Alan Culppepper, Ready for the Showdown in Boulder by: LetsRun.com February 7, 2007
Alan Culpepper, a Louisville, Co resident, will be contesting the US
cross country championships in his backyard of Boulder this weekend. A
graduate of Colorado, Culpepper will take on three fellow
former Colorado Buffaloes, Adam Goucher, Jorge Torres, and Dathan
Ritzenhein, all three American winners of the NCAA Cross Country
Culpepper who won the NCAA 5k title in 1996, is a two time USATF
Cross country champion and a three time USATF track champion (twice at
10k, once at 5k). He made his marathon debut in 2002 at the LaSalle
Bank Chicago Marathon running 2:09:41, which tied Alberto Salazar for
the fastest American debut in the marathon.
He followed that up by winning the 2004 Olympic Trials
Marathon and going on to finish 12th at the Athens Olympics. Since then
he has finished 4th at the 2005 Boston Marathon, and 5th at the 2006
Boston Marathon. Most recently he dropped out of the 2006 ING NYC
Marathon. He is married to fellow US Olympians Shayne Culpepper, and
has two sons, 4 year old Cruz, and 8 month old Levi.
LetsRun.com (LRC): Can you give us your impressions on last year. You did relatively well in Boston (5th place at the Boston Marathon), but you dropped out of NY. And considering you don't race that much as your career goes on and you move up to the marathon, I'm sure you were disappointed with some of the results. What were your impressions on the year? Alan Culpepper: I felt it was my worst year as a professional. Unfortunately it is my nature and tendency to not race that often, and then coupled with the marathon as you said, the marathon kind of exacerbates that for me.
Then (as a result) you're putting even more emphasis just on one, single event day races. For me, Boston went as well as I could have hoped. I was very proud of that race because I ran aggressively, and I ran to finish as high as I could, I didn't sit back. I went out in 1:03.25. I ran hard. I was proud of that performance, but from there, it was just a frustrating year honestly. I got anemic in the middle of the summer and then that totally affected my half marathon performance in New York City (where he finished 8th in 1:04:07). And then I was just coming around and starting to feel well by the time I got to New York, and then that (ING NYC marathon) was pretty much a disaster. I just had very few opportunities and the ones that I did, pretty much from the summer on were not indicative of the runner I feel like I am.
New York was extremely disappointing because it was one of those things that you hear people talk about, where its just (the nature of) the marathon. And sometimes its just out of your control and there are so many variables involved (in the marathon) and inevitably you're going to have a bad one eventually and that was my bad one. I've had other ones that weren't great, but none of them were total disasters. And that was the first one where I knew just a few miles in it, something was wrong. I just had stomach issues which I've never had (in the past). I just wasn't absorbing any of my fluids. My first indicator was a mile into it I had to pee. Normally when you are running hard like that, that mechanism turns off. It kind of just got worse and rose from there. Gastrointestinal difficulties ... Everything I drank was going right through me and by the time I came over the bridge at mile 16 I felt totally and completely dehydrated even though I had been drinking the whole race. It was just a bad combination (of things) and its just one of those things that invariably is going to happen (in one's career) but it happened at a bad time for me as I was coming off being anemic. So it was a really frustrating second half of the year for me.
LRC: What have you done since New York? This year is a little bit different as you're doing cross country for the first time since 2003. Alan Culpepper: I took a normal break because I felt like I had run 30 miles even though I only ran 20 and I wasn't used to that feeling. I was more sore and beat up after New York than I've ever been ... Honestly, I've jumped back in and built back up into my training ... quicker than I ever have honestly, especially after a marathon, solely to get ready for this race. Just knowing it was here (in Boulder) I felt like it was important for me to run this race (and do well). So I've done my best to get back to where I feel like I can be competitive.
