I Ask A Pro Ultrarunner 87 Questions

I am not that curious about how to get faster as a trail runner, but I am curious about how fast people’s brains work. My friend Mike Foote and I have a lot in common (we’re dads of toddlers, we both like early Metallica albums, we both live in Missoula, we both grew up in small towns in the Midwest, etc.) but running velocity is not one of them (he’s on the podium when he races; I am proud to finish without injuring myself). So when we decided to travel to South Africa together in November, I thought it might be a good chance to pick his brain a little bit. He came over and sat down for an interview before we left, and then I kept asking him questions throughout our trip. Which was fun for me, and tolerable for Mike, who was a good sport about the whole thing.

Here’s the video of our very extended interview—I hope you get a kick out of it (and maybe some useful insight):

screen capture from I Ask A Pro Ultrarunner 87 Questions


Here’s the full, lightly-edited transcript if you’d rather read it:

Brendan: This is my friend Mike. He’s been a professional trail and ultra runner for 11 years. He’s sponsored by a really big outdoor apparel company. During his career, he’s podiumed at a bunch of the world’s top mountain ultra marathons. A while back he invited me to go to South Africa with him for the Ultra Trail Cape Town. I thought it’d be fun to ask him some questions since he’s a world class athlete and I’m not a world class athlete. Okay. Are you comfortable?

Mike: I am.

Brendan: Okay. So do you run first thing in the morning to get it out of the way or because it’s your favorite thing to do every day?

Mike: Yes, both. I do it because that’s when I have energy and because I’m looking forward to doing it and I enjoy it most in the morning.

Brendan: Do you drink coffee first?

Mike: 100% of the time.

Brendan: Have you ever entered a race and said, “I think I might just take it easy for this one? Not like go hard.”

Mike: Not really.

Brendan: That’s good. In your experience and opinion, is it more fun to try hard?

Mike: I don’t know if trying hard is the only thing that matters. I think committing to something can bring more purpose to it. Sometimes that’s trying hard, sometimes that’s just, you know, embracing the moment, whatever that looks like. For a race, I think trying hard definitely puts you in the moment a lot more.

Brendan: Are you ever out there during a race and you just lose track of stuff and you’re like thinking about some other things and you’re like, “Oh, I should be running faster?”

Mike: Yeah, I have. I mean, if you’re running a 100 miles and it’s all day or it’s the middle of the night and you tend to get a little loopy and your mind starts to drift, that can definitely happen.

Brendan: What’s the best advice anybody has ever given you about running a very long distance?

Mike: It was actually advice for climbing, but it was a climbing guide out in the Tetons and he said, “Perfection is in the process.” To me it was like a lightning bolt of like, “Oh, it’s less about, you know, the outcome and more about the journey”, which again is like cliche and we’ve all heard it, but I just felt like perfection is in the process is such a succinct way of putting it and I really enjoyed it and I try to approach my running that way. I break down like an ultra marathon into just moments and I try and just keep on top of those moments versus the whole thing and that’s perfection in the process. 2:00 AM, I’m 70 miles into a 100 mile race and it’s raining really hard and all I really want is to be done, but instead of just thinking about the finish line, I’m gonna think about all the things I can do in that moment to stay warm, stay fed, stay moving forward as fast as I can, thinking about just efficiencies, like in the moment and focusing on that very acutely versus what’s at the end. And that way your brain is staying present and you are just working through it versus just trying to be done with it.

Brendan: Have you ever vomited from exertion?

Mike: I have never vomited from exertion.

Brendan: What about the other end?

Mike: Yes.

Brendan: What’s the longest you’ve ever spent in a porta-potty during a race? Like just guess.

Mike: No more than a minute.

Brendan: Whoa.

Mike: Yeah. Okay.

Mike: Yeah, I’m a lucky guy.

Brendan: Do you enjoy pain?

Mike: No. Do I accept pain? Yes.

Brendan: Do you experience a lot of pain in your daily life?

Mike: It’s all relative, but I put my, yeah, I’m uncomfortable almost every day at some point, but it pain, I mean, it’s like a one out of 10, you know?

