Runner Questionnaire – Josh Merlis

When and why did you start running?

I started running in 1985 at the ripe age of 3. My father wanted a training partner and as his oldest son, he volunteered me to fill that role. I wasn’t logging a lot of distance (it was a combination of running, hopping, and crawling around the track, along with playing in the long jump pit), but eventually the running increased. At 6, I ran my first 5K. I crossed my first 10K finish line at age 9 and my first half marathon at 11. Around the age of 7, I joined a youth club (the Forest Park Rangers in Queens, NY) and between the track and XC meets for that team and my dad’s desire to run every road race on Long Island, we were attending upwards of 80+ races annually. (We raced nearly every Saturday and Sunday for years.) So, in short, I was my dad’s tag along, although I did ultimately branch out to run plenty without him. On a related note, my dad is now 81 and still running. He lives in Connecticyut, and a few years ago, he completed the ‘Run 169 Club’ Challenge of running in a race in each of the 169 towns in the entire state.

What’s your favorite race to date, and why?

I wish I had a definitive answer to this, but it’s really hard to pick one race/experience. With that said, the Mudders and Grunters 5 Mile Trail Race was always meaningful to me. The ARE began attending it in 2003 and within a few years we were bringing 50+ runners with us to this unique event some 2 hours south of Albany. 11 years later, I had the joy of running the race with Jaime Julia, Owen Strong, and Jim Sweeney, with us all finishing relatively close together in the top 4 spots. That was a lot of fun, particularly because it was one of the few team races we’d run each year, serving as an annual reminder of what HS and college XC running was like, and for over a decade we had a playful but definitely competitive rivalry with the Marist XC team. A year later, AREEP’s schedule would prevent our continued presence at the race, but surely there are many great memories of our van trips and BBQs that we’d hold while there.

What has been your biggest running adventure to date?

While running Rim to Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon with Michelle (my now wife) in October of 2015 was definitely an awesome one day adventure, I’d have to say that our honeymoon in January of 2019 takes top prize, as it began with a very aggressive first week of running all over Scotland. While the second week of our honeymoon was somewhat more subdued (i.e., we weren’t running three times a day), overall, the entire experience of our honeymoon, and the running that we did in a variety of amazing places, truly was awesome. Honorable mention, though, definitely goes to the Kiwi Run Tour I did at the start of 2010, which was a two-week organized running tour of New Zealand organized by Steve and Nick Willis (the multi-time Olympian). That trip was an absolute blast, filled with meeting runners from across the world, visiting historical sites (i.e., where Arthur Lydiard trained his runners), along with meeting some of the legends from the 1960s.

What is your approach to training? Do you follow a particular training plan, or do you work with a coach and if so, who?

Unfortunately, for much of the past 10+ years, my training has taken a back seat to my avocation of putting on races. With that said, since the onset of the pandemic (and the silver lining of my lightest work schedule since 2008), I made a concerted effort to start training with more regularity and having a true plan versus “just running”. On a general level, I typically do a track workout (or some kind of VO2 or LT speed session) on Tuesdays and a long run on Fridays (or on the weekend if not working a race). My wife, Michelle, has been coaching me for the 18+ months since I got “back on the wagon” of actually training. If there’s one vital thing that she’s imparted in me, it’s to SLOW DOWN on my easy days. Repeated, SLOW DOWN. It’s definitely changed my approach (and love) for actual training – particularly because it simply makes me feel better. As someone who grew up running on teams, I surely fell victim to overtraining, particularly with respect to running too hard on easy days, which was an easy trap to fall into when running in college with a bunch of guys who were way faster than I was. Needless to say, I continued that habit for many years beyond college, which also made me look less forward to workouts and generally always feel overworked/not recovered.

This summer I ran 4:46 in the mile, my fastest time in over a decade, and the majority of my runs were over 8 minute pace. With that said, when it came time for my weekly speed sessions, I was ready to move, but even still, per the plan she was providing to me, it was made clear that speed doesn’t mean all-out, and that I should truly adhere to what V02 and Lactate Threshold scientifically refer to and the importance of running those paces. I also had my fastest 15K in a decade+ at HMRRC Winter Series #1, and even though I had a rough last portion of the Houston Marathon in January 2022, I did make it through 17 miles running just over 6 minute pace and was happy to race my first marathon in 5 years. I look forward to continuing to prioritize training in the year to come and to respect the objective difference between just “getting out and running” every day versus each run having a specific purpose (and therefore, appropriate pace range to fall within).

What is your weekly mileage in peak racing/marathon training season? What is your approach to the off season

For this past marathon, I peaked at barely 50 miles, generally running 5 days each week. Indeed, I wanted more, but I also wanted to make it healthy to the start line, and between some old issues and some random new ones, along with my work schedule, that is what worked best. As far as “off season”, it includes more easy running and less of a focus on being ‘sharp’ for racing, but the mileage is relatively similar. I would love for it to be practical for me to run 60+ MPW; we’ll see what happens this year!

During our cold winter days, do you brave poor weather conditions or stick indoors on the treadmill? If you do run outside, what safety measures do you take?

