Monday, July 9, 2012
Kenneth Posner is one of the most grounded ultrarunners I know, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The 49-year-old family man and Wall Street analyst adopts a level-headed and sensible approach to running that approaches Zen-like simplicity. I think anyone reading this interview will find it quite inspiring. The man is not an elite athlete, and yet he has accomplished some extraordinary feats, including numerous 100 mile race finishes and completing both the Brazil 135 and Badwater 135 in 2010. This year, Ken will be running Badwater for the second time. I talked with him about life, family, work, running, and a charity he is very passionate about: the New York Road Runners Youth Service Programs. I invite you to get to know Ken and what makes him tick as he prepares to run "the world's toughest footrace."
Ken, let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?
What were your hobbies growing up?
I did karate and fencing. I played around with computers a lot. Typical stuff.
Would you say you were an athletic child?
No, not really. I was very bad in gym. I was the guy who was picked last for teams in gym class. I got better over time, but I was definitely not talented in any noticeable way.
I was doing some research and found out that your father is a highly accomplished scholar. Judge Richard Posner graduated Harvard Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan from 1963 to 1965, appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1981, and now teaches at the University of Chicago School of Law. Tell me what kind of man your father is and what kind of values he instilled in you growing up.
He was and is a good father. When we were growing up, he encouraged us without pressuring us to do anything we didn’t want to do. One thing I would say that characterizes my father is that he is very logical, and he doesn’t have patience for bad logic. This is obviously very important for a judge, but it’s also important for life, in general. I learned not to make up things. We all have a tendency to make up things rather than face reality. But, he had little patience for weak logic or delusion. I think it’s a good discipline.
What did your mother do?
She took care of the house and the kids.
You later went on to study at Yale University. What did you study there?
I was an English major.
You graduated in 1985. Did you go straight from Yale to grad school?
No, I served in the U.S. Army for four years as an infantry officer.
What made you want to serve?
In college, I appreciated and enjoyed my studies as an English major, but I found myself lacking clear direction with respect to the job market and career choices and advanced degrees. I latched onto the military as an opportunity to develop some real-world skills, some management and leadership capabilities. Also, I was excited about the opportunity to serve my country. So, I joined ROTC in my junior year at Yale, and graduated with a regular army commission and went onto active duty.
Did you find what you were looking for?
Absolutely. The army was a great experience. I was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Ord, California. I was fortunate to benefit from the leadership, training, and discipline of some very talented people. I was also fortunate not to be deployed to actual combat – although I was ready to: I served in Rapid Deployment Force units for most of my four years. I think of it as my second education, but this time it was in leadership, management, operations, and discipline.
What did you do after the army?
I went back to getting an advanced degree – an MBA – from the University of Chicago.
Tell me about working on Wall Street. What does a Wall Street analyst do?
A Wall Street analyst’s job is to research companies and recommend stocks to the analyst's investor clients. Everybody on Wall Street is an analyst to some degree or another. But, research analyst is the job I had. I worked at Morgan Stanley. Analysts are the people you will see quoted in the papers from time to time talking about a company and its prospects and their views on whether the stock is a good investment or not. Today I work in management at a company called Capital Bank, where I spend most of my time on acquisitions and business planning.
Now, after a period of financial prosperity in through 2004 and 2005 – home prices were soaring, consumers and investment banks were happy - something quite catastrophic happened in 2007 that affected you greatly on a professional level. Tell me about the subprime mortgage crash and what you took out of that experience.
The subprime mortgage crash, with hindsight, is a classic "Black Swan" type episode.
And what is a black swan?
It’s a surprise that seemingly could not have been predicted based on past data. The markets are full of these kinds of surprises, day in and day out. Usually, they affect one company and not the entire global economy. So, I would say Wall Street, across my entire career, was an education in understanding volatility and trying to predict it where possible and, where not, learning to react quickly to changing events and information.
What was it like being on Wall Street at that time?
Certainly, it was a rocky ride for anybody involved in the markets as well as everybody else. It went from studying the fundamentals for a group of companies and then gradually realizing that the implications of this extended not only to these companies but to the entire economy, and then even to the potential success or failure of one’s own firm.
Can this concept of the black swan be applied to other aspects of life, other than the obvious application to the markets?
Yes, I would say that since we are not able to foresee the future very far, there are all sorts of places where we can be surprised, and that’s just the fate of not being omniscient. As a philosophy of life, I believe it’s very important to be able to anticipate, where you can, how things can change, but also to learn to react very quickly if you realize you are wrong about something.
