A Q&A with Scott Dunlap, Master Trail Runner & Blogger

I turned away from this blog over the past month because facing it provided a sad reminder to self that I felt unmotivated and too distracted to write. I wasn’t too thrilled to mark another birthday, 44, the other week, either.

Meanwhile, with unfailing regularity and quality, I kept receiving blog posts in my inbox from a blogger and runner I’ve followed for at least six years: Scott Dunlap, who coincidentally turned 44 a few weeks ago, too. His recent updates on A Trail Runner’s Blog chronicled PRs and fun times on the trail and at road races. I asked myself, “How does he keep getting better at running and blogging?” Am I jealous? Yeah, maybe a bit! But also inspired and impressed.

Scott  was named USATF Masters Ultrarunner of the Year in 2010, and has won Masters titles in the 10-mile, half marathon, marathon and 50k distances. Then he went and set a new marathon PR last month (2:44:35). He also has a very full career and family life, with a new job and two young kids. He makes it all look so easy, even though it’s anything but!

I’ve gotten to know Scott over the years through running and corresponding online, so I asked if he felt like doing a Q&A via email. He was happy to oblige and sent me these answers before leaving his home in Woodside and hitting the road to run today’s Silver State 50-miler in Reno.

Scott Dunlap, on the right, with me and our fellow Inside Trail racing team member Gary Gellin at a 50K in 2011.

Scott Dunlap, on the right, with me and our fellow Inside Trail racing team member Gary Gellin at a 50K in 2011.

Q: Bring me up to date on your life outside of running. How old are your kids, and where are you working now?

Scott: I have two daughters, Sophie Jane (6) and Quinn (2), and am celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary this year with my wife, Christi. I often say I wished as a young man to live in a house full of beautiful women … guess I should have been more specific. 😉 I’m currently the Managing Director at 10th Dimension Design Labs, which is a fancy way of saying that I consult with big companies like Neiman Marcus, Rosetta Stone and others on mobile/tablet application design and e-commerce and social media strategy. I’ve been working at the intersection of mobile and e-commerce most of my career, and it’s very exciting times these days.

Things are good right now, in an exhausting drink-from-the-fire-hose sort of way. But isn’t that the best? The “funemployment” days are done, largely because the consulting work is really interesting. For a guy who has been saying “mobile is coming and it will change everything” for more than a decade, it’s great to see it get so big so fast. Did you know that over 650 million people log into Facebook on their phones every day? Or that half the world will have smart phones by this summer? Throw in some Google Glass, iPad tablets, new quantified self devices … it’s just a fascinating time to be in this industry. Life at home is also great—I’m around more, and able to help six-year-old Sophie learn the piano and two-year-old Quinn get herself dressed. Quinn peed on the potty for the first time yesterday, and I thought I was going to pass out I was so happy. It’s good to be around for the little victories.

You’re having an incredible season at road marathoning: 2:53 at Oakland in late March, 2:44 (PR!) at Boston in April, and then 2:52 at Big Sur the following weekend.  Have you made any significant changes to your training methods in the past year or so?

Thanks! I am going a bit faster this season, which was a surprise. The training plan is similar to previous years—base miles through January, then some speed and hills thrown in to target “A” races at three points in the year—but the big difference is that I’m 8 lbs lighter than last year (~6% weight loss). I’m 6’0″, and my weight dropped from 156 to 148. That wasn’t by design, but more a welcome result of eating more at home and less entertaining of clients at fancy restaurants and work cafeterias. I didn’t realize I was that much lighter until the 2:53 at Oakland, which was faster than expected for an aerobic pace workout. It set the stage for a speedy spring.

Scott running the Big Sur Marathon last month.

Scott running the Big Sur Marathon last month.

You ran a fast 8:03 at Nueces 50M in early March, in spite of two Wile E Coyote-style falls that hurt and slowed you down. This was just a few weeks before the three road marathons. I suspect that most marathoners don’t run a tough 50-mile trail run and another marathon weeks before they PR at a marathon. How much did the runs at Nueces and Oakland help you get in prime shape for Boston?

