By Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com (sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE)
February 13, 2020
This content is sponsored content for HOKA, but not approved by them.
If you’re not from California, then your first experience with the HOKA ONE ONE Aggies might have been like mine. You’re at the Olympic Trials and you hear this boisterous group at the 1500m start having a really good time. Then you realize these guys and gals are not only enjoying themselves, but they know a thing or two about the sport. They’re not only cheering, but they’re cheering at the right times.
That happened to me — I’m pretty sure it was the 2000 Olympic Trials in Sacramento — and I believe that was the first time I met Joe Rubio, who is now the head coach of the HOKA ONE ONE Aggies. I didn’t know anything about Joe at the time. Apparently I still don’t know as much as I thought I did about Joe, because until I spoke to him late last month, I had no idea he was a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier who finished 26th at the 1996 Trials. Joe’s a humble, down-to-earth guy, but talk to him one time, and real quickly you get it. The guy is a runner through and through, a lifer who is passionate and knowledgeable about the sport.
I knew Joe as a coach and the founder of Running Warehouse (which is an affiliate partner of LetsRun.com and went from being a specialty store to one of the leaders in online running in the US). Joe used to share some of his his training advice on the LetsRun.com forums. I’d bump into him at USAs every year (more accurately, at a watering hole after USAs), we’d have a nice chat, and then see each other a year later.
I had no idea that in 1987, Joe started rooming with a fellow Aggie named Mark Conover, who had a 2:18 marathon PR. In 1988, Conover shocked the running world by winning the US Marathon Trials in 2:12:26 on a hilly and windy course in New Jersey to win what was then the biggest prize in the history of marathoning: $50,000.
I did know the Aggies were known for big upsets, as I was following the sport when unheralded Jamey Harris stunned the US running world by winning the 1998 USATF 1500m title.
I also knew the Aggies were famous for their centipede at Bay to Breakers, which earned a Sports Illustrated write-up for racing Grete Waitz head-to-head down the stretch in 1987. I didn’t know that any runner who wants to be part of the Aggies’ Olympic Development program has to make themselves available to be part of the centipede.
I’m glad that I spoke to Joe last month about the HOKA ONE ONE Aggies’ athletes running the Marathon Trials, as I got to know more about not only the six Aggies who will be running the Trials, but one of the most fun-loving, blue-collar, and diverse competitive running clubs in the US.
Highlights of Joe’s talk are on this week’s LetsRun.com podcast. Click here [80:26] to start listening to the Rubio section (or rewind a couple of minutes to hear the LRC crew talk about what they knew about the Aggies beforehand). Below the player, I go into more depth on Rubio and the Aggies.
The Basics: 150+ Members Overall, 60 Competitive Runners, Olympic Development Teams + Social MembersThe Aggies are, first and foremost, a long-standing running club (established in 1976) based in California. Sure, they have a formal Olympic Development program (you can see the qualification standards here), but the club is much bigger than its OD runners, and its emphasis is on having a good time and doing well at USATF Pacific Association and national championships. All-in-all, Joe estimates there are 60 competitive runners in the club, ranging from its Trials runners to Tony Arreola, who, at age 70, ran a 2:58:18 marathon in Houston last month, giving him six straight decades of sub-3:00 marathons. Tony also ran at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships in December, which was only his third cross country race in 41 years according to Joe, but shows the Aggies take being on the team seriously. The Aggies field full teams at Club Nats for the 50+ age group.
The Aggies’ OD teams get the most attention, and their Trials runners also place a lot of emphasis on being on the team. A week after his marathon debut at CIM, where he qualified for the Trials, Swarnjit Boyal raced Club XC Nats for the Aggies. (If you want to be inspired by a blue-collar, where-your-dreams-become-reality story, read our Q&A with Swarnjit, which got Quote of Day on LetsRun twice over the weekend).
The Olympic Development runners on the Aggies are centered in San Luis Obispo, where Joe lives. Joe says he has about 25-30 members in his group. There are five more with coach Terry Howell in Santa Barbara, and there are other groups in the San Francisco area.
One thing Joe made clear is the Aggies’ success is a group effort. He and Howell stay in contact and are on the same page, while other members of the Aggies are stepping up and taking on roles in the club. Joe said the team effort is a key reasons the club has been able to be such a constant presence in California since its founding in 1976.
Joe takes pride that there are no “hired guns” in the club. All the competitive runners have participation requirements. But if competitive running isn’t your thing and you just want to have some fun with the Aggies (and go on their Olympic Trials trips), that is a possibility as well as there are social memberships.
The Aggie runners are blue-collar runners — all have full-time jobs
I break down the Aggies’ team running the Trials later in this piece, and while the team includes former USATF marathon champ Sergio Reyes, none of the Aggie runners are full-time professional runners. Running is something they juggle with their full-time careers.
“Our entire team is all blue-collar athletes. They’re all working full-time, they’ll have careers. Most have families, a lot of them have kids,” said Rubio. Reyes is a flight engineer at Edwards Air Force base (just as he was when he won his national title), women’s Trials competitor Liza Reichert is a cancer researcher.
The Aggie athletes may not have the luxury of taking naps during the day, but they are relatable to the other 99.99% of runners in the world, as running is something they do and part of who they are, but not their career. “The primary goal is to make sure that you have a career after your running stuff is done, so that you can pay the bills. And any money that these people make off of the running circuit is just fun money… With the support of HOKA and the prize money, some of these athletes are making some pretty significant money on the side,” said Rubio.
