Meet New MTA Coach Steve Waldon

The marathoner and ultra runner brings a passion for life-long running to the Marathon Training Academy community.

By Henry Howard

The closest Steve Waldon got to sweating as an athlete growing up was playing billiards for money.

In his late 20s, Waldon knew he needed a change and found the joy and camaraderie of running. Starting out with 5Ks, he has gone on to finish 20 marathons and 15 ultras, including a 100K in the Bavarian Alps and two 155-mile stage races (one in Chile and the other in Iceland).

Now, he brings his passion for life-long running as the newest coach for Marathon Training Academy.

An ‘incredible’ 155-mile race

Atacama Crossing

Waldon’s running journey began because he simply “wanted to do things” but wasn’t in shape. He started running, slowly, but was making friends in his New York City club, Front Runners.

“I started with relatively short distances — 5Ks, 4-milers — and I was hooked,” he said. “I became close friends with someone who had run the Marathon des Sables twice (placing quite highly). He was considering signing up for the Atacama Crossing, a six-stage, 155-mile, self-supported race across Chile’s high-altitude Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world.”

His friend persuaded Waldon to join him at the Atacama. There was one issue, however.

“I had never even run a marathon before!” Waldon said. “I sort of put the cart before the horse on that one, so to prepare for the Atacama Crossing I began running road marathons, trail marathons and trail ultras.”

Waldon completed some unique training to prepare for his stage race. “Training involved lots and lots of miles, naturally,” he recalled. “I worked in Manhattan and lived in Brooklyn at the time, so commuting on foot became the norm (about 11 miles each way). The race itself involves carrying all your supplies the entire length of the race — food, clothes, first aid, sleeping bag, etc. so to prepare my body I ran literally all over NYC with a weighted backpack.”

He would load up his backpack with a towel for padding, Gatorade for afterward, as well as a change of clothes. “I’d unpack the bag and had everything I needed to shower, change, and be presentable,” said Waldon, who at the time worked for a fair trade company that imported handmade goods from Rwanda. “I even ran the Miami Marathon in 2012 with a fully loaded backpack to simulate hot conditions with a weighted pack.”

He and his friend, Mike Sanderson, ran the entire 155-mile race together.

“The race itself was incredible,” he said, recommending to search Google for “Atacama Desert images” to see why it’s perfect for adventure racing.

“It’s got the Andes rising high in the east, amazing lunar-like landscapes, sand dunes, salt formations, and not a sign of civilization! Mike ran with me every step of the way and after seven days of running we crossed the finish together. I felt incredibly proud and grateful that my friend had talked me into the race and then ran with me all six stages. I also felt really gross because we had spent seven days running 155 miles in the desert without a shower.”

A natural progression into coaching

As Waldon became proficient in running, he had the same questions a lot of runners do: How do I get faster? How do I train for longer distances?

“I tend to throw myself pretty hard into anything I’m doing,” he said. “I’m analytical by nature, and I started digging for answers and information. As my running distances were getting longer and my times faster, I had others asking me about how to train, especially for ultra marathons. I really enjoy helping others achieve their goals so I decided to go through the formal process of getting certified through the RRCA. I was already very familiar with Jack Daniels as a coach, so taking the class was also a good refresher on his coaching principles.”

But Waldon understands that all runners are different, and should receive individualized coaching.

“If training were simple, we could all just download the same training plan,” he said. “But runners have their own unique talents and challenges. A good coach will understand how to tailor a plan to a person. That said, there are some basics that I believe are universal. I think every runner from 800 meters to the marathon will achieve the most success with a strong aerobic base. In this respect my beliefs are very Lydiard-esque.”

Waldon focuses on training runners’ systems, which leads to better and faster running.

“Runners are so focused on speed, thinking that faster running will make them faster runners,” he said. “But I think speed is a result more than it is a process or a mechanism. When people become ‘good’ runners, their entire physiology changes. Their bodies use energy differently. Their hearts pump differently. Blood volume increases. New capillaries develop. The structure of cells change! All these adaptations make people better, faster, longer runners and it’s my core emphasis when I design training plans.”

Working with the MTA community

As a coach, his philosophy lines up with that of Marathon Training Academy coaches, including Angie Spencer. “I want to spread the gospel of running in a way that helps people stay healthy (injury-free) and crush their goals!” Waldon said. “I feel lucky that running has allowed me to do some really cool stuff and see some incredible things. I want others to have that same opportunity!”

Waldon heard that Marathon Training Academy was looking for coaches. When he visited the website, he quickly learned that it wasn’t just a website — it was a community with a lot of resources.

“In addition to the coaching services MTA provides, there was an active podcast, Facebook pages, resources for runners, and a real sense of engagement. I started listening to the podcasts and knew I wanted to be a part of it all!”

As a trained coach, Waldon understands how to weed through all the various information that circulates through today’s electronic and print media.

“I think there is so much information (and misinformation!) out there,” he said. “Magazines and websites have to focus on selling issues and advertising so they promise the world and they try to package it neatly. Many runners, regardless of skill level, may not know how to evaluate the quality of what’s essentially being sold to them. In two minutes you can read that interval training is the only way to go, and minutes later read an article espousing the benefits of all aerobic, easy runs. How do you know which to follow?” 