Nueces was an “A” race for me, so I was tapered and ready to give it everything. The plan was to go big at Nueces, then run the March and April road marathons casually for fun miles and good pictures. But when I fell on those unforgiving Texas rocks on the last loop at Neuces, I had to jog it in the last 8 to 10 miles and felt like I didn’t get the a full test of my fitness level. I recovered quickly, and the fast time at Oakland indicated I could be in really good shape for Boston. So Boston turned out to be the “A” race! Not really by planning, but by having so many races on the calendar that you have options. We ultrarunners are crazy that way—with so many “B” races on the calendar, it’s easy to switch it up.

You wrote very poignantly about the Boston experience (your 9th Boston Marathon). Now that it’s been a month since you PR’ed and then heard the bomb blasts while at a pub near the finish line, how would you say that the Boston experience this year affected you?

I was in a very “raw” state when I wrote that blog entry. But I felt it was important to capture the moment as soon as possible, and share it as soon as possible. We were all affected deeply, runners especially. Right up until the bombs went off 4 hours and 9 minutes after the starting gun, it was one the “great Bostons”—perfect weather, PRs, sharing the road with people from all over the world, and an amazing community. It’s one of the things I love about blogging: that story is now there to remind me of the whole day, not just the tragedy.

In retrospect, it is clear that I had some PTSD for the week after the bombings, mostly in the form of not sleeping and a weird ringing in my ears. I completely blew up at a job interview the next day for no reason, but it felt good to get it off my chest. It didn’t all clear up until I heard “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…go” at the Presidio 10-miler the following weekend. Then it miraculously went away. I still think about Boston every time I lace up my shoes, but mostly in the form of gratitude for having my health and such an easy way to find peace. I think it’s going to be there for a long time, but it’s a good thing.

What does a typical training week look like for you in terms of mileage and workouts?

I’m usually around 55-70 miles/week, with some swimming, cycling, and weights thrown in too. Training like a triathlete and keeping the mileage lower than in the past has been very helpful in keeping nagging injuries at bay.  I’m typically one hard day, one easy day, and a rest day every 7-10 days. Here’s what I had last week:

  • Mon: Easy 8 miles (usually in the hills around my house, so 1-2k vertical)
  • Tues: 8-10×800 @ 2:50 w/2 min rest; evening 1600 yds easy in pool
  • Wed: Easy 8-10 miles
  • Thurs: 6 miles w/10 hill repeats, weights
  • Fri: Easy 8-10 miles
  • Sat: Long run of 15-28 miles (every third is at tempo/marathon pace)
  • Sun: Easy run or bike or rest day

I’ve found that speed sessions and hill sessions hurt like hell in the moment, but the adaptation is fast and I feel good the next day. The long runs feel easier in the moment, but the adaptation takes a few days. It’s all trial and error. But the general rule of “go harder on hard days and easier on easier days” seems to work.

Are you plagued by any chronic injuries that flare up and need management, and if not, then what’s your secret to staying mostly injury free?

I’ve been blessed that I am not plagued by any chronic injuries, but I do fall into the trap of ramping up training too fast 1-2 times/year. It usually takes the form of minor runner’s knee or plantar fasciatis and takes me out for two to five days. I’ve found that swimming 1-2 times/week is also critical at keeping mileage-related injuries at bay. Something about it seems to unwind all the impact from running. But I can only get myself to the pool regularly if I have a triathlon on the race calendar, which is a weird personality thing, so I try to do at least one tri a year. I think it also helps that I only have two to three “A” races per year; a lot of my races are at a comfortable pace, and really just an excuse to get some miles in with friends.

I know you still have a healthy appetite for a post-race beer or three :-). But have you jumped on any nutritional bandwagons—any crazy cleanses, caveman diets, hold-the-gluten or fruitarian binges?

