North Brooklyn Runners: A Community Running Group Serving Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Beyond!

NBR MEMBER PROFILES – James Chu by northbrooklynrunners
February 4, 2012, 4:22 pm
Filed under: Members

NBR Profile No. 8

Rodrigo Toscano talks with JAMES CHU

After 9 years completely off from running and a 17% weight gain (going from 145 lbs to 170 lbs), James Chu (a former Princeton University track runner—1:58 min / 800 meter brawler), decided he “was sick of being a meatball” and resolved to give running another shot (not of Jameson Whiskey—though Linda Daniels is dedicated to overseeing that part of his training regimen). After seeing the NBR men’s squad run a very respectable top 5 in the Scotland 10k, he contacted NBR founding member, Matt Decker, and joined in May of 2010. Since then, James has competed in all middle distances, up to the half marathon.

He placed 2nd in the Greenpoint 5k, reeling in a dozen or so rabbits in the last kilometer. Since joining the team, his mile PR is 4:39 (4:27 is his lifetime PR). He was 5th overall in the Norway 1.7 mile—at 5:05 pace. In the Ted Corbitt 15k, his splits averaged 5:46, earning him 2nd in his age group. For the Manhattan Half Marathon, James dialed his 15k pace back by only 9 seconds, ending up at 1:17:43 (average sub 6 min. pace). In the Coogan’s 5k in 2011 (a northeast regional PR-blocking race, featuring pyramid-like hills), he ran a 16:40 (5:22 pace), 7th in his age group.

James’s favorite group run is the Saturday morning coffee Bridge Run. Anyone can easily approach him there to talk about his favorite sport. Whether it’s NCAA track & field, or global elite standings, or the local sub-elite scene, James is your hard-info + throw-down opinion central! He is also (and this from someone who’s been known to “dead dog” (going on all fours dry heaving after a race effort)) legendary for his cautionary approach to training, advising team members against the perils of hyper-training.

Born in Arlington, Texas, but re-routed to Midland, Michigan at age two (to nine), James suddenly found himself in central Connecticut. You can spot him now on “controlled” runs along Kent Avenue.

RT: James, let’s jump right into this…

Non-race “tempo” lactate threshold (LT) cruise intervals as being an alternate / complementary training to continuous LT tempo runs…the Tuesday running groups (both the morning and night groups) have done an excellent job by cutting this precious stone of a workout into a mesmerizing array of varieties, nonetheless, as a whole (I contend—from a bar stool—in the dankest & deepest nook of Greenpoint), this club, like so many others, still leans too much toward the “continuous run” end of the spectrum, with one (probable) result being—injury. What’s your take on this?

JC: I think running too hard during training, not running easy enough on recovery days, not taking enough recovery days, and racing too often are the things that lead to injury. As far as continuous tempo versus tempo intervals, I think that you need both. When you do certain types of workouts over and over again, you get diminishing marginal returns as the body adapts to the stress. I train in phases to introduce the body to new types of stress in each training phase.

I start out with 2-3 months of base phase just building up my weekly mileage and long run to improve aerobic fitness. During this foundational phase, I am running long continuous steady state runs (just below LT) building up from 35 to 60 minutes in duration (not including the warm up and cool down). A variation of this is the progression run which is similar in duration and average pace, but whereas the steady state is hitting a tight range of paces (i.e. all miles between 5:55-6:15 pace), the progression run has a wider range of paces. I may start at 6:20-30 pace and progressively lower the pace to finish around 5:40 pace. So at the start of the progression, I am well below LT, in the mid to late stages I am approaching or at LT, and in the final late stages I may push just past LT. I run these workouts based on perceived effort. LT pace for me might be what I perceive as my 15k race effort. Below LT pace should be my perceived half marathon race effort or 5-10 seconds per mile slower. These workouts are bread and butter workouts for the long distance runner. I live by them, and I can see that I’ve made believers out of you and guys like Todd Zino (one of the Tempo Tuesday run leaders).

