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April 28, 2022

Interview: Garrett Heath Seamlessly Moves From The Track to The Trails

Not every track runner is cut out for the trails. But if you remember watching Garrett Heath at the Great Edinburgh Cross Country meet between 2014 and 2016, then you’ll know he is. Who else has run away from the likes of Kenensia Bekele, Asbel Kiprop, and Mo Farah? (When Garrett stayed at my place a couple of months ago I pulled up the race on YouTube at 2 AM and forced him to commentate.)

Garrett’s career on the oval has more or less come to its conclusion at 36 years old. But with a range of 1:47/3:34/3:54/7:37/13:16/27:56, then it makes sense that he’ll be able to extend his abilities a bit further and over rockier terrain.

This weekend at the Canyons 25K, Garrett made his debut on the trails and won the race by over a minute. Not a bad start! We caught up with him to hear more about how his burgeoning trail career is going.

THE LAP COUNT: As you’re making the decision to step away from the track and enter this new chapter of your career, what drew you to the trails as opposed to the more traditional road route? 

GARRETT HEATH: When I talked to Brooks, I pitched doing both. But recently, I’ve realized if I’m going to the trails then I need to put all my eggs in that basket. If it doesn’t work out and I break on the downhills, then I’ll try the roads. I may eventually do a half-marathon, though I am happy for now. It’s a different challenge from anything I’ve done.

THE LAP COUNT: I have to imagine training has changed. Are you approaching this with the same level of vigor that you did in your track career? 

GARRETT HEATH: Training is completely different, in addition to also adding in working at SOS Hydration full-time. I’m running probably 20% fewer miles a week, but focusing on hitting the trails and vert, the ups and downs. I don’t know what the best way to train for trails at this point is, but I’m basically in this perpetual fall training mode doing hills, fartleks, and tempos. I’m going to the mountains near Seattle once or twice a week to do as much hill running as I can.

THE LAP COUNT: Now that you’re no longer training with the track-focused Beasts, do you have a new coach or training partners?

GARRETT HEATH: So I just recently started working a bit with Joe McConaughy, who’s another Brooks trail athlete that does some trail coaching. It’s not like the Beasts because it’s very individual, but I am receiving guidance on what workouts look like in this new world. It’s much different than the track where you’re trying to peak for a U.S. Championship and then the Olympics. There are a bunch of different good races scattered throughout the year.

THE LAP COUNT: You’re the most accomplished track athlete in recent U.S. history to make the transition to the trail. Do you feel some pressure because you’re representing all your friends who watch trail races and thought, “Oh, I could do that?” 

GARRETT HEATH: Not completely, because I think there are those who are really underestimating trail running and think they could just step in and take over. They have no idea what they’d be getting into and would get absolutely annihilated. But the feedback I got early was to prepare to be horrible at first and to proceed with caution. It’s not the track – there is another skill set here that you need to develop over time.

Maybe there haven’t been a ton of track athletes who have transitioned over, but there have been some good ones who did it successfully like Jim Walmsley, Joe Gray, Adam Peterman and Max King. It’s hard to feel a ton of pressure right off the bat because it is so underestimated by the track world. I don’t even know if it’s even considered at all.

THE LAP COUNT: If you were to grade your debut as a 5000m time, what would you give yourself?

GARRETT HEATH: Probably like, a 13:35, if that makes any sense.

THE LAP COUNT: Are there plans to move up in distance or are you staying on the shorter side of the trail scene?

GARRETT HEATH: I was originally thinking the 25K was my max, but now I can see how the 50K could be enticing. I’m not remotely tempted to go beyond that at this point because it becomes something completely different. Then it’s a mental game. Plus the suffering and recovery post-race — you could be out for an extended period of time after.

On the track, everything has been so measured for so long that if you’re off by a few seconds it’s surprising. If I think I’m in shape to run 63s to go 13:07, but actually run 13:20 that’s a total misestimation of fitness. And on the trail, every course is so different and time doesn’t mean anything, so it’s all effort-based. It’s cross country to an extreme, where someone may rip a hill and you have no idea if they’re going to die or about to win the race. We have so much less to gauge off.

Then ten miles into a race you may feel great, but it’s on a technical aspect so you have to wait. There’s gamesmanship to racing people rather than just going against the clock. And that’s in the 25K, which basically makes me a sprinter.

THE LAP COUNT: What else did you learn from your first experience?

GARRETT HEATH: The day before we went out to do a pre-race shakeout and see some of the course. After a half mile, I had to turn around and run somewhere else or my quads would have been destroyed for the race. There was no way to run it easy. So my course knowledge was everything I could gather from the elevation map.

I was a minute and a half behind at one point from the leaders, but I was in an all-out chase on the uphills in the second half. It was my first time power hiking in a race, and I just took advantage of any flat sections — that was new.

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