Q + A WITH JOSH McADAMS
interview by Dave Milner 06.15.09
Most of the Memphis area runners enjoying the soft surfaces and relative peace of Shelby Farms, are probably unaware that the muscular young man in the New Balance gear blazing by them is an Olympian. Josh McAdams is the 2006 NCAA Champion, 2007 U.S Champion, and 2007 Pan-American Champion in the 3000m Steeplechase, and placed 3rd in that event in the 2008 Olympic Trials, grabbing a spot on the U.S Team for the Olympic Games in Beijing. A native of Broadview Heights, OH (outside Cleveland), he attended Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, where he was a 4-time OHSAA state placer in track and cross country and a 3-time OHSAA state placer in wrestling. McAdams began his collegiate career at Belmont University in Nashville before transferring to BYU after his two-year Mormon mission to Thailand. While at BYU, McAdams won the 2006 NCAA Outdoor Championships 3,000m steeplechase title with a then personal best time of 8:34.10. With his victory, McAdams became the first distance National Champion from BYU since his coach, Ed Eyestone, won the 5,000m in 1985. McAdams improved his PR in 2007 to 8:21.36, and ended the 2007 campaign ranked #1 in the U.S. by Track & Field News. He will compete in the U.S Championships in Eugene,OR at the end of this month, and enters the steeplechase as one of the favorites.
The 29-year-old currently resides in Cordova (just outside Memphis) with his wife, Whitney and daughter, Millie, and is studying at The Southern College of Optometry. TR caught up with him before the U.S Championships.
TR: You had a solid run at the Prefontaine Classic last week, posting a season's best of 8:26.55 (the 2nd fastest time in the U.S so far this year). That's three seconds faster than you ran at last year's Pre. Were you happy with that performance?
JM: I was pleased. I have lofty goals this year, and I should have raced to hit a time instead of racing the Americans. You train to see how good you've become, not to see who you can beat. I'm disappointed in myself in that regard. With two weeks before USA's though, I'm pleased.
TR: Will you race at all between now and the U.S Championships?
JM: No. Just fine tune. It's not about getting into better shape right now. It's about staying healthy.
TR: With Fam apparently giving up steepling, you are probably, in most people's eyes, going into Nationals as a pretty heavy favorite. Other than Ben Bruce (who has run 8:26.08 this year), who do you see as your biggest rivals in Eugene?
JM: Coach Eyestone taught me and I've remembered well, "Respect all. Fear none." Everyone has the potential to do something anyday of the week. I just watched my BYU teammate Kyle Perry win the NCAA meet in 8:29 last night. There's always somebody ready to step it up. I'll be racing everyone, not just one guy.
TR: Obviously winning another national title and making the team for the World Championships in Berlin are objectives for you, but what else would you like to achieve on the track this season?
JM: I want to run 8:15. I want to get in 2 competitive races over in Europe before Berlin. Americans seem to run faster over there and I want a shot at it too.
TR: Let's rewind a little. Tell us how you got started running competitively. Did you play other sports growing up?
JM: I started in 8th grade after setting school records every year in the mile run for the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. So from 8th grade through high school I ran cross country, wrestled, and ran track. My dad wrestled in college so I had some good pointers and did well. I really loved it. But I did gymnastics, pee-wee football,and baseball growing up prior to 8th grade.
TR: Do you remember your first race?
JM: Yes. I was in the 8th grade. It was a 2 mile cross-country race, and I won partly because the two guys in front of me took a wrong turn. They were these huge tall guys, and I didn't think I could beat them until they took a wrong turn and then I was in front. I was running scared thinking they'd catch me and the experience taught me to pay attention to the course.
TR: Why and when did you begin to focus exclusively on running?
JM: When scholarship offers came in for running and wrestling, I had a serious talk with my dad. He basically said that wrestling in college- the weight cutting, time, injuries, intensity- just isn't as enjoyable. So I decided to pursue running. I was excited about it too because I could actually start training through the winter.
TR: Tell us a little about your high school running, and how you wound up at Belmont.
JM: I had a great coach through high school. Two coaches actually. Bruce Lerch was a veteran coach of 33 years and he knew how to work runners and motivate them. He also taught me many life lessons that I still apply today. I think I ran pretty hard and did decent mileage. I ran 4:15 in the mile and split some 1:53s in the 4x800. I ran 15:27 for 5K at our state meet my senior year. Coach Langdon of Belmont University sent me a letter, and I was interested for some reason. On my recruiting trip, I fell in love with the campus, the guys, and everything about Nashville. Those guys really made me feel at home. Some of my closest friends came from that freshman year at Belmont. I still hang out with them when I get a chance. I couldn't have asked for a better freshman year.
TR: You left Nashville to go on your 2-year mission, but chose to continue your collegiate career at BYU. What prompted that move?
JM: I basically talked to my parents about 8 months before I was to complete my mission. I had pretty much ignored most of their counsel growing up until that point. I'm glad I listened and heeded their counsel. It wasn't about running. It was about doing what was best for my future. And BYU is a large Mormon college. I knew I'd surround myself with people of the same beliefs and standards. I met my wife there. If anything, that was the most important. But having Ed Eyestone just become the coach there was a real blessing.
TR: Was it hard to get back into competitive running after a 2-year lay-off?
JM: Man, it was tough! I got up to 192 lbs on my mission. Too much Thai food, and less than a dozen runs over 2 years doesn't help the running! Not only was I slightly overweight, I was also out of shape. And when I began running again, it was at altitude, which didn't encourage me. I was just trying out to make the team, so no scholarship, no locker, no shoes. All I got were these words from Coach Eyestone after an interval workout one day. "I believe the cream rises to the top and if you stick with it, you'll rise to the top." At least one person believed in me even if I didn't at the time.
