Joey Keillor, 32 of Rochester, has been described as "the original free thinker" on letsrun.com. I think this interview helps prove that. The former D2 national champion in the steeplechase, while at Mankato State, touches on a lot of great subjects, everything from how he's been able to maintain his speed while cutting his mileage to why he'll never run another marathon to his regrets. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Kryduba)
When did you get started running and how’d you get involved?
Up until 10th grade my main sporting outlet was basketball. Since I was spindly and of modest height and ability, my sophomore basketball coach Tom Morgan encouraged me to try track in the spring. Actually, I think he threatened physical harm, which is one of the best forms of encouragement there is, if I didn’t do track.
I tried out, and after a couple of weeks of running, our coach Jeff Gullord, put us through some repeat 400s. I hung to the back of the group, at first, because that seemed like where I belonged. After a few repeats, most of the guys started to get tired. Suddenly everybody seemed to be running kind of slow. I passed some guys. On the last repeat, I was up with the top runner. When the workout was over, Jeff asked if I wanted to do a couple more repeats. I said I did, running two or three additional repeats faster than anything previous.
Knowing nothing about distance running, the splits were meaningless to me. What I felt, though, was my pounding heart, flaming lungs and burning muscles and a sense that I could compose myself and keep that discomfort under control — and still push myself to go faster. It was a great feeling…riding the line at the edge of disaster. It was also a great feeling to have the head track coach, Todd Endersbee, come talk to me after practice. A little encouragement can go a long way for a young kid. Classical conditioning. Pavlov and his dog. You ring the bell, pour the food and the dog salivates. Pretty soon, all you do is ring the bell and the dog salivates. That was me. The bell had rung, the reward had been given and I was salivating like crazy. As the years have passed, the rewards have become more fickle, but a few times every year, it seems, the bell rings and I salivate at the thought of having another day like that one track workout — or other select and rare workouts/races where everything is aligned and it feels like magic.
You “only” finished 27th in the state your senior year of cross-country. I think it’s safe to say you’ve improved dramatically since then.
That wasn’t my only disappointing result. In some respects, it’s the story of my running career. The top finish or the fast time has always seemed within reach, but rarely has it materialized. I wish I knew why. Or maybe I don’t. It could just be that I suck.
More to your question, I made a dramatic leap during my sophomore year at Mankato State. In that year, I went from being a 4:30 miler to a 4:07 miler (3:50/1500). On my first day of cross country practice that fall, I couldn’t run half of a workout with the top guys like Kurt Keiser, Chad Duffy, Jason Minnick, Mark Esala and David Helm. Then, my last race of the spring that year was an 8:58 steeplechase in Emporia, Kansas that made me the D2 national champion. It remains the best year of my life, on and off the track. It was fabulous. So long as the surgery was sterile, performed by a competent surgeon and appropriate anesthetic was used, I would truly give my left nut to re-live that year again.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that one year. That season was preceded by a fairly miserable freshman year at Mankato. One highlight of that year was going to cross country junior nationals in Mobile, Alabama (with, among others, Chris Lundstrom of Northfield High, who should some day be asked about the #10 can of peaches that was dropped from the 12th floor of the hotel). Although I was in college, I was still young enough to run in the high school race. I think I finished fifth, basically pummeling guys like Lundstrom and Scott Barnacle of Minnetonka who I had been racing neck-and-neck with the previous fall. It was clear that the dramatically tougher training at Mankato had steeled me quite a bit. However, in track that winter and spring, I struggled to run times that were little better than what I had run in high school. I was pretty down. I was also having a rough time finding myself socially and academically. So I quit. Or, put another way, I went on sabbatical.
I rode to Colorado on a bike with my friend Steve Anderson, worked at a ski resort, spent the month of March bumming around in Boston based out of a friend’s Harvard dorm room, worked several months at home to earn enough for a year of expenses at Mankato and then, in August, I rode my bike around Lake Superior, finishing about two weeks before reporting to Mankato’s CC camp at Coach Mark Schuck’s place. So, on the first day of CC practice, I was totally unfit for running, but I was in stellar overall fitness. Moreover, I had toughened up. I was no longer “young” for my grade and had a much healthier perspective on life.
