In the summer of 2016, Aaron Braun was on the brink of retirement. Now he’s back, doing what all runners do: chasing the dream.
By Jonathan Gault
October 3, 2017
Seventeen months ago, Aaron Braun hated running.
In January 2015, Braun had run 2:12:54 at the Houston Marathon, setting himself up as a dark horse contender for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. But when he resumed running after Houston, he felt something in his lower back while doing strides. That “something” wound up being inflammation in his sacroiliac joint. He took off the rest of February, but when he returned in March, he quickly found himself injured again, the result, he now believes, of coming back too soon from that initial injury. That process would play out several more times over the ensuing months, with an impingement in Braun’s right hip the chief cause. Braun would get hurt, take a little time off, and then rush back knowing that every day he missed was another day closer to the Olympic Trials.
By May 2016, Braun was close to his breaking point. He had already missed the Olympic Marathon Trials in February, and his latest setback meant that he would miss July’s track trials as well. He hadn’t been fully healthy in 14 months, and training alone only amplified his frustration. Whenever he went out for a run, it was just Braun and his thoughts, and most of those thoughts were about how his body continued to betray him.
“It really just turned into a job that I wasn’t enjoying anymore,” Braun said. “My entire career, I loved competing and I eventually learned to love training and that definitely wasn’t the case for the tail end of 2015 and early 2016.”
It was then that Braun faced The Question. You do not just become a competitive runner. You’re driven by something: a dream — whether it’s making the Olympics, qualifying for the Trials, or breaking three hours in the marathon. Every runner has one, and every runner must eventually answer the same question: Is it time to stop chasing the dream?
Braun was 29 years old. His contract with adidas was up at the end of the year. He had a wife and two young daughters. The Question was staring him in the face, and Braun was leaning heavily toward answering “Yes.”
“I thought that if I kept trying to come back, I’d just continue to have setbacks,” Braun said. “I thought maybe it was time to move on.”
If Braun had decided to retire, it wouldn’t have generated much news. He had run some nice races in his career, sure. In 2012, he ran 27:41 and came two spots away from making the Olympic team at 10,000 meters. In 2014, he ran 61:38 at the Houston Half Marathon. But he had never made a U.S. national team, never had a defining moment in his pro career.
Because professional runners race other professional runners, we can forget how rare their talent is; a 2:12 marathon doesn’t seem as impressive when the winner runs 2:08. But the talent necessary to become a professional runner is exceedingly rare. As of 2016, the number of American billionaires (540) was over 15 times greater than the number of Americans who had ever broken 27:45 for 10,000 meters (34). Braun is one of them (runners, not billionaires).
No one wants to see that talent extinguished. Almost every professional runner was the fastest guy on his high school team, and unless he went to a running factory like Oregon or Stanford, the fastest guy on his college team, too. Which means that, for many of his friends and former teammates, Braun is their closest connection to the world of elite running, the guy left shouldering the load when his friends’ professional aspirations inevitably expired.
So when Braun was contemplating retirement, everyone else in his life was encouraging him to stick with it. His biggest fan was his wife, Annika. Annika had been injured frequently during her own running career at Western State University (fierce rivals of Aaron’s alma mater, Adams State) and preached patience, believing that it was only a matter of time until one of his doctors figured it out and Aaron became healthy again.
Yet despite Annika’s positivity, Aaron had begun to transition out of competitive running.
“I was in such a dark place, mentally, and so frustrated with running that I was ready to do anything I needed to to move on and be done with my running career,” Braun said.
So in the spring of 2016, he applied for around 30 college coaching positions, and became a finalist at a school in Arkansas. Braun had never stepped foot in the state before, but he and Annika went on a trip to meet with the staff and returned home to Colorado pondering whether they should uproot their life and move across the country.
As it happened, the week that Braun returned from Arkansas coincided with what was supposed to be the first race of what he calls the “Joe Jogger” phase of his career. One of Braun’s former Adams State teammates, Drew Graham, had become a quadriplegic in 2014 after breaking his neck in a diving accident. Graham was trying to start a nonprofit called Pop-Up Gym, a traveling rehab and fitness gym for people with spinal cord injuries. Braun decided that he would run a local race, the FireKracker 5k in Fort Collins on the Fourth of July, and donate whatever he won to Pop-Up Gym. And, like many amateur runners, he emailed friends and family to sponsor his effort by donating to Graham’s cause.
Braun had been logging around 30-40 easy miles a week, but hadn’t run a workout since his latest setback in May. He didn’t expect much from the race. But a funny thing happened in Fort Collins: he won. The time, 14:30, was not one that would cause sponsors to turn any heads — even if it did come at 5,000 feet of altitude — but Braun had surprised himself. It was a reminder that, despite all the injuries, talent and potential remained in his legs.
So as he made the five-hour drive from Fort Collins back to his home in Alamosa, Braun thought, again about The Question, and that coaching job in Arkansas.
