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Ask Wejo 2: Should I Quit My Job, Move to Flagstaff, and Train Full Time
by: Weldon Johnson
June 12, 2007

*Ask Wejo: Round 1: High Mileage Base Training, Stop Watches, and Ryan Hall and Dean Karnazes March 14, 2007
*Ask Wejo 2: Should I Quit My Job, Move to Flagstaff, and Train Full Time? June 12, 2007
*Ask Wejo 3: Did You Ever Think "Why Am I Doing This?" September 25, 2007
Ask Wejo 4: Questions From a High Schoooler Trying to Break Through and 5 Hour Marathoner September 25, 2007

Have a question for Wejo? Email him at

The first installment of Ask Wejo was so successful, we're back for round #2. This time the question is fairly short, but the answer gets into reasons about the founding of the website, so it is very long. Plus, we've got some feedback on Wejo's "Why I Sucked in College Article"

Question #1: I need some advice and honest opinions. I'm currently a 31:0* 10k runner and 4:1* miler (this is all recent pr's). In the past year I have improved 1:** on my 10k, 50 seconds on my 5 mile, and 11 seconds in my mile. All while training around my college team (I am the head coach at **** -- (a successful non NCAA college) in *** and ***).

I have a buddy, ** ** who ran 4:13 in high school and went to *** for a year and has been just training on his own and we've been racing quite a bit. But, we were wanting to know a few things and get your opinion.

1. Is it worth it for a 24 year old nobody and a 20 year old to move to Flagstaff to focus on training?
Is it worth it? Yes. But at our talent levels, is it worth it?

2. How much could we do this for? Is it expensive living in Flagstaff? Is there opportunity for jobs, etc.?

3. What makes Flagstaff the place to be and not Oregon or Boulder, etc.

Thanks!
-***,

It's the should I quit my job, move to the middle of the mountains, and train full time question. Your question not only is an interesting one, but it opens up a ton of things related to the foundation of this website, its slogan, etc.

This website started because I quit my job as an economic consultant in 2000 to train full-time for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials. I had free time on my hands and decided to start this website as a hobby on the side. At the same time, my running career took off and I went from being a no-name to a contender for the Olympic team. As a result I became the poster child for the underdogs in the running community and for people who wished they had put some caution to the side and actively pursued their dreams.

I've said I get too much credit for putting my job aside and making a go for it in Flagstaff in 2000. In reality what was I sacrificing? I was young, with no family, a good degree, etc. If everything failed in Flagstaff, except for a few months wages, all I would lose was a little pride. I think it says something more about our society with all its wealth, that I'm held up as some sort of hero, all for just taking a chance and putting aside a steady job for a little while. It's human nature to evaluate the outcome (what would everyone be saying about me if I moved to Flagstaff and ran 29:25 for 10k and you never heard of me?) instead of the process.

So on to your question.

1. Is it worth it for a 24 year old nobody and a 20 year old to move to flagstaff to focus on training?
Is it worth it? Yes. But at our talent levels, is it worth it?

So of course I'm supposed to say yes it's worth it. But my first inclination is to say no it's not worth it. You seem to hint at this by asking the same question twice. First you say, "Is it worth it? Yes" (seemingly for people who perhaps are a bit faster than you or have it work out in the end like me) and then asking again, "But at our talent levels, is it worth it?"

Now before I get accused of being a hypocrite, let me say a few things. First, we're not in the same situation. You've run some good times but are a long way from being national class. Granted I had never made nationals on the track at any level before I moved to Flagstaff, but I had made the US Half Marathon team for the World Championships and run a lot faster than you at 10k. The upside for me on an absolute level was a lot closer. I think with anything in life you have to look at what you can achieve and what you possibly are giving up to achieve it. Everything has a (opportunity) cost.

Sometimes, I'll be reading the message boards and be amazed at how obsessed many of the people on there are with the sport. Sometimes, I wonder, "I can't believe how much time and energy all these people put into it, obsessing over the smallest thing" when on some absolute level they are not that good and likely not going to reach the same absolute level I did in the sport. Then I have to laugh, wondering if I'm the poster child for a lot of these obsessed people because I give them the hope (sometimes I add the caveat "false hope") that they too will have the big breakthrough.

