Interview by Harry Gould
While it's true that the steeplechase and the 110m hurdles both involve running and clearing objects placed in your path, the differences outweigh the similarities. The 110mH takes 13 secs whereas the 3000m SC takes over eight minutes; men's hurdles are 3ft 6in high (stand next to one - you'll be surprised at just how high that is) while men's steeple barriers are a more modest 3ft high; hit a hurdle hard enough and it's going down; hit a steeple barrier hard enough and you're going down - hard. So how do two athletes from opposite ends of the hurdling spectrum approach their events? We set Diamond League hurdler Aaron Mallett up with steeplechaser Mason Ferlic them to get into the weeds of their craft and their mutual pursuit of the Olympian dream.
Mason Ferlic is an Ann Arbor-based long distance runner specializing in the 3000m steeplechase. While competing for the University of Michigan in 2016, he won their first individual national championship in nine years. In his season opener steeplechase at Hayward Field, Ferlic set a new PR and achieved the Olympic standard with a time of 8:18.49. Currently, he’s training with Nick Willis in Ann Arbor as he pursues a PhD in applied statistics and data science.
Aaron Mallett, a hurdler out of the University of Iowa, has staked his claim as someone to watch in the 110 meter hurdles. The Doha Diamond League hurdle champion boasts an incredible PR of 13.15 seconds which places him in the top 25 in the world at the moment. To get here has been no easy feat. Over the span of three years, Mallett has worked 10 different jobs and multiple at one time. This determination and willingness to do whatever it takes makes him one of the most exciting people to watch in the sport.
Mason: It’s something we’ve changed around a lot. We’re at an eight-day training cycle now. We add an extra rest day in between the hard sessions on the track and that’s been great. One, Nick’s getting older. Two, I love the extra recovery. I’m more of a “float along and have to feel good” runner.
Aaron: We go in cycles as well but ours are week-by-week. Typically we go in eight-week cycles and then within the week, we do certain things. Say I had a normal week starting on Monday, we’d have a prep day with resisted runs to get the CNS (central nervous system) firing. We usually have a pretty high hurdle day on Tuesday. That is working up to around eight to 10 hurdles with a lift. Wednesday is our tempo day, “long” for us, but not very long for you.
We’ll do anywhere from 1500 to 2200 meters of tempo work depending on where we are in the season. Thursday is our recovery day where we just sit and shakeout if we need to. Friday is another high intensity day where we do something called special endurance sprints where we do 500 to 1200 meters of work but it’s super fast. That’s lots of fast 150s, I hit 15.5 seconds last time so we’re cooking. Saturday we’ll come back with a tempo workout and rest Sunday. The weeks build in intensity from the first week through the third. We then have an unload week for the fourth and then repeat the whole thing and that’s eight weeks.
A: I still train in Iowa which is where I went to school. But when I first got here we’d do two hurdle days per week. But not everyone would be sharp both days we did it. Now that I’ve gotten older, we’ve moved to just one super high quality hurdle day per week. We treat these days like a meet.
M: On the hurdles days you said you typically do eight to 10 hurdles. Do you practice a race mindset against the other guys at practice going 100 percent effort or do you limit it to 90 to 95 per cent?
A: Obviously, it’s hard to mimic race day energy but when we’re building up going from starts to two hurdles, four hurdles, six hurdles, these are 100 percent effort attempts. You don’t want to get complacent going over them. On the surface it’s not that much volume but it’s super high intensity. People have their headphones on and everything, people are ready.
M: Do you get nervous before those days? What’s the worst day of the week?
A: On those Tuesdays and Fridays, our high days, you can sense the energy at the track. Everybody’s listening to music, Coach is fired up, we all treat it like meets. I don’t get nervous but my teammates are some of the best guys in college right now so they keep me sharp.
A: How many miles do you try to get in a week now that it’s competition season?
M: I’m averaging right around 70 to 75 miles a week. For a sprinter that seems like a lot but considering I’m a longer distance runner, it's on the lower end. But, this is with a whole day off every eight days. Right now I’m actually trying to keep my mileage a little bit higher because I imagine it’s the same with sprinters where you don’t want to get too sharp, too early. We’re trying to sort of train through May while still producing some good results.
