Life on the Run: A Conversation with Formula Founder Jason Dunn

If you do something for two decades then you probably have a natural aptitude for it. You went straight from running at William and Mary to coaching at William and Mary. How did you arrive at coaching/training athletes as a vocation at such a young age?

Through most of my years at William & Mary I had planned to go to law school but by my last year I started to think about coaching.  I had a great college coach who was very impactful and his example was an inspiration to me for sure.  My coach departed William & Mary for another job in August after I graduated and instead of conducting a search for his replacement that late in the summer, my teammate (who had also just graduated and made the 1996 Olympic Team) and I were asked to fill the role of coaching the cross country team on an interim basis.  Thus, I went from running on the team to coaching my teammates in a 3-month span.  From there I was hooked and commenced on a 20 year coaching career crisscrossing the nation at five major universities.  

You once told me that running is a "cumulative sport." Your recent performance at the Charlottesville Ten-Miler would seem to attest to that; you placed top-thirty overall and took first in your age group even though you "only run thirty minutes a day now." Aspiring amateurs would like to know, how did your experience prepare to you hit such a time with such conservative preparation?  

 Jason (489) and his cumulative experience are a literal blur in the foreground as the young(er) bucks try to keep up.

Jason (489) and his cumulative experience are a literal blur in the foreground as the young(er) bucks try to keep up.

Yes, running is absolutely a cumulative endeavor!  Even though it’s rare for me to run 10 miles anymore, the fact that I have run that distance or longer literally thousands of times, it was not a stretch for me to jump into that race.  Also, despite the fact that I have only run in 3 races (the 10 miler included) since 1998, I have had a reputation for running relatively fast on my runs over the years - many of my former athletes would tell you they hated it when I would start my run as part of their cool downs following a workout.  The thing is, I could jump into the 10 miler and post a decent performance without specifically training for it, but I was definitely hurting pretty bad for the next week or so thereafter.  This is where proper preparation makes a big difference in terms of recovery.

Your history with the running community in Central Virginia goes deep. Panorama Farms, where The University of Virginia hosts its cross-country meets, is "The House That Jason Built", or so I’ve heard; you oversaw the designing of that course in the course of coaching UVA's team to national prominence. At Ragged Mountain Running Shop there's a congratulatory letter and a framed spike bag from the famed UVA secret society The Seven Society congratulating you on winning the ACC Championship. Take us back in the way back machine and tell us what building the program and the course was like.  

While I did have a hand in establishing Panorama Farms as the home to Virginia Cross Country, it’s really Steve Murray (the owner / operator of the property) who "built that house". He and Lance Weisend (who was the coach at Albemarle HS at the time) really got it going out there and then I was able to bring on UVA who helped provide the support to allow it to evolve into the amazing facility it is today.  It is certainly gratifying as I run around Panorama today to know I played a part in its existence and relevance in the world of cross country.  It is also gratifying to see the program at UVA doing so well today.  While I am nine years removed from my coaching role in that program, I know that the work we did during my tenure here helped set the standard and lay the groundwork for the continued success UVA Track and Cross Country has experienced in recent years.    

 A framed spike bag from UVA's Seven Society, presented to Jason on the occasion of his Cavaliers winning the ACC Cross Country Title. 

A framed spike bag from UVA's Seven Society, presented to Jason on the occasion of his Cavaliers winning the ACC Cross Country Title. 

 "The talent and camaraderie exemplified by the Men's team allowed for this success and will undoubtedly engender lasting achievement in seasons to come." 

"The talent and camaraderie exemplified by the Men's team allowed for this success and will undoubtedly engender lasting achievement in seasons to come." 

 

You've transitioned from training elite athletes in a collegiate setting to training amateur-adult athletes who are trying to fit fitness into their lives alongside work, family, and learning how to use the latest smart phone. The range of skill and experience levels is pretty wide. How are the two different coaching paradigms different? Are they different?

While I have had the good fortune to coach some professional runners and some of the best athletes in collegiate history (editor’s note: Among others, Jason coached Chris Derrick at Stanford whose 27:31.38 for 10K is the fastest run by an American Collegiate athlete all time), I have always felt that coaching is coaching.  Some of my favorite memories of coaching are attached to athletes who were not very good at all in high school but got to be great collegiate athletes through the cumulative effects of consistent training.  In general I have always believed that unless you're already the world record holder, I can help you get fitter and more efficient and you will improve as a runner. So while there are certainly some differences in approach and application of training methods, the bottom line with coaching is trying to help someone get better and finding out what I can do to assist them in that journey.

