Friday, January 6, 2012

Sean Astin's passion for running

Readers of this blog will have noticed Sean's recent interest in running; over the last couple of months, he's run in the Calabasas Classic 10k, the Goodloe Byron 15k and the Santa to the Sea half marathon. But even his most devoted fans may not be aware how long and deeply held his passion is.

Sean graciously agreed to answer a few questions about running for us. What follows is minimally edited for clarity.

What prompted you to train for this year’s LA Marathon and what motivates you to keep running?

I love talking about running. I don’t think I’ve given any ‘running centric’ interviews before. So, to your questions. My answers are not linear; in fact, what follows is a spelling error laden [actually not -Ed.] stream of consciousness. Good luck sorting through it!

I think I’ll share a little story that sets the context for my running life. When I was a kid, my best friend Chris’s stepdad invited me to join him on a 10k race. I didn’t have any experience with running; I probably hadn’t run more than a mile straight before then. I’m thinking I was 14 or something. The race was incredible, finishing up at the LA Colosseum, people cheering, a medal, orange slices and water being handed out. I felt just an awesome sense of accomplishment and community. I was hooked. I think my time was 48ish minutes. My best 10k came years later in Brentwood at 42:23. I’ve run tons since. I went on to run cross country in high school. I’ve run other eco challenges, a mini triathlon, etc.

I had a trainer in 1998 (that’s the year I ran my first LA Marathon) named Kurt Broadhag. We trained for a few months and ran in that race together. Our goal was sub four hours; we finished 4:04. It took me a bunch of years to get back to it. I love that they changed the route in LA to the so-called Stadium to the Sea course. I trained for that one for three months on my own a few years ago [2010]. I was shooting for 4:30 but with my calf thing [Sean tore a calf muscle a few days before the race], I was grateful just to finish at 5:16.

I’m really eager to get back to the marathon again this year. I’m hoping to manage injuries, etc., and redeem myself to myself.

One of the factors that lead me to train was my schedule. I think I have considered it every year since the first one, but somehow, depending on the kind of shape I’m in (I get extremely out of shape, unfortunately) my schedule seems more or less daunting. This year, it just seemed doable in that sense. But, I think what you want to know is why this year. Was it spontaneous or inspired by something? And what I can say is that once you are a runner, you are always a runner, and running has existed in my mind as a constant. When my shoes hit the road for the first time after a long absence, it feels like a sunrise, slow but steady, cold at first and then warm.

The Marathon is an organizing principle that not only helps my mind, it conveys in a word to everyone who hears it a sense of sacrifice, ambition, dedication and seriousness of purpose.

I love my city and the LA Marathon here meanders through many of the places I have lived or spent time in over 40 years. So I have a sense of city pride as well. The expectation that comes from getting others to invest in my little journey provides just enough pressure in the hard moments to push on.

Also, my sense of ‘fun’ has changed. The spiritual connection that you feel with nature and yourself and the road are what most long distance runners embrace. So now at 40 I’ve really come to the understanding that pain is gain and the more you learn to have ‘fun’ with the pain that comes along with healthy training, the more gratifying the experience is.

I use the Nike+ sensor. I have every run since June 2007 logged. I love keeping track of my stats, and both watching the patterns of my runs and spending too many hours strategizing my upcoming training schedules. I think I’ve run 1,881 miles since then :-)

What is it that attracts you to running compared to other sports/activities?

I love so many sports: baseball, golf, basketball, football, boxing, cycling, swimming, hiking and on and on. When I think of my early childhood, I think of baseball as the controlling sport of my youth. But, no matter what else I do, the fundamental, the core, the essential activity of my life, is running. It is personal, success is relative, the endorphin cocktail is addicting. I could go on. I also think it is the fastest way for me to get in shape, to shed weight, etc. One great thing about golf is that you get to see amazing natural beauty wherever you go around the world. This is true of running in a totally different and maybe more satisfying way. If you are working in a college town, an industrial center, etc., if you lace up your shoes and head out the door… It’s like Bilbo—you never know what adventures await you.