Find a meet to race
M: It’s been so hard for steeple [to find a race]. In 2020, I don’t think there was a single steeple race in the US. The Eugene meet was the first time in 18 months that I ran a race over barriers. It’s crazy, it’s definitely the longest time I’ve got without racing my primary event in my whole career. Thankfully, a lot of the meets happening now have recognized this and have started to add steeple and hurdle races. Weirdly, all the sudden there’s a ton of opportunities that I’m having to turn some down. Contrasting your training, Aaron, where you do hurdles once a week, for most of the year I never touch a barrier to go over a hurdle, it’s all flat stuff training for the 5k and 10k. Once the weather finally gets nice here in Michigan, we finally start hurdles in practice.
A: Our situation is very similar. People don’t recognize how much rhythm goes into race. You can be super fit and super fast but if the rhythm is off you won’t race well and the only way to get that rhythm is to race. In 2020, my previous agent got me into a few races and I raced myself into fitness. From first to the last meet, I dropped over half a second in a month and a half time period. I was getting into that rhythm which was something a lot of guys were getting nervous about because they weren’t racing.
M: The steeple can be very similar with that rhythm. Usually when you start a season you don’t run all that great of a time. Generally over the course of a season you can take off 10 to 15 seconds. Along with that, is the confidence you get from doing it; that you won’t faceplant going over a barrier. How do you know you’re in shape versus you’re in shape AND the rhythm is there? Can you sense it beforehand or does it surprise you?
A: You know you’re fit when you can get over a set of four or five and you’re not gassed. It doesn’t sound like much but that’s around 60 meters at full intensity, it’s a lot. You can feel rhythm in your drills. When stuff just starts clicking and you’re hitting good positions you can feel your rhythm. That’s exactly how I felt when I went to Doha last summer. I got a solid week of just eating, sleeping, and training. The warm up of meet day I was like I’m gonna PR, I can just feel it. My body was just clicking and I ran a PR of 13.15. Right now, I’m feeling good going over the hurdles and I’ve got a feeling my next race is going to be a good one.
On big 2020/2021s
M: It’s been a weird year. Everyone was super prepped going into 2020 and then, when the Olympics got postponed it was a huge emotional letdown. This was something that a lot of people had been building towards for the last three years. Then it became what now? That summer I switched it up and went after a new mile PR because I hadn’t officially broken four minutes. It was a nice period of stress free training. Then once the end of 2020 rolled around and races started back up, I stepped back into that build up mindset I found it a lot easier. It felt like a second chance to be even more focused and relaxed about things, versus last year I was definitely more nervous. Going into the 2016 Trials and now, despite being five years older, I’m still feeling a lot of the same feelings.
A: I honestly second everything you just said. In 2019, I was hurt most of the year and never got into my rhythm. At the end of that year, going into 2020, I was finally starting to feel really good. And then the let down of not knowing what to do when everything got cancelled. I decided to stay ready just in case because you never know what’s going to happen. I had my college PR just weighing on me. Making the transition from college to pro was tough, I had a lot of things to figure out, I had to work and figure out agents and meets and money and everything like that. Once I finally got a hold of that, things really started to take off for me and ran consecutive PRs and regrounded myself in the sport. The mental aspect is what can really make or break someone. And now that we all know that we can make it through a tough year like last year, we can do anything. You can enjoy it more.
M: All the uncertainty and taking a step back from being laser focused, I had a great time just going out and training with my group. That was my social outlet. We were just having fun training. I definitely learned to take things more chill. Did you learn anything in the past year?
A: I did a lot of training alone in 2020 so it forced me to look inside and ask questions like why do you get so nervous? I’ve picked up meditating and it’s not like I sit and Om for hours. I focus on my breathing and clear my head and it’s taken me to such a different level as to how I can focus and what I can block out. People love crowds and love being in the moment but they can also let it be bigger than what they're doing. I’ve learned how to manage my nerves a lot better and been able to take a step back and work from within. As weird as 2020 was, it was also really rewarding.
Thoughts on the water barrier
A: Being a huge track fan, I’ve always wondered how steeplers tackle the water barrier?
