Canadian Calum Neff moved to Texas 3 years ago and recently broke the Half Marathon Stroller World Record in 1:11:27 at the Katy Half. Here now is a chat with the fast man who pushed a very cute bundle of joy to that record.
Slowtwitch: Let’s begin with your most recent accomplishment, setting the world record for fastest half marathon while pushing a stroller. You set this at the Katy Half on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Was this done on a whim or had it been in your plans?
Calum Neff: We've lived in Katy almost three years since being transferred here from Canada for work. Last year was the inaugural Katy Half, which I won in 1:09, so I knew it was a fast, flat and smooth course. Over the past year I've become friends with the race director and he was on board for me to go after the record and made sure we had our own cyclists to witness and film the entire race. I filed our attempt with Guinness Book of World Records a few months ago and now I need to get the evidence filed to make it official.
To prepare, I was pretty much solely concentrated on the Houston Marathon [January 17th] the last five months, where I ran a frustrating 2:23. I dealt with hamstring cramps but finished only 20 seconds off of my time from last year, so it was inspiring to know I was ready to run faster than ever. I went through the half point in 1:09 and was feeling good. I am not a high mileage runner, between work and family I don't have time. My max was around 80 miles per week but I am usually in the 30-70-mile range with lots of racing or quality long runs on the weekend. It helps that I started running at four years old which is why my training does not typically match my results. I am a racer and have become very good at executing high performances when it matters.
So for the Katy Half it was really all about a 3-week marathon recovery and making sure the stroller was going to be safe and reliable. Surprisingly my body wasn't beat up after a 2:23 because I was held back with the hamstring so recovery was fast and aided by a local Katy recovery spa (ChilledCryo Spa), and they use NormaTec compression and Cryotherapy rather than ice baths.
ST: Tell us about the stroller set up you used.
Calum: The stroller was a stock, straight out of the box, Thule Glide. The only modification was the added weight of two GoPro cameras and a 20-pound kid! The Thule Glide is just under 22-pounds and tracks straight and true. If you have ever pushed a stroller you know there is nothing worse than a stroller that drifts to one side. It was a smooth ride, especially at the 11-12mph we maintained throughout the race. I did some track quarter repeats with the stroller the week of just to make sure.
ST: Did your faithful sidekick enjoy the ride?
Calum: Holly was loving it! We had her bundled up pretty good to keep warm but she was still waving her arms and clapping. She loves taking in all her surroundings. I could hear her babbling away too so it was comforting to know she was enjoying it. Around mile 11 she started to fuss a little but with 10 minutes left I knew it was best to just get to the finish. I was rubbing her head and talking to her and at one mile to go we turned into the sun and she was happy for the rest of the way to the finish.
ST: What about your wife? How did she feel about all this?
Calum: My wife was really supportive, she loves it when I can take the kids with me on my runs. On race day she was a key part of the team helping get everything ready, thankfully Holly always wakes up happy even though it was a little earlier than normal. It was a little cold that morning so my wife hopped in the car after watching the start and was following our run via the live Periscope footage. She was really happy to see Holly clapping and could hear her happy little voice so that was comforting. I think she turned it off toward then end when Holly started to fuss but we were also within 10 minutes away from the finish well under record pace so she made her way to the finishing chute with our eldest daughter, my mom, and my sister. I think the whole experience, especially the aftermath, has been a bit of a shock to all of us but her especially- standing on a finish line getting photo's taken, being interviewed on the news, and the social media impact. Her Instagram photo of us coming down the chute fist pumping was the original picture to be circulated and its made it way around the world a few times now, just crazy. She's earned some major street cred now with the Canadians in Katy mothers group, so she's having fun with it too.
ST: What else do we need to know about speedy stroller training and racing?
Calum: Most importantly, get a good stroller! I have had a few and I know if it is not enjoyable for you or the kid you are not going to get out. Make sure it tracks straight. If it has an adjustable front wheel they usually have a fine tuning screw but a fixed wheel is better. The adjustable handle bar height, like on the Thule Glide, is a nice feature. I try to avoid technology like bringing a tablet for my kids. I think it defeats the purpose of being outside. However, a Bluetooth speaker for some music always gets a few more miles out of my girls. Bring snacks and drinks, and pick destinations like playgrounds. Do not be afraid to hit the trails either, as long as its not too rough and you have good shocks on the stroller it can be a lot of fun.
ST: Did you receive any attention from local or national media for your record setting effort?
Calum: I cannot believe the impact this record has made. I have heard from people all over the world who are in awe and inspired. The support has been truly amazing and I thank everyone for the encouragement. It has been really interesting to manage this with work. I really am just a regular guy at the office so when the CEO walked in after seeing me on TV setting a world record it was an interesting conversation!