Up to this point, I am running below LT which is a controlled comfortably uncomfortable feeling. I can basically camp out at that pace for an hour or more. In the next phase, I add the tempo run workout. The tempo run is at LT pace which is like controlled discomfort. Actually, it’s comfortably hard for about 15-18 minutes, but then starts to wear on me from 18-25 minutes. I like to run 4-mile tempo runs on the track at around 5:35-45 pace or somewhere around 10k-15k race pace. This is also the time that I would incorporate tempo cruise interval type workouts like 3×10 mins, 4×8 mins, or some other combination of longish intervals totaling about 30 minutes of quality. And since the quality is broken up into intervals, I can run at LT at the beginning of the workout and push it a little past that if I am feeling good.

RT: These paces and durations blow my mind, but one essential lesson I’m gleaning from what you’re saying is that everybody is somewhere. Nobody is “nowhere” in terms of how their individual running systems (LT threshold capacity, Vo2max, etc) behave and how those systems interact with each other. So we immediately have a common language we can use, if we want. Other cultures might have entirely different words for these systems, but the interrelated concepts of stress, recovery, and adaptation, I bet are nearly universal. For many in the NBR doing a 4-5 mile run, to start at 8:30 pace then dialing down to 7:30 on the last mile might feel exactly the same as it does for you on a similarly spread out progressive run.

Which brings up a point: going anaerobic on a 5k. When does that happen for you? Like on your Coogan’s 5k (16:40), were you “there,” by, say, minute 5? Leaving you an agonizing 11:40—plus final surge (a different capacity, requiring its own fine tuning to be sure)? I am bringing this up cause I am pretty sure that by minute 6 of my 19 + a few pennies 5k, I am “there” (on the brink, near VO2 max) leaving me about 13:00 minutes to slug through—and fading somewhat, I admit (“negative splits!” you’re gonna hammer me—but wait). I am talking about equivalencies. If someone is running a 30 minute 5k, advising them to run 70% of the race at (or very near) Vo2 max (21 minutes!), isn’t that nuts? And, isn’t that what some people actually do (!)

JC: I am perhaps often guilty of running too easy in the early going of races for which Owen (Kendall) and Pavel (Marosin) lovingly berate me. But I have years of racing experience to draw from that indicate more personal success with a negative splitting strategy. I say personal success, because I think that everyone should discover for themselves what strategies work best whether it’s going out hard and trying to hang on, even splitting, or negative splitting. It also depends on the distance of the race. In the 800, I would hit the first 200 in 27-28, through 400 in 57-58, through 600 in around 1:28, all in the hopes of being able to hang on to break 2 minutes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been through 600 in 1:28 and failed to finish that last 200 in under 32 seconds. I did finally do it indoors at Princeton and finished in 1:58. After so many failed attempts going through those exact splits, I was relieved and immediately quit the distance to move up to the mile. But I do think that going out ahead of goal pace and trying to hang on is appropriate for the 800. From around 1000 meters to the mile or even 2000 meters, even splitting is more appropriate. For 3k and up, negative splitting is the way to go. But this varies depending on how quickly you can cover these distances.

Most trained runners can run above LT (go anaerobic) for around 6-10 minutes. For me, at the end of a race that is nearly 2 miles. So like you said, in the Coogan’s 5k, I was just focusing on staying relaxed through the first mile. I push the pace past LT and towards red-lining when I am 6-10 minutes away from the finish. This is why VO2 max speed workouts are far more important for the middle distance runner than for a half marathoner or marathoner. Running above LT pace for 10 minutes is around 60-70% of the 5k race or nearly 50% of a 4-mile race. In the half marathon or marathon, 10 minutes is only 5-10%. So if your focus is the HM or marathon, you are better served by raising your lactate threshold rather than your VO2 max.

RT: One VO2 max workout that I used to do and really paid off was rapid hill repeats on the Long Island City side of the Pulaski Bridge. It’s about 250 meters at a pretty steep incline. Taken at “power mile” pace (20-25 seconds slower than race mile) the heart rate (HR) shoots up very quickly. By the end, it’s usually a couple beats away from V02 max, which for me (at least by last year’s numbers) was about 180 HR. A jog down taking about a minute and a half followed is followed by a repeat. I got up to ten sets of these. I called this workout the “surge protector,” because the benefit I quickly noted (maybe 4 days later) was that my HR had a hard time rising on a medium-rigorous road run. It’s a brutal workout but one that worked for me (one added benefit to hill work is also having to strike the ground at front foot or mid-foot; hills are quiet, but firm form-correction coaches).

