The price of a mile

Back in 2013, I’d been running my own coaching company for close to two years.  It was thriving, word of mouth had built a solid client base locally, and my reputation as the big jacked guy who was always running had been solidified in the region. Writing on concurrent training (strength and endurance) is something I’d been doing for years at that point, and a 10 year training journal on an online message board had gathered a good number of folks who were familiar with my training and my goals.

Near the end of the year, I’d had several conversations with a friend of mine who ran a blog- he was fascinated with some of the things I’d done, and we got to chatting about personal records.  I’d rattled off several in the conversation, mostly gym lifts, GPS running times (including downhill), and other absurdities as we tossed back and forth our numbers- nothing terribly verifiable, but fun to chat about. He decided to run a blog piece on me, and he went ahead and tossed some of them down. His blog, full of hyperbole and trash talk, went largely unnoticed, until another coach caught wind of some of these numbers and investigated.

He liked my training style, loved what I had to say in my writings, so ran a coaching interview with me- and at the end of the article, he put down some of my all time best, but unverified, numbers, out of context- these numbers included a 4:15 downhill mile (that downhill caveat being left out- in his defense, that was likely never properly conveyed).  At the time, I thought little of it, but was of course a bit bemused at the choice.  My track mile was significantly less of course, but still a solid number- ever since I started running again in 2007, whittling down my mile time was a MAJOR goal, and something I enjoyed.  Outside of a few marathons in 07/08 and one I ran to pace a friend in ’11 (thank god, I wasn’t in the sort of long distance shape to race it at all), this short distance work is all I did outside of lifting for quite some time (until I started adding on triathlon training on top of this.)  I had hesitations about this being recorded, but at the same time, I was almost a bit worried about asking for a retraction or modification- after all, would the mostly strength focused folks reading it even CARE or know the difference?  The article had gone up, and I honestly didn’t have the gumption to ask to change it. After all, it was the lead in to the piece and this guy posting it was a big name. What if he got irritated that I’d asked for a modification and decided not to run the damn thing- what if the retraction and desire to NOT post any numbers meant that he’d lose interest in the content?

What I wasn’t prepared for was how the article BLEW up- it spread like wildfire. Who was this guy, where did this come from, what was going on. Other articles quickly spread, I was asked to do an AMA where I felt personally obligated to confirm all of this, and ended up rattling off other training numbers as well- to this point, I’d never dealt with any sort of actual skepticism about what I did. I figured a few folks reading the article might doubt it, but the information quality was good and my coaching resume was stellar, so even if that part was an issue, the rest would be just fine.  Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But hostility arose- people began calling me a liar. Asking me to prove it. Saying I was a fraud, I was doing this to get rich off gullible people. I was paralyzed at this point- I wasn’t a liar, of course- not in my mind. I wasn’t doing this to get rich- I didn’t even TALK about my bloody run times until asked, my own bio was self effacing nonsense that emphasized my education and missteps in training. Me, a fraud. An education from Duke University (verified) and graduate work in biomechanics and nutrition science. An IQ over 150 and member of the Triple Nine Society (verified). A lifelong athlete, a guy who had proof of being one of the few guys, if not the only guy alive, who could deadlift 700 pounds on a Monday and run a 50 mile ultra that same Saturday (verified). The guy who was slowly convincing strength athletes everywhere that running wouldn’t kill their gains who had a book that was selling thousands of copies (verified). A guy with hundreds of clients (verified) and a long reputation online as a smart coach who knew how to train athletes from every sport and walk of life (verified). A guy who had his NSCA-CSCS, ACE, USAT, and a half dozen other certifications (verified). A guy with over a decade of experience as a personal trainer and coach with a stellar reputation among his clients and community who was sought after literally worldwide for his expertise on concurrent training (verified). All this, I thought, and suddenly I was a fraud because of run times?

That angered my stubborn nature. I made up my mind that I WOULD prove it, but I couldn’t right then. It’d been close to half a year since I saw that 4:15 figure and a year since my fastest track mile (which, I won’t quote the number, but was certainly slower- though I’d dare say still far faster than many would expect from someone my size), and I knew I was nowhere near that form- 20 pounds heavier on top of a few injuries.  I knew if I went out and raced right then and there, I’d fall short and lose face- I would indeed be a liar, no matter how close I came.  I decided I’d fight it- I doubled down, and resolved to train my ass off to get back there and better. I continued to talk about other training PRs and times that existed on my GPS watch,  thinking that these gave me the accountability and faith in myself to know I could get where I needed to be. I’d show these assholes, I’d blow them away. My own ego drove me.

