We caught up with the 28-year-old ahead of Sunday’s New York City Marathon.
Ryan Vail was the top American finisher in his New York City Marathon debut last November, placing 13th in 2:13:23. He will return to the Big Apple on Nov. 2 a much different runner than he was 12 months ago. In April, Vail clocked a personal best 2:10:57, a 48-second improvement on the 2:11:45 he ran at Fukuoka in late 2012. That mark makes him the third fastest marathoner in the U.S. this year behind Meb Keflezighi (2:08:37) and Jeffrey Eggleston (2:10:52)—both of whom will be standing alongside him at the starting line on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge this Sunday.
The 28-year-old Vail lives and trains in Portland, Ore., and is coached from a distance by his college mentor, Dave Smith of Oklahoma State University. In September, Vail helped pace Shalane Flanagan to a 2:21:14, third-place finish at the Berlin Marathon, but forewent any tune-up races prior to this year’s big race in the Big Apple.
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We caught up with the Brooks-sponsored athlete heading into Sunday’s race to talk about his New York preparation, discuss his steady progression as a marathoner and get his outlook heading into the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.
Last year at New York, you were the top American finisher in 13th, running 2:13. What’s different for you heading into this year’s race?
I think running the New York course [last year] and getting the London Marathon in this spring—I feel like those two marathons, since I haven’t done that many, have given me a big boost, and I also did my first longer training block at altitude during this buildup.
And let’s talk about that altitude training block for a minute. You spent some time training in Flagstaff over the past few months. What led you to switch things up, and how did you feel the training block went?
I think we’ve been trying to do everything right in terms of training and nutrition and all that, and I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to try and keep improving in the marathon, so I thought [altitude] would be the next logical step. I decided to go early on in the training block just in case it didn’t go too well, just testing it out, but it ended up going very well mostly thanks to being there with a lot of the Northern Arizona Elite guys and rooming with Nick Arciniaga, who’s also running New York. Those guys really helped me adjust and helped me with pacing when I first got there.
You’ve mostly flown solo the last couple years, with Portland as your primary training base. How was it for you to just be in a new place around a group of like-minded individuals in a key part of your training cycle?
It was a nice adjustment for sure. It was just nice to have guys to run with every day. There’s so many people out there you can pretty much always find someone to run with. The biggest part was just having guys to key off of in a new location at 7,000 feet.
Looking back to last fall, you tuned up for New York at Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose, but this year you didn’t do any races before the marathon. What was the reasoning behind that decision?
That was due to the altitude trip. I really wanted to come down and have a really good month of training and I didn’t want to have to rest for a race and then rest after the race. I really wanted to take advantage of that month when I came down from Flagstaff, so we decided to forego a tuneup race this time around.
Earlier this year you broke 2:11 at London, putting yourself into a select group of runners in the U.S. who have run that fast in recent years. What did that race do for your confidence, not only heading into New York on Nov. 2, but heading into the Olympic Trials in 2016?
The big thing was just making another jump in my time. In New York last year I didn’t have a PR there and that was a very tough day in terms of weather on the course, so it was good to see that I was still progressing. It’s always good to see that progression. To drop 48 seconds off of my best time at London just gave me the confidence that I’m still heading the right way and improving each training block.
Given that you didn’t race during this training cycle, what were some of the key workouts you hit that let you know you’re in the best shape of your life heading into New York?
The week I came down from altitude I still kept the volume up around 150 miles a week and I was able to hit a 17-mile tempo at 4:58 pace and come back two days later and do a 4 mile-3 mile-2 mile-1 mile [cutdown] significantly faster than I had ever done before, so those two workouts were big. And then I ran 16 miles in Victoria [B.C.] at 4:56 pace. That was actually a pretty tough course, pretty hilly and a pretty good simulator for New York, so that gave me a lot of confidence as well.
Looking at your progression as a marathoner over the past few years, what would you pinpoint as the biggest keys to your steady improvement?
The biggest thing is consistency. I’m still working with the same coach, Dave Smith, so the workouts and training plan have stayed fairly similar from one block to the next, just getting a little bit longer and a little bit faster each time. But no big jumps in training, just taking baby steps, just like I’ve been doing since I was at Oklahoma State with coach Smith. Consistency and being able to stay healthy while handling big volume has played a big part.
At this point you and Dave [Smith] have been working together for 10 years now. How important is that from the standpoint of taking a long-term approach to your development as an athlete?
It’s huge. There’s no magic training plan. There’s nothing uniquely special about the training that Dave gives me, so it’s more that he knows me as an athlete, I know him as a coach, I know what his expectations are and how to adjust things based on how workouts go, or if I’m tired or anything. He knows me so well it’s not much effort for him to tweak things along the way. When a coach doesn’t know you as well it’s a lot harder to make those adjustments. The training block never goes exactly according to plan so those adjustments are really important.
And speaking of your training, you’ve been very public with it for a while now, posting your workouts and weekly mileage in your blog every week for anyone to see. How important has that been for you to connect with your fans and younger people in the sport as well as for building your own brand as a professional athlete?
It’s been great to get the feedback and to see how much interest there is from people reading about my training. I was a little bit surprised there and for me, my first marathon was Dave’s first marathon as a coach, so I was reaching out to a lot of other elite athletes looking for advice and guidance, so seeing how open they were with me, you realize no one is really keeping it a secret, even if they’re not posting it. So I guess I just wanted to get out and show people that there’s no magic recipe, there’s no special secret to success. We’re just out there putting in the miles like everyone else and I think people really have responded to that.
Not to look too far past New York, but the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon is coming up in about 15 months. The marathon has gotten so competitive in the U.S. over the last few years. How tough is it going to be to make that team and what type of effort will it take to be amongst the top-three finishers in L.A. in February of 2016?
I think looking back at 2012, you had to be a 2:09 guy and I don’t expect anything different going into 2016. So, not that you have to run 2:09 on the day necessarily, but you have to be in 2:09 kind of shape going into the race. So I’m just trying to take each marathon one step at a time, trying to get myself down into that type of fitness level because I know it’s going to take at least that to make the team.