The free-spirited steeplechase specialist still has Olympic dreams.
There aren’t many runners like American steeplechase specialist Anthony Famiglietti. Equal parts savvy entrepreneur, Mohawk-sporting rebel, and world-class athlete, “Fam” has been competing as a pro for over 11 years. Born and raised in New York, he graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2000. Now 32, Famiglietti has represented the United States twice in the Olympics in the steeplechase event. In the 2008 Beijing Games, he qualified for the final where he placed 13th.
Famiglietti is known for his bold, front-running style as well as his incredible versatility as a middle and long-distance runner. He’s run a 3:55 mile as well as a 27:37 10K and is a six-time U.S. champion on the track and on the roads. When Fam’s not running, he’s either painting or filming. He was the subject of an independent documentary in 2006, Run Like Hell, and in 2009, he released Reckless Running, an inspirational film about his journey to make the 2008 Olympic team. Later this year, Fam is planning to take Reckless Running from film to all-out brand.
Competitor.com caught up with Famiglietti recently to discuss this project as well as to get his thoughts on trying to make a third Olympic team.
Competitor.com: You weren’t on any of the start lists at the recent U.S. Outdoor Championships. What have you been up to? What are your goals in terms of the 2012 Olympics?
Anthony Famiglietti: I basically hit the reset button recently and kind of restarted from scratch in a build-up towards the 2012 Trials and ultimately the Olympic Games. I’m doing a very specific and tailored build-up to get ready for that. I’ve been in the sport a really long time now. I’ve been such a low-mileage guy and I’ve developed so slowly over the years. I wasn’t a high-school superstar; I wasn’t a college superstar. I didn’t really develop until I turned pro. So I’ve got a lot of longevity and I’m trying to make the most of it. I’ve faced different obstacles over the years that have kind of gotten in the way of me reaching my full potential, so I am saying, “What do I need to do to be a medalist?” I’ve already made the team twice. I’ve already been the U.S. Trials champion. I’ve come close to setting American records. I’ve kind of faltered, because of mistakes I’ve made or different illnesses that have come up or other weird stuff. Sometimes you have to sit down and really examine what it is you really want to achieve and what you have to do to get there. Sometimes that means making sacrifices. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.
I’m still looking at the steeplechase. I think honestly that the steeple may be my best chance at a medal. I always like to see how I develop, because I’ve always surprised myself over the years with what I’ve been able to do off of different training. As you get older, sometimes your strengths are in different areas. I think I was born for the steeple. I can not run over hurdles for eight months and then go over hurdles and it feels like I did it yesterday. It’s hard to throw that away. So I think I’d like to give that a shot. But I never like to put anything in stone, because I tend to change my mind.
What do you think about the steeplechase as an event specific to Americans? Specific to the men, it seems like a lot of the fast guys who could do well in that event, maybe even medal, guys like Chris Solinsky, avoid it, because they don’t want to get hurt.
It is dangerous.
As a person who runs reckless and embodies a lot of the front-running spirit of someone like [Steve] Prefontaine, do you find that this caution and aversion to the steeple hurts the United States’ chances on the world stage?
You can’t blame them. Look at the guys who started running steeple when I did. They are almost all gone, because of injuries sustained while running steeplechase. Take for instance Tim Broe with his broken sesamoids in his foot from steepling. Gone. Daniel Lincoln’s was a steeple-related injury from what I can understand. Even Steve Slattery having to pull out recently from the prelims. He was a DNF. I’m nearly certain it was a steeple injury-related issue. And then look at guys like Robert Gary who took time away from training and moved to coaching probably sooner than he should have. I do think he had an injury that pushed him earlier towards coaching. The list goes on and on—people who ended their career because of the steeplechase. So, these guys and their coaches have a good reason to think that way.
So I have to ask then, why are the East Africans so competitive at this event? Is it because they have so much depth? Is it, in your opinion, because they have a ton of 3,000m runners who they can throw at the steeple and if there’s fallout from injury, then there are plenty of other guys to fill their shoes?
