An Interview with Weldon Johnson, the co-founder of LetsRun.com
tips4running.com is thrilled to have an interview with Weldon Johnson. Weldon and his brother Robert are the creators and managers of the extremely popular running website Let’s Run.
The website is dedicated to covering elite distance running. Simply stated on their website, Weldon and Robert “spend hours a day searching all over the Internet to find interesting things about running, which we then present to you in a timely and hopefully interesting/entertaining fashion.”
Although he doesn’t run competitively anymore, Weldon has run some very fast times when he trained under John Kellogg after college. His PR in the 10K is 28:06, and he has run under 2:20 in the marathon multiple times.
David Tiefenthaler – Before we talk about LetsRun.com, I would like to know more about your running history. In high school, you didn’t run under 5:00 in the mile until your senior year. Did you do anything differently between junior and senior year to help you bust through.
Weldon Johnson – My senior year of high school I started running year round for the first time. Until this point, I only ran cross country in the fall and played basketball in the winter and tennis in the spring. I ran more that summer before the XC season as well. Running has to be a year-round activity and before that year I didn’t run from November until June.
DT – You ran at Yale, and didn’t run as well as you had hoped. Why did you think you struggled in college?
WJ – I may not have run as well as I thought I could have but overall I was pleased with my college running experience. I said I’ve give myself 2 years to see if I could run at the collegiate level. By the end of my freshman year I was on the varsity. So then I raised my standards. By the time of my senior year, I knew I had a lot more potential but kept coming up short. I think that was for a few reasons. Number one, I hadn’t learned how to run fast. It is an acquired skill. You have to teach your body to relax. Instead I just used to try hard and harder. Lastly, I wasn’t confident enough to approach my coach and suggest a few changes in my training.
DT – I know why I would have struggled at Yale, but my struggles would have been academic. Well, actually I would have never been accepted in the first place. Anyways, I ran collegiately and had some moderate success, but by the end of my college career, I never wanted to run again. I run now, but only to stay in decent shape. Why did you stick with running, even after you struggled to improve in college?
WJ – In college I realized I loved running. In high school, I would have told you I was good at running but I didn’t enjoy it. In college, I realized I liked how running made me feel. That isn’t enough however on its own to keep training at a high level. Right now, for example I still love running, and I’m running maybe 10 miles a week.
The other thing I realized was I had a lot more to accomplish. I knew I could be a much better runner. This is despite running a 5th year after Yale at the University of Texas and not getting any better. I give myself credit for sitting down with my coach, John Kellogg, and saying, “If I dedicate myself the next 4 years to this, can I be any good.” He outlined the times I could run and that was all I needed. I recognized John was a total genius and if he said I could do it, that was all I needed. I didn’t hit any of the times he outlined until the 4th year (when I lowered my 10k pr to 28:27) when all of a sudden I hit nearly all the times he said were possible.
DT – When did you feel you turned the corner and really started racing to your potential?
WJ – There were a few points along the way that gave me glimmers of hope. I remember breaking 30 minutes for the fist time for 10k, winning the Rockville 8k over a bunch of “B” guys in the Reebok Enclave and some “C” level Kenyans, but it gave me confidence.
I specifically remember going to the line for the 1998 US Half-Marathon Champs and saying “Today is the day. I have to do this.” I used to finish races and be a bit disappointed, “I could have run harder, etc.” That day was the first day I said, “I’m going to do well today no excuses.”
It’s not about trying harder but trusting the work you have done and believing in yourself.
DT – What are some of the highlights of your running career?
WJ – Now that I’m a few years removed from it the whole experience itself was a blast. I think I enjoyed most believing in myself 100% and dedicating myself 100% to the process. As for highlights, breaking 30 minutes for the first time for 10k, winning the Marine Corps marathon, making the US World Half Marathon team, running at the Olympic Trials, pacing Paula Radcliffe to her World record, and finishing 4th in the US at 10k twice are among the highlights.
The race I’m most proud of was one of my last competitive races, although I didn’t know it at the time, the 2003 USATF 10k. I had really struggled that year coming back from injury, but with a mile to go it was Meb, Abdi Abdirahman, Alan Culpepper, Dan Browne and me. That’s the royalty of US distance running at the time and me. I actually passed Abdi right before the line and finished 4th to make the Pan Am Games.
DT – Your twin brother is a runner too. I have an older brother who was a distance runner. Many of the highlights of my running career involve attempting to run a faster time than him. Did it help to have someone who was always there to help/push you in your training?
WJ – That really helps to have someone to push you. The thing that helped me was having a high school teammate and my college roommates, Erick Hawkins, who was a much better runner than me at the time. I saw what he was doing and it made me believe it was possible for me. I think the same thing happened with me and my brother. He saw my success and started running after college after being injured and nearly made the Olympic Trials.
DT – Could you describe a typical week when you are in the middle of training for a marathon?
WJ – These questions are always hard for me because I pretty much did what John Kellogg told me to do. Sure I discussed it with him but one advantage I had was I believed in him 100% so I did what he told me to do.
Generally, I’d have a longer run (ending with strides during the last few miles or picking up the pace), and 2 harder days with relaxed running days in between. I’d run twice a day every day except for the long run day and sometimes the day after the long run. As for the harder days, it was usually more aerobic stuff. Tempo runs, more relaxed intervals. Generally everything I did I was finishing faster than I started. I think that is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. If you can’t finish faster than you start, you’re probably running too hard. Remember you’re trying to teach your body to relax while running fast.
