Going Long: An Interview with Noah Droddy

Droddy, unhinged. Photo: instagram.com/noah_droddy/

Noah Droddy got a lot of attention at last summer’s Olympic Trials, but it wasn’t for his performance. Droddy, with his long locks, Prefontaine-esque mustache, tinted sunglasses and backwards hat, stood out amongst his competitors and instantly won over fans and media with his hippie-like look, despite finishing in dead last.

The 26-year-old former All-American at Division III Depauw University has bounced back in a big way since, however, turning heads with a flurry of fast times and top placings in recent months. He was runner-up at last fall’s U.S. 10-mile championships, clocked a 63:22 half marathon earlier this year in Houston and, most recently, put up a 94-second personal best at the New York City Half Marathon on March 19, finishing seventh in 61:48.

I caught up with the Boulder-based Droddy recently to talk about his progression as an athlete, not taking himself too seriously, what’s changed for him since his race in New York, how he bounced back from the disappointment of last summer’s Olympic Trials, making himself relatable to the average runner, and more.

Let’s start right from the top. In your own words, who is Noah Droddy?

Oh God. I was just watching an episode of Mad Men, and Don Draper answered that question. Who is Noah Droddy? What do people usually say to that question? I would say for most intents and purposes I’m a fairly average 20-something who just happens to have more than a casual interest in running, I guess. I like to consider myself pretty well-rounded even outside the sphere of running. I’ve got a lot interests related to music and art and reading and all kinds of stuff. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I also like trying to get good at running so that’s a big part of it too.

How do you straddle that line between not taking yourself too seriously but taking yourself seriously enough to compete at an elite level?

I think a lot of it is just compartmentalizing different aspects of my life. I know the mornings are for training, so the four days a week that we meet for practice from 7 AM to noon I am just very specifically a runner. All my energies are going towards that. Then, when I come home, I can kind of forget about it. I usually tell people that I have two days: I have my morning where I train, then I come home and take a quick nap, and then I wake up and go to work or whatever and have a pretty normal rest of my day. In terms of my identity as a runner, I really only think of myself as an elite runner for about half the day.

That doesn’t mean I’m not living a conducive lifestyle all day, but I just try not to focus on it too much because I think you can drive yourself crazy if you’re just always thinking about your running.

How much of that is out of necessity — that is, having to work so you can support yourself — and how much of it, even though you are seeing more success now in running, is important for just keeping an overall healthy balance between running and the rest of your life?

Yeah. Just strictly out of financial necessity, that’s where the jobs come in. I have had a couple lucrative days running the last year, but for the most part what pays my bills and buys groceries is my work at Fleet Feet in Boulder, and then I also work at a gym. There is that aspect of necessity there, but also I’m just not the kind of runner who functions super well when I’m constantly dwelling on running. I put a lot of emotional energy into my races and training when I need to, so when I don’t necessarily need to I think it’s way healthier for me to be able to step back. After big races, I usually just drop out of running completely. I stop reading the news. I’m still jogging, but I like to go on little trips or just get out of town for a while and mentally recharge. That’s super important, because I feel like I can get burned out a quickly if I’m putting all my mental energy into a race or a series of workouts.

Even if I am lucky enough to land some kind of big sponsorship, I’ll keep working. I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who’s going to function well with a 24-hour focus exclusively on running. It’s definitely helpful for me to have outlets outside of it.

You are still pretty young as far as distance runners go, but do you think if you’re able to do that and keep progressing that you can keep at this for a while?

Yeah. I hope so. That definitely keeps it fresher day to day. Even in terms of looking toward the next race, I try to approach each new cycle in a fresh mindset and get ready to go after again.

That said, I compare myself to a lot of runners I’m competing against now who’ve been in high-level training systems for over a decade now. I feel like I’ve really only been in a high-level, professional-style training system for not even quite two years now. Even in college, it was pretty relaxed, low mileage. I took running seriously but it wasn’t everything. I feel like just in terms of the time on my legs and just the mental energy I’ve put into it, I can stretch this out for a while. At least as long as it’s still fun. That’s kind of the goal.

