Zach Panning Chipping Away Toward A Dream At The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

By Kyle Merber

January 17, 2024

When Zach Panning graduated from Grand Valley State in 2019 he had three Division II NCAA titles and personal bests of 13:37 for 5000m and 28:30 for 10,000m. With a resume like that and a proven ability to withstand Michigan’s winters, the Indiana native was a prime target to join the Hansons-Brooks ODP. Panning qualified to represent the United States at the 2023 World Championships, following his 2:09:28 PB in Chicago. In Budapest, he ran 2:11:21 for 13th place, moving through the field like a veteran.

Where in the world are you training right now?

We are in Davenport, Florida. We came down for the test event in December.

What's the initial impression, do we like what we see?

I think it's a quick course. There's like, one U-turn, but outside of that it’s really flat and there are long straightaways. From a fan's perspective, it's super viewer friendly as well.

Is it weird being there for so long leading into the race? Does that help with nerves?

It's definitely familiarizing us with the oddity of the weather – it's changing every day. Today was hot and humid and tomorrow is supposed to be 40 degrees. It opened my eyes to realizing that it could end up being a death march, but it could also end up being a nice day where we can run really, really fast. We just won’t know until maybe a day out. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I think it's more exciting. We come down here every year just to beat the winter in Detroit and get some warm weather training.

Do you have a preference? You did well in Budapest off warm weather and you're going to be more comfortable down there than those training in the snow in Flagstaff.

I think so, but I also want to run fast – I think I'm ready to run fast. I am excited to run in whatever conditions there are because it's just chasing this dream that all the guys that are stepping on the line have. Obviously I think I've proven my ability to run in the heat. And so that's definitely something that I'm holding in the back of my mind in case it is hot, but I'm going to make sure that I'm ready for a 40 degree day as well.

About that dream… you have an amazing trajectory in your career. Throughout college at Grand Valley State, you kept getting better and you made the jump to pros successfully. When did the possibility of the Olympics being an achievable dream seem real?

I would say Chicago 2022 – just running under 2:10 in my second marathon. My first one I ran 2:15 on a hotter day, but after Chicago, I was like, “not too many guys in America can do that.”

It's something I'm chasing – it won't feel real until it happens. But it's something that I've tried to grasp, because I have kind of a weird story. I weighed more in my freshman year of high school than I do now. It's been a long ride, but it's always been something in the back of my mind.

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Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

Wait, what did you weigh?

I weighed about 165 pounds and I was a bit shorter.

Were you not an athlete or were you on the football team?

I was opening up holes for the running back as a fullback and I played hockey. Running was just a way for me to get a head start on making friends.

It worked for most of us! In terms of this block, how has the training been going and is it supporting the notion that you have a real shot at this?

Yeah, it definitely has. Early on in the block things weren't coming super easy, but I think that's a good thing as mileage and the fatigue is building on your legs. The last couple of weeks things have started to come a little easier and a lot smoother. All of our builds are fairly similar, so we kind of have an idea of how fit we are. And I think we're in for a big one. So I’m hoping that it’s all systems go and we get some good weather so we can run real fast.

Talk more about that because I know there's a bit of a Hansons formula and it works well. But when comparing workouts from one block to another, let alone historically, to what others have done, is that to your benefit or is it easy to get caught up in that? How did the marathon simulator or the 2 x 6 mile go this time around?

We actually had our marathon simulator yesterday and it went really well. The goal for that is 16 miles at marathon pace and I averaged 4:47 per mile. We had some tight turns in there and practiced getting bottles down.

So far it's been good to compare, though it can be tricky at times. As you get older things change with your body, but when looking back and seeing what I've done and how it compares it echoes that story of chipping away every day and making sure that tomorrow is a little better than you today.

Because everyone always likes to know, how much mileage have you been running for this block?

We've peaked at just over 130, but we've been over 120 for six weeks. It's never big days, other than the simulator. It's a lot of very similar days lined up and stacked up against each other with the cumulative fatigue that gets us ready.

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Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

Looking at your splits from Worlds – and I remember when watching – you moved up through that field really well. You were 49th at 10K, 39th at the half, 25th at 30K, 16th at 40K and then finished 13th. Is that a standard Zach Panning way of racing?

I think I've always been pretty good at running to the beat of my own drum.

That day it was obviously hot and I made the decision early on at the first bottles up with the tornado of people to run my own race and keep it consistent. I don't think that's the Zach Panning method as much as it’s the Hanson method – to know your pace and what your body's capable of.

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Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

That was going to be my next question. Everyone is making their top three picks right now and it's good fun for the fans to make predictions. It feels like you're being undervalued and the oddsmakers are sleeping on Zach Panning. I was going to ask, how do you feel about that? But it sounds like you're completely okay with that.

It's also the fact that I've only run three marathons, so I'm pretty new to this and have a lot to learn. I'm still a young marathoner and this being my first Trials, some other guys have more experience. That’s why we ran the race at Worlds – to gain that sort of championship experience.

You have teammates that have run in numerous Olympic Trials – who has the most on the team, Dot? What is the best advice that you've received from them?

Yea, this will be Dot’s fifth at 47 years old. [Editor’s Note: Dorothy McMahan]

It’s really just been running your own race. Our guys team is pretty young, so I think the seasoned veteran on the guys team is Wilkerson Given, and he said to make sure that you're aware of the tornado of bodies that the Trials is and to run your own race. Stay safe and in control to be ready when the time comes.

I think all of our guys and girls are super fit right now so it'll be an exciting day for the Hansons squad.

My final question that I always enjoy asking professional runners: Why should fans root for you? There's a lot of athletes lining up. Why should they back you out there?

Well, I'm a huge basketball fan. I think I'm kind of that small market team that doesn’t get LeBon James or the star free agents. It's exciting to cheer for those underdogs and those people who might be overlooked – I think that's exciting. And it's fun to come from nothing, have a dream, and then slowly chip away at it. And having those dreams become reality is just a cool story. That’s the biggest reason.

You are the Indiana Pacers of running. Thanks for your time Zach!

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.