Austin Meyer: A life of filmmaking, running and clean eating
By Henry Howard
Sports, storytelling and family are at the core of Austin Meyer.
Meyer, who grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., kicked off a lifelong love of soccer at his brothers’ games and took up the sport at age 5.
“There was such a clear love for the sport and an affinity to take coaching and work really hard,” he recalls. “I think back to those days when I was 9 years old and all I wanted to do was juggle a soccer ball. For a lot of kids, when they have a sport, they go to practice and once they leave the field, it's like, OK, that practice is done. I'll go on to something else.”
All that practice paid off as Meyer played soccer for Stanford University. Now, he juggles a career as a documentary filmmaker, his new sport of ultra running and more.
“It's funny to think about this level of enjoyment for sport and training and the dedication and discipline it takes to master or achieve some level of mastery in a sport like soccer, where your skill on the ball is such a difficult thing to achieve,” he says. “I think that's lent itself to the kind of person I am now as an ultra athlete, and maybe I was drawn toward that sport.”
‘Could I run an ultra?’
Meyer’s goal of playing professionally was dashed when he wasn’t drafted. Instead, he focused on his graduate program at Stanford, pursued his passions for journalism and storytelling, started experimenting with different sports.
That led him to reading “Born to Run.” And like for so many other ultra runners that served as the catalyst for exploring trails and one’s own limits.
“I had no idea the sport of ultra running existed,” he explained. “This was in 2016. After reading the book I was so intrigued, wondering, ‘Could I do this? Could I run an ultra marathon?’”
He signed up for his first race, a 50-miler. “The process of training for that race and then doing the race, getting my ass kicked in that race, and getting to the end and feeling that sort of fulfillment that I felt when I played soccer for Stanford, I knew right there that I was I was hooked, and it's been one of the biggest gifts in my life ever since.”
While Meyer grew up playing a team sport, it's interesting that he transitioned to a sport that's very individualized.
“When I didn't go professional in soccer, one of the reasons why I was drawn to ultra running and the individuality of this sport was probably because I knew it was going to teach me new lessons,” he says. “One that I've been confronting and thinking a lot about these past couple of years as I've developed as an athlete and gotten better as an ultra runner is what success looks like. In soccer, that was often pretty black and white. Did we win or did we lose? That was kind of you versus the opponent on the other side of the field. I realized really quickly, as I got humbled by this sport and competing against other athletes in the sport, that I was not going to have a sustainable career as an ultra runner if that was the way I looked at the competition, if that's the way I judge success in this individual sport. It forced me to really go more internal with everyday training runs, and especially to races. Judging success based on how I ran to my own personal potential. So it's made me draw inwards a lot more than when I was on a team sport, and I've been learning a lot of different lessons.”
A storyteller who runs
During our interview, I asked a chicken or the egg question: If someone were to meet you, would you introduce yourself as a runner who does documentaries and other types of videos, or a video creator who also runs?
“That's a good question. I've never looked at ultra running as my career. I've always looked at ultra running as my passion. Based on our culture, I feel like usually what people are asking when they ask that question is, what do you do for work? So I usually lead being a documentary filmmaker.”
Still, he says, when he submits bios for documentary film grants or other opportunities, he mentions ultra running.
“It is so core to who I am these days, and it expresses more of who I am and my personality than just saying I'm a documentary filmmaker. Especially as a freelance filmmaker who's trying to get opportunities when I'm sending out those bios, I want them to know that if you trust me and bring me onto your team, I will approach the craft of telling a story with the same sort of discipline and grit and integrity that I do with my own personal training.”
Meyer has always loved telling stories.
His mother, a former journalist, provided encouragement each time he was working on a creative writing assignment. After flirting with the idea of a biology degree at Stanford, he pivoted and took a class on creative writing where we were writing fictional short stories.
“I was completely captivated. I loved those classes, it was all I could think about all quarter. That led me down the path of storytelling and doing classes in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, anything I could get my hands on.”
When he studied journalism as a graduate student at Stanford, video entered the (ahem) picture.
