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Miles of smiles: New book captures Roches’ running philosophies

I was flying from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, ironically, close to where David and Megan Roche had their first date, when I started reading an advance copy of their book, “The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer.”

Thanks to the early flight, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. and was a mix of groggy, sleepy and pretty blasé when I cracked open my laptop at 30,000 feet and started reading the Roches’ new book, which is available now.

It didn’t take me long to have a smile on my face — and it wasn’t due to the small cup of complimentary coffee on board. It was the engaging, humorous and thoughtful approach the authors use. For anyone who reads David’s coaching columns, they will recognize his style of writing.

I appreciate the Roches — who run the Some Work, All Play (SWAP) website — providing the advance copy. After reading it, David and I chatted over the phone about the book, coaching, life and death, and other topics. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Question: So let’s start out at literally the very beginning. The first line of the book says “Every runner has the same finish line: death.” It's an interesting decision to start a book that is overwhelmingly positive and even called “The Happy Runner” that way. Tell me about your thought process about the beginning.

Answer: We had that line before we even had any of the other topics in the book. We talk about happiness, and that can really easily be distilled down to a simplistic emotion, a naïve emotion even. We hoped to start in a place of complexity by zooming out to something that most people aren't looking forward to and might be viewed as a negative thing. Plus, we're right there with the readers, facing all these big questions and not having answers.

Question: I’ve heard you on a lot of podcasts and have read many of your coaching takes on the web but I don't recall hearing the anecdote about your parents bribing you to run with ice cream as a youngster. How did you evolve from an overweight kid to a running guru?

Answer: My dad had been a cyclist and he encouraged me to run, very kindly, just by talking to me about how it'll give me more endurance for the sports I loved. From there, I'm the type of person that once I go in, I usually go all in. Combine those two things, and eventually you end up with running becoming a major part of my life.

Question: Do you remember when you transitioned from wanting to run for that treat, that ice cream, to wanting to run for the pure joy of running?

Answer: I think I still wanna run for that.

Question: Fair enough.

Answer: Now, I have a little bit more sophisticated view of all the good and bad things that running brings. I've made the decision that the good and the bad are equally valuable in a running life.

Question: Early in the book you talk about self-acceptance. Does one need to be a runner first or have self-acceptance first or can it go either way?

Answer: I think everyone is on a journey toward self-acceptance and I don't think anyone ever fully gets there. So it's all about being, knowingly trying to travel down that path without self judgment. The talk about self-acceptance is unrelated to running entirely, we're just writing about running for this book because it’s what we know. But yeah, I think running can make self-acceptance more difficult for some people and easier for others. It really just depends on their brain chemistry and where they're coming from.

Question: Everybody has a “why.” You write a little bit about a runner's why. Tell me about your why. What is your why for coaching?

Answer: I get so much joy and purpose from seeing other people succeed and travel that journey toward self-acceptance that I was just talking about. Coaching is that in a nutshell — seeing everyone on their life journeys, through all the good and bad stuff. Coaching is the first thing I think about in the morning after I wake up and it's something that we do every single day, all year long. We're on our computer for many, many hours because it's just so much fun for us to be there for other people. Our why is that we get great satisfaction and journey towards our own self-acceptance through other people's journeys, rather through our own.

Question: There is a quote in the book that stuck with me. You wrote something about, “It's not the miles, it's the smiles.” Expand on that and how it relates to your philosophy for running.

Answer: Just numbers in general don't really mean anything in the long run. If you think of your running as a series of numbers or your life as a series of numbers, it's gonna turn into a performance review. We all dread performance reviews at work. Whereas the emotions and the experiences and all these other deeper things stick around long after the numbers have lost all their meaning. So it's not just smiles, it's frowns and tears, and all that stuff but that's all more meaningful than whatever temporary, external framework we put on our running.

Question: I was particularly interested in your advice related to VO2 max and running at aerobic and aerobic threshold. But for the average runners out there who don't have the resources to get the VO2 test, how do we apply those methodologies to our training? Do you have recommendations to follow for people regardless of training goals and age that kind of thing?

