Written by Dan Cheung. Photos by Benjamin Weingart and Scott Olberding
It’s the summer of Tinman Elite. In an age of groups, clubs and projects in professional running discerned, often solely, by a single sponsor or coach, the Boulder-based, Tom “Tinman” Schwartz led team insists that they are, in fact, exactly that: “not a group, social movement or track club” but a team. And who could find fault with this? With a 2017 Club National Championship in Lexington, Kentucky last December and all of its athletes qualifying to the 2018 USA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, Tinman Elite has staked its claim of being one of the highest caliber teams in a crowded Boulder and one of the most genuine on the national scene.
You’d be forgiven for thinking of Tinman Elite as an alternative presence in American distance running. One only needs to see pictures of the Tinmen clad in white t shirt and Sharpie marker made warm ups at the 2017 Club XC National Championships awards ceremony to gather the happenstance nature of their formation. What started with Morgan Pearson (who is now based in Scottsdale, AZ “Making Triathlon Great For Once”), sliding under Schwartz’s tutelage after his time at CU and what continued with the adoption of Drew Hunter, Sam Parsons and Reed Fischer upon their moves to Boulder in mid-to-late 2017 has quickly become far more than the Boulder island of extremely fast misfit toys it once seemed to be.
The currently unsponsored team is an amalgam of character types whose charming sum speaks loudly to the more positive and free-spirited sides of contemporary American distance running. Having turned down a number of funded programs, Drake standout and newly-minted fourth place finisher in the 10,000 meters at the USATF National Championships, Reed Fischer is one of the founding members of Tinman Elite and testifies to the positive-thinking autonomy of Tinman Elite’s brand of work. The high school celebrity of Drew Hunter has muted itself into the form of a remarkably mature and driven Adidas athlete and Colorado student who has carved out his space at the top of an increasingly competitive American middle-distance arena. Hunter is often found on Instagram with the companionship of distance running’s favorite former party boy and fellow Adidas Tinman, Sam Parsons, a friend of Citius Mag, whose consistent growth over the indoor and outdoor seasons of 2018 (most recently a 13:29 kick-down with Marc Scott of BTC at the Portland Track Festival 5,000 meters) has proven his upside more than matches his bohemian panache.
And then there is Tyler Mueller, the eldest and newest piece of the Tinman puzzle, a Philly-built guy whose narrative will speak to anyone who has ever fallen in love with the same thing more than once.
He’s the working man’s hero.
A graduate of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, the shining points of Tyler’s collegiate success prove to be a far less glamorous point of departure than those of his eventual teammates at Tinman (obviously except for Drew’s). Tyler boasts a 67th place finish at the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships and a 2014 NCAA East Regionals qualification in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters in his senior year and an opportunity cut short by his first of many stress fractures. His resume pointed far less toward a continued pursuit of the sport than it did to the confines of the corporate layman. In fact, Tyler saw it that way too:
“I had envisioned making the 10K Final in Eugene, getting my first All-American and riding off into the sunset with a beer gut and single-digit handicap, but that was not to be and I was very spiteful of that,” Tyler says. “I felt cheated and had no interest whatsoever in training hard anymore.”
And thus launched Tyler’s first retirement. It was a four month period of “getting fat” and exploring a career at a medical software company in Madison, WI. It wasn’t until he met fellow ex-DI runners and co-workers in Madison, Josh Lund and Brogan Austin, that Tyler was able to exhume his interest running, willing his way out the door and onto the Madison streets and eventually back into the form of, at that point, his life.
“I fell in love with training in Madison and coaching myself,” Tyler says. “I ended up signing up for the 2014 Club XC Championships since they were to be held at Lehigh. I finished 13th in that race and ran even faster than I had on that course when I qualified for the NCAA Championships the year before. About a month later I found myself at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Houston, where I ran 63:21 which was good enough for 11th place.”
It is at this point where any decent student of the sport would hear Tyler’s narrative and find more than satisfactory inspiration—where we could assume that, save for the normal few bumps here and there, the rest of the story would be as unbridled and redeeming as we would wish it for ourselves.