Brendan: How do you deal with pain during a race?

Mike: Don’t try to ignore it, I accept it for what it is, I acknowledge that there’s a very big difference between discomfort and pain and being injured and unsafe. So as long as I’m just really uncomfortable and in pain from running really hard or just having a really big day, that’s okay, and then as soon as it feels like I’m unsafe or injured, then I pay attention to it. Sometimes when things are just really, really hard, I’m not thinking about the pain, I’m just thinking about how hard it is and I just remind myself like, this is what you came for, like this is the moment that you were working towards.

Brendan: The pain.

Mike: Sure, you can call it the pain. I call it like the just challenge and discomfort. Yeah, it’s painful.

Brendan: Why do you run a 100 miles or a 100K or 31 miles instead of 26 or 13?

Mike: Those are the distances that mean I can go a little bit slower and be out a little bit longer, and that’s the type of stuff I enjoy. And when I do adventures, they’re similar to that, like all day slow, relatively adventures. And so running a 100 miles or a 100 kilometers in the mountains is pretty slow. It’s a lot of power hiking up, running down and that’s like the gear I enjoy the most.

Brendan: Do you eat aid station food? You’re a pro athlete, you have nutrition dialed. Do you ever get up to an aid station and you’re like, “Oh my god, they got Double Stuf Oreos” and you just house like four of ’em and then keep running?

Mike: Yes.

Brendan: You do?

Mike: Oh yeah.

Brendan: Okay.

Mike: Yeah, you gotta enjoy the aid station fare.

Brendan: I don’t know, sometimes I picture people being like, oh, I can’t mess with my delicately balanced nutrition. Like if I’m gonna be, if I’m gonna win this thing or whatever and I kind of assume they’re not like, ooh, you got quesadillas, and like.

Mike: I mean, to be honest, if I’m running this 55K, I’ll probably just eat the calories I’m carrying because it’s gonna go pretty fast. Like hopefully five or six hours. But if it’s a 100 miler, I’ll peruse, I’ll have a full meal, I’ll ask what they’ve got, sometimes they’ll cook for you and if you got time.

Brendan: What would make you stop and grab food from an aid station in this upcoming race? Like what would be there that you’d like?

Brendan: What would be so good I would have to—You’d be like, “Nah, yeah, I’m hitting this” like a bear claw.

Mike: I think it’s gonna be hot, so probably like watermelon or an orange or something, like some sort of like hydrating fruit. I probably won’t eat a bear claw.

Brendan: Well, what if they had it like cut up into smaller pieces?

Mike: Okay, yeah, that’s fair. Still no.

Brendan: What is the longest conversation you’ve ever had with someone at an aid station during an ultra marathon you’re competing in?

Mike: Hmm. I go into every aid station and I’m convinced that the nicer I am, the better things are gonna go and that that’s what volunteers deserve. So I think I’m really like nice, but I’m not very curious.

Brendan: When do you go fast?

Mike: What do you mean?

Brendan: When do you like, “Okay, now I’m gonna go fast the whole time.”

Mike: You know, no, no, not the whole time. The only time I’ve ever, my worst race is the ones where I get overconfident, I’m like, “I’m gonna go out hard today.” That has rarely worked out for me, especially in the longer the distance. You know, it just depends. Depends on the terrain, it depends on the distance. But if I’m feeling good, I’ll just slowly press on the gas pedal throughout the day without any major big shifts. I’m not the kind of person who just like sits and sits and then is gonna sprint it in. But I’d like to like smooth energy throughout. But if I’m feeling good and I can close down the race hard, then I’ll do that. But I don’t really have like a, the last 20% or anything like that. Do you need more prescriptive?

Brendan: No.

Mike: Do need me to lie?

Brendan: Nope. No it doesn’t, just be honest.

Brendan: Do you start at the front of the pack or like a couple rows back or like. Middle of the pack.

Mike: I start at the back of the front of the pack,

Brendan: Back of the front of the pack.

Mike: That’s my spot.

Brendan: So like 300 people in the race, how many people are in front of you at the start?

Mike: 20 to 30.