If I make this decision, Braun said to himself, it’s closing the door on my running career for good.
He returned home unsure of what to do. Annika, who had encouraged Aaron to keep running for so long, was almost ready for him to move on. A couple of days after the race, she went out for a run and prayed, asking God for advice, to deliver a sign if the move to Arkansas was not meant to be. When she arrived back home, Aaron approached her. The head coach had called. The school had decided to go in a different direction.
That was all the encouragement the Brauns needed. Instead of moving to Arkansas, the family — Annika, Aaron, and daughters Makenzie (who turns six on Friday) and Myla (19 months) — relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, to keep Aaron’s running dream alive.
Like many runners faced with The Question, Braun’s decision to continue came down to one thing: potential.
“Basically, I had gotten 95 to 99 percent out of what I had to offer in track, but the marathon…me and my wife just knew, there was so much untapped potential left,” Braun said. “The way I trained and raced for my last marathon (2015 Houston), I knew that even then, I had probably another minute in me…I’ve been so fortunate to be a runner this long and I don’t want to, years from now, look back and wonder, What if? on any section of my career. I’m kind of at peace with how my track career went but I’m not at peace with my marathon career.”
So Braun began training again in earnest, taking things slowly and keeping his mileage low. As he gradually gained fitness, he drew inspiration from Jared Ward, who had entered the Olympic Trials with a PR of 2:12:56 (two seconds slower than Braun’s), made the team, and ultimately finished sixth at the Olympics in Rio.
“Part of the reason I think he has appeal to a lot of people is that a lot of people can see him and [think], If he can do that, I can do that. I don’t know how I would have handled the heat on that day, but just seeing him make the team, it both made it more frustrating that I wasn’t there but when I was coming back, it also served as inspiration…A guy like that, I consider myself pretty close to him — we weren’t studs in high school, we got better in college and just year after year, get a little bit better, a little bit better.”
As 2016 turned to 2017, Braun had begun working with coach Ben Rosario‘s Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite team and had enjoyed some moderate success, including a victory at the Big Sur Half Marathon in 63:33 in November. Braun found that he could train at around 80 miles per week without much pain but his hip would not allow him to do the regular 100+ mile weeks required of an elite marathoner.
I can be okay running 80 miles a week but if I’m really focusing on this, I shouldn’t just settle for being okay, Braun told himself. I should try to get 100 percent healthy and do whatever I need to do to be able to train at the volume I used to in the past.
So in January, he paid a visit to renowned chiropractor John Ball in Phoenix, who prescribed some exercises for Braun to complete before each run. Braun has continued to see Ball for treatment every two or three weeks since. There’s no permanent fix for Braun’s hip impingement, but he has been able to run 110 to 120 miles per week again, close to his previous volume.
“I think it’s just going to be something that I’m always going to have to manage,” Braun said.
Braun is running the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Sunday, his first marathon in two and a half years. He signed with Hoka One One in the spring, officially joining NAZ Elite, and his coach is impressed with how Braun has looked during his buildup.
“He’s hit every single workout as prescribed, never had to take a day off for any sort of niggle or anything,” Rosario said. “It’s totally been all systems go.”
Braun would like to run a PR in Chicago and thinks he’s capable of 2:10 or 2:11 under perfect conditions, though the weather forecast (rainy and windy with temps in the mid-60s) and race dynamics could throw that goal out the window.
“I also just want to compete,” Braun said. “Missing out on the Trials, one of the things I was most excited about was that, in a race like that, you look around and you know every other guy pretty well. We all go to the same races, we see each other all the time, we talk about our family and our training and what’s going on in our lives so I was really looking forward to that. And so in Chicago, obviously it has an international field as well, but I think that [it] will probably work its way out so that I’ll be competing against a lot of other American guys. And I feel like that’s when I can get the most out of myself, is when I’m competing against other guys that I know really well and [I] just kind of want that pride of oh, I beat this guy and this guy and this guy at this race.”
Aaron Braun probably won’t go to the 2020 Olympics. Only three guys make the team. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Galen Rupp has one of those spots locked up. And there certainly will be other guys with resumes more impressive than Braun’s who will be gunning for the other two.
But Aaron Braun’s story isn’t just about him. If you’ve made it this far into this article, chances are you know your own Aaron Braun, someone who faced down The Question of whether to stop chasing the dream. Maybe they said yes. That’s okay. Everyone does, eventually.
Braun said not today, and, even if that hardly makes him unique, there is something admirable about it. There is a mutual respect among runners, especially those who, like Braun, are past 30 years old and still laying it out there, chasing something they may never catch.
If he can stay healthy (fingers crossed), Braun will be on the start line at 2020 Trials, with all that a runner can ask for: 26.2 miles of road in front of him and a chance to reach his potential. That’s the real dream.