Read Morgan Pearson’s journey from one of the first Tinmen, to the top American triathlete. Morgan details what the process was like physically and mentally, and how he transitioned from elite distance running to elite triathlon competition.
I had just graduated from the University of Colorado with degrees in Math and Econ (I’m only including this because Drew thinks my college majors are the coolest thing about me). Having spent the previous four summers in Boulder training with the University of Colorado Cross Country team, I decided to make the most of my freedom and spend the summer at home with family, working as a beach lifeguard. It was a good opportunity to take a step back from the sport and decide what I wanted to do after college.
In this time at home, when running was self-regulated for the first time in years, I realized that I really wanted to pursue the sport after college. By most standards, I had a successful career at CU: I had run 13:36 for 5,000m and 7:51 for 3,000m, I was a seven time All-American, and had contributed to two team NCAA Cross Country titles. By my own standards, I considered my NCAA career somewhat of a failure. At risk of sounding a bit cocky, I was in really good shape my final two years at CU—much better shape than what my results were showing—and I wanted to give myself the chance to prove this after college.
I decided to give myself one more year in the sport to see if I could “make it” in the post-collegiate world. The plan was to go back to Boulder and train under Tom “Tinman” Schwartz.
GOING WITH TINMAN
When I first announced that I would be working with Coach Schwartz, I faced some criticism from others. I guess at the time it probably seemed pretty random. Tom was mostly known as a high school coach: Drew Hunter’s coach. In the eyes of the running world, he hadn’t ‘proven’ that he could coach at the elite level. I would also be training mostly alone in Boulder, something that most people didn’t really understand. At the time, Tom was living in Idaho, so I wouldn’t even have the watchful eye of a coach over me in Colorado. On paper, my decision didn’t really make much sense. There are other groups in Boulder, with other good coaches, and other good runners to train with. Some of these groups could even have provided some financial support.
Looking back, I can’t quite say why I wanted Tom to coach me so badly. We met through a mutual friend during the summer of 2013, and he I guess he just left a lasting impression on me. For one, he was the most knowledgeable person I had ever met when it came to running. He seemed to know every runner from the past 50 years, and every race they had run. Tom was an unabashed fan-boy of running. But he also seemed to have a better understanding of the physiology of running than any one I had met. I remember him talking about slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers and how CV pace cam in to play and being in awe.
Maybe most importantly, Tom also seemed to have an understanding of running as a wholistic endeavor. “I like having my runners do two runs a day, even if the second one is just 20 minutes,” he told me, “when you do two runs a day, you really have to be a runner all day long, you feel like a runner all day.” That perspective and other tidbits he recited really stuck with me. By the time I graduated from college, Drew was the face of high school running. It was obvious to me that Tom was an amazing coach. The only question that remained was if I would be willing to train alone and be coached remotely. The only answer was “yes.”
Honestly, the idea of holding myself accountable, training independently, and finding my motivation intrinsically didn’t scare me at all. In fact, it was more invigorating than anything. I thought to myself, "I am responsible for myself now, I take ownership of my own running and life now,” and that independence was exciting.
After about two months with family in New Jersey— it was time for me to get back to training and real life. With no sponsors, I decided to start working odd jobs that would allow me to get in some decent training. At one point during the fall of 2016, I had four jobs and I went ten weeks without a day off from work. I was also training hard under Tom’s system—which was entirely new to me.
This was an awesome time for me. I would train in the mornings, work during the days, then train again—every single day. At the time, Tom’s training for me was mostly fartlek based, and aside from long runs I didn’t wear a GPS watch at all. It was so simple. I was just running everything by myself, based on my own effort. In college, I was always comparing myself in training to my teammates, now I was just running. The beauty was that I trusted Tom and I trusted myself. And I had made my schedule so wacky that I didn’t really have any time to think about anything other than running and working.