DT – Now let’s talk about LetsRun.com. First of all, when did you start it up?
WJ – In May of 2000. I had quit my job to train for the Olympic Trials full-time so I had time on my hands.
DT – When you started letsrun.com, what were your goals? Has the website exceeded your expectations?
WJ – We started the website for a variety of reasons. One of the main ones was to help people get more out of their running and to spread the training knowledge of John Kellogg. We also wanted to cover the top end of the sport.
DT – Mainly, LetsRun.com focuses on news about distance running. I read recently on your website you plan on adding articles about training. What motivated this welcome addition to letsrun.com?
WJ – Training has always been one of our main areas of concern as discussed in the previous question. After the site got more popular and we went to daily updates, the news side of LetsRun.com took priority as each day there is running news and not some new development in training. So we wanted to get back to our roots and help people get more out of their own running by featuring more training info on the site. People come to LetsRun for three reasons, news, training info, and to hang out with like minded people.
DT – How do you plan on presenting information about training? Will it be by interviewing coaches and runners, or will you have sample training programs for runners to follow?
WJ – Robert and JK are going to be more in charge of this but we are going to have all of the above. We believe there is a proper way to train but realize that is different for each individual and people can glean information from a lot of people. We also are going to have a regular radio show on training with top coaches and runners. We had our first episode last night.
Sample training programs and posting the training of other runners can be a problem, as people try and just copy the training instead of really learning how to train and adopting it to their individual needs. But people do email us and ask how to train for the marathon or even how to just run their first 10k.
DT – I have noticed in the last ten years, that times have dropped considerably on the high school, collegiate, and national level. I would win some races in high school, but those times now would be middle of the pack in a varsity race. Do you think that runners are training smarter because better training information is shared on the internet?
WJ – Short answer, yes. Knowledge is power.
DT – The message boards are a big part of LetsRun.com. Roughly about how many messages/responses are posted every day?
WJ – Hmm. I’ve never looked at it per day. But we’re above message 3.3 million total.
DT – The message boards are a blessing and a curse though. There are countless threads with great information about running, but there are also people who just seem to want to be malicious. What are your feelings about letting people basically exercise their freedom of speech, for better or worse, on the message boards?
WJ – What I tell people now is any community whether it be virtual or online is going to have it’s problems. What people don’t realize is we remove a ton of posts, (hundreds of thousands) but there are still a lot of mean spirited posts on the boards. We need to continue to adopt our moderation and have considered requiring registration as we get bigger.
DT – I read that it was hard for you to make a profit early on with your website even with the amazing number of visitors. With more money now out there because of internet advertising, are you able to turn a profit? Will you continue to keep LetsRun.com going for a long time?
WJ – I only realized recently I’m in the advertising business. We hope to have letsrun.com along for a long time. A big sports marketing firm tried to purchase us a few years ago but I’m glad the deal didn’t go through. There is a lot more we can do with LetsRun.com. We get hundreds of thousands of visitors each month, but Runnersworld for example gets in the millions. Being biggest has never been our goal. We take great pride in the testimonials and endorsements we get from track and field writers throughout the globe. We’re going to post some of these on the website soon. We’ve realized when a track and field writers wants to know what’s going on in the running world they come to LetsRun.com. It doesn’t get any better than that.
As long as we keep growing LetsRun.com the business side of things will take care of themselves.
DT – I like how your site predicts the results of big upcoming events, and then analyzes your picks after the event is completed. Also, you don’t sugarcoat a failure that a runner might have. Does this approach ever bother people in the running community?
WJ – It may bother people but at the end of the day the only thing we have at LetsRun.com is our integrity. People respect us for saying the truth. Many other running websites never say anything negative, never go out on a limb, never have a negative shoe interview, and go ga-ga over the people they interview. Our purpose isn’t to be the best friends of the runners but to present running in an honest and straightforward way. Our viewers appreciate this and that is why they come back year after year.
Last month we had our NYC marathon prediction piece go live on the website. My phone then rang and it was Merhawi Keflezighi, Meb’s brother and agent. We had already gotten him to agree to have Meb on our NYC Marathon preview radio/podcast.
I thought “Oh he might be calling to complain where we predicted Meb.” He called and actually said, “I just read your piece. I just want to commend you all for your honesty and saying it how it is in your picks.” I’m sure at first glance he would have loved for us to say Meb was going to win, or to sugarcoat things because Meb was going to be on our show, but then we would have lost respect with our viewers. People clearly aren’t coming to LetsRun.com for our pretty design. They respect our knowledge.
DT – My favorite part of your site is the different quotes on the top of your page everyday. Who’s idea was that, and is it hard to find an interesting one to post sometimes?
WJ – Well since you’re interviewing me and not my brother I can take credit for it. To be honest, I’m not sure how we go the idea of quote of the day but we’ve done it from the beginning. I would love to see what Day 1 of LetsRun looked like but I don’t think the page exists.
DT – And finally, what are your favorite and least favorite parts about managing your website?
WJ – The favorite part is staying involved with the running world and receiving unsolicited emails from people that we’ve helped them achieved their goals or believe in themselves. Running can give people confidence in other areas of their live. I got an email last year from a guy saying one of my training articles, “Changed his life.” It doesn’t get better than that.
The least favorite part is some of the chores that exist with running any business.
DT – Thanks for your time. Keep up the great work. It’s nice to have a place with continuous comprehensive coverage of distance running.
WJ – Thanks.