Runaway Champion: Exclusive Interview With Tyler Pennel

Pennel pulled away from an experienced field over the final five miles to claim victory in his first marathon. Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image

The 26-year-old marathon debutant won his first national title in impressive fashion on Sunday.

Standing on the starting line of the Twin Cities Marathon on Sunday in downtown Minneapolis, marathon debutant Tyler Pennel wondered for a brief second what he had gotten himself into. Two hours, 13 minutes and 32 seconds later the 26-year-old from Blowing Rock, N.C., realized that he had found his calling, breaking the tape in front of thousands of screaming fans at the State Capitol in Saint Paul to claim his first national title.

Pennel, who trains under coach Pete Rea as a member of the ZAP Fitness elite team, pulled away from his closest pursuers around the 21-mile mark to win by 28 seconds. His second half split of 1:05:44 was over two minutes faster than his opening 13.1 miles, but it was running away from the rest of the field—not chasing numbers on the clock—that mattered most on Sunday.

“It was 100 percent a race, where we talked about place and not time,” ZAP Fitness coach Pete Rea explained to Competitor.com. “I’m of the opinion that, particularly over the past 15-20 years we’ve gotten so wrapped up in times, as opposed to the old-school skill of running to race. If you race well and finish toward the front, you’re probably going to run a fast time anyway. Given that it was a U.S. championship and his debut, we simply talked about racing the field for the first 20 miles and then racing himself for the final 10K and that’s what he did.”

PHOTOS: 2014 U.S. Marathon Championship

Pennel echoed his coach’s statements, saying that, “The plan was to stay relaxed till 20. That’s where the hills start on the course and they’ll make or break your race. If I could run well up the hills then anything could happen.”

Primarily a 5K runner on the track as a collegian at Western State College of Colorado, Pennel has had immediate success on the roads since joining ZAP Fitness in 2012, placing in the top-10 of numerous national championship events. He finished third at last fall’s .US 12K Championships and placed fourth at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships this past January, where he ran 1:01:44 to qualify for the U.S. team that competed at the world championships in Denmark in March. In July, he was a close second behind Christo Landry at the U.S. 10K Championships in Atlanta, running 28:30 to finish five seconds off the win.

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We caught up with Pennel the day after his sizzling marathon debut and got his take on the race, his transition to racing professionally on the roads and how his training has evolved since joining ZAP Fitness in 2012, amongst other topics.

Despite this being your debut marathon, how much confidence did you take into the race having never contested 26.2 miles before?

I was pretty confident going in. I felt I could run with those guys—I had raced with all of them before in shorter distances, half marathons and stuff. I knew my training was good so I felt pretty confident going in. I knew there was a very good chance I could win.

Take me through the race. How were you feeling? Were you pretty confident throughout or were there any moments of doubt?

I think about 30 seconds before the gun went off I felt this rush come over me and it was like, ‘What have I done to myself? What am I getting myself into? Oh well, I can’t turn back now, I’m sitting here at the front of the race.’ But I got over that pretty quickly and was like, ‘I got this, I’m going to be fine.’ And I felt pretty good right from the gun. We got out and weren’t terribly fast at the mile, I think somewhere around 5:20. I haven’t looked at my watch yet. But it wasn’t ridiculously fast. I had been training to run 5:02 to 5:05, so I was like ‘OK.’ We picked it up eventually and I felt good the whole time. We got through 10 miles, we got to the half and I was feeling great. Sergio [Reyes] threw in a surge somewhere around 13, 14, 15 and we ran a 4:48 in there, or something pretty quick and I think that kind of woke me up a little bit. After that I started to ache a little more. I felt my quads aching a little more, the muscles on the sides of my legs and my hip muscles but it never got too bad. I still felt pretty good. And then eventually Scott Smith took off around 20 miles and that was kind of my game plan, to go right around there, because that’s when the hills started and I knew that was a place where I could make a good move and break open the race. And he made a move and I was the only one that followed it and then I just kind of kept going as he started to slow down a little bit. So I was feeling pretty confident then, but I knew there was still a long way once you reach the top of the hill. There’s still about three miles left and those last three miles were scary. I didn’t know where anyone was behind me. I couldn’t even hear anyone. I could hear the crowd. It was really loud. The crowd was really intense right there and I just pushed, hoping no one would catch me. Then about half a mile to go there was a bit of downhill and that’s when I was pretty sure that I had won. I knew that I wasn’t slowing down enough that anyone would catch me and that was a pretty good feeling.

