In keeping with the recent theme of mixing in some more unique interviews, I thought the winter would be the perfect time to include some interviews with ultra marathoners. One such runner quickly making a name for himself is Joe Ziegenfuss. A quick search of onlineraceresults.com shows very rapid improvement since his first race in 2001. The 34-year-old Minnetoka resident’s marathon time has dropped from 3:39 to 2:51. And maybe more impressive has been his recent success at ultras in just the last year and a half. For example, he’s won the FANS 12-hour with 78 miles, won the Chippewa Moraine 50k, won the Afton 50k, won the Voyageur Trail 50 Mile (his first 50) and took second at the Superior Trail 100 Mile (his first 100) and second at the Superior Trail 50k. Heck, such success for someone who I’ve finished near on the roads may even be enough to drive me to try an ultra.
When and how did you get involved with running?
I ran informally (3 miles here or there) up until I was 26 to stay in shape for soccer. I didn’t run on a high school or college team. In 2001, I was convinced to try a race – the Get in Gear 10k.
When did you get involved with ultras and what drew you to them?
Once I discovered trail races I found I enjoyed them more than road races. It seems the natural progression is from shorter trail race to longer trail race. My first ultra was the Superior 50k in 2007. Around the same time I decided to run the FANS 12 hour race. Winning FANS convinced me that I was more cut out for the longer distances, while also convincing me I preferred trails.
In such a short timeframe, you seem to have more success at the ultras than at the shorter road races. What do you attribute that to?
I think that in order to excel in the shorter road races, one needs a running upbringing, or pedigree. I don’t fall into this category. The ultra seems to reward good runners, but endurance and mental toughness are also key components. I also realize that I am relatively new to ultras and still have much to learn.
Do you tend to follow any certain training program? What is your training philosophy and how does it differ from say a marathon to an ultra?
I go through phases where I adhere to strict training schedules, and then times when I run more based on a loose schedule with key workouts and runs. On most weekends that I don’t race I try to run long (> 20 miles). My training partners not only help me enjoy my workouts but also push me from a competitive perspective. Hill workouts are a staple. Mileage is key when training for a marathon or an ultra – the more the better assuming you stay healthy. I believe that you must enjoy training to a degree, yet you must continue to push yourself as hard as you can. I have specific races that I train through, never giving my legs a true rest period, and then key races where I arrive fresh. I also find that a lot of racing makes it hard to have prolonged training cycles, but this is a trade off I am willing to make because I enjoy racing.
My philosophy doesn’t differ much between training for an ultra or a marathon. Obviously, with an ultra the long runs are longer than those for a marathon. For a marathon, I usually get one 25-28 mile training run in, and for an ultra it would be longer.
Training is work, and the rewards come on race day.
I think most people go through a period – no matter what distance they’re referring to – where they say, “That’s crazy!” In many cases, those same people find themselves signing up for such an event. What do you say when someone tells you that running an ultra is crazy?
I usually say that it is all relative. You don’t just go out and run an ultra. For someone who doesn’t run at all, a 10k may be crazy. But if they start running and build up to it, then it becomes a reasonable distance. The ultra is no different. If someone usually runs 20 miles a week and a half marathon once a year, then an ultra is out of reach for them. For those that have built their mileage up to the marathon distance, moving to a 50k isn’t a crazy step.
What advice do you have for people that may be thinking about training for a 50-mile ultra?
Put the training in. There are no shortcuts or secrets. Shoes, gear, and gadgets all have their place, but in the end it all comes down to training. For training and for the actual race, concentrate on breaking it up into small, attainable sections. Make your first goal to run 30 miles, or for 6 hours, or whatever is applicable, and build from there. Train on terrain similar to what you will be racing on. Also, never skimp on shoes or socks, your feet are too valuable to be running on shoes that are not correct (true for any running but more so for ultras).
What are your goals for 2009?
First and foremost, I want to stay injury free while continuing to improve and get faster. I was fortunate to be able to run more miles than ever in 2008 with more success while managing 1-year-old twins at home. I have a goal to continue managing both of these aspects of my life.
I am still finalizing my 2009 specific goals, but at this point they are looking like this;
- PR at the half (1:18) and full (2:46) marathon distance (road)
- Beat my training partners at the Trail Mix 50k
- Lower my time at the Afton 50k
- Compete in one or two of the larger out of state ultras
- Complete and better my time in a 100 miler
Will we be seeing you at other shorter, local road races during the year?
I hope so. I do enjoy the shorter races. I get great enjoyment out of the pain of a 5k, trying to catch those in front of you or to hold off others. There is a competitive element to the short races. I would like to lower my PR in some of the shorter distances. My schedule for the year is not completely set, so I will work in shorter local races around my ultra schedule. I have always done Get in Gear, and hope to again this year. Others I have on my radar are the TCM 1 miler, Human Race 8k, Ron Daws 25k, MDRA Mudball, Trail Loppet, and TCM. There are others which I would like to run but probably will not fit into my schedule.
What are your PRs?
1 mile – 4:57
5k – 16:59
10k – 35:32
Half Marathon – 1:20:49
Marathon – 2:51:49
50k trail – 4:02:09
50 Mile trail – 7:36:19
12 hour – 77.8 miles
100 Mile trail – 23:46:39
All except for the 12 hour and half marathon (I didn’t run either this year) were set in 2008.
What do you consider your strengths? Weaknesses?
I consider my ability to run in any extreme condition (hot, cold, icy, hilly, etc.) a strength. Running and racing vastly different distances with success during the same training period is an asset. I have been able to stay relatively injury free with high mileage.
As for weaknesses, I sometimes need to hook up with other runners to get a workout in, and finding the motivation to run solo at times is tough. Diet is important and I have some work to do in this area.
Do you have a favorite trail race or ultra? Why?
I have only done it once, but I really enjoyed the Trail Loppet on the Wirth trails in Minneapolis. This run is located on the trails where I began running. I consider these my home base trails. Pikes Peak Marathon, which I completed this year in 21st place, would be right up there too. This year there was a snowstorm the day before and this made for a great experience. For the ultra distance, I would say Afton has been my favorite. There are so many races out there that I am sure my favorite is yet to be discovered.
What is your fondest running memory?
There are numerous. Sprinting down the hill at the finish of the Superior 100 miler this fall was a memory I will not forget. The first time I saw Pikes Peak I said I was going to run up it, so finishing the Pikes Peak Marathon was a highlight. Winning the Afton 50k this year with the quality field of runners in attendance was rewarding. There are also those times when you are running solo on fresh legs through a new trail in the fall that stick out.
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
I have found that there is a lot to learn from listening to trail veterans. I have picked up advice from many of them, and hope to meet and run with many more. I would choose to run with Scott Jurek and pick his brain on training. From a non-running perspective, I would go for a run with Bob Dylan.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?
It took me many attempts of failing at the marathon distance before I figured it out; I wish I would have learned that lesson earlier. I wish I would have known that you need bigger shoes for running than you do for soccer, which would have saved me many toenails through the years. Other than that, I am glad I didn’t know much at first and had to learn along the way.