But it wasn’t to be. Recommitted to training after his OTQ in Houston with the goal of performing well at the Trials a little over a year later, Tyler found himself stagnated by work stress, over-trained and ultimately with another stress fracture only a week before the Olympic Trials.
Reminded of Tyler’s departure from Lehigh, the betting man would predict a fold—a self-reasoning into other safer career-minded passions he’s secured the liberty of in Madison, WI, plugging away at the corporate game and trying again to find peace away from the sport. The betting man would be a fool to expect anything else, especially an all-in move—one which demands reconsideration of what it is exactly Tyler is holding in his hand.
“I quit my job the day I got back from watching the Olympic Trials in LA and decided to move to Boulder.”
There is a magic in Boulder defined by the freedom it gives—a certain clarity in one’s self as committed to the lesser examined parts of the human condition. Boulder, densely hosting some of the best, most dedicated endurance athletes in the world, seems to offer answers.
And while perhaps it does, it also demands that we rethink what those answers look like. Upon Tyler’s departure from a promising career opportunity in Madison to try his luck in Boulder, his answers seemed to have been under the guise of familiar turbulence.
Unemployed and having moved in with a certain Mustachioed-Beer-Drinking-Hero-Who-Crashed-the-Olympic Trials named Noah Droddy, Tyler’s training plans upon arrival were met with many of the same struggles he’d faced in previous years. With a few acceptable performances scattered amongst even more injuries, Tyler began to struggle to find motivation and even the belief in the ability of staying healthy. The contrast between the solutions Boulder seemed to offer and the reality of the circumstances led to his questioning of the decision to leave the security of Madison to be a poor and damaged runner in Boulder.
In the spring of 2017, Tyler retired for a second time. In this retirement, he found a job that he enjoyed at a local start-up company. It was something to keep him afloat while he learned to appreciate running in a new way.
Which is where the un-shocking irony of Tyler’s story, the man eventually deemed by his teammates to be the paragon of the blue-collar runner, really begins.
Almost as soon as Tyler found security in full-time work, something about his relationship with the sport seemed to change. And with the discovery of Letsrun Message Boards legend under the alias of “Tinman” who, as it turned out, was the master behind the post-graduate running success of Tyler’s friend, Morgan Pearson, Tyler’s interest in running and his training began to swing back upwards from what he remarks as a “dark place” of fitness.
“I had heard of Tinman on the message boards but otherwise knew nothing about him until Morgan started working with him upon graduating from CU,” Tyler says. “I was fascinated by how fast Morgan was running, even though his training only seemed to consist of fartleks, hill sprints, and some unimpressive tempo runs. It actually sounded very similar to the training I used to prescribe myself as I figured out what I liked and what worked for me as a self-coached runner. I found a tremendous podcast with Tom on the Final Surge podcast. I was captivated by not only his philosophy but the conviction he has due to his multiple degrees in the field of physiology/exercise science. He is more than just a scientist. He embraces the fact that coaching is just as much about psychology—convincing an athlete that their training is the best training is more important than the training actually being the best.”
Tyler began to, again, rediscover a rhythm in the sport through the word of Schwartz’s ethereal genius. Despite Schwartz being based in Boise, ID, he was rapidly gaining traction in and beyond Boulder. After an early summer campaign in Europe in 2017, Drew Hunter moved to Boulder to train under Schwartz’ guidance alongside Pearson and was eventually to be followed by then-recent graduates, Reed Fischer and also-previously-retired Sam Parsons.
“Morgan and Drew began toying with the idea of getting a team together for Club XC Nationals and they asked me to consider running with them to which I agreed,” Tyler says. “I was honored. Reed and Sam moved to Boulder shortly thereafter and the team began to take shape. I really loved the fact that we were just a group of young guys meeting early to work out with no coach present. There were no egos. We would always err on the side of running as a pack instead of trying to measure our 🍆and drop each other. I’ve been around runners for a while now and that is not something you see every day. We trust Tom and do what he gives us.”