But then I think back to when I used to spend way more time than I do now obsessing on the littlest things in running while not running super fast and I remember the key thing that drove me. It was quite simple - mainly I wanted to get better. Sure I wanted to possibly get to the top of the sport (who wouldn't), but that's not what kept me in the sport up until that point.  I can remember thinking after I ran 5:30 for 3 miles in high school cross country that that was something to be proud of. I also remember being proud of breaking 5 minutes in the mile for the first time. Years later, I remember being ecstatic and calling my coach (on a pay phone, man I'm getting old) after finally breaking 30 minutes in 10k for the first time (2 years after I got out of college). These goals were the things that drove me, not thinking I could make the Olympics. Sure out there in the back of the head that was a goal of mine, but mainly I devoted a ton of time to running without any tangible goal in mind besides my own personal satisfaction and the desire to improve (and the pat on the back from a co-worker when I'd win some local road race). That is one of the great things about the sport of running, from the weekend jogger to the Olympic champion, ultimately for most of us, it is a desire to improve that drives us. With running, perhaps more so than most things in life, improvement can only come with hard work. I think that is why it is so rewarding. Especially, as society becomes more and more geared towards instant gratification.

While this website is a running website and caters to people who are obsessed about running, it's not just about the running. The motto is "Where Your Dreams Become Reality," not "Where Your Running Dreams Become Reality." I think all of us who are so into running often wonder why it is such an important part of our lives and what good it serves. I'm convinced I'm a better person when I run on a regular basis, but that does not mean I have to go out and train 120 miles a week and try to make the Olympics. Where does something cross from being a healthy hobby to a selfish obsession?

But it is through competition, the ability to train 120 miles week in, week out, I learned that when we put our minds and our bodies to something we can often accomplish much more than we thought. Now that I haven't run a step in nearly 4 months (I hope my stress fracture is healed, I got my boot off and was going to try and run a few steps today but decided against it), the thing I miss most of all is that feeling that overtakes me on almost any run during the first few steps, the feeling of hope and optimism, that almost anything is possible.

So who am I to tell you to say you can't move to Flagstaff and dedicate yourself more to running? From what I can tell, you don't have a family to care for, so it's not like you're being morally irresponsible. However, I would caution you to look at the alternatives. Mainly I would say, ask yourself what can you not get out of training where you are now that you can get in Flagstaff. Perhaps you are on the cusp of a big breakthrough, but in reality most gains in the sport are more incremental. While on paper I went from 29:49 for 10k to 28:27 in 1 race, in reality I probably could have run in the 29:15-29:30 range the year before. I remember talking to Mark Wetmore, the famed Colorado coach in Tahoe during the Olympic Trials in 2000. I told him I was thinking of going to business school, but had had this huge breakthrough in my running since moving to Flagstaff and was thinking of trying to do it full time. I was expecting, Mr. Running himself, to say pursue the running for sure. But he basically said the exact opposite. He said I was smart, had a lot of other opportunities, and should make sure I did not bypass those up to regret it later.

Don't forget some of the benefits you get from altitude do not come from the actual altitude but the isolated atmosphere. When I lived in Washington, DC, I trained hard, but I was just out of college, and life was fun. I probably partied too much, worked too much, and did a few other things that made my breakthroughs in Flagstaff that much bigger. But also I was gradually building up my training so I could make the big breakthrough when I finally put all the pieces together. At the same time, while I neglected some areas, I obsessed over others. And this day to day obsession over the details got in my way of actually running faster (focusing on every minute detail day to day instead of comprehending the bigger picture of training). So I would say ultimately it is about balance. You can't be too obsessed or too detached, you can't run too much, or too little. It's a very fine line. (Alan Webb went anemic last year because he obsessed on his weight, Galen Rupp didn't run that well last year because he felt at every race there was all this outside pressure for him to win).

But to run fast you have to be happy. I would say you never just want to be running. Fortunately, you can only run about 2 hours a day. Athletes like the Paula Radcliffes who are able to keep the focus on hour after hour (much more than 2 hours a day), day after day, week after week, are the exception. Most of us mere mortals need something else to preoccupy us, so if you do decide to ignore my advice and go to Flagstaff, I would have a plan for the non-running side of your life while in Flagstaff. Will you try and get back into coaching? How will you go about that?

And before I answered your other questions, I went searching for quotes from people who had emailed me advice over the years. I've received tons of letters of encouragement over the last 7 years. I debated publicly on here in 2001 whether I should keep running full time or go to business school, as making the right choice in life is never easy. So while I say you probably shouldn't move to Flagstaff, that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep dreaming big in your life. By striving, we make ourselves reach higher even if we don't always attain the ultimate goal. But I don't see how what you'll give up by moving to Flagstaff (your coaching job, etc.) is worth what you'll gain from the benefits of altitude. But if you find some employment in Flagstaff and can make things work or evaluate things differently, don't be afraid to go for it. Flagstaff is an incredible place. I was back there last year and just doing the drive got me pumped up because of all the positive thoughts I had going through my mind when I used to drive down to lower altitude to work out.

