Q&A with Running Stupid’s Ken Michal: How to be Happy on the Trail, All Day, No Matter What

Earlier this year, I found myself surrounded by super fit, fast runners at an Oakland restaurant for a gathering of the Inside Trail Racing team—guys I rarely see on a race course (unless I’m a spectator) because they’re so far ahead. Guys whose body fat percentage I can count on one hand.

Then, looking up from the table, I noticed with some surprise another runner joining us who looked a tad different—make that, bigger—than the others. Tall and topping 200 pounds, with a round apple-cheeked face and heavy-lidded, smiling eyes, I pegged him as a big Teddy bear of a person.

“Ken!” someone greeted. “Running stupid! All day!”

Ken took a seat next to me, and after some small talk, the subject of Santa Barbara came up—I think I mentioned I’m from near there—and Ken started talking about the Santa Barbara Endurance Race 100-miler, which he’s doing this year on April 13. He ran it in 2011, along with 12 other ultras, six of which were 50 miles or longer, including the notoriously difficult HURT 100 in Hawaii.

No way, I was thinking. This guy? Who is he?

I had never met Ken Michal or listened to his ultrarunning podcast, “Running Stupid.” I first heard about him the day prior to our meeting. What I would discover in the following hour at the restaurant—and on subsequent runs while listening to his podcast interviews and race reports—is he’s a hilarious, unique ambassador for the sport. Even though I’ve been running more than a decade longer and faster than he has, I realized I can learn a lot from him.

Ken Michal running the 100-mile HURT race. "I think a positive attitude and a smile are the most effective tricks an ultrarunner can have in their arsenal!!" (Photo reprinted with permission by Robert P. Smith)

I asked him about last year’s Santa Barbara event, and he started giggling—seriously, giggling—and shaking his head, as if to ask whether I really wanted to know. Yes, I wanted to know. So he began spinning a tale about the 43 hours he spent on the course. Forty-three hours, by far in last place, through howling winds and hypothermic chills.

He kept pausing to laugh—and I waited to hear what he would say next. He’s the kind of storyteller who makes you want to pull up a chair and lean in to listen. The rest of the table’s conversation faded away.

He described stumbling into an aid station two-thirds of the way through, in the darkness of the first night, hands numb and shivering uncontrollably. He had been running or walking nearly 24 hours and had another cycle of sunrise and sunset to go. He finally reached the aid station seeking warmth and sustenance only to discover that it was … gone. Everyone had packed up and left. All that remained was a bag of cold boiled potatoes, some cans of Coke and a porta-potty.

So what did Ken do? Well, if you don’t have time to listen to his hours-long, two-part race report, here’s the gist: He went into the porta-potty for shelter from the wind, stuck his numb hands into his armpits, and sat there on the lid for a good two hours. And he laughed and laughed. It was just one of the many desperate and absurd moments in his relatively short but substantial career as an ultrarunner. When the sun came up, he resumed his forward motion to the finish in Santa Barbara, his first 100-mile completion after dropping out and DNF’ing at four earlier attempts.

Ken at the finish of the SBER100 with champion ultrarunner Geoff Roes on the left and friends Tiffany Guerra and Ashley Walsh on the side.

After I met Ken and got to know him a bit in his new role as Inside Trail Racing’s volunteer coordinator, I dug into the archives of Running Stupid’s podcasts and found a new source of escapism and inspiration for my long runs.

Warning: Like ultra/trail running itself, his podcasts meander, vary in pace, occasionally go off course and require patience. He rambles down many tangents, sometimes forgetting what he’s saying mid-sentence and often interrupting himself with laughter. But his laughter is infectious.

Wanting to know more about this 41-year-old waiter and erstwhile rock musician, originally from Detroit, I conducted the following Q&A. (Note: I was going to edit out Ken’s excessive use of exclamation points, but then I decided to leave them all in because he really talks and writes that way, and it suits his personality.)

Sarah: Tell me the story of when & why you started running.