All hail The Droddy. Photo: instagram.com/noah_droddy

You’ve seen quite a bit of success and improvement since you joined Richard Hansen and his Roots Running Project about two years ago. Have you discussed the trajectory of your career and how things might progress in the next, let’s say two or three years leading up to the 2020 Olympic cycle and even beyond that?

Honestly, I don’t think we really talk about it very much, and I think that’s the approach I like to have is just dealing with each individual day at a time. I think if you talk to Richie he definitely has the longer term plan in his head. I know he’s even got a rough draft of every race I’m going to do leading up to the Olympic Marathon Trials next time around. That’s one reason I think he and I work so well together. I really prefer to deal with the day to day: I do a workout, I put it behind me, I try to forget about it whether it was good or bad, and then I just move onto the next day. I’m not really thinking ahead too often, but he is always thinking ahead.

Richie knows the trajectory of my career better than I do, and I trust him enough to follow that blindly. I think that Richie and I are alike in many ways, but we’re also very different in kind of complementary ways. I think that’s one of those ways. I can just trust the trajectory of my career to him, and that’s just something that I don’t have to worry about.

We’ve obviously had some pretty big jumps that we couldn’t have anticipated when I first moved out here, which has redefined what the objectives are for the next couple years. Every time I have a big race, it’s just like, “OK, maybe I’m a little bit better than we thought I was so maybe we need to aim a little bit higher.” For the most part, I leave the goal setting and the race schedule and stuff to him. Every now and then I’ll chime in and just say, “Hey, I really want to do …” Like BolderBoulder this year. Running BolderBoulder’s really important to me because it’s a local race in the community. He was a little bit hesitant because it didn’t quite fit in [with the plan]. That’s one example of me having a little input into the schedule. For the most part, I just leave it in his hands and trust him to do the best thing for me as an athlete.

Droddy with his coach, Richard Hansen. Photo: instagram.com/noah_droddy

Building off of that, have any of your recent race results, particularly your sub-62 half at New York City, been a surprise to you or Richie at this point? Or did you go into these last couple races feeling pretty confident that you were ready or capable of those kinds of performances?

I guess I can kind of answer that question in two ways. One, it’s totally shocking thinking personally of where I came from. If we would’ve talked a couple years ago and I saw that time on paper, there was nothing telling me that in a couple years I had that kind of performance in me. But given the context of the last two years I’ve had, it made sense. The training pointed to it. We thought I could run 4:45 pace for the half. I think I showed that in Houston. Honestly, New York was awesome, but it wasn’t a huge surprise because I did run 63:20 in Houston. We thought just given the conditions of the day that the time [in Houston] was worth about a minute faster.

Let’s say that I ran 62:20 in Houston, which I think that performance was worth, another 30-second jump is big, but it’s not as crazy as 90 seconds. My training between Houston and New York was great. I was definitely in better shape, and we knew that given better conditions around 62 minutes was possible. Then it’s always a really pleasant relief when you can actually put on paper what you thought was possible, and that doesn’t always happen. We were very thankful for it, but it wasn’t a total shock.

What’s changed for you, if anything, since running 61:48 in New York?

Nothing really. As far as my day-to-day life, really nothing at all has changed. We’re still holding out to see if it opens up doors in terms of sponsorship and going to see if that makes a dent in making the sport a little more financially viable. In terms of just how I carry myself or how we structure the training, nothing has changed. I’ve had a couple other breakout races, and I think we’ve learned that we don’t really need to change anything. We just need to continue doing what we’re supposed to do. One of my training philosophies is always just trying to forget performances, whether they be good or bad, as quickly as I can so you can just enter the next one fresh.

I don’t want to spend the next three, four years of my career just walking around telling people how I ran 61 minutes in New York. I’m looking forward to the next thing. I think that’s the only way to really be successful in this sport — be proud of your achievements, but say, “That was one day. Let’s do it a couple more times and get a little faster.”

I was still two minutes behind the win. It’s not like I set the world on fire. I still recognize that there’s some ground to make up there. It made me more excited just to be like, “OK. Now I am a little more respected in the community. Now, can I live up to that level of expectation, like continue to get better from there?” I guess that’s what’s changed.

