Q&A: Leo Manzano On How He Went from Unable to Walk to 4th at the Olympic Trials in 9 Weeks, Why He Excels in Championship Races, Breaking 1:44 in the 800 & Much More

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By Jonathan Gault
February 3, 2017

2016 was a rough year for Leo Manzano. For the first time in his career, he failed to finish in the top three at USAs (ending a remarkable 10-year streak), in large part because of a recurring illness that left him bedridden and unable to walk just nine weeks before the Olympic Trials. Somehow, Manzano almost made his third Olympic team anyway, finishing just one spot behind third placer Ben Blankenship.

Now Manzano is healthy again and ready to kick off his 2017 season at Saturday’s Camel City Elite at the JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he’ll face fellow Olympic silver medallist Paul Chelimo in the mile. Manzano is also entered in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games on February 11 and plans to run the mile at the U.S. Indoor Championships. I caught up with Manzano over the phone on Wednesday night at the conclusion of an altitude trip to San Luis Potosi, Mexico. We discussed his incredible comeback from illness at last year’s Olympic Trials, his love of competition, why he chose to compete for the U.S. rather than Mexico, his parenting approach and much more.

JG: I know last year you kind of had some sickness or some injury. Have you been healthy since the end of last season?

LM: Yeah, you know last year, it was one of those years, just kind of a crazy year. Everything was like Murphy’s law: anything thing that could have gone wrong went wrong. Fortunately, I was able to somewhat bounce back. I was off only about two-tenths of a second in that final (Manzano was actually .44 away from third). But looking back, all the adversity I had to face, from a death in the family to pneumonia, to being sick a few more times, even to a coach change. I look back on it, and looking at all that, I think it still ended up being a very good year. Top four at the Olympic Trials [when the top two] broke the Trials record. And so I think about that and I’m like man…

And I think that this year, everything looks to be going according to plan. I’m healthy, I’m feeling strong, I haven’t had any setbacks thus far, knock on wood. And so I’m excited about this year, I think it’s going to be a good year…I’ve gotta hand it to coach Ryan Ponsonby for really stepping up and we’ve been hitting it hard. I think he’s really helped me as an athlete and I think going forward, I’m going to be better prepared than what I was last year, especially [since] we haven’t had as many setbacks.

What is your goal for Saturday’s race?

There’s definitely various goals. Goal #1 is to win the race. As simple as it sounds, we’ve gotta go in there and the goal [is] to win. Secondly, we also have to hit a time standard for the [U.S.] indoor meet (the auto standard is 3:59.50). That’s going to be a second goal. Obviously, I’d like to go sub-4:00 in the first meet of the year, and if we do that, everything will take care of itself.

And as you know, this is kind of a special track, at the JDL track meet, it’s a flat track. And the myth is, it’s supposedly a little bit harder to go fast on the flat track and I think a lot of people have already kind of debunked that on that track. So we’re hoping to go fast there.

Should Manzano make this year's Worlds team, he'll get the chance to return of his silver-medal run from 2012

Should Manzano make this year’s Worlds team, he’ll get the chance to return to the site of his silver-medal run from 2012

Is there anything on the track you’re looking to do [in 2017] other than qualify for Worlds?

In terms of running, I definitely think if we position ourselves well and if we can get in a good race, a goal that I have in mind is hopefully to go under 1:44 in the 800 meters. I’d like to do a few more 800s this year, step into that and chase that 1:43, 1:42 mark (Editor’s note: Manzano’s PB is 1:44.56 from 2010).

You changed coaches last year and you changed at the start of 2014 as well I believe. I’m wondering has it been difficult for you to go through all that many changes?

No, actually not at all. I kind of went back to what I knew. From 2007 through 2012, I was with Ryan Ponsonby, my previous coach, with him and John Cook. And you probably remember, I unfortunately couldn’t renegotiate my contract with Nike and lost that sponsorship.

Unfortunately during that time, I couldn’t afford to keep Ryan on board. And so Ryan had to take care of his family, he had to find another job and whatnot. So anyways, very fortunate for me though that since 2014 I’ve been able to team up with Hoka and now Hoka has really supported me and I’ve been able to have Ryan back on board with me now. And that being said, all the work that we’ve done in the past is very familiar to me. So I’m not starting or fresh or new. It’s stuff that I know that I’ve done and stuff that I can be consistent about as well.

I’m sure finishing fourth place, no one really wants to be the first guy out at the Trials. How long did it take you to get over the disappointment of not making the team, or are you over the disappointment of not making the team?

