This week we continue our series featuring Chaski coached athletes. Today we are joined by Conor Sleith of Waltham, MA. Conor runs for Cambridge Sports Union running club and is currently training under the guidance of Chaski Coach and founder Tyler Andrews. He’s targeting the Manchester Marathon in New Hampshire on November 22 (which will be run in person with a staggered, time-trial start system).
Our interview spans from the meaningfulness of running to painting his toes before races. Hope you enjoy.
To warm into the conversation let's start with how long you’ve been running and why you first fell in love with the sport.
“I got a late start as an athlete. I started running in my late twenties, about 7 years ago, with a Couch-to-5k app. Some months later, I was training for a half-marathon and got lost during what was meant to be an 11-miler, farther than I'd ever run at that point. At around 12 miles, something changed; I was running faster, and it felt effortless. That day I discovered my love for long runs, abandoned the half-marathon training, and registered for a full.”
This is beautiful, sounds like someone finding an unknown passion. It’s nice to be reminded that at no point is it ever too late to start something new.
Has there been anyone who has inspired your running journey since that “11-miler”?
“Oh man, this is a hard one to answer because there are so many runners I find inspirational. Shalane Flanagan's finish at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials gives me chills every time I think about it; I don't know if I've ever seen an athlete go deeper into the pain cave. Kipchoge's total mastery of the mental game is really inspiring to me. Des Linden's "keep showing up" is another one.”
[Editor's note: During the 2016 LA Olympic Marathon Trials Shalane battled heat exhaustion for the last 5 miles but kept her composure until she collapsed at the finish line in third place securing her Olympic bid.]
Yes so much about Shalane is inspiring but this story is particularly touching. It’s powerful to see someone push to the edges of their ability and realize we ourselves often have more to give. If you’re reading this, Shalane, just know you’ve inspired so many runners around the globe, few of us have had an impact like you.
So Conor, what’s next for you, what are the long-term goals for yourself as a runner?
“1) I want to break 2:20 in the marathon. As a 2:39 marathoner, there is a yawning chasm of intermediate checkpoints that I need to get through first, and there's really no compelling evidence that I can achieve something so ambitious, except that I believe that I can and I have no evidence to the contrary. 2) I want to win a marathon, even if it's a small one. 3) I've won a handful of small, shorter races, but none of them has had tape at the finish line. I want to literally break the tape in a race. 4) I also want to run a 100-miler once I've had my way with the marathon. Hopefully I can grow a decent trail beard by then.”
That’s a great perspective to hold. We may not have evidence to suggest we CAN do something but focusing on the LACK of evidence to the contrary is so positive and wise. With an attitude like that, we know you’ll soon be impressing all of us.
At this point with your experience running, what has been the most meaningful experience thus far?
“Rather than particular moments or races, it's the holistic experience of training, of dedication, of incremental improvement, that means the most to me. I've really fallen in love with the process; sometimes it's a grind, and not every run is great, but loving the process makes it easier to move past those days.”
It seems many runners feel similar to this. Not a single experience changed their life so dramatically (always obvious exceptions) but the lifestyle overall had a significant impact on the trajectory of their life. For many of us running is so much more than a job or hobby, it really is a lifestyle.
Have you ever been on the cusp of quitting this sport, this lifestyle? If so, what brought you back?
“There was a two year stretch, fairly early on in my running journey, where I was stuck in this cycle of getting injured, doing too much too soon during the subsequent buildup, and reinjuring myself. I was pretty close to just giving up on it. I'm glad I didn't because I've achieved way more since then... It took me a long time to learn the lesson of being patient, not trying to force fitness, and listening to my body. It's still a lesson I'm learning, but I like to think I'm better at it now.”
This lesson is especially hard to learn. We all yearn to progress and setbacks are never easy. Patience is the king of progress.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift, and why?
“I think I've given three people Alex Hutchinson's book Endure in the past year or so. It's a really fascinating dive into the physiological and psychological (to the extent that those are actually different things...) limits of human effort.”
What advice would you give a young ambitious runner? What should they avoid?
“Don't compare your training to what other people are doing. We already have a mechanism for comparing runners, and it's called racing.”
Are there any bad recommendations you hear in relation to running?
"To find your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220"
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
“So I started writing something overwrought about the intangibility of the past and future, and only the present being real, but here's the real story. If you've never seen the movie Frozen 2, it's honestly pretty good. It's not going to change your life or set the high water mark for film in the 21st century, but it doesn't need to. Anyway, in Frozen 2, the character Anna is struggling with uncertainty in the face of loss and grief. And then she sings a song telling herself to "do the next right thing." And that really resonated with me. You don't need to know every step of a journey in order to make progress. You don't need to know all the right things to do in the future. Just do the next right thing.”
Last but not least, what is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
“I paint my nails before big races; I like to feel fancy.”
This seems like a great place to wrap up with you Conor. We loved this conversation and all the directions we ran with (pun intended).
The quick takeaways we enjoyed!
Love the journey, the process and you’ll find yourself appreciating the hard days when they come.
Be patient and don't try to force fitness.
When the future seems too uncertain just do the next right thing.
Let us know who you’d like us to interview and questions you’d like to hear answered.