No, not really. I’m an omnivore for sure, and am mostly addicted to really good cooking. I’m lucky that my wife, Christi, is a fabulous vegetarian cook (actually “pescetarian” since seafood is okay), so if I can give her a one-hour window to cook, it’s amazing, filling and very healthy. But if it’s up to me to choose, I am just as likely to have a burger and beer. I’m lazy that way. I did try cutting caffeine one year, then cut 80% of my carbs another year, just to see what would happen. Both were interesting, but neither fit my lifestyle well.

One thing that did happen earlier this year was I got a Jawbone UP Pedometer to help some designer friends who worked there, and used it to log my food intake for the first time ever. It turns out I was consuming 50% of my calories in the form of alcohol since I wasn’t aware that there are 200-250 calories in a glass of white wine, my favorite lunch and dinner drink (and watch TV drink, and bathe the kids drink … you get the idea). Being a bit more self-conscious about that cut the consumption in half (replaced by tea), which aided in the weight loss. It’s fascinating to me that even without a goal for using the UP, it affected my behavior. I had a running coach tell me I could lose another 6 lbs to get to an ideal weight, but my wife is already grossed out from the bag-of-bones runner look. Best to keep her happy. 😉

UltraSignup lists 73 ultra race results under your name dating back to 2003. You’ve done bunches of road races, bike races and triathlons during that time period as well. Can you name the top three most memorable and satisfying of those races—not necessarily your best in terms of performance, but most gratifying—and briefly say why?

Holy cow, is it that many? I am crazy! I usually keep track of my races through quilts—every 49 t-shirts makes a 7×7 queen-sized quilt. I have three now, and a fourth should be ready by year-end. So I guess I’m around 175 events now. Geez, now that I think about it, that’s a lot of entry fees!

One of Scott's quilts made from race shirts.

One of Scott’s quilts made from race shirts.

My favorite race of all time was at the Western States 100-miler in 2009. I’ve never been that physically destroyed, or psychologically elated, and by Devil’s Thumb (~48 miles) every aid station stop was a conversation about when I was going to be face down on the trail and rushed to the hospital. 27 hours later, I found the finish a changed man, with all my doors to spirituality wide open. It was the quintessential ultra: dig deeper than ever before and find the greatness within. I still secretly hope everything goes wrong in a 100-miler to try and find that experience again.

Scott crossing the river in the 2009 Western States 100.

Scott crossing the river in the 2009 Western States 100.

My second favorite was at UTMB last year, largely because it was my first experience with the European running community. Their mountains are bigger, the runners more extreme and the community is incredible. Everyone speaks different languages, but you feel like you belong there among the mountain folk. I’m signed up for three Skyrunning Series races this year to go back and get some more.

Third favorite is running Boston with my Dad in 2009. He’s an amazing runner (at age 69, he ran 3:42 at Boston), and Boston was on his bucket list since he went to college there back in the day. To hear all those stories about my Dad before he was my Dad, all in the great historical context of Boston, was one-of-a-kind.

How old is your blog and how many posts have you published on it? What keeps you motivated to blog? Do you plan to keep it going indefinitely in the same format and style, or do you have any plans to change or retire it?

I started it in 2004, and there are about 900 blog posts. I really enjoy doing it, and it helps me stay in the moment when racing since I’m always looking for a picture or wanting to know more about the runners around me. Like many labors of love, it doesn’t feel like work. I like the long format that allows me to post lots of pictures, but also try to experiment with new writing styles (like my Big Sur report), use of new media and that sort of thing. As long as it’s fun, I’ll keep doing it!

Generally speaking, what keeps you motivated as a runner and how do you avoid burnout?

I haven’t needed much motivation to run—the trails are my sanctuary, and I like to visit daily. But I do need a boost to actually “train” and find a full race calendar is the best way to do that. If something big and scary is coming up (like the Chamonix Marathon in June … gulp!), then I have no trouble getting up early and doing the work. If it begins to feel routine, I just change the race schedule and add a century ride, a triathlon, something new. For example, I got a bit burnt out on 100-milers last year, but found myself jazzed about 40-50k races at high elevation, so no 100’s on the calendar this year but races in Chamonix, Zermatt and Pikes Peak.