It was tough, but at the moment I was actually just happy to be there. Because if you would have seen me nine weeks beforehand, I was bedridden. I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t walk. So that being said, I was just happy to be at the Trials. For me to be able to compete at that level, at that time, in that situation, it was almost a miracle because I shouldn’t have even been at the Trials.

How long were you bedridden for? Not being able to walk, that’s pretty serious.

I started off the year with pneumonia. Unfortunately, in late December [2015], I came down with pneumonia and kind of had it for a while. So then I was on medication. It went away.

And then we started training again and unfortunately, I had three setbacks that year. It was tough. The fourth time, about 9-10 weeks before the Olympic Trials, I unfortunately came down with — it was probably symptoms, kind of like a relapse of everything I had been fighting from December 2015. I was bedridden approximately for a week. I lost a lot of weight, and it was really tough to come back. I knew I had to rest. I knew that I had to do all these things just so that way I could be back that following week [and] ready to go.

I get better approximately nine weeks out from the Trials and it’s like well, we’ve gotta hit the training hard because that’s how we’re going to get there and compete. Believe it or not, that was some of the hardest training I had ever done in my life. It was really tough.

What are you thinking when you’re sitting in bed, not able to run, not able to do everything and you know every day you’re one day closer to the biggest race of the year?

I got sick four times but the fourth time was probably I think the worst one. And every time I got sick, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’m like, ‘No not again.’ And then it was just like the third time, kind of the same thoughts and the fourth time I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ And at that point I knew that I was so far out in terms of the chances of getting to the Trials and competing I knew it was going to be really tough. There was even an instance where I was so sick that I was just trying to make sure that I could take care of myself. It was at a point where I couldn’t even eat. That was pretty tough.

But I guess, long story short, that’s in the past now, and I’m glad that today I’m feeling well. I’m 100%. We’ve started off the year right, I’m down to race weight and I think looking back from what happened year, I’m ready to fire at them. I’m hungry and I’m ready to go.

For it to come back so many times, was there some reason for that? Did you figure out what was causing that or did it sort of go away on its own?

No, I definitely was on medication. I had some kind of bug that, the third and fourth time, I think it was this bug that was kind of like immune to antibiotics. So because of that, the doctor had to give me different medications for it.

So we were finally able to take care of it and were able to continue on with the year. Unfortunately we had lost a lot of time and a lot of training. There were a lot of races still left to do so we were just like well, we’re going to continue racing and continue going.

I think everyone was impressed with how you ran at the Trials. But given your history, I think some people have come to expect that you, when the biggest moment is there, when the spotlight is on, you seem to produce your best. How have you been able to consistently do that throughout your career and save your best efforts for your biggest races?

I think when it comes down to it, I just love to compete. And there’s something about championship-style races. There’s also something to be said about when it’s time to line up, I like to line up and I like to be competitive and I think that that’s what takes me to the next level. Obviously not every year goes according to plan. That was the first year in 11 years that I had finished in fourth place [at USAs]. With that being said, obviously there’s a lot of time dedicated to training, a lot of consistency behind that. The way that I look at it, and I look at it very positively: one time in 11 years? I’ll take it.

I’ve also noticed that, not just last year, but sometimes in the past, when you have bad races, they tend to be really bad. Why do you feel like your highs and lows so extreme?

I think if you look at it from this last year, this last year was obviously just because with the way the spring and the fall had gone, it was pretty bad, I have to admit it. It was just a really bad year. But I will attribute it to obvious things.

And sometimes the way that I work is, I like to gain a lot of fuel for the fire in my races. It’s not always. Obviously, sometimes we have good races and I’m able to come off and still continue to have great races. But sometimes we all as runners, we do have off races. And usually what happens is when I have an off race, it’s kind of like, all right, we’ve gotta put this together and I gain a lot of fuel, a lot of grit from losing. Losing is also a learning experience. And so I learn from it and it’s like, all right, I’m not gonna let it happen again, so let’s give it another shot and let’s go.

You turned 32 years old in September. You’ll be 35 by the next Olympic Games. How much longer do you see yourself competing in this sport?

[laughs] Great question. As long as I can. I absolutely just love the sport. This is an incredible sport. The fans have just been phenomenal. I knew my fanbase was really strong for a long time, but I really noticed that when I lost my sponsorship right after the 2012 Games.

That being said, I just feel so grateful for all that community and because I feel so grateful, I want to continue to run for as long as I can. I can’t tell you if it that will be a year, two years, three years, four years or five years. Who knows? It could be like — I’m going to start naming names — Bernard Lagat or Meb Keflezighi. Those guys made it into their 40s, which is just incredible. And so I don’t know if I’ll be blessed enough to get there. But I’d like to give it a shot to run for as long as I can. The sport has just been incredible, it’s given me so much. The running community has also been so supportive. I think I owe it to myself, I owe it to them to continue in this sport for as long as I can.

