INTERVIEW WITH PHIL STEAD: THE RUNNING ARTIST

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Phil Stead is one fast picture-book creator. Fast on his feet, that is. He is a former Division I track team standout for the University of Michigan, where he ran the 800, with a personal best of 1:50.8. Yes, that’s a seriously sub-four-minute-mile pace. He is also pretty speedy when it comes to creating award-winning picture books. Sometimes he writes them, sometimes he illustrates them, sometimes he does both. He is the author of the Caldecott Medal-winning picture book A Sick Day for Amos McGee, illustrated by his wife, Erin Stead.

Phil was recently in New York to promote his and Erin’s newest book, Lenny and Lucy. Getting together for an eight-mile loop from the Meatpacking district to Brooklyn Heights and back, Phil generously agreed not only to NOT leave me in his dust but also to answer a few interview questions. 

Running fast means something different to you than it does to us more middle-of-the-pack runners, but what does running itself mean to you?

First of all, Wes, everyone is a middle-of-the-pack runner. It just depends on the pack. But to answer your question…

More and more I realize that how “good” a runner is is mostly dependent on biology. Although I’m quite short I was lucky enough to be born with unnaturally long legs. In college my stride was measured to be the same length as a fellow 800 runner who was 11 inches taller than me. Assuming that biology makes up 75% of ability, and given that biology is out of our control, running for me becomes about that other 25%. That other 25% is a mixture of effort, dedication, and attitude. I like the idea of spending so much time and energy to perfect what is ultimately only 25% of a problem. It makes the runner’s journey that much more personal by both acknowledging and embracing the futility of the sport.

Has running’s role in your life changed since you were racing the 800 in college and high school, or do you still think of running pretty much the same way?

In high school and college it was all about finding out exactly what my physical limits were. I love the 800 because you can’t hide from your physical limits. In the last straightaway an Olympic 800 runner looks just as miserable as a kid running at a middle-school meet. There’s no hiding in that race. Once I discovered my biological limit I became obsessed with shaving off tenths and even hundredths of seconds from my 800 time. Now I pay less attention to my limits and where I stack up against other runners. I find more joy in the routine of running, and in trying new things. I’ve recently starting racing half marathons (I’ve never run a full marathon) and I feel like a whole new world of possibilities has opened up. There are so many ways to run a race that long!

Assuming that biology makes up 75% of ability, and given that biology is out of our control, running for me becomes about that other 25%. That other 25% is a mixture of effort, dedication, and attitude.

If you had two bits of training advice for a novice runner who wants to get faster and really take advantage of her potential, what would they be?

Number One: Be aware that all runners, regardless of talent level, feel terrible when they start a new training cycle. My twenty-some years of running has taught me that it takes exactly 11 runs spread across 2 weeks for your body to become accustomed to running. Most people who think they can’t run have just never gotten to that twelfth run on the first day of week 3. Hang in there!

Number Two: Once a week after an easy run do a series of short, fast sprints. I like to do 4 x 150 meters at close to maximum effort, with a 2 min jog or walk in between. These short sprints put very little strain on your body, but pay HUGE dividends in your training. Plus it’s just fun to run really fast.

If the great picture book artist Randolph Caldecott taught us anything it’s that a great picture book is about speed, vitality, and movement. What classic fast-moving picture book character would you love to go on a run with?

Definitely Harold of Harold and the Purple Crayon. There’ve been many runs in my life where I really could’ve used a magic crayon to draw me a Gatorade, or a sandwich, or protective nipple tape, or some other emergency item. Some days I probably would’ve just had Harold draw me an eject button.

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Which of your picture book characters do you think has the potential to be a runner, if they aren’t already?

Amos McGee has been a lifelong runner. Many kids notice that Amos changes into appropriate footwear when he races the tortoise. Adults tend to miss that detail.

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Since leaving NYC for northern Michigan, you live in a pretty idyllic setting. Can you describe one of your favorite country runs for us city-pent runners? Something to really make us jealous!

Well, before I bum you all out I’d like to say that NYC is actually one of my favorite places to run. Sure, the air is awful, and there’s entirely too much concrete. But as far as city running goes you really can’t beat the NYC scenery. One of my all time favorite runs ever was an 8 mile out-and-back along the Hudson. The Space Shuttle had just returned to earth and it was being pulled up the river on a barge towards midtown. I ran right alongside it for a 4 mile tempo at 6 minute pace. Best running buddy ever!

But back to Northern Michigan. I live at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. For those familiar with Michigan that’s the tip of the pinky finger. I am surrounded by water, trees, orchards, and sand dunes. My favorite run is an 11 miler that loops from one side of the peninsula to the other. From our farm I head down a lonely country road with pine woods on either side. I then head into those woods for a mile of sandy trail. I pop out in the town of Northport, population 600. I run past Barb’s Bakery (best donuts in Michigan) and then head to the water front. Then it’s two miles of dirt road along Grand Traverse Bay. From there I head inland and uphill, cutting through apple and cherry orchards till I crest and start to descend towards Lake Michigan. If the wind and waves are down then I head to the beach and run a mile along the water. Then I cut up a quarter-mile-long wooden staircase through a dune blowout and up to one of the higher points of the peninsula. From there I have sweeping views of the lake. Then it’s 3 miles to home along rolling country roads, past centennial farms and old barns.

PHIL’S FAVORITE RUNS

Do you have a favorite running book, something that you return to when you need a little inspiration?

I don’t know why, but I never read about running!

Can you describe how you incorporate running into you daily life—morning, noon, or night?

I’ve always been an evening runner. I run to obliterate the anxieties of the day. Every now and then I take some time off of running. But usually after about 3 or 4 days I discover that I’m having a hard time sleeping. My job requires way too much introspection and internal monologue. Without running there’s no good way for me to shut off that tap at the end of the day. Running wipes the slate clean every night.

What’s your favorite piece of running equipment these days? For me it’s my Croakie’s headband for my glasses, which is about eight years old. I feel naked on a run without it.

Without question it’s my ratty old Brooks running hat. It’s fallen apart in the wash at least a half dozen times. I just sew it back together. I don’t actually know how to sew, so the stitching is starting to give off a Frankenstein-y vibe. Still, I can’t run without it. I figure it’s seen 10,000 miles worth of running, easy.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Phil. Your readers will love to see your lucky hat in full display in this 2013 interview with you after winning the Dexter-Ann Arbor 5K in 15:33. Like we said, this guy is one fast artist!

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