Adam Campbell Interview
Adam's Favourite Arc'teryx
Adam Campbell is a runner based in Vancouver, British Columbia. A former member of the Canadian National Triathlon and Duathlon teams, in 2006 Adam decided to shed the extra gear and rely solely on his running shoes to get around. He also decided to put down the stopwatch and set intervals and hit the trails.
Looking at your bio on our website, it says that you grew up "chasing waves and soccer balls in West Africa and Spain." Not exactly a typical upbringing—tell us about that.
Yes, my upbringing was unconventional to say the least. Both of my parents are Canadian, but my dad has a serious case of wanderlust, so can I call him a corporate hippy? Starting at the VERY beginning, I was conceived in Iran, just as the revolution and uprisings were beginning around 1978, my grandfather was a diplomat and arranged to have my mom evacuated just before things turned very ugly. My dad escaped later on.
From there, my dad accepted a job in Lagos Nigeria with an international telecommunications company in 1979. I was nine months old at the time. My dad just retired this year, but still has roots there and is doing some cultural preservation work with various NGOs. His streak there is quite amazing, because most "Westerners" get burnt out quite quickly in the country. It is considered a "hardship post" and work terms rarely extend beyond 4 or 5 years. I went through a lot of cycles of friends while there.
I lived in Lagos, for 16 years, being raised through 3 or 4 coup d'états and various military dictatorships. It is an incredible multicultural city, a chaotic metropolis spread out over a series of islands and lagoons, right on the Atlantic Ocean. It has beautiful sandy beaches, with very dangerous rip tides.
It is a strange thought now that I would go through military checkpoints on the way to school, but it is what I knew, so I didn't think much of it at the time. It has been "cursed" with natural resources, like oil, so there are some incredibly wealthy people, alongside disturbing poverty. It gets a really bad rap in the news, with a lot of focus on ethnic tension, especially between Muslim and Christians in the North, but I never experienced much of that. Most people seemed too busy surviving to revolt.
It is an incredibly corrupt country, you can get away with an awful lot as a kid and I learned how to bribe my way out of trouble at a young age. Funny enough, despite the hardships, Nigerians have an amazing ability to take their fate in life with a shrug and a smile. A World Happiness Survey in the early 2000s ranked Nigerians as the happiest people in the world, a strange thought to most outsiders, but a testament to human durability.
It is also very culturally rich, with amazing music and authors coming out of the country. It is an intense mix of western and traditional practices, with people just as happy going to Church on Sunday and making offerings to a village deity.
I consider myself very fortunate to have experienced that and it definitely exposed and callused me to a lot of international experiences. I am hardly shocked when I travel, in fact I am amazed when things go according to plan. It also seems to have given me an iron stomach. I think I was exposed to a lot of tropical diseases growing up!
As for Spain and Europe, my dad and grandfather decided to buy a place in Spain, so that they could meet "half way", there are almost direct flights between Nigeria and North America. So they settled on Southern Spain, in Andalucia, so we did a lot of traveling to Europe and Morocco.
The school system really deteriorates in high school in Nigeria and my parents wanted me to get a taste of Canadian life, so I went to boarding school in Ontario and then onto Queen's University. It was a strange mix. I loved being in Canada, exposed to all the advantages of North America, but I definitely felt some "third world kid" syndrome, having missed out on a lot of pop culture and not really having a home.
So yeah, I had a unique childhood.
I see that you got into duathlon and triathlon. When and why did you lose the bike?
Ha, I haven't really lost the bike, I still love it, although it is now more of a mode of transport than a recreation tool. Cycling is such a social sport, a great way for a group of friends to beat up on each other and I love the feeling of covering lots of miles. I especially like riding up and over mountains. I think that it is a great compliment to mountain and trail running, but more importantly, it's fun.
Traveling with a bike however, is not fun! Lugging it around Europe, or South America, constantly trying to find venues to "train" and figuring out how to be pro in the sport was a tough slog. I can't complain about the opportunity to travel the world and compete, but it was more like business than travel at the time.
I started triathlons in University and made the junior national team quite quickly. There is nothing cooler than getting to represent your country, so I was instantly hooked. I dropped out of school and moved out to Victoria to live and train with Canada's best.
I raced multi-sports competitively until about 2005. I had been living and training with some of the world's best triathletes and although I was a decent national level athlete, winning a national duathlon title and making some international teams, the best were a whole other level. I had lived with them, eaten the same food, done their training, raced against them, asked a thousand questions, but I saw that they were just faster than me. My goal was to try and make the Olympic team, but I realized that I just wasn't quite good enough. That's one of the beauties and harsh realities of sport. You always hope for the breakthrough or miracle performance, but you have a lot of barometers of what it takes and I just didn't see a real future as a professional in the sport.
I was offered a job as the national team manager, so I still got to follow and help my friends on the circuit and I kept training with them. My wife was on the road to Beijing, so I was able to support her on her Olympic journey. So I got to lug around other peoples bikes. Strange concept!
