Chronicles of a Career Marathoner
by Garrett Gardner
Approaching two years after his victory at the 2021 California International Marathon (CIM), 34-year-old Davis native Brendan Gregg looks to this winter with a lofty goal: two marathons only eight weeks apart. In December he will run CIM for the third year straight, looking for his second win at Sacramento’s marquee race. And in February, 2024 he will head to Orlando to compete in his third U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials against the country’s best marathoners.
Early on, Gregg fell heir to the sport of running. “It was definitely a family affair. My older sister ran before I did and my dad is still the Davis High School coach. It quickly became apparent that I was better at running than I was at any of those other sports,” said Gregg with a smile.
Gregg had success, but did not perform exceptionally well until his senior year of high school. Over the summer he attended a training camp in Santa Barbara, where he saw promising developments. The high schooler circled the Stanford Invitational on his racing schedule.
Gregg won the Stanford Invite, beating some of the best in the state. “It was by far the most high-profile result that I had achieved up to that point,” said Gregg.
For college, Gregg started thinking about high-profile running programs, such as Colorado, Oregon, Wisconsin and Stanford. After discussing options with several programs, Gregg decided on Stanford University, known for its rich distance running history. “Had I not gotten into Stanford, I was all set to go to Chico (State),” he said, referring to Coach Gary Towne’s NCAA Division 2 powerhouse.
Results were slow for Gregg with the Cardinal. “I regret to say my two best races were probably at cross country regionals, where I finished top 10 a couple times,” said Gregg. “I didn’t have a great race at Nationals, but as a team we placed third and got to get up on the stage and everything. That was the only time I was a part of a podium team. Some missed opportunities, certainly.”
The beginning of Gregg’s collegiate track career was also bumpy, but he managed to qualify for the NCAA Division 1 Nationals in both the 5k and 10k in his fifth year. “To make it in two events was my personal highlight as a track athlete,” said Gregg.
Following college, Gregg had to make a decision. He could try to scrape a living out of the under-developed arena that is professional running in the United States or he could pursue a more lucrative career (AKA anything else).
Gregg decided to take a chance, and signed on with the Hansons Distance Project, a professional distance running group in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “For a guy at the level that I was at in college, Hansons was a really good opportunity… It’s a balanced program where no one workout is key. It’s definitely more about the entire cycle, both within the individual marathon cycle, but also on a longer-term, year-to-year basis…” said Gregg. As is common with many athletes in the program, Gregg made ends meet by working at the local Hanson’s Running Shop.
Gregg explained his training as being on a nine-day cycle, in chunks of three days. Two high-volume easy days followed by a workout. Speed workouts were run around 20 seconds per mile faster than marathon race pace. “I was doing mile repeats at 4:48 pace with full recovery… That’s not a very hard workout. I would do 5 x 1 mile at 10k pace (4:39/m) down to 5k pace (4:26/m) in college.” But the workouts were more relaxed for a reason. “I would spend some cycles out there averaging 130 (miles per week),” said Gregg.
On par with most debut marathons, Gregg offered a savory description of his 2014 Chicago Marathon, using adjectives like terrible, awful and horrendous. “It wasn’t what I wanted… I felt very confident with what I had done in practice, but then on race day I just ran out of fuel and hit the wall,” said Gregg. His goal was to run around 2:12 (5:02/m), but his lack of caution saw him home in 2:18:30 (5:17/m). “I knew that was going to be my distance long-term, I was just going to have a learning curve and (have to) figure some things out.”
But after two years in Michigan (2013-2014), he decided that California would be a better place for him. “They (Keith and Kevin Hanson) very generously offered to keep me on the team as a remote member,” said Gregg.
In October 2014, Gregg returned to Sacramento where he trained with his wife Jonah Weeks, as well as Hansons teammate Shadrack Biwott and Malcolm Richards of West Valley Track Club. He ran for Hansons another eight years, attending training camps with the rest of the team in Michigan and Florida (in the winter).
