SOCHI 2014

Dec 20 Patrick Meek: Skating The Distance

By Aimee Berg | Dec. 20, 2013, 9 a.m. (ET)
Long track speedskater Patrick Meek poses at the NBC Olympics/U.S. Olympic Committee photo shoot in April in West Hollywood, Calif.

Patrick Meek is one of America’s best long-distance speedskaters. In a few days, the 28-year-old Chicagoan will try to make the U.S. Olympic Team in the longest Olympic events: 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. To race 25 laps (as in the 10K), it takes not only strong legs but mental fortitude. The training is brutal, and the intensity increases every year. But Meek has also won national titles at races five times the distance. They don’t call him The Mule for nothing. He recently filled us in on how he deals with ennui, why he picked such brutal events, how he started and how he’s approaching his third Olympic trials.

As if training for the longest Olympic distances wasn’t enough, you also won the men’s 25K and 50K speedskating titles at the 2013 national marathon championships in Wisconsin, right?

Yeah, I’m the current U.S. marathon champion. The marathon is considered to be the 50K, which is 129 laps. Thankfully they have a lap counter. There’s a ton of people on the track; they’re crazy. But it was really cool to get my first senior national championships medals.

What compelled you to race 129 laps?  

We’ve found that if I come into really big races after a huge volume block, I’m able to be pretty successful. A lot of Dutch guys train this way; they do marathons to get ready for world cups. That’s what I was doing in January and the national marathon champs springboarded me to my highest ranking in the world cup in Erfurt, Germany [in March]. I got silver medal in the B division at 10,000 meters. It ended up being the 10th fastest time of the day.

When you say “a huge volume block,” what does that mean in terms of mileage or laps?

A typical Wednesday morning is 100 laps straight, which takes roughly an hour in that bent position. Then we add intervals, on Tuesday, usually 75 laps — but not straight through. It would be like 15 times five laps, which is pretty brutal. During those five lappers, your pace is always supposed to be faster than the world-record pace for the men’s 10K. You’re moving the whole time.

Faster than the world-record pace PER LAP in the 10K? What is that?

When you break it down, it’s 30.4 seconds per lap — times five laps. And I do that 15 times. Yeah, that’s a Tuesday workout. Then we have several three-hour bike rides at altitude.

How do you survive all that, mentally?

Fortunately, we have a really great full-time psychologist, Alex Cohen. He’s a big fan of breaking everything up into three stages. Like the 100 laps: for the first 33 laps you try to think of one thing, for the next 33 laps you think about something else, and for the third 33 laps you think of something else. When you break down in that manner — not only at practices, but in races — things become a lot more sustainable and mentally manageable. Because if you start the day and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got 100 laps, then 99 to go, 98 to go,’ you’re gonna go absolutely insane, and you’re going to have a miserable workout. But when you start to break it down, all of a sudden, it becomes a game.

So now you’re just looking at three 20-minute blocks, right?

Exactly.

Can you give an example of what you might focus on for each of those sections?  

Sometimes it’ll be a technical thing. The first 33 laps, I want to really make sure my left hip pushes through the corner. Every time I get to the corner I’m focusing on that left hip. For another 33 laps, I’ll think about making sure I’m hitting the kill zone. That’s a wonky speedskating term that basically means your knees and feet come together before you push on the straightaway. If you’re able to hit that kill zone every time, you’re able to get max acceleration and max velocity. But still, sometimes you’ll have negative thoughts.

How do you get rid of negative thoughts?
Patrick Meek competes in the 1,500-meter event at the U.S.
Speedskating Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval on
Dec. 29, 2009 in Kearns, Utah.

During the middle of long workouts, I do simple arithmetic. I’ll go through multiplication tables to take my mind off, say, my legs are really tired.

You’re kidding! You’re thinking 3 x 3 is 9, 4 x 4 is —

Sixteen. Five times five is 25. I’ve done that in races, too, when I’m cognizant that I’m thinking wrong things and if I keep thinking like this, I’m going to do something wrong. So I go through the multiplication tables or spell my coaches’ last names backwards — something completely different. The reality is, I’m not going to forget how to skate in 15 seconds, but I need to take my mind off what I’m doing so I can refocus.

You can spell Shimabukuro backwards? Oh, wait, Ryan coaches sprinters. Lucky you!

Shimabukuro would take a lap or two to wrap your head around. But [Kip] Carpenter is pretty tough, so is [Matt] Kooreman, and [Finn] Halvorsen. I’ve done all those during races.

