It’s Good To Be King
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How could our country’s fastest, most-versatile distance runner consider himself mediocre?
Max King rules over all surfaces—road, track and trail—and takes his reign seriously. Photos by David Clifford.
I wondered what drives the man to be so fast. I wondered how long he reckons he can run for a living. And I wondered what else is in store for a man that has defeated nearly every distance and terrain the sport offers.
One evening in January, I drove from San Francisco to Southern Oregon to interview the fastest man in distance running. The job would prove difficult, not because my subject was guarded nor for the stoic air of seriousness that seemed to hover around him, but more so because Max King himself is not entirely convinced of his own greatness.
When a successful athlete, built upon a foundation of braggadocio and confidence boasts about past and future wins, he pens his own profile. Hoping for some Usain Bolt pomposity, I had once asked King how he had come to dominate so many disciplines. He replied simply, “I am mediocre.”
I wondered what was mediocre about his record-setting wins this past year at two of North America’s premier ultra races—the JFK 50-Miler and the Ultra Race of Champions 100K? Or his 8:30 3,000-Meter Steeplechase at the Olympic Trials? Or his 2:14 marathon, also for the Olympic Trials? Or was he referring to his win at the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships?
Of all the runners to emerge in trail-running’s renaissance, King stands alone as the guy who has not only conquered the track and the road but also the trail—and continues to dominate in all three disciplines simultaneously.
Does Max King really think of himself as mediocre? Or is there more to it than that?
A Man for All Surfaces
Perhaps King is just more in tune with the future of the sport than the rest of us. In countless interviews, he is asked if he will ever commit entirely to road or trail, and every year he seems to grow more reluctant to choose.
In 2009, King wagered a lofty bet when he quit his job as a bio-chemical engineer to pursue running full-time. The wager has since paid off and in the past several years, he has put together an existence based entirely on his love of the sport. Says his wife, Dory, “With sponsorships, coaching and racing, he’s cobbled together a decent living.”
As I drove through the Central Valley and into the foothills of the Southern Cascades, I continued to ponder King’s definition of “mediocre.” I wondered what drives the man to be so fast. I wondered how long he reckons he can run for a living. And I wondered what else is in store for a man that has defeated nearly every distance and terrain the sport offers.
Photo by David Clifford.
The Guy Who Always Comes Second to Max
Shortly after I-5 deposited me into the low-lying hills of southern Oregon, I pulled up to the house of Rob Cain. As a competitor, race director, volunteer or (as it was in the case of that particular night) party host, Cain has found himself at the center of Ashland’s ultrarunning scene for over a decade. Three-dozen runners gathered in his living room for an annual get-together following the Southern Oregon Fat Ass (SOFA) 50K along the Rogue River that takes place every January. In addition to food, drinks and the retelling of ultra war stories, gold-painted plaster toes were passed out as awards—in a roast manner— for the various long-standing members of the group. Golden Toes have been bestowed in the past for such categories as the Drunken Pacer Award, the Most Damaged Feet Award and the Puke of the Year Award.
I entered the living room to find King on the floor doing something that doesn’t seem to come easily to him—relaxing. Seeing King, known for a rancher’s work- to-be-done persona, reclining with a whiskey in his hand, at first seemed, if not forced, then at least slightly awkward.
Anna Frost, 31, of New Zealand, two-time winner of the The North Face 50 Mile Championships in San Francisco and 2012 winner of the Transvulcania 50 in the Canary Islands, insists that the serious vibe that King often gives off is an unintentional byproduct of shyness and pre-race jitters. “He looks very strict, structured and straightforward, but after a race you learn that it is a state that he puts himself in,” she says. “He is otherwise calm and happy to be living the life that he is living. I think that surprises a lot of people.”
If resilience can be misinterpreted for seriousness, then Max has that too. “He’s a legend with his toughness,” says Sage Canaday, 27, of Boulder, Colorado. The trail-running upstart trailed King by five years at their mutual alma mater, Cornell University in Upstate New York. He looked up to King long before the rest of the distance-running world took notice and says that King is the main reason that he switched from running 2:16 marathons to 50K and 100K trail races. “He’s disciplined, tough and perhaps a little bit of a masochist,” continues Canaday. “That character has shaped who he is as a runner. The success that he’s had is a reflection of his hard work ethic and integrity.”