 Chris Derrick, one of Jason's standouts at Stanford, taking first place at the 2012 Pac-12 5,000m Championship.

Chris Derrick, one of Jason's standouts at Stanford, taking first place at the 2012 Pac-12 5,000m Championship.

Following up on that, you've transitioned from specifically coaching collegiate distance runners to working with a broader population of fitness enthusiasts (triathletes, cyclists, etc.) and novice athletes.  Have you or will you modulate your approach here?

I am a coach by nature and while the specificity of training may be different from my previous experience in many cases, my primary objective will be to help people achieve their fitness goals, whatever those may be.  I know what it takes help someone get fit, I understand what is necessary to work towards that end in a manner that will minimize the risk of injury, and I believe in the model we have established to provide an ideal balance of cardiovascular work with a functional strength foundation that leads to overall fitness.  While I have stepped away from the collegiate setting, I will always be a coach and I look forward to working with all those aspiring to better themselves - young or old, elite or novice.       

Here's a specific example. Out on a group run a couple months back you asked me if anyone had talked to me about frequency before. Nobody had, so mid-run you had me count my right foot strikes for thirty seconds, and we extrapolated that my step cadence was 15 steps shy of what it should be per minute. A.) Why is a frequent cadence important? B.) How on earth did you notice that when you were in the middle running yourself?

Well, I suppose when you have evaluated and critiqued runners for a couple of decades it just comes naturally.  Heck, I even find myself evaluating my dog Louie's stride so I guess it’s just who I am.  What I have learned over the years is that not everyone runs the same and that's okay, however, there are some basic elements relative to biomechanics that can make a major difference in performance and injury prevention.  As it relates to frequency, in general the more frequent you are in contact with the ground, the more your are propelling yourself forward.  Conversely, the more time to spend in the air due to a lack of frequency, the more time you spend not getting anywhere.  It’s a simple cue that I gave you and with a little attention to it over time, your efficiency will undoubtedly improve.  Ultimately as runners, regardless of the distance you are racing or just simply running, you want to be as efficient as possible to maximize your performance.  Whether your are trying set a new personal best at a given distance, or just looking to feel better on your daily run, why not look for ways to improve?  

Coach Dunn, keeping a close eye on some of his top athletes.

Your career has taken you from Virginia to Stanford and Oklahoma. With your pedigree you and Ann could have set up shop pretty much anywhere. Why did you decide to bring Formula to central VA?

I have a history here in Charlottesville and it’s a great running community that I maintained ties to even as my coaching career took me to places far away.  My mother lives here as well so being close to family was also a big draw.  We did consider other places, from areas on the west coast to Madison, WI where Ann is from, but we just knew this was the place where we wanted to settle down and provide a service to a community that we both so enjoy.  

The amateur athletic scene in the area seems to grow bigger by the minute. You can’t toss a stone without hitting a running group, biking group, or specialized gym. Any ideas what's spurring all this growth? Was it like this around here back in the early aughts?  

As far as I have known, Charlottesville has long been a very active community.  I used to tell recruits that it was often hard to be in any one place in town very long and not see someone running by.  It’s generally a progressive community that values health and wellbeing and exercise is clearly a huge part of that.  There is no question that one needs not look too long to find a place in town to sweat or workout and I think it’s great to have many options.  We don't expect Formula to be the only place in town where people come to train, but we do expect to provide a unique experience that allows our clients to get a great workout in a very cool setting.    

So what's the atmosphere going to be like in Formula's studio?

First off, we are very excited about the space (and its location) and it has been very cool to watch it take shape through the construction process.  The studio itself will be a separate space allowing us to control the lighting, music and temperature to create a great environment for our classes.  We have done a lot of research and visited a lot of studios around the country and I am confident we will provide a unique fitness experience for the people of Charlottesville. In addition, we are in the process of assembling a great group of instructors who will create atmosphere all their own and motivate our clients towards achieving their goals.  

 Jason on the "Grady Plunge" of the C10M. Remember those guys that were hot on his heels in the earlier photo? Neither does Jason.

Jason on the "Grady Plunge" of the C10M. Remember those guys that were hot on his heels in the earlier photo? Neither does Jason.