I want to pull on one of those threads a bit. How hard is it for someone in your shoes — an unheralded D3 runner who has shown steady improvement since graduating college — to really make a viable go of it in this sport from a financial standpoint? And how about from putting the right support system and resources in place?

Financially, it’s difficult, but at the same time I’ve never made a lot of money. It’s not like I sacrificed some 100K-a-year job to move out here and pursue distance running. Really, my lifestyle hasn’t really changed at all. Making a lot of money has never really been a main priority of mine, so now that I’m still not making a lot of money, it’s kind of business as usual from that standpoint. As long as I can pay my rent and buy groceries, I’m pretty satisfied financially.

In terms of just my day-to-day support system, I feel like I have lucked into the greatest support system that I could’ve ever hoped for with Richie providing a pretty comprehensive training and healthcare program. Since I moved out here two Novembers ago, the group has grown from three people to 10 people. Just in terms of showing up to practice and having a group of like-minded, dedicated athletes, that’s huge for me. Even if I’m doing a lot of my workouts alone, just feeling their presence there and just knowing you’re part of something is awesome. That’s what I missed about college.

Then, I work at Fleet Feet with Lee Troop, who think you probably know. He’s been great for me. Definitely allows me to schedule work in a way that complements my running and is really accommodating to taking time off for races. Really, every presence in my life feels like they’re on board. That makes it so easy. My parents are supportive. My friends back home are supportive. There’s nothing I would change about it. It’s been easy.

Let’s rewind a little bit to last summer’s Olympic Trials 10K. That was an interesting moment for you. You didn’t have the greatest race.

No. I had a horrible race.

But at the same time, that’s when you first got a spotlight shined on you. Everyone was like, “Who is this interesting looking guy standing on the starting line? He’s got long hair and a mustache and sunglasses. He looks like he belongs in a rock band.” Reflect back on that race and that experience a little bit. What was that like for you? What was going through your head after the trials after having such a disappointing race? What were you thinking in terms of your career at the point?

That was kind of a slow process. That one took a little while to get over. Just like the huge high of making it and being involved in a meet like that to the tremendous low of feeling like you just totally blew an opportunity. The day after, I went back to Hayward super early in the day and just found a spot in the stands. I was pretty much the only one in there, and I just really made an effort to calm myself and get my mind in a place to recognize the Trials were just a step to where I was hoping to go. It wasn’t really the end game. It was really a beginning to something. I tried to put myself in that frame of mind as early as I possibly could after the race. The very next day I was trying to focus on that.

The media and social media attention that came after it made it a little bit harder to move on from the race itself because I felt like I was trapped in that moment a little bit more than I would’ve been if that wouldn’t have happened. That’s all anyone wanted to talk about was that race, which people thought it was cool or whatever, but for me it was kind of devastating. I felt like no one was really understanding that side of it for me. That’s something Richie and I learned afterward, that it’s really best for me to just totally disconnect after races. That’s the way to get my head back on right. I felt like I took two or three weeks after that, but I was still caught up in the moment of the Olympic Trials with all of the attention that was going on that by the time I was back running, I hadn’t even had a mental break from it. I was still dealing with that.

It also served as motivation. I think going into the 10-mile championships, I was just like, “OK, no matter what happened at the Trials, I still ran 28:22 before that. That’s a legit time, so I need to go back to being the runner that ran 28:22, not the runner that finished last at the Olympic Trials.” I really looked at the 10-mile race as a shot at redemption. Being like, “OK guys, that 28:22 was not a fluke. I belong. I think I belong at the front of these races competing with these guys.” I would say I didn’t fully put that whole process behind me until I finished second at the 10-mile Championships. Then I was like, “OK, I am the runner that I thought I was.”

You can question it sometimes when you blow up like that, especially on an national stage. It’s like, “Am I the runner that I thought I was or was that just like a miraculous day that I ran 28:22?” I finally put that whole thing to bed at the 10-mile championships. I was like, “OK, now I know that the ability is within me, and we can move on from here.”