But what was built through years of practice and love for a sport (and even then, was not up to par with my current goal) could not be duplicated  through months of angry training.  Even with the aid of massive loads of drugs, (certain blood boosters, ITPP, AICAR, GW1516, stimulants…), I couldn’t pull it together.  I simply am not a true 4:15 miler, period, and I was learning this.  I had good workouts- I’d hit the occasional fast interval, the occasional quick half mile that surprised even me, but my body and mind were falling apart. There were places on the internet that were following me daily, it seemed. I was reading about people proudly announcing they were stalking my house and run routes, “putting the pressure” on me. For run times. They were writing emails to my clients and colleagues telling them I had zero credibility in ANY regard.  For run times. I wanted to fight back.  I called the admins of a popular running forum and left a voicemail asking them, if I recall correctly, if they’d help me put together a sort of wager where I could race anybody from the board who wanted to attend. I never heard back, but I assume they simply wanted nothing to do with it from that point forward and I heard that a thread about me vanished after that. The harder they pushed, the less I wanted to back down.

I quit a well paying job in consulting in 2011 to get away from stress. To pursue something I loved, to get away from anxiety and drama, to get away from bullshit and focus on doing something I loved, in spite of the massive salary cut. But here I was. I tried to sledgehammer my way back to form, thumbing my nose at those who said I was full of shit. But it didn’t work.  Anger and drugs and “proving the haters wrong” never brought my now older, more busted self back to the quality I’d hit in my more positively motivated times.  The goal got further and further away, and I grew to loathe all things running.

I broke, in a complete failure of mind, body, and spirit. I felt completely self-destructive, I couldn’t sleep at all and hadn’t for close to half a year, my joints ached, I would get heart palpitations just sitting at the breakfast table. All this, I think I concealed well, but man, I was just done. I couldn’t motivate myself to push. After a week or so of consideration following a disastrous set of workouts, I resolved to simply move past it.  Focus on my continuing quality.  Keep writing, keep coaching, rise above, and let the quality of my work speak for me. My training was half assed, and I had no desire to compete in anything.  That was gone. 

It’s been years since then- the questions still occasionally pop up. In all this time, I’d resolved, if given the chance, I’d want to explain what happened to even one person, to say “Hey, I should have nipped this in the bud. I should have disavowed that crap.” If I’d asked them to take it down and quote a 5:15 mile, I could probably have gone out there and proved it that day, but I let it all happen- encouraged it, even. Mistake after mistake- I knew nothing about online “witch hunts” in those days, I was naive. As it stands now, I’ve distanced myself from that as much as possible. My clients know me as a smart, knowledgeable coach who walks the walk and applies the best combination of science and experience into making my athletes the best they can be. My company has coached thousands of athletes at this point, my book has sold tens of thousands of copies, almost entirely due to rave reviews from folks from all backgrounds and walks of life.  Even the detractors admit to the quality of my work. 

So I’ve waited for the opportunity to tell this side of the story- to share a bit of a cautionary tale about how careless fish stories (even if the fish was big enough without exaggeration or omission of details) need to be quashed. Recent experience has shown me over and over again that absolute transparency in all things is the way to go at all times.  Yet nobody, until a few days ago, ever asked me directly, and that query itself was buried in an unrelated sub thread as part of an entirely different discussion.  In spite of hundreds (it seems) of places online where this has been discussed, not a soul has honestly asked me, to my face, what the real story was since those days in 2014- only snarky references which never really seemed to allow for discussion.  Was it a mistake to stand by it? Absolutely, no question. Was it a combination of both pride and stubbornness that had me not simply retract and present what I could prove? Absolutely. No question I could have handled this all much better and I own that completely. In my defense I was utterly unprepared, as a relatively private person with plenty of experience doing the trash talk but none of the experience receiving it, to manage this. Nobody who hasn’t been there personally ever could, in my opinion, and I don’t wish it on anybody, including those who’ve gleefully partaken at my own expense.