I think that set the stage for the improvements to come. Of course, the theatre in which that stage was set was the theatre of opportunity that Coach Schuck gave me to compete. Look at the facts: I had so far proven to be a mediocre runner and a quitter. A lot of coaches might have said: “don’t bother coming back.” But that wasn’t Schuck’s style. He has always been good about giving guys a chance (especially when they walk-on without a scholarship).
What are some of your accolades while at Mankato State?
Although it’s not an official accolade, one of my prouder achievements at MSU was the fulfillment of three goals I set for myself after returning from my sabbatical: 1) Become All-American. 2) Get a 4.0 for one quarter. 3) Spend a quarter sleeping in a tent. The third goal ended up being the toughest. I started one fall quarter in the woods out behind Gage Towers and had to bail after a few weeks due to cold weather and illness. A couple of years later, in the spring, I made it all quarter despite one occasion with a large body of water in the tent, which later froze. Fun stuff. I’m glad MSU hadn’t switched to semesters before that time.
What are your PRs?
1500 – 3:50
Steeple – 8:58
5K – 14:11
8K – 23:53
10K – 29:39
half – 1:07+
25k – 1:25+
marathon – 2:21+
Also, running 100 miles over the course of about 52 hours on the Superior Hiking Trail with Kurt Decker, which was my PR in terms of total physical annihilation.
What’s your training philosophy and how has it changed over time?
“Time” is the key word, there. As circumstances in my life have changed over time, I’ve basically been able to devote less and less time to running. Strangely, that has turned out to be a major plus. I’m running 60% less and really haven’t gotten any slower (yet).
Back in the post-collegiate years between 1998 and about 2000, I was running over 100 miles on many weeks. I was purposely under/unemployed for most of that time and running was more than just a hobby; I was really trying to “make it” onto the national scene. Back then, my philosophy was: run more, get better. From high school to college, you went from running 30 miles a week to running 60 or 70. Your body adapted. You improved. Throughout college, I experimented with higher and higher mileage. It followed, then, that making the next leap to the national scene would require higher mileage and even greater adaptation. Well, it worked for a while. I improved a lot. Especially since I was unyoked from the collegiate meat grinder of qualifying for nationals season after season. My endurance was phenomenal. But what I lacked was the ability to understand and implement elite-level training and/or I lacked the guidance of a coach who understood. I had this tremendous foundation off of which I built very little.
I was also incapable of knowing when to rest. And so, in the summer of 2000, I became severely over-trained and was forced to take about 4 months totally off of exercise. It was an important lesson that high mileage can just as easily kill you as lead to improvement. After that, it took me a year of running to get back to feeling normal.
When you build much of your life around running and then you can’t run for a year, it forces you to re-evaluate. Suspending my life for the sake of running performance was no longer rational (if it ever was). I got a job. Then I got a better job. I was busier, so I ran less and put more of my effort into running fast. For a while, I was still hitting a numerous 100’s every season. Steve Pasche was helping to guide my training. I ran several PR’s and was feeling great.
Then my wife and I had kids and my mileage took a nosedive. Again, I refocused on quality. I took the term “long and easy” out of my vernacular. I made my hard days as hard as ever and on my easy days I ran almost nothing. Mike Joyner, an anesthesiologist and researcher here at Mayo and a world-class motivator, was influential in showing me how to make the most of what little I was doing.
I pretty much quit running with other people because it wasted too much time. In 2006, my two top mileage weeks were 70 and 70. I was mostly in the 50-60 mile-per-week range. Notable was the fact that almost every workout I did was a home run. I may not have been running much volume, but I was fresh enough to attack each workout with vengeance (plus I’m usually running late for something or another so I’m always in a hurry to finish). My racing hardly suffered.
So far in 2007, I’ve scarcely eclipsed 50 MPW. I run at lunch. I take vacation one or two times a week to get in a workout before the kids get back from daycare. On the weekend, I run at naptime. Al Gilman (Pete’s dad) has helped show me the importance of hill training and pace work a la Renato Canova. Thus, my training has become ever more targeted and efficient. It’s worth noting that I probably would not be benefiting from “low mileage” training if I had never done high mileage training. Basically, I’m milking my past development for all it’s worth. Why not?
