By Jonathan Gault
January 28, 2015
In 2013, Brandon Johnson was one of the best stories in track and field. A former 400-meter hurdler (world junior silver in 2004, 2nd in NCAAs in 2007, 48.59 PR) that gave up the sport in 2010, Johnson returned to running as an 800 specialist in 2012 and the next year qualified for the World Championships in Moscow by placing third at the U.S. Outdoor Championships. Johnson finished the year with a PR of 1:43.84 and came within .04 seconds of making the final at Worlds.
2014 did not go as smoothly. He broke 1:47 just once on the year and shut his season down due to injury after the World Relays.
Healthy now, Johnson, 29, will make his 2015 debut at Saturday’s Camel City Elite Races at the JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he’ll face an 800 field that includes Harun Abda (1:45.55 outdoors last year, #4 in U.S.) and Ryan Martin (1:45.65 outdoors last year, #5 in U.S.). The meet also features Shannon Rowbury, Morgan Uceny, Leo Manzano, Will Leer, Riley Masters, Cory Leslie, Geena Gall, David Oliver, Jason Richardson and others (full elite fields here).
I spoke with Johnson, who is under contract with Nike through the 2016 Olympics, over the phone on Wednesday afternoon to ask about his new coach, what went wrong last year and his goals for 2015.
Jonathan Gault: Where are you based right now and who is your coach?
Brandon Johnson: Right now, I am based in San Diego being coached by [1984 Olympic gold medalist] Joaquim Cruz. This is kind of a new move for me. The past two years, I’ve been trained by Abdul Morceli but I kind of had to make a change. I still kind of work with Morceli and I still like kind of basing my program similar to what I had been doing with my previous coach just because it’s too close to the Olympics to start changing things too much. But right now I’m in San Diego with Joaquim Cruz.
JG: And when did that start?
BJ: That started in September, so pretty much after I got healthy.
JG: Why did you make the switch?
BJ: My coach was getting a little stretched out too far. He started working with the Saudi [Arabian] federation. There were a lot of changes going on. When I came back to running track and coming back and trying the 800, I had a specific thing in mind about how I wanted to go about training and how I wanted to go about running. I wanted to be able to take my running into my own hands. With the new changes that were going on, it was better for me personally and how I wanted to train to make a switch.
JG: Do you have any training partners at the moment?
BJ: At the moment it’s just me. We have a couple girls, Shannon Leinert and Lea Wallace that are out there (at the nearby Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, where Johnson trains). It’s us three middle distance runners that are out there. They’re also coached by Coach Cruz. It’s a really good environment. At the training center, there’s [Olympic long jump champion] Brittney Reese, [Olympic triple jump silver medalist] Will Claye and so many people that are so good. It’s a great environment.
JG: 2013 was a breakthrough season for you as you broke 1:45 six times and made the semifinals of the World Championships. 2014 did not go as well. To what do you attribute that?
BJ: I attribute that to just kind of switching things up, going away from everything that I do well. It was an off year and because of that, we decided to try to do a little bit more, try to do something different and see how my body responds. So I ended up running more miles to see if I could run a fast 1,500. I was running 80-mile, sometimes 90-mile weeks. I did altitude training for the first time. I think those changes took me away from the speed work I normally do — I’m naturally fast, just developing that. Getting fit is easy, but I think we probably went overboard with some of the aerobic training.
JG: Is that something you’ve reeled in with Coach Cruz?
BJ: Yeah, definitely. We made the decision that it’s not really necessary for a guy like me, a 400/800 guy, to spend a lot of time at altitude and sacrifice some of my speed. We’ve definitely cut some of that out. I’m back down to doing what I was doing normally in 2013, which is just running close to 50-60 miles per week, so nothing too much but, but what I do run is quality. Pretty much just getting quality workouts instead of pounding the body with miles. That’s just not how my body responds to training.
JG: You didn’t race after May last year and you also mentioned an injury. Was that related, and could you tell me a little about that?
BJ: Pretty much right after World Relays (May 24-25), I was out for the season. The injury was femoral acetabular impingement; I had a labrum tear in my hip and for about a month we were trying to decide if I was going to get surgery to fix that. I decided not to because I was afraid to put my body through that. It’s kind of hard to tell whether you can come back from a surgery like that. I didn’t get the surgery and because I ran on it so long, I ended up developing a sports hernia on the right side of my body and got a stress fracture. So I was dealing with all last year and it totally demolished me and put me out for the year.
JG: When did you get over that and get back to full health?
BJ: Pretty much right after I decided to shut it down, which was a week before the USA Championships (June 26-29), and I decided not to get the surgery, that’s when I backed off my training and started doing rehab and strengthening and resting and getting treatment. That pretty much went on all the way until September and then September is when I got healthy, when I became 100 percent.
I was in Colorado Springs for a while getting treatment out there. I was actually out there with Dathan Ritzenhein: he was my roommate. So we were just sitting in the room staring at each other like, “I can’t believe this is happening to us, we have to get healthy all over again.”
JG: Looking ahead to this weekend, when is the last time you ran an indoor race?
BJ: I actually have not run an indoor race since 2012, I believe, and that was actually the first time I ran an indoor 800. I’m in uncharted waters right now. We’re just kind of going out there to test my fitness so it will be an experience for me.
JG: Why did you choose this year to get back on the indoor track?
BJ: I’m not going to do a full indoor season, but I think this meet is a good low-key meet and it’s at the right time in the season to see where I’m at. It’s pretty much a test of where my fitness is at. Start waking up my system, run a fast race, get in some competition, check my fitness and see where I’m at.
JG: Do you have any plans to run more indoor races this year?
BJ: I’d like to try a mile or a 1,000 just to see, but I’ve got to talk to coach about it. If I were to run a couple more, I’d definitely like to go to the University of Washington because it’s on the West Coast. It’s closer to me and it’s an oversize track so I don’t have to worry about the sharp turns. Training in California, there’s really no great benefit to me to run indoors right now. That’s not the goal right now. I don’t want to run fast indoors and not be ready for USAs (outdoors).
JG: What is your goal for Saturday’s race?
BJ: My goal for Saturday is to try to win. I want to win. I haven’t won a race and felt good since probably 2013. I just want to go out there and compete, see what I can do healthy again. I know when I’m healthy, I’d like to call myself pretty amazing. I’d just like to run.
JG: What has your training been like in the buildup to this race?
BJ: Training has been going awesome. I’ve been able to train for about four months now with no hiccups. My speed isn’t going anywhere; the speed is there, so I’m happy about that. I’m building my fitness back to where it needs to be at this point in the season. I’m really happy with my training. I think what Coach Cruz and I have done this winter and fall has been amazing.
JG: What are your goals for the outdoor season?
BJ: I pretty much have two goals. My first goal is to make the World Championships team. My second goal is to make the World Championships final and get a medal. I’ve been sitting on that World Championships final goal ever since I didn’t make it in 2013 by a few hundredths or something ridiculous like that (Johnson ran 1:44.89 in his semifinal to miss the final by .04 seconds; no one has ever run faster in a semi and missed the final). That has been resting on my mind since Moscow.
More: Discuss this interview on our message board: Is mileage overrated? Brandon Johnson ran 1:43 on 50-60 mpw, 1:46 on 80 to 90?