Brendan: Is that because you’re a polite mid westerner or you’re like legit this is where I feel the most comfortable?

Mike: Probably a little bit of both. Yeah, I don’t wanna get in people’s way. I just really, really don’t like being in people’s way. I’d much rather they’re in my way. And that feels good when you pass them later if that happens.

Brendan: What is advice you would give someone about running an ultra marathon but you would never apply to your own race?

Mike: I mean, the only thing that comes to mind is I always tell people that nobody in the history of running 100 milers has ever said I went out too slow. But I think it’s possible. I think people probably have said it. So like sometimes I’m like, I wouldn’t want to test that theory. Like it’s good to go out conservative, but I would not want to end a race and be like, “Oh man, I waited way, way, way too long.”

Brendan: During a race, do you ever ask yourself why you’re doing it? Like why don’t you just golf?

Mike: I mean, only all the time. The whole time, like why am I doing this? I don’t know. I think it’s a good thing, I think it’s a good question. Like, I mean, I think it’s in vogue to ask, you know, to have a why when you’re doing something like this and I think that your reasons for running shift, like it’s important to have like a good purpose behind it. My answer at the beginning of my career was, I probably told myself, I was like following my curiosity, but I really was competitive and I wanted to like prove myself in something ’cause I’d never really had much success athletically when I started to and running and I was like, “Oh, this feels good.”

Brendan: Okay, and then what about now? When you get to that point in next week’s race, what’s your why of doing it? Like “this is my job”?

Mike: My why now?

Brendan: Like “I clocked in”?

Mike: “I gotta collect my paycheck?” My why now is that I truly do love it. And like for me, like we’re going to South Africa, like I love experiencing new places, I like experiencing new communities and cultures. I also have one child and another on the way and it’s like I want to be able to show my kids that they can do hard things, they can do extraordinary things and that it’s okay to swing big. And so when I’m out there now I think about that.

Brendan: What’s worse, overtraining or undertraining?

Mike: Over training.

Brendan: Are you undertrained right now?

Mike: I’m hoping I’m right on the edge. Yesterday I felt overtrained, but the week before I felt undertrained, so.

Brendan: How many miles have you run this year? Approximate.

Mike: I don’t know, I don’t pay attention.

Brendan: How many miles do you run a week?

Mike: I mean, it’s a lot less than it used to be. I’d say when I’m actually training, 60 to 80.

Brendan: How many miles did you run per week when you were like top of your game?

Mike: Like 100 to 130.

Brendan: Do you ever stick around and watch the last plays person cross the finish line?

Mike: I do, yeah, it’s the best.

Brendan: Why is it the best?

Mike: It’s really cool to see somebody chasing cutoffs like that. And often you’re also surrounded by other people that may have finished sooner, but also came out and hobbled to a finish line to watch that last finisher, and there’s this like collective effervescence that happens and this like communal feel that kind of transcends the event and it’s like this celebration and it’s just like the exclamation point on the end of like a really cool experience. And you get to like, it’s always emotional, people are like chasing this thing and it’s incredibly hard, and yeah, it’s pretty special.

Brendan: Do you think the cheers are louder for the first place finisher or the last place finisher at most ultramarathons?

Mike: Definitely louder for the last place. Perhaps more people for the first place, but it’s like a, you know, it’s like a more moderate, like decibel. The last place person, you’re like losing your mind for ’em because they’re like may or may not like get this arbitrary time and therefore we’ll have finished or not finished and it’s very exciting. Yeah.

Brendan: How many toenails do you have right now?

Mike: Nine.

Brendan: What’s the lowest number of toenails you’ve had in your career?

Mike: I mean, I actually take pride in not having awful feet. I don’t know, maybe five. But usually I don’t lose ’em, so.

Brendan: What do you attribute that to?

Mike: Wearing shoes that fit. I think the whole, this is a pet peeve about ultra running, I think that we’re a little too proud of our awful toenails, I think that people just need better footwear.

Brendan: What do you eat during a race?

Mike: How long is the race?

Brendan: Let’s say 50 miles maximum. What do you eat during that?