On the floor beside King was a Golden Toe, awarded for his course-record wins at both the Ultra Race of Champions in Virginia this past September and the JFK 50 in Maryland one month later. He has been awarded the Golden Toe before, which he cherishes more than trophies as a symbol of appreciation and respect amongst one’s fellow runners.
Though King and his family live over three hours away in the high desert of Central Oregon, his childhood was spent primarily in the surrounding hills and mountains of the Southern Cascades. With his mother just up the road from Ashland in Medford, he is accustomed to making the drive, then calling upon a short list of guys to join him for an easy 15- or 20-mile run.
Cain interrupted the drone of ultra stories to introduce a man known well to the group: “The Guy Who Always Comes Second to Max.” With thin blond hair flopped about the crown of his head, Erik Skaggs stood before the group with an old and darkened acoustic guitar hanging over his shoulder. An accurate comparison of Skaggs to a young Robert Redford has been made by his Ashland friends.
With accolades that include a 100K U.S. Championship title and course records around the country, for Skaggs to come second to anybody speaks highly of that person.
After a quick guitar tuning, Skaggs started off in a bluegrass-y timbre, a modified Johnny Cash song about the runners in present company.
I hear that little man comin’
He’s rollin’ round from Bend
And I ain’t been first place,
since I don’t know when,
Lord, I’m slippin’ out the slipstream
and he keeps rollin’ on if you’re lookin’ for race glory
don’t move to Oregon.
Competition and Honor
To hear more stories about King (ones that he wouldn’t likely tell me himself), I spent a couple of extra days in Ashland, running with Skaggs on the trails that have become the training grounds for winners of the Hardrock 100, the Western States 100 and other premier ultraraces around the world. Skaggs has toed the starting line with King numerous times over the past five years, occasionally as a teammate but more often as his closest competitor.
The following morning, Skaggs and I set off through the steep hills of madrone and manzanita in the cold January air. He told me about a run that he invited King on several years ago. As the two covered trails such as Pete’s Revenge named suggestively for their difficulty, they accrued several thousand vertical feet and 18 miles of hard running before returning to Ashland. Recalled Skaggs, “Max then looked at me and said, ‘OK,
now it’s time for the workout.’”
Skaggs described the subsequent 10-x-200-meter bursts up one of Ashland’s steepest hills with a lingering distaste. “That’s when I stopped asking Max to run with me,” he says, laughing. Skaggs explains that King is always adding something on to the end of his runs, whether it be hill repeats or back-alley sprints.
Despite King’s competitive drive, Skaggs maintains that he is deeply honorable. In 2010, at the USA 50K Trail Championships, hosted by the Skyline 50K in Central Oregon, Skaggs opened up a sizeable gap on King, in preparation for a potential first win against him. A sabotaged course, where unknown persons removed flags, sent Skaggs several minutes down the wrong trail before he realized his mistake.
“It was my one chance to beat him. And I took a wrong turn, ” he says. After correcting his mistake, Skaggs ran to the finish to find King standing there, on the clock-is-ticking side of the line.
“He was just waiting there.” After allowing Skaggs to finish first, Max walked across the line to claim, what he believed to be, a well-earned second-place finish.
Where the Wild Thing Lives
Heading north and east out of Ashland the road cuts through long, direct corridors of hemlock and lodgepole pine before bowing out to the tough junipers that are better adapted to the high Oregon desert. The mountains give way to hills; the hills give way to flats, from which volcanoes spring up like grand sentries looming over the land. Upon entering the small city of Bend, I immediately noted the fireplace incense of burning juniper.
Sitting in the rain shadow of the Cascades at 3500 feet, Bend lays claim to the most sun and driest climate in a state otherwise synonymous with soggy. What little snow falls during the cold winter months doesn’t stick around for long. “I can run year round here,” says King, who given a choice will take a dry, albeit cold sidewalk over a snowy or ice-covered one. “That’s how I gauge the weather.” It was the first of several telling hints that he would give about the central role that running takes in his life.