LRC: How would you say your preparations for Boulder have gone? Alan Culpepper: It's been interesting because of the weather. We've had so many bad days ... It's just been different because I haven't been able to get a good sense of my fitness because I've had to get really creative with where I'm going to do my workouts and trying to find safe footing (usually in Boulder it is possible to run on dirt roads in the winter) and then being at sea level quite a bit. I'm just not used to training at sea level, so I'm having to modify things. I've been training hard and been training well. I've had 6 really good weeks, solid consistent training, but I haven't had a huge amount of indicator workouts, so if this (XC nationals) were anywhere else (at a lower altitude where speed is more important), I wouldn't be quite as confident, but the fact that it is here, and the fact it is at altitude and the type of race it is going to be in, on a cross county surface, I feel good about my preparation ... I'm going to be ready for a 12k. If it were at sea level on a fast course and the footing was good and it was going to be a harder, faster race, then I'd be not as confident in my preparations.
LRC: With the race being in Boulder and returning to a single race, the kind of the perfect combination to get all the top guys, at least the ones from Boulder, to square off in one race, do you feel any added incentive to do well. Do you feel like you have something to prove, especially after a disappointing end to your season last year? Alan Culpepper: That's not my mentality going in. I think we (Adam, Jorge, and Dathan) all have that sentiment of wanting to do well because we all have a connection to Boulder and we've all run well here. So I think we all have that same sentiment, but to feel like I have something to prove, not necessarily ... Obviously I'm not in the same circumstances as 3 or 4 years ago where my whole fall would have been in preparation to run cross country, where now it's coming off a marathon and then trying to rush back into being ready for this. I want to do well for that purpose (the race being in Boulder) because I've been here for a long time and Boulder is our home and is where our children have been born. I feel like's it's our home so I want to run well here. But to feel like I have to prove anything, not necessarily.
LRC: Do you have any plans for a spring marathon? Alan Culpepper: No. I'm not running a spring marathon this year for sure. I feel like New York kind of solidified that for me. I needed to take a step back from the marathon and get back to (the track), just to freshen up mentally especially. The marathon is like nothing else. Even the good ones just beat you down emotionally and physically. I'd run, this was my seventh one, and I'd just run a couple years now where I had done two a year, and that was never my intention going in when I started (with) the marathon to get in that pattern. But as soon as they start going well, you just want to do more of them because you feel like you can be competitive and with the frustration with some of the track events nowadays (with the difficulties of Americans doing well) at the world level. You know unless you're running in the 26s for the 10k, all of a sudden the marathon seems like so much more of a viable option to do well at the world scene. I just got into that mode (of going two marathons a year) and now, I'm just thinking ahead to the Olympic Trials and making the next Olympic team. I know what is best for me is to not run one this spring.
LRC: Is it hard to get away from the marathon because financially it might pay better (than the 10k, with the top Americans receiving 5 and sometimes 6 figure appearance fees)? That is where most of the money is in the sport, and if you're racing in Europe on the track, you're not going to be the top guy and get paid nearly as well? Alan Culpepper: It's hard to really pin down whether that is a draw of it or not. I think it would be ignorant to say it wasn't, just solely because like you said that is where most of the money is in the sport, and where there has been a huge step forward in terms of promotions and really building races around athletes and trying to highlight the athlete, whereas the track is really not like that. It's almost way more low key and you're still running in open and college meets and things like that. I think that factored into it, not just the money, but the feeling that you're going to a world class event and they make you feel you're one of our top guys and we're excited you're here. All that plays into you running well. Mary Wittenberg (the NYC Marathon Director) has obviously figured that out and does a brilliant job of catering to the athletes. We can see that now with some of the younger guys like Dathan and Ryan wanting to run marathons (at an earlier age). They have seen "Wow this is cool." It's fun. They (the marathons) make you feel like you're professional. Yeah I think that has played into it. Not necessarily that you are taking a financial hit by not doing it, but that is one of the upsides of running the marathon for sure.