“Jonah has been the biggest source of support… I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, at this level, without her. She’s been there through all the ups and downs. It’s always a work in progress, but I’m certainly better at managing the emotional highs and lows of the sport. And that’s in large part because of her support,” said Gregg.
He also mentions a degree of internal motivation that drives him to perform. “I’m not a masochist. I don’t love to suffer for suffering’s sake, but I enjoy the challenge of a hard, demanding effort… the process of exploring and figuring out where that line is, has kept me in the game for as long as I’ve been going. It’s maybe this foolhardy idea that I know I can still go faster than I’ve gone before. Ultimately there’s going to come a time where that’s not going to be the case.”
Gregg tried for success in shorter distances between or during marathon builds. In 2014 he made a U.S. cross country team and competed at the renowned Great Edinburgh Cross Country meet in Scotland. According to flotrack.org, a running media website that also tracks race results, Gregg placed 13th in the 8k event. And despite separating a rib in the midst of a rock concert mosh pit, he showed up several weeks later at the 2016 USA Track Olympic Trials 10k, where he placed 8th.
However, he spent the majority of those years working to get it right in the marathon, tallying up his fair share of failures. Due to injuries, he dropped out of two of his next three marathons. His only finish was at the California International Marathon (CIM) with a time nearly identical to his debut (2:18:33). “I had four cracks at it with close to nothing to show,” said Gregg.
Things started to turn around in 2018. Four years after beginning his marathon debut, Gregg finally made solid contact with the distance. He placed 5th at CIM, running 2:13:28 (5:06/mile). It wasn’t a home run, but Gregg was just glad it wasn’t another strikeout. “2018 was a put-up or shut-up year… I finished that race thinking, ‘thank goodness, I ran an okay marathon. I can live with this.’”
Feeling a boost from his breakthrough, Gregg lined up for the 2019 Chicago Marathon with big goals in mind. The result was 16th place in a time of 2:11:38 (5:01/mile). Another two minutes off his best time placed him among a party of Olympic hopefuls, leading into the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, Georgia.
For the 2020 Olympic cycle, runners had to run the marathon in 2:19 (5:18/mile) or quicker. According to a start list on USA track and field’s website, usatf.org, Gregg was 13th out of 235 qualified runners. Gregg was not expected to become an Olympian, but he was not being written off either.
“On paper, the Olympic Trials is very binary; it’s top three or go home. And I was able to approach that race from the perspective of: I’m going to do all I can to give myself the best shot of being in that top three… acknowledging that it’s maybe a long shot for a guy in my position. But it’s not impossible. So let’s see what we can do,” said Gregg.
The Atlanta course was rife with hills and wind, two of the three worst enemies of the road runner (the last being heat). The course featured 1,389 feet of climbing over the 26.2 miles. The Boston Marathon offers under 1,000 feet, yet harbors a reputation for transforming some of the world’s greatest distance runners into hobbling disasters on the Newton Hills stretch. Atlanta’s undesirable conditions gave dark horses like Gregg a chance to steal the race.
“The race broke apart about mile 15 and separated into two distinct groups,” said Gregg. “It came down to crunch time… I went to the front of that chase group along with Jared Ward (2016 Olympian) and put in a big pull for four miles into the wind to try and keep that dream alive.”
His result: 2:13:27, 14th place. “Not everyone from that pack was going to make it across to bridge up to that front group and put themselves in the position to make a team,” said Gregg. Galen Rupp, multiple-time Olympic medalist won the race and 43-year-old (at the time) Abdi Abdirahman took the final spot. Gregg’s former teammate, Jake Riley took the third spot on the Olympic team.
Following the Trials, Gregg considered a new situation for his athletic pursuits. “I could name so many different folks that have played a big role in helping out. But the day-to-day piece of not having that team structure for the volume… I couldn’t make it work and had to find a different way of doing things.” He left the Hansons Brooks Project in late 2021.
