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Steady Progress: Exclusive Interview With Bobby Curtis

The 29-year-old Hansons Brooks athlete ran a two-minute PR to finish as the top American at the Chicago Marathon.

The 29-year-old Hansons Brooks athlete set a PR by two minutes to finish as the top American at the Chicago Marathon. 

Bobby Curtis, a professional runner with the Hansons Brooks Distance Project, was the top American finisher at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 12, running a personal best by two minutes to finish ninth overall in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 20 seconds. It was the fourth-fastest time run by an American this year behind Meb Keflezighi (2:08:37), Jeffrey Eggleston (2:10:52) and Ryan Vail (2:10:57).

The 29-year-old Curtis, who joined the Hansons Brooks team in January 2013 after four years as a Reebok-sponsored athlete, has been steadily taking down his marathon personal best since debuting at New York in 2011, where he finished 14th in 2:16:44. In his second marathon, run late last year in Fukuoka, Japan, Curtis took three minutes off his New York time, finishing in 2:13:24.

The Villanova alum, who was the 2008 NCAA champion at 5,000m, holds personal bests of 13:18 for 5,000m and 27:24 for 10,000m on the track—two marks he hopes to improve upon in 2015 before turning his focus toward the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on February 13, 2016 in Los Angeles.

We caught up with him this week to get some more insight into his race at Chicago, his thoughts heading into the next Olympic Trials Marathon and much more.

Let’s start off by looking ahead to the 2016 Trials, which are now just 16 months away. What’s it going to take to make that team? Obviously it’s all about placing top-3 in the race, but what kind of shape will you need to be in to be in the hunt for a spot on the team? 

It’s really anyone’s guess at this stage but if you just look at the caliber of athletes we have—right away you have Meb and Ryan Hall, so if they’re at their best I mean you’re probably going to need to be running a 2:07-type effort. Then there’s a lot of people that are a little older that you can’t forget about, like Abdi [Abdirahman], and you know Ritz [Dathan Ritzenhein] has struggled with injuries lately but he’s obviously a top-level athlete. And then there’s up-and-comers like Ryan Vail and maybe myself now, so I guess it just depends on who’s in shape at the time, who’s healthy and things like that, but the American team is going to be very difficult to make so probably something like 2:08-2:09-type effort is probably what it’s going to take on the day just because there’s that many guys who are running extremely well right now.

And do you feel that given your track background, with a sub-13:20 5K PR and a sub-27:30 mark to your name, that ability-wise you can flat-out run with anyone in the field?

Yeah, it’s tough, because you look at my track PRs and then you look at people who have run much faster than me in the marathon and they have way less impressive track PRs. I think the marathon is a totally different animal so maybe you can’t think, “Oh, this guy’s run well at 10K so that’s going to translate to something good over the marathon.” But I do think if you’ve run well over 10K or half marathon you’re obviously a talented athlete and you have the capability, if well-trained, to do something special in the marathon. And that’s how I think about it with myself. Like I know I have the tools to run well in the marathon and I’ve just got to keep training and keep getting stronger. But when I look at my competition, and maybe reference their track PRs, I think it gives me a little bit of confidence knowing that I’m probably at the top of the heap as far as track PRs are concerned.

Looking at your progression as a marathoner, you ran 2:16 at New York in 2011, then 2:13 and change at Fukuoka last year and now you’re down to 2:11:20. What do you owe that steady improvement to? Have you done anything differently in the past few years that has helped you take a few minutes off your PR each time out? 

I think being part of the Hansons Brooks Project has definitely helped. It’s definitely a more marathon-centric type group. I came here and ran 2:13 [at Fukuoka] and that was really my first segment doing full-blown marathon training. When I ran 2:16 I was doing a lot of high mileage but it probably wasn’t as marathon-specific as it should have been, but when I ran 2:13 off of marathon-specific training I was probably a little tired and everything just from the training itself and getting used to that, so the result wasn’t great. But after a year of training under Kevin and Keith I’m starting to develop some of the strength that a marathoner needs and just continuing that marathon-specific training while just dabbling a little bit in the 10K and the shorter races; I think that will be the plan going forward. I’d like to continue to be competitive on the track but I’m more focused on the marathon and hopefully making some bigger gains at that distance.

And that’s the whole genesis of the Hansons Brooks program: to make marathoners and put them on the Olympic team. What is it like for you at this stage of your career, nearing 30 years old, to be part of a group that has had proven success at achieving that goal?