ST: You are quite fast for someone with a day job. What do you do for work?
Calum: I am an operations manager and safety officer for a very small [30 person] oilfield service company called XACT. Our company developed a technology to send data up hole during drilling and completions through sound waves along the drill string. We are close nit and all perform many duties and I am very lucky they are supportive of my freak athletic endeavors, which include a walking treadmill desk!
ST: It seems you seek out unique running challenges around the world. Has running always been a part of your life?
Calum: My first race was the 1988 Cajun Cup 1k in Lafayette, Louisiana at the age of four. My Dad was always running marathons and shorter road races so I grew up around the sport. When I was 9 I dropped him halfway into the Mother's Day 10k in Calgary. I finished that race in 40 minutes which was the first time I beat him so I figure I have about 8 years till Holly starts beating me. But, I guess she has already accomplished that!
Due to my Dad’s work we moved around a lot, but I came up through some really good youth track developments in Canada and Australia and coming out of high school I was a 3:54 1500m runner [~4:10 miler]. I finished up at the University of Houston with some good performances in track and cross-country but nothing spectacular and really never improved much from high school.
After a few years I got into trail running and made it on to the Canadian Mountain Running Team competing at the IAAF World Championships in Poland in 2013 and Wales in 2015 where I placed top 50 both. Trail running has a funny way of sucking you into ultras. It does not matter if you blaze a 10k in record time because you are overshadowed by people running 100k or more. My first big ultra was the 125km Canadian Death Race with 17,000-ft of elevation gain and loss which took me 13 hours and 54 minutes and a fourth place finish.
ST: And you are living and training out of flat-as-a-pancake Houston for all these mountainous races?
Calum: I wanted one last Canadian Rockies adventure before I got transferred to flat Houston so Canadian Death Race was done prior to my transfer to Houston. For the World Mountain Running Championships, that’s right. I have found speed transfers very well to climbing. Before the World Mountain Running Championships I had won the RunOne Mile in 4:19. I do try to supplement with some lightweight squats, power cleans, lunges, and plyometrics if I am heading to a hilly race to supplement the parking garage workouts!
ST: One of the more unique runs you have done on two occasions was the Red Bull Wings for Like Run. Tell us about that experience.
Calum: It is one of my favorite races. It is a unique format where you are eliminated by catcher cars that are synced up to the same distance throughout over 30 race locations around the world. Runners from every location start at exactly the same time and 30 minutes later the cars head out on the course at a set pace schedule until everyone is caught. In 2014, in California, I was the last man standing in all of the North America events at 36.36 miles in 4 hours. That effort won me a trip to Turkey for the 2015 event where I ran to 39.95 miles in 4:19 before being eliminated. This year I am doing the Canadian event hoping for closer to 50 miles.
ST: Any other challenges coming up in the near future? Is an attempt at the Marathon Stroller World Record on the your radar?
Calum: I am a serial racer with lots of races in mind. I will be doing the Trail Racing Over Texas race series with my eye on the Sky Running event in El Paso, TX in September. I may have an opportunity to run on one of the teams at Beat the Sun Relay, a race around Mont Blanc, which is something I have always wanted to do. I think Comrades is right up my alley too.
Of course, the Marathon Stroller record is now in my sights. It is held by Michael Wardian, a 2:42 at the Frederick Marathon. Wardian later had a stroller-dual with Zac Freudenburg in 2009 at the Route 66 Marathon where Freudenburg ran 2:32:10 but must have not had enough evidence or a rule was missed for Guinness Book of World Record validation. I think I can go sub-2:30 with a stroller, but I need to find the right race.
ST: Are these self-funded adventures or do you have a team of partners who help make them possible?
Calum: Unless I win a trip form a race or there is elite funding, my racing is self-funded. The Houston Striders Running Club have also helped send me to the world championships in previous years. Over the last couple of years I have built a really good network of support, which are now starting to help with getting me to bigger races and at least reducing all my gear and nutrition expenses. I am currently an ambassador team member for Altra, Features!, EPICbar, Polar, nuun, RunGum, Nathan, Victory Sport Design Bags, Chilled Cryospa Recovery, Trail Racing Over Texas, Julbo, Octane Fitness Zero Runner, Luke’s Locker, Vespa Nutrition and Thule Stroller.
ST: You mentioned earlier you have become friends with Kath Half Marathon Race Director Aaron Palaian who owns OnUrMark and produces the Bayou Triathlon Series in Houston. Has he tried to talk you into a triathlon yet?
Calum: Ha too funny! Yes Aaron's first question after I won the Katy Half last year was, ‘Do you do triathlons?” He even offered to coach me and let me race all his races. Houston is big into tris and everyone wants me to do one. I did a couple as a kid in Australia but no immediate plans. Running is enough right now.