21 Questions with Trail Runner Coverboy Patrick Sweeney

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This barefoot runner, burro racer, beach bum and beer-mile aficionado is running across the country in hopes of making a difference in kids’ lives

Sweeney is joined by his nephew, Lucas, a 100 Mile Club Member, on the final stretch of a 5K on Manhattan Beach in 2013.. Courtesy of Patrick Sweeney.

Patrick Sweeney, pictured on the cover of our January 2015 issue, is a runner of many talents. Among them: burro racing, running naked, clocking two sub-24-hour Leadville Trail 100s in sandals, running a 2:37 marathon and a series of sub-six-minute beer miles (drink a beer, run a quarter-mile, repeat three more times). He’s also placed second, twice, at the Krispy Kreme Challenge West—a four-mile race with mandatory mid-run consumption of a dozen Krispy Kreme Original glazed doughnuts.

A Manhattan Beach, California, native, now 35, Sweeney typically runs in nothing but Luna sandals and shorts or a kilt, and sometimes a sombrero—or, occasionally, in his birthday suit at an annual race called the Bare Burro 5K. He’s won it three out of the four years he’s run it. Most recently, he completed a beer half marathon (yup, drinking 13 beers over the course of running 13.1 miles) in two hours and change—sans puking.

He’s also a prolific blogger. His half-dozen distinct blogs have a sort of 90s charm to them—loud fonts, flashy colors, tiled backgrounds and a copious amount of cartoons drawn in Microsoft Paint. The themes of his blogs range from Vegan Debauchery to How to Cook a Human (encounters in his local gym’s sauna, where he spends up to 10 hours a week) to Found on the Beach, an image-heavy chronicle of the plastic shovels, buckets and other sundries he scavenges on his daily runs along Manhattan Beach.

“Some dudes go for long romantic walks on the beach at sunset with beautiful ladies,” he wrote in a May 2012 post. “I comb it for trash searching for inner peace while finding beauty in the uncorrupted sand. Yet if any beautiful ladies want join me, please be my guest.”

At the heart of all his talents is a single one that anyone who knows him can attest to: the ability to bring a smile to people’s faces.

This year, Sweeney is applying his energy toward a cause near to his own heart: raising money and awareness for the 100 Mile Club. It’s a nonprofit devoted to improving kids’ health and self-esteem by challenging them to run or walk 100 miles during the course of a school year.

“I had a horrible diet as a kid,” says Sweeney. “I basically ate fast food every day. I wasn’t like ‘Big Fat Kid #1’ in school—I didn’t get the ridicule that kid got—but I was probably #2 or #3 in line.”

Sweeney will join 15 other international runners to spend four-and-a-half months in what they’ve dubbed “Race Across USA”—running the equivalent of 117 back-to-back marathons across the country. They’ll start in Los Angeles and finish in Washington, D.C. Their ambition is to inspire a new generation of kids to be active, as well as to raise money and awareness for the 100 Mile Club. One of Sweeney’s blogs, Sea to Sea with Patrick Sweeney, will chronicle their adventure.

Before he takes off on his run across the country next week, he took a few minutes to chat with us about overcoming childhood obesity, the Zen of beach running and the art of the beer mile.

In honor of his friend Caballo Blanco, Sweeney ran his first burro race, the 2013 Leadville Boom Days Burro Race, with “Samaritan,” the burro Caballo used to race with. Courtesy of Patrick Sweeney.

1. How did you first get into running?

I ran a couple marathons in college just to see if I could do it. I had no great skill at it—I was running maybe 3:30 marathons—and then I got into playing pro Frisbee golf through college until 2006. When I got back into the marathon, I was breaking three hours pretty easily, but I plateaued at 2:55. I’d work my ass off and only get a minute faster. Then someone mentioned ultramarathons. I had kind of known about them, but didn’t know much. I overtrained for my first 50-miler and found that ultramarathons just came easy for me. I was hooked. I liked racing and being competitive. I still like that, but I’ve made so many friends in the ultra community that, as I’ve gotten older, I race more just because I look forward to seeing my friends.

2. How did you get involved with the 100 Mile Club?

I saw a picture of the pier on Manhattan Beach, where I live, on the top of some race website, and I found out that Jimmy Dean Freeman was running [100 kilometers] from Brentwood to some elementary school in Corona to promote running and inspire kids with this 100 Mile Club. He was looking for runners to go out there, so I went to the school to talk about ultrarunning. I saw these kids excited about running. It made me think about my own childhood. I was into sports and a happy kid, but I was borderline obese. I loved sports, but I hated running. I wish there had been something like the 100 Mile Club around for me when I was a kid.