So, as Randy (Locklair) said, “running is CRAZY individual.” Some people respond to particular workouts fairly quickly while not responding much to others. This too, some people who are convinced that they’re of the “go long” tribe of runners, might actually be (physiologically) repressed speed runners; or the converse, some fairly good 10k-ers, if you loan them 10 seconds per mile, they’re able set up shop there for an entire half marathon! But they identify with the Cheetahs. Then there’s Bonobos—we have a fair number of those as well.

I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a long time now…given that you are currently shredding races at all distances (carefully picking your races and gearing your training to those races), do you still look at yourself as an 800 meter (or 1500 meter) guy who’s “extended” over the years? Or is your reference point (self-identity) now the 5k, occasionally nabbing shorter races while gliding up to longer races by way of your 5k prowess?

JC: The race distance I raced the most in my life is easily the 800, but at this point in my running life, I do consider myself a 5k guy. I feel most comfortable racing 3k/2 mile races on the track, 5k races on the track and roads, and 4 mile road races. My personal feeling is that I haven’t quite mastered the 5 mile and 10k race distances. I am very comfortable pushing the pace without blowing up in the 3k through 4 mile race distances, but I am somewhat more afraid of blowing up in the 5 mile and 10k. That fear leads me to run those distances at too slow a pace. If you look at my past results, inexplicably, there is a significant disparity between my 5k/4 mile race pace and my 5 mile/10k race pace. My 5 mile/10k race paces are so conservative that they are actually closer to my 15k and HM race paces.

RT: This is interesting. Two things immediately come to mind. The first is strategy. Perhaps you haven’t yet found a strategy that you fully trust for the 10k. And the second thing is—and this is weird, but it might be true, that you have two basic “sweet spots”: a short duration red-line zone (3k, 5k, 4 mile) which you know well from your track days—you can endure it, even play with it; the other is a notches-above-LT zone (15k, Half Marathon) which is an ability perhaps more new to you, but one you’ve learned to count on. Maybe one way to address the question of strategy might be to actually count out kilometers, you know, smaller units to toggle in a more nuanced way. Maybe you’re doing something like this already (whether consciously or unconsciously) with meters in the short races, but at the longer races, or rather mid races, the mile itself might be a problematic point of reference. How you approach and perhaps resolve this quandary in the upcoming season will be a fascinating chapter in your running story.

I want to talk about life now, that most adaptable (and injury-prone) activity of them all. Ok, so, you work, you have personal relations to attend to as well, “alone time” somewhere in there I imagine too. The following question I ask everyone—some version of it. How does running cut into or inform or take away or amplify or mute those other aspects of your life?

JC: I work Monday through Friday from 7:45 in the morning until 1:45 in the afternoon. I trade options on COMEX (Commodities Exchange) Gold and Silver futures. Running actually helps me deal with the constant yelling that goes along with trading in the gold pit on the exchange floor. Running is good for stress relief and is a confidence builder, both of which are invaluable towards keeping me cool-headed and effective at work. My work schedule is dictated by exchange hours, which for gold is 8:20 am until 1:30 pm. I am usually home by 2:30 everyday. Fitting running into that schedule is not nearly as difficult as it is for most New Yorkers. The only problem is finding training partners on similar schedules that are able to run at 3 or 4 in the afternoon on weekdays. Luckily, I recently discovered that fellow NBR Tim Cote is a biology teacher and is usually ready to run between 3:30 and 4:00. It has been extremely helpful and motivating to have someone to run with and trade off pacing during tough workouts.

As for the other part of your question on maintaining relationships as a runner: my wife Sarah is a non-runner. The life of an obsessive long distance runner is infamous for causing strain and friction in relationships. She works normal to longer hours as a graphic designer, so I am typically done running before she even gets home. On weekends, I am often done with my morning run before she even wakes up. On the surface, this would appear like an ideal situation for a runner and non-runner couple; in many ways, it is probably as frictionless as it gets. But there are issues that we face in our relationship aside from the physical act of running. As a competitive runner, I spring things on her like: “I can’t go out/can’t drink/can’t party tonight, cuz I have a long run/race in the morning.” The actual schedule of running isn’t what is getting in the way; it’s the plan of future running that is an interfering factor as well. What seems to help is that I resign to running my long run on Saturday mornings, so that we can do the fun things on Saturday nights. Then depending on how I feel, Sunday is an optional day. Being flexible is key; I have to remember that I’m a husband first, and a runner second—if I want to continue being a husband. The important thing to remember is that if all else fails, she’s always right.

