An interview with LetsRun.com cofounder Robert Johnson

By Dave Colley | 11 Minute Read

When triathlete Lars Finanger (a long-time friend of PH) heard Andy was going to be in Baltimore to meet with researchers at a leading college, he said he just had to meet Robert Johnson whilst he was in town. Robert and his identical twin brother Weldon co-founded LetsRun.com, one of the most influential (and controversial) running sites on the interweb.

The site has broken some of the biggest stories in the world of running over the years and the BroJos (as the brothers are sometimes known) are two of the most respected figures in the sport. Plus they were both elite runners in their prime, Weldon even ran a 2:18 marathon while pacing world-record holder Paula Radcliffe during the 2002 Chicago Marathon. So Andy was delighted to meet up with Robert and chew the fat with him...

 

So, Robert, 1,500m Bronze medalist Nick Willis said “LetsRun is one of the primary reasons high-quality coaching and training have improved in ­America, and it’s showing in the results. The site spreads wisdom.” How does that make you feel and what do you think it is about the site that helps athletes improve their performance?

It makes me feel great. There's no doubt that the internet has changed the world and we are part of that phenomenon. Before the web, if you were a hardcore runner, you might know a couple of men or women in your town who knew a lot about the sport, were super dedicated, etc. If you lived in a small town, good luck with that. Suddenly, with the internet, you could pick the brains of thousands...

We've always said the best part of LetsRun is our visitors. I think the key improvement came from the fact there were suddenly lots of people from the first running boom - people who had run a ton of miles in the 70s - who had a voice and could counteract that "less is more" mantra that was being spouted on the covers of Runners World and similar type magazines every month.

Yes, if you're a 35 year old busy parent with kids, it's much more effective to run two quick workouts a week, but for a budding elite, there is no replacement for running a lot. Somehow the exercise physiologists convinced everyone that mileage and tempo wasn't important for success when it really is.


What's the most important story that LetsRun has ever broken and why?

I think the two stories we're most proud of are my story on how Ryan Hall and the other Americans helped Meb Keflezighi win the 2014 Boston Marathon (American Strong: The Untold Story of American Teamwork and How Ryan Hall Helped Meb Keflezighi Win Boston) and our interview with Feyisa Lelisa at the Rio Olympics about his political protest at the end of the men's marathon (The Bravest Olympian in Rio — Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa Risks Death But Speaks Out About Killings of Oromo Protesters in Ethiopia After Earning Olympic Silver in Marathon).

I'm very proud of those stories. Now that everything seems to be streamed online - even press conferences - I sometimes wonder if there is any need to go to events and spend thousands of dollars to cover them in person. 99 times out of 100, whatever info you get everyone else will get and thus there's no real scoop. One of the biggest problems of journalism in the internet age is that even if you spend hours on an amazing piece of journalism, other entities can just retype it...

But in the Hall case, no one else had that story as no-one in the mainstream media thought to talk to the Americans who didn't run well - except for us. So we broke that. That story ended up going viral and is by far the most read story in the history of LetsRun.com.

And the Lelisa story probably wouldn't have gone worldwide if we don't ask him about the "X gesture'. The journalists in Rio didn't realize the significance of what he'd done. And the way we came up with the question shows you what LetsRun is all about...

I didn't go to Rio as my doctor told me not to go as my wife and I wanted to start a family and Zika was big then. So I was sitting at home here in Baltimore helping with the coverage. I watched the marathon and then saw on the message board one of our forum posters - probably someone with Ethiopian ties - mention what Lelisa's X meant. So, I immediately texted the guys on the ground in Rio and told them about it.

They were literally at the press conference and immediately asked him about it. The next thing you know, the story is getting major press across the globe on the Washington Post, The Guardian, NY Times, etc. And it all started on our forum. We've always said the best thing about our site is our visitors and that proved it.

(If you aren't familiar with the story, Charles Bethea described it perfect in his feature on Let's Run in Outside magazine...)