After what could only be marketed as a charismatically electric performance in Lexington, KY—unseating the heavy-favorites of the American Distance Project with what appeared to be a pick-up cross-country team in mismatched kits—the gritty flair of Tinman Elite had proved to be more than imminent, just a team T-Shirt and a few social media accounts away from finding the national attention it deserved.
“Tinman Elite was on the map and I decided to join the group in an official capacity.”
Tin is not a particularly hard chemical element. Compared to other metals like iron, it offers little in the way of guarding against impact, of deterring external forces. Instead, it moves in accordance with those forces. It is yielding and malleable, it doesn’t rust or corrode. Tin doesn’t protect so much as it preserves—its ordered, crystalline atomic structure proving perfect for holding things for remarkable amounts of time.
And so befits the Tinman.
In hearing Tyler’s story, I’m drawn to this—that our relationship with anything is contingent upon our continued faith in its goodness and our willingness to be guided by our trust in it despite what pains may come. Because ultimately, if we truly love it, it will always give us far more than it can ever take away. Tyler shows us precisely that our passions beg for this freedom to wander, to be bent and reshaped just as ourselves. His journey shows that our solipsistic fear of being lost and forgotten even for a moment will suffocate something that could have come back far stronger on its own had we let it.
“I’ve never seen myself as a particularly zen runner who has to get out there every day just to operate normally,” Tyler says. ” I love certain things about running competitively: Sunday long runs at 8000 feet in Rollinsville with twenty dudes from Boulder, the feeling after you crush a workout and are driving to brunch, knowing you are capable of things you could never do before. I also really like regular people things like refined carbohydrates and greasy meats, drinking more than one or two beers and staying out way too late. I sometimes feel like the focus that competitive running requires is so exhausting and happy hour sounds so much nicer to me than my PM double.”
Still working full-time and now a USATF National Championships Qualifier in the 10,000 meters with a handful of impressive performances on the road to boot, Tyler holds strong to the mental and financial benefits of having another job—something that, at this point in a running career, is often abandoned:
“I have abandoned the idea of being a full-time professional runner who just works enough to scrape by,” Tyler says. “I do not think that lifestyle is suitable for me. I tried it in Boulder for a year and I found that I had too much time to think about my running. The stakes were too high for me. I greatly prefer the comfort of not relying on my next race performance to be able to fly home for Christmas or to put a little bit in my retirement savings account. That takes the fun out of running for me. When I’m working full-time, any good performance I have is more like icing on the cake.”
So many of us lack Tyler’s grace. Often, we glorify our passions as completing a vacancy, that there is an interwoven holism critically dependent upon our involvement and success therein and to lose this ability is to irreparably lose a part of the self. But Tyler’s narrative helps us rethink of how running can best serve us—that at its most basal essence, it is something we should do not out of fear of an alternative nothingness but because it very powerfully adds something to us. It is a liberty. It is a form of excess qualified by the ways it betters us into students of pain and growth, conscious of the infinite ways everyone on earth is trying against odds to get somewhere.
“I definitely plan on coaching in the future and I think I have what it takes to be a better coach than athlete,” he says. “I often ask myself if I’m ready to turn the page and go all-in on being the best coach I can be and helping others reach their potentials. I know that my days of being able to see where I can get as a runner are numbered. Eventually, life, or my body, or both, will get in the way. Up to this point I have always been able to convince myself that I’d like one more memory before I hang em up for good. I owe so much to Tom, Drew, Reed, Sam and Morgan for helping keep the fire burning when I figured it was out for good long ago.”
And, still, it burns, waxing and waning, never clearly pointing towards anything ahead of its present brilliance, and knowing it never needs to. Now a USATF National championships qualifier and established leader on one of the most exciting young teams in the country, Tyler gives us room to believe in a future self that may be too far away to see, allowing us agency over even the realest and most-chronic difficulties without fear of void. His is a narrative which expounds autonomy over the myth that linearity is proper for growth—a reminder that our lives are almost entirely made up of repair, defined by the choices we make in the endless reconstruction of ourselves.