Catching up with Alan Nawoj: the RaceRaves interview
Occupation: Software Engineer, Entrepreneur
Hometown: Lexington, MA
Notable: Alan Nawoj’s RaceRaves profile features the cheetah as his kindred animal, and for good reason: in April he captured the Guinness World Record for fastest aggregate marathon time on all seven continents (21:55:02; average finish time 3:07:52). His eight-year quest included a personal-best 2:52:27 in New York City in 2008, as well as a first-place finish in Antarctica in 2013. Alan graciously slowed down long enough to share with us some personal highlights and insights from his amazing journey into the record books – and his creative remedy for Achilles tendinitis.
How and when did you decide to pursue this world record? Was it on your radar from the beginning of your Seven Continents journey, or did it evolve over time?
It was about a decade ago when I set the goal of completing a marathon on all seven continents, and it was part of the way through this journey when I came across the Guinness World Record for the fastest combined marathon times for each of the continents. The record itself has been around since the 1990s, which is when the Antarctica Marathon came into existence, but it had already been broken a few times by the time I learned of it. At the time, I knew the record was within the reach of my abilities, but I also knew there would be many challenges and uncertainties in trying to break it. Staying consistently healthy, injury free, and coping with the effects of jet lag and extreme weather conditions while trying to run marathons on various continents for a fast time are just a few of the challenges I knew I would face along the way. It was a great experience, though, and it all came together this past April when I crossed the finish line of the Canberra Marathon in Australia’s capital city!
Which race/continent was the toughest? Which was your favorite?
The Antarctica Marathon was definitely the toughest! Traveling to the bottom of the world was an adventure in itself, and you can never truly prepare for the conditions you will experience on race day in Antarctica. I ended up getting sick soon after arriving in Argentina and spent almost a day in bed just a week before the marathon, so I was worried about what condition I would be in for the marathon itself. We then had a two-day boat ride from Ushuaia, Argentina to cross the turbulent Drake Passage, and arrived in Antarctica to some pretty harsh weather. Although the weather conditions were pretty calm on the morning of our big event, the challenging terrain and relentless hills made it a tough race. I took a pretty hard fall on the snow, ice, and frozen mud about three miles into the marathon and banged up my right knee pretty good, but fortunately I was able to get back into a rhythm. I think I was on so much adrenaline when I crossed the finish line that I forgot to immediately change out of my wet clothes. This caused me to get mild hypothermia and get admitted to the medical facility on the Russian research base for a three-hour recovery! So, yes, I would say Antarctica was the toughest but also one of my favorites since it is so unique and you get to meet some incredible, like-minded runners from around the globe.
Picking a single favorite marathon is tough, but I would probably put the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon near the top of my list since there is so much buildup and excitement surrounding these two races… and the crowd support is amazing!
What’s your rave race?
For me, it’s a toss-up between Boston and New York. Boston has the history and the many notable landmarks along the course, but in terms of magnitude, it’s tough to beat the New York City Marathon. Running through all five boroughs of New York City with over a million spectators lining the course is a truly unique experience, and Central Park is a great place to finish. Everything is well orchestrated, from the race expo to the pasta party to the ferries that shuttle you to the starting line. It’s a world-class running event that will leave you with some great memories!
What have been your proudest and your most challenging racing moments (not necessarily on your Seven Continents journey)?
My top three proudest racing moments would probably be the first time I qualified for the Boston Marathon, breaking the tape at the Antarctica Marathon, and breaking the Guinness World Record at the Canberra Marathon in Australia. All three of those races involved a very focused training plan and overcoming some sort of obstacle along the way.
When I think of my most challenging racing moments, these three definitely come to mind, but there are plenty more. I was supposed to run the Quebec City Marathon in 2011, for example, but at the pasta party the night before the race, they cancelled the marathon due to the approaching Hurricane Irene and bad weather forecast. They let all of the full marathon runners still do the half marathon, though, and it ended up being a really challenging race… I ran straight into a very strong, pre-hurricane, headwind for almost 7 miles and it totally drained me!
Another challenging racing moment was back in 2006 when I ran the Paris Marathon. It was going to be my first international marathon, but I ended up getting Achilles tendinitis a couple of weeks before the race. The constant friction between my Achilles tendon and my running shoe was so painful that I could hardly do a three-mile jog. Determined to still travel to France and run the marathon, I consulted with a doctor and cut the back side off of my running shoe to prevent the constant rubbing. With my “custom” running shoe, I was able to finish up my training, run the marathon, and finish it in 3:01, so it ended up being a success!
