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.
Even when my competitive days are behind me, there will still be ways I can improve as a member of the running community. For example, I'd like to give back to the sport by serving in a coaching or support role. In many ways, my running career has been a selfish pursuit and I think it would be great to play a meaningful part in someone else's journey.
In the same vein, I would also like to accumulate more experiences. The places I've seen, people I've met, and feelings I've had mean much more than the quantifiable results. Those intangibles also make for more interesting stories too. I'm confident people would rather hear about the run where I was sprayed by a skunk or got lost in rural Kenya than the perfect splits that led to a half marathon personal best."
Q: What has been your most meaningful experience as a runner?
My most meaningful experiences in the sport would have to be the time spent at running camps as a high schooler. They provided so much exposure and helped me connect with people I wouldn't have met otherwise. Those camps were great opportunities to grow and basically served as crash courses in training, racing, nutrition, recovery, etc. After having a blast at camp with excited athletes and knowledgable coaches, I felt like the world was my oyster."
Q: Have you had any running setbacks (such as an injury or big change in life) and if so can you tell us about it?
"Fortunately my running setbacks have all been relatively minor - nuisances like IT Band Syndrome or Plantar fasciitis that have sidelined me intermittently. They were certainly frustrating at the time, especially when I was in great shape or approaching a goal race.
As a college runner, nothing will leave you feeling more self-pity than aqua jogging in the pool while your team competes at a conference meet. In the long run, however, those experiences provided more perspective than pain. If my biggest complaint is not being able to run because my knee or foot hurts then I'm living a pretty sweet life. If/when I'm dealt an untimely injury in the future, I hope to maintain that healthy outlook and spend more time counting my blessings."
Q: Is there something about Chaski that you’re especially drawn to?
"I think the diversity of Chaski is fascinating. The coaches and athletes have rather broad backgrounds and current focuses (e.g., road, track, trail, ultra). While it is a collection of like-minded runners, the goals are extremely varied. I'm a firm believer of taking an individualized approach and allowing people to hone in on what makes them unique, which seems to be ingrained in Chaski's DNA."
Q: What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
"Earlier this summer I read East of Eden by John Steinbeck for the first time. I was drawn to the main theme of fate and free will. Life is largely influenced by factors outside our control, but I still believe we are the architects of our futures. As someone who often struggles to be proactive, that is an idea I want to instill in my personal ethos."
Q: How has a failure (or apparent failure) set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
My entire running career could be viewed as a series of failures and subsequent successes. I "failed" at many of the shorter distances I contested in high school and college only to find success at longer races. For example, I've never actually run sub-5:00 in the mile yet my half and marathon PB's are 1:12 and 2:32. There's a large disparity in those performances."
Q: What has your sport taught you that you may not have learned elsewhere?
"Running has taught me that progress is not linear. It's easy to simplify improvement and picture it as a series of uniform steps leading to a pinnacle of some sort. In reality, progress is like a hazardous staircase in a dilapidated building. Instead of gently rising, you fall through the broken step into a dusty basement. At that point, you need to dust off and figure out a way to begin climbing again."
Q: If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why?
"Do the things that make you feel alive. We, myself included, often get bogged down by the minutiae and monotony of our everyday worlds. It's important to shake things up occasionally. Take time to stop and take the road less traveled. Or waste time by brainstorming mixed metaphors that only you will think are funny."
Q: What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
"During the quarantine period, I learned how to juggle. It's been a fun activity to test my athleticism and my favorite way to procrastinate while I study for the CPA Exam. At some point, I think I'll diversify myself as a runner by entering the joggling (juggling + running) world."
Q: In the last five years what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life (and your running)?
"In college, I realized how important sleep is. Getting proper sleep has huge implications on an athlete's ability to train and recover. Aside from running, it also plays a major role in a person's ability to function on a day-to-day basis. I'm normally not one for colloquialisms, but 'don't sleep on sleep.'"
Q: What advice would you give a young ambitious runner dreaming of running professionally? What should they avoid?
Take responsibility for your running career and find a way to make it your own. Be a student of the sport and make sure you know why running is something you want to pursue. I've seen several young athletes go through the motions without taking the time to develop stronger and more sustainable motives."
Q: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
"Whenever I feel stressed or overwhelmed I like to go for a walk. I find that being in motion helps reduce my stress level and improve mental clarity. That's probably why my sanity starts to slip whenever I go extended periods without running."
Q: Favorite place to run?
Leipzig, Germany - I studied abroad in the summer of 2017. Great weather, serene running, and miles of riverside and forest trails!
Q: Favorite race of all time?
California International Marathon (CIM) - amazing course and the "Great Wall of Portages Potties" in the warmup area is a can't-miss
Q: Bucket-list race you haven’t done yet?
"Boston Marathon - The race has so much history that it would be silly, albeit less cliche, for me to pick anything else. It's basically a rite of passage for runners of any caliber. On a personal note, the 2013 bombings and Meb's victory the following year were both big moments during a formative time in my running career. I can vividly remember viewing the 2014 live stream during class and shedding a few tears while watching Patriots Day several years later."
Q: Favorite workout you've done since starting to work with Chaski (or before)?
A: "Long Runs - I thoroughly enjoy crushing a solid long run. They're definitely my bread and butter when it comes to training."