“I realized that if I combined my background and skillset in storytelling with this very play-based skillset that I had developed with the camera — playing with my friends in high school, making goofy music videos and skits, that was our form of play — I felt like I can actually impact people emotionally,” he said. “That felt so good. I just started leaning more into that discipline and started to focus on telling stories through the camera.”
A focus on ultra running
From that initial 50-miler eight years ago, Meyer has transitioned into a competitive ultra runner. He won the Zion 100K last April, and has followed that up with victories at the Rodeo Valley Trail Run 50K and the Oakland Hills Trail Run half marathon.
Meyer prides himself on learning and growing as an athlete. He reflects back on the 50-miler and the challenges of the training, nutrition and mental game.
“The difficulty of that single day of pursuing something that I didn't know was possible beforehand, of finding that place where I am so beaten down and starting to go negative in my mind and wonder, why did I sign up for this? Why did I pay to have this done to me? And then pushing through that mental barrier. That difficulty was so life fulfilling. It makes me so happy to have those experiences, and I feel like I grow as a person and athlete so much when I get to go through that.”
Ultra running gave me something that playing in adult soccer leagues could not.
“I tried playing Sunday league soccer with my colleagues, and it wasn't doing it for me,” he recalls. “I need to get hit in the mouth, I need to get humbled by the trails, I need to get beaten down, and this sport does that. I feel so much growth as a person and an athlete when I come up against those moments where I'm struggling and feel like I can't push anymore and then find that willpower to keep going.”
The continual process of becoming a better athlete was instilled in Meyer while playing soccer. He credits his coaches, singling out his college coach who took over during his sophomore year during a time when Meyer was in a rough patch.
“My Stanford soccer coach was extremely influential to how I view sport and life,” he explained. “He was a very process-oriented person, and a coach who challenged me in so many ways. I was really struggling. I was not contributing on the field, and he really tested me in a lot of ways. ‘Do you want to be here? Are you going to put in the work to be able to contribute to this team?’ Through all that discomfort, I was able to grow. When I look back on my career, I don't often remember the goals that I scored or the assists or any sort of accolades. What I remember was how far I've come.”
Fast forward to his debut race. Meyer admits he had no idea of what he was doing. All he knew was that he had fallen in love with running and he was headed for a beat down.
“I trained and appreciated the process and focused on step-by-step growth over a long period of time,” said Meyer, who like me is coached by David Roche. “I started with David in 2018. His coaching only pushes me further in that direction toward an appreciation of the process.”
While Roche lays out training plans for his athletes, his role is just as much a confidant, cheerleader and therapist.
“One of the challenges that I'm working through and trying to get better at, and definitely having conversations in the log with David about this, is trying to give myself more grace when I can't hit mileage marks and understanding the long-term growth potential and not get caught up in that weekly mileage to the detriment of the long-term growth,” Meyer explains. “That's something that I'm trying to get better at every day, every year, so we'll see how I do.”
Big goal for Western States
When it come to the long view, Meyer has a longtime goal dialed in.
“My big, long-term goal as an ultra runner is to be the oldest person to ever complete Western States,” he says. “This is a goal that I am very open about. Every Western States, I'm looking at who is the oldest runner. I'm keeping an eye on it. I expect to have that record being like the late 70s when I get there.”
The goal requires discipline over a long period of time.
“I will have to create a life that has so many of the qualities that I aspire to have,” he says. “I'm not going to be sad or have my life made if that goal actually happens. But to be someone who could possibly do that, I have to create a really special bond with running to love it and want to train for something like that for so many decades. I have to be very healthy, I have to treat my body right and my mind right, and do that over decades. Those are the process-oriented life steps that I would love to have.”
As a native Californian, Meyer sees the race as deeply meaningful.