Going back to the large training block — what’s the total mileage target?

There really isn’t a target. We always try to increase the volume by 10 to 15 percent each year. I’ve been on the U.S. national team for eight years now. The workouts I did when I first moved out here take a quarter of the time than the workouts I do now.

When did you move to Utah?

In 2004, after graduating from high school in St. Louis, Mo. While I was skating, I was also able to get my B.S. at University of Utah, in political science, in 2009.

Your bio says that you got a very early start in speedskating.

My dad was on the national circuit. My grandfather was a pretty good club skater. At 2 years old, when I was steady on my feet and could walk around the house and not bust my forehead too often, they had me on my fist pair of speedskates. My dad was also a coach and would take me to practice. He would turn over a 10-gallon bucket, and I would push that. That’s how I learned to skate.

Did your dad develop any Olympians?

My dad was a club coach at Northbrook, on the north shore of Chicago. They had Nathaniel Mills — he was on an Olympic team, Dave Cruikshank. They had quite a few good speedskaters.

Did your dad ever try out for an Olympic team himself?

He skated the trials in ‘76. He was an all-arounder. He didn’t make the team, but then he wanted to see what would happen if he trained with the best so he went to Norway for a season. When he came back, a guy named Eric Heiden was coming up and he wasn’t getting any slower so if [my dad] made the team, it would be a long shot and he was ready to move on with his life. But some of my dad’s best friends were Olympic medalists and I’ve been around Olympic medalists my entire life.

Did anyone else in your family skate?

My younger sister Kathleen skated for a bit, but one day, she went up to my dad and said, ‘I don’t want to skate anymore.’ He said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I don’t want to have a big butt.’ My dad was like, ‘Well, I can’t really argue with that logic, so, okay.’

Who made the decision for you to specialize in long distances? You? Your dad? Coaches?

I’ll be perfectly honest. I wish I was a 500-meter skater. I wish my race was 10 seconds long and I could be done. But my physiological makeup — my VO2 max, my hematocrit, my muscle twitch fibers — led me all the way to distance.

Speaking of physiology: What’s your resting pulse after all these years of training?

Thirty-seven. It rises as you go to altitude so here at altitude, it’s usually in the high 40s.

If all goes well at the upcoming trials, you would make your Olympic debut in Sochi. How close were you to making the 2006 and 2010 teams?

For Torino, I was so young. I set a PR in the 10K at trials. I thought: Oh, this is awesome, great race, done, sweet. I wasn’t so emotionally invested. I really thought Vancouver was my opportunity to make the team. [At the trials for Vancouver,] I went faster than I’d ever gone before. I just wasn’t fast enough that day. You want to be happy — and people are telling you to be happy — but you set this very binary goal for yourself: either you make the team or you don’t. At that moment, I could get past the fact that I didn’t make the Olympic team. Sitting on the couch watching the Opening Ceremony, really hoping you were going to be there with those same people, was not a fun experience. It was tough watching the event you’d committed your life to.

This year’s Olympic trials are Dec. 27 – Jan. 1, in Kearns, Utah.

It’s going to be awesome. [For 2006 and 2010] there were Olympic trials, too, but there were a lot of byes. Now you have to make the team at Olympic trials and that’s it.

Do you welcome the pressure of trials or would prefer the team to be picked another way?

I think all athletes like the idea of byes, but the reality is: if I can’t put it together at trials, then I can’t put it together at the Olympics. Yeah, it’s stressful. It’s going to be extremely tough mentally, physically, and emotionally. On the other hand, so is the Olympics. It not only helps you get ready for the Olympics, it helps you get ready to perform under pressure and tough conditions.

In non-Olympic years, especially, it can be financially tough for athletes in sports that don’t get constant attention. How do you get by?

I’ve been a valet at Waldorf Astoria Park City for the last three years. I’ll open the car door for you. I am a concierge, too.

Do the Waldorf uniforms really fit speedskaters?

I’m 5-9, 155 pounds. My quads are massive, 29 inches around. And I have a butt on me. It’s tough to buy pants, especially with the whole skinny jeans craze going on. The slim fit thing doesn’t work for me. Luckily, the black [work] pants you can provide yourself.

How did you get the nickname The Mule?

Originally, it was from a bunch of sprinters at practice because I was going through ridiculously hard workouts. I took it as a compliment. There are no style points in our sport; we’re not gymnastics or figure skating. I’m more than happy to show a little pain in my face and energy in my eyes. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it gets the job done.

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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