RT: Right (chuckling here). But I hear you too, brother, loud and clear. One of the several reasons why I love to do these profiles, is to vent / nerd-out / rip a bong-load full of running talk so as to not drive everybody around me crazy. Still though, fever is fever, and fever tends to stalk the hopelessly fever-stricken. Funerals, dream vacations, revolutions, the caesarian birth of Horatio Hornblower Jr, all are subject to: “but how am I going to fit my long run in?” Our inner-zombies need deep massaging, uh, pretty badly.

And curious happy people want to know, have you caught the marathon bug yet? And do you have your sights set on our first official NBR track meet coming up?

JC: I would definitely like to race a marathon a few years down the road, but right now it feels more like an obligation to appease the non-understanding public that know me as a runner training around 70 miles/week for a race so “short” as the 5k. Many people think that completing a marathon is the very pinnacle of the sport. For me, I would have to race (not just complete) around a 2:35 marathon to even compare to what I am capable of in the 5k. This is according to the McMillan running calculator as regards to comparable efforts. Right now, I am more interested in running a good time in the 5k rather than a mediocre time in a marathon.

I plan on participating in the NBR track meet, but I am unsure in what capacity. At the very least, I will volunteer at the meet. The meet is less than a week after the first NYRR team points race of the year—Coogan’s 5k. I dealt with a few too many injuries last year. I am being more conservative in avoiding early track meets this year. Honestly, I need more preparation to jump into the intense speed of track race distances, and it’s just too early in the racing year for me to risk injury. But I might not be able to resist running a DMR (Distance Medley Relay: legs are 1200m – 400m – 800m – 1600m) just for fun.

RT: The lusty gods that haunt the sacred precincts of Delphi will be watching these displays of heroic vanities with not a little envy. The word, “fun,” as used by runners, is a most elusive, most mysterious word for non-runners.

“So, what are you doing this afternoon?”

“I’ll be attempting to achieve a controlled comfortably uncomfortable feeling moving parallel to the East River.”

“Have fun!”

You know what I mean? Sometimes it feels like we live on a different planet. Oh, I just remembered something. Remember, before we started this talk, how you jokingly said you’d reveal the secret of running. I bid you now, sir, reveal this oracle to us.

JC: I was half joking, or maybe one quarter joking. But seriously, I do think that the secret to running is consistency. If you are able to run and train consistently, the times or weight loss or whatever goal you set will follow. And sometimes maintaining consistency means taking a day or two off to tend to minor aches and pains and not allowing them to become major injuries. Also, don’t skip training phase steps. Just today, Linda Daniels, who has been recovering from a major injury, asked me if I thought she could be ready in time for such and such a race. I told her that it depends on your definition of ready. She stated a pretty legitimate goal, and I responded that if I were coming back from such an injury, I would not consider myself ready for a race until after 2-4 months of base training; for her, since she was coming back from an injury that kept her out for a significant amount of time, even longer—maybe 3-6 months. And even then, I would choose a longer race like a half marathon during base phase rather than a shorter more intense race like the 5k. Don’t skip steps. Remember, first comes base, and last comes racing.

RT: James, thanks so much for sharing with us your thoughts on running. Your devotion to the sport is both admirable and inspiring.

JC: Thank you, this has been “fun.” Go NBR! See you on Kent Avenue, or as Todd so aptly nicknamed it, “Kent Avenue Speedway.” I actually write Kent Avenue Speedway in my training logs now. No joke.

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

i think you forgot the most important question: what’s it like to live in the same building as CHUCK BASS?!?!?! (great article… james is a great resource i think everyone should make use of and abuse)

Comment by linda

thanks linda. soon i’m gonna learn what it’s like to live with james lafferty from one tree hill also. not sure what that show is all about. but the dude bought a 2 bedroom apt in my bldg.

Comment by James

That was another awesome and inspiring interview. Thanks RT. By the way I love that James has his priorities set when it comes to running. Like I always said anyone can run any kind of distance but to crush a 5K? That’s hard work.

Comment by maerk

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