3. How often do you run now?

My passion is running on the beach every day. I like soft-sand running. Sometimes you get a better workout by going slow, because your feet sink into the sand so much more. I probably spend anywhere from 14 to 20 hours, on average each week, running on the beach.

4. Do you ever struggle to get motivated to go out for a run?

No. Not in the slightest. I don’t train: for me, it’s not about training for any particular race. It’s more that races justify the time I spend at the beach doing what I love.

The discarded shovels Sweeney turns into race prizes. Courtesy of Patrick Sweeney.

5. What’s the deal with the all the plastic toy shovels you post photos of on your blog? How many do you find on an average run?

I wouldn’t have believed how many random items you can find on the beach until I started running there. I pretty much find a shovel every day I run. I probably found about 500 last year, and I was gone for half the year. My record for shovels found on one run is 14 or 15. Each day is like a little scavenger hunt for me: I’m excited to see what I can find. I think it also kind of helps in this age of buying and consuming things we don’t need. Finding shovels fulfills that desire for me. I don’t need to go to Target and buy crap; I can just find a shovel on a beach. Since I started making shovel amulets as awards for beer-mile finishers [at the Born to Run Ultramarathon], it’s been cool seeing people get excited about them. I know at least 30 people who have their shovels hanging with their marathon or ultramarathon medals.

I don’t steal shovels from kids. I only pick them up early or late at night, when the beach is deserted. For every shovel I keep, I give one away to some kid I find on the beach. That’s actually really great sometimes, when you see a kid who doesn’t have anything. I don’t want to be some creepy runner guy offering kids toys, so I try to always ask the parents first. It’s great; kids just get so excited over a dumb shovel. But I guess I do, too.

6. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever come across while running on the beach?

I found a jockstrap once. I didn’t keep it.

7. How did you get into running in sandals?

When I first got into running, I bought the cheapest pair of shoes I could find—some $40 Adidas shoes at Sports Authority. They worked fine for me until I took a fall in a race and fractured some ribs. When I came back to running, something changed in my gait. I had IT band problems and a whole mess of injuries. It got me thinking—since most of my training was barefoot on the beach, I thought maybe I was altering my stride too much by wearing shoes with a big heel. I switched to Vibrams initially. When I got my first pair of sandals, I put them on as a novelty. I didn’t plan on liking or disliking them, but I ended up wearing them for 42 miles while pacing a friend at Badwater [a 135-mile road race through Death Valley in July]. I’ve been hooked ever since.

8. Who did you pace at Badwater?

Dan Westergaard. He’s the only one, I think, to have ever run a “Badwater sextuple”—the Badwater course six times, back to back. He said it got easier as he went. I like hearing that, because it gives me hope about this Race Across USA. Like, after a few weeks, I’ll suddenly just be in shape!

9. You said you’re not big on training, per se—but have you done anything differently to prepare for this upcoming run across the country?

The older I get, the more I realize it’s pretty easy to push myself past my body’s limits. I only do that when I am racing someone who’s better than me, or racing a clock, but it’s not necessarily the smartest thing possible. So I’ve tried to stay away from racing competitively in the last month.

Not that I’m trying to go into this fat and out of shape, but I do want to go into it with a few extra pounds, knowing it might be beneficial to have a few extra calories to burn. Oh, and I did run 154 miles over three days at Across the Years [a multi-day, fixed-time event in Phoenix, Arizona that took place Dec. 28-Jan. 3]. And I did a couple beer miles at the race, too.

10. What’s the appeal of the beer mile?

You get the gratification of an ultra with all the shared misery and shared success—but in a very short period of time. You’re all going through hell for 10 minutes, and then everyone is just happy and in a good mood afterward.

11. Any advice for aspiring beer milers—or beer half marathoners, as the case may be?

Know that discomfort is temporary. Just push through it, as hard as you can, and very soon you’re going to have a big smile on your face and the pain will be gone. For the beer half marathon: well, I don’t recommend that. It’s borderline dangerous. If someone else does it, I’d root them on, but I wouldn’t encourage them to do it in the first place.

12. So what inspired the Beer Half Marathon?

Stupidity. Opening up my big mouth on Facebook.

