June 2010 Reader Athlete – Joshua Brown

Sky Barsch Gleiner
Posted June 7th, 2010

Age: 42
Residence: Burlington
Family: Wife, Zoe Richards; three children, Silas, 8; Rosalie, 5; Miranda, 7 months
Occupation: Science writer for the University of Vermont
Primary sport: Running and telemark skiing
VS: Have you always been a runner?
JB: I ran track and cross-country in high school and then cross-country at Brown University in the 1980s. But Division 1 was ferocious: I made the Empire State Games and was running under 27 minutes for 5 miles cross-country—but that was strictly junior varsity at Brown. Our number-two runner, Greg Whiteley, went on to set a U.S. 5K record on the road after he graduated. I got burned out trying to take classes and run 70 miles a week. So I took some time off from school and spent a few months hiking on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Virginia.
VS: Did you keep running?
JB: I decided not to rejoin the cross-country team, but I didn’t lose interest in running. I trained on my own and ran the New York City Marathon as a bandit in 1989. I was in great shape—but didn’t know anything about marathon training so my longest run was about 13 miles. I was on 2:30 pace heading into Manhattan, but then the bear ate me in Central Park and I limped home in 2:52. My housemates and I had driven down to NYC from Providence in a two-door Datsun, and immediately after the race we had to get back to school. So I squeezed into the back of the car with my silver blanket still on, knees jammed against the back of the seat. By the time we got home I was so stiff that I had to stay in my apartment for two days.
VS: You haven’t run a marathon since 2005. Why the break?
JB: The break—it’s not really so much intentional; I never said, “I’m going to stop running marathons.” I got busy, we had one kid and then we had two kids. And I had an injury in 2006-07, and I had to cut back on my miles a lot. I started to run shorter stuff, and that became kind of fun. And then it just seemed like I was having more success doing 5Ks than running marathons.
VS: What was the injury?
JB: It was my hamstring, a piriformis thing, and I couldn’t get rid of it. It was getting so bad I couldn’t run at all. In an act of desperation, after seeing a ton of physical therapists and chiropractors, I thought, I’m going to go to some exercise classes at the YMCA. And that’s what got me back on the road—cross-training and core training. I think for a lot of older runners, the formula that worked when we were 19 or 29 just doesn’t work when we’re older. The core muscles start to get weak. The little imbalances that you could deal with start to get the better of you. Cross-training and getting good quality running in as opposed to packing on the miles is really important.
There’s no simple formula. That’s what I get struck with as I’m getting older. My running buddy, Norm Larson, runs 70, 80, 90 miles a week. If I was running 70 miles a week, I’d be in the hospital.
VS: Now you’re doing a lot of shorter races—what’s the draw?
JB: There are two cultures of running: long distance running and track and field. Track and field is kind of neat, it’s sort of the NASCAR of running. It’s more of a spectator sport; it tends to be more about performance. And it’s younger people. The long distance running boom includes everybody. Track and field is not that way, it’s mostly 14- to 27-year-olds. But then there is kind of a subculture of the older guys who have been hanging on. For me, it’s different, I’ve come back to the short stuff after not doing any of that since high school. It has been cool to discover older guys are doing sprints, doing the 800-meter or the mile. The mindset is really different for shorter races, the training is really different; it’s much more about power. Sometimes I’ll run just 20 miles a week, but they are powerful and real quality miles.
VS: Out of all your running accomplishments, which are you most proud of?
JB: In recent years, running the Boston Indoor Games. This winter and winter of 2009, I ran the mile. It was a real hoot because it’s a big professional running race. There are runners from Ethiopia and Australia. Then it’s kind of a dog and pony show before the Pros go off when the Masters run. I was able to win the Master’s mile, and there were several thousand people there, and ESPN television. It was really neat. This year I finished eighth out of 16. I was pleased with that, too. You learn about strategy—it’s not just running as fast as you can—and I got boxed in a couple times.
It’s kind of a complicated equation, running what one is capable of running, and going out way too fast is suicidal, it doesn’t work. You really need to pay attention to the competition.
VS: Why do you think running has always been important in your life?
JB: The answer to that for me has changed over time. I think the answer I give now is deeper and truer. I think we were born to run. I think that human beings, throughout evolutionary history, are all about going the distance. On another level, it’s got great camaraderie. It’s a great community of people who like to run. It’s cheap therapy. This morning I went out and ran five or six miles. I come home, and I think to myself, “Life is good.”
VS: Does your wife like to run, too?
JB: She runs recreationally. She’s very supportive of my running, she knows it’s really good for me. If we are going to talk about something, she’ll say, “Go out and run first, and then we’ll talk.”
VS: What do you enjoy in the winter?
JB: Next winter I’m all about skiing. My two older kids like skiing, and I hope they’ll catch the backcountry telemark bug! It’s the best reason to live in Vermont: to swish down through the trees on the side of Camel’s Hump on a fine morning makes me believe in a loving God.
VS: What’s your job like?
JB: I write for UVM’s alumni magazine Vermont Quarterly. We put out a weekly online publication that goes out to staff and faculty, and I do some media relations. I talk to reporters and editors. I kind of cover everything from astronomy to zoology.
VS: Which of the sciences are in the spotlight these days?
JB: What’s been getting a lot of attention is this great complex systems group at UVM that has been doing a lot of interesting stuff. They look at how the electric grid works, or how we can do better hurricane forecasting.
VS: What do you enjoy about your work?
JB: I love to write. I started at UVM in February, 2006, and before that I was a freelancer for a while. I wrote for conservation magazines in Vermont and elsewhere. Before I was freelancing, I was a staff writer and editor at Wild Earth in Richmond. A lot of what drives me is I’m really interested in conservation biology, really interested in natural systems and protecting natural areas. Writing is a vehicle to supporting those goals.