Mike: 50 miles maximum, I eat sugar. I eat a lot of chews, just like whatever, like chewy gummy stuff I can eat and I probably eat a few 100 calories an hour.

Brendan: Why not gels?

Mike: I’m just kinda over ’em. I ate only gels for like a decade.

Brendan: Just running, not just like you ate ’em all the time? For 10 years.

Brendan: how many calories do you think you eat per hour?

Mike: 300 on average.

Brendan: Do you drink calories or do you just drink straight water?

Mike: I’m not like dogmatic about it, but I usually drink mostly water.

Brendan: What have we not touched on that you had thought about?

Mike: I used to like get on the start line and just like size people up and be like, “Oh, that person looks fit, that person looks fast, like, hmm.” And now I just like imagine that we’re all like, everybody at one point was like a toddler because I have a toddler and I’m just like, just imagining them being like two years old, like toddling around, like being tyrants to their parents. And I’m like, this is ridiculous. It’s just like incredible that we got here, and like I sincerely did that this year at a race and it was like such like a pressure release battle for me.

Brendan: Do you practice positive self-talk during races, in your head, or literally talk to yourself?

Mike: I do, and it’s benign stuff like “You got this”, like “Stay strong”, like “Stay in the moment.” And sometimes some expletives if I’m really digging deep. I don’t know if those are positive or not. Actually maybe that’s the one thing that I would tell somebody else to do is like positive self-talk whereas like sometimes I can fuel myself with some like strong language and it seems to help in the moment.

Brendan: But it’s not negative strong language like, “You’re a piece of shit, Mike”?

Mike: Well, it’s like “Don’t be a piece of shit.” So it’s like right on the edge. I try and stay like action oriented and like solutions oriented, that’s my positive self-talk. I’m like, “Okay, what can I do now to like make sure that I’m feeling good 10 minutes from now or like how much liquid do I need? How much food do I need? Like I feel like that solutions oriented just curiosity and mindset is my positive self-talk often.

Brendan: Do you have a mantra? Like would you say like there’s things that you or some mantras that you repeat?

Mike: When my mind is like getting super distracted, sometimes I’ll just repeat the phrase, “Now, here, this.”

Brendan: Have you ever shut off your headlamp when you’re like way behind somebody who’s ahead of you in a race and then passed them and then turned it on?

Mike: Oh yeah. I’ve done headlamp warfare for sure. Either I’ll keep it off as long as possible so somebody doesn’t know I’m near or I will turn it off as I’m approaching somebody so they don’t get motivated to run any faster away from me.

Brendan: Do you ever say anything nasty to them as you pass by or like try to, like [imitates “ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah” sound from Friday the 13th]

Mike: No. I do not do that. I’m like overly nice and just act like I’m not in any sort of pain or discomfort at that moment. I’m just overly jolly, and it’s just like psychological warfare.

Brendan: Do you like getting up early?

Mike: Yeah, I do

Brendan: How much coffee do you drink per day??

Mike: A cup.

Brendan: One cup?

Mike: Mmm hmm.

Brendan: What your policy on moving walkways?

Mike: I don’t take them.

Brendan: You want a donut?

Mike: No.

Brendan: Do you listen to music or anything when you run?

Mike: Yeah. Mostly podcasts.

Brendan: Are you gonna listen to podcasts during your race?

Mike: I don’t listen to anything when I race.

Brendan: Do you stretch?

Mike: I do the couch stretch. It’s to keep my knees happy. So that’s only recent, but normally not really.

Brendan: Can you sleep on planes?

Mike: Just a little bit

Brendan: Do you enjoy being famous in a very niche environment? Like you don’t get recognized walking down the street in New York, but at trail running things you get recognized? Do you enjoy that?

Mike: Oh yeah. That’s the only reason I’m still here.

Brendan: Have you ever gotten lost during a race?

Mike: All the time, yeah.

Brendan: Really?

Mike: Oh man, yeah, I’ve got a bad record.

Brendan: Have you tried going slower? Because I’ve never gotten lost.

Mike: You haven’t?

Brendan: I don’t think so.

Mike: Really?