That’s really interesting, and I want to come back to this idea of volatility in life a little later on, but I’d like talk a little bit about your running career right now. When did you start running?
I first started running when I was 15 years old, trying to get in better shape for the fencing I was doing back then. My fencing coach told me I should start running to improve my fitness and make me more competitive, but I very quickly discovered I had an issue, which is called chronic compartment syndrome. It affects the muscles in your shins. Like clockwork, after about twelve minutes of running, my shins would start to go numb.
So running wasn’t very enjoyable for you in the beginning?
No, it was a very uncomfortable situation that caused my feet to sort of flop. I put up with it for a number of years, including through the army, and I even ran my first marathon in 1986 with the condition. Eventually, I had it corrected in 1992 through a surgical procedure which is actually reasonably effective. They make an incision in the fascia that surrounds the shin muscle and that allows the shin muscle to expand to its proper size. But, I guess I must have liked running on some level because I stuck with it and put up with the condition even though it hampered me from achieving whatever my potential at that time might have been. Something about running appealed to me, but it didn’t become an important part of my life until much later.
When did the concept of the ultramarathon first enter your consciousness?
When I was in karate a long time ago – again, I was in my teens – I remember someone in my town who was thought be a very tough guy because, when he turned 40 years old, he had gone out and run 40 miles. So people talked about this. Of course, I forgot about that. But, when I turned 39, I remembered it and I thought, “Gosh, maybe I should do something for my 40th birthday.” I started thinking about that guy, but did not succeed in covering 40 miles for my birthday. Then, one day I was out for a run out in the country. I met an older gentleman out there. He was in his 50s, and he was running with his dog. We started running together. I asked him how far he was going, and he said he was doing 16 miles. I said, “You must be training for a marathon.” He said, “No, I’m training for a 100 mile race.” My jaw just dropped. I was stunned because, first of all, I thought once you turned 50, that was it. I had never heard of anyone in their 50s doing anything athletic. And, secondly, I had never heard of a 100 mile race before. When I went back home, I looked it up on the internet, and I found out these races in fact existed. I had not done the 40 miles that I set out to do for my 40th birthday, but I realized it might be more interesting to pick a race and train for it and have a goal and a reason to subject myself to the necessary training. Eventually, I ran my first ultra in 2006, out on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
What made you want to do these races?
I realized that as I got older I needed to make a commitment to fitness just to sustain myself. We talked about the crash in 2007, but there was also a crash in 2001 and there was significant volatility in my sector in the late 1990s. I saw people fall by the wayside because of health issues. I realized that I needed to make a commitment to keeping myself in shape if I was going to survive Wall Street and do the things that I needed to do to provide for my family.
Speaking of family, what does yours think about your running?
Well, I think they think it’s interesting, but they have their own interests. I think they respect the commitment and the discipline that I put into my training. Beyond that, they have their own passions. Both my son and daughter are in track and they have their own running. I don’t try to make my ultras something that has to involve the whole family. Even if I did, they’d probably tell me to get lost anyhow. [Laughs].
What is your wife’s name?
When were you married?
We were married in 1994.
How did you two meet?
I actually met her in Chicago. She was a physical therapist, and I actually went to see her because my back was bothering me from what little running I was doing at the time. She made a positive impression on me, so after the treatment was over, I came back and asked her out.
How old are your kids?
Emeline, my daughter, is 16 years old, and Phillip is 13 years old.
Do you run with them or do you usually run alone?
They run with me occasionally. But, usually, I run alone. Sometimes I will take our dog, Odie Doodle, with me on long runs. He's a labradoodle, and he can go for three to five hour long runs. He loves it. We also have a pet mouse named Ultra Mouse, and he runs on his little wheel all night long.
[Laughs] Well, I guess you have some company then for those all-night runs! Tell me, as a father, husband, and a professional, how do you manage to balance you’re your running career with your personal and professional life? And was that balance difficult to achieve?
It’s all a question of time. We all have just 24 hours in a day. And most of us need to spend about a third of that time sleeping. You can spend your time wherever you want, and there are always going to be tradeoffs. I do spend a bit of time running. My peak training for Badwater, for instance, will be about 90 miles per week. That said, I don’t spend as much time training as some other people do. But, I do make sacrifices for this kind of running. For example, I don’t go to a lot of sporting games. I don’t play golf. I don’t watch TV. I don’t go to a lot of parties. You have to decide where you are going to spend the time. And you have to be clever, too. You have to juggle things. Prioritizing, juggling, and cutting out the inessential. Those are the techniques you need to develop in order to do what you want to do and not just get pulled along by life.