TR: You obviously made quite a leap after transferring to BYU. What do you attribute that to the most? (Coach Eyestone? Being older/wiser? Altitude? More competitive team?)
JM: First and most important, I prioritized my life. Running wasn't the most important thing in the world to me. I had just finished serving the Lord and the Thai people for 2 years. I understood what "things" are truly important in life. Put the Lord first, and everything else falls into place. Next, yeah, I had, and still have, a great coach. He knows all there is to know aboyr becoming a great and successful runner. I trust him completely. And when you train with All-Americans you start telling yourself, "I can hang with these guys. I can be an All-American too." Eventually though, you have to blaze your own trail and say, "It's time to up the intensity."
TR: At the 2005 NCAA Championships, you ran well, clocking 8:34.84 in the prelims and 8:36.88 in the final, finishing 9th. How well do you remember that race?
JM: In the final, I was in 6th place coming down the last homestretch. I clipped the last barrier and "bounced" on the track. As I rolled to get up, I watched 3 other guys go by me. I would have finished around 8:30 without that fall. Those are the moments you learn from. Obviously I was frustrated with myself for the next few days, but that bitter taste is part of what motivates us.
TR: The next year you returned to the same track in Sacramento and won the NCAA title in convincing fashion? Were you a very different athlete in 2007?
JM: A different athlete? No, I don't believe so. I think I was just more confident. But that confidence came at a price. I increased my mileage, started doing workouts at a higher intensity, and that got me ready mentally. I knew I had a good shot at winning it, but it wasn't going to be easy.
TR: You made the U.S team for the World Championships in Osaka, and gained some valuable experience there, I'm sure. What was the biggest lesson learned from your first major championship outing?
JM: I learned that I need to give myself more credit as a runner. I was so nervous before that race. I was intimidated. I just missed qualifying for the finals by one spot. I just didn't really give myself a chance to compete with the "big boys." Now I know that I can run with most of them.
TR: You ran a great come from behind race at the 2008 Olympic Trials to nab the third berth on the U.S team for Beijing. How did it feel crossing the line in Eugene, knowing that you were about to be an Olympian?
JM: Indescribable. You train so hard for moments like that, and when it all comes together it's like a two day sigh of relief. You keep going back and saying, "I can't believe you really did it."
TR: Did you get the Olympic rings tattooed?
JM: No. It seems to be a fad right now with the track athletes, but I don't have any tattoos and never will have one. Just a personal thing.
TR: What was the high point and low point (if there was one) for you personally at Beijing?
JM: he high point was racing in front of all those people. That and being able to enjoy it with my wife and parents. They were able to be there. The low point was not racing anywhere near my capabilities at that time. I wasn't even under 8:30, and I've done that 9 times now. That was a real disappointment.
TR: I'm guessing your optometry studies prevent you from heading back to Provo to train with coach Eyestone. Have you found it a challenge training alone in Memphis? Where do you train?
JM: I'm actually in Provo, Utah right now. We have the first summer off so I'll be out here until the end of August. It's been great to have guys to train with and especially great having Coach Eyestone here. I get to train with other All-American steeplers and now that Kyle Perry just won the NCAA Championships, Eyestone has 2 national caliber athletes to train. Obviously it will make for some great workouts.
Training in Memphis my first year of school was pretty rough. It's not so much the training alone, but balancing family (we had our first child in October), school, and running. And we bought a house so we've been doing some improvements and stuff. It was real busy. I hadn't been in school for almost 2 years so I had to learn efficient study habits again.
Usually I'm running from home or at Shelby Farms on my easy days, and then at Rhodes College twice a week or so. I also get some company on my long Saturday 15 milers from Christian Brothers University guys.
TR: What is your typical weekly mileage when in a non-racing phase? What sort of mileage will you log this week (two weeks before U.S Nationals)?
JM: I'm usually about 80-90 miles. Lately I've been increasing it. This week I hit 96 miles on 6 days. I run Mon thru Sat and take Sunday off. I like to try to keep the Sabbath Day holy, and I've found it works for me.
TR: How often do you do hurdle drills and barrier work?
JM: I try to do hurdle drills twice a week but sometimes it's just once and then some plyos. We typically do barrier/hurdle interval workouts about once a week or once every 2 weeks depending on when races are.
TR: Is there one particular workout that you use on a regular basis as a benchmark?
JM: We do pretty much the same workouts year after year so I kind of use all of them as benchmarks. I know how fast I've done 5 mile tempos, 10x400m, 6x800m, 15 mile longruns. I use the 1200, 800, 1200, 800 with hurdles as the golden standard. This year I've been really motivated to up the intensity after reading about some of the Ethiopian and Kenyan training. They just train harder than us.
TR: What advice would you offer to a high school runner who is considering steeplechasing in college?
JM: I would say keep at it. Work on getting fast now in the open races. Try to stay athletic with hurdle drills, ultimate frisbee, and other sports or hobbies. But really keep at it. I was never a state champion in high school. I didn't do anything fantastic my freshman year of college. My sophomore year I made it to Nationals, but not the finals. My junior year I just missed top 8. My senior year I won NCAA's, but wasn't in the top 10 at USA's. The next year I won USA's. Just keep at it. My dream of being an Olympian faded for about 10 years, but I kept training hard with some little goals. Just train hard. My motto is "Hurt Now. Win Later." It all pays off in the end.
TR Editor DAVE MILNER is the assistant cross-country and track coach at Belmont University. He has completed six steeplechase races, yielding times of varying mediocrity.
Follow Josh at tnrunning.com/mcadams
click here for post-race interview with McAdams right after 2008 Olympic Trials 3000m Steeplechase final