British ultra runner Rob Young claims to have run 2,000 miles across the U.S. But it seems that no one believes him. Here’s what he had to say when we interviewed him in August – before the news broke that his sponsors had withdrawn from supporting him
On May 14th, Rob Young left Huntington Beach and started running across America. The 33-year-old Briton was attempting to break Frank Giannino’s 1980 World Record for the fastest crossing of the US of 46 days, 8 hours and 36 minutes. To do so, he needed to average 67 miles a day. His “transcon” attempt started well. Really well. The first day he clocked up 81 miles and things seemed to be going swimmingly from there. There was enough spare time for a detour to see the Grand Canyon, and visit a casino. Rob was making it look easy.
On June 7th Kansas runner Asher Delmott came out to see him, claiming he wanted to run with Rob. But he found only the van drifting along at a runner’s pace. Assuming Rob was in the van, Delmott took videos and reported his findings online, where a storm of accusations blew up. A few days later Rob’s crew posted CCTV footage from a garage showing Rob running several minutes behind the van. But it was too late. The online ultra-running world heavily scrutinised his every claim. There were suspicions because his daily mileage dropped markedly – from around 70 to around 40 miles – when attention increased, about his impressive pace (sometimes faster than 7-minute/miles), and claims on his website, including his previous records, 96 race wins and a previous life as a pro cyclist. Cult figure Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, race director of the infamous Barkley Marathons, and several other respected ultra-runners (Ray Kroelwicz and Bill Schultz, who with Cantrell became known as “the Geezers”) turned up to observe the transcon attempt. But Rob’s injuries increased and his speed decreased until, after 2,000 miles, the plug was pulled on June 20th “for medical reasons”. We caught up with Rob on the phone from New York, three days after his team officially announced his attempt was over.
OUTDOOR FITNESS: Hello Rob. How are you?
ROB YOUNG: Well, as good as I can be, if I’m honest.
OF: Physically how are you doing?
RY: I’m obviously tired, but recuperating. The cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection) in my foot has gone down. It’s still red, but the pain has subsided an awful lot. It got to the point where I wasn’t even ableto walk on it properly. Every stride was absolute agony. I had a rash up my leg and on my foot… we originally thought it was sunstroke. If you think about it, my final six or seven days, when we had some of the greatest endurance runners in the land watching me, saw me throw in a 300-mile week… all with the issue with the foot. My final day was a 61-mile day. So you can probably tell I went through an awful lot of pain to hit that sort of mileage. But it wasn’t to be.
OF: And mentally how are you doing?
RY: When all the noise started to happen, it was a small group of people on a website or whatever. And they became more and more vocal and that hit me mentally. I was like, “Hold on a minute, I’m doing everything properly”. We had 12 days with film crews and they were there when people were there making allegations and they even said: “Hold on a minute, that’s wrong, because we filmed him at the exact same time you’re talking about.” There was one particular guy who was very, very vocal and I said to him “Well, come out and watch. Don’t sit there and type and speculate. Just come out and watch and see for yourself.” As things grew and grew, I even offered to pay for him to come out. I didn’t have the money, but I’d have found it. My main strength is my mental ability. My physical ability isn’t as strong as some runners. But put me up mentally against other runners and I’m far stronger mentally than the others. It really knocked me. I was a bit gobsmacked and quite upset. But if you look at the history of other transcontinental runners, they’ve been in exactly the same position.
OF: If we can rewind a little, how did you prepare for your attempt?
RY: I already had a lot of miles in my legs from the (2015) Transcontinental Race and all the ultras and marathons I do anyway. I would do training runs that would be 40 or 50 miles, followed by a gym session in the afternoon, then I would go to the running club in the evening. I would change it up… do multiple runsper day of quite large numbers to get the experience of what it might be like. I know I can run a marathon or two a day for quite a while. The problem was, was I able to run larger numbers such as 70 miles a day for a period of time? So, I would run 70 or 80 miles, then drop it back down to 30 or 40 miles the next day, then the next run a marathon, and the next 60 miles. Coming into the run I spent about three weeks tapering, but I’d still throw out a marathon here and there, until the last week or so when I did pretty much nothing.
OF: On your blog it says there was no plan as such at the beginning…
RY: I had an awful lot of lists from a lot of people. Lisa Smith-Batchen (who attempted the transcon record earlier this year and lasted a week) sent me her plans. I was talking to a lot of ex transcon runners and I noticed everyone started with smaller mileage and increased it towards the end. So I started like that and then I thought, “Hold on, this isn’t going to work”. I run the first half of any run or race far faster and use the second half as my cool down, because I’m normally going to another race the day after. That’s how I do everything. So I swapped the plan around. I worked very very hard for a few weeks and then I started getting injured.