When you are running, it almost always feels like the Olympic positive energy I experienced in 1984. And not just on race day. When drivers pause to let you cross, your eyes meet and you can see that they respect how vulnerable and yet how strong you are. People wave, head tilt and basically respect what you are doing. And they haven’t paid for a ticket. You cross paths with people in the middle of their own routines; that split second affinity makes me feel larger than life and ‘connected’ to the social world around me. Internally, listening to my breathing, evaluating my gait, managing all of the stuff, water intake, replenishing electrolytes, finding the balance between focusing on each step and going into a meditative state geared toward the full distance—all of these things make it fun and rewarding.

What is your greatest challenge in training?

Hmm, the greatest challenge in training… I’d say eating properly. Food, sleep and running are the big factors. My sleep goes from too much to too little and then some cycles of just right. Obviously I put great attention and care into how many runs, how often (usually 4-5 a week with the traditional one long slow distance). I always struggle to set the pace properly. But the eating is a pain. I wish I could offer guidance, but I can’t. The most important thing is vegetables. Say what one will about carb loading and protein, etc. Itʼs really all about vegetables.

May be boring, but once I’ve set my intention to run the thing, I don’t usually face any crisis of confidence. I’m just about the business of doing it. I think I get on everyone’s nerves around me because I like to share my excitement, confusion, etc., about each training run with everyone, and the family is enthusiastic and supportive. It just gets to be too much. Oh, one other thing: work and travel often whammy the plan, so it takes an absurd commitment not to get knocked back to a place where recovering and getting back on schedule becomes too challenging.

What is the best part of race day?

All of it. I soak it up from dinner the night before to driving home from dinner after the race, all of the sights and sounds and feelings. I spend time training on the same streets by myself and it’s about buses and cars and honking. Then on race day as far as you can see in every direction are people. I visualize the empty streets and then soak up the joy of the collective experience. Parents bring their kids to a corner to watch. You can see kids in various stages of trepidation to excitement encouraging runners. I like seeing the tentative families and you reach your hand out for a high five as you go by. A little social contract has happened, an exchange that would be awkward in other settings has become an expectation of support and solidarity. I love that. I love the landmarks and the volunteers. I love the mileage markers and my own race management, the music and cultural stuff (in LA such diversity), seeing my family at certain points on the road, the finish line, the little medal you get, the pictures taken of the runners… I could go on for hours. It’s a great experience, rain or shine.

Are you competing against the other runners or is it an internal competition?

I’m pushing myself for myself during the marathon. You do see certain people that are pacing close and little challenges develop, e.g., “I’m not letting that lady get too far ahead of me again.” But I’m trying to focus on my own pace and my own race.

How will the 2012 LA Marathon be different from 1998 and 2010?

Weight in 1998: 164 lbs, in 2010: 188 lbs, now: 180 lbs. I still would love to break four hours. I can’t tell where I’m at. I need nine minute miles to do it. I’m clocking a lot of nine minute miles so it’s possible. But it’s not likely I can keep them up for 26 miles. Iʼm thinking more about 4:30.

I actually think being older means that I’ll (injuries aside) have less nervousness. Everyone gets race day jitters, but lately I just get out there and go. There’s a lot of other life stuff that’s different: different place in my career, our kids are different ages, etc., but one thing is true and that is that I’ve been smart enough to enjoy the races and savor the nuances, and I will continue to do that.

What’s on your iPod when you run?

My running playlists are varied. Over the holidays, I would listen to classic Christmas Sinatra or whoever alternated with 50 Cent or Eminem. Bizarre juxtaposition, but it worked! I have listened to Jimmy Buffett and other artists whose music is a little more mellow than you’d expect.

Getting the playlist right is time consuming. I do find myself using the same playlist. My body starts to shape itself to the songs: when Maroon 5 is on, it means I’m at mile five and I’m making that left turn onto ‘x’ street.

What are your running plans after the LA Marathon?

I hope I can do the Hollywood Half. I’ll be there for sure. We’ll see what kind of recovery has happened. They are pretty close together. [LA Marathon is March 18, Hollywood Half is April 7.]

The 50th anniversary JFK 50 miler is back east in November [Western Maryland, November 19]. I said I would run it, so it’s in my mind as I run. We’ll see come April what kind of training schedule the next 6+ months would entail. It would be a heck of an accomplishment. I’m sure I would have to do at least one and maybe two other marathons before hand. No idea what will come of all that, so for now, it’s focus on LA in March! :-)

So, I’ve rambled on and on. I would just add, and I’ve alluded to it, marathons have a big impact on those around you, so I’m blessed to have the support I have.