Absolutely. Ok, so, any training tips for someone trying to run a sub 2:30 marathon?

Pick your parents wisely! Ok, so that's a bit of a tongue in cheek comment, but my friend David Epstein wrote a great book, The Sports Gene, that everyone should read. By training, you can get a lot better but everyone has a genetic limit.

And stay healthy. While I say there's no replacement for mileage - the vast majority of runners would benefit by running more - I always say high mileage is just a little bit more than what you're doing. If you get injured, you're screwed. It seems to me that when you're healthy, the body wants to stay healthy but when you get injured, one injury leads to another. But it'll likely take years to get to that type of fitness, so be patient.


It's an interesting read for sure. What did a typical training week look like for you a few months out from a big race?

When I look back, I'm amazed at how routine it was for me to run 15-20 miles nearly every day.

My grandmother, who died at 99, once said to me in her mid 80s, "I can't imagine how awful it must be to wake up and realize you have to run 10+ miles every day." I told her it wasn't like that at all. Most of the running was at a relaxed pace and running was my favourite time of the day.

Now somehow I can't find the time/structure to run even 15 miles a week, or even some months. But back then I'd double probably 4 or 5 times a week. Year round there was almost always at least something at threshold/tempo pace and 1-2 days of strides to keep the turnover going.

It's all about developing a routine. When I had a big goal - like a 2:30 marathon - it was easy to train. I didn't even think about running. Running came first and the rest of the day was planned around it. I'd wake up and bang out 5-6 miles before I even showered. I remember talking to a non-running friend once and she said, "I'm so jealous. I really wish I had something I was so passionate about." That really stuck with me. I had never thought of it like that. It was just so much fun to pursue my goals...

I was a big proponent of "high-low" training. I'd run 105 miles one week, and then maybe 85 the next. That sounds like a big difference, but in reality it wasn't.

Remember, REST is key. If you're running 15 miles a day but take it easy and run less before a long run, maybe just 7 or 8 miles, and then take the day off, or run a couple of miles after your 22 miler - you've 'lost' 20+ miles from your weekly total.

It's also easy to get caught up in the numbers. I eventually started to focus on trying to have a good block of 10 days and then rest up a little for a few days. Early in my 'career', I didn't like taking days off but then learned that Paula Radcliffe took one day totally off every week, so I realised it was probably a good idea!

I think the mental break is good as well - you can have a day where you can go out the night before and then do something fun with a significant other without having to worry about your run.


What was your nutrition and hydration strategy before/during a race?

I was uptight about those issues as you train so hard for a marathon and only get a few cracks at it during your prime. I liked practicing drinking on the run.

I also tried carb depletion before doing carb-loading before my first few marathons. I definitely don't recommend that! If I remember correctly, I'd basically take no carbs for several days and then wake up on like Wednesday before a Sunday marathon and try to run a 4-mile tempo. I remember killing myself to run marathon pace and freaking out, but it was only a struggle because I had no carbs! That was difficult for me mentally.

I also remember putting glycerol in my bottles and diluting Gatorade as the more specialized drinks didn't really exist back then. I'm sure it's much more relaxing now to have a product professionally made that you can use than trying to "home-brew" your concoction in some city you've never been to before in the 24 hours before your race!

My brother and I were also big fans of pre-race caffeine.

 

Paula Radcliffe being paced by Weldon at the Chicago Marathon

We bet Weldon had some caffeine before pacing Paula Radcliffe's Chicago Marathon!

 


What's your favourite race to a) watch and b) compete in, and why?

Well, in terms of distance, I think the 800m is amazing. It almost always features a super close finish and there are so many different ways of running it and so tactics are important.

I think one of the biggest problems our sport faces is that tactics really don't matter too much. In a marathon, the fittest person is going to win almost no matter what happens. In the 800m, that's not necessarily the case.