MTA coaches like Spencer and Waldon will separate the quick-fix hype from realistic training plans that work for the individuals.

“A good coach will be able to understand how to adapt it to the individual,” he said. “There was a study published late last year (“Inter-Individual Variability in the Adaptive Responses to Endurance and Sprint Interval Training: A Randomized Crossover Study”) that observed different people responding differently to the same types of workouts. Coaches will be able to respond a lot more quickly and effectively to your progress (or lack thereof!).” 

Additionally, runners considering using a coach should consider how a coach will hold them accountable. “Runners are more motivated when they know someone is paying attention, and when they know that the path they’re on is getting them somewhere,” Waldon said. “If I have faith that I’m going to get a PR for my next race, I’ll be extra motivated to stick to the planned workout or easy run, even if I don’t want to.”

Who can finish an ultra? You can.

While MTA prides itself on helping runners cross the marathon finish line for the first time, Waldon believes that anyone ambulatory can become an ultra finisher. “The barrier to finishing an ultra versus shorter distances is largely mental,” he said. 

For those interested in the longer distance but unsure of what it would take, Waldon suggested trying a half marathon or marathon on trails.

“Trails will make it will take much longer than normal, and will give you a sense of whether you like it,” he said. “Some people hate it. My friend Dan, a talented 2:50 marathoner, will probably never make the jump to ultras not because of the distance but because he is not a fan of trails. However if you’re a bit like me and know it’s for you, I would say you should jump right into the 50-mile distance. A 50K is a good stepping stone to longer distance, but it’s only about 5 miles longer than a marathon, so personally I tend to skip over the 50Ks.”

Waldon recommends increase your mileage and doing a lot of strength exercises. “You’ll need bulletproof quads, for one,” he said. “You’re going to use your legs differently going up and down steep climbs, so those core exercises will be crucial! Squats, lunges, planks, single-leg deadlifts will also pay dividends once you pass the marathon mark.”

But it’s not just preparing one’s body for an ultra.

“Once you prepare your body, you prepare your mind,” he recommended. “Make sure you know the course profile. Not all trails are created equal! My friend Mikey jumped into his first 50-miler, and little did he know that it was considered one of the toughest trails in the Northeast. Despite having run six Boston Marathons, Mikey took over 14 hours (missing the official course time limit). When he crossed the finish line, most of the food/beer was gone and his friends had been waiting for hours for him so they threw him in the car to get home. Not exactly the ideal recovery scenario after a 50-miler!”

Living glory days . . .

Waldon has been an official 3:30 pacer for the New York City Marathon since 2013. “It’s different from coaching because I don’t play any part of their training or buildup, but similar in that I enjoy helping people achieve their goals,” he said. “Getting people across that finish line in a time they’re proud is such a great feeling.”

While Waldon will be focusing on his athletes’ goals, he still has some things he would like to accomplish.
Most important on his bucket list: “To keep running!”

“I have friends still doing marathons and BQing in their 70s and I would like to do the same,” he said.

“I want to keep exploring new trails, mountain ranges, countries, etc. when I’m an old white-haired man, not just talking about my glory days but still living them! I have some smaller, more tangible goals too. I’d like to run all six World Marathon Majors under 3:00, start doing 100-milers, and maybe do an Ironman for fun.”

Speed drill

Name: Steve Waldon
Hometown: Orange, Calif.
Number of years running: 8 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 80 plus miles when training, 60 miles otherwise
Point of pride: Maintaining a relatively injury-free running career, while still achieving bigger and bigger goals every year. 
Favorite race distance: This is a toss-up. I like the marathon distance a lot because it’s short enough that it’s still fast — my marathon pace is around 6:35 per mile, which is MUCH faster than a typical easy or long run pace (closer to 8:00). And who doesn’t like running fast, right? The feeling in a marathon of a fast final 10 kilometers is exhilarating, especially when passing lots of people suffering (is that sadistic to say?). 
However I also like the 50-mile distance because it’s close to my typical easy pace so I’m never really nervous before the race; it’s a very calming distance. When I run a 50-miler on trails, I feel like I’m exploring some really cool places: mountain ranges, deserts, sleepy back roads, river towpaths that stretch on forever. I love getting to the top of a peak and seeing where I’ve come from and where I’m going. It’s such an adventure, especially for someone who lives in Manhattan!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: This is sort of a new thing, but a bagel and cream cheese are my go-to food options before a race. Coffee is a must, although I have to cut myself off within 90 minutes of a road marathon or else I’ll be hopping in the port-a-loo in the first 5K. For trails it’s not such a problem since there are plenty of bushes to jump behind!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I’ve never run with music. I like to be in the moment when I run. This sounds boring/crazy but I tune out a lot of sights and sounds when I run. I think about my act of running: my cadence, form, breathing, etc.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “You’ve got only one job to do today.” When I feel nervous on race day morning, I tell myself that I’ve put in all the training, and all I have to do is one very simple job, one singular task: I have to run a set distance [that I’ve trained for] at a set pace [that I’ve trained at]. Simple, right? I don’t have to look good, or feel good, or feel intimidated. I just have to execute!

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