“Western States is a really special race,” he says. “I have been fortunate enough to get out there and do film projects, spectate and pace. I think it would be cool to chase some of that history and be the oldest person ever. I'm always most inspired by the athletes who have longevity in the sport, more so than the elites who are on the scene getting those Golden Tickets and winning world championships for a couple years. They're older and they're still pushing themselves, they're still challenging themselves, and genuinely still have joy about getting out into nature and pushing their body. If I can do that for as long as possible, that's my goal.”
A vegan lifestyle
Meyer takes good care of his body, committing to a vegan lifestyle, which began when he lived in Zambia in 2018. He was on a grant from National Geographic to make a documentary film focused on malnutrition and maternal health care in Zambia.
It was a turning point for Meyer. It was his first time living away from family and friends. He had quit his job and had a long-term relationship end. For three weeks he worked on getting approvals for different shooting locations. He had time on his hands.
“It was this moment of sitting back and reflecting about where I was at in life,” he remembers. “I think having that space apart from my identity back home made me open to reflecting on my life and seeing how I'm living my life's values from a more objective point of view.”
Meyer was listening to the Rich Roll Podcast, hosted by a vegan endurance athlete. Guests regularly explain the benefits of plant-based living from a personal health, population health, environmental and animal rights perspective.
“In the past, when I had been back at home, I'd listen to the podcast but I always kind of skipped over those episodes,” he admits. “But there was something about being in this new context that made me open to hearing that message for the first time. So I started going through the Rich Roll archives, listening to all these people come on the podcast to talk about veganism, and my world just opened up. It immediately resonated with me once I opened my heart and mind to that message. It was so obvious to me that this was what it meant to live in alignment with my values, pretty much overnight. I went into the kitchen in my house and gave my housemates anything that was animal products in the fridge.”
He started learning about new foods and including more beans in his diet and different types of vegetables. “It was a really cool context to be transitioning to a vegan lifestyle.”
‘A whole new plant kingdom’
Meyer says there is a period of transition for anyone adopting a vegan lifestyle.
“Of course, just like anything in life, when you change, there's going to be some friction,” he says. “There's going to be some new learning. For me, when I went vegan, it definitely opened up a whole new plant kingdom for me to explore in terms of the types of food that I was eating and new ways to nourish my body in extremely healthy and calorie-efficient ways.”
Simple math disrupts the notion that vegan lifestyles are too limiting.
“I would say to those people who think of veganism as limiting, noting that there are only about six animals in the world our society has conditioned us to believe are a food product, and not an individual worthy of life,” he explains. “So essentially, veganism is just saying, ‘Let's not consider those six animals as food. Let's take those out of the category of food and consider their right to a life like everything else in the world, and focus on all these plants, all these legumes, all these other foods.’”
Ultra runners who follow a vegan diet, have better health outcomes, as proven by scientific literature. Additionally, Meyer points out, it’s a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.
“What I care most about is not causing unnecessary suffering to animals. If you can do all that at the same time, that's what it's all about.”
Always the storyteller, Meyer concludes the interview on the search for more tales.
“I'm always on the lookout for stories,” he says. “If anyone reads this or sees this video please feel free to reach out. I have a YouTube channel where I teach about lessons and strategies that I've learned as a documentary filmmaker to help other storytellers. I'm definitely always interested in stories in the ultra running space that go beyond the race, that go beyond just being about running, and use ultra running as a backdrop to tell human stories. I'd love to chat with anyone about that.”
Name: Austin Meyer
Hometown: Santa Rosa, Calif.
Number of years running: Eight years (after playing college soccer for Stanford University).
How many miles a week do you typically run: 80
Point of pride: “The understanding of myself that grows every day.”
Favorite race distance: 100K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Bagel with avocado
Favorite piece of gear: Coros Apex Pro.
Who inspires you: My girlfriend, Zoe Novic.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I don't run with music.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I count every fourth footstep all the way up to 100, and then start back again at 1. If my mind ever wanders off the counting, I notice that, and start back again at 1. I use this as a meditative practice when things get really hard to bring my mind back to the present moment. In some races I have counted for hours.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Twitter: @austinmeyerfilms
• Instagram: @austinmeyerfilms
• Website: www.austinmeyerfilms.com