this country that would really excel at that.
After winning Western States, you developed a hip injury and you pretty much stopped racing for about ten years.
Yeah, it was quite a while. The last race I did after Western States that was any good was the Rattlesnake 50k in July. Then, in September of that year, I ran what was called the TRAC – the Trail Run Across Virginia. It was a four-day stage race. To me, that was one of my best races ever. I set stage records on all four days. I was racing David Horton and Eric Clifton in that race. After that, the injury just became too much. I had fought it for a couple of months already, but I had some pinched nerves and I was starting to butt heads with the orthopedic guys who were trying to help me. They couldn’t firmly diagnose anything. Eventually, I would run a 6 minute or 7 minute mile pace and I would get tremendous pain radiating down my right leg. Ultimately, they had to go in and perform surgery on my right hip. I healed up, but I just couldn’t go on racing. Part of it was physical, but part of it was mental. I had to step away from running. I had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico. I thought, “Okay, I’ll just go to Puerto Rico and just hide.” It happened so quickly, you know: just not being able to race anymore. I couldn’t even run that kind of distance anymore without being in tremendous pain. If I couldn’t race, I thought the best way to deal with it was to sever all ties. I didn’t even read about ultrarunning; I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
How did you develop the injury?
It was actually before Western States. I was carrying scuba dive tanks. It was in the winter of 1997, and I slipped. My right hip and knee swelled up. I took about three days off. I was icing it. Three days, obviously, wasn’t enough. I resumed running. I got back out there and trained. I continued to compensate and did more damage.
Do you still have effects from that injury?
Yes, I do. There was significant damage from the initial injury and from me compensating over the years. I still deal with it. During the Keys 100 miler, I had radiating pain. Everything tightened up around mile 55. I had to stop, lie down on my back, bring my knee up to my chest and pull it across my body to stretch the glutes and hamstring. I definitely feel it. And I know when it’s coming. As soon as I feel that early burning sensation, I stop and I stretch, and I try to manage it. There are a ton of variables that play a role when it starts to happen. Dehydration is one of them. Fast pace is another. If I try to go out at a 5:30 minute mile pace, I know I’m going to have leg problems. My hamstring tightens up, fills up with blood, pulls on the glutes, pulls on the back, and then pinches my nerve. It’s something I know about. I’ve had 14 years of managing it. It’s just something I’ve got to deal with. There is really no fix for it.
After 9-11, you joined the U.S. Army Special Forces. Tell me about your decision to become a Green Beret.
It was opportunity. They sent recruiters around. And in March of 2001, I just decided to do it. Then, 9-11 happened. I started training on September 19. And that became my whole life. I felt obligated. I felt like everything was telling me that this was my calling. Those two events coincided for a reason. It was very fulfilling. It took my mind off everything and kept me very occupied. It was meant to be.
I read in an interview you did that you feel your military career has augmented your training, and you mentioned a key word, “maturity.” Can you elaborate on that and what you mean by the word “maturity” in describing your growth as an ultrarunner?
I think what you learn in the military is that there are things you can control and things you can’t. You have different plans or courses of action, and you pick the one that fits the problem best. If things don’t go as planned, you have to have an alternate plan and always be prepared. When I was younger, I never had a backup plan. I took things for granted. Failure was less common. Or, at least, I didn’t think about it as much. But, being in the Army, you always plan for the worst case scenario. I think that has helped me understand life better. It’s helped me reason with myself when things aren’t going well. And maturity also means that there’s less emotion. You commit to doing something and you deal with the process. You don’t need to get emotional if things aren’t going as planned. You accept the fact that you need to deal with it.
Back in the 90s, your race strategy was to go out as hard as you can for as long as you can?
Yeah. I kind of still take that same approach. That was one thing Eric Clifton always impressed me with: you can put miles in the bank. In the beginning of a long race, take advantage of the speed that you have because everyone is going to hit some rough spots. If you tell yourself, “My goal is to run eight minute miles for this whole race,” and you start off running eight minute miles, you’re not going to be able to hold that pace all the way through. There’s a bell curve there. Take advantage of the early miles.