LRC: In terms of not doing a marathon this spring, are you going to try and do Worlds on the track? Alan Culpepper: I want to get back to running on the track. That is what I've always enjoyed the best of everything. You get to a point in your running (career) especially for me at this point (as you get older) where you have to do those things that sound the most fun. Not that it is all fun and games, but in terms of doing things that sound fun is what for me now is going to motive me more. So for me running on the track sounds great and I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential and unfinished business in some of those events, especially the 5k. So I just want to give myself a few more opportunities at a normal track season. My intent is to run US Nationals (on the track) and then if I make it to go to the World Champs for sure and then from there just start my build up for New York and the Olympic Trials.
LRC: Will the focus be on the 5k or 10k (on the track)? Alan Culpepper: I'm not sure yet. My hunch is it will still be in the 10k, because that is where I am strongest at a championship level. That will be my intent, the 10k. The 5k will be just to run to hope I run better than I've run (in the past where his pr is 13:25.75 from 2005)
LRC: As you advance in age do you feel any added incentive or pressure to do well? You've been at the top of the US for over 10 years. When you're 25 years old, sure on some abstract level you may comprehend it's going to end at some point, but as you get closer to 40, you can count the number of good years you have left at the top on one hand. Alan Culpepper: Yeah, yeah. It's kind of like in college when you become a junior or senior, (and) all of a sudden you see people's motivation change dramatically, where they just get on the ball.
For me yeah I definitely feel a little more sense of urgency where I have to be a little more calculated. I just can't go with what sounds good, I have to really think it out and plan ahead which I've always kind of done. I've always had the long term plan in mind, but yeah I definitely feel like I can't make any mistakes if I want to run well. When you get to this point in your career you have to be wise with ... you only have so many hard intense type days and races left in you and I think that is an inevitable part of all the years of hard racing. Whereas when you're 25, you don't even think about it. To run another hard race or to continue another year of hard training well of course I'm going to do that (when I'm 25), but when you get close to the end you start thinking about how nice it would be not to do that. Now I'm way more calculated in terms of I'm really going to focus on these few things and do these really well. I was talking to Shayne about this, and no matter who you are, unless you are El Guerrouj or someone, you're going to finish (your career) and there's going to be things you look back at, and you're going to be disappointed about. I think that is one of the sad things, one of the downsides of this sport. It can leave you very dissatisfied even when you've done a lot of things you're really proud of. So I'm really trying to focus on, at this point, the things I have done well - (be proud of the fact) that I have been consistent for 10 years and that every (world) championship I've gone out for, I've made. (In the marathon) I've been competitive now, finishing in the top five in major marathons. I'm trying to focus on the things I've done well, and not like "oh I still want to do this," so I don't finish (my career) feeling frustrated.
LRC: Some unrelated questions: Would you do world cross country this year? Alan Culpepper: "Ummm, very likely no. Again, that goes back to what I was just saying.
LRC: What do you mean? Alan Culpepper: Just to travel that far away, and what goes into going to that particular race. You know we have (two young) children and its just not as easy to just pick up and go (to Africa). So for me, I'd rather use that effort and all that goes into that race and put that into going into track races, just with the logistics and all those things involved. So unfortunately no (I won't go to world cross), but cross has never been a big focus of mine in that regard of doing well on the world level. I think now (in the US) the depth is good enough that there will be someone else to fill in (for me) who will run equally as well as I would have had at the World Championships. Whereas in the past, when we were sending 2 different teams, when I chose not to go, all of a sudden our team went way down in terms of its depth and potential. (However) now I wouldn't feel like I was letting the team down like I did a few years ago.
LRC: Why do you think so many guys do the US Champs and not the Worlds? Some might say if you're not going to do Worlds why run the US Champs? Alan Culpepper: I can't answer why people don't always go. When you're a professional runner, and you've come through the collegiate level and you've moved on and you have your own focus and your own agenda and your own goals, then to do a team type race, unless you truly love cross country, the value of that just goes way down at the professional level. And I'm not saying that is a good thing. I think it's just a fact, especially in the United States, probably more so in the United States than anywhere else, where it is very competitive and you are measuring yourself against other guys at every race and the depth of those guys is getting greater and greater every year. Unless you are someone who really loves cross country ... I think the people who go are really hoping to do well individually first, and the team part of it kind of comes second. You know not every year (is that their first consideration) but I think that is more often the case than not.
