Joe Cooper, employee of The Loop, coach at Trail Roots, ultra runner, husband, and dog father, sits down with us to give us insight into his training and experiences leading up to the 2018 Western States Endurance Run 100 miler.
What got you to start running?
“When I was in college I never ran, I was like the stoner kid. I started running to lose weight and because I knew so many people on the track team in college, it was what I was familiar with.”
“I started training for 5K’s with the help from some old college friends but never felt like a true runner because of the huge gap between our finishing times. After falling out of practice and gaining even more weight back I started running when I moved to Austin to cope with and manage depression. While in Austin, a friend asked if I wanted to be a part of a relay team for the Cactus Rose Relay (I had never done a trail race before in my life). I wanted to do it because it seemed impossible. During the race I thought I would surely collapse or become injured. I’d say Cactus Rose was the race that got my feet wet and led me to wanting to continue racing.”
What is Cactus Rose?
“It’s an unsupported, kind of gritty, trail race. It’s not a race I would necessarily recommend one of my athletes doing as their first.”
What got you through?
“The thoughts in my head fought me the entire way, telling me I wasn’t good enough. But I ignored them and pushed myself harder every time they surfaced. That day our team not only finished the race but won the relay and my effort had helped greatly to do that. I found that trail running had given me the power to deal with negative and self defeating thoughts not only during races but, elsewhere in my life. Soon I found my perspective had started to change, I found confidence in knowing that if I could resist the little voice in my head that had previously convinced me I was never good enough, I could do anything.”
Western States, what did you view it as?
“I definitely have had Western States built up in my head and put on a pedestal. To run Western, especially in under 24 hours, was a confirmation that you’ve made it in the trail running world. It would legitimize me as a strong trail runner. It’s also so deep in history. It’s the oldest 100 miler. It has great media and it’s well documented. It’s like the Boston of the trail.”
What race prepared you the most to run Western States?
Tahoe Rim Trail
What was training like?
“The first 100 miler I trained for revolved mostly around strength. The goal then was to have the endurance just to finish 100 miles. Based off of that previous training, I knew I would need to build up to a minimum of 80 miles a week and incorporate one day of speed to not only complete the race, but to complete it in sub 24 hours. For obvious reasons, I also needed to add in a lot of hill and heat training as well. The heat training wasn’t going to be a problem in Central Texas but the long elevation ascents and descents are harder to come by. Originally I had planned to make several trips to mountainous areas of the US to train as I had done for previous races. Unfortunately, my wife Courtney had complications with a simple surgery this year that almost took her life even. This was a huge toll on me mentally and physically. Once I was at Western with her by my side, I never once thought to myself ‘you really should have done more hill training.’ I was just so grateful to be there with her.”
Favorite hill to climb for training in Austin?
Favorite Austin downhill?
Hill of Life
Was there anything you did to prepare mentally?
“I tend to tap into the dark moments I encounter during past races to help mentally prepare me for the next one. I have my own personal mantra that if during the race I’m getting really down on myself I’ll use, “but at least…” blank. For example, “but at least… you haven’t rolled your ankle… you haven’t gotten altitude sickness.” It’s just an easy way to finish my thoughts with a positive one. Sometimes it gets silly like, “but at least there’s Redbull at the aid station.” Whatever it takes!”
Let’s talk gear. What worked for you?
“I ended up wearing the long distance shorts by Satisfy. Typically in a 100 miler you just want to change everything. Everything gets sweaty, dirty, uncomfortable. I wore the shorts the entire race and never changed, they didn’t chafe, they didn’t bunch up and they dried SO FAST. During this race it’s always tempting to lie down in every creek, stream, or trickling spring of water you come across and every time I’d climb out of a canyon of water I’d end up completely dry within a mile or two. I never had to worry about my shorts, changing didn’t even enter my mind.
I’d never have made it through the race without the ice bandana wrapped around my neck. I took Liza Howard’s design suggestion for how to make it and funny enough I ended up seeing her at the race and thanked her for sharing her knowledge – a perfect example of how ultrarunners are always helping each other. It’s such a tight-knit and friendly community even though we all compete with each other too.”
What do you tell someone who is just starting trail running?
“Remove pace from your mind. It doesn’t mean you are any less of an athlete to run slower (especially on the trail), it’s just a different experience. There are things that make you a great trail runner that have nothing to do with pace.
I would encourage people to respect the trail and listen to it. Sometimes it tells you to hike and sometimes it tells you to run. You have to become part of the environment/terrain, not fight against it.
Speed will naturally come back but you have to pay attention to what’s happening around you and what the most efficient way to cover the terrain is. Definitely pair up with someone who is an expert or a group of people who are trail runners. There’s so many things you will learn through experience with other trail runners. The trail running community is very family oriented, and very supportive. Trail running requires you to develop a well rounded understanding of hydration, nutrition, energy conservation and even wilderness knowledge rather than just getting faster or stronger.
Having unique experiences and race formats will make you a stronger runner as well. Do races that take place at night, do races in the desert, do races in the mountains, races with loops as well as one-way routes. Every experience can teach you something; coping with sudden changes in weather or altitude to recovering from a gut bomb or an all-out bonk! You don’t have to learn these things on your own, the trail community is important because people can share their experiences with you to prepare you for your next race. I advise to seek out an expert or fellow racer that has had those experiences, you’ll be a step ahead of those who are guessing at it!”