With your success on the roads since then, what excites you heading toward 2020? Do you think you’ll get back on the track again here in the next couple of years, or will you shift your focus to the marathon?

Yeah. One thing that excites me — and Richie is on board just from a training stimulus perspective — is just being able to be a runner that has range, and that’s the Vigil training system. I don’t know if you even want to get into that, but I think that lends itself to being able to race across a wide variety of distances because we’re doing intensity at a lot of different levels.

What excites me is being able to jump on the track like I will in a couple weeks at Mount SAC and run a fast 5K, but also the ultimate goal is the marathon. I’ll run a marathon in the fall. I feel like some runners make the mistake of being like, “I’m only 26. There’s no reason to pigeonhole myself right now.” I feel like some runners make the mistake of being like, “OK, now I’m a marathoner, so I’m just going to do like huge marathon training blocks. I’m going to do one half marathon as a tune up and then race like two or three marathons a year.” I don’t think that’s the kind of runner that we’re building me into. My last four races were half marathons, or three races or something like that. Now I’ll do a 5K. I’ll run a 10K at USAs and then after the track we’ll shift to the marathon.

That excites me, just being able to train for different events, hit different stimuli and hopefully prove myself to be a runner who can show up to any start line and compete. That’s what makes me excited more than any specific event or specific distance, just being able to be competitive anywhere.

Right on. Let’s shift gears a little bit and get away from running for a while. As I said earlier, many people look at you and think, “That guy looks like he belongs in a band.” And in fact, you used to be in a band from what I’ve read. Talk a little bit about that part of your life and what other things you’re interested and spend your time on when you’re not training or thinking about the next race.

Music in high school was essentially what running is to me now. I played in band. We recorded an album. We were playing five or six shows a month. We were definitely a working, productive band, and we did it just because we loved it. I played guitar. It was me and three of my best friends. That was everything, and I really expected my life to follow a musical trajectory. My friend Joe, who was our singer and guitar player, he passed away our junior year of high school. The band couldn’t exist without all of us, and so that ended that chapter of my life.

I still played in bands for the next couple years here and there, but it wasn’t the same anymore. It was kind of like I had started to look at that as a chapter of my life that had closed. It did, because I’ve really never played in any kind of working band since then. Even though it sounds like a long time ago now, but it doesn’t feel that long to me.

That’s what music was to me then. That influence has definitely carried over to my adult life. I still play, but everything I do now is mostly just for me. I have an acoustic guitar around, and I’ll pick that up once or twice a day. Occasionally I’ll record something on my own. Music is still definitely an emotional outlet for me. Outside of listening to it, I still try to play as much as I can. I’m also reading a lot more now that I have at some points in my past. I try to always have a book on me that I’m just trying to get through. Reading is huge. I really love non-fiction essays and stuff like that, so I subscribe to a couple literary magazines that I read. I feel like that just gives you such a bigger picture of the human experience. I’m not sitting around just thinking about my own fucking running all the time, which it seems like no one really cares about. I can transcend that a little bit.

Then I just try to maintain a fairly active social life and head out with my friends, grab drinks a couple of times a week, and try not to treat myself as a robot all the time. Running is a sport where we’re really only training for a couple hours a day. There’s so much time in the day to do other things, that if you’re just sitting around thinking about your running all the time, I think you’re probably just putting to much emotional energy into it. It’s not like we’re doing triathlons where you have to be out there eight hours a day. We can train and then move on with our life, which is kind of what I prefer to do.

Sort of building off that, how important do you think it is for more elite runners to embrace that kind of approach? I think one of the reasons people are interested in you is that you seem relatable to a lot of average runners and fans, whereas some other athletes do not. What do you think it would do for the sport if more athletes opened up a bit more to fans?

You mean like if Galen Rupp drank a beer in public? First of all, I’ll say that different things work for different people. For me, I’ve found that a lifestyle where I’m not totally 100 percent engaged in my running 24 hours a day is better because it just keeps me mentally more into the time that I am engaged in my running. That said, for another runner, maybe they need to live a lifestyle where they seclude themselves and are focused 100 percent on their training and they have success with that. I don’t want to say that the way I do things is the way that every runner should do things.