So here it is.  A careless conversation with some unverifiable numbers, a few popular articles, and the decision to double down and stand by numbers I should have disavowed- this led to a half a year of self destruction- of the almost permanent sort.  These are the lows that you can fall to, dear reader, if you don’t control your own narrative.  Was this my fault?  Yes. I can blame no others, not the writers and coaches, nor even the online community- the worst of the trolls were simply stating a fact- the mile run numbers associated with me, as presented, were not accurate. Ownership of everything I can impact has become a major focus of mine in the last few years, and all of this was due to my own actions and inactions- the perfect storm of naivete, ego, and anger. If I had to do it all over again, a simple correction would have made all the difference- and furthermore not knowing how to quit once the avalanche started was entirely on me.

I’m posting this with no thought of anybody reading it.  I’ve written it for myself. To put my story out there.  It’s not to convince anybody, it’s not to cover anything up. It’s simply to, in my own mind, put this all to rest in my soul. I’d be all but certain this could still get picked apart, but I’m well past caring. Once all is out there, there is nothing left to worry about- nothing left to hide, no place left for anxiety to lurk. If anybody feels deceived, please know from my heart, this was never the intent- and look to my own writings and bio to see what I’ve always emphasized in my self-presentation.  I’d like to think that I still know a thing or two about making people faster and stronger.

These days, I’m much happier. My clients know my worth and the company’s roster has numbered in the thousands, I’m surrounded by brilliant coaches and wonderful people. I train for the love of it, and work on exciting projects with exciting clients. If you happen to be out in San Diego, please feel free to hit me up.  Shoot me an email and we’ll meet up- this is a sincere offer.  We’ll go lift, we’ll go run one of the trails or mountains around here, and if you can kick my ass in both sessions, I’ll buy the beer.  If I kick yours, I’ll settle for a handshake.

And then you’re buying me a few rounds.  I’ll need ’em.

9 Comments

  1. Shaun on August 28, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Wow, Alex. What a wonderful write-up. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I hope it goes just as viral, but it if doesn’t, I want you to know I appreciate you and your story. Letting go can be extremely cathartic and I hope writing this helps you. I hope you can take the energy that has been used in that area and use it in other ways. You are awesome and doing great things. I hope some day to take you up on that offer for a lift/run session!

    • Alex Viada on September 24, 2018 at 12:49 pm

      Shaun, even if it doesn’t, it’s always a good feeling to just put it out there and have that last bit of pent up catharsis. I hope you take me up on it as well- regardless of who buys the beer.

  2. Ryan on September 3, 2018 at 11:43 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve been in similar situations, where old numbers drove me to unhealthy ego driven journeys. I’m saving this blog entry to read periodically. It will likely save me a few injuries along the way. I almost clicked to the next article, but paused because I thought you should know that you aren’t alone. Being human makes the journey bumpy. I too hope to take you up on that offer for a lift/run session someday. Conveniently, I recently moved to San Diego. I just have to get my distance running going again so we can do the “run” part. Dare I say that I’ve used to go out for my own ultra-marathon runs back in the day… Saying I do a fraction of that now would even be an exaggeration. I have a long journey ahead.

    • Alex Viada on September 24, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      I appreciate you reading and sharing, mate. It is indeed absolutely an open offer- even if it’s just a short jog up and down black mountain while you get your distance legs back under you. 🙂

  3. Thomas Howe on September 23, 2018 at 3:32 am

    Didn’t you post in the Let’s Run forum repeatedly that it was a 4:06 mile, and you did it with a dislocated hip, a broken ankle, and a permanently detached hamstring? It doesn’t appear that all of this stemmed from just one interview. As a huge fan of your work, I’ve listened to all of your interviews, and you repeatedly stated that you ran a 4:06 mile and squatted over 700 pounds. You even commented on a Facebook post I made. Now you’re saying that you didn’t run a 4:15????

