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Canaday, U.S. Racing at World Mountain Champs

The marathoner-turned-ultrarunner is transferring his skills to off-road ascents.

Although he was mostly known as an emerging national-class marathoner before this year, Sage Canaday burst on the trail and ultrarunning scene this summer with impressive wins at the Mt. Washington Hill Climb in New Hampshire and the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run outside of Seattle. Although the 7.6-mile Mt. Washington Hill Climb is a road race, it served as the men’s qualifying race for the U.S. Mountain Running Team. By handily winning that race (58 minutes, 27 seconds, the third-fastest time ever recorded), he earned a spot on the U.S. team that is competing at the 12K World Mountain Running Championships on Sept. 2 in Ponte di Legno, Italy, and the long-distance WMRC race on Sept. 8 at the Jungfrau Marathon in Interlaken, Switzerland.

The 26-year-old Canaday, who owns a 2:16:52 marathon PR, was a member of the Hansons-Brooks team in Rochester, Mich., for three years after graduating from Cornell, but moved to Boulder this year to start training on his own after finishing 43rd at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon (2:18:24) in January. In addition to running a course-record (6:16:10) at the July 28 White River 50 (taking almost 10 minutes off of Anton Krupicka’s previous mark), Canaday also finished fourth at the 13.3-mile Pikes Peak Ascent on Aug. 18 in Colorado. [Follow the World Mountain Running Championships live on Italian TV at this link.]

It’s been a breakout year for you on the trails. Was that your plan all along?

The big reason I moved to Boulder is because I wanted to be able to experiment with the trails and running at altitude. You have great access to going up really high, really quick in Boulder, and there is an amazing network of trails all around town, so it’s a really good place to get more into trail running and mountain running. I run Mesa Trail a lot and also run up Green Mountain and Bear Peak, too. I’ve done a couple of the 14,000-foot peaks — Torreys Peak, Greys Peak, Mt. Evans, Longs Peak. Those are really tough. I also still do some fast stuff on the roads.

How did you so quickly adapt to trail running and racing?

I grew up in a small town in northwest Oregon, between Portland and the coast, and as a runner, I kind of grew up in the hills and the woods. I’ve always loved running on the trails, and in high school and college I was always more competitive in cross country than track, even though the distances were the same a lot of the times. It just seemed to come naturally to me.

How has your marathon training carried over to the trail and ultra races you’ve been doing?

Marathon training gives you that great aerobic capacity, but also from years and years of doing 100-mile weeks, I feel I’ve really built up my strength over that time. I was used to doing 20-mile long runs, so it was easy to transition to going up to 28- to 30-mile long runs and being more efficient over longer distances. I have been working on my lactate threshold a lot, and that helps, too. I started marathoning when I was pretty young, as a junior in college, and I’ve been running pretty high mileage ever since then, and I think that’s helped build my muscular system and aerobic system quite a bit.

What was your experience like running for the Hansons-Brooks team?

Coming out of college, it was kind of a dream come true to run for Hansons-Brooks. I had read about Brian Sell and the success that all the runners had, especially the guys who weren’t the fastest college runners. You had the opportunity to run with like-minded individuals, and the support from Brooks was phenomenal. Coming out of college, it was the best option for me, definitely the most generous scenario I was going to get for sure. I got to be on the team right before Brian left, which was great because I got to pick his brain and learn about all of his experiences. He’s a great role model, and all of the teammates were so supportive of each other. [Canaday wrote a book about his experiences running for the Hansons-Brooks program.]

Aside from you and another Cornell graduate, Max King, there aren’t many U.S. runners who race in such a wide array of running disciplines. What do you think about that?

I think it’s worked a lot better for Max. He’s done everything and raced really well at all levels, including winning the World Mountain Running Championships last year. He’s been one of my role models because I saw the success he’s had at racing all these different distances, including road marathons and on the track, too. I’m hoping I can be more versatile like he is. I’m not quite as fast as he is on the track, though. I’ve had the fortune of picking his brain about racing in Europe and learned about how crazy-steep the mountains are. They’re a lot steeper and a lot more technical, and sometimes there aren’t any trails—you just go right up a ski slope and go right up the mountains. At the world championship course in Italy, we’re going to be running up a ski slope without any switchbacks, so it’s been good to hear first-hand from Max how to race in those situations.