Brendan: I don’t even think I’ve had to turn around.

Mike: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Like sometimes I’ll get there before the volunteer and so there’ll be like flags going in two directions and they’re the same color but ones for like a 25K for the 50K.

Brendan: Not a problem a lot of us have. I can see you having it though.

Brendan: So you have a cold?

Mike: Yeah.

Mike: And you’re gonna race anyway.

Brendan: You think I’m gonna get your cold before my race?

Mike: Probably the morning of. Right when you wake up you’ll feel it

Brendan: Do you do speed work?

Mike: I do intensity. So most of my like hard efforts are up the hill so it’s not that fast actually. But I’m doing it like a high effort. So like I’ll just like do like five by three minutes up a steep hill to build like strength and like aerobic capacity. And then, you know, I’ll switch that up, sometimes I’ll just do like a hard 30 minute effort up a hill.

So it’s just rare that I’m doing like speed, like something really fast and flat.

I think for like the goals I have, I don’t really need a whole lot of flat speed work.

Brendan: Can I offer you an ass-wipe?

Mike: Yeah, sure, thanks.

Brendan: Have you ever had a nickname that stuck? When do you use poles in a race?

Mike: When it’s too steep to run.

Brendan: Have you ever worn the race T-shirt in the race?

Mike: It’s like wearing like a band T-shirt when you’re going to their concert, I just can’t do it.

Brendan: So no.

Mike: No.

Brendan: What’s your goal for today?

Mike: What’s my goal?

Brendan: Yeah.

Mike: Stay hydrated, Run fast. Make a friend.

Brendan: Do you get nervous?

Mike: Yeah.

Brendan: What about constipated?

Mike: No.

Brendan: What do you get nervous about?

Mike: The pain that will happen, the fear of expectations versus reality sometime. I’m actually usually the most nervous like two days before and then by the time I get to the start line, I’m not very nervous.

Brendan: What’s your ratio of liquid calories to solid calories?

Mike: Probably 75% solid calories, 25% liquid.

Brendan: Do you have any advice for yourself before you start this race?

Mike: I think because I just don’t know the race course that well, it probably be good for me to be judicious in the first hour, hourish so that I setting myself up for the second half.

Brendan: And then if you’re feeling good, you’ll push it a little bit?

Mike: Yeah.

Mike: Vision quest has begun.

Brendan: How you feeling?

Mike: I’m not good at all. I just don’t have any energy. I mean, it might come back and I’m trying, but.

Brendan: How far am I behind the leader?

Mike: You’re really far behind the leaders. You’re like five hours, six hours.

Brendan: Okay.

Brendan: Mike, what do you when a race takes longer than you thought it would?

Mike: Well, you just, you work with what you got and you keep taking care of yourself. The strategy doesn’t really change, you just kind of acknowledge that maybe it’s not going as fast as you want. That’s okay, you still have the same goals with like getting to the finish as fast as you can and taking care of yourself along the way.

Brendan: You ever get a rock in your shoe during a race?

Mike: Yeah.

Brendan: What do you do?

Mike: Well, if it’s not that big and it’s not slowing me down, I just leave it in there. But if it’s bothering me, I’ll take my shoe off and get the rock out.

Brendan: What about like an invisible poky plant piece?

Mike: I have a high tolerance to discomfort in my feet and I’ll usually, I’m way too lazy to do anything about it.

Brendan: Have you ever read this book?

Mike: Yes.

Brendan: Have you ever bonked during a race?

Mike: Many times.

Brendan: What happens?

Mike: Well, sometimes I’m smart and eat a lot of food and take care of myself and turn things around, and sometimes I don’t and it’s a best of land or I don’t finish.

Brendan: Do you double knot your running shoes?

Mike: Depends on how long the shoe is, if they’re longer, I’ll triple knot, but I at least double knot them.

Brendan: You think you’ll be able to get a selfie with a lion?

Mike: It’s possible.

Brendan: How long do you usually wait after a race to start running again?

Mike: You know, I like to listen to my body. Like it could be a few days, could be a few weeks.

Brendan: Was it worth it?