Former smoker/couch potato has turned his life around, chasing ultras and motivating others. This fall, he plans to run the Ultra Race of Champions again.
By Henry Howard
Ken Michal had been a chain-smoking couch potato for most of his adult life. After he quit his 2.5-pack a day habit, he put on a lot of weight.
“When I quit, I ate whatever I wanted as long as I wasn’t smoking,” Michael says. “When it came time to drop the weight, I found running. It was really hard at first but I found that I had a gift for long and slow!”
Now Michal pours his contagious enthusiasm into running — competing in endurance events, coaching other athletes and motivating listeners on his Running Stupid podcast.
‘A voyage of self-discovery’
Among Michal’s ultra conquests is the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC), which is held in the Auburn (Calif.) State Recreation Area. He completed the 100K course last year and is aiming to do so again this fall. Don’t let the name fool you: UROC caters to both elite performers and regular ultra runners.
The September 24 event offers 100K, 50K and 25K options. If you would like to rub shoulders, swap war stories and commiserate with some top ultra marathoners — as well as Michal and me — use the discount code “MTA_uroc_$_2016” to get 20 percent off your race entry at ultrasignup.
I interviewed Michal about his experience with ultras, the UROC race and more. Here are the excerpts:
Q and A with Ken Michal
Question: How did you progress from those early days? Tell me about how and why you transitioned to ultra distances? Also, how many ultras have you finished to date?
In the beginning, I could only run a block at a time! I would be totally winded and have to take a five-minute break! Over time, I’ve built up to 200 miles! I’m planning on going much further at the Born to Run four-day in May! I’ve found that while I’m not a fast runner, I really do enjoy pushing myself for a long time! It really is a voyage of self-discovery for me! I was really lucky to discover something I love so much! It’s amazing to see what my body will do when I put my mind to it! UltraSignup says I’ve run 68 ultras so far! There’s a few missing but that seems like a good number!
Question: You ran UROC last year. What did you think of the Auburn course?
I ran the 100K at UROC last year. I LOVED the course! It had a little bit of everything! There were some awesome, tough climbs along with some long and grinding descents! It was varied enough to keep things really exciting! I really enjoyed transitioning between wide open fire road to tight and twisting single track! Having the fast loops in Cool on the back end made it A LOT of fun! The course was super well supported too! I usually try to be self supported as much as possible (if it’s essential to my race, I take responsibility for it!) but was floored at how well taken care of we were at UROC!
Question: What did you learn about yourself from that race? What did the course teach you?
Great question, Henry! Thanks for asking this! I fell a little behind on a section that was a little longer/harder than I had expected! I had to really crush the next couple of legs to catch up again! I had been racing a lot at that time and didn’t think I had it in me but was stoked to find that gear was still there when I needed it! There was definitely a good lesson in humility and over racing to be learned from that event. (I think I ran over 13 ultras last year!)
Question: Will you be participating in UROC this year, if so, which distance?
Definitely wouldn’t miss the UROC 100K this year! I’m excited to come back in my role as ambassador to the event! It was so great being able to partially inspire people to push themselves last year and have a front row seat to this awesome event! I love seeing so many people from the front to the back of the pack doing amazing things!
Question: What’s the race atmosphere like? What makes this race different or special than other ultras you have experienced, whether as a racer, organizer/director or volunteer?
UROC has a very high production value. Obviously, (race directors) Francesca and Gill put a lot of love and attention into this race! It really shows. I really appreciated having ice and supplies left at a few unexpected locations during the event. It made a hot day much more bearable. As I mentioned before, course support was way above and beyond my usual expectation! Definitely a difficult challenge but a great environment both for experienced racers and first-timers!
Question: Put on your coaching cap for a minute. What training recommendations would you give to runners in this year’s event — first the elites, then the middle-of-the-packers?
Hrm… Not sure the elites would benefit much from my coaching advice! ☺ Seriously, time on your feet, back-to-back long runs and a lot of hill work are the keys for anyone running UROC. Personally, I would train on the course as much as possible. If getting to Auburn isn’t an option, I suggest both hilly and flat long run days (even a combination of both)! For elite runners, I also suggest sauna training and a lot of lactate threshold work! There’s one heck of a fast field for this baby! You have to be ready to hurt for this!
Question: Talk about elevation training in preparation for UROC. What training tips would you give to flat-landers?
Hills are definitely a factor in UROC. If you can’t get to any long hills, practice climbing stairs or running up parking garages! Get creative. Hit the gym and hike on the treadmill with the grade cranked up. (I do this and I have the Marin Headlands in my backyard! It really works well.) Also, down is more of a factor than up to folks not versed in hills. While you’re at the gym on the treadmill, hit the weights for your quads! There’s a lot of quad-banging descent on the course and burning out your quads will slow you more than hiking uphill. On race day, keep your stride short and lean into the hills to avoid breaking with your quads/burning them too soon!
Question: If I am looking for a fall ultra, why should I sign up for UROC?
It’s a great event, organized by people who love what they do! Auburn is super beautiful this time of year and the course is engaging and challenging! Definitely a stellar field and awesome support/community! I’ll be there to cheer you on too!
Name: Ken Michal
Hometown: San Francisco
Number of years running: 10
Point of pride: Member of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team (as a mainlander no less!)
Favorite race distance: So far, 200 miles! Hope to have a longer, favorite distance in May!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Cinnamon and chocolate Generation UCAN mixed! Yum!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: The entire Ozzy Osbourne catalog! Fortunately still a legal performance enhancer! Hanging up my shoes the day WADA bans Ozzy…
Favorite or inspirational mantra or saying: ALL DAY!! It’s pretty much my guide to life!!
Where can other runners connect or follow you: • runningstupid.libsyn.com • www.facebook.com/RunningStupid • www.facebook.com/kenmichal