Yeah. Look at how long they last. Look at Saif Shaheen. He had the world record and then got injured in the last water jump of the world championships. Then he fell off the radar for a while. It’s the same kind of deal. It doesn’t matter how good you are at the steeple or how talented you are or how fast you are it’s going to sting you at some point. If you are a multi-talented runner who can run the 1,500 all the way to the marathon, which way are you going to go? Are you going to pick the race with the greatest chance to end your career? Are you going to go with an event where you can have a very full, long, and lucrative career? With the marathon being more lucrative, I think that is what is pulling people towards the longer distances with the marathon coming in the long term. I think that’s essentially everybody’s game plan. I think all eyes have been on the marathon for a long time for good reason. There’s a lot of participation in the marathon. There is a lot of that coming with it. The thing is, too, a lot of people who have been involved in the marathon, including the New York Road Runners, have given a lot to the sport. So there is no surprise that a lot of guys are gravitating to that.
Have you thought about taking on the marathon?
I have. One of the reasons I was doing 15Ks and half marathons was to see if I wanted to do the marathon based off the training I was putting in. Different things came up and I said, “Let’s just wait.” I don’t need to be impatient. I need to make some important decisions here along the way.
Right now, there are a lot of high school kids who weren’t able to train or compete in the steeple in high school but are now heading to college. They are attracted to the event, but don’t know how to train for it. What advice do you have for this kind of athlete?
I get emails from people all the time about this. I also get asked about it when I go talk to high schools or camps. The number one thing I tell people is the attitude—more than anything else. If you are going to get into steeplechase, you need to show up as a steeplechase runner. There’s no hesitation; there’s no going back to being a 1,500m runner or 5K. If you are going to do it, you are going to do it. You have to have that level of commitment and that attitude going into it. You have to have that sort of aggressive attitude towards the race. Some athletes have that attitude where they can take on that challenge. When the going gets tough in the race, keep pushing rather than hit the brakes. Those kind of athletes are hard to find. I think if you find an athlete like that, you need to keep fostering that kind of mentality, first and foremost. Then work on the fundamentals. They need to work on their flexibility and their dynamic stretching as well as their hurdle drills. For the most part, they need to work on the mental aspect, but not pushing it as far as workouts or different training techniques. They need to learn how to walk over the hurdles the right way. They need to learn what a good trail leg looks like. They need to learn what feels good hurdling, learning timing. Simple things. Then by the time they get to be a senior in high school or in college, they can work on the strength and the other things that come with being a steepler.
A lot of kids don’t have access to the real steeple barrier. And some kids can’t even get an intermediate hurdle to work out on. I know in your video, you made these jerry-rigged PVC hurdles. Do you have any recommendations for people like this who don’t have access to the right equipment?
The ones that I made were sort of flimsy, but you can always use a heavier gauge PVC. If you can find two or three guys on your team that will want to get interested in the steeple, then have these guys chip in. It’s only like $50. You can put together some hurdles and have a little weekend project. And then you are kind of invested in it as a team. I always say that steeplechasing is a subculture within a subculture, because running is a kind of subculture. It’s a subculture in and of itself the way people think and act and live healthy lifestyles the way we do, but also running to the degree we do is sort of detrimental. Steeplechasing takes that to a whole new level where you are taking a lot of risk. It has a certain mentality. Once you have a group of guys that click on that, they feed off each other in terms of excitement and energy. They then start pushing each other as a group. I think, for the most part, that’s what’s been lacking in the steeple, which is a group of guys that want to train together for a long time. But there are only so many steeplechasers and you are all competing for the same top spot. At the time that I was coming up, not everybody wanted to be on the same team, but now there all these groups, so it may be a little bit different. But still, if one group of steeplers are sponsored by one company and another group are sponsored by another company, there is no cross traffic there. You can’t just go join their group and start training with them.
In your DVD, you talk a lot about pushing yourself. You mention running reckless and giving 100%. How does that translate in terms of how much time someone should take for recovery between repetitions in a track workout. In your workouts, do you take as little time as possible for rest between your repetitions?