It’s definitely reassuring to look back at the last couple Olympics and to know that Kevin and Keith have had two people be prepared on the day to make the Olympic team. I think that’s really reassuring as far as preparing us all. And also the fact that I’ve improved under their coaching in the marathon is also reassuring. It’s a marathon-specific group that’s accomplished a lot in the marathon and I think that bodes well for all of us going into the Trials because we’re doing the same type of stuff that Brian Sell and Desi did when they made the Olympic team.

And looking toward the next Trials, having a 2:11 under your belt puts you amongst the top-5 marathon performances in the U.S. this year. Given that, what do the next 16 months look like for you? Will you try to take that mark down under 2:10 or shift your focus back to racing shorter distances for a while? 

I haven’t really spoken with Kevin and Keith about the next 16 months, but I think my immediate reaction after [Chicago] is probably just stick to strength training while racing 10K, half marathons, things like that, but probably stay away from a full blown marathon until the trials. I hope to make strength gains in training and be racing well over slightly shorter distances and hope that prepares me for everything to come together at the trials where I can have a massive PR and a huge race.

Before Chicago this past weekend, what were some of the key workouts you hit in your buildup that gave you the confidence that you were ready to get down into that 2:10-2:11 range?

We didn’t do any races beforehand and I think that was a pretty good idea so we could just focus on our training. I didn’t have any crazy “Oh my god, that was a ridiculous workout!” type of sessions but basically it was just 120-something miles a week and on our 9-day cycle, we did two workouts and a long run. Toward the end we did a marathon simulator-type workout and when we did that I did 3 miles at roughly 5-minute pace, took a little bit of a jog break and then did a half marathon in 1:05:20. And after doing that I felt pretty comfortable and knew I was in pretty good shape coming off some really high mileage weeks. I knew that once I was tapered and rested that 5-minute miles should feel pretty easy. And then also for our workouts, we would do 5 x 2 miles or 2 x 4 miles—something like that and it was always slightly under 5-minute pace—and hitting all those workouts was great for my confidence. This segment was unique because there was never a workout that I didn’t hit whereas before Fukuoka there were a few workouts that were kind of iffy. So given that I was doing a lot of mileage and hit all my splits and stayed healthy throughout the whole buildup, those were big things for my confidence going into Chicago.

And last question specific to Chicago: There was a lot of talking going into the race about the guys up front—Bekele, Kipchoge and a bunch of pacers—gunning for a super fast time. As a competitive athlete, knowing that 2:10 or 2:11 would be a great day for you, how do you approach that kind of situation knowing that those guys are going to be going through halfway at essentially your half-marathon PR? Does it almost feel like you’re in a different race? 

For me, to be completely honest, it is a different race because what those guys are doing is on a totally different level than what I’m on right now. And the marathon bar has been set so high. I think the stat was that Dennis Kimetto’s last half of his recent world record was a time only something like six Americans have run for a half-marathon race. So what some of these guys are doing is incredible and phenomenal but for us in Chicago it was all about running 2:10 or 2:11 and any thought of being competitive with Kipchoge or Bekele, I mean at this point, with what I’ve run, it’s just not realistic. So yeah, it is a totally separate race in my point of view.

Three Random Things You Didn’t Know About Bobby Curtis

1. As a collegian at Villanova and in his early years as a professional, Curtis battled insomnia, which had a tremendous effect on his training and racing. Nowadays, his sleeping patterns still aren’t completely normal, but he’s able to get the rest he needs in order to recover from his demanding training schedule. “Compared to where I was in 2009 it’s a humongous improvement,” Curtis says. “I think that’s been very important for marathon training because trying to run 120 miles a week if you’re not sleeping well would be extremely difficult. I’ve been able to break through and manage pretty well and it’s not an issue anymore.”

2. At Chicago, he ran in the Brooks T7 Racer, a sub-7 ounce racing flat. It was the first time he’s ever worn racing flats for the marathon after donning “pretty lightweight structured trainers” for his first two 26.2-mile attempts. “I think that was a big reason for having a successful race. I used to have a fear of blowing out my calves or having a foot injury or something like that but I didn’t have any problems.”

3. His fueling strategy for the marathon is pretty straightforward: one gel packet, dissolved in water and taken roughly every 5K. “It’s worked in the past so I’ve just stuck with it,” Curtis says. “And then toward the end of the race I start having caffeinated gel packets and I think in the future I might try to amp up the caffeine a little and tinker with that a bit. I’ve been lucky that I’ve never really come to a point in the marathon where I’ve run out of energy or been hungry, lightheaded or depleted.”