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Survivor Ethan Zohn talks about Running

by Dana Meltzer Zepeda

How long have you been a runner?
I've run at various stages in my life. My father was a runner, so I have vivid memories of being asleep on Saturday mornings and then the running group would come over and be all loud talking outside my window, and then they would take off for the run. Ever since I was a little kid, running has been in my life, and I ran with my father. He helped me with my first race when I was about 9 years old. It was only two miles, but it felt like 100 miles back in the day. I have always kind of been athletic. I ended up kind of going more toward soccer and lacrosse back in grade school and high school rather than straight-up running, but I did run track in high school.

How were you at track?
I wasn't great because I basically just ran to stay in shape for my other sports, so I didn't put a lot of like energy into it. I hit puberty early, so I was 10 times bigger than all of the other kids out there, so it always helped me with my speed and endurance.

What did you run when you ran track?
I ran indoor track so I ran...was it the 220 or the 240? It was just a short sprint twice around the indoor track--that was my race. I also did the 440 relays and the high jump. But I did the 220 or the 240--whatever it was--before the high jump, so I always ended up sucking at the high jump because I was so dead from those. I hated it.

When did you start running to stay in shape?
I really hit my groove after college. I played soccer and lacrosse all through college. I did professional soccer for six years, so once I started playing pro, I really started to look at the way I was working out and the way that I was treating certain things. I did a lot of short-type motions up and down, that type of stuff. So distance running, we didn't focus on it. That was something I had to do on my own. It was important to be able to run more mile-to-mile without being winded, so I started training on my own and I really started to like it and it helped my endurance during workouts and matches. My natural frame and my natural body weight I think is more geared toward running and endurance-type sports because I feel like I am getting good at running, short sprinting-type stuff. I was complementing my training with distance and I loved it. I was away from everyone else for about an hour, and I could think about other things besides soccer. By the end, six or seven miles are gone and I feel good.

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Have you had any great ideas come to you on a run?
Oh god, yes. One of my hobbies is inventing things like stupid household products or things like that. I sit around and I think up this stuff all of the time. One of my jobs while I played soccer was freelance work for a bunch of advertising and branding companies in New York for products that would go out on the market. So I would go out for an hour run and would come back with 50 or 100 names for whatever product I was working on.

What was the best idea you had on a run?
One of my best ones is the EZ Crunch Bowl, which is a product that keeps your cereal crunchy for an awfully long time.

How does it work?
Imagine a swimming pool with a shallow end and a deep end. You have your cereal on the shallow end and your milk on the deep end and, when you want a little crunch, you just tap it over the edge. So, I have which you can go check out, but it came to fruition on a run.

That's awesome!
I don't know if it's awesome, but it's interesting. The things that come to you when you have all of that time on your hands...

And you just ran the Disney's Princess Half-Marathon?
Yes, in terms of distance running, I guess you could say once I stopped playing professional soccer and did the Survivor television show, I really started to push my body, soul, mind, and spirit to the edge and I liked it. I got back and I started doing all of these endurance races like the Eco Challenge. I did 24-hour races. They were multisport races, but running is involved in that you have to train and be able to be on your feet for extended periods of time. So I could walk for hours or jog for hours at a time. I started loving it. I had never done a half-marathon or a marathon, but I signed up for the Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa in 2007 and it's a 34.8-mile race. I was like, "Why start with a half-marathon or a marathon?"

What was your time?
It was 5:54:20. For that length and the race, in terms of elevation, it's one of the hardest races in the world. Starting at mile 26, the last miles are basically all uphill and downhill with giant peaks and valleys, but I went for it! The crazy thing about the race is that it closes in seven hours, so you have these people that have been training forever and are running this race. One of the most watched television minutes on South African TV is the minute before the marathon closes because you have these people that have been running for six hours and 59 minutes, and if they don't make it before the referee closes the tape on the line, you are done. Your name's not even written on the paper, and you don't even get a medal! That's how crazy it is. I felt a little bad, but when we watched the people finish, its incredible with them sprinting the last minute, some people making it and some people not.

How did you feel afterward?
I didn't feel great. I was 34 and feeling invincible, so I didn't train properly for it. My longest training run, I think, was 21 miles. I couldn't walk for about a week afterward.

What did you do to celebrate?
We went to a bunch of wineries.

And then you were down for the week?
Exactly. But my real job is that I work for a charity. Well, I cofounded a charity called Grassroot Soccer for HIV/AIDS education in Africa, which is nice because I was running for Grassroot Soccer in South Africa. It was good to be able to run for something personal.

Who ran with you?
It was tough to recruit people for a 35-mile race, but I took two people. One of my roommates came and another guy who was actually on Survivor, Ian Rosenberger.

How much money did you guys raise?
It wasn't a lot. It was hovering around $3,000 bucks. It wasn't an official charity marathon. It was just us racing. But then I started getting attention for the charity, and now Grassroot Soccer actually has a team in the New York City Marathon that started in 2009. Then it was a team of 30, and in 2010, we had 40. In 2011, we're shooting for 50. Last year we raised $160,000 for Grassroot Soccer.

