This is the time of year when chatter in the ultrarunning community, online and on trails, revolves around the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run that takes place the weekend of June 25. “States,” as it’s nicknamed, is to ultras what Boston is to marathons, what Kona is to triathlons and what Burning Man is to road-trippin’ festivals. It has a storied history, culture and cult following that grows stronger with each passing year.
Or so I gather. I’ve never actually done it, nor have I crewed for a runner there or hung out like a groupie at the finish line. But year after year, I get sucked into tracking participants I know online to monitor their progress as they pass through checkpoints while meeting the extreme challenge of running mountainous backcountry from Squaw Valley to Auburn, trying their darndest to do it in 24 hours or less. Will they make it through the waist-high river? Can they handle the snow or the triple-digit heat? Will they need rescue on horseback (as happened to one friend one year)?
This year I’ll monitor the progress of one friend in particular: Graham Cooper, 41, who won—yeah, won!—the thing five years ago.
Though I sometimes cross paths with Graham on the trail, I know him less through running than through our sons’ playdates and our mutual friends’ parties here in our hometown of Piedmont. It’s pretty cool and inspirational to have a peer who’s a past champion at States. Especially one who barely shows signs of slowing past 40. The guy broke 10 hours at the Ironman Championship last fall and squeaked under 3 hours at the Napa Valley Marathon in early March while also excelling at ultra trail runs.
Earlier this spring, he was gearing up for a breakthrough season and training virtually full time since he left his position as CFO of a San Diego-based biopharm company. “After five years of commuting to San Diego and a major setback with the FDA, I decided to take a break to train and spend time with the family,” he explained.
So you might imagine my surprise and concern when his wife Hilary told me, about eight weeks ago as we worked the hot lunch line at the elementary school, that Graham busted his ribs on March 27 while skiing. Then I saw Graham walking around stiffly and wincing when someone tried to hug him. My first thought: What will this mean for his run at States?
Fast forward to last weekend, when Graham won the Pacific Crest Trail 50-Mile race near San Diego in 7:11, just four minutes off the course record. That’s proof he’s resilient and ready to race 100 miles a month from now. But I still wondered, how did he recover and get his training back on track? How does he feel approaching States after a not-so-great performance there last time? And how will he stack up in what’s become a younger person’s sport in recent years, with a growing number of guys in their 20s and 30s clocking phenomenally fast sub-16-hour times?
I harassed him with the following questions to try to find out.
Q&A with Graham Cooper
Me: Describe how you broke your ribs and the immediate aftermath of the accident in terms of the races you had to cancel and the recovery period it triggered.
Graham: I was flying down the slope doing my best Bode Miller impersonation when a little snow devil reached up and grabbed my edge. I did an estate sale of epic proportions. I knew I did something bad when I couldn’t stand up. I got the full Mammoth meal deal (toboggan, ambulance, hospital) and was told not to do anything for four weeks. This was a Sunday. I was on the stair climber on Thursday, and back on my bike within about a week. I did have to adjust my training quite a bit, particularly because it took me longer to be able to run and swim. I had planned to do AR50 [American River 50 Mile] as well as Ironman Utah, neither of which was possible. That’s all right, though; it was early enough in the season that I still had enough time to recover and train for the main event.
How did you cope with the setback, and do you have any advice to help other endurance athletes deal with unforeseen serious injuries?
The first few days after the accident, I was so mad. I wasn’t sure if I was dumb or unlucky. But neither is good. Perhaps this gave me a little extra motivation once I was well enough to get back out. I don’t think there is too much to glean from my experience as it was exceptional. Most athletes’ injuries involve overtraining/repetitive motion/etc. and so it’s different to try to fix that. It’s probably easier to recover from traumatic injury, and if you are going to break bones then ribs are the way to go.
What does your peak training week look like now in terms of types of workouts and volume?
I am doing around 80-100 miles a week running, 150-200 miles cycling plus swimming, stair climbing, physical therapy, stretching, massage etc. It’s probably around 40 hours a week. If you add in the time I spend obsessing about it and dreaming about it, it’s closer to 160 hours a week. The other eight I spend with my family, focused 100 percent on them.
Does Western States loom large as a comeback for you? I ask not just because of the injury this spring, but also because it’s been several years since your best time there. After winning it in 2006 with 18:17 and running significantly faster in 2007 (17:11), you skipped 2008 because of the race cancellation, ran 21:09 in 2009, and missed it last year. How do you feel going into States this year, how do you think you’ll do, and what do you hope to accomplish there?
I’m feeling really great. I am super motivated and training as hard as I ever have. I don’t know what that means in terms of results, because it’s a tough field and there are some new young, fast guys that I have little hope of competing with. I think top 10 would be a worthy goal. I expect there will be a ton of snow on the course, which may slow things down. A PR would be nice. But after a bad race in 2009, I would be satisfied with a solid finish in the top 10.
We tend to mark milestones—anniversaries, reunions and the like—in five-year increments, as if five years is a significant period of time to have grown older and perhaps wiser. Now that you’re upon the five-year anniversary of your States win, how do you think you’ve evolved as an athlete?
I’m more focused on recovery than I was in the past. Maybe that is a function of age. But I am spending more time stretching, doing physical therapy, core work and getting massages. I have been working with a group in Oakland (SOL Sports and Orthopedic Leaders) that is highly regarded, and I have pretty much given myself over to them in terms of all that stuff. I was having some left side issues (hip/IT band/knee), and they have been invaluable in helping me fix it.
What’s the status of the long-running (pardon the pun) competition-slash-camaraderie between you and Erik Skaden? I read a pretty funny Q&A with you guys from 2008 on Scott Dunlap’s blog that described the various showdowns you’ve had over the years. You’ve also shared some wins with him by tying. What do you think may happen between the two of you on the run from Squaw Valley and Auburn? Do you have any friendly side bets or that sort of thing?
Well one thing’s for certain: We will not tie at Western States. Erik is a gritty competitor, and we have shared some character-building moments on the trail. He’s past his prime, as am I. I expect we may well be vying for that 10th spot on June 25. I am sorry I couldn’t join him for the Ironman race in Utah because I was looking forward to introducing him to the sport, if you catch my drift.
What are your plans for endurance events post-States? Are you going to keep a balance between tris and trail, or become more of an Ironman and less of an uber ultrarunner, or …?
My ultrarunning friends think I’m a triathlete, and my triathlete buddies think I’m an ultrarunner. I guess I’m somewhere in between. But I love to run, first and foremost. Ironman started out as a cross-training thing, and I think it will always be that way. And I hate swimming. And ultrarunning is just cooler, period. The Weenie Factor is way less. As far as concrete plans, nothing is on the calendar after June. Maybe I need to have a look at that. [Editor's note: Yeah, man, don't be a slacker.]
Thanks, Graham, for your time, and good luck June 25-26!
Photos courtesy of the Cooper family.