The other thing I tell young athletes is patience. There is a progression in running. I think most distance runners have delayed gratification. They think long-term. I think a lot of the non-elite athletes or somebody just coming into it like a high-school athlete, maybe look at just the short-term gains, because you maybe only have a couple years left in high school. You want to be state champion or be the best guy on the team. The difference for me when I say things like pushing it as far as you can…there was a progression for me to work that way. I worked as hard as I could in high school to the degree where I could stay with the seniors and then on the recovery days, I would take as much time as I needed so that when I got there back with the seniors, I would be able to hang again. I wasn’t killing myself, you know? So there was a balance. There is always a balance. But the fundamental thing about running, the thing that makes you a better runner, is pushing yourself further than you did last time. The only way you can get faster than you were yesterday is to keep testing that limitation—to keep pushing that boundary. That is the idea. How do you do that mentally? The key thing to doing that is how do you motivate yourself to push like that? For me, it seemed like there wasn’t a lot of stuff like that out on the market that was true to how it actually happens in real life.
You know, it’s not just some Hollywood production of some guy who’s incredibly talented in high school. He’s the state champion who ran an 8:40 two-mile and then he sets the track on fire. When most people start, we suck—straight out of the gate. It hurts. You want to quit the team. That’s how it started for me. So I wanted to give a little dose of reality and the progression that comes with it. I kind of wanted to show the workouts that I do along the way and the mentality that I had. You are going to face obstacles. You are going to get sick. Everyone gets sick in running. You are going to get hurt. Almost every single runner has been hurt at some point. That’s going to come. The athletes that succeed are the ones that understand how to deal with that.
There isn’t any information out there besides these stiff, standing-behind-a-chalkboard informational DVDs from coaches that say, “You got to do X and Y in order to get Z.” And so to relate to a more useful audience, I wanted to put something out there for the MTV generation/video game generation that was kind of distracted. I wanted them to take in this logo and this mentality of training where they can see that, relate to it, and then want to become a runner rather than going into the million different kinds of sports that they can go into now. You got extreme sports; you got skateboarding; you got all these distractions that take away from all these main sports that are out there. Running doesn’t necessarily have a big fan base to begin with. It’s not necessarily on TV that much. If you want to build steeplechasers you have to start from scratch—from the beginning. You have to find athletes when they are young, get them interested in it, and let them develop. There have been a lot of athletes throughout the years who have seen my videos and have taken up the event, because of them. For me, that was a success. I think what’s more important than learning the drills on the outtakes or hearing my commentary on it, is to understand the motivation behind it. It’s the energy and the ideals behind why I do what I do.
In your latest DVD you state a couple times that you do a lot of your workouts alone. Why is that?
It just turned out that way. I transferred to the University of Tennessee as a junior in college. At the time Todd Williams was running post-collegiate. I tried to run up to his level. Todd Williams was an incredibly intense runner. When I watched him work out, I was like, “OK, I thought I was working hard, but look at this guy; this is the level I need to work out at.” If you don’t have that environment where you see the athlete every day, you don’t understand that. I think that’s the advantage a lot of these Kenyan athletes have. You wake up, you go outside, and there are like 20 of those guys. You immediately see that this is the level that I need to train up to. I think that is part of the idea of the DVD, too.
I used to have a background in skateboarding when I was in high school. It was a really exciting individual sport to me. It was all about what you put into it is what you got out. The amount of time you learned a trick, the aggressiveness and the guts you had to go down a flight of steps; you knew you were going to go down the first 10 attempts on it. You might crack your skull open, but eventually you were going to land it. That takes a certain attitude to be able to do that. And so that was the attitude I took towards running: It was a little reckless. The main thing was that I didn’t see that kind of thing in running. I really didn’t see it in steeplechasing and so I said that I want to put a DVD in a running store like you would see 20 to 30 DVDs in a skateboarding shop where you would say, “Let me watch this athlete today and see his style of skateboarding, how he approaches it, and what is his mentality.” You know, watch it for the fun of being engulfed in the culture of skateboarding. You walk in a running store and there is nothing there except for clothing, sneakers, GU, tape for your nipples, breathing strips, and knee-high socks, now. I don’t see any high school runner walking in there and saying, “Cool.” I was hoping if I put a DVD in there, you would see a different side of running. You can approach this sport from any angle you want to. You can be any type of runner you want to be and I was hoping other runners would say, “Hey, let me put my DVD in this store.” No one has really taken up on it just yet.
