Tuesday Talk: Billy Barnett. This week it’s a great pleasure to bring you an interview with Billy Barnett, a teacher and runner based on the Big Island of Hawaii. Whilst Billy might not need much introduction to some, he has made a significant impact on the Hawaii running scene over the last few years, on the roads and trails (e.g. Hilo Marathon, HURT100 and Hapalua Half Marathon) with his introspective and refreshing approach to training and racing. Without giving too much away I think you’ll really enjoy this interview, during which Billy shares a few insights on his approach to life, work and running.
LRY: Hey Billy! Thanks for chatting with longrunergy about all things running and life – let’s start from the top…
When did you first start running? Did you run in middle or high school, or college?
Billy: Hi Susie, Happy Tuesday! I started running my Senior year of high school. I decided to go on a run with a friend in a state park not far from my parents house in Virginia Beach. We ended up getting lost on the trails and running 13 miles. We could barely walk the next day but went back out for more! Growing up in a suburban area, being out on the trails really instilled a sense of adventure and excitement that still drives most decisions I make. Not long after I signed up for a 50 mile run and kept going from there! I ran one season of cross country at Virginia Commonwealth University as a way to get in shape for the 50 miler! My attitude at the time was coming from a place of rebellion so the structure of collegiate running did not fit me. I just wanted to be out on trails running my own pace.
LRY: Running competitively post-college can be tough? Did you ever consider pursuing running as a ‘career’?
Billy: As much as I would love to have the time to just run all day, I don’t think I would be satisfied. I have always wanted to have a job where I feel like I am contributing to the greater good or giving back in some way. I have found that as a teacher and still have the time to run and travel. It makes me really appreciate every run. Also I am conflicted about corporate involvement in my life. Running is a very simple activity where not much is needed, I don’t think I could be a billboard to sell products people don’t need.
LRY: Has there ever been a time in your life when you ditched the running shoes for other pursuits? If so, how did you start running again?
Billy: During my first few years of teaching I ran considerably less. It takes high energy both physically and mentally. There were days when I would get home in the early afternoon and just go to bed as well as late nights crafting lesson plans. Putting mental and physical focus on my teaching skills was just as fulfilling as going for a long run. I didn’t feel like I was missing out, just redirecting my energy. Once I got into the rhythm teaching, I naturally started running more. I am starting to run pretty high milage weeks consistently for the first time in 10 years. I also like to spend time in the ocean paddling, surfing and swimming.
LRY: It seems as though ultra trail running has your heart, but yet you have also competed strongly on the roads over shorter distances in Hawaii – as a member of Team Hawaii for the Hapalua Chase and in other events. Do you think ultra and trail runners benefit from some form of ‘road speed’?
Billy: Yes, I think running is running no matter the surface. Aerobic efficiency is being built! It’s really about the physical sensation of moving as opposed to the setting. Of course I prefer running on trails but can be just as happy on a road or even on a treadmill. I try to focus on how my body feels opposed to what my mind thinks.
LRY: Do you have a coach or a training philosophy?
Billy: I don’t have a coach, my favorite thing about running is the journey. It’s a great way to practice self reflection as there are constantly areas to learn about and work on. I try to learn from my mistakes but am very stubborn! I have always thought the best advice is to not listen to any advice when it comes to running. Learning experientially is fun even if I have to learn the hard way. The main goal is to feel happy, healthy and minimize stress so I usually go very easy. If my body feels like days off then I take it. Being self reflective is key to staying healthy, I haven’t had a major injury from running.
LRY: You recently spoke at the North Shore Trail Running Camp where we heard about your up and coming race in Italy, the Lavaredo Ultra? What interested you in that event specifically?
Billy: The beauty of the Dolomites really attracted me. Several years ago I read a National Geographic article about the history of the trails during WW1 and WW2. I thought, “Wow, I really need to go there someday!” Also, I haven’t run in a really big Euro style event like that before. It should be really competitive as part of the Ultra World Tour. I have never really “trained” for a race before and wanted to apply all the things I have learned over the years to prepare for a big event. I want to use the competition to really push my capabilities in the mountains. I don’t consider myself competitive at all, actually I’m kind of the opposite. I have had a very non structured, laissez faire approach to running. It’s been fun to add in a bit more structure and planning.
LRY: How have you been preparing for the race in Italy from your base on the Big Island? Have you added anything new to your running or lifestyle routine?