Ken: I was a heavy smoker for over 20 years (2.5 packs a day by the time I finally quit). When I quit, I decided to eat whatever I wanted as long as I wasn’t smoking. When it came time to lose the weight, I found running! At the time, I could only run a block or so without being so winded that I had to sit for five minutes! This was in 2006. Now, I’ve finished a couple hundreds and am gunning for a 200 (the Pigtails Challenge) this season!!

Running Stupid is now on its 105th episode. I assume you do it as an unpaid labor of love in your free time, right? What prompted you to start the podcast? What do you gain from it personally, and what do you hope it does for listeners? 

It’s definitely a labor of love, and in the last four years, I haven’t made a single dime! Instead, RS has been blessed with an amazing community!! I really feel a great connection to a lot of Stupidheads out there and have made some great friends along the way!!

I would like to think of Running Stupid as an educational and entertaining audio blog for trail/ultra runners of all levels from elite to the back of the pack. Since I’m a back-of-the-pack runner, it definitely has a back-packer slant to it! Originally, I started RS as a way to keep me focused and motivated to run my first 50 miler. At the time, I had no idea it would grow into what it has! RS really is a community as much as it is a podcast!! I really hope to be able to share my love for ultrarunning. I’ve found that a lot of what I learn on the trail also applies to the rest of my life! My dream for RS is to inspire folks to live their own dreams, whether running related or not!!

You have such a positive attitude that it’s easy to think you’re always a happy guy. But in your interview with Gary Robbins (which I highly recommend for first-time listeners, by the way), you briefly alluded to some issues with depression and also to struggles with your weight. What’s behind that?

Thanks!!! I really do believe that happiness is a choice! Most experiences are tempered by our perception. A lot of times we have a way of rationalizing things that don’t make sense: “He never called back, he must hate me… forget it,” versus: “He never called back, he must be busy. Maybe I should try again?” Ultras are a definite embodiment of this: Imagine that you’re puking your guts out at midnight, knowing that if you slow down, you’ll never make the cutoff. You’re bonking hard and you’ve been working your butt off for 12 hours at an event that you’ve been gearing up for, for months. You’ve DNF’ed this event twice already. (This is what happened to me at HURT this year!) It would be easy to say “this sucks” and get down on yourself. That’s not going to help you finish! Instead, you smile even bigger and say “Yes!!! This SUCKS!! This is what I came for!” (For the record, I still didn’t finish; but, I was able to hold it together long enough to crawl 14 more miles to the 100k finish!!!) They say that neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, the more we practice being happy, the happier we are!! The opposite of this is also true. I think a positive attitude and a smile are the most effective tricks an ultra runner can have in their arsenal!! I urge everyone to try this the next time they hit a low point, in a race or in life: When things get rough, smile … even if you don’t mean it! Especially if you don’t mean it!!! If you smile, eventually you will mean it! The same goes for frowning: Stop it!

In gearing up for HURT this year, I left my primary job. I had worked there for several years and wasn’t enjoying it like I used to. We were about to hit the “busy season” and I wanted to find new place before I felt obligated and stuck. Interviews didn’t go so well. After a time I was rejected by so many places that I felt like there was something wrong with me. My secondary job wasn’t paying the bills. I started to wonder if I could afford to run a lot of the events I want to run in 2012. I’m still not sure! Worse yet, I was wondering if I had to cancel HURT and the week my wife and I were going to spend on the islands after the race. I started to spend more time on the couch, frustrated and eating my feelings. I gained weight, which is the last thing I wanted with almost 25,000′ of descent and 100 miles on my plate! The weight gain made things worse and led to more weight gain and more depression. Eventually, I worked my way out. I think it’s the same as a low point in an ultra: Just keep moving forward and this will pass!! Really, the depression is a small blip on the radar! I’m still Mr. Happy (as Stan Jensen calls me) 99% of the time!! Actually, hitting the low points make me appreciate and enjoy the high points even more!!!