In truth, the bigger risk is when my family gets burnt out on so many events. My wife isn’t that much into dirt, sweat and that sort of thing, so she can burn out on ultras pretty quickly. It’s really important to have weekends with no big training or racing needs and stick to them.

How much do you add other sports and other workouts to the mix, and do you see yourself moving away from running and toward any other sports in the longer term?

I’m happiest when running on a trail but have found that swimming 1-2 times/week is essential, as are core routines. Cycling is also helpful, and a nice change of pace. To make sure I don’t get rutted into running, I have a ride or triathlon on the calendar every few months to break it up. I don’t really race these; it’s just to shake up the training. But it keeps it fresh. My focus will likely always be on trails.

I do enjoy the Ironman triathlon distance, but quite frankly, the amount of training required to be competitive at these is insane. You really need that Type A ferocity to do well in these, and there are just too many recent divorcees with something to prove in my age group to get Top 5. When I raced Ironman Hawaii in 2010, I was easily in the best shape of my life (with a physique my wife actually liked!). But two-a-day workouts for four months will do that, and that was a bit too much for my life balance. I’ve got a few more Ironman races I would like to do, such as Ironman Lake Tahoe this September, but don’t see myself switching focus away from the trails anytime soon.

What are some of your goals in the short term (next year or so) and long term (age 50 and beyond)?

My remaining “A” races this year are in the Skyrunning Series—Chamonix (June), Pikes Peak (Aug) and Zermatt (Aug). All of them are a style of racing I haven’t really done—ridiculously steep, at altitude, and short enough you have to go hard. My goal is to do my best and get some points on the board (Top 50). Then finish Ironman Lake Tahoe in respectable form, and if I’ve got it in me, I’ll ramp up for some October/November races too.

Most of my ambitions are races in fun places, and to stay healthy and optimistic about the sport. I have some redemption due at Western States, would like to get to Comrades, and would like to get back to Kona for Ironman one more time. But all in good time. Plus there is still mountain running, stage racing, fast packing and a bunch of things I haven’t tried yet. It could take a lifetime!

If you could give one piece of advice to help me successfully complete my debut 100-miler this fall (Pine to Palm), what would it be?

Wow, that’s a tough one! If you’ve worked an aid station at a 100-miler, then you know the big culprits are (1) not applying enough sunscreen, (2) not being obsessive about water and electrolytes, and (3) starting out too fast. But I often like to remind folks that at the 100-mile distance you are guaranteed to have things go wrong, hit low spots, and be really fricking tired at the end. So just decide up front that you’re going to finish, and don’t stop unless something is broken. Have friends meet you, make some more along the way, and only worry about the next aid station. I think you’re going to do awesome!

Good luck this weekend at Silver State! Do you have any specific goal for this race?

My goal is just to finish and get some good pictures. I had to bow out of Miwok due to pet emergencies, and that was my only Western States qualifier, so I jumped into SS50 to get one on the books. At this point, I think I’ve lost the Western States lottery more than anyone else (seven-time loser), so my odds of actually getting in are starting to get good!

Thanks, Scott! 

For more inspiration, check out this SlideShare presentation Scott created and gave last December, about ultrarunning and the human spirit.

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3 Responses to A Q&A with Scott Dunlap, Master Trail Runner & Blogger

  1. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJill) May 18, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    Great interview. Scott is awesome.
    Jill Homer (@AlaskaJill) recently posted..The philosophies of RasMy Profile

  2. olga May 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    That was great interview. I’ve known Scott for so long, practically as long as his blog, and then some meets up…and he’s been fast and humble and taking pictures all these years:) Attitude is everything, so is “mixing up” as we get older (44 is a fantastic age, Sarah, the best!) – I wish I could swim OR bike…And about sunscreen…I won’t agree on that, but the other two and the general advice is for sure hitting the mark. Shit happens. Decide that you’ll deal with it regardless. Good luck!
    olga recently posted..Home, Mac50 and “You always have amazing race stories”.My Profile


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