Here's an email I received: "Even as I near 40 years of age and have battled numerous injuries and surgeries, many years break from the sport even I still have dreams, maybe, almost certainly they are delusions of grandeur and I will fall far short of what I am dreaming could happen to me, I still believe. When I was younger I believed so much, that within the space of a year I went from being within 2 minutes of the world record to 50 seconds and I was getting faster. I fell short of those goals I had as a younger man but my desire and belief to be better than anyone expected propelled me to be exactly that, 'better than expected.' Many people think that because when I was younger and I was never satisfied and I expected MORE AND MORE AND MORE that my career ended in disappointment. I think exactly the opposite. I did many things wrong in my prime but one of them WAS NOT 'to think too big.' I would rather think big and have to deal with a lifetime memory of trying and failing than think small and accomplish exactly that! We all think we are full of wisdom and know just the right thing to say and do for people, the older I get the more I realize that no one is really that full of wisdom. So with that in mind my comments are simple, Keep thinking BIG."

2. How much could we do this for? Is it expensive living in Flagstaff? Is there opportunity for jobs, etc.?
If you want to work enough just to make ends meet, you don't need much money. Two guys can share an apartment (at one point, during the crazy Flagstaff Surivivor days we had 5 guys in a 1 bedroom), and you can find a menial job in any town. Jobs in Flagstaff however are pretty bad. The economy seems to be based on the Grand Canyon tourism, so there are a lot of low paying service industry jobs (Taco Bell), so you might have to work more hours than in most towns if you don't have any money saved up and need to cover each month's rent. Plus, with gas being twice what it was when I was there, the high-low training thing (which I thought was one of the main reasons for Flagstaff but which most people seem to neglect) will be twice as expensive. Nonetheless, if you live as a spartan, I think you can find ways to make ends meet in just about any place. Unfortunately, Flagstaff is probably one of the harder ones to get some cushy party time desk job that pays well.

3. What makes Flagstaff the place to be and not Oregon or Boulder, etc.

I would say 95% of top distance runners (Bob Kennedy was the exception) train at altitude for some part of the year. Call it whatever you want but I don't think it's a coincidence. Thus, I think Flagstaff is better than Oregon. The only reason people are training in Oregon is because Vin Lananna and all his resources are there. If Vin was in Idaho, then would you be saying Idaho is the place to train?

As for Boulder, it is at altitude but I don't think it is that great a place to train. The weather is better than Flagstaff in the winter (the trails in Flag can be covered with snow in the winter, but you still can run on dirt toads), but if you want to train from your house on dirt trails, Flagstaff is the place to be. In Boulder, most people have to drive to do this. Plus in Boulder, you are not as high up as in Flagstaff (5200 feet versus 7000) and can not get down for low altitude training (Flagstaff is 100 miles round trip to 3,500 feet which is about $13-15 with today's gas prices. I would go down to Phoenix as well (280 miles round trip $30-40 ($15-20 5 years ago)). Especially if you're going down for your workouts, Flagstaff is the best place to train, as who cares whether there is snow on the ground?

Feedback from past articles:
I've decided to include some of the feedback on my "Why I Sucked in College" piece. The feedback was all positive but if you like or dislike anything on the website or have suggestions feel free to email me at

    I wanted to thank you for the "Why Wejo Sucked" page you did on your college career..

    Im no stud but I listened to your article and stopped looking for the "secret" so to speak. Im running the best I ever I've run 30:1* for 10K and dropping which I wasn't doing before and steadily improving.

    Thanks!
    Joe ****
    Ssgt US Air Force

 

    I was just browsing Letsrun and stumbled across your Why I Sucked in College piece there; even as a non-distance runner I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Really enjoyed it and I feel even from a training philosophy point of view a lot of what you said can be applied to other events too. I'm still training but have had a lot of injuries over the last couple of years ... and again this summer looks unlikely to see me toeing the line. But I am still plotting a glorious Olympic return for next year already!...

    PC, Former World Championship Semi-Finalist in the Hurdles

 

    On a side note, I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your article "Why I Sucked in College". When I read it this past fall I was floundering a little with my training. I was able to use a lot of what you said to provide me with direction in my training and things have been going well ever since. Thank you for the advice!
    ML
    Sub 4 Minute Miler

Weldon Johnson, aka Wejo, finished 4th in the country at 10,000m twice and ran for the US at the 2003 Pan American Games.


Ask Wejo Archive: Ask Wejo: Round 1: High Mileage Base Training, Stop Watches, and Ryan Hall and Dean Karnazes
March 14, 2007


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