A second chance: Eberly’s journey to trail running greatness ahead of GoPro Games
The runner’s tale began with a college coach who saw his potential
VAIL — Josh Eberly wouldn’t be here — lining up as one of the favorites at the Adidas Terrex 10K Spring Run-off on the final day of the GoPro Mountain Games — had it not been for two pivotal conversations from one legendary coach.
Slogging back to his Arvada West team camp behind the Air Force stadium bleachers at the 1998 Colorado state track meet, Eberly, owner of an unimpressive 10:10 3,200-meter best, was jolted by an intense presence and firm handshake.
“Duane Vandenbusche, Western State College,” the man said. “I saw you run the two-mile. I see a lot of potential in you.”
Eberly, whose nondescript prep career started after getting cut from the basketball team — “running didn’t involve too many politics,” he laughed — had written a letter to Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Vigil at Adams State, but the response never came. He visited Fort Lewis, but oddly enough, his tour guides couldn’t stop talking about Western State.
He traded contact information with Vandenbusche, architect of one of the greatest Division II track and cross-country dynasties during a tenure that lasted from 1971 to 2007, and the persistent recruiter called every weekend at 7 a.m. to check in on grades, running — everything.
“That was basically it,” the 41-year-old remembered. “And the rest is history.”
Nine All-American awards, three national runner-ups (5K indoor and outdoor, 2002 cross country) and a 10K national title in addition to three cross-country national titles as a team were his gift to Western, where he returned seven years ago to coach the mountain trail running team, instituting many of his old coach’s cultural norms.
“That was all I really knew,” he laughed about his incorporation of a very Vandenbusche-esque strict attendance policy and “work hard, play hard” mantra. He also weaves in meaningful team talks.
“That’s one thing our coach always did with us — giving a history, showcasing athletes, showcasing the alumni,” Eberly said of Vandenbusche.
Eberly would be a worthy subject for one of those speeches today.
“It’s really cool to relate to what actually got you off the ground in the first place,” he says of connecting his collegiate past to his current role at the college.
“It’s pretty neat when recruits come in and you tell them your whole backstory … it ties everything back together,” he said.
It’s a backstory that required that second key conversation — and a second chance.
Getting a second chance
Before Eberly would go on to make nine U.S. teams, two world mountain championships, and compete at the Olympic road marathon trials, he needed an old-fashioned come-to-Jesus moment.
His freshman year was laced with those typical immature decisions known to plague young boys boisterously enjoying their inaugural parent-free year. Out of shape and out of sorts, Vandenbusche called Eberly into his office that spring after the troublemaker finally got caught.
“Eberly, you’re never going to run for Western State again. Get the hell out of here,” the runner remembered hearing.
“He kicked me off the team because of the actions that I did. That really woke me up that summer,” he added.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get myself together.'”
He went back to the Front Range and rented an apartment with some high school friends. Then, he dedicated himself to a strict training regimen. He did everything — weights, mileage, etc. — on his own, returning to campus a changed man.
“That fall, coach reached out and said, ‘Hey, looks like you lost some weight and got your act cleaned up, you want to join the team?'” Eberly recalled. “He gave me a second chance and luckily I had that opportunity to go for it. You never know it ’til you lose it.”
What he had lost — and been regrafted into — was Western’s commitment to excellence.
“It was basically the culture that drove me,” he explained. “Those older guys took me by the hand and said, ‘Look, if you want to be great, this is what we gotta do: 7 a.m. every day, double runs, long runs, all that stuff. Luckily we had really good team chemistry.”
Vanderbusches’ trademark strictness and uncanny motivation also fomented his pupil’s eventual maturation in the sport.
“So that’s when I really doubled down and focused on my character, my personality, my training and taking care of myself,” he said of his sophomore year. “Thankfully, that happened, because I don’t know if I’d be in the same spot today if it didn’t.”
Goals for GoPro Mountain Games and going farther
Timmy Parr, a past winner of the Leadville 100 — Eberly’s target race this season — was a member of that “almost unstoppable” team in the early 2000s.
“It was pretty cool to walk on any course and everyone’s sort of looking at the team and how close we were and how powerful we were,” Eberly recalled.
He remains close to Parr, who works at Gunnison Middle School with Eberly’s wife, and “knows every trail and its elevation” in the area. Along with Duncan Callahan, another Leadville 100 winner (and also past champion of the now-defunct Leadville 100 Nordic ski race), Eberly has informed brains to pick as far as winning the legendary endurance run goes.
