It is not in Max King’s mantra to specialise. In his remarkable career he has performed with pride in everything from the 3000m steeplechases to 100-mile ultra endurance slogs. SPIKES meets the indefatigable 34-year-old running sensation.
Versatility is not a weakness for Max King: it is the means that has allowed him to excel.
“My take on it is running is running,” the American says. “It is all the same mechanics. There is something to be said for focusing on one event and being really good at it, but for me I would just burn out.
“I’ve always been fine with doing lots of different things and I’ve been motivated by that. Changing it up constantly works for me.”
Born and raised in Sacramento, California, King was decent but no “world beater” as a schoolboy and never qualified for a track state meet at high school. His athletics improved while attending Cornell University where he achieved All-American status. But burned out from training, he took a couple of years out of the sport to focus on triathlon and adventure racing.
However, the man who now lives in Bend, Oregon, missed the “competitive side” and was pleasantly surprised with the outcome on returning for the 2005 US Cross Country Championships.
“I placed 12th against a lot of pro runners and ended up beating a few guys I would never have been close to at college,” he says. “From then I decided to rededicate myself to track, cross country and road running. I attributed my good form to the training I had put in at college and the fact that I now had a job and, unlike when I was at college, I was sleeping and eating properly.”
His rededication started to yield some noteworthy results. He finished inside the top 60 at World Cross Country Championships in 2006 (and again in 2008), 34th at the World Road Running Championships in the same year, and ran an 8:31 steeplechase in 2007.
Max King: “I knew I could be good at it, I just needed to figure out how to run the races”
In 2008 he joined the Oregon Track Club in an effort to secure his main goal for the year – qualifying for the US steeplechase team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet after failing to advance from his heat in Eugene and “bummed out” from the disappointment, King entered his very first 50km trail race.
Despite his inexperience and finishing at a “run/walk” for the final seven miles, he won the race and so began a whole new chapter of his athletics life.
“I loved it,” says the 5ft 6ins tall King. “I knew I could be good at it, I just needed to figure out how to run the races.”
Such was his new-found passion for racing long distances on different terrains, in 2009 he quit his full-time engineering job to work in a shoe store so he could devote more time to running. It was a huge – and some might say foolhardy – gamble that meant a significant pay cut (although his wife offers financial support by working as an engineer). But it is not one he has regretted.
“My family were somewhat supportive [of the decision], but I wouldn’t say totally supportive,” he says. “I just had to make it viable and sustainable by bringing in enough sponsorship dollars, prize money, working a part-time job and offering some coaching.”
The gamble has paid off. Over the past five years King has captured global titles at the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships, 2014 World 100km Championships and three Xterra Trail Running world titles.
King, who admits to taking on board an average of between 3500-4000 calories per day and has a daily dark chocolate addiction, has also discovered competing in multiple events is no bar to success in more traditional disciplines. In 2009 and 2011 he finished in the top 40 at the World Cross Country Championships; at the 2012 US Olympic Trials he set a steeplechase PB of 8:30.54 to finish sixth.
As if running wasn't enough, King also likes a bit of skiing
Rather than finding a constantly shifting training pattern and having to prepare for different events a drag, King says the variety is what keeps things interesting.
“I run with the same basic principle that I need to include a mix of long runs, tempo training and interval work, and when I get closer towards a big race I tailor my training to suit,” he says. “So if I have a 100km to run, I will do more road running. Doing something new and switching surfaces and events keeps my mind fresh and makes it easier to jump back and forth.”
Picking out a career highlight is tough, but when pressed he selects his World Mountain Running and World 100km titles, although he also has a great amount of pride for his sixth-place finish in the steeplechase at the 2012 US Olympic Trials.
He loves the competitive side of the sport and intends to carry on competing into his 40s; next year he is targeting a prominent showing in the historic Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Also on his bucket list is the Cinque Mulini cross country race in Italy, which is centred a collection of water mills.
King is a man of few limits. Even when pressed to name a challenge he would turn down, he struggles.
“In terms of running not too much, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to do a 100 miler on the track, but never say never.”
Given his track record, we never would.
Photography: Paul Nelson