M: One of the biggest differences between your hurdles and mine is that you’re in a lane and you know that for the most part you’re not going to interact with anyone else and you’ve got your rhythm. In steeple you have guys throwing in surges and the race is all over the place so you’re constantly thinking about where you are. You’ve said you can tell when you’re feeling the rhythm and the water barrier is one of the stops where I can tell if I feel off or not. When you jump the water barrier the goal is to land in the last few inches of the pit because the water does cushion your fall a little bit. The main part is trying to stay out of trouble and avoid carnage. I’m always worried about my long legs getting clipped.
A: I’ve always imagined that the water jump is super tactical. In my event, I’ve had teammates who’ve had their glasses covered in rain and still run great times because they just go into muscle memory. Or when I run super fast, I don’t even remember what I just did, it was automatic.
M: How bad are steeplechasers hurdle form?
A: Yours is actually really good!
M: No way! I look at you guys and you’re so powerful and clean. I feel like I’m just flying all over the place.
A: You’ve gotta compare yourself more to the 400 meter hurdlers because you’re covering so much distance and when you compare yourself to them you look great.
Who would win racing a 400mH
A: Well I ran the 400 meter hurdles my first two years of college and my PR is around 51.4.
M: Yeah, that’s definitely too fast for me. I think I might be able to break 58 seconds though. I think 800 meter hurdles might be a more fair matchup.
On other track events
M: If you could do any event that’s not your main event what would it be?
A: Definitely long jump. It’s so freaking cool.
M: I was going to say high jump. It’s just so graceful to watch those guys get up and just float over that bar.
Staying with college coaches
A: I’m a big believer of if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I was getting a little discouraged right after college when I wasn’t PRing but then I forced myself to look at everything else that’s changed since graduating. I was working two jobs and I didn’t understand the commitment that was needed to achieve what I had set out to do. Also, my coach and I have almost a father-son, best friends relationship. No matter where in the world I am, we’re always on the same page. It’s the kind of trust built up over years.
M: It’s exactly the same for me. Once you establish yourself as an athlete you get an idea of what works for you. I never left because it was a great environment and things were working. Also there was a two-way channel of respect and I didn’t want to mess it up by going somewhere else. The environment is so comfortable and I’ve been able to build this perfect training schedule. My group is definitely all products of a great environment.
A: I agree. You just know where everything is. If you have an issue you know how to fix it. You’ve got these built up relationships with chiros and PTs that have been with you on your journey as an athlete. My coach knows me so well and has seen me grow.
M: You need stability in this sport to stay in it for a long time.
A: Exactly, there’s no team to back you up. If we don’t produce, we’re not producing. That’s it. Stability helps sustain.
M: In my training group we now have a high schooler training with us. He’s a decade younger than I am and then Nick Willis is a decade older than I am. We have this huge age range in our group but it oddly works really well. When you train with the team at the University of Iowa, do you feel the same way?
A: It’s similar. I always joke that I’m the old man, especially now that I’m bald. I’ve always got guys come up to me and say how they used to watch me on TV at the big college championships. Now, I think my coach uses me as a selling point for the team and I’m all about it. I’m kind of like the big brother and second coach. It honestly really helps take the pressure off myself because I see it’s not just about me, it’s about this team. I can get in my head sometimes and now I can help them and get rid of that weight.
Planning for the future
M: Have you thought about what you want to do after this year?
A: A lot of people have said coaching and now that I’ve done that a little I realize I love that. But I think what I really want to do is work in a major sports team’s front office. Working the business side of sport so you can still stay involved. I’ve been planning on going back to school to get my MBA to kickstart that goal. What about you? Aren’t you like a rocket scientist?
M: Well, on every starting line the same announcer is like he’s a literal rocket scientist! But actually I’m in a PhD program in applied statistics and data science. It feels very much like being a student athlete the first time around. Only difference is I’m older now and how to handle that work a lot better. It’s been a great situation. I have something to take my mind off track. I’m a person that needs balance.
A: I’m the same type of person. If I have just one thing going on, I focus too much mental energy on it. Recently I’ve been learning a lot about cryptocurrency and blockchain. Just trying to learn as much as I can in my down time.
M: I feel like that makes track athletes unique. We make our own schedules. You show up because you want to. We also can’t practice 10-hours a day. There’s only so much we can do on a daily basis. We crave something else going on. We want balance beyond just the sport.