Running With Phillip Rocha: A Life Changing Experience
This is an old story I wrote a year ago. To this day, it is still my favorite article and my best piece of work. - Ian, The Hawaii Project
Spending Time With a Champion
I made a promise to myself. I would learn all that I could about running on a prep, collegiate, and professional level. Then blend together various running philosophies to create the perfect program with which I could coach myself, and others willing to follow. I have put together the running form of Kaeo Kruse (two time Hawaii cross country state champion) the race strategy of Mo Farah (British national record holder and two time olympic gold medalist) and countless others. Most recently, I had the opportunity, and pleasure, of running with Phillip Rocha. Rocha is the two time back-to-back California cross country state champion, he holds course records all over Southern California. He has represented Team USA twice, first in 2015 for the World Youth Championships 1500 meter race, and this year (2016) in Scotland for the BUPA Great Edinburgh Cross Country Junior 6000 meter race. In addition, he is an active member in the fight against doping and performance enhancing drugs. Phillip is one of the most amazing people you can talk to about running due to his wide range of knowledge on the subject.
Originally I was supposed to intern with Matt and Cristina to the Portland 2016 World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon. But things did not work out in the way we wanted them to. However, being in Southern California for spring break opened up new opportunities. Since this area is known for pumping out some of the country's best runners, I was excited to meet some of them. Due to Phillip’s active social media presence, and the contact which I had already made with him over the past year, setting up this training run was at the top of my bucket list for my time in California. We met in the parking lot of Arcadia park - across from his high school where he would conduct most of his cross country and track workouts. In this same park four months before, Phillip ran a 3 mile personal best and national lead of 13:57 lowering his previous best and Arcadia park course record of 14:02.
Running with Phillip Rocha
The run he had planned for us was a 8 miles at “moderate” pace. While moderate was in his vocabulary my understanding was that a high caliber runner’s easy day would be the equivalent of my tempo or race pace. We took off at around eight o'clock in the morning heading towards the mountains which surrounded his small town of Arcadia. The pace seemed to be relatively easy but as we came to the half mile marker our pace increased to 6:30, as my stride opened more and more with every fleeting step. As the route became hillier and hillier he pointed out a curb which he marked as the start of where he often runs his hill repeats. The hill was 400m, we ran up to it as he gave me insight of the types of hill repeats he does. While some runners on Maui would be in pain from 4 or so repeats, Phillip told me that nonstop he would run this 400m course up and down for 30 minutes. Each 400 was run in around 1:40 pace. This hill would continue for about 2 miles as my legs became heavier and heavier with the stress put on my body. As I glanced over, my training partner showed no signs of fatigue, sweat, or being out of breath. He told me that after reaching the top it would become downhill for a majority of the rest of the run. Seeing the struggle which I had and the ease with which he had, Phillip asked me how many miles I would regularly do with my school on my long runs. While I told him five or six, he told me that that is probably the root of why I was already tired nearly 3 miles into the run. (Read lesson 1 below)
The next 5 miles were at a constant pace relatively flat. The sun was hardly affecting us because of the coverage of the dense trees. Taking step after step I kept listening to Phillip as he gave me insight into what an average week of training may look like to him for the whole year. One workout that stood out to me was speed work of 10 by 800m repeats in 2:20 pace. I began to understand how he became a 2:18 800m runner in 5th grade and dropped his time down to 1:59 in 8th grade. He admitted that it wasn’t exactly common for someone to be able to do that but I recognized that he has a gift, and trains endlessly to harness his full potential. A lot of runners in Hawaii rely solely on their talent as a means for running without having the drive to train hard, and when reaching that limit training harder. There is much to be learned from an elite athlete not only about running but about how to work hard in life. As we reached the conclusion of our run we arrived back at Arcadia park where he checked the watch and told me we ran 8 miles in 58:23. A time on a training run which provided me with an 8 minute personal best and a feeling of self accomplishment. While at the park Phillip showed me the 800m loop he often does repeats on. I could immediately see the dirt outline carved into the ground from the constant footsteps of many miles being run on this daily. And following this I finally got an interview with the second fastest cross country runner in the country, and the runner who I knew everything about. In the few hours I was able to spend with him I learned so much and possess a wider range of knowledge than I could have ever dreamed of. It has been a humbling experience since the times considered fast in Hawaii are distant to the country’s finest. While originally I felt bad missing an opportunity to go to the indoor championships last week. I now know that I wouldn’t have changed it for anything because a new opportunity opened up that I was able to learn from. I will answer any questions anyone has because I hope to be the gateway between the elite and the average side of running.