You say your mind was blown when you first heard about someone running an ultra distance. I think that’s a fairly common reaction from someone who has never heard of ultras. We tend to set narrowly defined limits on what we think human beings are capable of.
That’s what’s strange about these races. For most people, they seem completely incomprehensible. People can’t even imagine running four times the distance of the marathon. When I heard about a 100 mile race, I was flabbergasted. My first ultra was a 50k. And I initially had no interest in running 100 miles or Badwater or anything like that. I just gradually raised my sights as I made progress at the intermediate distances. The neat thing about this sport is that you learn that you actually can be capable of what seems impossible if, over time, you put in the training and develop the skills and strategies necessary.
Tell me more about the transition you had to make from being primarily a marathon road runner to being a trail runner, which is where most of these ultras take place.
Part of the reason trail running was attractive was because of the painful pounding of the pavement. The marathons were painful. The trail running appealed to me because I thought it would be less wear and tear on the body. But, as I’ve gotten in better shape as a runner, I can deal with the pavement more effectively; and today, I am more indifferent between the two, although I still prefer the trails, and I do think they are easier on the body. I think most people would agree with that. The other thing that makes trail running much more exciting is the location. Nature. I’ve always enjoyed hiking and getting out into the mountains, the hills and the forests.
You are a big believer in natural running form and the whole minimalist running movement. Tell me more about your interest in that type of running.
I had no idea about natural running style until I read “Born to Run.” Christopher McDougall’s hypothesis in “Born to Run” made a lot of sense to me: cushioned running shoes promote an unnatural stride. People have actually studied this in places like Kenya. Kids growing up in towns wearing shoes run on their heels, and kids growing up in the countryside who are shoeless run on their forefeet. I took this information and I did an experiment. I went to one of my favorite trails and I was clomping along in my Montrail shoes, which are big, conventional, bulky shoes with a lot of cushioning protection. When I took the shoes off and I started to run barefoot, a light bulb went off in my head. It was a completely different feeling. It felt like it was supposed to feel. My legs didn’t feel like pile drivers, pounding vertically into the ground, like they had before. Instead, the foot was coming down carefully, absorbing the shock and transmitting it to the quads and the core muscles, rather than landing on the heel and the shock waves going up to the hips and back. Just that short, experimental run made a huge impact on me. That’s when I decided that this was the right way to run and that I was going to transition to minimalist running shoes. I did a little bit of research and I found the Inov-8 shoes, which I really like. I threw out my Montrail shoes and I transitioned fully to the Inov-8 shoes. This was just last year. I started to understand the importance of moving away from a heel strike. And I felt better in my running when I focused more on landing flat on the foot rather than on the heel. I would say that for many people, including myself, the heel strike is a possible contributor to injuries. In the last New York Marathon, I could feel myself at some point settling back into my heels and I could feel the shock waves going up right into my knees and into the ITB. I really do believe that the natural running style is much more satisfactory on trail or pavement. Ultimately, it’s a question of: do you want to get your feet used to doing the job they evolved to do or do you want to use the shoes to transmit that impact to other parts of your body? For me, I think the more natural style works better. But, everyone is different.
What sort of steps did you take to get into a more natural running form?
It took a lot of work at first. I had to learn to run on my forefoot going downhill. It’s a very different feeling. I also did some track practice with my coach, and he mentioned that my feet were flopping around and making a lot of noise as I ran around the track. I realized that I didn’t even really know how to use my feet. When you run barefoot, your foot sort of stretches out and utilizes the arch muscles to absorb the shock, but when you run with cushioned shoes, your foot just sort of flops around on the inside and it doesn’t work. I had to develop those muscles and learn to use my feet in the right way.
What results have you noticed from this transition to natural running form?
No ITB issues. No hip or back issues. That has all cleared up. Plus, I have gotten faster. But, it is putting more impact back into the feet, so I had plantar fasciitis and some tendonitis and some other aches and pains. But, I had figured it would take at least a year to transition. Now, after about 14 months of running like this, I feel very comfortable. But, I guess Badwater will be the ultimate test to see if I am fully transitioned.
