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Q&A with Alan Culpepper: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner

Alan Culpepper shares how we can learn from Olympians, and become the best runners we can possibly be, and what to expect with the half marathon being moved to Halloween this year.

As vice president of government relations for Rock 'n' Roll, Alan Culpepper played a crucial role in making sure this year's Philadelphia Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon happens despite the Pope

» READ MORE: bumping the race from it's usual September date


But Culpepper is also an Olympian. He ran the 10,000 meter in the 2000 games and marathon in 2004. He was also an eight-time All-American NCAA Champion in the 5k distance, and finished in the top five of the Boston Marathon twice.

He shares what he's learned in his first book, Run Like a Champion: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner. I talked to Culpepper about how we can learn from Olympians, and become the best runners we can possibly be, and what to expect with the half marathon being moved to Halloween this year.

JAM:  Where did the idea for this book come from?

AC: I was not one of these people who really dreamed of being a writer or writing a book. I was writing monthly articles for Competitor magazine that were just little snippets of sound bites, then was approached by Velo Press to see if I would ever be interested in writing a book. I said no because almost every book that I've seen about running is a training book, and there's a lot of good training books out there.

Then I thought if I ever would write a book, it would be an Olympic approach for every runner, a comprehensive guide to running more than just the training, more of an overarching, holistic approach.

JAM: We're obviously very different runners. Can amateurs really learn from Olympians?

AC: The biggest difference between highest-level athletes and those who are out there for their individual pursuits, whatever their ability level, is really just their God given talent and their physiological make up.

The book is in many ways running 101, and it's the stuff that's right in front of your face that people often lose focus of. They're looking for something else further down the road and missing the beauty in the simplicity of doing things properly.

JAM: Why should we not overlook the mental aspect of running?

AC: Running is still one of those endeavors that takes a lot of cerebral involvement. You're pushing yourself and you're working through the issues of getting out the door when you don't want to, and pushing through the uncomfortable nature that is part of running. Learning to balance that with still finding your motivation and understanding your motivation and also being able to reign it in on race day and be able to execute when you want to and when it's most important to you - that all starts and finishes with your mental preparation.

JAM: Why should we have specific rather than vague goals?

AC: It's so easy to fall off the wagon, as it were, when you don't have something really specific that you're committed to. With vague goals, it's too easy to let yourself off the hook. It doesn't allow for specific enough preparation.

JAM: How does writing down our workouts help us reach those specific goals?

AC: It's accountability and validation. It confirms that what you're doing is important and that it's meaningful, and it validates that the work you're doing is in preparation toward a goal.

It's another one of those simple things that I was amazed elite level runners wouldn't do. They won't keep track of their miles or preparation or what workouts they were doing. They didn't want the accountability because of what it might say to them on race day.

JAM: You write about achieving flow. What is that? And how do we get it?

AC: Flow takes time, and that's something that's hard for new runners to understand, and for people who have been in their same routine or rut to see.

Flow is all about recognizing that every day has a specific purpose and that as you develop a proper routine with your sleep patterns, with your hydration, with your nutrition, with the time of day that you run - coupling that with specific workouts for that day and really holding yourself accountable to what that workout's purpose is, then that's when you start to find this rhythm to your training. It's when you can predict how you'll feel and have a much more reasonable understanding of why you feel the way you do - whether it's good or bad.

JAM: You don't seem to be a fan of listening to music during every workout (I'm the same way). Why?

AC: It's one of those things that you have to find a balance with. It can give you a false sense of your perceived effort, and you can lose the ability or not develop the ability to pay attention to the subtle cues that your body is giving you. It goes back to finding flow in your ability, which affects race day performance.

JAM: Why is finding balance so hard? As in knowing when to run or rest?

AC: That is hard. Running is a sport where there's this threshold, where more is horribly bad. In other sports, where there's technique involved or team dynamic, then more practice generally leads to better performances. That's not always the case in running.

You have to be very mindful of the subtleness of what your body's telling you, but also be honest with yourself about times that holding back or taking days off is appropriate. That's why coaches have jobs. That's the art form of running rather than the science of running.

JAM: Any new details you can share about the Philadelphia Rock 'n' Roll race?

AC: It's really going to start to unfold over the next couple of months. We've been really blown away at the positive response and understanding the uniqueness of the situation. People recognize the place that our event holds in the Philadelphia market.

Jen Miller is the Inquirer's Running Columnist and author of RUNNING: A LOVE STORY, to be published by Seal Press in Spring 2016.

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