How Doug Howard Keeps it Fresh
In an abridged newsletter interview published on February 27th, I chatted with Doug Howard, the hardware packaging lead at Square and runner for the That's Fine Track Club. We discussed his origins in sport, his dropping huge time off his running bests, and how community functions to drive personal improvement. The full the interview is below.
Breakfast Club: So where in Michigan did you grow up?
Doug Howard: I grew up in southwest Michigan, in a town called Coldwater. It's an hour drive south of Lansing, the state capital. Coldwater had about 10,000 people and there was a large rural/agricultural feel to the area. The county fair was huge, with Future Farmers of America and tractor pulls being big in the community.
This was in the tri-state area where Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana meet, literally 13 miles from the Indiana border. People would drive to Indiana to get gas because it was 10 cents cheaper with lower taxes... people would fill up 83¢ a gallon.
BC: Ah, the 1990s, when a gallon of gas cost less than a bottle of water. So what were your origins in the sport?
DH: I've been running for about ten years. But growing up sports was a huge part of my life. I played football, basketball, tennis, and baseball. My dad was a high-school basketball coach, so I grew up as a bit of a gym rat.
My dad did a little bit of running. I would always want to join him, but he said I had to run an 8-minute mile before he let me run with him. So I would ride my bike with him while he ran. Nowadays, he is pretty into it. He did four half-marathons in row over a month a couple years ago. He also did a 1400-day streak of 3 miles or less of running.
But, honestly running for me was always just a part of playing sports. I joke sometime at Breakfast Club and Fine Fridays, "What was punishment for runners growing up?" Because in basketball and football, running was punishment: "Go take a lap around the water tower."
BC: It's a good question, most runners tend to be different kinds of athletes.
DH: At least the cross-country and track kids at my school were much more likely to be in AP classes and more discipline.
BC: Yeah, the sport self selects a little bit. Your Type-A kids tend to get drawn into the sport. But it is also why you see so many compulsive disorders among runners. In any event, you ended up being in basketball and football?
DH: I was All-State in basketball. But I was recruited in college for basketball, football, and tennis.
BC: And tennis?
DH: I played varsity tennis all four years, went to States every year but my senior year. I liked it because it was less pressure than the other sports. It's cliché, but I was the quarterback on the football team and the most recognized guy on a basketball team that was number one in Michigan for a while. Have you seen the movie Hoosiers?
BC: I have, but it has been a while.
DH: Coldwater basketball was similar to that. You know, the stereotype of a bunch of small-town folks traveling to the big cities. We would have all these pep rallies, the police would lead our bus out of town. It was pretty cool and great to be a part of it.
You build relationships that last a lifetime. Some of my best relationships are with guys like the point guard on my basketball team, and a guy I played football with... there are about 6-8 of us who have gone on to do different things with success.
BC: That speaks to idea of sport as a shared experience that keeps people together.
DH: So I ended up playing basketball at a D3 school for my freshman year. Then I transferred to Michigan State and pretty much hung up the shoes.
In terms of how I got into running... when I moved to Chicago I started running on the lakeshore. My roommate and I would do a three-mile run, but only because we were planning on going to the bar and wanted to get some exercise beforehand. But it was terrible and painful... this was when the iPod came out. I remember buying myself an iPod for my birthday, thinking "This is going to get me running more."
BC: I've not spent much time running on the Chicago lakeshore. But I hear tell that is the place to run in the city. Is it good running?
DH: It was good for what we wanted. I was only running one or two days a week. We would go check what was happening on the lake: beach volleyball and team events on North Avenue Beach. But you can only use the space four months out of the year and it gets pretty windy along the shoreline. I'd like to go back now because I see it as a pretty good place to do tempo runs. And they are developing the areas south of downtown.
Eventually, I left Chicago. I was working for Unilever and there was an opportunity to move to the East Coast. When I moved, one of the regrets I had was not having run the Chicago Marathon. On a whim, then, I signed up for the New York City Marathon. I had never run more than five miles at a time, probably chasing some girl in Chicago. It was a half-baked idea to see the five boroughs of New York. So when I got the confirmation email that I got into the lottery, my first reaction was "Oh, shit."