Professional team sports benefit from the fact that randomness plays a big roll in the outcome. In American football, there are interceptions and fumbles. In soccer, there are fluke goals and balls ricocheting off of defenders/posts into goals. In running, tactics are only really key in the 800m and 1500m and there's more randomness in the results which makes things more interesting. The underdog has a chance as does the guy in last place halfway through the event.

In terms of events, nothing tops the Olympics. People wonder how we can make people care about the 'regular season' in track but I'm not sure that much can be done on that front. But that's what makes the Olympics and all of the global championships so compelling. Every other event is basically practice. Everything comes down to this one event and it's must watch drama.

I also love the big city marathons as you're focused on one race. At the Olympics, 4 years of work go into being the 800m Olympic champion, but 10 minutes after it's run there's another important final which will distract you from properly analyzing what just happened. Covering an event like that as a journalist is a nightmare as you're really covering 40 different events (men and women) at once.


You're about to become a dad, have you been asking any friends with families for tips on how to maintain a balance between work life, training and the new demands of family life?

I'm in trouble on this front as currently I'm in horrible shape! Everyone I know who's had kids has told me to get in shape ahead of time as they said I'm bound to regress!

However, one of my best friends had three kids and knows me well, gave me hope. She says having kids gives her structure and thinks it may help me get back into the sport. So, I'm thinking about it optimistically.

I did a lot of my best training while I had a standard 40-hour job. Now that I'm my own boss and can work from anywhere, there are too many options for "when should I run today?", which I'll admit ends up being never. When I had a job where I had to be there at 9am, I was running right before work and right after - no questions asked.


If it helps, Andy's managed to stay in pretty decent shape since he started a family, so there's definitely hope! Ok, so what are your goals in running for the future then? Any bucket list races still to do?

I'd really like to run a relay race like Hood to Coast with my buddies, but in general I just want to get back in to shape. I always say, "There's nothing worse than trying to be a runner when you aren't in shape." I'd love to find a group of local runners and be able to hang on to a weekend 10-13 miler without killing myself...

Bucket list? I guess since I've never done Boston - getting in shape and getting a qualifier for that would be a nice idea as I always did well when I was goal oriented. Once I realized I couldn't PR, it was hard to find motivation.

Since we've exposed so many cheats on these 'runs across America', maybe I should try one of those! When I was training, I remember thinking I was quite good at running kind of fast for a long period of time and was fearful I'd get into ultras.


Finally, what's next for LetsRun as a website/community?

Well, we started the website to help inspire runners. My brother was experiencing a magical ride from college also-ran to near Olympian. We wanted others to get a chance to chase their dreams and learn from the wisdom of our coach, John Kellogg.

I think we should go back to our roots and get back to that. Many people think that "all of the info is already out there" now with the growth of the internet, and it probably is. There aren't many secrets anymore. Hell, you can probably find a video of your favourite elite working out if you look hard enough. But it's only out there if you know where to look...

I'd like to start a training portion of the site where we package up training advice for you. When I coached collegiately for 10 years at Cornell, I always told the freshman, "Look I want you and I to develop into co-coaches, so by the time you're graduating we really are working together," and that mindset is certainly true. An athlete has to know how to listen to their own body and know what they should be doing, but as an athlete, I really like having someone tell me what to do.

Sure, I could have input and change things but it's mentally exhausting at times to have to think about it yourself. I'd make my coach fax me a three month outline and then a weekly day-by-day two week schedule, which I'd modify based on how it was going. With the way computing has advanced, there's no reason why we couldn't help thousands each year train better and smarter.

I'd also like to have LetsRun Events. In 2018, there are no world championships, so wouldn't it be cool to see something like Emma Coburn (America's record holder in the steeplechase) versus Jenny Simpson (America's former record holder in the steeplechase, who hasn't run in years) - in a steeple race? I'd like to sponsor one crazy event per year!

 

Awesome idea! Well, if you ever get round to doing that, we'll provide the electrolytes. Thanks Robert, it was great chatting to you.

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