In spring 2022, Gregg signed on with the Sacramento Running Association (SRA), a Northern California club that offers a rare post-collegiate, competitive atmosphere. SRA is also the non-profit organization behind Sacramento’s largest road races like CIM and Sactown 10 Miler. Prior to joining SRA, he started working with Coach Nate Jenkins that fall to prepare for CIM in early December.
With Jenkins, Gregg practiced the teachings of Renato Canova, a famous Italian coach. In general, the new philosophy focused more on marathon specificity, with two workouts in a single day that focused on marathon pace work, offering little recovery between repetitions. “The hard and fast long run is the key and everything else is the cherry on top,” said Gregg. He cited a particularly grueling training session before CIM where he ran 40k (24.8 miles) a little slower than goal marathon pace. Gregg’s father provided bike support from Davis to Winters, handing fuel to the marathoner along the way.
CIM rolled around and Gregg knew he was fit. Matt Leach, a Peninsula Distance Club (PDC) runner lined up as a pacer. He was instructed to go through the halfway point in 1:05. This allowed for competitors to take a shot at the course record, which is Jerry Lawson’s 1993 time of 2:10:27 (4:59/m), according to runsra.org. When Leach stepped off the road, Gregg kept the pace. “From mile 14 or 15 onwards, it was solo. I had a carrot out in front and the hounds chasing behind… I was hurting pretty good the last 3 or 4 (miles),” said Gregg.
He took his final steps on Capitol Mall Boulevard, breaking the tape in 2:11:21, a minute and a half ahead of Canadian Rory Linkletter. “I put in a ton of work and had a ton of help along the way to be in a position to make that happen… It was an ultimate dream-come-true day,” said Gregg. While he was pleased with the win, Gregg has unfinished business with the race and remains determined to claim the course record.
Gregg returned to CIM in 2022. The always-competitive event was further amplified with the status of being a USA Track and Field Championship race, meaning it would have a larger elite field than usual. Gregg hoped to run down the course record. However, Gregg was not 100 percent. “I was behind the eight ball with getting tripped at San Jose (Half Marathon) in October and had lingering effects from a concussion and a messed-up calf from that race,” said Gregg. He also cited a bout with COVID-19 three weeks out from the marathon. Despite these factors, Gregg went out on record pace, leaving the rest of the challengers behind.
But he made his move too early. “It was kind of dumb to solo from the gun. If I could re-run that race I probably would have been a little more conservative.” The rest of the men caught up to Gregg around mile 18. He finished in 38th place, 2:17:21 (5:17/m).
Now self-coached, Gregg recently made the tough decision to run both CIM in December, 2023 and the Olympic Trials in February, 2024. Eight weeks to recover from an all-out marathon effort is risky. “I’m all in for both. I’m not going to save any bullets for the Trials at the expense of CIM,” said Gregg.
The conditions in Orlando are yet another obstacle to contend with. The race will start at 10:00 a.m. for the men’s marathon and temperatures could reach the 70s. For a marathon, that is hot. “I’ll spend the 8-week block preparing specifically for the conditions in Orlando. I’ll spend a lot of time in the garage on the treadmill. I’ll probably buy a space heater,” said Gregg. He even throws around the idea of wearing a bunch of sweaters during his daily runs.
Gregg cites winter training camps in Florida that he did while a part of the Hansons program. “I’ve done runs at 7 a.m. in February that were pretty miserable out there… unless you live in Florida, there aren’t that many places in the country that you can have access to the necessary conditions to prepare yourself. So then you’ve got to get creative.”
In his career as a pro marathoner, Gregg has many miles to reminisce on. With these upcoming races, Gregg will continue to find out if his endless miles are worth the discomfort they inflict. His next attempts at the 26.2-miler will be on Dec. 3, 2023 in Sacramento, CA and on Feb. 3, 2024 in Orlando, FL. The Olympic Marathon Trials will air live on NBC at 7:00 a.m., PST.