Updated: Jul 27
We are so excited to share this interview with John Baker as part of the Chaski Athlete Spotlight Series. As a former Division 1 runner who is now pursuing competitive running post-collegiately(coached by Chaski #RyanMiller), John brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. Our conversation ranges from his beginnings as a young athlete, college running experiences, goals and wisdom, and finishes with some quick-fire questions. We hope you enjoy!
Q: How long have you been running, and why did you first fall in love with the sport?
"I started training seriously and developing a passion for running during the summer before my junior year of high school. That was eight years ago and the fire lit then is still burning now. This may sound like a movie script, but running was a real coming of age experience for me. Throughout my childhood, I participated in other activities because my peers did. Growing up in my small town, that meant trying to be a baseball player when I was young.
My ambition far exceeded my talent so it took that dream a long time to fade. In middle school, I followed the hard-and-fast approach to youth athletics in Texas and played football. I had no delusions of grandeur and was painfully reminded of the skills I lacked. Along the way, I also played soccer, basketball, and tennis. Alas, being fundamentally sound could not make up for my lack of athleticism and I only experienced mild success in those endeavors.
After several years of following the crowd, I discovered running and finally pursued a sport for the right reasons. Unlike many other sports, there is a direct relationship between input and output (to a certain extent) in running and I loved that. In the past, I only had constant reminders of my nonexistent skills and now I could actually see the fruits of my labor. Over the course of one summer, I made drastic improvements and moved from an irrelevant member of the JV cross country team to our varsity team's third runner.
Going through puberty definitely helped that athletic transition and further illustrates the "coming of age" theme. Running served as a positive outlet for me to channel my energy. It provided a sense of purpose and meaning, which are two things adolescents often struggle to find. Over time, my relationship with the sport has evolved and it's actually kind of startling to see how far I've come. It will be interesting to see where the next eight years of my personal running saga take me."
Q: Who has inspired your running journey the most and why?
"I can't say that one individual has served as a singular source of inspiration for me. My running journey consists of several chapters and various individuals have helped guide me through each one. For starters, my high school cross country coach was extremely laid-back and that allowed me to sort of stumble into the sport naturally. He provided support, in addition to his endless supply of eclectic stories, which was all I needed at the time. By taking matters into my own hands training-wise, I was able to develop a relationship with the sport organically and make natural progressions.
My primary college coach had extensive knowledge of the sport, but he also gave me the chance to be somewhat autonomous. He would certainly push me out of my comfort zone when necessary, but for the most part, he let me focus on discovering and fine-tuning my strengths. We developed a great relationship and essentially reached a point where we could communicate telepathically. Without him, I wouldn't have achieved the milestones I did as a college athlete and might not have chosen to pursue the sport post-collegiately.
After coaching myself for about a year, I began working with Ryan Miller. It was fun designing my own training and experimenting with workout ideas, but I knew I would need guidance from someone like Ryan to reach the next level. I've followed his running for several years now and his career trajectory is one that I want to emulate. He's willing to put himself out there in races and has always handled the outcome with grace. The experiences he's accumulated as an athlete adds to his coaching repertoire. Ryan is also very upbeat and enthusiastic, which I think complements my typically even-keel demeanor. I can feel his excitement whenever we connect and in turn, I also feel a strong sense of excitement. Needless to say, he's a role model to his athletes in more ways than one."
"Throughout my running journey, I've also drawn inspiration from several friends and teammates. I've learned how to work hard and how to find the joy necessary for sustaining a long career. In college, my teammate/roommate Ryan Cleary and I pushed and supported each other for nearly half a decade. We celebrated together after breakthrough races, commiserated when dealt humbling blows, and enjoyed all the moments in between. He's definitely another person I can point to and say that without him, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Q: Have you ever been on the cusp of quitting this sport? If so, why, and what brought you back?
"My freshman year of college was a rough time for me as a runner and person. The distance coach we had suffered a life-altering injury about a month into the semester and that left the team in a tumultuous situation. Things felt very chaotic and I witnessed a gradual decline in my running throughout the year. On several occasions, I was reminded why I didn't belong as a Division I athlete (i.e., finishing last in multiple races). Those tough moments made me feel like a running imposter and I often questioned my future in the sport.
Looking back, I was dealing with some things outside of running that left me in a negative headspace. I should have cut myself some slack instead of going through a vicious cycle of self-induced pressure, poor performance, and frustrating disappointment. Like many college freshmen, I lacked the mental and emotional maturity to properly deal with things. It was a slow process, but eventually I weathered that storm and gained an appreciation for the adversity I faced."
Q: What are your long-term goals for yourself as a runner?
"While I do have a few performance-oriented goals in mind, mostly arbitrary time goals, my main mission is to continue improving. I've set at least one personal best each year of my career (some have been default PB's like the random trail races I did at the beginning of the year) and I'd like to continue that trend as long as possible.