Dirt Devil: Interview With Jake Riley

Jake Riley, shown here winning the individual title at the 2012 U.S. Club Cross Country Championships, hopes to qualify for his first world team in Boulder this weekend. Photo: USA Track & Field

The 26-year old Hansons-Brooks athlete is vying for a top-6 finish at Saturday’s U.S. Cross Cross Championships.

At the U.S. Cross Country Championships on Saturday in Boulder, Colo., all eyes will be on two-time defending champion Chris Derrick—including those of his former Stanford Cardinal teammate, Jake Riley, who will be intent on not letting his fast friend get too far out of sight.

Riley, the individual champion at the 2012 U.S. Club Cross Country Championships and eighth at this event last year, will be gunning for a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the 2015 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China on March 28. In order to do so, he’ll need to place amongst the top-6 finishers—no small task considering the depth of talent taking part in this year’s event, which also includes three-time U.S. champion Dathan Ritzenhein, Ben True, Ryan Vail, Garrett Heath and a slew of others.

RELATED: 7 Things You Should Know About The 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships

But the 26-year-old Riley, who was runner-up at last December’s club championships and finished second to Derrick at the Great Edinburgh XCountry 8K last month, loves racing over hill and dale—especially when the conditions are less than ideal.

“I like that it’s more technical and I think that as more of a strength runner, the muddy, soft surfaces and often challenging weather conditions play more to my abilities,” he says. Those skills will come in handy on Saturday, where a forecasted high of 60 degrees will turn the Flatirons golf course into a slip-n-slide following a dumping of snow earlier this week.

RELATED: XC: Why Cross Country is the Greatest Show on Turf

A six-time All-American at Stanford, Riley has enjoyed a solid first few years as a professional with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Last fall, he finished 11th at the Chicago Marathon—his debut at the distance—clocking a solid 2:13:16. He’s also raced well at shorter distances on the roads, clocking a personal best of 1:02:56 at the NYC Half last March and finishing fifth at the U.S. 10K road championships on July 4 in Atlanta.

We caught up with Riley this week from Boulder, where he and a few of his Hansons-Brooks teammates were making their final preparations for Saturday’s race.

Jake, you’ve primarily been focused on 5K/10K racing early in your pro career, although last fall you made your marathon debut at Chicago, running 2:13 and qualifying for the 2016 Trials. The Hansons-Brooks group is known primarily as a marathon-focused team, so how do the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Boulder this weekend fit into your 2015 and 2016 plans?

I’ve always planned on making my marathon transition a gradual one so as not to get burnt out. In the meantime, making a world cross country team is one of my biggest goals, second only to making the Olympics. I think the main thing is finding as many opportunities as possible to compete against the best in the country—and hopefully the world. That way, when I toe the line in L.A. next February I’m not racing unknown entities, but guys I’ve raced—and hopefully beaten—before.

You’ve had a lot of success in cross country, having been an All-American at Stanford, winning the individual title at the 2012 club championships and placing well at other national championships and international races. What is it about racing on the grass that’s appealing to you, even though the opportunities to do so are less frequent as a professional?

Cross country is my first love. It’s the sport that got me into running in the first place. I loved the camaraderie at the high school and collegiate level, I like that it’s more technical and I think that as more of a strength runner, the muddy, soft surfaces and often challenging weather conditions play more to my abilities.

This weekend’s championships are in Boulder at an elevation of roughly 5,000 feet. Coming from sea level, how do you approach racing at altitude and what have you done, if anything, to acclimate to the elevation?

We’ve been here in Boulder for four days now and it’ll be a total of eight (days) by race day which should be enough that I don’t notice the altitude, but not so much that we had to spend time going easy on workouts while I acclimatize. This way, I’ve been able to hit all my workouts hard and still take some time getting used to the thinner air. As far as racing is concerned, I’m going to be extra careful not to go out too hard and put myself in a hole early on. I think especially in a championship situation, at a distance not many people are used to racing, a progressive race plan is the best bet for me.

There will be quite a few Stanford alums on the starting line this weekend in Boulder, including Garrett Heath, Brendan Gregg and reigning champ Chris Derrick. Does that add any extra excitement or motivation for you heading into the race?

The best result would be to have all of us make the team and have it basically be Stanford versus the world in China. Other than that, they’re my best friends and any chance I get to hang out with them makes a race that more fun. It’s also great to be in a race and suddenly find yourself tucked in, staring at the same set of shoulder blades you spent five years of workouts memorizing. It makes the race just one more jog on the farm.

Last question: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your first few years as a professional? What advice would you give aspiring elites coming out of college and how has the support of Hansons-Brooks helped you continue to pursue the sport at a high level?

It’s really easy for your eyes to get too big. There are so many cool racing opportunities year round it’s easy to fall into the cycle of “just one more race, then a break” and get burnt out. I’ve really had to take a step back and remind myself that to compete at the highest level takes a long term commitment, getting in a full base phase, setting specific goals and not getting side tracked. It’s fun to race a lot but it’s even more fun to win, and that takes patience. The Hansons have been great at supporting me through that, especially in the marathon which is so new to me and they have so much experience in. They’ve coached so many athletes through so many of these races that I think I’ve avoided a lot of the problems that can trip up a lot of other young professionals. Brooks has been great too. They sponsor so many talented athletes and they do a really good job of getting us together outside of competitions to talk training and racing strategies. And given how many [Brooks] athletes are competing this weekend, it could end up Brooks versus the world in China too.

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