As a fellow former skateboarder myself, I can see that your DVD takes on a Bones Brigade “Search for Animal Chin” vibe.
Yeah, exactly. Those are all the movies that I watched. That’s where the idea for the logo for Reckless Running came from. It’s from that background a little bit.
In the Reckless video, there’s a scene where you are using, what I think to be Jack Daniels’ AK-47, to shoot at your finishing medals.
That was actually Anthony Gallo’s AK-47. Jack had brought his pistol to the range. Anthony had brought a couple handguns and his AK-47. I didn’t know what to expect. I was just expecting to hang out with Jack and his handgun. Then his athlete shows up with a couple guns and an AK-47. It was actually his medal [Gallo’s] from I think the Sedona Marathon.
That’s got to be on the cover of your next video: You holding an AK-47, shooting at finishing medals.[He laughs.] Yeah, we were just having a good time out there. That’s the beauty of Jack as a coach, too. We got to work together on occasion when I was at altitude. He enjoys the sport. It’s a fun atmosphere of where you have this ability and so let’s have a good time with it and see where you can take it. He’s a very intelligent guy. He’s well versed in every aspect of the sport. At the same time, he knows the energy and mentality that you bring to workouts in terms of having fun with it, is going to take you further.
Besides target practicing with an AK-47, running the steeple, and making videos, you are also making art. What have you been up to with that hobby? And is it possible for people to see it? Do you have any exhibits planned?
I just finished a couple paintings. I was working on a series of paintings. I haven’t put them on display or anything like that. I was thinking about an exhibit. I submitted an idea for an installation at the Venice Biennale in 2008. I think at the time they weren’t interested, because it didn’t fit into the whole idea of the Biennale theme of it. Recently, I got an email from USATF that had an invite for athletes to participate in this installation. I said, “Man, that’s my idea.” It was just tweaked a little bit. I was surprised that my ideas were being used in the art world, but I just didn’t step up to the plate to make it happen. So it was just inspiration for me to start following up a little more. It’s tough as an artist, because you are going to doubt yourself just like an athlete. It’s just like running: what’s going to make yourself good is practice. If you go in there and put the time and effort into painting, you are going to get the time and results you want. Running has been so consuming of my time that I haven’t been able to dedicate as much as I wanted to. But I recently got some of it done. I haven’t decided to put any of it on display or anything like that. If I do, I’ll post it up. The main thing that we are working on now, the thing that is consuming the most of my time, is that the Run Reckless DVD. It got such good response as far as inspiring people that we decided to do a full-out brand. Reckless Running is a full-out apparel brand that I’m going to race for in the future. There are a lot of positive aspects to having these apparel brands in the sport. For the most part, these shoe companies are the pillars of running because we have to wear their stuff. And that has enabled us to perform at the highest level. But at the same time, it kind of limits athletes as far as what we can do. The best way to put it is that there are only so many roads you can go down as far as making decisions as an athlete: signing a deal or having an opportunity. We wanted to create a new avenue where we could get big enough where we could sponsor athletes and do things for them that we thought were lacking. And so we are hoping that we can grow fast enough to do that. We’ve gotten a lot of interest. I think in the near future, probably December, I’ll probably race in the stuff. We are going to develop it as quick as we can. The whole idea of the brand is based off the race mentality of reckless running and running with reckless abandon. I think it would be the best way to get it out there to the masses, rather than just a small amount of people with the DVD. It’s funny, because people I assumed wouldn’t be interested in it are. It’s not just the elite runners or your younger runners. It’s Masters runners, it’s men and women of every age. I think there is an element to it that everyone can relate to. I think the fact that we are not a marketing campaign; we are by runners for runners. I think that aspect makes it more appealing.