The Aggies have a lot of diversity
Of the six Aggies running the Trials, two are Indian Americans (Boyal and Rajpaul Pannu) and one is hispanic (Reyes). “We have some really, really good citizens on our team. And another bonus of our club is we’re probably the most racially diverse competitive distance club in the United States,” said Rubio, noting distance running in the US “tends to be a pretty white-dominated sport.”
The Aggies won their first club national championship this past December when the women’s team captured the USATF Club XC crown (the men were third). Rubio credited HOKA for encouraging the club to increase the strength of its women’s teams. “Three years ago, we did not have much of a women’s team. And, I mean, [HOKA] told me point blank, you need to build up your women’s squad,” said Rubio.
The six Aggies slated to run the Trials are below:
(LRC is doing Q&As with all the HOKA Trials qualifiers this month. The profiles on the first four are up. Click on the link for more info):
Sergio Reyes: 38-year-old flight engineer who won the 2010 USATF Marathon Champs. If you think Reyes is content to just enjoy what is likely his final Trials, think again. Rubio noted that at the 2018 Cal International Marathon, Reyes was on 2:12 pace at 25 miles until he blew up and finished in 2:16.
Swarnjit Boyal: Went from being a unrecruited club runner to a 14:01/29:05 guy and conference at Cal Poly SLO. Rubio is convinced Boyal will be a great ultrarunner as the longer things go, the better he seems to do, noting he ran 5:10 miles for the final 10k of his marathon debut in 2019, and also paced Jim Walmsley for 31 miles of his 50-mile world best last year.
Addi Zerrenner: Zerrenner ,which means “the runner” in German, was told she ran like Shalane Flanagan in high school. In college she went to Arizona, which Joe said is a “low-mileage” program, but has taken to the marathon and longer distances very well, running 2:37 in her debut at Grandma’s last year. She is coached by Terry Howell.
Rajpaul Pannu (profile coming): Started running as an overweight kid after his dad died of a heart-attack at age 40. 2:17 marathoner.
Annie Dear (profile coming): Brand new member of Aggies. Ran DIII in college at Williams.
Rubio says everyone loves the Olympic Trials (and he’s right)
“I can’t emphasize enough to my athletes, what a big deal [the Trials] is… Sometimes your parents are trying to figure out what the heck you’re doing still running [after college], right? And then when you tell them you qualify for the Olympic Trials, everyone understands that. Everyone. Your aunt who’s never followed running your life is saying, ‘my nephew is trying to make the Olympic team,'” said Rubio on the Trials.
While I totally understand what motivates the athlete with a full-time job and only an outside shot of getting near the Olympics to keep dreaming — I was one of them — I asked Rubio what the goal was for the Aggies at the Trials. And he said it was to do their best on the biggest stage, “You know, it’s that challenge, right? How many people [on college teams] honestly think they’re going to win [the] NC DI title, right? Maybe a handful. But you want to go in and perform your best when it counts. And when you’re able to do that, it’s a phenomenal feeling… The most satisfying thing as an athlete is to perform your best when it matters. And if you’re able to do that at the Trials, regardless of where you finish, you feel pretty good about the event.”
HOKA and the Aggies were almost a perfect match as the former CEO of Deckers and former president of HOKA were both Aggies
Rubio was full of praise for HOKA’s support of the Aggies. From the swag, to the travel, to cool socks they sometimes get just because, to HOKA making sure Aggies who qualified for the Trials got their own hotel rooms, Rubio was full of praise for HOKA. “We’ve been with a lot of companies over the years and this is our best relationship by far,” Rubio said of the Aggies, whom I originally knew as the Reebok Aggies and later became the Asics Aggies.
When I asked him how the Aggies and HOKA got together, the story seemed almost too good to be true. Angel Martinez, the former CEO of Deckers, the parent company that bought HOKA, was a founding Aggie.
If you look closely at the Aggies logo, there is a plow (due to the Aggies’ agricultural roots at UC Davis) with the letters AM underneath it. AM stands for Angel Martinez, who designed the Aggies logo.
If that’s not enough to think maybe the Aggies and HOKA should have partnered together, the former president of HOKA was Jim Van Dine. Jim was the guy who signed Leo Manzano to a sponsorship deal with HOKA in 2014. Jim is also an Aggie and was an alternate on the US World Cross Country team in the seventies.
It definitely makes sense now that HOKA and the Aggies hooked up. And I think it helps explain how HOKA went from being an oddity in the competitive running world five years ago to a respected worldwide brand. The HOKA people are running lifers, just like Joe Rubio.
Profiles of HOKA Aggies running the Trials:
- Be Inspired By Swarnjit Boyal’s Incredible US Olympic Trials Story Learn how Boyal has progressed from being cut twice in college, to being a walk-on, to a conference champion, and now a US Olympic Trials qualifier.
- Meet Addi Zerrenner, The Trials Qualifier Who Taped a Picture of Shalane Flanagan on Her Wall in High School During her first week of HS track practice, Zerrener was told she “ran like Shalane Flanagan” and she’s been hooked ever since. After a college career that saw her finish top 10 at Pac-12 XC twice, she’s quickly moved up to the marathon.
- Former US Marathon Champ Sergio Reyes Ready to Excel at Possibly His Final Trials at Age 38 The flight test safety engineer has been running since age 2-3. Now 38, the Hoka Aggie is still running up to 140 mpw as he’s getting ready for his 4th Olympic Trials.
This content is sponsored content for HOKA, but not approved by them.