My first race that fall was a local cross country race. I won it by 25 seconds and beat Trevor Dunbar, a guy who I had looked up to in the NCAA. After that race, I thought to myself, “Man, maybe I can do some damage this season—something seems to be clicking.” A few weeks later, I was toeing the line at the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot. Shadrack Kipchirchir was the biggest name entered. Just a few months ago, Shadrack had been racing in the 10,000m at the Olympics while I was sitting on the beach.
The gun went off, and we took the first 400m out pretty fast, but I remember feeling very controlled. Instead of easing off the pace, I went to the front just kept running hard. I didn’t let off the gas for the rest of the race, and going to the final turn it was just me and Shadrack left. I threw in a surge and broke him. Watch the video of the finish below, you can see the pure joy and excitement on my face. I had never won a big race like that in my life—then I see my finishing time, and it’s 13:32. I was floored. I had just ran 13:32—a four second personal best—on the road, leading the whole race, and winning. And I’d just spent the past 10 weeks working my odd jobs, without a day off from work or training. I am telling you, this was the moment that I really started to believe in myself. And with that belief in myself came a belief in tom. I had just proved to myself that Tom is an amazing coach. In just a few months, he was already taking me to new heights.
My last race of that fall was the USATF Club Cross Country Championships. I went to that race without a team to run with or for. My goal was to go there and compete with some of the best guys in the country. I wanted to show that Silicon Valley wasn’t a fluke, and that I was deserving of a pro contract. I took the first 400m out in 60 seconds—no messing around! We came through the 5k mark in 14:12. The lead pack had already whittled down significantly, Sam Chelanga and I were basically battling until I cracked around 8k. I ended up finishing 3rd, behind Sam and Stanley Kebenei. After the race Sam came up to me and said, “Hey man, I don’t know who you are, but during that race you were running world class.” I took that to heart, and a few weeks later I signed with an agent and was picked up by 361° USA on a pro contract.
A lot has changed since the fall of 2016, both personally and with Tinman Elite, but I will always think back to this part of my life with excitement. I would like to think that I played a small role in developing Tinman Elite into what it is today, but now it is these guys who constantly inspire me everyday, and keep that self-belief burning within me. I am extremely lucky and thankful to be surrounded by such a great group of guys.
At this point, if you already know my story, you might be curious about why I left distance running less than a year after having a breakthrough season. It wasn’t an easy decision, and leaving such a great group of guys at the start of something special with Tinman Elite was one of the harder decisions I have made in my life.
The truth is, I had been thinking of doing triathlons even before I started running post-collegiately. I swam competitively in middle school and throughout most of high school. I had also competed as a beach lifeguard for about ten years, between the junior and senior ranks. During the 2016 Olympics, I watched most of the distance running races. I didn’t watch the triathlon, but I did catch a replay. I'm about six feet tall and weigh about 150 pounds when I am super fit: I have always been on the ‘bigger’ side for elite distance runners. While watching the triathlon replay, I concluded that I look a lot more like the triathletes than the distance runners. Around this time, I also hopped in an ocean mile swim just for fun, but I was able to compete and even beat some college level swimmers.
When I went back to Boulder in 2016 and started to train for running, I forgot about these ‘triathlon thoughts’ until I randomly did an easy swim with my uncle. My uncle, who lived in Denver and swam for exercise, wanted to come hang out with me one Sunday evening—so we went for an easy swim and got dinner together. I didn’t think much of the swim, but at dinner my uncle asked, “Why don’t you do triathlons? You could probably go to the Olympics…you should reach out to USA triathlon.” Initially, I thought to myself, "Yeah, okay—you don’t know anything about triathlons ,and neither do I." But out of curiosity, and because I told him I would, I sent an inquiring email to USA Triathlon.
For the next few months, USAT started to recruit me. At the same time, my running also took off. I was now competing with some of the best guys in the country and had secured a contract to run professionally. The triathlon stuff was kind of intriguing at first, but in my mind I wanted to run through 2020. Unexpectedly, things took a turn when I ran my first outdoor race in 2017—a local meet in Boulder. It was a low-key 1500m, and I soloed a 3:48 for the win. That converted to a PR for me and had me feeling excited for the upcoming outdoor season. Later that day, however, I woke up from a nap and could barely walk. I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my foot, and wouldn’t be able to compete until the end of the summer. It was a deflating moment, and I am still frustrated with myself and the situation to this day.