I arrived at King’s three-story home, within walking distance from downtown Bend, just before supper. With a small section of the house rented out as a separate apartment and a steady flow of friends and family passing through, King assured me that few corners of the house lay vacant for long. He was lifting four-week-old Hazel from her crib as I entered the living room. “You want to do some core work?” he asked her. She smiled and cooed on his belly while he cycled through several variations of sit-ups.
Sitting at the table was Dory’s father, who greets just about everything with booming laughter. In the kitchen, Dory heated up a pot of chili that a family friend had prepared to help the Kings get through the tumultuous early weeks of welcoming a newborn. Her light brown hair was indiscriminately pulled back revealing the tired but calm face of a woman who had been sampling sleep in two-hour increments for several weeks. She is on maternity leave now, but works at Bend Research (the same company Max left in 2009), conducting pharmaceutical research.
From spectating at college track and cross-country meets at Cornell University in upstate New York to the World Mountain Running Championships in Albania in 2011, Dory has witnessed Max’s steady progression in the sport over a decade. “His dedication is amazing,” she says.
“He’s always doing something to improve his running. I mean, you saw him.” She nodded to where he was conducting his baby core workout.
Max’s departure from Bend Research didn’t come without a little shake. “I gotta admit that when Max told me he was going to quit his job and just be running,” said his father-in-law, not laughing, “I was a little worried.”
King cruises the beautiful single track of Smith Rock State Park, one of his favorite training grounds near Bend. Photo by Rickey Gates.
For my brief visit, I accepted King’s offer for a place to sleep. He led me into what the Kings simply call “Max’s Room,” and what I took to calling the “Running Lab.” Medals and trophies were scattered about haphazardly. Several generations of official USA singlets covered one section of wall, while on neighboring shelves 87 pairs of running shoes in various stages of mileage decomposition spilled from their nooks. Atlases, maps and travel guides shared a shelf with hunting guides and a half-dozen knives. Past the treadmill and off in the corner was my accommodation—an oxygen tent set up on the floor. Max assured me that he doesn’t use it all the time. He will crawl in there for a few weeks before big races such as the Olympic Trials or the World Mountain Running Championships.
The Kings’ four-year-old son, Micah, followed us into the room. He is sturdy, blond and, like most kids that age, chock-full of energy.
“Are you as fast as your dad?” I asked him.
“My dad’s really, really fast,” he said. “But I’m really, really, really, really, [repeat eight times] fast.” An old photo showed a nearly identical King at the same age running along the Rogue River in full stride.
Like so many other runners, King didn’t so much choose the sport as, through a process of deduction, the sport chose him. In other words, King sucked at team sports. “I used to crush the other kids in the PE mile, though.” He went on to explain that though he may have been the fastest kid in his PE class, what he lacked was the raw talent that a youngster needed to be really, really, really, really, [repeat eight times] fast. That, he explained, has come with time and dedication.
I asked about a plaque on the wall congratulating King for an All-American steeplechase finish in the NCAA Championships from 10 years ago, where he finished 12 seconds slower than his most recent Steeplechase time of 8:30. The All-American honor is one of his proudest running moments, he says. “We need those successes over time as confirmation of progress. Running is a sport that builds on itself. Those wins and accomplishments help you bounce to the next level.” Covering nearly two decades of running, “Max’s Room” is a testament to the sport being a cumulative effort over time.
16 Honest Miles
The following morning King and I drove just past the city’s edge where 10-acre desert plots dotted the land, reminiscent more of New Mexico than of what I generally associate with Oregon. As we approached Cline Butte he explained that a typical week of running includes two speed workouts and one long run of four to five hours. The rest of his runs, including the 16 miles of hills we were about to tackle, get filed under “easy, rest days.”
