International Man of (Ultra)Marathon: Q&A with Assistant Cross Country Coach Alex Nichols

By BEN HALL

Alex Nichols is a Class of 2008 Colorado College graduate and former all-American cross-country runner for CC. Nichols has served as the assistant coach for the cross country team since 2012. Still, Nichols races competitively on the world ultramarathon and trail running scene as a member of the USA Mountain Running Team. Over the summer, Nichols placed second in the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run with a time of 16 hours and 48 minutes.

Ben Hall: What unique perspective do you think you bring to the cross country team as an ultra and trail runner compared to coaches who have only run or coached cross country?

Alex Nichols: The thing that I try to make people realize is that there’s not a huge difference—even training-wise—between a 10k, a marathon, and a 100 mile race… Distance running is all about aerobic systems, and it’s pretty much the same all the way up to 100 miles. You get a few additional things like eating and sleeping involved, but even race strategy is similar.

BH: Really?

AN: Yeah, it’s just on a much larger scale. I’m always trying to take what I’ve learned from racing all these different distances, figure out the most important parts in training and racing, and instill those ideas in the people I’m coaching.

BH: What do you eat during and leading up to races?

AN: The night before, just out of habit, I generally eat pizza, ‘cause it’s good. Race day, I generally just use gels and energy chews and–things like that—not a lot of traditional foods. I tried that before and I couldn’t really stomach it.

Photo courtesy of Alex Nichols

BH: So you’re not doing a [self-proclaimed “Ultra-Marathon Man” and bestselling author who is much slower than Alex] Dean Karnazes calling a pizza guy to meet him on the highway while he’s running.

AN: Yeah. Everyone loves that story, and it would be nice, but generally I don’t have that kind of time.

BH: Are you familiar with Christopher McDougal’s book “Born to Run”?

AN: Yeah, that created a big spark in the trail running world. People read that book and just assumed that they could strap on some sandals and run 100 miles. At the time, I was working at a running store, so that was just a disaster.

BH: You’ve gone to some pretty cool places around the world to compete. Do you usually get to hang out and check out the places you go to race while you’re there?

AN: When I graduated from CC I had seen some people qualify for world championship teams and they got to go to Europe for free, and I was like “I wanna do that!” So that was initially the biggest motivation was to get on the world mountain running team… Since then, I’ve gotten to run some of the classic mountain and ultra-races around the world, and I do try to enjoy being in the place.

BH: What’s your favorite course you’ve ever run?

AN: One of the more scenic races I’ve done is called Sierre-Zinal, it’s in Switzerland… the view is basically just classic Switzerland—giant mountains, cows with bells and whatnot—it’s almost too idyllic.

BH: Do you think you’re going to run ultras for a long time, or only while you’re still competitive?

AN: A lot of it is because I am a competitive person, but also I’ve realized that, for whatever reason, I’m very good at this sort of stuff. So I really like competing against the best people in the world and seeing where I stack up. I think when I stop being competitive and can’t really run at the level I want to be at I’ll have no problem being a casual jogger. But for now, it seems like I’m still getting better.

BH: Do you have a favorite [Head Track and XC coach] Ted story?

AN: A few years ago, we were in San Antonio for the conference track meet… the athlete riding in the passenger seat in Ted’s van said, as a joke, “There’s the hotel, let’s just go to it.” They ended up just driving over this field next to the hotel instead of going down the road and using the driveway. This led to them getting stuck in the field because it had been raining. Luckily, TLU, who’s a throw-heavy team, was driving by and they jumped out of their van and pushed our van out of the mud. So the next day, we made sure to cheer extra hard for TLU.

Alex Nichols is clearly an interesting, passionate, motivated individual who is training the cross country athletes to his best ability. With all his knowledge and experience, it should be a great season for the Colorado College Men’s and Women’s Cross Country team.

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