Here’s the funny part and the lessons learned from the rough patch I had last December: I found the perfect job [at Nopalito resturant]! They know about, understand and support my running!!  … Things have a way of working out if you trust that they’ll happen the way they’re supposed too! Keep in mind “the way they’re supposed to” and “the way you want them to” are often two different things! After countless rejections (seriously, I sent out hundreds of resumes and went to probably 40 or more interviews!), I actually had to turn down an offer from another restaurant to accept the position I did!!! At the same time, Inside Trail Racing hired me as a part time Volunteer Coordinator! Now, I’m getting paid to do something running related! I doubt any of this would have happened if I had leaped on just any job in December!! At HURT this year, I toed the line 20 pounds heavier than last year. My time for the 100k wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be!! I still missed my goal by a huge margin but I proved to myself that I’m much stronger than last year! I can only imagine what I’ll do when I toe the line 30 pounds lighter next year!

What inspired you to get into ultras?

Dean Karnazes was a big inspiration! He came in for an event at a restaurant where I worked and had started a running team. The folks working that day told him about me. I got a call: “Dean Karnazes is here and wants to meet you. How soon can you be here?!?” I had run a marathon the day before and thought my coworkers were playing with me… I ran down to work anyway. At the time, I was looking at running the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K as my first ultra, and since Dean was the grand marshal, I asked him about it. He told me that if I can run a marathon, I might as well sign up for the 50M. I rushed home and registered! A month or so later, I ran into Dean again. I told him that I pulled the trigger on the 50 and have been beating myself senseless on the course trying to get ready. He looked at me and said “You signed up for that?!?! Are you crazy?!?! That thing has like 20,000′ of climbing! My first 50 was almost completely flat and it almost killed me!” “Wait a sec, this is the one you wrote about in your book where you were puking all over your car and laying on the ground for 20 minutes with cramps so bad that you couldn’t move?” “Yeah! That’s the one!” “Uh-oh…” Fortunately, I finished without puking and minimal cramping. After that, I knew I was hooked!

Given my poor lifestyle choices in the past, I’m very fortunate to be able to run ultras! I think knowing this helps me have more of a sense of gratitude and wonder when I can crank out long runs! I’ve found that I have a gift for the long and slow. I doubt I’ll ever be fast and I don’t have super human endurance. Instead, I really enjoy running for long periods at a time! The longer and more difficult, the more I seem to enjoy it! I’m usually known to be the happiest person on the course in the middle of the night!

Ken kicking it into high gear at the Muir Beach 50K. Photo by Ken's wife Karen Gerasimovich.

Back in the ’90s, when I was running only on roads and a big fan of Runner’s World, I remember John “The Penguin” Bingham’s column in that magazine and how he inspired, motivated and empathized with back-of-the-pack runners with his “no need for speed” message. Is that the kind of role you seek to fill in the ultra/trail running world?

I haven’t really thought of myself in that light but it’s an honor to be compared to John Bingham! Those are some big shoes to fill!! I do love the back of the pack and definitely encourage folks to step up and chase their dreams!! One thing I love about ultras is that it really isn’t about speed. Sure, the fast folks are really fast but they’re not out there sprinting. It’s more a matter of who can go slow the fastest and for the longest time! One cool thing I’ve noticed that more often than not, the back is just as committed and excited about our sport as the front!! Funny thing, usually the back have the details a little more dialed in. If Geoff Roes misses a turn, he may not win the race, but it won’t cause him to get pulled from the course. I’ve also seen a mutual admiration; the back is amazed by the front’s speed and the front by the back’s endurance!

What are your plans for the future of the Running Stupid podcast?

The show is pretty big these days and cutting a little into my racing budget. I would love for Running Stupid to pay for itself. My dream goal is to have a little advertising budget, a remote recording rig (have some really fun ideas for on location stuff!) and for RS to send me on a race or two throughout the season! I would love to report from more crazy and international events! If it keeps growing as much as it does, this will happen soon!!! One thing I’m dead set against is asking listeners for donations. I believe that listeners should get more out of the exchange, and I personally don’t feel right asking people for money for something I would happily give them for free. Later this season, I hope to have corporate sponsors on board. This way, if folks want to support the show, they can have something to show for it. The hard part is letting sponsors know that “I’m wearing your shoes because I heard about them on Running Stupid.” It’s probably a lot easier to click a donate button, but I think the RS community are better people and deserve better!!