    • Alex Viada on September 24, 2018 at 12:44 pm

      Hey Thomas- I’ve never posted in the LetsRun forum, as I recall I deliberately avoided actually posting anything myself. And certainly NEVER posted a 4:06- I can’t imagine there would be an interview anywhere that I’ve said that, and I’d be curious where you claim you heard it. If anybody had mentioned this, it was almost certainly a troll or imposter, as I do know there were a few folks posting as me (I heard) as satire. I’ve read on the internet in various places that I’ve claimed 800 pound squats, 4:00 miles, the list goes on, NONE of which were stated by me. The game of telephone was very real, and I will not take responsibility for statements made by others on my behalf.

      But as you mention- this was all certainly not from one interview. I mention in this piece I doubled down over the course of several months, and repeated a few things in several locations.

      The squats, absolutely, which can be seen on facebook. The short head of my biceps femoris on my left side ruptured years ago- not a fresh injury at the time, of course, but one that’s significantly weakened my left leg. Other muscles do of course start to compensate for the missing muscle, but stability on that side is still far less. And around those same times (over the course of a year and a half), I did indeed suffer a hip injury (partial subluxation secondary to a bike crash then a missed squat), a sprained ankle that actually avulsed a portion of my talus… but this was not all at the same time. Conflating these into one big wreck and then stating that my best numbers were achieved while dealing with all three is absurd- it was in fact while I was attempting to get back to speed that the ankle issues arose.

      Appreciate you following my work- I hope it’s been useful over the years!

  4. Andrew Harris on September 25, 2018 at 1:40 am

    Alex, I am a middle aged man, who read the book Younger Next Year. It gave me my life back. Obeise, COPD, Hypertension….
    I ran my first Sprint Triathlon this year. yes, I thought I was going die trying, and would have died happy. I plan to do an OLY next year. Not only will I buy your book, though you failed to ever mention the name of it in your article, I will find it, but everyone keeps saying…Hire a coach. If you do distance coaching, I would hire you.

    I started out this year, and could not run 100 yards, much less complete a mile. My 5k time still sucks, but it won’t next year. That I can promise you. I cut it from a Cross Country 5k race time of 45 minutes to a best time this year on a mildly hilly course to 35 minutes. I have to get that under 24 minutes by next season. Its a personal must. I call it 10k fit, I am sure you have your own terms, but Bench Press markers, Speed Markers, pull up markers….all part of 10k Fit. I will get there, perhaps you can help.

    Now, about that Open Water Swim…

  5. Jeff S on September 27, 2018 at 7:57 am

    Old client coming out of the woodwork. Prior to coaching, I read online somewhere the 4:something mile and big dead/squat numbers. They were an initial hook and credibility builder, but I still would have chosen to work with you, Alex, even if they if were a 6:something mile and smaller dead/squat numbers. The fact is that back then (and still probably now) you were the clearest authority on hybrid training. And hybrid training was my goal.

    To any readers: I get why some might get uppity about claims of a low 4 minute mile when a guy is as strong as Alex. But I think they’re keyboard warriors who should consider carefully if their claims of “fraud” are coming from a place of jealousy/anger or legitimate concern for other trainees. The answer to that seems obvious to me. Oh, and like Alex is the first guy to ever make this mistake? PuhhhLEASE! While I do think that those in the spotlight or positions of authority should hold themselves to a higher standard, I say let him cast the first stone, he who has never exaggerated a stat or failed to correct something claimed generously in his favor.

    I went from an intermediate lifter to an advanced lifter under Alex’s tutelage, hitting lifetime PRs … while at the same going from (literally) COUCH to IRONMAN FINISHER. I learned training practices that I still use today, nearly 3 years later. I’ll let that speak for itself!

    Alex, I’m glad you got this off your chest. Your ownership of the error is worthy of respect, IMO. I say don’t stress the haters. Really! If you’re in the spotlight, to some degree they’re inevitable. Your 1) verified accomplishments and 2) clear depth of expertise are obvious and far more than sufficient for credibility.

    Hope you’re well my friend!

    • Alex Viada on September 29, 2018 at 8:41 pm

      Jeff, you’re one of the people that truly matters here- More than anything, I’m glad I made a difference in your athletics. Sincerely, that’s why I’m here at all, and knowing that what I’ve learned somehow in some small way helped you achieve great things means the damn world. Good to hear from you, mate. I really hope life’s been treating you well!

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