After battling a series of injuries during the last Olympic cycle, Chris Derrick is finally healthy and training well again.
By Jonathan Gault
February 1, 2017
Chris Derrick may have finished fifth in the 10,000 meters at last summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., but the race that truly signaled he was back to normal after years of on-again, off-again injuries came in Hachiogi, Japan, over Thanksgiving weekend, on a track with snow on the infield. Achilles injuries had interrupted Derrick’s training in 2013, 2014 and 2015 before hip and shin issues last winter caused him to scrap plans to make his marathon debut at the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles. Even once he got healthy again in March 2016, Derrick was getting dropped consistently in workouts by his Bowerman Track Club teammates and knew he was unlikely to make the Olympic team in the 10,000.
“What I learned is I think coming back from one injury is doable if you have a long stretch of mileage before that,” said Derrick, 26. “Two is like, maybe. But then to come back from two or three, it’s just like you’ve lost that cumulative previous 18 months of good training that really is the backbone of success in this sport at a high level.”
Derrick was less than halfway to that 18 months of health when he traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun to run a 10,000-meter track race on November 26, but he had put together a solid fall, with no injury-related breaks since the Trials. Derrick finished third in 27:38.69, just seven seconds off his personal best, but it wasn’t just the time that gave him confidence.
“The race was fairly slow through 5k,” Derrick said. “I think we were right around 14:00. I just remember looking up and seeing a bunch of guys and just being like ‘I feel really good. I know that I have matches to burn, I know that I’m going to beat a lot of these people.’ And that was a really good feeling because I hadn’t felt that way in a long time…There was a guy that made a pretty big move, maybe he ran a 63 or something with seven laps to go. And it was nice to just be like, ‘Okay, that kind of hurt but I know I’m going to recover and I’m going to run well to the finish line.'”
Reaching that point was tough on Derrick, not just physically, but mentally. He had to sit back and watch as teammates Ryan Hill and Evan Jager won U.S. titles and global medals, and while he cheered for their successes, he had to deal with the fact that, at that point in time, he wasn’t close to their level.
“From basically just after World Cross in 2015 to more or less this past fall, I was pretty worthless,” Derrick said.
When Derrick finished fourth in the Olympic Trials 10,000 as a 21-year-old fresh out of Stanford in 2012, he assumed that he’d return in 2016 with four more years of training and experience under his belt and be a lock for the team. But over the last two years, Derrick found out that the career of a professional runner rarely follows a neat upward trajectory. It was a realization that crystallized to him one day at practice with Courtney Frerichs, who joined BTC shortly before making the Olympics in July.
“She was talking to Jerry [Schumacher] and was like, ‘Yeah, I never really did more than four-mile tempos, ever,'” Derrick recalled. “I just heard that and was like, ‘Oh god, she won NCAAs, she made the Olympics. I was running 10-mile tempos in college. What am I doing with my life?'”
Derrick thought about it and came to another realization. His parents still loved him. His friends still hung out with him. Living the life of a professional runner, traveling the globe to run fast, was a pretty good deal, with or without the Olympics.
What are “Jerry miles”?
If you’ve been around the sport long enough, you’ve heard of “Jerry miles” or “Badger miles,” the system former University of Wisconsin and current Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher uses to keep track of how much his athletes run. Running fans have been wondering about Badger miles for years (check out this thread from 2005), so I asked Derrick to do his best to explain the system:
“Jerry miles are a highly illogical but highly convenient way of keeping track of your miles. It’s 7:00 pace [per mile] but rounded up to the nearest five minutes. So 70 minutes is 10 miles. That makes sense. Thirty-five minutes is five. But, for example, if you want to run six miles, that’s 45 minutes because six times seven is 42 and you round up.
“So it’s kind of inconsistent because some places you get screwed. If you run 60 minutes, you get eight miles. But if you run 10 more minutes, you get two more miles. It’s a bit strange, but I think it’s a good way to conceptualize training. Training runs, you’re just worried about how long your body’s at a certain stimulus. Your body doesn’t count miles; it’s time that you’re spending in a certain zone. I’ve kind of adjusted to it and I think it helps too to just not care as much about what the number is. You can double two different ways, have the same total number of minutes and end up with different numbers.