You are running Badwater in your Inov-8 shoes?
What attracted you to Badwater?
Races are all about setting goals and then working to meet those goals. I wanted to set the most aggressive goal that I could think of. Badwater captured my imagination because of the distance and the heat. It seemed like the most impossible thing that one could think of doing.
I want to ask you about your philosophy on pain. Pain is obviously a big part of these endurance events. How do you deal with the pain?
I believe that pain is 95% anxiety and 5% discomfort. Anxiety can really drain you of so much energy and it can make things feel so much worse. Usually, the actual pain is not that big of a deal. But, the anxiety that surrounds the pain – is my foot broken? Am I going to have to take three weeks off after the race? Am I going to have to stop at mile 70? – can be really debilitating. I’ve seen it happen in races where someone says, “I’m tired” or “I can’t go on,” and I think this sort of negative self-talk can make things worse than they already are. I’m very big on adopting a positive attitude where you avoid negative self-talk by focusing on troubleshooting: What are the issues? What are the causes? And what kind of action plan can I take to improve things?
This might be a good point to bring up again that topic of a black swan. Do you find that the concept of a black swan - these unexpected bad things - is a prevalent part of these ultra races?
The truth is I haven’t encountered a lot of black swans running ultras. The reality is that ultras are easy compared to the rest of life. In an ultra, you can – and this is part of the appeal of them – apply pure effort, and with some technique and with some strategy, you can accomplish something that to most people seems completely impossible. The whole thing is almost totally within your control. You rely on yourself and you demonstrate to yourself that you have what it takes to do something hard. Then you go back into the real world and you have markets, global economies, big corporations, politics, families, relationships. And all of that stuff is really complicated. You can’t necessarily go to work and just apply effort, you need to make judgments about incredibly complex situations. An ultra is tough, but there are things in life that are much tougher.
So why run ultras?
For me, an ultra is how I charge myself up. The appeal of the ultra is that it’s a chance to reinvigorate yourself and remind yourself that you have what it takes. An ultra is practice, and you develop some incredibly important capabilities in ultras. Then, you can take those skills back to the real world where there are more important things to do. You can apply the effort. You can get the job done. It’s within your control. Obviously things can go wrong in a race, but what can go wrong in a race that you cannot deal with? You might not finish the race. If you fall and break your leg, you are going to lie there until someone finds you. But, short of that, as painful or difficult as it might seem, the ultra is a relatively simple exercise.
You are running Badwater this year to raise money for a charity. Tell me about the New York Road Runners Youth Service Programs and why that program hits your heart.
My kids never needed much encouragement for staying physically active. They were fortunate that they can go to some good schools. They go to good schools with PE classes and teams and great coaches. The reason for the New York Road Runners Program is that there are a lot of kids who don’t get to go to schools with good physical education programs. In New York City, a lot of schools have little or no gym classes. And that is true in other parts of the country. For me, as a citizen of the U.S., it’s a concern that so many of our kids, in an increasingly sedentary culture, are not getting an introduction to sports and fitness. Kids are exposed to some real health problems as a result of lack of fitness. It’s also a missed opportunity because sports teach you that hard work, training, and discipline can translate into really exciting outcomes. With this program, kids get to make that connection between the work and the excitement. And they get the feeling of wellbeing that comes with being physically fit. It’s a very effective organization.
You ran Badwater in 2010. What made you want to sign up for the race a second time?
My daughter wanted me to do it. She said, “Dad, why don’t you sign up for Badwater so I can be on your crew?” Badwater is so time consuming and expensive. I hadn’t actually thought about going back and doing it multiple times until she made that suggestion.
And that is something you are doing different this year: having your daughter be there. How do you think that will affect her?
I'm hoping that she will see firsthand that when you train for something diligently and have an intelligent strategy, you can accomplish things that other people may not think possible. It’s a principle of life. It would be a great lesson for her, and it's one she could apply to the real world, even if she never cares to do long-distance running. If you put in the time and effort and you are disciplined enough to go about things intelligently, you can accomplish things that are big and cool and important and exciting.
Ken, I'm sure she will get that and so much more. I think you are a wonderful role model and I want to thank you for talking with me today. I wish you all the best in your training.
If you would like to learn more about how you can donate to the New York Road Runners Youth Service Programs, visit Ken's website at http://www.runwithtfk.org/Profile/PublicPage/3176 or follow Team Posner on Facebook.