Lesson 1: Mileage is Key
Most people that I am familiar with would generally say that mileage is something not that important in track because it is mainly about speed. But to race 2 miles in 8:59.42 as Phillip has, it is essential to be able to run 10 miles fast. Phillip said: “top prep runners like Drew Hunter (Loudoun Valley VA, first prep to run under 8 minutes in the 3000, #8 prep to run the mile in under 4 minutes: 3:57) and Austin Tamagno (Brea Olinda CA, Mt. SAC course record holder: 14:23, 4:04 miler) run around 60 to 80 miles a week during the track season. I run close to 65 including junk miles (warm up and cool down). The lesson learned is that mileage is a very important part of track and field. Building up a baseline mileage system and endurance is key to being able to run the 800, 1600, and 3200 aerobically. Also something I learned is that you should not count junk miles in your weekly mileage count. The warmup and cooldown which can be 2 miles each for Phillip are not quality due to their purpose of preparing your body for the workout ahead and not being quick paced and effective.
Lesson 2: Icing/Ice Baths Are Only Necessary at the End of the Season
Many of the things Phillip said were very clear to me. His ability to teach by putting lessons into analogies were amazing. We walked over to this small tree where he broke off a leaf and said: “Think of this leaf as a muscle fiber. Muscle fibers during workouts are shed like the tree sheds a leaf and grows back stronger in the same way this tree’s leaf does. But icing and ice baths tighten the muscle fibers and prevent it from being shed so stronger muscle does not grow back. It is stuck there without progressing.” His ability to connect this lesson to a tree showed his extensive knowledge and understanding of running. And made every single point easy to understand.
Lesson 3: Weight Lifting is Not as Necessary as Most May Think
Phillip’s quadriceps are unmatched. This is the primary muscle that becomes more and more defined as you run. While a majority of runners in the country lift weights every other day to strengthen their calfs and quads, none are as fast as Phillip or have the muscle mass that he has. Instead Phillip gave an alternate method for producing his results: consistent work put in on hills. Going back to the 400m stretch I had talked about earlier, this hill is run for 30 minutes at a time, nonstop. Hill repeats not only strengthen leg muscles but increase endurance and ability to run aerobically for longer periods of time. Also, hills create a mental toughness which allows the body to run on the hard terrain and a mind which withstands the pain.
Lesson 4: If You're Coach Is Not Beneficial; Do What Makes You Better
Phillip reminds me of Steve Prefontaine who openly argued with the ATU. Phillip currently trains on his own, without his school. The coach they had hired recently was dragging him down and had a limited amount of knowledge about running at all, and lacked the ability to coach in a way beneficial to his athletes. This also links to a quote from a prior interview I had with Kaeo Kruse “Some people can run well but not coach, some people can coach well but not run, and some people can both run and coach well.” Phillip recognized the fact that he possessed a wider range of knowledge about running and the means to coach himself than his actual coach. So he chose to do what would help him the most and he has improved drastically to the point where he is the second fastest prep runner in the country.
Lesson 5: Running Form: Having A Mid Foot Strike Is Important
In the last mile on our way back we eased up a bit. In this moment he told me that I had been heel striking all day. A heel strike is not a healthy way to run. It puts a high amount of pressure into the wrong part of your foot. Phillip then compared the different running styles of various prep stars like the upright form of Austin Tamagno and Drew Hunter. He explained how they have developed their form to allow their arms to be very close to their chest, reducing energy consumption. Then talked about their foot strike. A midfoot strike is key to being efficient. It's much healthier for the body and is how the body was meant to run, even when barefoot. Phillip has been running for years, all through high school and SoCal track club before that. Despite the constant stress his body has endured, he has never been injured before. The sole reason he attributed this to is the constant work he puts into working on his form. Constantly striving for his midfoot strike and upright posture has prevented him from being affected by problems of the common runner.
Lesson 6: Give back
Throughout the few hours I had to run with him Phillip has showed me what a true runner is, humble and disciplined. His purpose for running is mainly to make American distance running competitive at the world stage, and to inspire the next generation to follow in his footsteps. With a collegiate career close in his future, and an olympic dream following that, he was able to remind me that even the most successful runners in their prep seasons are still kids. But also he spoke of his understanding of why Hawaii’s cross country and track times aren’t as quick as the rest of the world. “I understand that the sport in Hawaii is more undeveloped than anywhere else in the US, and the lifestyle is a little different because running isn’t the main focus.” And he even continued on to give advice to the runners of Hawaii: “Getting the athletes pumped up about the rest of the country and Olympic times, and the coaches encouraging athletes more is a way to increase the development of the sport.” Phillip believes that he runs for a higher cause, that making the sport great is what he was meant to do. And even having more fame than most high schoolers has not changed his personality to be conceited, but to be humble, and to teach runners who aren’t as fortunate as him so they have the opportunities that he has had.