“Some people it drives them a little crazy, for me it just kind of gets me to not care. [Chris] Solinsky was a real hardliner. I think everybody’s pretty chill now. The women do 8:00 pace, which for some of them is just brutally unfair. They don’t do the rounding thing though. So if Shalane [Flanagan] says she’s running 120 miles, she’s probably running 135 or 140.
“Everyone on the team is pretty adjusted to it. I think it just gives you a baseline. Most mornings, you run 70 minutes. If people double, usually either 35 or 50 in the afternoon. Kind of divide it up into those bigger blocks and don’t think too hard about it.”
But for runners, mental health often goes hand in hand with physical fitness, and Derrick had work to do on the latter front. By working with performance therapist Jonathan Pierce and chiropractor Drew Hohensee, he learned about his body and the best ways to keep it healthy. So far, it’s working.
“There’s a difference between doing an exercise or doing a stretch and really doing it right,” Derrick said. “When I do core and stuff, instead of trying to do a lot of stuff, I try to focus on a few really essential things and do them slow and do them correct. And that’s seemed to help…Since September, I’d say 80% of my weeks have been 100 ‘Jerry miles’ or so, which is the probably the best I’ve ever done. I feel pretty good doing that.”
Derrick backed off his workouts after that race in Japan, but he began hitting the track hard again in late December and has spent most of January holed up in Flagstaff with his BTC teammates. On Saturday, he’ll make his 2017 debut at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Bend, Ore., where he’ll try to regain the title he won every year from 2013 through 2015. Derrick’s approach to the meet is different than in previous years — this time he’s mostly been doing 5k training as opposed to longer 10k/cross country-style workouts.
2016 Olympian Leonard Korir looked great in winning the Great Edinburgh XCountry and Houston Half Marathon in January, and Derrick knows that Korir will be tough to beat on Saturday — he even joked that he’s a Leonard Korir hipster since “he outkicked me before it was cool, back in college.” But even with Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir and another of Derrick’s old college rivals, Sam Chelanga, in the field, Derrick is hoping to cross the finish line first.
“I don’t expect to win by any means but figure, you know, I’ve been training consecutively, I’m in okay shape and I’ve won before, so I should try to win again,” Derrick said.
Should he qualify for his third U.S. cross country team, however, Derrick likely won’t be running the World Cross Country Championships in March. It’s a decision that comes with mixed feelings — Derrick loves the sport of cross country and would love to see it grow. But his biggest goal this year is to qualify for this summer’s World Championships on the track, and Derrick knows that, if he is to peak in June, he needs to remain conservative. And that means avoiding a long trip to Uganda, especially considering he developed an injury immediately after his last time at World XC in 2015.
“Jerry is a coach who, I know to the frustration of some fans, he really believes that you only have so many really good performances in you in a given season and if you are going to set a goal for a season for a period or time, you should set up everything to achieve that goal,” Derrick said. “As someone who wants to do different races or do fun stuff or what have you, sometimes it’s a little bit of, ‘Come on Jerry, just let me do it, it will be fine.’ But I do respect his caution and discipline and I think that’s something a coach needs to impose on athletes who always want to do more.”
As of now, the plan is to run the 10,000 at USAs in June. Beyond that, Derrick’s schedule is dependent on how he finishes in Sacramento. If he’s in the top three, he’ll focus on Worlds in London. If not, he’ll refocus on something else, perhaps even a fall marathon — Derrick says his plan is to race the distance at some point before the end of 2018.
When Derrick won his most recent U.S. XC title in Boulder two years ago, he didn’t go into the race with the plan of breaking the field early. But just before the halfway point felt good and detected that his rivals did not. He made a break for it and won by 30 seconds. Derrick said if a similar situation arises on Saturday — if he feels strong and judges the rest of the field to be struggling — he wouldn’t hesitate to make the same move. Whether or not he wins on this weekend, Chris Derrick’s confidence is back.
Talk about the 2017 USA XC meet on the world famous LRC fan forum / messageboard. *MB: Who will win 2017 USA Cross Country Championship in Bend Oregon this Saturday afternoon?