On the Arc’teryx website and in your blog you describe some truly grueling training and races, yet you were able to take time to run the Vancouver Marathon last year, where you cruised to an admirable second place finish. What's your sense of the road racing scene here in Canada – Jerome Drayton's 2:10 time is 31 years old, and we haven't sent a marathoner to the past two Olympics!
The road running question is hard to answer and there are pages and pages of ongoing internet chatter on the topic. You are correct, Jerome Drayton's mark was set in 1975 I believe, so more like 35 years old. It is interesting that participation in running races has been on a dramatic rise in North America over that time, but the winning times by Canadians have not changed as much.
To be fair, Drayton was one of the best runners of his era and a 2:10 marathon is still impressive, even though it is a ways off the pointy end of big city marathons these days. There are actually quite a few up and coming runners, who have a legitimate shot at the time, so I predict that it will fall by 2012.
As to my theory, well part of it is systemic. There is a very limited development program for distance runners in Canada. Sport Canada has chosen to focus on medal potential sports and distance running is incredibly competitive on the world scene, so it is hard to get the funding. There are almost no high quality track races for stance runners in Canada and 5k-10k times are direct predictors of marathon time. You have to be plain fast at all the distance events to compete at the world stage. So we end up weeding out a lot of runners early.
Another problem is a lack of role models. With so few people competing at the highest levels and achieving success, it is hard to really inspire young runners to take up the sport and keep with it at a high level through their formative years. We have had success at middle distance (800m-1500m), and it seems like a lot of young runners are attracted to these distances.
With the level getting faster and faster, sub 2:06 marathons being the norm at top races, the gap isn't getting any closer. Without having runners being successfully on the international stage, it may seem like an insurmountable gap. Whereas in many of the African countries, runners are revered, so they have an enormous pool of talent to draw champions from. They have a culture of endurance running that we haven't replicated, you see that all the time in sport (and most professions), where you have to breed a culture of excellence in the sport, setting the bar and expectations high and success comes from that.
There has been a North American resurgence in distance running, driven largely by the internet, where people have started focusing on running more miles harder and as I said, there is some new talent coming along. That is one of the beauties of distance running, the answer to faster running is remarkably simple: run more, run faster… it takes years of hard training/running to be able to compete, but if you have enough people doing those for long enough, the results will come.
Trail running is experiencing a big surge. Which events are seen as the elite comps of the trail running world?
It's actually a hard question, because there are so many forms of racing, each with their own specialists. There are ultras, mountain races, jungle races, desert races, altitude races, stage races, short races, long races, uphill races, up and down races, x-country races etc…they are all a form of trail racing. I would be hard pressed to give you a clear definition of the sport. Some "trail" races have a lot of road running in them.
As to which events are seen as elite? There are a myriad of races claiming world championship status, so to give a definitive answer to that is hard. It can be a bit cyclical, depending on the quality of field. That is one of the beauties of trail races, is that it is all about racing those who show up on the day. It is not so much about times and PRs, course records are essentially meaningless, because they can vary wildly from year to year due to trail conditions. However they do give bragging rights!
Some of the more notable races include the World mountain Running Championship (it moves around), Sierre Zinal, Western States 100, Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, all the major ski resorts will have a mountain race, so being the "King or Queen of the mountain" or having the "Fastest Known Time" for a trail is always fun. Any race with a title associated to it, or a big prize purse is worth winning, just because it will attract a good field.
The mountain running scene is much more developed in Europe with some of the races attracting several thousand athletes and spectators, whereas 500 plus is a big race here. This is due to the fact that a lot of North American races take place in parks, which restrict participation, it is also a matter of access. There is such a significant infrastructure to access the mountains in the Alps, so people can race up a mountain and eat at a little village and have a party on the summit and then take a train or tram down.
Races that are incredibly hard, in challenging climates, like the Everest Marathon, Marathon des Sables would also have some prestige amongst a subset of trail runners.
Any interest in, say, Marathon des Sable? Do you know Canadian ultra-marathoner Ray Zahab?
I'm not sure about the Marathon des Sables (MDS). I raced the Trans Rockies run last year, my first taste of stage race running and it is a tough challenge. I like to pick races that motivate me. Sometimes it is because of the venue of the event, other times it is the level of competition. I'm a believer that if I am going to race, then I want to show up as prepared as possible for the event. There are so many variables and unknowns with a race like MDS, that I am sure you would have to experience the environment and event to get a sense of what it involves in order to do well there. You would have to "pay your dues" once or twice.
At the moment I am more motivated to try and crack into the ultra scene. Single day events with the highest level of competition, as Simon Whitfield said, "I want to win the races that everyone else wants to win." It has a nice ring to it!
No, I don't know Ray, but have followed him quite a lot recently. He is an interesting character, who is making a living out of adventure "runs". A lot of purist runners might scoff at his performances, because they are more about logistics and survival than running. He is not a fast runner and I am sure that he would admit that, but I am definitely intrigued by his style of expedition running. He has been able to market himself very well, which allows him to fund his adventures. I applaud anyone that can make a career for themselves as a runner, or within their passion, no matter what form it takes.