Billy: I tried to not ramp up the mileage to early and focus on building a solid base. Lots of strength work with deadlifts and squats. There will be around 20,000ft of elevation gain in the Lavaredo so I want my legs to be able to handle the accents and descents. I try to not get my heart rate up on most runs to increase my aerobic threshold. Now I’m starting to increase the miles, cutting out the lifting and biking. I also changed up my diet big time. Nutrition has always been a thorn in my side for longer runs. I am eating a high fat/low carb diet and feeling great from that. I can go for a 5 hour run with just water and feel amazing where before it was an up and down roller coaster from the blood sugar crashes. So really a lot of low intensity higher volume runs. I feel lucky to be able to get in some runs at elevation. On the weekends I have been heading to Mauna Kea to do some long runs up hills in the 7,000-10,000ft. elevation zones.
LRY: On the flip-side, do you think about ‘recovery’ from big ultra races, building in a set time frame to let your mind & body recoup, or do you just move on and see how you feel?
Billy: Giving the body a chance to rest is crucial. I really don’t think it’s healthy to do a lot of racing, one big race a year is plenty for me. I have turned down offers to run races in far away places because I don’t want to subject myself to the stress that races place on the body. I’m kind of like a Hobbit, I love big adventures but also enjoy relaxing at home cooking a meal or reading a book.
LRY: We noticed on Instagram that you have been in floatation tank? What was that like and how did you feel afterwards?
Billy: I highly recommend trying out a floatation tank. How it works is you get in a pod like tank with about two feet of highly salted water. There is no light and no sound so it’s sensory deprivation. It’s very relaxing to experience a kind of zero gravity state. The sensory deprivation aspect is really trippy, there was a point where I didn’t know if I was awake or sleeping, just existing. Besides the physical benefits for muscles, it is good to have a mind/body experience like that without having to go out searching for LSD.
LRY: Since the publication of ‘Born To Run’, in which you feature greatly, ultra and trail running have boomed – much like road running in the 70’s and 80’s. Do you feel that the stories shared in the book did make a significant impact on the ultra running scene, or do you think the ‘boom’ would have happened anyway?
Billy: I think the internet and social media have a large part to do with the boom in Ultras. People are more aware that such things exist. Yes, Dean Karnazes’s book as well as “Born to Run” had a part to play in the boom as well. I think it’s positive that so many people are tearing down self limitations and going for it in Ultras. Any time people are out exploring and moving outside it’s a good thing! It takes a certain amount of commitment and grit to sign up and complete an Ultra, I give props to anyone who makes that choice! The flip side of popularity is the mindless consumerism that comes along with it. There are certainly products we need to take part in events but we should make conscious purchases. I recently had my car broken into and a lot of my running gear was stolen. I realized it would cost hundreds of dollars to replace everything and could only laugh at the absurdity that I owned the stuff in the first place. Trying to think of what the thief will do with a lightweight running pack, shorts and a super nice headlamp is pretty funny too. Patagonia comes to mind as a company that is leading the way by donating large amounts of their profits and taking stances on political issues. As the sport of Ultrarunning grows, it would be nice to see companies working with runners to give back to local communities in some way. We can help this by supporting companies who do good things.
LRY: If someone was planning a visit to Hawaii and they only had time for one real escape to the trails, where would you send them?
Billy: Wow, that is a tough question! Kalalau Valley on the Na Pali coast of Kaua’i is one of the most magical places I have ever been! Also the trails in Haleakala crater are surreal. On the Big Island, Volcanoes National Park is my favorite place to run, it reminds me of the Pacific Northwest. There are trails all over Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea at elevation that are spectacular. There are so many trail gems in Hawaii.
LRY: Finally, where do you think running will take you next?
Billy: I just hope it takes me to tomorrow, haha. I want to be running healthy into old age so I will just take it one day at a time. I love participating in events in unique locations so I hope to use races as way to explore new lands and travel. Lately I have felt the urge to jump into some big competitive events but nothing beats the small local races.
LRY: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy life as a teacher to talk with longrunergy!!
Follow Billy’s trail running adventures via Instagram @billy_b_bigisland where he posts stunning landscape shots of Hawaii Island. Also check out the course for the Lavaredo Ultra HERE which Billy is running in June – it looks breathtakingly epic!