Speaking of maturity, what are some of the challenges you have encountered with getting older?
The balance of family. Back in the 90s, I didn’t have a child. That’s a challenge in itself. Back then, I didn’t even own a house. Everything was so minimal. Life becomes so complex. That in itself if challenging.
What about physically? Have you noticed many changes in your physical ability?
No, not really. I guess due to the lack of natural speed, I have to work a little harder. Things come at a more painful cost. But, I think mental capacity can make up for at least a portion of that. Now that I am more mature as a runner, I find that I work harder. I am less likely to take a day off of running or back out of running every day. Back in the day, I would take two days a week off, or if it was raining, I didn’t go running because I just didn’t want to deal with it. I don't do that anymore, and it has made me a better runner. It takes a lot for me to not want to go running. Very rarely do I feel like I don’t want to go running. Usually, I’m fighting something so that I can go; I’m usually trying to get something done so that I can go run.
What is your wife’s name?
How long have you been married?
We got married in 2008, and we’ve been together since early 2003.
How old is your daughter?
She is seven.
Between family, work, and running, it’s hard to imagine that you have time for much else?
Well, I manage to squeeze running in there, like every other person who does these things. Two years ago, and prior to that, there was no time. That’s why I didn’t do it. I was either training to deploy, deployed, or just returning from deployment. There was just no time for running. But, now, I have been fortunate in being given a chance – given a spot where I can take a break. Two years ago, I made the commitment to myself to focus on ultras again and see what’s possible. In December, I came to Florida, and that allows me to take plenty of time. I kind of control my own hours. There is time now to run.
How do you strike a balance between work, family, and running?
To be honest with you, I don’t think it is possible. Balance is in the eye of the beholder. What seems balanced to me, I guarantee you, does not seem balanced to my wife or my daughter. It’s kind of a fine line with selfishness and forcing something on other people. But, I think they are tolerant of it because they know it is not forever. To me, this is an opportunity that I want to take advantage of. Maybe in two or three years, I won’t be so driven. I will have accomplished some of the goals that I want to accomplish. It will become more recreational. But, right now, I am very driven. It’s about competing with myself mentally and physically.
So, your family is supportive of your running?
Definitely. Obviously, there are always some frustrations associated with it that relate to the kind of selfish nature that runners tend to have. But, my wife has seen, for one, the gratification I get from racing. She has also experienced the misery when I can’t run, when something happens and I can’t get out there. I think every runner turns into a monster when they are not able to do it.
I want to switch gears here a little and talk about Badwater. Badwater is a race that I hear you’ve been waiting 14 years to do. Can you tell me how you first heard about Badwater and what made you want to do it?
Back in the 90s, Badwater was my main driving force. It was one of those races that just upped the ante. It increases the variables due to location and extreme temperature. It adds more difficulty to something that is already relatively difficult. Eric and I had always talked about Badwater. Badwater was supposed to be my next thing. As a matter of fact, in 1998 we both planned on going, but then I got my injury. He went; I didn’t. And when the injury took its toll, I kind of cut ties. So there’s a little bit of unfinished business there. It’s always been a lingering thing. It was next on my to-do list. Then, when I started running again, I focused on the 24 hour stuff because I was intrigued by it. But, 24 hour runs aren’t qualifiers for Badwater, or at least they don’t seem to be looked upon very highly. But, once I got a 100 miler in with a good time, I thought, “I’m fairly positive that if I applied to Badwater they’d let me in.”
By the way, I’ve never understood why the 24 hour race isn’t a good qualifier for Badwater. It would seem to me that if you can run 100 miles in the course of a 24 hour race, that’s just as good as running a 100 mile race.
I don’t understand it either. To me, a 24 hour run is way more mentally challenging than any fixed distance run.