My deepest thanks to Sean for taking the time to answer my questions.

Sean's shoes, posted on Twitter


  1. GREAT !!!!
    Love, love, love it!
    I can't tell you what this interview does to me.

    He put in words what I never could/can say about running. I've run myself for such a long time and then in 2008 tore this muscle right before that race in CA.

    As I said on Twitter, he inspires me and I actually bought new running shoes.

    As soon as it will be more light outside in the morning I 'll start running again.

    Thank you, Linda, and thank you Sean!

    I can't believe it, I actually have tears in my eyes ;)


  2. Ulrike, I'm so happy this motivates you to take up running again. After I read it, I hoped it would inspire others. Sean's tweets seem to have encouraged others to renew their interest as well.

    Keep me informed as to how your doing! *hugs*

  3. Thank you and thanks Sean for this terrific and inspiring interview!

  4. Ellen, I do think it's wonderfully written and hope readers will find inspiration in it.

  5. Amazing!!!! thanks for the interview

  6. Martuski, Sean was so generous with his time!

  7. Wow, that's wonderful! Good job.


  8. That was a great interview. It was very entertaining reading Sean's feelings about the sport and why he enjoys it so. It reminds me that I really need to get back to the gym. LOL I love that his answers were so detailed and not just hurriedly written, short answers. He took time on it and it shows.

    You did an excellent job on those questions. I hope he agrees to do more of these Q&A sessions for your blog.

  9. @MovieElijahWood, I'm so chuffed Sean provided such wonderful answers!

  10. @Grey_wonderer, I think (hope) Sean appreciated the opportunity to talk about a passion of his that he's rarely asked about. He did obviously put a lot of thought into what he wrote.

    I'd love to do more! Need to think of suitable topics, not the same-old same-old!

  11. What a wonderful interview! I AM inspired but will be walking not running. My favorite part of the interview was this comment he made "...if you lace up your shoes and head out the door....It's like Bilbo - you never know what adventures await you." Thank you Sean Astin Fan and THANK YOU Sean Astin!! (praeriedikter)

  12. By the way, I have a whole list of possible topics for future interviews...... just saying! :D I would really love to hear more from Sean. Such a wonderful writer! (praeriedikter)

  13. this is truly awesomeeeee!!!!lovin it lovin it!

  14. P, I do love that he mentioned Bilbo! Great fun! But the whole article is so wonderfully written; I'm just tickled pink with Sean's writing! And it's great to see he is inspiring readers! :-D

    Feel free to click on the Contact Me button (upper right) with suggestions! ;-)

  15. Clive, he's just such a great guy, and has so many interests! :-)

  16. What a great interview! I never realized that he had been running for so many years. I've been so busy that I haven't been walking regularly the past couple of months, but with Sean as inspiration, I hope to get back in the groove soon. Thank you Sean for the great motivation and thank you Sean Astin Fan for sharing with us!

  17. Hildi I'm so happy to hear he's motivated you! I love that Sean's willingness to share his passions impassions others. He's a great cheerleader!

  18. Love it!!!

    Can't believe I may be running 3 races this year with one of my favorite actors (Santa to the Sea, LA Marathon, Hollywood 1/2).

  19. "Also, my sense of ‘fun’ has changed. The spiritual connection that you feel with nature and yourself and the road are what most long distance runners embrace. So now at 40 I’ve really come to the understanding that pain is gain and the more you learn to have ‘fun’ with the pain that comes along with healthy training, the more gratifying the experience is."

    I began my endurance racing quest at 48 yrs old. I ran my first Half marathon 7 months later. Now, with 20+ races under my belt, LA Marathon will be my first FULL Marathon. I couldn't agree more with what Sean says, it's a spiritual connection. I look forward to sharing the road with so many of my fellow racers. Good luck to all.

  20. Gregg, you and Sean seem to like the same races! Hope you have a great time and do well! Wave to Sean as you pass him!

  21. Charlene, that's wonderful you've been able to accomplish so much. Have a wonderful race and wave at Sean as you pass him! ;-)