John Williams For the Win
There are not many runners who combine the qualities of hard work and joie de vive in way that John Williams embodies on a starting line. Friendly, hard-working, and quintessentially Californian, John Williams is quickly becoming one of the better runners in the East Bay. Although he competed at Colby College, Williams was a relatively small fish in the big pond of California high-school track and cross country. But man, things are changing.
Last month, John Williams took his first ever victory ever at the Alameda 4th of July 5K. It was a low-key race, but Williams put some talent in his wake, including a few 2:20 marathoners and NCAA All-Conference athletes. He followed up this performance with a 3rd place finish at the Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon on July 14, 2018. Earlier this spring, he finished in the top 80 places at Boston Marathon. I caught up with John for a recent Breakfast Club newsletter to chat about his improvement, mindset, and plans for the future. Our full interview is below.
Sam Robinson: So, to start things off, congrats on the win at the 5K on July 4th! This was, if I’m not mistaken, your first victory in a distance foot race. Can you walk us through how the race played out in Alameda?
John Williams: Man, that was tough! Having not really raced a 5K since college, I wanted to go out controlled so that I would hopefully be in good shape the second half of the race. Around the 2-mile mark, Paul and I had a put a little gap on the other guys, and I guess I just had a little bit more in the tank at the end. The best part was turning around at the finish and seeing a flood of white and green TFTC singlets just pouring in all around us—I think we had sixteen of us race that day!
Sam: It's interesting that this was your first win, given that you've been in the sport for a number of years. Tell me about your running experience in high school and at Colby College. How did you get into competitive running?
John: I picked up cross country in high school. I didn't have a fall sport freshman year, so I decided to run cross country so I could avoid Physical Education class. I was pretty slow, but I had a great coach, and towards the end of the year I had one really good race. I guess I just fell for the sport after that. Beyond high school, I was lucky enough to continue running cross country and track at Colby, a small Division III college in Maine.
Sam: What inspired you to stay with the sport after college?
John: I think all the reasons you hear about why people run have also been true for me. It's a way to stay disciplined, a way to be competitive, a way to have some time alone to think, a way to stay in shape, a way to catch up with friends and a way to meet new people. The emphasis shifts from time to time, but I feel like they're all good reasons.
Sam: But you are really coming into your own post-collegiately. You’ve sliced and diced your personal best in the marathon, lowering it considerably over the last couple years. A lot of guys tend to slow down as they enter their late 20s and 30s. To what do you attribute your sharp improvement curve?
John: While I have been running/training on and off since college, I really started to run more frequently with a number of Breakfast Club stalwarts last year, and in doing so, was training smarter, harder, and more consistently than I had since I was back in college. The consistency and group accountability has probably been what has helped me the most. To that end, my favorite weekly run has become our weekend long runs, which started on a hungover Saturday last August with Doug & Crosby. It has since turned into something of an East Bay staple, sometimes drawing over a dozen runners for runs between 15-20 miles at a solid clip.
Sam: At the Boston Marathon this year, you finished an incredible 78th place despite the horrific conditions that knocked out the elite field. How did you handle the epically cold, wet, and windy weather? Did running with Doug make a difference?
John: Boston this past year was crazy! Running with Doug helped tremendously, both in that he forced us (read: me) to go out more conservatively, and also in that I had someone to suffer through it. In the second half of the race, I could feel everyone dying around us, which gave me a little extra boost of confidence. I really felt like I could push it in the last 10K after getting over Heartbreak Hill. While I didn't run a super fast time, I was definitely proud of how we handled the conditions, both from a physical and mental standpoint.
Sam: You’ve actually run Boston a number of times. Why do you keep going back to the race?
John: This year was my third Boston ('14, '15, '18)! I really love the history of the race, the mystique, the passionate Boston spectators, and the prestige that comes with its tough qualifying standards. In addition, I have a ton of college friends as well as family members that come out and cheer every time I run it, so it feels a bit like racing on a home course every time I'm back there.
Sam: Getting back to West Coast, your daily 8:30am work meetings are becoming a bit infamous; what motivates you to get up before 6am to get in hard tempo runs and weekday mileage? What is the allure of the sport for you?
John: I'm certainly enjoying running well and shaving more time off my PRs. But honestly, I just love hanging out with the guys before I go off to work every day. If getting up early to get eight or ten miles in is the price of admission? That's fine.
Sam: Can I ask how the hell do you get from finishing a track workout at 7:30am to a work meeting in SF at 8:30? Are you eating breakfast in the shower?
John: I use the Floo Network to get to work. Really cuts down on transportation time.
Sam: But it does seem that you have found a good balance between fun and hard work. Where does running fit in your larger life? Is it stress relief? A place to be competitive? Something more?
John: It's all of the above! Like I mentioned earlier, running is a lot of fun right now, and to me it's important that it continues to be fun. I think it just happens to combine a few of the things I like most: hanging out with friends, working hard at something and seeing tangible results, being competitive with myself and others, and having something to look forward to every day. Hard training and competing will come and go, but running will hopefully always be some part of my life.
Sam: And you are also a pretty good amateur photographer. Is this just something you’ve been interested in on the side? Have you ever studied? Or is this just a hobby?
John: It's a relatively new hobby, but I'm having fun with it. No plans to switch careers just yet!
Sam: What’s up next?
John: I only have a handful of races on the calendar, including Wharf 2 Wharf and maybe some cross country races this fall, but the next big one is CIM this December. A bunch of my friends are going up there to race as well, and we're all looking to notch some serious PRs.
Sam: Finally, here are some quick-split questions:
1) Where is your favorite place to run in the East Bay?
On a nice day, I love a good long run up in the hills. Usually I'll go up Old Tunnel Road, and either take Grizzly north into Kensington/Albany/El Cerrito and swing back home through North Berkeley, or I'll go the other direction and take Skyline into Sibley/Joaquin Miller/Redwood and meander back through Montclair. Both routes have some excellent views and you can get some trails in, so you aren't just pounding pavement for seventeen miles.
2) What are your favorite go-to shoes?
Whatever's on the sale rack at runningwarehouse.com.
3) You are sent back in time to give one single piece of advice to 12-year-old John Williams. What do you say?
Please don't wear that white Gary Payton Lakers jersey to that middle school dance. It's not a good look.