The Big Engine That Could: Exclusive Interview With Keith Kelly

The 2000 NCAA cross country champion from Ireland is now a competitive Cat 1 cyclist. 

After talking to Keith Kelly for five minutes you can’t help but want to stop the conversation, lace up your running shoes and head out to hammer a run. The passion the 34-year-old native of Drogheda, Ireland has for the world’s oldest and most fundamental form of athletic competition is both infectious and incredibly inspiring.

Unfortunately for Kelly, the 2000 NCAA cross country champion while at Providence College, a series of injuries virtually unmatched in endurance athletics — Kelly has suffered from ten separate stress fractures and had five knee surgeries — ended his competitive running career prematurely at 31 years of age after he won the Irish national cross country championship in 2009. After that race Kelly was unable to cool down, having suffered a stress fracture to the head of his femur during the race that kept him out of the world cross country championships that year.

The 34-year-old Kelly, who now lives in Boston and works for New Balance as their associated integrated marketing manager, has channeled that competitive energy into a new outlet — cycling. Last April, Kelly entered his first two-wheeled race, the Tour of the Battenkill Pro-Am in New York, and won the Category 5 race in 3:01:45. In the time since he has quickly ascended through the cycling ranks, moving up to Cat 1 racing in less than seven months with an aggressive racing style reminiscent of his cross country days.

Competitor.com caught up with Kelly last weekend at the Carlsbad 5000 and spoke to him about his lengthy injury history, his recent transition to cycling, and got his advice for oft-injured runners.

Competitor.com: You graduated from Providence in 2001. From 2001 to 2009, give me a brief synopsis of your injury history.

Keith Kelly: Fall of 2001, I had a pelvic stress fracture that turned into another sacral stress fracture in 2002, so I missed most of that year. Came back in 2003 in the summer, started running 1,500 meters because I couldn’t do any volume. I ran 3:40, thought “OK, this is great.” Went into the fall cross country season in ’03 in great shape and after New England cross [New England Cross Country Championships, which Kelly won in 29:06] got the sacral stress fracture again and that time it trapped the nerve and I couldn’t run from fall of ’03 and I missed most of 2004. In 2005, two stress fractures in the shins and then I got another stress fracture in my pelvis in ’05 and I said “I can’t really do this anymore” so I took a job with Reebok and moved to Colorado and started getting knee pain. I had knee surgery in ’07, a second knee surgery in ’08. In ’09 I came back, won the Irish nationals (in cross country), had knee surgery right after Irish nationals and had knee surgery again in 2010. That was my fifth knee surgery and that’s when the doctor said you should probably consider stopping.

So in 2009, after all those injuries and your big win at Irish nationals, where was your head at?

In the buildup to Irish nationals in ’09 I thought I had it figured out, that I could run 60 miles a week, just run hard all the time and do some biking to supplement volume. And I just got really, really fit. I thought I had the formula. I figured I’m gonna make a run for a marathon-style event and I’m gonna try for the London Olympics and then when I crossed the line in Dublin after that I knew I wasn’t ever going to be able to run properly again. Because that was cross country. It was a muddy surface, like soft. It’s not even an impact problem, it’s just my body is broken.

In the past we’ve talked about your injury history being tied to your [running] form. What have you learned since your college days about running form and how important proper form is to staying healthy?

I completely neglected it. And I would say that it was so deemphasized in my running I was at a point of no return, I couldn’t go back. So all this core work and everything you do, if you’re in your mid-20s and you’ve developed bad habits, and I’ve been running since I was a kid, so if you’ve developed 15 to 20 years of bad habits, you’re not gonna go into the gym and do a 12-week core program that’s going to correct everything. So my advice to runners now, new runners, is work on form. Work on landing a little bit under your body. Don’t develop bad habits. Younger people that go to college, take off that extra mile at the end of the run and spend that 6 or 7 minutes working on your QLs and all your different lower ab muscles to keep your pelvis and hips in line and straight, cause I didn’t develop the hyper mobile hips. My foot would land in front of my body, heavy heel striking, and when I did biomechanical testing I was told that I was a disaster. There’s no way I could have fixed it at that point.

If you had gotten through your post-collegiate years scot-free and none of this injury stuff were ever a problem, where would you be as a runner right now?

I think I’d be pretty good. I’d say I would be running fast marathons now. Definitely. The fitness has never been an issue. I’ve always had the engine, I’ve always had the desire and the passion and the drive – all of those tools. The only thing I didn’t have was the mechanics. So I’d say if I could have gone injury free I would have had a very good career.

Do you think you’d be getting ready for the Olympic Marathon this summer?

Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. I think a lot of runners can say that. It’s easy to say but I know that I still now am super motivated to race. That’s why I race on the bikes, because I want to compete.

And that channels into my next question. You have an engine that’s unmatched by very few in endurance sports. You have a desire that, despite all of this, hasn’t gone away. How have you channeled all of that into bike racing?

Yeah, I started bike racing last year, this time last year at the Tour of Battenkill, just a Cat 5 [Kelly won the road race]. I jumped in the race and I’ve become very addicted to cycling where I think about cycling the way I used to think about running. It’s different because I’m working full-time so I can’t train as hard as I want, but I love the feeling of the races. I can get all of the frustration out in biking from my running days and it’s an unbelievable motivator because I don’t feel any pain on the bike apart from fatigue. So towards the end of my running I wasn’t able to get as fatigued from running as I wanted to because something would hurt. A knee would hurt, or a hip would hurt and I would just have to stop. In cycling you can bury yourself, absolutely bury yourself.

Can you go as deep on the bike as you could at the end of a cross-country race?