How do you think all of this will help you run a faster marathon?

I’m hoping the over-distance training, running on the trails, the uphill work and the ultra racing will make me a stronger runner in the marathon. Maybe that way I won’t hit the wall or bonk as bad when I race the marathon, because I’ve definitely had problems with that in the past. Mentally, I’ll be able to have the approach of, “OK, I’ve done a 50-mile race, so 26.2 should be much more manageable.” I’m hoping all that will translate to faster times on the roads.

What’s your outlook for the world championships race in Italy?

I’d like to help the U.S. men’s team finish in the top three. It should be a pretty competitive race, but we have a pretty good team. The Italians always put together a good team and this is kind of their home course. If I can help the U.S. team get onto the podium by getting myself in position to be in the single digits or even get on the podium, that would be ideal. But I definitely don’t want to go out too fast. It’s a 9-mile race with a lot of very steep sections. I want to be able to pace myself and work my way up rather than going out to hard and trying to go for it from the gun. There are some stretches where it’s flat and a few stretches where it’s downhill. You’ve got to be prepared for anything, especially because it’s supposed to rain, so it could be slippery, too.

How have you adjusted your hydration and nutrition habits as a trail runner and ultrarunner?

It has not come naturally. I’ve had trouble bonking in the marathon. I’ve run seven marathons and have bonked pretty hard in three of them. I’m still trying to figure out my nutrition for marathons and for ultras. Every race is a pretty big learning experience, especially with the longer distances and ultras. I feel like there is a huge learning curve, and depending on how hilly the course is or the weather conditions, it seems to change constantly. I’m still kind of adjusting my formula.

Yet you managed to win your first 50-miler this summer without any troubles, right?

At White River 50, I was eating whenever I felt like I needed something. I grabbed a lot of Clif Shot gels and stored them in the pockets of my shorts for later. I started off drinking Gatorade out of my handheld bottle and refilling it with Gatorade, but then I switched over to Coke because I needed something sweeter and because that’s what they had at the aid station. A handful of times, I even grabbed a handful of potato chips. I’ve never eaten solid food while racing, so that was a first. I was afraid my stomach would cramp but I was lucky it didn’t. I have thrown up during a marathon before, so I was a bit concerned.

What was it like racing 50 miles despite never having run more than 31 before?

I had no idea what to expect because I had never run anywhere close to that far. I was looking at my GPS and when it clicked over to 32 miles, I was a little worried because I knew I was in uncharted territory, and at that point I didn’t feel really great, and I still had a good two hours of running left. It was kind of nerve-wracking because I was afraid I was going to bonk at any moment. I was just trying to run as relaxed as possible. I kept looking at my watch. I had the course record in my mind, but you never rest easy in an ultra because you could cramp up and have to walk it in. So I didn’t relax until I crossed the finish line. Overall, it was a really pleasant surprise.

What was your worst experience in a marathon?

Probably the New York City Marathon in 2008. I was trying to run under 2:20 and was on pace for that through 20 miles, but then I hit the wall really bad and bonked so badly that I got dizzy. I was walking during the last few miles in Central Park. I think I went from running 5:20 per mile split to running over 10 minutes per mile, which is a pretty big drop-off. I got passed by tons of people and had to be escorted away from the finish line. They put salt tablets in my mouth, but I was completely out of it. I ran 2:30 that day,  and I think Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe beat me by several minutes. That taught me to respect the marathon and always respect the distance and know what could happen over the course of the race. I definitely learned from that experience and tried to train better and race better. I was probably a bit too ambitious. NYC is a tough course and based on my training at the time, I shouldn’t have started off so fast. I definitely respect the longer distances now, too.

What’s on tap for the rest of this year?

 For the rest of this year, I’ll be doing a few more ultras. I’m doing the UROC 100K in Virginia at the end of September and The North Face 50-miler near San Francisco in early December. But in 2013, I’d like to get back on the roads and, if USATF opens up the qualifying window for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, I’d like to get that right away and also try to PR in the marathon.