Joel Gaff, 32, is well known in northern Michigan’s running community, not only as an impressive endurance athlete—he’s a former collegiate runner, 3:00:24 marathoner and Hagerty Cycling Team member currently training for his third Ironman—but also as a talented race photographer and a partner in the running and triathlon event management business Endurance Evolution. In other words, he’s one active, busy guy. He’s also incredibly kind and generous, and throughout the past year as I’ve gotten to know him better (we’re both adjunct profs at Northwestern Michigan College), I’ve thought often how I’d like to feature him here. His passion for endurance sports and zest for life—he helped convince me and my family to dive into the freezing Bay this past Jan. 1 along with dozens of other crazy-brave souls—is infectious and inspiring. We chatted recently about his latest sporting adventures, and I also tapped into his expertise about running and racing.
Within the past year, you and fellow athlete and business partner Eric Tingwall have seen a lot of growth with Endurance Evolution. What’s the latest with your events?
We’ve been around since ’09, doing the Traverse City Triathlon each summer. It’s been about a year now that we’ve really been working toward all of these new events, too [Glen Arbor Solstice Half Marathon and 5K and Sleeping Bear Marathon and Half Marathon]. With the Glen Arbor Solstice race, we had great turnout and great support from the community. The athletes responded really well. We had about 440 or so registered for the race. For a first-year event, we were tickled pink we got that kind of response. [Partnering with the Michigan State University Triathlon Club] we have the Spartan Sprint Triathlon on August 5 at Lake Lansing Park South. We also have the Traverse City Triathlon Aug. 19.
Details on the Oct. 7 Sleeping Bear Marathon and Half-Marathon in Empire, please?
The key feature is the beauty of the course. It’ll be the peak of fall color season. The trees around the route are going to be on fire with color. In terms of terrain, the course, the Half is mostly flat. It’ll have one up-and-down and then you turn around. It’s not a huge crowd support event—instead of thousands and thousands people, you have thousands and the thousands of trees cheering you on. The marathon will have one more gradual uphill, downhill; it’s also an out-and-back course. The scenery is just going to be breathtaking.
Tell us about your own race training—you’re gearing up for your third Ironman in Tempe, Arizona this November. How do you train for this event? [An Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run]
Most of my training is on an hourly volume per week: 11-12 hours per week. It’s an easy intensity level. Later on, in another month or so, I’ll be at 16-17 hours a week and it’ll be more intense. That’ll be peak time. It’s like taking on a part-time job. I do have a buddy who is doing another Ironman in the fall. But most of my training, I do on my own. I enjoy getting on my bike and going for five hours in Leelanau County and having that time to myself.
You were a hurdler in high school and at Eastern Michigan University (for your freshman year) and Michigan State University (your final three years). How did you transition into a distance runner and Ironman athlete?
I ran cross-country in high school and I think that was a huge part of my success as a hurdler in high school. I did my first marathon in 2003, when I was living in Spain. That was what kicked me off in the marathon. Ever since then I haven’t turned back. I never got into cycling until probably 2004, 2005, when I lived at the Leelanau School and taught out there. A friend really got me into cycling—we went around Big Glen Lake and I was hooked. I consider myself a runner, but also a cyclist too. I like them both. And I like them both together. It’s a good break from just the repetitive going out and run, run, run every day. I try to run one day and the next day is cycling. And swim. As I get older, I’m enjoying that variation. Mixes it up mentally and physically.
Your first Ironman was in Lake Placid in 2008. What is it about the Ironman distance that you like so much?
I just like torturing myself in that weird way, in putting your body through an effort for such a long time. I don’t know if it’s an addiction. I don’t think it is—it’s easy for me to slough off training and eat brownies all day long. But I really like the training. I like riding a lot. I don’t like swimming a lot. That’s definitely one of the things that I have to drag myself out the door to do. Partners help…that’s what really saves me.
You recently took on a pretty big endeavor: running a verrry long distance—39 miles—with a few other guys. What made you decide to do this, your longest run ever?
It was something different. It’s because it’s crazy. This is the third year for this group of people [to run this distance together] I always wanted to do it. One of the reasons is for my Ironman training. My wheels always come off in the Ironman at the 20-mile mark of the marathon. So I thought I’d ramp up my running volume, to see if I can run 30 miles, 40 miles … For training I wanted to say I had run 40 miles, It sounded like a cool, crazy thing. Like jumping into the Bay in the winter. The final run ended up being 39 miles exactly. We started at sunset at 9:30 p.m. in Leland and we did some zigzagging south of Leland and then made our way through the west side of Lake Leelanau and Cedar and ended up in TC before sunrise. It took 7 ½ hours total, about 6 ½ hours of running. We had dropped water and Gatorade and power bars. For me, it was at a comfortable enough pace—we weren’t racing [they ran just over 10-minute miles]. We were doing it just to do it. It was a lot of fun. It was awesome running through Leelanau County in the middle of night under a starlit sky. It’s cool to think that people are going to bed and I’m just starting a run. It’s crazy—who does that? If we needed to slow down, we did. It was a no-drop thing—it’s about being out there together. I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone…the miles just melted away as we talked. It’s easy to run when you have people to run with. We did enjoy some PBRs on the beach afterward. That cooler was like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And this long run wasn’t too long after you ran this year’s Bayshore Marathon—how was that race for you?
I was able to kind of experiment a little bit. I went into the Bayshore kind of wanting to run a fast time, and experiment with different tactics: not worrying about my pace as much, running off feel. My goal was running a three-hour race [he ran it in 3:07]. I didn’t want to push it, though. I went out comfortable, never once hit the wall and the last mile was fastest and under six minutes. I felt great” Within the next day, I was able to run again. I ran 10-15 minutes the next day, then 4 to 5 miles two days after. Usually I am hobbling. I started eating a vegan diet six months ago, and I’m finally starting to really believe in the vegan diet. I think it’s really helping with my recovery. I knew I wasn’t going to run a PR that day, but in terms of not being too far off a PR, I was just happy with how I felt.
What advice would you offer to athletes planning out their race schedule, whether the race is a 5K, half marathon, marathon or tri?
The big thing is your life schedule—where are you going to be at in life? What is your work schedule going to be like? What is your family life going to be like? Some races you have to sign up a year ahead, and sometimes you have to make some sacrifices, like cutting back on work hours and not hanging out with family and friends as much.
What would you say are the benefits of sitting down and planning out a race schedule?
For me personally, I work best in general under pressure. If I have a deadline, I’m on it. So, when you have that something in your sights, you have to start picking and choosing what you want to do…you start to realize, ‘Oh wow, there is a lot of extra junk in my day.’ Or, I need to cut out some stuff. It does help in that prioritizing of your schedule. Especially beyond [training for] the 5K, you have to start picking and choosing what you want to be doing.
Do you have a rule for how many races you take on, say, in a given year?
It is super individualized, that’s tough to say. For a beginner, if you’ve never done a half marathon or a greater distance, I’d say shoot for one race in a year.
Rest between races certainly is important…
Yes, the downtime I’m finding more than ever is more important than the actual racing and training. Actually having that down time where you can actually not worry about your training schedule—that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes people burn out. This is a lot of work. I’m really learning that as I’m getting more rest in my weekly training schedule, I’m realizing it might be good for me. In terms of races per year, I’ve fallen into an every other year Ironman schedule, with the intermediate year I’ll do a marathon or maybe two marathons. I like to stick to one event a year, whether it’s an Ironman or marathon and scattering the shorter stuff. I just want to enjoy it.