I run outside. If it’s “just” cold, (even if “very” cold), then it’s easy to deal with that; wear more. There really is some great (and lightweight) gear available that makes it no problem to run in significant cold. (When Michelle was in MN for grad school, we ran outside in -22 ambient temperature, and we weren’t the only ones.) Of course, wind does play a huge role when the mercury drops; if practical, we’ll try to run so that it’s basically always at our backs (i.e., run somewhere and UBER back) or get in the woods to reduce the wind’s impact.

If conditions are horrible (most notably the footing) I may ditch a workout for just a ‘general’ run, or change the nature of the run, but it’s quite rare to get more than 1 bad day in a row around here with respect to conditions; the University at Albany and Harriman State Office Campus do an amazing job of expediently plowing and salting their paths. From a safety perspective, beyond dressing appropriately, definitely ensure that you have good traction (i.e., put Yaktrax over your running shoes), and, in general, ensure that if running in the dark, you are well lit via headlamp and/or other devices.

And, per above, as sometimes I’ve found myself racing in some pretty horrific conditions, nothing makes one tougher mentally for those days than training in those same conditions.

List your PRs: Race, time, year

5K Track - West Point Invitational – 15:51 – 2001

5K Road – Run for Dunkin’ 5K – 15:56 - 2012

15K – Stockade-athon – 51:06 - 2007

10 Mile – Army 10 Miler – 54:21 – 2012

13.1M – New Bedford Half Marathon – 1:12:09 - 2011

26.2M – Vermont City Marathon - 2:41:56 – 2013

50M – JFK 50 Mile – 6:57:47 - 2017

What was your worst injury and how did you get over it?

Oh man, how to define worst!? I suppose I’d have to say my worst is my peroneal tendon subluxation (of my left ankle), which was the result of many ankle twists growing up (more related to playing soccer than actually running). But at 15, the day before a weeklong running camp, I severely (again) twisted my left ankle but, not wanting to miss the whole week which I had been so looking forward to, I ran on it. In immense pain. I would do anything to undo that week. It was foolish and forever messed up my ankle, for which 9 years later, I would finally have the surgery I needed, to, as best as possible, repair the torn retinaculum, shave off scar tissue, and put it all back together. This left ankle issue remains the greatest detriment to my running, with continued limited range of motion that especially causes issues when I run on technical trails.

With that said, among other injuries, in May of 2015, I put an ax in my leg while chopping wood. The stump I was chopping had grown around a piece of metal, and several chops in, my ax hit the [then hidden] metal, and bounced straight into the front of my lower right leg. At the time, I was living with Jaime Julia and Nick Webster, and I hopped on one leg into the house, screaming at them, “I just put an ax in my leg. I am NOT kidding. Take me to urgent care now!” (Indeed, I feared they would think I was joking – at least before seeing the chunk of skin hanging off my leg.)

While this wasn’t caused by running, yes, it impacted it. Amazingly (and I am so lucky for this) – I didn’t break the bone, but I did slice the nerves that go to my right foot. For nearly a year, I couldn’t feel part of my foot, although I was able to run a few weeks after gashing my leg.

Your favorite shoe for training and racing

I train in the New Balance 880s. (I’m on pair #5 with 2 more pairs waiting in my closet.) This past year I got my first pair of “supershoes” (Vaporfly NEXT%) and I like them. In fact, racing aside, I love how after wearing them for a long run, my legs aren’t dead. While in some ways I feel like I’m crossing a moral/ethnical line in “making the switch” to carbon-plated shoes, so be it. They are basically mainstream now and it’s time to get on board. (But on a more universal level, I feel badly for records that are getting broken due to this objective advantage.)

Ever run in a costume?

Yes. For years, I ran the Firecracker4 (Mile) as part of a group of ARErs wearing the costumes for the mascots of our races. For many of those years, it was 85 to 90+ degrees, and once the head was put on, it was upwards of nearly an hour of barely being able to breathe and baking in the sun. As crazy (and perhaps dangerous) as it was, it was a heck of a lot of fun. I’ve also run in costume at a few other events.

Do you work with a dietitian to enhance your performance? If so, who?

Indirectly, yes. My wife works with Kylee Van Horn, and I’m basically included in that meal plan, although it’s geared towards Michelle’s training, which is more intense than what I do.

What are your favorite pre-race and post-race meals?

Pre-race: Had been oatmeal forever, although I’ve migrated towards a bagel, peanut butter, and egg.

Post-race: Whatever is accessible as soon as possible.

What activities do you enjoy when not running?

Being Michelle’s biggest fan. Watching her work really hard, day-in and day-out. Creating running events. Computer programming (part of my job), which is a combination of running-related software (i.e., ZippyReg functionality) and also contract work. I also, gosh darn it, enjoy watching Hudson (my cat) go about her life. She doesn’t waste time on social media or worry about what others think about her (goodness, I sure hope not considering some of the things she does in front of me).

What challenges / races / adventures are you planning for the coming year?

I’m running the Syracuse Half Marathon in March and intend to run the California International Marathon in December. I also will race a mile this summer, in hopes of continuing my sub-5 streak that began in 1998. To that end, I also plan to challenge myself to be intentional about my running (i.e., to train) and to see if I can re-write some of my PRs from ~10 years ago. While it’s not lost on me that Age Grade tables say it’s going to be a lot harder, it’s bittersweet to me that my “prime fast running” years I spent fully in our sport – but on the production side, which completely conflicts with participating in the events.

What is the greatest piece of advice you've ever received in the sport?

Slow down on your easy days.

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