I’m sure I’m missing other results, but 2006 shows a bunch of victories (Brian Kraft 5K, MDRA 15K, Jack’s 5K), a second place at the New Prague Half, third at Human Race and fourth at Get in Gear. Were you happy with last year’s results?
2006 was one of my all-time great years of running. Although there were no real peaks, there weren’t any valleys, either. Just a fairly high level (for me) all year long. The times weren’t very good, but that was mainly due to crappy weather at pretty much every team series race. I think I might have been a candidate for Minnesota runner of the year, but isn’t it my luck that the year I finally pull decent finishes at 5 different distances, Jack Moran decides to take a year off [retire] on the scoring.
Additionally, it was very gratifying for the Edge [Runner’s Edge] to take the team series titles in ’06. Especially since the Edge subsequently went out of business. Run N Fun had schooled us bad in ’04 and ’05. In fact, it was looking pretty grim for ’06, too. The Fun was just too strong. But the Edge guys rallied hard. It was a true team effort. Especially valiant in that our core group is mostly 30 and over. It helped, too, that the ‘Fun finally took some lumps (injuries, top guys getting jobs and moving away, etc) like we’d been taking for years.
The last race of the year was the CC champs in Apple Valley. We needed a team win to take the CC team series title. Also, the Edge guys had just been informed that the store was closing. A huge gang of guys (and gals) showed up. Many to race. Many just to watch. It was sunny and cold. No snow, little wind. A world-class day for CC. I ended up winning. Our team won handily. We gathered for a group photo. It was the largest gathering of the Edge family I’d seen in years – perhaps ever. Many of us met for pizza and beer after. Man, it just doesn’t get any better than that!
With Runner's Edge going out of business, have you joined another team?
Kurt Decker took on the manager job at Gear, so most of the squad (including me) moved en masse to the Gear team. Gets me back to my roots, in a way, since I bought my first pair of running shoes from Gear.
Obviously, you can compete with some of the local guys (Lundstrom, Hooley, Reneau, Gilman, etc.) that have qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon. However, you’ve said that you’ll likely never attempt another marathon. Why?
There are a few reasons.
The marathon has given me nothing but pain, bodily destruction and disappointment. In contrast, the vast majority of shorter races I’ve done have been pretty fun and quite rewarding.
I lack motivation. For a lot of guys, making the Olympic Trails is a huge motivator. I don’t fault that. But I personally have no interest in running at the marathon trials. Sometimes I wish I did, but I don’t. Plus, I don’t really have time to train more than about 60 MPW at most. I think it would be feasible to run a sub 2:20 marathon off that kind of mileage, but it would more likely be a set up for another miserable experience.
I’ve had my chance at the marathon (four times), it didn’t work out. Injury, illness, unfavorable weather – they all seemed to conspire to thwart my best efforts. The lessons I take from that are “don’t put all of your eggs into one basket” and “quit trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.”
Finally, the fact is, I actually can’t compete with those guys at that distance. I’m a believer in evidence-based results. You either run a particular time for a particular distance, or you don’t. There’s no “I’m in shape for a 2:19 marathon”. You either do it, or you’re not in that kind of shape. Particularly in the marathon, where there are so many variables other than mere fitness. Stemming from that is the fact that (even if I were to run sub 2:20) I would be woefully uncompetitive at a marathon trials race.
Last summer you found out you have osteoarthritis in your big toe. How has that affected your training and do you think it will affect your racing in 2007?
When I was diagnosed, it hurt and I thought I was done for. Since then, I’ve taken numerous precautions with running and with day-to-day activity to minimize stress on that toe. The flare-up has subsided for now, and all I hear is occasional clicking. I guess it’s a good reminder that we’re all getting older and what you have now may not last forever. It’s also all the more reason to train less, avoid the marathon and indoor track and focus on having fun.
What are your goals for 2007?