He has also done an admirable job with his charity I2P, taking youth on his expeditions and motivating people to make healthy living a part of their lives and to follow their passions. I hope that I get a chance to meet him at some point, or perhaps join him on an expedition. I would leave the logistics up to him though!
Going to law school is obviously very demanding, how did you decide on law as a career? How can you maintain world class fitness while cramming for exams and writing term papers?
I have almost no aptitude for anything technical & I love to read, it may be on par with running as far as passions go. I also wanted a degree that could travel. Law is one of those fields of study that is incredibly malleable, you can really make it fit your interests. I would actually encourage anyone who doesn't know what they want to and who has a passion for learning to consider the field. It has really changed the way that I understand the world and having a better grasp of national and regional policy is incredibly useful, no matter what you end up doing.
How do I balance school and running? As you said, I cram for exams! So nothing all term and then 2-3 weeks of hell!!!! Nah, I just love running, it is as simple as that. When you are passionate about something, you just make time for it. My training may not always be ideal, occasionally sleep deprived, sneaking out between classes and just always having run gear on me so that I can take advantage of whatever pocket of time I can squeeze out.
I have sat through a lot of classes sweaty and hungry and done a lot of running while brain dead, but it's all worth it.
I am also lucky in that my wife and most of my friends are all athletic, so if I want to hang out with them, I have to train with them! So one of the secrets is to surround yourself with fit people, they shame you into fitness.
Though you're in law school, you seem like a pretty altruistic guy, with an interest in First Nations and environmental law. Can trail running events be a force for good in our world?
I never said I wanted to represent the good guys (ha!), but thanks for assuming that.
Anything can be altruistic, it all depends on your intentions with it. I am incredibly inspired by some of the adventures and performances of other trail runners, so although they may have been racing, or running for themselves, their acts touched me, so is that altruism? I do believe that sport can inspire, so yes, it can be a source of good.
It's also a simple way to keep fit, have fun and reconnect with fitness. I have discovered a lot of interesting pockets, even in my own backyard that I likely never would have found without running. I have also met a lot of great friends and quirky characters through the sport, so it has definitely impacted my life for the better. If it touched everyone, or even a few others the same way, then yes, it can be a force for good.
Have you been lucky to stay injury free throughout your career?
Yes, I have been quite lucky in this regard. I tend to be fine structurally, but my immune system can get worn down.
A few reasons why I think I have avoided serious injury (so far), is that I don't race too often and I avoid running on hard surfaces as much as possible. I find that the athleticism of trail running, with the changing terrain and lateral motions is also a lot easier on the body, since you are constantly using slightly different muscles.
I also make sure to cut back on training as soon as I notice something wrong with my stride. I have been doing sport for quite a while, so have a fairly good perception of how things are going. I do put in fairly big miles and you have to push the envelope in order to be competitive, but there is a balancing, because if you push too far, then you break down and can't perform. I love running and racing, so know that it is sometimes important to take a step back to avoid long term injuries.
Trail running obviously requires a bit of a different skill set than pure track or marathon racing. How does the mental side of trail running differ? Obviously you need to concentrate on trail hazards and other objective hazards – how does that play out in a race where you are actually racing against other people and have to strategize in order to win?
Marathoning for most is all about tapping into a rhythm and rolling with it. At the highest levels, there is more strategy to it than that, but for most of us, it is all about energy management.
Trail running is much more about strength. You have to be strong, a lot of fast road runners have a hard time correlating their road speed to the their trails because they lack strength and power on the trails. The uphills are steeper than what they are used to and the downhills beat up their quads.
You also have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are when you are racing. Are you a good uphill runner, downhill runner, technical runner etc…and you want to maximize these portions of the race and minimize the damage with the portions you may not be so good at. Most races have good websites, with course profiles and descriptions, so you want to remember this beta when you are racing and work the parts of the race that you can.
But racing across disciplines tends to be similar in that most races come down to the last quarter of the event and you have to expect it to hurt. I find that too many people go into races wanting to feel good and then struggle when they don't. I believe that you have to be confident that you can suffer and survive. Especially with long races, you are bound to go through mental ups and downs, so it is all about managing these highs and lows. Some of it is just being used to the lows and expecting them, which comes with experience. They can also be managed through nutrition. A great line that I was told is "if you feel good…eat…if you feel bad…eat…" When you nail your nutrition, your emotions are much more even keeled. It's always easy when you are having a good day, but you have to mentally prepare for the worst case scenario.
Arc'teryx has its roots in outdoor and mountain sports, and now offer the "Endorphin" collection of trail running and "fast-forward" clothing. Which running-appropriate pieces do you recommend, from base layers to foul weather jackets?
Yeah, I am so proud to represent and work with a company that has such a strong reputation in the mountain world. There are a lot of similarities between alpinism and running, with the focus on minimalist approach, light gear and suffering. Like mountaineering, the effort is important and you don't want to have to think about your gear, trusting that you can count on it 100% at all times.
I am a huge fan of every piece of product that I have been sent to try and I really feel like the designers listen to any input that I have. You can tell that they are active themselves, it always reflects back in the design concepts, with practical touches.