If you could recommend just one of your episodes to readers who are unfamiliar with Running Stupid, so that they listen and get a sense of you and what Running Stupid is all about, what would it be?

Tough call! Running Stupid isn’t for everyone. I’ve found that people either really love or really hate the show. There is no middle ground and that’s EXACTLY how I want it! I really don’t want a show that’s vanilla enough to kind of please everyone! I want to step on a few toes and have the incredible community of diehard Stupidheads that RS has been lucky enough to attract!! The interviews are long-winded and sometimes awkward for folks who haven’t been exposed to my personality: I laugh a lot. Often, it seems out of place to anyone but me. I tend to speak like I type, with a lot of exclamation points! Once people get to know me, they come to appreciate this quirk but for an interview subject talking to me the first time it can be odd. (Check out the Dean Karnazes interview… poor guy! He was the first ever RS interview. I was so nervous and excited—it wasn’t pretty! We’ll have to get him back on the show soon!)

Ken and Dean

There are a lot of great episodes! I think the recent episode where Gary Robbins interviewed me is a great introduction. My favorites are the race reports from HURT 2010 and SBER 2011. For a first-time listener, you should find the worst episode and decide for yourself if Running Stupid is right for you!!

What do you like to do in your free time when you’re not running, recording podcasts or working? Do you have any other sports or hobbies that you’re into?

RS, ultras and Facebook take up a lot of my time these days. I do lift weights but mostly to further my running. I’m a hobbyist audio engineer and musician. At one point, I signed on as a guitarist for a later canceled national tour with a headlining act (the closest I’ve ever come to being a rock star)! One of the reasons I started RS is that my audio equipment was collecting dust as my life shifted gears and I discovered ultras. An ultra podcast seemed like a natural fit! All of the music and engineering on RS is done by me. One of these days, I want to take the time to write an album that chronicles the emotions of running a 100 miler. I’m also working on a book now, to be published when I have a little more street cred: “All Day!: A Back of the Pack Guide to Ultra Running”!!

Tell me about your handle, “All Day.” What do you mean by it and how did it come about?

Love this question!! Thanks for asking it! “All Day!” is my slogan, mantra and battle cry! It all started one day while working out with my friend and personal trainer, Eric Stein. We were pushing pretty hard. Well … really hard! Between sets, Eric looked at me, suddenly very concerned and asked, “Are you OK? You’re looking really pale. Are you going to puke?” I know, such love, huh?!?! Even though I was on the verge of puking, I looked him in the eyes, with a huge grin on my face and said, “I can do this All Day, Eric! What’s next?!?!” From there, it was all downhill! Years later, all the folks at the gym still call out “All Day!” when I’m there. I feel kind of like Norm from Cheers! Eric even had the All Day! shirt that I wear to race briefings made for me! The best part is that I don’t toe the line anywhere without hearing someone say “All Day!” to me!!! I LOVE IT!

All Day! is more than just going for a long time. All Day! is an attitude. All Day! is looking at difficulty and seeing opportunity instead of obstacle. All Day! celebrates adversity. All Day! knows that the best views are at the end of the hardest journeys. All Day! appreciates the gifts that we have and honors them by using them to their fullest potential.

Thanks, Ken, and best of luck to you on your hundred in Santa Barbara in April!

If you want to follow Ken, then like his Facebook page.

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4 Responses to Q&A with Running Stupid’s Ken Michal: How to be Happy on the Trail, All Day, No Matter What

  1. Edie March 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Great interview! I’m happy you kept in the exclamation marks, as Ken wouldn’t be Ken without them !!!

    I’m proud to have seen Ken’s journey from his very first 50K & 50 milers and now 100s. Ken, to me, exemplifies all that’s both possible and good about ultrarunning.

  2. GoldenTrailsDave March 22, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

    Ken is such a great person in the community. Can’t help but be happy when you’re around him.

    Thanks for taking the time to interview him!!


  1. URP Daily News | UltraRunnerPodcast.com - March 9, 2012

    […] Sarah Lavender Smith interviews RunningStupid’s Ken Michal about how to stay positive on the trail all day. […]

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