Q&A with Ultra Runner Tony Owens

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New Balance and RootsRated have teamed up to profile runners making a difference in their communities. We asked each of our runners a series of questions to learn a little more about what running means to them, where they like to run and what are some of their running goals.

Tony shared some of his insights and thoughts on running (and the Tennessee running community) in this Q&A, presented by RootsRated and New Balance.

How long have you been running?
You know, I ran some in high school, but in high school I rode more, road bike, mountain bike. I started running exclusively about 7 or 8 years ago. I’m on the trail committee. 12 races a year.

Running seems unique in the sense that, while other HS and collegiate athletes seems to lose interest or passion for their sport as they grow older, runners seems to have a lot of longevity and persistence. What is it about running that makes it a life-long sport? What’s kept you coming back to it?
You know what they say about running: If you start out running and you’re healthy, it just makes ‘em stronger. Especially with trail running. It’s a lot easier on your body; it’s easier on your joints. It’s a little bit harder on your muscles, you know, because you’ve got mountains to climb. I’ve been doing it for years and years. I think it’s just because there’s no special requirements, there’s no scheduling or coordination. I can be in the smokies in 20 minutes. If you’ve done it long enough, then you’re addicted. And you’re stuck (laughs).

How would you characterize running culture in East Tennessee?
In a phrase, laid back. And that’s the biggest difference between off-road running and on-road running, especially when you get to the more competitive level. When you get to the competitive level for road runners, it’s all about the nutrition and the time and the miles, whereas ultra runners, trail runners, mountain runners, you know, we’re all laid back, even the fast ones, we don’t worry about what we eat, we all drink to excess, (laughs) not really, but uhm, the culture itself is a whole lot more relaxed, especially when you get to the people who run mountains and longer distances. I’m not sure if the long distances distill out all the nonsense or what, but they’re super laid back and you’re generally not gonna get them bent out of shape or anything, and they’re a lot friendlier. At a mountain race, everybody’s talking to everybody. After the race, everyone goes over to the cooler, cracks open a beer, and talks about whatever.

What’s also unique about this area is that runners and mountain bikers have a really good, almost symbiotic relationship, partially because mountain bikers are motivated to build trails, that way they can ride on them. Whereas if horseback riders or runners build trails, you get what like happened in the Smokies, the horseback rider were really involved in the building of trails in the Smokies and lobbied early early on, when Roosevelt was involved, so they could ride horses on them. Runners build a lot of the trails. Out trail series is all non-profit, 50% of the proceeds from the last couple of years have gone to the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, because they do a lot of the trail building for us.

Do you prefer running alone or with a friend/group?
Umm.. I end up running alone a lot, just because of pacing compatibilities. But I guess I prefer running with a small group of friends. Or like my son, my son’s a blast to run with. You get any more than 3 or 4 people and you’re typically waiting on people. I’m pretty comfortable running on even new trails by myself, because I’ve been getting lost in the mountains forever. I mean, when I was a little kid, my grandmother had a hundred acres on lookout mountain and we’d go up there and just get so lost and they’d have to come find us.

What’s been your most memorable run? Why?
From a mountain running/trail running perspective, probably my first 100 miler. Just because it was so far beyond what I thought I could do. Once your brain figures out you can do something, you’re good, but the first time you do something like that, you’re brains telling you you can’t do this, you’ve never done this before, or whatever, so it was tough. It was down in Alabama, on the Pinhoti 100, and it’s still probably one of the few hundos that I’d do again, just because you get up really early, but instead of you

What was your lowest moment as a runner?
So far, I haven’t DNF’d a race (did not finish), but there were a couple of times I thought I was going to. Probably the lowest point was the last thirty miles of the Georgia Jewel a couple years ago. I still managed to get third place, but both of my hip flexers were just shot. And I had actually just spent the night in jail the night before.

Haha, yea, don’t worry, I was absolved of all crimes, but I got less than two hours of sleep the before this hundred miler, and so that, combined with…well, maybe I wasn’t as fit as I should of been…but you kow, whatever the case, the last thirty miles was just a death march. I mean, it was taking me forty minutes to run–to walk— a mile. That was probably the lowest point. But you’re not gonna quit, you know.

What does your family think about your passion?
Well, my wife runs—not quite as far as I do—she’ll run marathons, she’s done 50k. I think, though, if you talk to any ultra runner, you’ll hear that it’s a challenge getting the miles in that you want to get in and balancing all the family stuff at the same time. They’re supportive up to a point as long as I don’t over-schedule. It does help that my son runs, because he and I can run together, and the family is generally more accepting, when I’m out with one of them instead of just out in the mountains by myself for nine hours. It’s definitely a balance thing.

 I figure it’s pretty difficult to be a fan in the world of trail running, right? I mean they’re at the starting line, they’re at the finish line and that’s it.
Running, at a really basic level is a very selfish thing. I mean, it’s good for you. It’s good for your body, it’s good for your mind, but if someone’s gonna come out and try to support you, they’re going to be driving from this aid station to this aid station and they’re going to see you for a split second while you stop and down a Gatorade and you keep on rockin’.

When a lot of people hear that you’ve run 100 miles (and more than once!) they are probably shocked. Maybe they just can’t understand it. Maybe they think you’re crazy for being able to do it or even wanting to do it. What would you want to say to those people that…you know…might think you’re nuts?
They might be right (laughs). I was talking to Stewart Ellington who’s a local roadrunning star—he’s won the Knoxville Marathon a couple times—I was talking to him after the state cross country meet and he thinks we’re nuts and he runs marathons—really fast! But I mean, if you’re doing this it’s because you enjoy it. You enjoy being in the mountains. You enjoy the challenge. You enjoy your brain telling you that you can’t do it and you telling your brain, oh yes I can. And it’s therapy.

What’s next? What on your bucket list?
I’d like to do Western States, it’s a hundred miler in California, wouldn’t mind doing the Leadville, a hundred miler in Colorado. The Vermont Trail 100 is on my bucket list.

What is your biggest ongoing challenge in running?
I think it’s just really finding time to do it. Yeah.

Anything else you want to tell people that are getting into trail running?
You know what I would tell trail runners, is to go out and run some on the road. Because you use a different set of muscles, it’ll actually help your trail running, because you can maintain a higher level of intensity for longer, which you can’t necessarily get, if you’re always on the trail.

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