Little Big Man: Exclusive Interview With Chris Solinsky

A long-term outlook and the right relationships help define the distance runner everyone’s talking about.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

By now, most of the running world has heard of Chris Solinsky. He’s that big, broad-shouldered guy who shattered the American record at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational in early May, running the first sub-27-minute 10,000 in the world this year. The former University of Wisconsin standout — who now lives in Portland, Oregon and still trains under former Badger coach Jerry Schumacher as member of the Oregon Track Club — has always been considered more of a middle-distance runner than someone who might possibly threaten the Africans for a medal in a long-distance race at the 2012 Olympics. But there’s more to Chris than just the “fatty” stereotypes and the conjured-up images of an aw-shucks Wisconsinite out to make his mark on the world.

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Competitor.com sat down with Chris a few weeks after his breakthrough performance to hear his thoughts on his coach, his monster aerobic base, and his prospects for being the first American to run under 13:00 for 5,000 meters on U.S. soil at the Prefontaine Classic in July.

Competitor.com: You’ve got the build of a middle-distance runner and, until earlier this month, had never run a 10,000-meter race before in your life. With that in mind, did you ever see yourself breaking the American record?

Chris Solinsky: To be honest, nope. But at the same time, I always felt like I had undiscovered promise in the 10,000, just because throughout high school and college and even as a post-collegiate runner, I’ve had the ability to really excel in a lot of our strength workouts. There have been times like last year when I was running more miles than the 10K guys in our group, like Simon [Bairu] and Tim [Nelson]. And I was handling the tempo runs just as well as they were handling them.

So there’s always been something in my head that made me think I may be a pretty good 10,000 runner. I had been trying to get Jerry to let me run a 10,000 for the last couple of years to let it be a training tool, versus gearing up for it. I felt like it could have been a good springboard to get me ready for the rest of the season. This year he finally gave in.

Originally Jerry wanted you to run the steeple at the Payton Jordan and you made a last-minute decision to run the 10K, correct?

Actually, it was about five to six weeks before the meet. We decided at that time to run the 10K. Before then, we had looked at Payton Jordan has being one of the steeples we wanted to get in and be competitive at.

As you move up to longer-distance races, how would you say you have evolved as a runner and where do you see yourself in the future, event-wise?

I remember the day when my coach told me I was going to run the 2-mile and I dreaded it, because I thought it was too far. I guess I do see the marathon as being a very promising event for myself. But I definitely think I have a lot more years of training to be able to approach that the way I want to. I guess right now I want to stay in the 5,000 and 10,000 on the track and see what I can accomplish in those events, like getting a medal and trying to be competitive at the world scene and even in like the 3,000 — trying to drop down. It’s been my goal since the last two years that if I’m ever in a 3,000m race, I want to try and get under 7:30. The philosophy of our group is to always try and take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself.

Do you watch your weight at all?

In the years since college, I definitely have. In college, I just did whatever. I didn’t care. I told myself that I ran enough and so it didn’t matter what I ate. Since college, I’ve tried to take it to the next level. I probably eat as much as I did in college, but I make sure that what goes in my body is healthy. Like every afternoon I eat the same thing: yogurt parfait with berries and granola as well as a turkey and salami sandwich. And that is a lot for one meal, but it’s healthier than like a frozen pizza.

How would you describe your relationship with your coach, Jerry Schumacher?

Throughout college, he was a guy who prided himself on being able to master each person and figure out how they tick and what makes them compete well. Honestly, he could do it with every runner on the team. He could predict what somebody would run within a few-second window. He was a lot like my high school coaches. I had two high school coaches that, if you combined them, you’d have Jerry. One did well with strength and the other did well with speed. Jerry understands how I tick and what makes me accomplish what I want to accomplish.

With all the guys I train with, Jerry treats each runner differently in terms of training regimen. He is really in tune with his athletes. We only race when it’s right. It can be frustrating as an athlete sometimes, because you see all these guys running fast times at the beginning of the season, but Jerry has always had his eye on the big picture. It’s hard when you aren’t running what you want to be running at the beginning, but when you accomplish what you set out to accomplish later on, you realize that you’ve done it the right way.

The night you broke the record, you dropped the hammer with 1,000m to go. What made that possible for you?

It’s tempo runs, our aerobic work, and threshold runs. But along with all that, we also do a lot of speed work. Obviously, in the U.S. or a global championship race you have to be able to finish hard. You can be completely aerobic, but if you don’t have a 52-second lap quarter in you and can’t kick fast, it doesn’t matter how aerobically fit you are. We definitely touched on speed, but we work it in while trying to push our aerobic threshold. But it’s a combination, definitely a combination. It’s not any one thing. It’s a combo, because when I got to the last lap, all I was thinking about was form and trying to drive like we do in practice.

You’ve hinted that you are targeting being the first American to run under 13:00 for the 5,000 on American soil at the Prefontaine Classic in July. Bekele will most likely be there. Do you think he’s going to help you pull it off?

Definitely. It goes with our philosophy to have guys like Bekele in races, because of their potential for being quick. I don’t think we are shooting for any times. Obviously, it would be awesome if we can get under 13:00. But the goal is just to compete. If I can finish as close as I can to Bekele, then a time is going to come out of that. The way the race in Stanford panned out, it did give me more confidence. But 62 [seconds] per lap is still a pretty big difference. I think the biggest thing the race in Stanford has taught me is that I was finally able to kind of zone out and not worry about where we were at in the race or anything. I’m just excited to take that experience from the 10,000 into the 5,000, because in the past I’ve been kind of too cognizant of pace and where we are at and that kind of gets in my head. I think I’ve learned to just be in the moment and not worry about the stupid little things—just be on the track and run as hard as I can.

Your dad, Wayne, has become a mini celebrity considering that Letsrun.com ran a headline with one of his quotes. Describe your relationship with your father.

He’s like a brother to me. My dad and I have always been really close. My parents got divorced when I was in kindergarten, but I’m lucky in that my family and I are still very close. My dad was an ex-runner and so was my mother, actually. They both ran in high school. My dad had a partial scholarship offer to Wisconsin, but he turned it down so that he could stay on the farm with my grandfather. He’s always had a passion for running and once I decided that it was something I wanted to do, he made sure I wasn’t lazy and somehow always found the right thing to keep me motivated. Every fall, I look forward to going home and going hunting with my dad and getting back and relaxing with my family. We don’t always talk running, but it definitely comes up. He knows me and always has a little advice to give me on the side.

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Duncan Larkin is a 2:32 marathoner living in West Chester, PA.

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