Since we’re talking races, any “hidden gems” you’d like to share, e.g. a lesser-known race that pleasantly surprised you?
For marathons, I found the Canberra Marathon in Australia and the Auckland Marathon in New Zealand to be two hidden gems that I’d recommend to other runners. Both of these marathons were well organized and had some really scenic courses. Canberra mapped out a new course this year, and the route meandered for long stretches along the lake at the center of the city. The fall weather was also perfect for running. My wife and I ran the Auckland Marathon together a few years ago and had a great experience there, too. The early morning ferry ride across the harbor in Auckland was a fun way to get to the start line, and then you get to run back to Auckland over the Auckland Harbor Bridge, which has great views of the city skyline. There are also several miles along the Auckland coastline and you finish in a nice big park in the city center. Both locations also offer a lot in terms of post-race sightseeing.
For non-marathons, the Utica Boilermaker 15K in central New York is one of the best races out there. The course has some good hills in it, the 14,000 race entry slots sell out fast, the crowd support is similar to what you would see at some big city marathons, and it finishes at a brewery where they have a big post-race party with live bands. Disclaimer – I grew up in central New York and have run this race for many years, but I’m not biased. 🙂
You’ve run some wicked fast times, which demands a lot of focus on race day… do you have a running mantra or strategy for when the going gets tough?
I think the old saying that “running is 90% mental and 10% physical” holds a lot of truth for me when I’m hitting a rough patch during a marathon. In general, I try to stick to an even pace throughout a marathon based on how my training has gone, but there are times when you feel like you can push it a little bit past your comfort zone, especially closer to the end… and this is usually where the trouble begins! You never really know if or when you’re going to feel like your energy levels are dropping, but when this happens to me I do a few things.
First, I shorten my stride a bit to conserve energy and keep moving. You may feel like your pace has taken a nosedive, but any forward progress is better than none. Second, I usually do something to try and wake myself up. This may include taking an energy gel or cold drink, taking some deep breaths, or splashing some cold water on myself. Third, and probably most important, I remind myself that these rough patches come and go and I try to ride it out. That’s where the mental aspect comes into play. It’s a lot easier to pull through a rough patch when you know that it’s time-limited rather than just assuming you’ve reached the end of your rope. Visualizing the finish line or just breaking down the remainder of the race into smaller, more manageable chunks can be really helpful when it comes to keeping a strong focus when the going gets tough.
What do you consider the most important aspect of your training regimen?
Consistency. I create a training plan and do my best to stick to it. Whether that means heading out to do a long run during a big snowstorm or a heat wave, doing a training run on a bitter cold day before the sun comes up, or finding a treadmill to put in some miles, I make it a goal to get out there and just do it. Sometimes the hardest part is just getting yourself out the front door or finding the motivation or energy to start a run. This is where the mental aspect comes into play again. Remind yourself of why you’re doing this and why it’s important to you. We all have a reason for why we run and why we sign up for a particular race, and it’s important to stay keyed into that during your training. Otherwise, it can be really easy to fall off track and start cutting corners here and there.
I would also say (along with my wife!) that getting enough sleep is really important in any race training regimen, because you can’t expect to run at your peak level if you’re not fully rested. Granted, I need a lot of work in this area, but it almost always pays off… not surprisingly, my best times usually happen when I’m getting proper sleep!
But isn’t running bad for your knees?
Hah! Yes, I’ve heard that question a few times over the years 🙂 In general, it totally varies from one person to the next since your running form, body type, and genetics all play into how your knees are affected by running. I know people who have run over 100 marathons and have never had any knee problems, yet others may experience bad knee pain just training for one. The general rule is to listen to your body and don’t try to push through knee pain if you’re experiencing anything acute.
So what’s your next running goal?
I’m really looking forward to running the Boston Marathon this coming April. It will be my fifth Boston Marathon, but it has been five years since I last ran it since I’ve been traveling to various international marathons over the last several years. It’s especially meaningful for me to run it this time around, not only because I live in the Boston area, but also to show support to all of the spectators and volunteers after the tragic events at the Boston Marathon less than two years ago. I’m just hoping the weather this winter isn’t as bad as last year, since the majority of my training for Boston occurs during the coldest and snowiest months!
Is there one race that’s still calling your name?
I have many that fall into that category, but if I were to pick just one I would probably say the Athens Marathon. Going back to “where it all started” in Greece and running the historic course between the village of Marathon to Athens is something I’d like to experience at some point. It’s amazing how popular marathons have become over the last decade and how you can now find one on any continent or corner of the globe… but Athens will always be the original.
(photo credits: Alan Nawoj; Anita Allen, Marathon Tours & Travel)
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