So I started googling, "How to run a marathon." And I start reading about how you need to build up a base before you start training, which baffled me that I had to train to start serious training.
BC: What was that first experience of that intensive training like?
DH: It was during football season. I would go to my local Planet Fitness in New Haven, Connecticut, where I lived. I would do my long run on treadmills watching the Michigan State games on cable TV. This is how I discovered the auto-off function on treadmills. When it hit 90 minutes, the treadmills would automatically stop. The first time it happened, this new dimension of running just hit me: "Wow, I never knew that treadmills had a limit!"
BC: Haha, but that must have felt cool to outrun the treadmill.
DH: So, this was a new world for me and I was trying to glean advice where I could. I would talk to different people who had thoughts. You know, advice to "freeze water bottles and stash them along your summer running route," stuff like that. In the course of my training, I adjusted my goals to maybe taking a shot at running 3:30 for the race. I don't remember what I based this off... maybe I was running a specific pace comfortably? I dunno.
BC: How did that first marathon go given that it was a voyage into the unknown, gleaning advice as you went? To be clear, New York is probably one of the harder marathons given its logistical difficulties, bridges, and often fickle weather.
DH: Despite some mistakes, I pretty much think I nailed it. Because I lived 90 minutes outside of the city, I got a hotel near the start. It was Halloween weekend, so people all around were partying hard... there was some club rave across the way from my hotel.
But ok, what were all the things that I guess I did wrong? So, I wore a new pair of cotton American Apparel socks the day before.
BC: Oh no.
DH: Yeah, they were the mid-calf kind with a 1980s look to them that I thought looked cool. So with cotton socks I just ripped up both insteps of my feet. There was blood all over my shoes by the finish. What else? The night before I met up with a friend and ended up having two margaritas at dinner and stayed out till about 1 in the morning drinking whiskey.
DH: I think it was emotional hedging.
BC: I get it. So you if you ran poorly, you could say, "Hey of course I feel bad, I was drinking whiskey until 1 last night."
DH: Right and when I finally got to the hotel there was club across the way with the bass thumping the rest of the night. And being a rule follower I woke up a couple hours later to get on the first 4am bus in the morning, so I got like two hours of sleep. And got out to Staten Island and froze my butt off for hours. I think I was so nervous, bored, and cold, I walked all over the starting area.
But I still met my time goal, running 3:27, and I remember being so happy. I do recall though that the slight hill as you finish in the park felt like a vertical incline on sand. But I finished, grabbed a cab, walked to the nearest bar, ate a burger and two pints of Guinness, before laying in bed while eating Ben and Jerry's and Combos.
BC: That's not a bad first marathon experience. Did you catch the bug after that?
DH: After that, I decided to get into more. It became a lifestyle: jumping into half marathons and other races. I was traveling a ton for work. So for every business trip, the first thing I would pack was my running shoes and pair shorts. I was traveling to cities all over the US. On these trips I would be in stuffy meetings and business dinners and hotels. Running was a good way to get outside and explore new places.
BC: Running is a great way to explore a town. You see things that are off the beaten tourist path; you are approaching urban space differently... though I guess mostly to avoid traffic.
So, if your first marathon was just under 3:30. Then your most recent marathon at CIM last December was over 50 minutes faster. How big of an improvement was CIM from your previous best?
DH: It was pretty big, maybe 14-15 minutes.
BC: And then three weeks ago, you set a half marathon best of maybe ten minutes?
DH: No, not that big. It was about five and half minutes off my previous best.
BC: Gosh, either way. That's a pretty impressive improvement curve. Do you have any sense of why you've taken this big improvement? What would you attribute this too?
DH: It's pretty clear to me: the improvement is based on having a community of runners. Even when I lived in the San Francisco, I would run in the morning to the bridge and back. The last eight years of running was a part of my life, but it was always solo. I was one of those guys you see on your routes that are always alone.
Coming to the East Bay, I got synced into the community through Team Half-Step, which was a youth mentorship program started by Jessie Stewart. But the biggest moment was connecting with Breakfast Club through Matt Duffy in the fall of 2016. I literally ran into Breakfast Club up on that trail above Lake Temescal... that was my first moment of continually running with people. And I quickly came to really look forward to it. BClub became my favorite run of the week.
