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Jack Of All Trades: 5 Questions With Max King

We caught up with running's jack-of-all trades.

Max King has made a name for himself as a runner by being a jack of all trades. In the last two years, the 32-year-old Bend, Ore., resident has won a world championship in mountain running, claimed several U.S. trail running championships, lowered his marathon PR to 2:14:36 and also placed sixth in the 3,000m steeplechase (in a new PR of 8:30:54) at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. During that time, King has varied his training volume from 80 to 140 miles per week, varying between roads, trails and the track depending on his next target race. Most recently, he finished third in Colorado’s Pikes Peak Marathon (3:50:10). This Saturday he’s running the USATF 50K Trail National Championships at the Flagline 50K in Bend followed by the XTERRA Trail Run National Championships on Sunday near Ogden, Utah. After that, it’s the 100K Ultra Race of Champions on Sept. 29 in Charlottesville, Va., followed by the Stumpjump 50K on Oct. 6 in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the JFK 50 on Nov. 17 near Washington, DC. We caught up with him recently to get his take on a few things. 

Out of all of your solid results in the last couple of years, which are your favorite highlights?

Winning the World Mountain Running Championships was a huge moment for me. Then coming into the Olympic track trials this year, I really wasn’t focused on it at all and was doing it more out of fun and/or compulsion than anything. Then to advance to finals was totally unexpected after failing to do that in 2008. Moving up to sixth in the last lap of the finals was another huge achievement for me in my career. Yeah, sure sixth doesn’t seem that good, but I don’t know if people realize how much athletes can up their game for the Olympics and how competitive it is and how difficult it is to break into the top 10 in the U.S.

You’re one of the few U.S. runners who trains and competes over all disciplines. Briefly, what’s your thinking behind that?

My theory is: it’s all running and if you do the right stuff physiologically (threshold, VO2max, endurance) then you can go back and forth between different distances and terrain. Of course, each discipline takes specific talents so those need to be developed separately. I’ve run trails since I was in high school and I really believe skiing and mountain biking help with trail skills. I spent years developing speed on the track and road in order to be successful there, and now I’ve been working on my endurance threshold for longer ultra races for several years. It’s tough, but these special skill sets take years to develop but once they are there developed they come back pretty quickly after a few specific workouts. Seems like it’s just like riding a bike.

Is there a key tip you’d offer runners about running technique on trails?

Good form is a huge key to successful running, and it’s especially important to have during trail running. Stand up straight, keeping your hips/pelvis tucked under you and head upright. Keep your stride short, high cadence, and land on your midfoot to stay balanced and ready to react to the changing terrain.

How can a runner train for a specific race course? And how is that a benefit?

If you’re running an ultra but not planning to run the full distance during training, take the course and condense it down to a manageable long run distance of say 15-30 miles then take the elevation profile of the race and try the best you can to condense that down into your long run distance. If, for example, there are three significant climbs in the race course that is 50 miles and you’re planning on making 25 miles your longest long run, try to match the elevation profile that you’ll experience in the 50 miler by adding a similar amount of elevation gain to your 25 mile long run. You’ll have to make due with what you have but I believe trying to match the elevation change during training has the single most benefit when trying to simulate the race course.

What would you tell a new ultrarunner about gear?

The most important thing is to practice and train with the gear so that you know how your body will handle it and you have intimate knowledge of how it works and adjusts to the changing demands during a race. A pack may look great in the store but load it down with your jacket, gloves, hat, water and nutrition and all of a sudden you realize that it just doesn’t sit right on your shoulders or that the straps rub in the wrong spots when it’s loaded down. And, it’s not sufficient to rely on what your best friend told you was the new hottest product that they just love. Use it and test it for yourself.