I heard that Jenna from Survivor ran the Disney race with you.
So now I have regressed in my marathon. I started with the 35-mile, and now I am doing a half-marathon. Obviously I am out on the road all of the time, and I wanted to be able to have fun together and bond and support her running. She is my girlfriend, and I have always wanted her to run with me in New York, and she has always said no. The only way she said that she would do it with me is if it was Disney because she loves Disney, so we decided to enter the half-marathon there. So she signed us up, and I started to get all excited and she asked, "What's your favorite Disney princess?" I was like, "I don't know." And she asked, "What size do you think you'd be in women's?" And I didn't know. I found out that she signed me up for the Disney's Princess Half-Marathon, where its 1,300 women and like 400 guys. The women run in tutus and tiaras, but it ends up being an incredible time. The marathon itself benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which is personal because it's something I went through. We finished around two hours and five minutes. She hates running, but for her first half-marathon, she loved it because it's so distracting. You're running with characters, jumping around. You stop for photos, you stop for water. So it ended up being a nice, easy first race.

How did you motivate each other? Did you train together?
Yes, we trained together pretty much the whole time, and she was motivated because she got to get new clothes to go and socks and shorts. That was a big motivation for her, but what motivated us obviously was that it was for a greater cause, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which was wonderful. And then she was nominated for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year, which was exciting. But also, I think for her she liked seeing herself get stronger and better. She couldn't even run a mile without a struggle before--not that she's not fit--but she had never really trained for anything along these lines, so it was nice to sort of look at the schedule and go out there one mile, two miles. Week by week, we started to build and that was exciting for her. It was a great self-motivator.

What did she buy you to wear for the race?
We were pretty traditional. We didn't dress up or anything like that.

No pink tutu?
Everyone was saying, "Oh, you're running the half-marathon? It's all women?" And, I thought about it--1,300 women, there could be worse races to run as a guy! I wasn't super upset.

Would you ever run together again?
Yes. I like running and being able to run with Jenna. I don't think she'll ever do a full marathon, but I think she is definitely excited.

Was the first time you ran the NYC marathon in 2010?
Yes, so there is a back story. I did a big campaign for my charity Grassroot Soccer in 2008, where I dribbled a soccer ball from Boston to Washington, D.C., which is 550 miles. And I was in the middle of the campaign and I ended up tearing my ACL. So I made it 260 miles, and then I was supposed to run the New York City Marathon in 2008, but I couldn't do it. I came back from my ACL surgery and I was feeling great. Then in 2009 I was training for the '09 New York City Marathon because Grassroot Soccer had a team in it and I was the captain. And that's when I found out I had Hodgkin's lymphoma. Even during my whole chemotherapy treatment and all of that stuff at the time, I tried to run as much as I could and be outside. I said that it was the one thing that gave me confidence, even during such a horrible time in my life. The team would come with me to run in Central Park.

Then I had a stem-cell transplant and was in isolation for 21 days in December 2009. So I would be in the hospital, looking out the window, and I knew that the New York City Marathon route went right past. I knew that I would run down that road eventually. It was such a huge motivation for me while I was sick. I had a visualization board, pictures of myself, and shots of people crossing the finish line at the New York City Marathon. It was something that I looked at every single day, and it gave me the strength to get out there. It kept me going. The nurses and doctors thought I was crazy because I knew that 30 laps around the hospital was a mile, so I would get out there with my chemo pump and my IV bags and my bald head and I would walk laps and laps and laps while I was in the hospital. So, anyway, that was December 2009 and January 2010. I ran the 2010 New York City Marathon 10 months after my last chemotherapy treatment.

Congratulations! Did it live up to your expectations?
It was more. I just wanted to finish. It wasn't about the time. I had put the training in, and I was healthy and I was just so happy.

That's amazing.
You keep your name on your chest and everyone screams for you and you think you are the most popular person in the world running around and there is a little bit of press around. It's exciting to share your story, and it was just a really exciting day. My whole family was there--my mom and my brothers--and they saw me cross the finish line. It was totally awesome.

What was your time?
I wanted to finish under 4:20, and I finished at 4:16. I couldn't even breathe. I had to hold myself back a little bit because I didn't want to crawl across the finish line. In 2011, I want to break four hours. That's my goal for myself.

Are you training again?
Yes. I ran the Disney's Princess on March 7, and I was supposed to run the New York City half on March 20, but it didn't work out because I got back late. I am not training full-on because it's so far in advance, but I am always running.

How often do you run?
Not every day. I'll start gearing up really training in July, but until then, I do a lot of cross-training. I'll play soccer, I'll lift weights, and I'll do some speedwork. I take a mixed martial arts class with squatting and jumping and plyometrics, and then, once I'm ready, I'll start training. I have to play with it but, at Disney, I met Jeff Galloway. He kind of invented the whole run/walk strategy for marathons. He is a very interesting guy and an interesting model for it. He says to run four minutes and walk 30 seconds, run four minutes, walk 30 seconds for the whole race. He's obviously studied it and a bunch of different runners and says that it's a viable way to run a marathon even for time. So I might play with that a little bit for this next marathon.

I'm a Runner: Ethan Zohn


I saw Ethan win in the Survivor show. I knew he is a soccer player. Glad to know he's now also into running - and making a difference!

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