“We’re going to make a lot of trips this summer to get on the course and have more specific training,” he said, noting that he’ll use the Mountain Games as a tune up for the Leadville Trail Marathon on June 18, which he needs to do well in to qualify for the 100 in August.
“That’s my big goal this year,” he said of the Leadville 100.
Having spent time at the famed Hansons-Brooks marathon team post-collegiately, Eberly hasn’t changed the recipe of his training potpourri much over the years. Short speed on Tuesday — he did 6×1 mile repeats with two minutes of rest, hovering around 5:20 pace last week and 1-minute hill repeats the week before — tempo work on Friday, long runs on Sunday, and slow recovery in between make up his 90-mile weeks. Its flavor is reminiscent of his alma mater’s standard mix of staples, with a pinch of typical road marathon work.
“I don’t want to lose that much of it because it’s helped this far,” he said of his integration of speedwork.
“I’m not super in tune to hit certain paces, I just know I need to pick it up faster than what I’ve been doing. So, that’s really the overall goal of my training the last few years.”
He knows track speed doesn’t equate to trail fitness, but also understands the importance of familiarizing yourself with the pain attached to VO2-max efforts as well as the cadence of faster running. The Mountain Games will tap into both.
“I’m using GoPro (Mountain Games) as a really good primer,” he explained. “It’s fun to just throw out the watch and really just concentrate on your strategies and your competitiveness.”
As he has aged, he’s shifted his attention away from nitty-gritty numbers, honing in his recovery and focusing on effort in key workouts instead.
“It’s hard not to compare everything with what you’ve done in the past, especially with Strava and these online tools that show you, ‘Hey, you’re a minute slower than two years ago on that same loop!'” he laughed.
He doesn’t chew on segment KOMs (King of the Mountain) more than he needs to.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can, and I know I’m going to be a little slower, but I just need to work on a little more recovery to really get amped up without burying myself.”
A veteran of the streamlined and strict Chicago Marathon-type environment, Eberly has fallen in love with the more relaxed vibe of the trail scene ever since he raced the Pikes Peak Ascent back in 2010.
“That was a really eye-opening — like, man I really like this ecosystem of trail. I was sick of the road and I wanted a new challenge,” he said.
“I love the challenge of the trail and mountain and ultra world because there’s so many other variables than just running fast. It’s the fueling, the technical running, the downhill running, the uphill running, the regular running — it’s putting it all together.”
A veteran of the Mountain Games going back to when it was dubbed the Teva Mountain Games, Eberly remembers racing up Vail Pass on Saturday and returning for the 10K Sunday morning. This year, he’ll bring his family to the festivities, like he usually does, and race the 5K and 10K. Joining him will be six athletes on his college team — which is supported by Adidas Terrex, the title sponsor of the Mountain Games trail run races.
“That’s going top be a huge thing for us,” he said of his pupils’ experiences.
Eberly is also an Adidas Terrex athlete.
“I’m grateful for those partners that I like to say really believe in you and give you those opportunities for advancement; it’s cool working for them,” he said.
“You’re not just a number or an athlete. You’re really respected and part of the brand and the team. I know that sounds cheesy, but I was with Brooks for 10 years beforehand, and it’s really a vast difference in terms of the partnership, the respect, the virtue and transparency.”
As far as the field goes, Eberly didn’t provide any bulletin board material for athletes like Joe Gray or Andy Wacker. He just knows the competition will be hot, no matter who shows up.
“There will be three, five, seven super high-caliber athletes there,” he said. “I can’t really dictate my race on what they’re going to do. I have to sort of look after myself and just make sure I’m pacing myself right. I’ve done it so many times, so I know the climbs, I know the altitude, and I know execution-wise on race strategy (what to do).”
Granting second chances
Eberly has enjoyed witnessing many of his athletes rediscover their love for running as members of his team. In his seven-year tenure, he’s had 12 NCAA scholarship runners move over to the trail team after feeling burnt out with the pressure of the track and cross-country grind.
“They found out why they started running in the first place — because they enjoy it, whereas the NCAA side was more like a chore and an identity for them that was too much,” Eberly said of the “second chance” many of these runners get.
It’s a satisfying chord of narrative resolution hearing the runner/coach — who is neatly transitioning into the mentor role by doing both — talk about second chances.
After all, he needed one, too.
“It’s really neat to see that when they come over and enjoy themselves,” he said.
“And you see so much success from those runners who enjoy running for the right reasons that came over and got that second chance of running at college.”