Answer: I feel VO2 max testing and things like that are relatively unimportant. It doesn't help design training or think about your running except at the outer margins of performance. Run lots, mostly easy, not too much, then add controlled and strategic workouts, rather than overthinking it. For many runners, easy running with fast strides will get you most of the way to your potential.

Question: That’s a good segue to my next question. Coaches have various takes on strides, whether it’s mid-run, end of the run, whatever it is. How did you come up with recommendations that you listed in the book, strides being in the second half. Basically 15 to 30 seconds and then somewhere between four and 12, how did you get those numbers?

Answer: Coaching is all about mixing the science and the practice. 30 seconds or less is the general length that you want, any longer than that and it could start recruiting the wrong muscle fibers and use different energy systems. We found that when someone's on a run anyway, strides can be an excuse for them to break it up, make it go a bit quicker and fit into the context of what they're going to do. Rather than be this extra thing that may fall by the wayside on a busy day or a cold day or just when they don't feel it at the end of a run.

Question: Good, so I want to talk about your cereal obsession.

Answer: Oh man.

Question: A lot of runners are very focused on nutrition, whatever it means for them. Cereals are not thought of as something that's going to help a runner get to his or her own goals. I kind of ask this jokingly in a way, but when you are in training for something, is cereal one of those treats or is it a staple or how does it fit into your whole eating pattern?

Answer: That's a great question. We tell our athletes not to view food as in a context of treats or something that is healthy or whatever, but something that is fun and uplifting. Food is a great part of life, and losing sight of that can make life a bit less awesome. Many complex approaches to nutrition over-simplify a complex science that is not supported in how people actually perform. Plus, it's a slippery slope to other methods of self judgment. Of course, some people have very valid reasons for their diets and health comes first for everyone. You don't want to have heart disease, you don't want to have diabetes. But I spend a lot of time with professional athletes and almost all of the ones who have long careers, just eat. They don't think that much about it. That's basically our main nutrition advice: just eat enough. Beyond that, a lot of different things can work for different people.

Question: I want to end with a question about Addie dog. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned from Addie dog?

Answer: I think just enthusiasm and kindness. This sounds really simple but I think life at the end of the day is so complicated that confronting it with simple guidelines about how you want to live is the best way to be happy. Right now Addie is staring up at me just wagging her tail for no good reason and you just have this infectious kindness for everyone. There's a lot we can learn in that because she brings so much joy to those around her. And as a result she has a pretty good life too. That puppy behavior — without the puppy simplicity — is not easy but it's something we can all give to the people we care about and even the people that we barely know. If we do that maybe we can make everyone a little bit better. Everyone likes being around a puppy. So maybe we can all bring that joy to the people around us.

About the authors

David Roche started the Some Work, All Play (SWAP) team in 2013 and is a coach to some of the top trail runners in the world. He has been called one of the best ultra marathon coaches by several running media outlets. His athletes have won some of the biggest trail races, including the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Hardrock 100. He is a two-time national champion, a three-time member of Team USA, and the 2014 USATF Men’s Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year. He is also a contributing editor for Trail Runner Magazine. David graduated from Columbia University with a degree in environmental science and received a master’s degree and law degree from Duke University.

Megan Roche joined the SWAP coaching team in 2016. She is the 2016 USATF Women’s Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year, a four-time national champion, the North American Mountain Running Champion, and a six-time member of Team USA. She attended Duke University, where she played on the field hockey team and raced on the cross country and track teams before graduating with a degree in neuroscience. Megan received her medical degree from Stanford University in 2018.

Speed drill

Name: David Roche

Hometown: Boulder, Colo.

Number of years running: 10

How many miles a week do you typically run: 60-80

Point of pride: Will always stop mid-run to pet a nice dog

Favorite race distance: Half marathon

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Dark chocolate

Favorite piece of gear: Hoka Challenger ATR

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Anything Eminem! I can't shake the pump-up music of my childhood no matter how hard I try

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Don't take yourself seriously

Where can other runners connect or follow you: @MountainRoche on Twitter. Addie is on Instagram at @AddieDoesStuff

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