Bronco Billy: 5 Questions with Jeff Browning

"It doesn't get interesting 'til 50 miles," says Browning. Photo: Jeff Johnson

Jeff Browning switched from mountain biking to trail running in 2001, and hasn’t stopped hammering out the miles. In the process, he’s collected an impressive list of wins at ultra distance races, most recently the 2013 San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run in California. In 2012, not only did he win the race, he set a new course record with his time of 16:38:59. Being a husband, father to three, graphic designer and gardener as well as a Patagonia-sponsored ultra runner, would be enough to make most take a nap, but Browning, who calls Bend, Oregon home, just keeps on running.

Next up is the Siskiyou Out Back (S.O.B.) 50 mile in Ashland Oregon in July and the Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, Colo., in September. With thoughts of eventually attempting a speed record on the John Muir trail, Bronco Billy is focused on getting faster and keeping the competition on the run.

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Family, art, gardening, running, how do they all interconnect for you?

After almost a decade and a half of training and racing nearly year round, it’s pretty much all my family and I know. All three kids were born with ultrarunning in the mix. They expect me to run everyday. As far as gardening, it’s just as natural as running. I come from a long line of farmers, so having my hands in the dirt feels right. Our garden and backyard chickens are simple ways to teach my kids where their food should come from. Art has been a part of my life since I was a kid. It’s just a part of who I am. With a creative head, there is always a part of me that wants to revise and improve things. So, helping Patagonia with gear fine-tuning and a new lightweight trail shoe design has been an exciting and natural collaboration.

You balance a lot, what are the key aspects that make your training so efficient and effective?

I try to incorporate training into my daily life whenever I can. Cross-training, strength and obviously running are all important to my training. Since I came from a cycling background prior to ultrarunning, that’s my main cross-training activity. I have six bikes and bike commute nearly every day. We sold our second car a few years ago. I feel guilty if I take the car and leave my wife and three kids at home without a vehicle.

I got into lifting at 14 and continued through most of college. I’ve come up with a 15-minute home circuit workout of core, full body strength training and plyometrics. I’ve coined it the “Bronco Billy Power Pack” and it’s perfect for busy fathers who are strapped for time! It’s tough but quick. My wife uses it, too.

My employer gives me a somewhat flexible schedule, letting me come in early so I can take long lunches to train, and I work an extra four-hour shift from home on Wednesday nights so I can get off at noon on Fridays to do my long runs. That way, it’s out of the way by the weekend.

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You are a volunteer running coach for kids. Can the kids grasp what you do? Do you remember when the sport was that new to you?

I took over as head coach of the local kids running group called Little Foot Running Club (ages 5-11). Some of the kids know what I do (usually if their parents know). I keep a pretty low profile on that front. I’m just trying to come up with engaging ways to keep them running for an hour with games, relays, and mini cross country courses. The ultimate goal is to have these kids walk away and associate running with fun and not work. And, after 13 years of ultrarunning, it’s hard to remember when it was new to me. However, when I’m in the mountains running down a new trail I’ve never run before, hopping over roots and rocks, I’m a kid again — whooping and hollering on some cool adventure. That’s why I love long trail running so much. You go fast and light and get to see some amazing scenery — the stuff some folks only see in a movie theater.

You’ve said that in racing, “it doesn’t get interesting ’til 50 miles.” How so?

With standard marathon training and getting out on the trails for some long runs, you can go out and run 50K or 50 miles, have some issues and gut it out to finish. It’s hard, but doable. One-hundred milers are their own unique beast. You run 50 miles and you still have to run ANOTHER 50 miles. They’re epic. You learn something more about yourself each time you run and finish one. You have to dig deep both mentally and physically. Your mind can be your biggest enemy or your biggest ally in the second half of a 100. The second half can get VERY interesting.

You’ve only had three pacers in 15 100s. Why?

I had no pacer in my first 100 (Western States) just because I didn’t know enough runners to ask. My second one, Wasatch 100, I had a good friend pace me. The thing I realized during the race is that I checked out mentally and it also gave me someone to complain to. In the second half, you’re hurting. Having someone there to help make decisions, ask if you’re okay, ask if you need anything — it’s just a reminder that it hurts and you give some of your focus to them. When you’re by yourself, it’s your butt on the line. When you run at night in the mountains by yourself, you are focused in a way that isn’t possible in the presence of another human.

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