I can go deeper on the bike because I can bury myself. In running I couldn’t. Something would hurt, or my calf would tighten up or my knee would just start aching and I’d slow down because of pain. In cycling none of those forces are there. It’s all physical. Just mental and physical torture. And I love it.

You started riding about this time last year. Talk about your progression in that time and how quickly you got up to the Cat 1 level.

Yeah, so I started as a Cat 5, won my first race [Tour of Battenkill] and upgraded to the 4′s pretty much straight away, and then in the 4’s I won my first race by a long ways. So I did two races in the Cat 4’s, won both of those as well and then went to the 3’s in the summer and my first race as a 3, big win by a few minutes at Housatonic Hills. Then I did a stage race, Tour of the Catskills, with another runner, Dereck Treadwell, who went to Maine, and he was in the same boat as me, getting into cycling. So we rode that together, almost like teammates even though we were on different teams, and we won it pretty easily. So I upgraded to the 2’s and won my first Pro 1-2 race. It was a smaller race but got the win there and then finished tenth in the New England Pro 1-2 championships and then won the Cat 2-only race at the Green Mountain Stage Race and got the points to upgrade to the 1’s for this year.

What team are you riding for?

I’m riding for a team called Upton Bass. It’s a guy Gray Birkhamshaw. He makes handmade, high-end double basses and he’s just got a real passion for cycling, so he’s supporting our team.

Tell me a little bit about your training for cycling. From what you’ve told me in the past you’re rather unconventional as far as pure cyclists go. You don’t use a power meter, you’re not big into heart-rate training. You told me you train like a runner. What do you mean by that?

I should preface it by saying I do want to get better at cycling training. I do want to learn more about it. I’ve been threatening to work with a coach, or maybe get a power meter, but it’s not really broken what I’m doing right now. So I just do a running schedule on the bike. One interval session, maybe on a Tuesday, and it’s like running intervals, it’s 8 x 3 minutes or it’s 4 x 5 minutes and I do them pretty much max effort with short enough recovery in between. Then I do a tempo ride, where I do 30 minutes tempo or 40 minutes tempo like we would running. And then I do a long ride, and then the other days are easy days. I’ve even done some double days, so I’ll get up in the morning do 45 minutes on the trainer, then do 45 minutes on the trainer at night. This is really short for biking but it’s working for me.

What’s your total volume look like over the course of a given week?

A good week I’ll do 12 hours, a normal week I’ll do eight. But the guys I’m racing against are doing 16 to 20.  I can’t do that around my job.

Let’s talk about your job. You’re now working for New Balance, in their running department, so you’re around the sport you’ve always been passionate about all the time. Is that difficult for you, or has it been a nice balance with the competitive cycling?

Cycling has helped. If I wasn’t cycling it’d be tough. I love running so much that I miss it every day and being around it keeps me involved in it, but if I didn’t have cycling and I wasn’t getting an outlet I think it’d be tough actually to watch races like this [Editor's note: This interview was conducted at the Carlsbad 5000 on April 1, 2012]. I can get excited to watch this race today now. I wish I could have went for a bike ride this morning. Seeing the guys riding up and down the Pacific Coast Highway on bicycles, I’ve reached that point where I’ve crossed over. I’d like to run here, it looks awesome, but I would have preferred to go out for a bike ride this morning with a crew. So the balance is good. The cycling has helped tremendously.

Let’s say you started bike racing at 25 years old (Kelly is now 34), where would you be as a cyclist?

I don’t know, it’s a hard question to answer. I would think based on right now – this year will tell a lot – but I think I would have been pretty good. I think I could have made it in the pros in cycling, maybe even at a high level if I had taken it up earlier in my life because there’s a big difference racing in the 1-2 races that we race in relative to the pros. There’s a huge jump, but I believe I’m going to win some Pro-1 races this year. I have the mindset going in that I’m going to win some of these races. I’ve been doing almost one year of racing and because I’m almost in my mid-30’s it suggests that if I had taken it up when I was younger I would have probably would have gone to a pretty high level.

If you had to pin it down to one thing that has elevated you to this level of competitive cycling so quickly, what would it be?

I would say it’s a combination of a huge desire—I’m very driven—and then just a natural big engine. You can develop it, but some people just have big engines and other people don’t. And I have a big engine, so I think I can get on the bike and I can suffer from years of running and I can hold threshold for long periods of time on the bike. I can hold a high heart rate for a long period of time on the bike. Other guys crack, and if I crack it’s usually a nutrition thing and I’m getting better at that, so I’d pin it down to a natural engine.

Aside from more time in the saddle and nailing down your nutrition, what do you think you need to work on as a cyclist?

I need to work on bike handling. I’m not comfortable rubbing shoulders with guys, so one of the guys on the team is trying to help me out with that. I’m doing more criterium racing just to get used to bumping shoulders. And patience is probably the biggest thing. For runners it’s very alien to sit in a field for two hours and feel no fatigue, but know you’re preparing for it later on in the race. So it’s very frustrating, drafting, that kind of stuff, so I have a tendency—I’m impetuous—I have a tendency to attack too early, and at this level I can’t burn guys off. Guys will sit on the wheel, even if they’re not strong they’ll be able to sit on the wheel. I’m not so strong that I can get rid of riders so I’m learning tactics a little bit better. When I attack I’m going to attack really, really hard instead of before where I would just go to the front and people would drop off.

If you had to give one piece of advice to young runners today, learning from your own career, what would it be?

That’s a good question. I would say apart from all the fluff stuff, like make sure you enjoy it, don’t let it dominate your life, my piece of advice would be learn good running mechanics. Teach yourself to run more efficiently and don’t develop bad running habits because you’ll get injured and when you get in the injury cycle it’s very hard to come out of it.

 

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