When you hit that finish line and realized that you had won your first national title, what emotions were you feeling in that moment?

It took a little while to hit me after I finished. I crossed the finish line and I went about 100 meters down and turned around and went on the other side and I saw my parents and that’s kind of when it hit. My mom gave me a hug and that’s when it kind of really hit me that I had won and it was awesome. It’s just really hard to describe those feelings.

Did you ever think that when you left Western State two years ago and joined ZAP Fitness that you’d be a national champion this quickly? And in the marathon, of all events? Or did you feel that you would most likely be a 5K-10K guy through 2016?

That’s exactly kind of right. I came out of Western and I had just debuted in the 10K on the track that spring and I was thinking, “I’m a 10K guy. I’m going to be running on the track at least until 2016.” And actually, it was kind of the first fall here at ZAP that I learned a lot about the road scene. A lot of college guys don’t know a whole lot about the road scene and what it’s all about and I was definitely one of them. But I kind of fell in love with running the roads and every time I moved up in distance I seemed to run better. It just kind of seemed natural that since I was running well on the roads, let’s just run a half marathon. I ran a good half marathon in January and almost immediately Pete [Rea, ZAP Fitness head coach] and I started talking about trying the marathon out for 2016. And this fall was a good time for that, and it if it went well, which it did, great, but if it didn’t go well we could take a step back and stick to the track.

As someone who kind of flew under the radar in college running at a DII school, it can be tough to make a living in the sport. You obviously have the support of ZAP Fitness, but how appealing are the roads to you from a financial standpoint?

It’s very appealing because I wouldn’t have gotten much of anything out of college if I had tried to go out on my own or even with an agent or sign with a shoe company. A lot of guys have to move to the roads because that’s the only way they can make money to help support themselves. I was lucky to get a spot here at ZAP. I have a lot of support. It’s hard to get support out there. I have a lot of friends who are working part-time jobs so they can run. They’re working at a running store or doing something else so they can pay rent and buy food. So there’s definitely a financial appeal, and even though I have a lot of help from ZAP it’s still nice to go out there and make money and be a lot more financially stable.

You’ve had a lot of success on the roads at shorter distances, finishing high at the .US 12K Championships last year, the U.S. half-marathon championships in Houston this past January and then at the Peachtree 10K this summer. How big were some of those earlier races for you from a confidence standpoint to let you know that you could make an impact as a professional?

They were definitely big, especially the 12K. I had placed top-10 before at a few other championships but I was just kind of knocking on the door and at the 12K I just decided that I was going to go for it—I was going to go with the leaders and whatever happened happened. And I feel like that’s kind of how I’ve raced every championship since then and I think it’s definitely paid off.

From a training standpoint, how have things shifted for you since you’ve been with ZAP and most recently, since you decided to focus on the marathon this fall?

At Western, our training was very aerobic-based but we did a lot more workouts. It was very similar to the program that Pete sets up for us, which was good, especially for me, since I knew that I needed a training plan that definitely aerobic-based. He follows Lydiard pretty well. I chose ZAP because of that. After the 12K last year I knew I was running the half-marathon championships and the workouts got a little bit longer and I started doing some stuff where in the fast workouts, all the intervals added up to 10 or 11 miles worth of work. And then over the last 10 weeks building up for the marathon we just kind of extended everything we had been doing and made it a little bit longer.

What kind of workouts did you hit over the last 10 weeks that gave you the confidence that you were ready to run low-2 teens and compete for the win?

We did six different types of marathon-specific long runs. One of them was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half, where I did 10 miles at marathon pace and picked it up the last three. And then I did a little bit of a workout afterward as well, so that ended up being a long day. We did another one where we went out and ran along the course in Twin Cities and did a workout on the course. Those [long runs] were kind of the bread and butter. They gave me a lot of confidence that I could hold up well over 26.2 miles and not just the 13.1 that I had done.

Now that you’ve got the marathon under your belt, how does your outlook shift heading into the 2016 Trials? Does it change from what you might have been thinking just a few months ago?

I think I turned some heads this weekend. I went out and beat a bunch of very good veteran marathoners and I ran well on a fairly tough course. Going into the 2016 Trials I’ll run the marathon and I think I can have a very good shot of making the team. And there’s enough time that if I don’t, I can try to come back and make the team on the track as well.

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