13. What kind of beer did you drink at your Beer Half Marathon?

Five-percent Budweiser. So, I started the International Beer Mile Association. I’m trying to change some of the rules of the Beer Mile. I don’t want to allow puking. [Ed. Note: Historically, puking during a beer mile has resulted in a penalty bonus lap.] I think beer miles should be about stupidity for a good cause. That’s my motto. I don’t even care if it’s beer. Just something carbonated, and hopefully raising money for some charity. It’s not about getting drunk. Like I said earlier, it’s just about shared misery.

14. What’s your favorite beer?

Stone Ale. Generally, I love super-hoppy, high-alcohol IPA.

15. What other standards would you like to instill in beer miles?

Another motto is: beer miles on tracks are for [expletive]. We try to hold them on actual ultra courses like Across the Years, Javelina or on the boulevard at Leadville. We did one in Silverton [Colorado], and it was freaking hard. It was like an ultra beer mile, maybe 1.1 or 1.2 miles, with 250 feet of elevation gain. I ran that because I was trying to get a ride back home from Leadville. I couldn’t find anyone who could take me home, but I did find some people who wanted to take me to Silverton.

Sweeney (right) with his buddy Luis Escobar, who photographed Sweeney for Trail Runner‘s January 2015 cover.

16. Let’s go back to your plans to run across the country. How did you decide to be a part of the Race Across USA group?

I’d wanted to run across the country a few years prior, but couldn’t do it because of an injury. I’m not a planner, so having the event structured for me was pretty cool. This seemed like an opportunity: I have personal freedom to go and do this, freedom that I might not have later in life, so I needed to jump on it. The only problem was that it cost $2,000. I’m pretty much broke all the time, so I asked some friends on Facebook if anyone knew someone who’d want to sponsor me. Out of the blue, Trail Racing Over Texas offered to sponsor me. They’re the race directors for Brazos Bend and a bunch of other races through Texas. Robert Goyen, the head of it, was an obese child and adult, too. He used to weigh over 300 pounds. Now he’s an ultrarunner, and he was just really excited to help me raise money for the 100-Mile Club.

17. What are some pieces of gear you’ll be taking with you?

I’m kind of approaching this like a backpacking trip, except weight won’t be a problem [Ed. Note: The run will be fully supported by volunteer crews who will transport gear between checkpoints]. I’ll be bringing a JetBoil and doing all my cooking on it. That’s going to be interesting. I’m used to cooking two to three times a day. I don’t plan on eating at restaurants. I plan to just be frugal and eat tacos and cans of beans and tortillas. And Bearded Brothers bars. I’ll also have my Luna sandals and my Roll Recovery R8 massager. It has roller-blade wheels that just plant down on your legs and massage you. It’s the best massager I’ve ever used.

18. You switched to a vegan diet several years ago. Do you have a favorite food?

If you’re going to be vegan, California’s where you want to live. I probably eat two to three avocados a day.  It’s my very favorite pizza ingredient. I like to make vegan pizzas. Some people wouldn’t call them pizzas, since they have no sauce and no cheese. But to me, it’s not a pizza unless it has avocado on it.

19. What’s your favorite race you’ve ever run?

The Bare Burro is pretty darn fun. Also, being a part of the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon is amazing. I’ve done it the last four years; this will be the first year I’ll miss it. It’s not even the race itself, but the adventure of it, to run with the Tarahumara, to be involved with their culture, to watch the Kids’ Race—that’s what’s great. I’m more sad to miss watching the Kids’ Race this year than to miss running the 50-miler.

20. What’s the story behind the photo on the cover of the January, 2015 issue of Trail Runner that Luis Escobar took?

Luis was hosting a running retreat near Death Valley. We just went out for a run on the salt plain. It’s funny, before he took that picture, he was getting pissed off at me. I run with my elbows cocked back, and he always criticizes my running form. He likes my buddy Tyler’s running form a lot better—powerful, aggressive running. If I’m running well, the comment I usually get is, “He doesn’t look like he’s trying.” People will say that to me during a race, and I’m like, “Hey, I’m working my ass off here!” Luis is a great friend, though. I’ve gone with him to Western States the last few years to help him photograph the race.

21. In your blog entries, you often mention living simply and eschewing commercialism. Can you share a little more about your lifestyle?

It’s only me that I have to take care of—no children or wives or debt. So I basically just find odd jobs to make ends meet. I don’t spend much money. I’m lucky that I have a good network of friends and sponsors that help pay for me to go to races, get me into fun events and support my travels. I don’t have a big bank account or big 401K, but I’m pretty successful at living a life I enjoy living.

Yitka Winn is a freelance writer based in Telluride, Colorado. She blogs at yitkawinn.com.

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