Would you ever consider, as you get older, moving up in distance, or do you think you would stay with the 1500 the whole time?

[Laughs] It’s so funny that you say that. I keep getting requests from people like Hey, have you ever thought about doing the 5k? Hey, you should think about doing the 5k. And the thing is, I would actually do a 5k. I’d do it for fun. Maybe a few, just to get a rhythm, just to see how it goes.

I’m not quite sure if that’s kind of gonna be what I choose [as a permanent event]. When I was in college, when I was in high school, I trained longer distances, the 5k and 10k, but that was kind of more on the collegiate side and all that cross country and whatnot. But now going into it, I really like where I’m at. I know the training, I know what it involves to run an 800, I know what you have to do to run a 1500 or a mile. And the training’s not too far off from a 10k or a 5k. And as we know, the human body gets stronger as you get older and you’re able to endure more and the running pains aren’t as bad. So they say, right?

I can definitely see myself maybe doing one or two 5ks. I don’t quite know if I’ll really be competitive at it because it’s not something that I’ve really tried before.

The 2017 Worlds, as you know, they’re back in London, which was the scene of the highlight of your career at the Olympics. Do you have added motivation, or is there going to be something special about if you make that team and are able to run on that track again at a global championship?

Anytime that you make a USA team, it’s very special, there’s a lot to be said. It’s one of the hardest to make. You have athletes that are switching nationalities to compete for other countries because it’s so hard to make the USA team. And so yes, if I can make another USA team, I’m going to be so ecstatic and so happy because I’ll know that I had to work for it.

But back to your first question, being back in London, heck yeah man, I’m excited that it’s back in London! I feel like I’ve had very good luck in London. I ran the Emsley Carr Mile in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, I ran 3:50 in the mile (which remains Manzano’s PR) and in 2011, I actually won the Emsley Carr Mile in 3:51. So I’m excited and I hope that we can continue that good luck streak in London.

Manzano honored both the U.S. and Mexico on his victory lap at the 2012 Olympics

Manzano honored both the U.S. and Mexico on his victory lap at the 2012 Olympics

You mentioned athletes switching nationalities to compete for other countries and you’re someone who had the option to compete for another country yourself but you chose the United States. Why did you make that decision back at the start of your career and did you ever think of competing for Mexico?

The option’s always there. One of the things though is, going back to what I mentioned, I love the competition. It’s not an easy team to make and I think there’s something about that, about being able to make one of the hardest teams, I think that goes to show just much work, as an athlete, we put into making teams.

At some point, I’m sure you will retire, whether it’s five years, seven years, three years, whenever it happens. Would you want to stay in the sport? Do you know what you would want to do once your running days are over?

Again, going back to it, I just love the sport. This an incredible sport, it’s been sport that I grew up in. This is what I know, this is what I do. One of the things that, if I can, I’d love to continue giving back to the community, especially this organization I’ve been telling you about, Boneshaker. So I teamed up with Boneshaker and one of the things we do is teach kids how to run. That’s very basic, but it’s not competitive, we don’t want this to be competitive. It’s more about the enjoyment of the sport and the enjoyment of running. And so that’s what I want to show people, that’s what I want to show kids and that’s kind of my way to give back to the sport.

As we grow older, I do want to stay involved somehow in the running community. I don’t think it will be as a coach. I do like coaching, I do like helping in that aspect but I think my calling is probably going to be something else.

How old is your son (Max)? Has he been running at all?

My son is actually an Olympic baby. Like two months after the medal and after the Olympics, my son was born. So he’s four now. I can’t believe it’s been four years.

So maybe in a few years get him into running?

It’s interesting. So my son grew up in the sport. He does love to run, but many kid loves to run. He’s definitely showing a knack for it. But as a parent, I don’t want to push him in that direction. I want him to do what he likes to do, I want to find his passion. I see parents nowadays — which, it’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that — but I see them kind of push, push, push and at a certain age, the child gets tired of what they’re doing and they kind of interest. And I don’t want that to happen to my son.

So what I do is, I let him do what he likes to do. Obviously, I’m supported but I don’t push.  Eventually, if he does want to get into running, I’ll continue to support him. And as we go, as he gets older, obviously we know runners aren’t hitting their peak til late 20s. There’s almost no need to be pushing kid at age 15 or 16. Obviously that’s an area where you need to be supportive but not really putting pressure on them.

This interview has been condensed for length.