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Two For One

When wildfires broke out across the Sierra this summer, they didn’t just ravage tens of thousands of acres; they also imperiled the Western States Endurance Run, the granddaddy of all ultramarathons. Ultimately, with the racecourse cooking under an oppressive layer of soot, the organizers pulled the plug just three days before the event – the first time Western States had ever been cancelled in its 35-year history. It was an acute loss for elite ultramarathoners; many wrung their hands or scrambled to enter other running events in order to make good on their hundreds of hours of brutal training. Only one of them booked a flight to Hawaii, for a race he had not yet qualified to enter.

When Graham Cooper flew through this year’s Ironman Canada in 9:39, just two months after Western States was cancelled, he placed sixth in his age group – 39th overall out of 2,200 entrants – and he qualified for the Ironman World Championships outright. For many, this spectacular achievement would have been the pinnacle of their endurance lives.

For Cooper, it was just a consolation race, but it justified his precipitous plane ticket to Kona.

There is no sport that requires the same obsessive level of training and dedication as ultramarathoning. Unless you consider Ironman-length triathletes, whose intensity and god-awful training regimens beggar belief and can make ultramarathoners look like pikers. Attaining excellence in either sport is among the most mind-bogglingly difficult tasks imaginable.

Graham Cooper not only blasted his age group in Canada, he won the Western States in 2006 and finished third in 2007.

Graham Cooper is the most accomplished ultramarathoner to cross over into triathlon; or perhaps the most accomplished triathlete ever to win Western States. Booking a flight to Hawaii before he had even qualified at IM Canada speaks not to an athletic arrogance, but rather a confidence built into him by his unusual success.

“My ultramarathon friends think I’m a triathlete, and vice-versa,” says Cooper, who was only mildly pleased with his 10:12 at Kona.

The 38-year-old father of two is an Oakland resident, and his professional background is almost as polished as his race palmares. A graduate of UC Berkeley, he’s also a CPA and Stanford MBA graduate. His current job is as the CFO of Orexigen, a  biopharmaceutical company which develops anti-obesity drugs. And curiously, it was a professional hiccup that led to his epic win at Western States. 

His previous employer let him go in an early-2006 layoff, opening up all kinds of time for Cooper to train seriously. “I kind of slow-rolled my job search,” he says, “Getting laid off allowed me to be almost a semi-pro athlete.” The focus paid off in spades at the 2006 Western States. Held in withering temperatures and witnessing a near-historic low percentage of finishers, Cooper won in one of the most agonizing ways imaginable.

Cooper was well behind race leader Brian Morrison with just miles to go when Morrison bonked spectacularly. With Cooper grinding into Auburn like the Terminator, Morrison wobbled onto the track at Placer High School with just yards to go to break the tape. Cooper blasted past Morrison as friends and race officials dragged him, semi-conscious, across the finish – followed by two days of hospitalization and a disqualification.

Cooper recalls, “All I had going for me was my health, my family, and Western States. I was really ready for that race; I was doing almost a half-Ironman every day in training.”

Note that Cooper wasn’t doing 13.1 miles of running everyday; he was cross-training instead of grinding out the running miles – a habit that stood him in good stead this summer.

“I’ve always done cross-training,” he notes, “Heavy doses of cross-training – like this summer I was doing 150-200 miles per week on the bike and three swims a week, so when Western States was cancelled I was able to roll into Canada without changing much.”

Ironically, the cancellation of Western States may have enabled him to justify his early reservations to Hawaii. “I did Ironman Canada in 2006 and 2007, and was already signed up for 2008, but I never did that well there because I was always recovering from Western States. This year, I didn’t have to recover and was able to focus my energy, which got me up there at the finish as 10th amateur.”

Cooper was a bit of a distance-running prodigy. Inspired by his father, who was a sub-three-hour marathoner, he ran the San Francisco Marathon at age 13. “I won a lot of races as a kid, but as a 10 or 11 year old, I trained too hard and burned out. Plus, my ego was entirely tied up in running, and when kids began to catch up to me, it was emotionally difficult. I struggled to make the varsity team in high school, and when I got into college I was a lazy sloth.”

The rediscovery of his running talent happened in 2002, when a buddy asked him to help train for the San Francisco Marathon. Emboldened by his success and revived by his “recovery-based” training, he signed up for the Skyline 50K. “I lined up at the start line and all I saw were
t-shirts from all these famous ultramarathons,” says Cooper, “Well, I beat a lot of those guys, and it really gave me confidence.”

How do you become an ultramarathoner? You process things differently. As Cooper relates, in his progression in the sport, “50 miles seemed insurmountable, but after I did the 50K, not so much. So I entered the Helen Klein 50 Miler, and after that, 100 miles didn’t seem out of reach.”

How do you hold down a high-level job, train to be a World Champion-level triathlete AND win the Western States? You have a very understanding wife.

Graham met his wife Hilary at Cal in 1989. They married in 1995 and now have two children: Henry, 7, and Minnie, age 8.

“He didn’t really get into ultra-running until Henry was born,” says Hilary, “We had Minnie in 2000 and Henry followed in 2001, and something about having two kids under the age of 2 really puts the fire in a person to get out of the house.”

Hilary, too, is a marathoner and a triathlete, but what distinguishes her more than her race resumé is her selfless and nuanced understanding of Graham’s arduous training. “If I’m being totally honest, there are times when I wish that Graham had a different hobby. But, those are just moments. And after those moments pass, I remember why it is all worth the struggle. I am so proud of him and of his accomplishments. But more than that, I am so proud of the father that he is and the example that he sets for our kids. They are learning skills that will take them very far – perseverance, discipline, commitment – and most importantly, to follow their passions.”

To make matters even more difficult for the young family, Cooper’s job isn’t in the Bay Area – it is 500 miles away in San Diego. He’s a weekend dad, making the round trip every Thursday and Sunday nights between his home and his job.

But, typically for a man who always seems to turn every disadvantage into opportunity, Cooper sees benefits in the arrangement. “I put in serious, serious training in San Diego, and I do a lot of doubling up of workouts.” When Cooper is in serious training mode, a few luxuries fall by the wayside.

“I don’t watch TV. I don’t socialize much. I don’t read as much as I’d like. I don’t do long lunches and I don’t drink. When I’m training, I get about six hours of sleep a night. When you’re getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 and starting your day with a workout, you get a lot done.”

Cooper starts from a thesis that most of us have an inefficiency in the system. The key, he says, “is to squeeze as much of the slop out of our lives as we can.”

As Hilary notes, “I know how happy running makes Graham. When he’s not working out, he is a nightmare. He’s grumpy and preoccupied. When he is working out, he is relaxed and happy. Running is good for him, it’s good for me and it’s good for our family. It may be tough sometimes to juggle it all but it’s definitely worth all the effort.”