OF: If you did it again, what would you do differently?
RY: I wouldn’t look at any social media whatsoever. It’s a distraction and it gets to you.
OF: So do you do plan to share all your GPS watch data?
RY: Yeah, I plan to share stuff (data has since been shared on Rob’s Strava account, though it was incomplete as we went to press). I have no problem sharing stuff. I’ve always been very transparent about things. Do I have to do it? No I don’t, because the record hasn’t been broken. Do I have to even prove it to every single runner, by sharing data? I don’t have to in theory, because the people who need to see it is Guinness. But then again, if I was a normal person watching in on this – not one of these fanatics who are constantly trying to dive into all my data and speculate – then yes, I would want to see it myself as well. I don’t think it’s going to make a difference to some people. The way I’m going to prove it is, I’m going to run a decent six-day race and turn around and say, “I’m going to have a go at the transcon record again, come and watch me, come and run with me”.
OF: You’re going to try for the record again next year?
RY: Of course I am! Not only am I going to come back, but I hope people who questioned me are going to be there as well. A lot of people who go for records and get speculation thrown at them, then go into the ground and bury themselves away. I won’t do that, because I’m not a cheat and I didn’t cheat during the entire run.
OF: When you look back on the run now, were you mostly enjoying it?
RY: Haha. It was not enjoyable. Well, maybe the first couple of days were. It was like a job. You’ve got to keep going at it and going at it.
OF: One of the things people got suspicious about was that you were running sub-seven-minute-miles several days into your attempt…
RY: I have a very very quick recovery rate. When Laz and the Geezers came out, they saw me running seven- and six-minute/ miles. I’ve even done it with them, that late in the day. They saw me do it. Quite a few of the days I was into high five-minute miles. They saw me run a few like that. I know I can run that speed. They know I can run that speed (Outdoor Fitness contacted Cantrell to clarify this, but he didn’t respond). I’ve lost count of how many races in the UK, marathons and ultras, where I’ve done one at one end of the country one day, and then one the day after at the other. Once I did a race at Giants Head, then flew to the Midnight Mountain Marathon in the Brecon Beacons that night, then the White Rose Ultra the next day, then straight after that I did five marathons in five days in Telford with How Hard Can It Be events. And I was still running fast times. Ask people: they’ve seen me runfast, then slow right down for the second half.
OF: Another thing people got suspicious about was that whenever you came under scrutiny your daily mileages seemed to drop…
RY: My mileage started to drop after about two, two-and-a-half weeks. I was getting tired, I had an issue with my calf, my knees, issues with my feet. I was having problems even way before Laz and others came along. I did what I did. I worked hard for what I did. And I fell apart the way that I did. If I didn’t have that cellulitis and that issue with my foot, I would have finished this transcon. I probably wouldn’t have got the record, but I certainly would have finished it.
OF: People will continue asking more questions about your backstory. Do you accept that?
RY: When people start getting into my backstory with my (abusive) father and that, that gets a bit petty I think. But in terms of everything else, why not? But being so aggressive about my backstory is quite harsh I think.
OF: I agree. But people wonder whether you were really a professional cyclist as it claims on your website?
RY: Triathlon and stuff like that? Yeah. You know what, that’s all going to be proven as well. People don’t realise that not only was I that, but I competed for Great Britain as a junior in biathlon, and I was also selected for the junior duathlon squad – I think it was in Cambridge, it was so many years ago – but I never competed for Great Britain because I was competing in Monaco in biathlon, then I was in Nice for the long-course triathlon. But you know what, that will come out as well.
OF: Until recently you’ve presumably only had goodwill from the running community and now all this. Are you okay with it all?
RY: I’m not okay with it. I know I’ve got to accept it because I also questioned a previous person (Mark Vaz). I understand what people are looking at and what they want to look at. It’s just a small bunch of people who’ve created a massive massive thing out of basically very little. And it’s happened to other people in the running community who are extremely good, even professional runners. And it all derives from that one or two small groups. I know it’s going to be there. But when I come out and throw down my six-day race. Well, then we’ll go from there I think.
Since OF spoke to Rob his sponsors at the time, SKINS, announced the appointment of two independent experts to assess his attempt at the Trans-America run. In an online statement following the report, SKINS announced that there can be “no alternative explanation” for the data that had been presented and examined to them other than that Rob received “unauthorized assistance” in his run attempt. They have since withdrawn their sponsorship.
Rob Young spoke to Damian Hall