Steve Cram described Garrett Heath as a ‘surprise winner’ when he beat Mo Farah to first at the Great Edinburgh XC earlier this month. We speak to the American to find out why, actually, it was inevitable.
In fact, Garrett Heath's win in Edinburgh was his third on the bounce. In 2014 and 2015 it was the 4k victories he brought home. With his preferred distance scrapped this year he had to double up against double-double world champion Mo Farah: this wasn’t going to be a walk round Holyrood park.
But as the runners lined up on the start line with all focus on Farah, Heath already stood out. “He’s bloody huge,” as one SPIKES correspondent put it.
Heath is a beast. And by that we’re not simply referring to his training group Brooks Beasts TC. The 30-year-old has a striking physique, tall with a wide upper body frame – the exact opposite of most middle distance runners. And he’s got a ridiculous VO2 max, he “honestly can’t quite remember whether it was 85 or 86”. Either way, it’s huge!
Yet the modest Minnesotan says neither his size nor his impressive endurance stats mean anything. “It’s all just numbers,” he says, downplaying the bare facts. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t do anything with it.”
But surely his physical size must be an advantage?
“It doesn’t actually help with anything,” he sighs. “Well, I guess it helps for cross country and road racing more. Or at least ‘it doesn’t hurt’ is a better way of putting it. Whereas on the track, there’s only so much room you have to manoeuvre.
“When you watch [US 1500m runner Andrew] Wheating [for example], he’s always in lane two or lingering in the back, while all those little guys are manoeuvring around and have that advantage of moving freely. In cross country you have more opportunity to manoeuvre around the course, or on the road to run wide and it’s not as easy for everyone to just tuck in behind you.”
Heath (second right) finished fourth in the 5000m at 2015 USA nationals, missing out on a spot on the world champs team by a mere 0.07 seconds
Despite the sizeable disadvantage he faces on the track, Heath feels most comfortable over the shorter distances: “The shorter the better! I’d love to run shorter. If I was good at running shorter, I would run shorter.”
At the 2015 US Outdoor Championships he placed fourth over 5000m in 13:51.61 to miss a spot for the Beijing World Championships by seven hundredths of a second. His biggest rewards have come on muddy cross country courses and roads. In 2013 and 2015 he won the US 1 Mile Road Championship. In 2014 he clocked 3:51 at the famous 5th Avenue Mile, beaten into second place by Jordan McNamara in an incredible photo finish. At the tail end of last year he took the US Club Cross Country Championship title.
And then there are of course his three victories in Edinburgh. That hat-trick has seen him take down not only Farah, but other distance powerhouses such as Asbel Kiprop, Bernard Lagat, Kenenisa Bekele and others. With that in mind, is he planning to ditch the 1500m and 5k on the track and focus on longer road races?
“Hell no! No, no, no, absolutely not any time soon,” Heath says without hesitation. “Maybe down the road [PUN!], but I can’t comprehend a marathon yet. Running that 10k at club cross [in San Francisco in December] was probably the hardest thing I had done in a long time. Marathon is not on the radar for a while.”
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His plans for the season are actually a lot more conventional. “I’m gonna do one 3k, I’m gonna do a mile and then most likely 3k at USAs,” he says of his indoor plans. Looking towards outdoors, with the Rio Olympics on the horizon, Heath's focus will likely shape up similar to last year.
“It’s still a debate, but less [than in 2015],” he explains. “The 5k seemed to go better last year and I’m a year older, so nobody moves down when they get older, everybody moves up. I’d say the 5k is probably highly likely where I’ll end up unless something crazy happens outdoors and all this weight training pays off and I start smashing sprint PRs,” he says – then bursts out laughing.
Heath admits that rather than weight training, he's always preferred to do a “lot of strength-endurance stuff.”
“I actually never used to do anything in the weight room,” admits the Stanford alum. “I was the biggest guy in college, like my freshman year coach he always used to say ‘you don’t need to lift anything, you already have too much upper body weight, let’s just run’. That was probably the best thing for me, so I just never really did anything.”
POWER: In Edinburgh, Heath never looked ruffled as he kept Farah on his shoulder and in his pocket
Since moving up to Seattle to join the Beasts, coach Danny Mackey has changed that approach and is working on upper body strength, mobility and explosiveness. But Heath still has some work to do when it comes to the weight room.
“I am still one of the weaker people. When we go in there, half the girls on the team can lift more. My upper body is just big. Even when I get into really good race shape and get race weight, it doesn’t disappear. I don’t know how all the other guys stay so small.”
His assertion that pancakes are “the key to my overall success” might provide an idea why. “It’s the best way to refuel after a long run,” he insists. “It’s got all the nutrients I feel I need, protein with the eggs, you can put yoghurt on top, berries, and then you put a bunch of chocolate chips in there. You need that cocoa. That’s supposed to be good.”
Don't argue with the man who beat Mo. Just eat pancakes.