As we set off from the car, I was struck again by something that I’d noted in the past. Max King in motion is an amalgamation of perfect engineering. Every step is mechanical and precise. He leads off with a measured stride, elbows tucked in close to his chest, knees driving high. In light racing flats, he bounces precisely off the front of his feet.
Without reference to another runner beside him, as has often been the case in recent years, it often goes unnoticed that at 5’6″ King is actually quite small. Add to that frame 135 pounds of thick muscle mass, and the sheer, brute speed of a 5000- or 10,000-meter event on the track was never much of an option for him. “My size just means I need to be more efficient,” he explained. “It’s made me concentrate on my form.”
Though the answer to my most burning question was making itself ever more clear to me, I was nonetheless curious how King, himself, would reply.
“How did you get to be so fast at so many distances?”
He laughed in a way that suggested he has been asked the question before. “It’s all running,” King insisted. “From 3K to 50 miles, it’s just running.” However, he continued, “Up to a half-marathon it’s balls to the wall. Any longer and you have to think about it.”
And that’s what King has made a career out of—thinking about the 3000-meter Steeplechase, thinking about the three up-and-down laps of the World Mountain Running Championships, thinking about the 50 miles of Appalachian Trail and tarmac for the JFK 50. “I’m always trying to figure out different things, paying attention to all the different variables.”
“He hangs back at the start of a race when everybody is destroying themselves,” Skaggs had told me. “After that he goes through and picks up all the pieces.”
From the top of Cline Butte, King paused to point out an outcrop of volcanoes known as the Sisters where he often runs during the summer months. Past the Sister, over the horizon, King pointed to where Mount Hood would stick up if it were a little bit taller. He says that if he were to have a list of favorite runs in the world, the circumnavigation of Mount Hood would be at the top. The 42- mile effort takes him all day and is always done with group of close friends. “It gets back to the heart of running.”
King (#211) on his way to second place at the 1997 4A Southern Oregon District Cross-Country Championships. Photo courtesy of Max King
King has long been a student of running’s mental challenge. “In 2004, I got burned out on running. It wasn’t fun anymore. I made a choice—let it be fun or stop doing it. I started running trails more, and stopped paying such close attention to the routine of it.”
Following his 2004 burnout King started pursuing more trail races. “I’ve always had more fun on the trails,” he says. However, it wasn’t until it was economically feasible to pursue them—i.e. the opportunity to win prize money—that he committed to trail racing. “People think I’m an asshole for saying that money has driven me. You can talk about the pureness of it, but the money is a huge incentive.” King explained that the big(ger) money trail races that have been emerging feed him—financially and emotionally. “People worry about it ruining the sport, but really it brings new people into the sport.”
The addition of trail, mountain and ultra races to a calendar that already included cross country, track and road has also provided King with that many more races to choose from. He admits even he needs some time off once in a while, but to rest his brain, not his body. “Physically, if I take time off, it just hurts. It takes three weeks to get back into it.”
Being able to straddle the lines between track, trail, mountain and ultra does more for King than just give him a bigger purse to pull from. It lends him an often-forgotten element in mountain, ultra and trail running—speed. “Because I’ve got a top-end speed of a 4:30 mile means that six-minute pace is that much more comfortable.”
Echoeing that statement was the winner of Europe’s most competitive ultra race, The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Francois D’Heane, 27, of France. In February the two raced the three-day stage race El Cruce Colombia (see “Running the Volcanoes,” June 2013, Issue 88), crossing from Chile into Argentina. Day after day Max took the win and Francois second. “I could maybe keep with him on the technical and the hills,” D’Heane says in a thick French accent. “But the moment it went flat … pffffff.” He chopped his hand like a tomahawk off in the distance. “Eem-paw-see-bal.”
There is an old axiom that says, “If you want to run fast, you have to practice running fast.” For decades it has been common belief that since the speed of longer-distance races rarely drop below seven-minute pace, it’s best to concentrate one’s training efforts on endurance. King is leading a wave of long-distance runners who refuse to let go of their quick leg turnover—and, more often than not, they are the names at the top of the results page.