Have you ever been to Death Valley before?
What made you decide to register this year?
It was really spontaneous. After I ran the Long Haul 100 miler here in Florida, I was trying to come up with a game plan or a set of races that would sort of drive me along leading me up to the potential to be on the U.S. team for the 24 hour run in September. A soon as I read the deadline to apply for Badwater – the deadline was February 15 and I read it on February 7 – I thought, “I just need to apply to do it. If I get in, it will be perfect timing. I will get in shape for Badwater, and provided I am injury free after finishing – or not finishing – I will be that much stronger toward the end of the calendar year to do the 24 hour team, which I think they announce this month.
What does your training schedule look like?
I am running 130 to 140 miles per week. Just as much as I can whenever I can.
Do you find there is an advantage to training in Florida for Badwater?
I think there’s an advantage to being on the East Coast and dealing with the humidity. The heat is going to be the most challenging aspect of Badwater for me. The anxiety of the heat. I think running in the humidity carries over to the dry heat. Some people complain that in dry heat, they get stomach issues. I know from being deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq that it’s harder running in a humid environment. I feel like my heart is working way harder when it's humid. So, I am going to take advantage of that while I can by running in the heat of the day here.
It’s pretty flat here. There aren’t a lot of training features. I’ve got a couple of good hills that are not steep, vertical climbs, but they are a decent duration that I can run repeats on. I think that one thing people ought to know is that if you can train on a good road grade type of climb, fitness in general and efficiency in running form will make do for the mountain races. If you don’t live in a place with mountain-like terrain, you obviously can’t replicate the race conditions, but you can compensate for that with just general fitness.
Are you doing anything else besides running to get ready for Badwater?
A couple of years ago, work required me to have physical strength and upper body strength. But, now I don’t have that requirement because I am not deployed and I am not wearing body armor everyday and climbing walls and stuff. So, now I am taking advantage of that. I might do body weight exercises. Calisthenics and stuff. Just to maintain general resiliency. But, I’m not going to the gym to lift weights or anything like that. I’m mostly just running.
Are you doing any special heat training other than running in the heat of the day?
Where is your favorite place to run?
Well, right now I am doing all my running on roads just for that mental preparation. I’ve got a couple of different routes I do based on how much time I have. I have a route that I run at work, and here at the house, I have a 12, 15, and 18 mile run that I do. It’s just through neighborhoods and there are also some road sections.
What do you think about when you run?
My family asked me that, too. Everything and anything. I don’t listen to music. I have a lot of stuff that I think about. Work. Life in general. Literally, I think about everything.
As you know, Valmir Nunes set the course record in 2007 at 22 hours and 51 minutes. I know you said you don’t compare yourself to external standards when you race, but does part of you think about going for the Badwtaer course record?
Without a doubt. Mathematically, I think there is the potential there to do it. But, that’s not my goal. My goal is to finish the race. Just doing the race is an investment of time, money, and effort. There are varying degrees of success. I will be happy just finishing. Finishing Badwater will bring me immense satisfaction. If I have a good race and set a new course record, then that would be fine, too.
Do you have any fears or anxieties going into this thing?
I’m sure there will be regret if I have to drop out. I have dropped out of races in the past, and I’ve learned my lesson about really analyzing a situation before you drop out. Not being able to run these races for over ten years, I have learned my lesson about regret. Winning a race and setting a record is secondary to the goal of just finishing. I am more intrigued by the group that takes 30 hours to run 100 miles than the group that takes 15 hours because those people know something we don’t. They have some drive in them, and I wonder if I even have that drive. I don’t ever want to regret not finishing the race.
Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it, and I wish you all the best with your training these coming weeks.
A note about Mike's plan to compete in the U.S. National 24 Hour Team: as of June 14, 2012, it was officially announced that he was selected for the team and will compete in Katowice, Poland, at the IAU 24 Hour World Cup on Saturday & Sunday, September 8-9, 2012. You can find the complete team list here.