I really enjoy talking with people from so many different backgrounds. Running plays such a different role in people's lives. And these conversations have been the springboard to latching onto guys who are faster, and spending time with them. I've gained so much knowledge just through conversation about training and how to approach the sport. Sort of catching the buzz.
BC: And now your house has become a hub for the Saturday's Are For the Boys long run.
DH: Haha! Yeah, I'm still not sure I feel about the "boys" aspect of it. We should figure out how to be more inclusive. But it's fun. I think John and I were just planning a hungover run one weekend. I even carried a bottle of water for the first few runs to rehydrate after Friday night. It's been a good way of gauging improvement though: these long runs used to be at an uncomfortable pace, but now the speed feels are comfortable. And it is cool to see everyone working toward shared goals.
BC: Kaiser Half Marathon was certainly pretty incredible. I've never run a half marathon like that, basically as a team working together.
DH: It was cool to see how other people responded. After the finish, people kept telling me, "Oh you guys ran such a smart race." It felt really cool and gratifying to be a part of it. As I guy who was a part of many team sports, I had never really thought about running as a team sport. Sure, you wear a uniform, but it seemed like a singular event. So it was cool to be a part of something like that.
BC: Definitely. This past year has felt similar to what cross country in college was like... but I like that we are more casual and, I hope, inclusive. It's definitely less bro-y than college running was, but its fantastic to have a group of folks working together toward common goals. I've certainly felt a performance boost.
DH: Totally. And it feels for me like the beginning of a pretty fun ride.
BC: So, something I've noticed training with you is that Doug Howard is a guy who trains intelligently: you run without ego and you run with a sense of your limits, not pushing too hard. I often see folks (especially men) have a bit too much pride, forget to take time off or easy, which often leads to injuries and burnout. Where does that sense of restraint and control come from?
DH: I appreciate that. Where does that come from? I do feed off of people. I never liked showboating in basketball. I think a little bit comes from a sense of naivety and not wanting to overstep the bounds and etiquette of running... so maybe I'm being cautious in that sense.
But I think it really is about respect. At an early age, my parents taught me about the value of respect, toward others and everything around you. This has really come out in running around the East Bay. I have respect for my running teammates, the people we race against, and all the volunteers and coaches that help pull together running events. I have as much respect for someone who laces 'em up every day for a lap around the lake as I do for guys/girls with fastest times. And no doubt you have to respect the course and terrain—there's been numerous times where I went from feeling amazing and skipping an aid station to wondering if this is the race I DNF. The minute you stop respecting the people around you or the course is when you get chewed up. I guess over the years I've learned how to get chewed up a little less often.
BC: Ok. Some quick splits to wrap up: What is your "go-to" shoe for a stout training run?
DH: I'd say the Nike Pegasus. I usually rotate between those and the Hoka Clifton 4.s
BC: Next: what is your favorite trail in the East Bay?
DH: Ok, so I call it "Holler Mountain"—which is the Claremont climb and then the area back behind it, connecting to Strawberry Canyon. Some of Isabel and I's early dates were on that climb.
BC: If you could only race one running distance for the rest of your life, what would that distance be?
DH: The half.
BC: Everyone answers that question so quickly.
DH: Hah, yeah the half-marathon. It is long enough that even the distance is a challenge... just finishing a half-marathon is an accomplishment. But it is also a distance where you can work to run relatively fast without training 100-mile weeks. It's the every-person distance. You don't have to dedicate your life to it.
BC: Do you have a go-to pre-race meal?
BC: Favorite beer?
DH: Anything that Field Works makes right now... but if I were to try to get something in Midwest or back East, I would say the Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA.
BC: Finally, where did the nickname, "Dougie Fraiche" come from?
DH: There was the rapper Doug E. Fresh... and when I met people they would call me Dougie Fresh. Signing up for races I would sometimes use "Doug Fraiche" as a pun on that from crème fraîche. I changed my Strava and Instagram handles to have a little bit of run with it: Dougie Fraiche.