Showing good form in the mile in PE, 1994, Scenic Middle School, Central Point, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Max King
I’ll Take This Job and Keep It
As we looped back, up and over Cline Butte for a fourth time, King talked about his decision to leave his job as a chemical engineer at Bend Research. “My family was a little freaked out. My grandpa still asks when I’m going back to my old job. He’s of the mindset that when you have a good job, you keep it. Well, now I’ve got a good job, and I’m keeping it.”
To supplement his income, King works part-time as a shoe buyer at FootZone in downtown Bend. “I apply my engineering degree to my job now with fitting shoes,” he says. He studies the catalogues, reads countless shoe reviews and then figures out what people will buy. When the store gets busy he lends a hand on the floor. “Engineering is about solving problems. Every time a person comes into the store for a pair of shoes, there’s a problem.
“[At Bend Research], I was working on drugs related to obesity and diabetes. I feel better about putting people in shoes.” Max is an advocate of running shoes over weight-loss pills. “I’ve got more verification with what I do now.”
Max’s Room: 87 pairs of shoes on the wall. Photo by Rickey Gates.
Looking Ahead … And Behind
This summer, King will return to Switzerland to make amends with the mountainous, 18-mile Sierre-Zinal, where he finished a disappointing 20th place two years ago. “It’s those races that I do terrible at that I really want to go back to.” He also has his eyes set on guys like Spanish ultrarunning standouts Kilian Jornet and Miguel Heras who have enjoyed greater success at the longer distances than King.
“I’m always looking in front of me,” King explained. “I sound like a jerk when I say that I don’t know somebody that finished a half second behind me. But that’s just the way my mind works.”
King has been steadily progressing through the distances beyond the track—marathon, 50K, 50 miles and 100K. There is talk, wonder and perhaps a little bit of fear of what will happen when he decides to tackle the heavyweight title of 100 miles. With his JFK win last fall he earned a coveted starting number for the 2013 Western States 100. Exemplary of his long-term patience he has declined the spot saying, “Maybe 2014.” In the meantime, he has other things in line.
His interests in running extend beyond the traditional parameters of the start and finish line. A persistence hunt—one where you run your prey down to exhaustion and death—has been in his scope for several years. The practical challenges he says will include finding the right group of people to hunt with, getting a permit (most likely a private-land hunting permit) and, most importantly, working on his tracking skills.
King has made it clear that he intends to be racing well into his 40s. “Then what?” I asked. “Go back to chemical engineering?”
“I hope not.”
After the sun set and the temperature plummeted, King doubled up on puffy coats and thermals beneath his jeans and looped several stopwatches around his neck to meet 12 determined runners beneath the streetlights (the group swells to 30 in the summer time). Once a week, he coaches the group for a speed workout that he seems to make up on the spot. In the evening air, they pushed their way through several laps of the park, while King stood by and called out their splits.
Watching his runners pass, King admitted that for the first time in his life, he was starting to look back rather than forward. “I’ve turned a page in the past couple of years. I’m starting to look behind me at the younger kids that are getting faster and faster.”
2:14 marathoner, training partner and fellow Bend resident Ryan Bak maintains that King is part of the reason that the younger generation of runners, especially trail runners, are running disproportionately faster. “It’s something about Max that just rubs off on others. He has this quiet intensity yet he’s so friendly and humble at the same time.” However, if there was a sense of mentorship with the younger generation, it didn’t show with King. He considers them competition and will continue to do so for at least another decade.
As King clicked his stopwatch and offered a few quick words of encouragement to one of his runners passing by, he looked at me and said, “There is always somebody faster.” That one sentence unlocked King’s definition of “mediocre.”
By labeling himself mediocre, King allows room for growth and in turn acknowledges that his claim to the throne is anything but permanent. He is the culmination of hard work and determination, the accumulation of hundreds of speed workouts and tens of thousands of miles. Quite simply, King is not an anomaly. He is the outcome of a very elaborate equation that he wrote himself and that so many others have the ability to complete, if they are just willing to stand before the chalkboard for that long.
Rickey Gates would like to be on Max’s hunting team. This article originally appeared in our July 2013 issue.