I want to share with you the amazing story of Colonel Mike Wasson. Mike is a good friend and long-time United States Air Force teammate. We are the same age (46) and have shared similar experiences in our running and busy professional careers — trying to balance family, work, health, and running. Mike shares the passion for running with the Airman under his command during weekly beach runs at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
He recently had a breakthrough day at the Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio, where he lowered his marathon PR from 2:42 to 2:39, and finished fourth overall! We had run together for 11 miles when I had to take a quick call of nature. He was running so strong all I could do was try to keep him in eyesight after the pit stop. I finished 3 minutes behind him and in tenth place.
So how did Mike pull off a PR? What changes did he make in his training, racing, and running shoes? And can other age-group runners learn from his example? Mike works in Space Operations, and as you can tell from his answers that he is highly analytical, methodical, and results-oriented.
Dr. Mark: Mike, you are by far the most fit senior officer in the United States Air Force. What is your role and how does fitness help your job performance?
Mike Wasson: I’m a career space operations officer currently serving as the Deputy Director of the Joint Space Operations Center which provides Space Situational Awareness and command and control for 60 joint space units to deliver global and theater space effects to users worldwide. Fitness is integral to my daily routine. It’s my time to reflect on the events of the day, set my priorities, and is my mental recharge time when the pace of the job gets hectic. I rarely miss my daily run due to work because I anchor my schedule around my run.
DM: Tell us a bit about your running background? We have raced together for over 10 years. Your strength has always been shorter events but you have done some extreme ultras too.
MW: I started running in high school, competing for 3 years in cross-country where I was Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Class C champion as a senior. I competed for 2 years in track. I still hold my high school records for the 1,600 and 3,200-yard distances. I ran cross-country for a small Division 2 college and was the Sunshine State Conference champion for 3 consecutive years. Early in my air force career, I ran a few marathons but mostly focused on local 5K and 10K races. My training was fairly inconsistent until 1997 when I began training with 2:14 marathoner, Randy Reina, in San Antonio, Texas. I improved my 5K time to 14:55 and also started experimenting with ultra marathons (50k and below distance). I first competed for the Air Force in 1999 (11 years after college graduation) and alternated between the 4K and 12K distances. I ran my first (and only) 100 mile race in Leadville in 2005 completing in just under 25 hours. Over the last few years, I’ve run at least one 50 mile trail ultra per year with my best performance at the JFK 50 in 2010
DM: Last February we both ran in the Cross-Country Nationals, but you seemed to be at a down point. Can you tell us why?
MW: In 2011, I was plagued with lower back problems. I trained very strong in the spring but was forced to take some time off in the summer until I received some simple medical advice for physical therapy that corrected my imbalance. I started training for Marine Corps Marathon about 8 weeks before the race but didn’t have the typical base mileage to run my best. I then prepared for the North Face 50 mile Endurance Challenge in San Francisco in early December. It was a tough race – I was cramping by mile 35 and really struggled to cross the finish line that day. After about a week off, I switched to train for Nationals at the 8K distance. My training was fairly typical in that I did the same workouts as I have in past years, however, I never could achieve the same pace or rhythm prior to the event.
DM: Yet you had the performance of a lifetime at the Air Force marathon. What did you do differently?
MW: Following Nationals in February, I was determined to have a better 2012. My initial motivation was, based on your advice, to get off my orthotics “as soon as possible”. I’d been wearing orthotics for 20 years and had very few runs during those 20 years when I would even consider running without the support (cross country Nationals, for instance). I was also interested/motivated to join the natural running movement. I’d done the research and listened to your description of the mechanics/reasons for the movement and I wanted to transform my running consistent with the principles you illustrated for me. Then, as we were talking at Nationals, you mentioned Dr. Maffetone’s book, “Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” as the authoritative reference for the type of training and racing we do. I bought the book for my Kindle and starting reading it on the way home from Nationals.
It became apparent that I needed to be more scientific and deliberate in my training and not just from a mileage perspective. I was a self-proclaimed “sugar junkie” and there was little chance of teaching my body to burn fats if I didn’t overhaul my diet. So, the day I got home from Nationals, I went “cold turkey” and eliminated most refined sugar from my diet.
Also in line with the Maffetone principles, I dusted off my heart-rate monitor, of which I’d probably used less than 5 times ever, and began a 6-week transformation of aerobic heart-rate training. I was already in decent shape, so my flat and easy terrain was still at a reasonable 7-8 min/mile pace, but I really noticed the difference on hill climbs where I was now training at a 9-10 min/mile pace
The main reason I began this endurance training transformation was to test the theory in an ultra-marathon. The Air Force Marathon was an interim goal that worked out great for validating my approach, but I’d still like to test the theory in a 50-mile race this fall. If all goes well, I’ll line up at JFK 50 again this year.
DM: What shoes did you wear for the Air Force Marathon in training, and tell us how you transitioned with your footwear?
MW: I ran the marathon with Brooks Pure Flow, without sock liner inserts. I’d been wearing a structure New Balance shoe for years, along with my orthotics. Last fall, I attempted, successfully, to transition into aneutral lightweight (compared to previous) New Balance 890, however, still with orthotics. Following Nationals in February, I focused on eliminating my dependency on my orthotics first (before trying new shoes). Over a period of about 6 weeks, I gradually removed my orthotics; the last mile or two of my training runs at first and then for longer and longer distances. After 6 weeks, I ran my first of 4 half-marathons (used as my intermediate goals following each “phase” of my training for the Air Force Marathon). I wasn’t quite ready to run 13 miles without orthotics, but this would be my last race this year with my “crutch”. Within 2 weeks following that March race, I was orthotic-free.
I took the next 7 week period to phase out of the typical drop NB shoe and into the Brooks Pure Flow with a 4mm drop. I followed the same pattern of switching, at first, to the Brooks only for the last couple of miles of my workouts and then gradually increasing the distance where I was comfortable.
I experienced a few aches and pains along the way, mostly with shin splints. So I adopted a steady routine of preventative physical therapy to both strengthen my shins and improve my foot/ankle strength and balance. My 2nd half-marathon in mid-May was with the Brooks Flow. I also started phasing in a few short runs in the Merrell Trail Glove zero drop shoe (on a Vibram sole).
I did focus on form during the early runs in the Flow, and especially with the Trail Gloves. However, I don’t think I kept form as an important goal through the summer. As I got closer to the marathon, I was reluctant to running in the Trail Gloves since I didn’t want to risk injury. Based on how my calves felt after the marathon, I assess that I’d reverted back to my default stride. The Brooks are still soft enough that I didn’t have to concentrate on foot placement. My sore Achilles over the last month is further evidence so I’ve refocused my attention back on my stride.
DM: Finally, why do you run and what message do you want to leave with all runners?
MW: As I mentioned earlier, running in my recharge time. I don’t run with music and I don’t need to. It’s my personal time to relax, enjoy the scenery, and think about the day … or nothing at all. I think that I’ve proven over the years that having fitness well-integrated into your daily routine does not eliminate your chance for succeeding in the Air Force. Despite the Air Force culture of having to work 14-16 hour days to get ahead, I’ve managed to remain competitive in running and still advance in rank. Fitness has allowed me to stay healthy and more productive over the years and I’ve had a much more consistent, level disposition. In other words, as my wife says, “I’m nicer to be around” when I’m running.