With the injury forcing me to take time away from running, I started to cross-train twice a day. I would swim in the morning and aqua jog in the afternoon. USAT has a benchmark swim test that they give to potential athletes. The idea is that if you can complete the test, then you have a good chance to make the swim pack in lower-level pro triathlons. The test is 3x(8x100 yards), leaving every 70 seconds, with an extra 30 seconds of rest in between the sets. After a week of consistent swimming, I figured I would give the test a try. I met all of the requirements without too much difficulty. Despite completing the test, I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to truly swim with pro triathletes. I wasn’t confident until I went to a local swim practice with “pros” and was able to keep up. Looking back, most of the swimmers there were Ironman—who are generally not on the same level as Olympic triathletes in the pool—but at the time I thought I was hot shit.
By the time I was healthy and back to running, it was the middle of the summer. I was in awful shape and most of the competitive track races had already passed. I had also picked up a job at The Feed when I first got injured, and I felt obligated to work until mid-August. But in the back of my mind, I wanted to be super fit that fall for road and cross country races. I was honestly in a bit of a weird place of limbo, and didn’t really know what to do next. On top of that, my long-term girlfriend broke up with me unexpectedly.
I was feeling pretty lost, and decided I would finish up work at The Feed, then drive home to New Jersey and spend a few weeks at home with my family to reset before what I hoped would be a big fall of 2017. It just so happened that eight hours into the car ride home was Omaha, Nebraska—the location of the USA Triathlon National Amateur Championships. USA Triathlon reached out and told me that they would give me a hotel room and $300 for travel if I did well and qualified for my Elite License, so I decided to go for it.
In my mind, I went there ‘undercover’ to get a feel for triathlons—with no one except a few people even knowing I’d competed. After all, I had only been running for about a month leading up to that triathlon, and was coming off of a busy summer. I had done a few bike rides early in the summer when I was hurt, but since being healthy and running most of the swimming and biking had gone away.
The race started, and with no expectations I was able to come out of the water in second place. I sustained contact with the top bikers, and had enough energy to run well enough to win the race. Even more surprising was how much people seemed to care about me in this race. I was almost a bit uncomfortable since I considered myself a runner, but was receiving more attention from this single triathlon than I had ever received while running. It was an unexpected response that was a bit refreshing.
To be honest, after that race, I was all but persuaded to switch to triathlon. It was not the attention I was receiving—while I admit it did feel pretty cool—but rather the potential I had showed in this one race alone. I felt I had hardly prepared for this race, and had performed at a high level for the sport of triathlon. How far could I go if I trained and focused on the triathlon? I wanted to find out. I had been convinced that however good I could be as a runner, I could be significantly better as a triathlete.
It was incredibly hard to leave running. Especially after Drew, Sam and Reed moved to Boulder and began to build Tinman Elite as we know it now. I could sense that Tinman Elite was going to become something special. I’ll never forget leaving Sam's Airbnb the night before I left to Arizona to officially start training as a triathlete. It was also the night after we got back to Boulder from unexpectedly winning the 2017 USATF Club Cross Country Championships. I had this strange feeling of loss. I had this feeling like I was giving up on something, and at times I still do. But I also knew that if I didn’t become a triathlete, I would regret not pursuing it for the rest of my life.
Fast forward to September of 2019 and I wrapped up my season as the top ranked American triathlete. It’s been a hectic last two years since that age group triathlon that I decided to hop in. I think about all of the exciting places I’ve been able to travel to—Australia, several countries in Asia, and all over Europe. I sometimes think about where I’d be if I had stuck with running. Do I miss it? Absolutely. But I don’t regret my decision to become a triathlete.
I am doing what I have always wanted—competing with the best in the world.