At the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on December 2nd, Sage Canaday finished less than a minute behind Joe Gray, who won the race in 1:18:26. Additionally, Canaday made his move into second place on one of the steepest hills on the course and accelerated through some of the toughest and muddiest terrain.
This performance is typical of Canaday, who at 21 was the youngest runner at the US Olympic Marathon Trials in 2008. He’s run a 2:16 marathon on the roads and is a three-time USATF National Champion in mountain and trail events.
We recently caught up with Canaday to talk about trails, his goals for the upcoming year, and what to look for in a coach.
Q. In 2012 you made the jump from the roads to the trails. What brought you into the woods?
A. I basically left Hansons-Brooks right after the US Olympic Trials marathon that winter after a dismal 2:18 at the Trials, which was disappointing after already running a 2:16:52 personal best.
I had always loved the softer surfaces and scenery with trail miles. Training in Ithaca, New York in college and growing up in the backwoods of Oregon meant running on a lot of trails. I wanted to try doing longer long runs in training. Usually, I was limited to 20-mile long runs in training, so I thought 28-30 miles might be interesting and give me more strength for the road marathon. I then reasoned that I might as well just do a 50K trail race because it would be more fun.
One of my goals in 2012 was to make the US Mountain Running team at 12K so I entered and won the Mount Washington Hill Climb that year, which was the US Championship. I had no idea that uphill climbing was a strength of mine and could actually be fun. Winning that race turned out to be a big turning point for me. Basically, I love the sport of distance running in general – track, cross-country, trails and roads – but I’m not the most talented runner at the flat and fast surfaces under 10K.
The hills and trails can be a great equalizer so I feel like I had a much better chance for sponsorship and competing for podium spots in mountain-ultra-trail racing compared to road running and track racing.
Q. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Coach Robert Johnson in college? How did he inspire and train you?
A. I told coach “Rojo” that his website LetsRun.com was the best recruiting tool and it was very influential in my decision to run for him. We sometimes argued about the training, and I tested him with a lot (which in retrospect was somewhat disrespectful), but by the time I was a senior, he had guided me to the Olympic Marathon Trials, a Heps (Ivy League conference) win in the 10K, and qualifying for NCAAs in cross country. He is someone I greatly respect because he is very intelligent and ran at a high level himself.
As a coach, he really wanted all of his athletes to improve in running and succeed in life. One of the most generous things he did for me was let me run two full marathons in-between cross country and track seasons because he knew it was my goal to qualify for the 2007 US Olympic Trials. I don’t think very many college coaches would let one of their top athletes do that, but he was willing to be flexible with me because he knew it was a dream of mine. When I qualified, I was 21 years old and the youngest guy in the race that year with a 2:21 marathon. Rojo’s general training philosophy was very marathon based and it gave me the foundation to keep running after Cornell.
Q. Who coaches you now?
A. From 2012 until 2016, I coached myself. Right now, my girlfriend Sandi Nypaver is coaching me.
Sandi has helped me a lot in the past few months. I really enjoyed the freedom of coaching myself, but ultimately, I think all athletes are more successful with a coach. Without one, you tend to get too caught up in your own training and perception of what you are doing that you often overlook things.
A good coach can give you that outside perspective you are missing as they are inherently more objective that you can be about yourself. Additionally, they will keep you accountable and encourage you.
In writing my training plan, I still bounce ideas back and forth with Sandi about the specifics of the workouts, but she has a lot of experience coaching athletes from road marathons to ultra-trail races so I trust her 100 percent. Part of our coaching business at SageRunning.com is personalized coaching, but we also sell training plan templates. We’d like to think that they empower our athletes because of the variety and periodization of the specific workouts. Almost any level athlete can benefit from a more structured program.
Q. Do you have a training partner?
A. No. I run 98 percent of my miles solo. I’ll do some fun and easy group runs with the Rocky Mountain Runners on trails in Boulder and I show up at some of the Boulder Running Company easy runs, but all my hard workouts have been solo.
Q. How important is high mileage for trail running? For example, if a recreational runner wanted to get on the trails, can they do so and keep mileage at 20 miles a week or less?
A. Generally one has to do what they can with the time and body that they have! The number one thing is to stay healthy so if the mileage is adding too much stress to one’s daily routine, it needs to be limited.
We like to see a progression in weekly mileage/volume but a lot of times for trail-ultra running training we will track time spend running as well as vertical feet (or meters) climbed per week. So if an athlete is doing 20-miles per week, but they are all trail miles and there is a lot of climbing/vertical, it might be an equal stress/time commitment to someone running 30-miles per week on the flat roads/trails. Hills build a lot of fitness and while base-miles certainly help they are not the end all. Depending on one’s goals and history, weekly mileage can vary a lot.
Q. What are your goals for 2017? Make a qualifying time for the Olympic Trials? Mountain running goals?
A. For 2018 I’d like to try to run a sub 2:19:00 marathon and qualify for the US Olympic Trials. That is always a goal of mine every Olympic cycle. I missed by 12 seconds in 2016 so it has been something that I really want to do again!
I haven’t decided which mountain-ultra running races I’ll do in 2018 yet. I’d for sure like to head over to Europe again in the summer and race in the Alps again. My main sponsor, Hoka One One, sponsors a lot of races so that may factor into my decision. Generally, if there is a competitive race with a lot of people, I want to be there! I also run for a living, so prize money is often a factor in choosing between races. So it would be nice to try to win some races from 42K to 50-miles in the mountains and on the trails. Making a podium is also very nice, but usually, the top goal is to try to compete for the win. In any case, I’d like to hopefully keep improving and get the most out of my body.