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A World Record On The Brink Of Collapse

Josh Cox will make a run at XX 50K world record this Sunday at the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon. Photo:
Josh Cox will make a run at Thompson Mugwana's 50K world record this Sunday at the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon. Photo:

Josh Cox aiming for 50K mark this Sunday in Arizona.

Written by: Duncan Larkin

Three years ago, the Josh Cox naysayers were out in full force. After his DNF at 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, Cox looked like a runner whose best days were behind him.

In 2000, a few years before guys like Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, and Dathan Ritzenhein began taking their shows to the roads, Cox was one of America’s up-and-coming marathon stars. He set a personal best of 2:13:55 for the 26.2-mile distance at Chicago that year, but then, almost as quickly as he made his way up the U.S. list, his marathon times slowed down. Significantly. Anonymous bulletin board posters called for his retirement, and despite Cox’s own claims that he was ready to make a comeback, the skeptics turned their backs on him.

All that changed on January 18, 2009.

On that day, Josh Cox smashed Alex Tilson’s American record of 2:51:48 for the 50K (31.05 miles), turning in an impressive 2:47:17 clocking—an average pace of 5:23 per mile. Despite lowering the record by over four minutes, however, the experience was hardly ideal for Cox. He threw up six times and had stop to use the bathroom twice during the race. “Today, wasn’t my day,” he said afterwards.

Cox wasn’t satisfied with taking down Tilson’s record–it was South African Thompson Muguwana’ world record of 2:43:30 he was going after.

At 22 years, Thompson’s record is one of the oldest distance marks around, and one Cox has had his sights on for the past two years. He will take another shot at it this weekend at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix.

“Things have really come together the last six weeks,” Cox said of his training. “I’m in PR marathon shape, which bodes well for the 50K record attempt.”

Cox has been logging impressive mileage to prepare for the race, averaging 130 miles per week during the fall and winter. He says he’s even reached a few weeks in the 150s. During the week, Cox focuses on three main workouts: 5-10 miles worth of intervals, 6 to 18 mile tempo runs, and long runs in the range of 16-30 miles. Between workouts, he runs–easy.

“Workouts are the stone,” he says. “Mileage is the mortar.”

Ultra running can be mostly an individual sport, but Cox takes pleasure in training with others. As a member of the Mammoth Track Club since the summer of 2009, Cox is coached by Terrence Mahon. According to Cox, Mahon has “full control” of his training program.

“As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another. There’s strength in the pack,” Cox says of his Mammoth training group. “Having the world’s top athletes training together brings out the best in all of us. Terrence cultivates a great team environment and having the group makes all the difference. Terrence guides our work and serves not only as coach, but also as our daily motivator, he makes the tough stuff fun.”

A devout Christian, Cox isn’t afraid to share his faith with others. He prides himself on the work he’s done raising money for the Christian charity Team World Vision. At the 2010 Comrades Marathon, Cox collected a million dollars in donations for impoverished children in South Africa. He speaks and writes often about the need to help others. “I want to help the helpless, serve my sponsors, serve my friends, serve my community, and be faithful with the gifts and platform God has granted,” he says. “This isn’t about times, teams, magazine covers, and sponsor ads. I’ve never put too much stock in what folks say about me, I’m not as good as they say and not as bad, either. I run for an audience of One, if He’s pleased, then so am I.”

After his world-record attempt this weekend, Cox wants to focus his 2011 efforts on the 2012 Olympic Trials, set to take place next year in Houston. Cox lowered his personal best to 2:13:51 at the 2009 California International Marathon, and says that his 2010 goal was to win the grueling Comrades Marathon in South Africa, but intestinal problems led to a disappointing 168th place finish. “I learned I should only drink out of my personal bottles, and nothing else,” he says of the experience.

Despite his frustrations in South Africa, however, Cox finished off the year with a win at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon, where he ran a 2:25:05, negative splitting the second half of the race. When recalling that effort, Cox says he had to pitch the idea of running it to his coach, who instructed him not to run faster than 75 minutes for the first half. “Because it was a controlled effort, I was back running a 17-miler with the guys three days later. Long efforts like that really catapult the fitness,” he recalls.

If clocking a 2:25 marathon win is nothing more than a “long effort” for Cox, and if his training has been as stellar as it appears on paper, then there’s a good chance Mugwana’s world record will fall this weekend. But Cox himself says it will ultimately come down to willpower.

“In the marathon the race begins at 20 miles,” Cox says. “You hit the 20 mile mark in the 50k and there’s still 11 more to go; the real racing starts after the marathon is finished. Ultras are largely an act of will rather than skill.”


Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.