LRC: Assuming you make the marathon team at the Olympic Trials in the fall, have you mapped things out for the next year? You'll have a bigger time period, what is it 9 or 10 months, until the Olympics. Would you do a spring marathon or focus on track? Alan Culpepper: I would do another track season for sure (in 2008). I want to do what I'm doing this year. I want to do New York, then have a normal track season, for me a normal track season, kind of a domestic version, get ready for the Trials, (and then) that's what I want to do next year (as well). I think that defeats the purpose of having the (trials) race in November, to then run another marathon (the next spring). That was the whole argument (of switching the men's trials to the fall) that it gives you more time to recover and prepare properly. So to then throw in another marathon, then you're running three in a calendar year instead of two. I'm sure a few people will choose to do that, but that wouldn't be my first choice.
LRC: Turning back to some of the other guys (and your competition). First off, you've been around for 10 years. When you got out of college, American distance running was not that deep. There was only Bob Kennedy and Todd Williams and not a lot more. I don't think a lot of the young guys realize how different it is now? Alan Culpepper: Yeah it was totally different for sure. When I got out college I kept running the 5k because I could make World teams at the 5k level. Now, as you saw from the US nationals last year (where 4 guys ran under 13:20), we've got guys running under 13:20 not making the team. Now we have 10 guys that run under 13:20. When I got out there was Bob Kennedy at 13 minutes and I was our second guy at 13:27 (he laughs). It was just a totally different, a different mentality. I have a ton, ton of respect for Bob and Todd because they were doing it when no one else was. It wasn't this infectious thing (like now) where you start feeding off other people's success and you start believing more you can do it. All of a sudden the standard of what is acceptable and good has been raised to another level. Those guys and Mark Croghan as well were running at an extremely high level when no one else was. And I think that shaped me a little bit 'cause it just kept me thinking that there is more to do in a sense. Now, I'm not sure why it necessarily happened, I think it was inevitable (that American running is deeper). I think it was just a timing thing where the sport just had a lull unfortunately. But now the sponsorship dollars are there, the meet promoters are on board, all the shoe companies are on board and extremely supportive, and with the movement of information (things are different). When I was in high school, I hadn't even heard of the Kinney Nationals, or Footlocker now they call it, I didn't even hear about it until I was a senior (in high school) two months before the race. I was a senior and didn't know it existed. Whereas now, they're freshmen and they're planning on it and training for it, they're training through their state championship to get ready for Footlocker or for NTN (Nike Team Nationals). Back then you thought so much smaller. You thought just about your conference or your state. Now in college guys are thinking about being professional runners, where they want to go to college based on their professional agenda. It's just different now which is good. It's where we should be. We're a big country with a lot of talent, we should have a lot of depth. I think we're better than we've ever been to be honest. I don't think it's "Oh we're as good as we were 20 years ago." I think we're better than that. I think now besides in the depth in the marathon back in the day when we had 200 and something guys running under 2:20, I think every other event is better than it's ever been."
LRC: The more I think about it I agree. But some of those older guys would say, "But we did better on the World level", yet there weren't as many Africans then. There were a few guys from Africa who competed internationally not hundreds. It was a different ball game. Alan Culpepper: I love that. Exactly. (And) how organized were they (the Africans) back then? Not just how many of them ran.
But were there Africans (back then)? Yeah there were some Africans and there were some Kenyans, but were they organized (like they are now with the agents setting up camps in Africa)? Now it's a whole different game. The guys I respect the most recognized that. The Bill Rodgers, the Steve Jones, they know to win one of these major marathons is totally different now, even though they're running slower times (now) than they did. It's just different. It's just a whole different set up to run well and to run fast versus what it was back then. Those guys recognized that and when you're in the sport you recognize it. There are always those people that can never comprehend that. Yeah, the depth of the world scene is unparalleled now and the organization on the world level and the amount of countries that are preparing their athletes to win medals, it's like it's never been before. Coupled with that, we have guys (in America) running better, on the world scene, better than we ever have in terms of depth. We have a number of guys running under 28 minutes (at 10k) and under 13:30 (at 5k) and (running well) in the half marathon now and in the marathon. We still have 5 guys that can run in the top 5 at any major marathon, that's pretty good.