My main goal is to run sub-14:00 for 5k at Mt. SAC. It’ll never happen, but I’m going to try anyway. Beyond that, I just want to be competitive on the team circuit. And, as always, I want to win the most important race of the year: the MSU CC alumni race.
Do you have a favorite workout?
One of my favorites is 200 on / 200 off for 4-5 miles on the track. The first mile I might run 35/43 and work down incrementally from there. By the last mile, I try to hit the splits in about 31/40 or better. It’s a great workout for a low motivation day because you can ease into it. It’s also great for a windy day, as you can run fast with the wind and do the slow part into the wind. Try it sometime. It’s tougher than it sounds.
Do you have a favorite race? Why?
I love the team circuit. We’re lucky to have it. I even love the hated Run N’ Fun, because it’s great to fiercely battle with a tough competitor. I mean, we’re all getting to be geezers but there’s still this forum in which we can go at each other’s throats from March through November. Then the season ends. The winners celebrate for about 5 minutes and the slate is wiped clean for next year. And Derek Phillips throws a party. It’s our own little soap opera that no one cares about but us. If it weren’t for the fact that I can’t stand to see Run N’ Fun win, I would have quit running long ago. Seriously.
What’s your fondest running memory?
There’s a lot, but to add to the above comment, one great race that comes to mind was Victory 10k in, I think, 2004. It was one of last races of the road circuit and the title was held in the balance. A huge pack of guys took off and at the 5k turn-around there were still 10 runners (5 Edge, 5 Fun) running shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. I took a long look at all of the faces — Kelly Mortenson, Patrick Russell, Schwammy, Derek Phillips, Jeremy Polson, Jason Minnick and others. The pack held for another K and then started to split. But seeing all of the guys galloping along at sub-5:00 pace in the low, leaf shaded rays of September sun…it was one of the great and rare sights of all time. Really, it was the essence of what makes running worth it.
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
Barring the deceased, there really isn’t anyone you couldn’t run with. Kind of goes back to that evidence-based results concept. You want to run with Dick Beardsley, Garry Bjorklund, Steve Placencia, Bob Kempainen, Steve Hoag? Give them a call and arrange something. In addition, Coach Schuck always said “we’re living in the good old days right now.” In that regard, we’re in the thick of things and it’s great to be among the guys and gals that are around today. We’ll be telling stories about these days in a few short years.
Do you have any regrets regarding your running career?
One regret is that I’ve misdirected a lot of energy throughout my career. Had it been better directed at crucial junctures by, perhaps, a high caliber coach, I think I could have run a lot better times. Of course, the paradox there is that an elite-level coach would not have wasted his/her time on someone of my talent level.
Another is that I spent far too many years being overly serious about running. Once, after angrily quitting a workout that had gone south, Mike Joyner asked me to think about why I was running, suggesting that my motivations were off.
I did. I realized that I was making satisfaction dependent on something that was arbitrary and, in many cases, had a low probability of being achieved. These included things such as nailing an unrealistic workout, racing well locally on fatigued legs or having a huge breakthrough at national race. Not that it’s not bad to have big goals, but if that’s you’re only measure of satisfaction, you’re likely to be dissatisfied most, if not all of the time.
I realized that the true reasons I enjoy running included the competition, the camaraderie, feeling light-legged and fast, and generally feeling fit, vibrant and healthy.
When I focused on fulfilling those criteria, I started to have more enjoyment with running — and my racing didn’t suffer in the least. I really haven’t been “disappointed” by any aspect of my running since, although I have had plenty of sub-par performances and workouts. Now when I have a bad workout, I don’t get upset. I quit early-on, jog home and try again the next day. It’s no big deal. In addition, some of my most fun races in recent years have been when I’m a bit out of shape and battling a cluster of guys for 5th to 10th place. That’s way more fun than winning by a mile.
In short, I’ve come to believe that the majority of your satisfaction should come from your present circumstances, and a lesser amount should be reserved for what you hope to be. I regret that I didn’t realize that sooner.
Finally, any relation to Garrison?
I think there’s a thread on letsrun.com that will answer that question.