From the perspective of making the sport more popular and attracting fans to it, I don’t think people are ever going to be a fan of the sport if runners don’t do anything that’s relatable and we really don’t get to know [runners] as people. We just know them as runners. Like I said, running takes up such a small percentage of my time really. We all have lives outside of running. I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting to that.

It works for me. Other people may find that being a little more introverted all the time and focused is better for them. As athletes we have to pursue the lifestyle which makes us better athletes. I think just living a more casual, normal lifestyle has worked for me so far.

Last part: I’m gonna throw some random rapid-fire questions your way. You game?

Yeah.

Best beer you’ve drank recently?

I’ve been pretty into the stout and porter scene over the winter. I just feel like those are better winter beers. Avery Brewery in town, they have a really good coconut stout which I’ve been drinking quite a bit of. I can’t remember the name of it. That’s been great. That’s probably been the biggest one of my radar recently.

Best thing you’ve read recently?

I subscribe to this magazine called The Sun that I love a lot. Mostly non-fiction personal essays and some poetry. There’s always some beautiful stuff in that. The book that I’m reading right now is by Dave Eggers. It’s called, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? I’m nearing the end of that one, and that’s been a pretty insightful read as well. I guess that’s what I’m reading now.

Hardest workout you’ve done recently?

God. Coming off New York they’ve all been fucking brutal. It’s taken my body a little bit to bounce back, but I’m finally feeling good. I did eight by a K yesterday, getting down into that 5K race pace. That’s kind of a shock to the system when you’ve been training for the half marathon where the paces are fast, but really your race pace is 4:40–4:45. I can tempo at that pace. That’s fairly manageable. Getting to that 4:20 range of necessary track 5K speed, that’s definitely been a little bit of a shock to the system.

It stings a little bit.

Definitely stings a little bit. That said, we try to touch on all those gears year round, so I do less of it in a half-marathon training block, but I’m still doing some of it. It hasn’t been totally horrible, but just getting used to the pace of a race like that where you get out and it’s urgency from the very beginning because it’s only three miles as opposed to 13. I’m wrapping my head around that again.

You’re a big fan of the sport. What’s the most interesting thing happening in competitive running right now?

The most interesting thing happening in competitive running right now? It’s definitely not that 2-hour project. I hate that. I don’t know. I think there’s just a lot of young guys coming up right now and that’s really fun to watch. I’m seeing a lot more competitive front-running. That’s starting to make a little bit of a resurgence on the scene. That’s fun. I’ve just been getting way more into the road side of things and keeping track of different athletes who are running well consistently. That’s really cool.

We’re obviously coming up to the Boston Marathon. I think that’s going to be huge. There’s a really good American contingent this year. I’m super hopeful that some of these young Americans moving up to the marathon start running well. I think that’s really the big question mark in American distance running right now, because … Meb’s kind of on his way out. You can never discount Meb, but Meb’s kind of on his way out. We have Galen Rupp moving up, Jared Ward running consistently well, but there’s still a gap there for a few more young Americans. That’s what’s really exciting to me. Who are the next marathoners that are going to emerge on the men’s side? When’s the last time an American ran under 2:09? It just doesn’t happen very often. That excites me as the shift, the mental focus of distance running right now, is starting to move toward the marathon, especially coming off of a trials year. It’ll just be interesting to see who emerges.

What’s something interesting that most people don’t know about you?

Eh, I don’t even know what people know about me anymore. Hmmm, I don’t know if I have a great answer to that. I guess maybe one interesting fact that I’ve mentioned before but never really gone into a lot of detail on is that I hiked the John Muir trail in California, which is a long haul hiking trail through the Sierras. That was kind of the hinge where I decided to like, “OK, now I need to make a big change in my life.” That was the first step in really moving out here to pursue distance running even though that trip really had nothing to do with running. I backpacked for about a month, just with a couple friends in total technology isolation, which was amazing. The whole trip took six or seven weeks just between driving time and everything. Maybe that’s a cool fact that not everyone really knows.

Droddy, chillin’ out, maxin’ relaxin’ all cool. Photo: instagram.com/noah_droddy

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