LRC: Real quick turning back to cross country (and the strength of the field). It's kind of unique because you're racing Adam, Dathan and Jorge, the other Colorado guys who have spanned across the years. What do you feel about everyone being in one race this year and how do you think you see the field stacking up? Alan Culpepper: I think its good. This is the way it's supposed to be. We should have all of our best guys running all in the same race at the same time. I think that is what is cool about cross country. You had mentioned something before of "If you're not going to run the worlds why go to nationals?" And I've always had the sentiment of "because it's a national championships." You're still seeing who can run the best on that day on some given distance. For me I've always put a high emphasis on the national championships whatever that may be, cross or outdoor, and subsequently I've always done well accordingly. Some of these people that kind of downplay it, I think you have to treat it is as it is and that's another tough race. I think this is going to be cool. I think it will be interesting to see how it unfolds. I think the guys who do have a connection here (to Boulder) at some level, we do have a distinct advantage because racing at altitude is different and we have a little better sense of what that should feel like. That's not to discount any of the other guys. I think it's going to be one of the deepest races we've ever had ... That's my hope with the conditions here, I hope people still come out. If nothing else, I applaud Pete (Julian) and his efforts because he's treated it like it is, which is a major professional event. He's raised the standard moving forward and I think that is really important. This will be a building block for the next step and it's the new standard for what's expected with the cross country nationals. I hope that's the case.
The interview with Alan was conducted last week (Feb. 1, 2007). The weather in Boulder has gotten warmer since then with a lot of the snow melting (photos here), but more snow may be coming. We include Alan talking about the weather a bit below. LRC: How is the weather? Alan Culpepper: That's the story honestly. The weather here has been so freakishly bad which is so disappointing because when (race director) Pete (Julian) (for an excellent profile on Pete, click here) was getting together the bid, we (everyone else in Boulder) were like worst case scenario they plow it. But this year it has just been so different because we started off with a 35 inch storm and then we had the snowiest January ever. So we're just getting inundated. It's just so atypical. It's never happened before.
LRC: Do you think the snow will be gone by the race? Alan Culpepper: I don't know if the course will be bare to the grass, my hunch is there will be some bad spots. If we can get 3 or 4 days of just in the 40s with the sun being out they could totally clear the course (this interview was conducted last week and this week's forecast has a lot of days in the 40s). But the rest of the snow, for the spectators, and everywhere else, there is still so much snow, it's like the East coast where it doesn't melt.
People don't understand the winters here are not that bad. Its like Flagstaff. Yeah it's Colorado and you get snow. But when you're at 5,000 feet and the sun's out, it's like 100 degrees because of the radiant heat.
LRC: I know. I'm in upstate NY now and I hate the winter. It's a negative wind chill out there. Flagstaff was a joke compared to this place. It's much colder and the sun doesn't come out in the winter (Editor's note by Rojo: Potential Cornell recruits, please ignore this false comment from a guy who is soft and went to Yale). Alan Culpepper: The sun not being out is what is so oppressive. We're used to the sun being out. That is why the winters here are not that bad. That is why we've lived here so long and been able to train successfully. If it was like this every year, we would move (laughing).
We spent two weeks in Texas. We went for Christmas and decided to stay 5 or 6 extra days because while we were gone we had another storm of a foot and then another storm of 9 inches. We were like, 'There is nothing to go back to," literally, you can't run outside. We stayed in Texas longer then, and now with my grandmother passing, we stayed another 6 days.
I've spent more time at sea level than I'm used to but I've gotten way better training in (than I would have) because of the weather conditions here.