Olympic Trials Hopeful Balances Family, Training and More

riley_cookRiley Cook’s running journey started at the urging of his mother. Now, he and his spouse work hard to make it all work while never forgetting to enjoy the journey.

By Henry Howard

The parents of Riley Cook were both runners, each completing multiple marathons. In fact, his mother once ran a 2:59 marathon.

When Cook was 13, his mother saw some running talent in him and took him to his first race, a 5K. At that race, Riley finished in 20 minutes without any training.

“She saw in me some natural talent in my youth and encouraged me to run,” Cook said. “From that race day forward she was convinced I could earn a scholarship to run if I trained and ran in high school, and encouraged me to strive for that goal.”

Accolades in high school and college

And run he did, cross-country and track all four years in high school. Among Cook’s accomplishments:

  • Winning the Utah State 3-A individual titles in the 800 meters, 1600 meters, and 3200 meters.
  • “On and off success” at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, under the tutelage of now Track and Field Hall of Fame Coach Chick Hislop.
  • Taking first in the Big Sky Conference championship in the indoor mile in 2005 and running third fastest 1500-meter time in school history that year in 3:42.07, which converts to a 3:59.85 mile.

At times though, Cook did struggle.

“I’ve suffered quite a bit from both injuries and a lack of motivation,” he recalls. “I stayed injury-free throughout high school, but I also trained very little. I usually only ran 15-20 miles a week and rarely ran in the summer when the team wasn’t holding practices. But in college, I suffered major injuries every year I was there except for the 2004-05 season. I had three stress fractures and a knee surgery in college.”

The injury bug followed him post-college, too. “Just last year, two weeks after my PR in the marathon (2:21 at BMO Harris Bank Phoenix Marathon) I had to stop running due to severe IT Band Syndrome that lead to two surgeries and nine months of missed training. I was able to resume running in December 2014 and am trying to regain my form.”

All those miles and all those races eventually took a toll.

“I was completely burned out and ready to never run again after college,” Cook says. “It was strenuous work, hard work. I was constantly tired, constantly injured, and constantly it felt like a chore. It lost its joy. I took three years off after college with zero running.”

After those three years, a glance on the scale was among a trifecta of factors that led Cook back to running.

“I had promised my friend and ex-college teammate (who kept training after college) that I would start training with him again if I ever got over 170 pounds. The day I weighed in at 170 was the day I called him up and went on a short run,” he said. “Secondly, my wife was training for a marathon at the same time. Watching her finish her first marathon was inspirational. Finally, I was playing a lot of indoor soccer and basketball at the time, and a friend mentioned that while I was still quick, he thought I had ‘definitely lost a step.’ That didn’t sit well with me; I had always prided myself on my speed. So it was kind of a combination of those three things, plus for general, overall health.”

Now that Cook has relit his passion for running, he sees this as the second of two running careers. But the highlight of his running life was a 3:42.07 in the 1500 meters at the Payton Jordan Invite at Stanford University in 2005.

“The goal was to break the 4-minute mile equivalent in the 1500 meters, which is 3:42.22,” he recalls. “Coach said I needed to come through 1200 meters in 2:57 to make it. I came through in 3:00, and nearly panicked. I closed like a freight train though and moved from eighth or ninth place to finish third in a race that included professional athletes. I crossed the line and knew it would be so close one way or the other. The times were posted on the stadium board one at a time and when my name showed third place in 3:42.07 it was the best moment of my running life. But in my post-college running life, running 1:05:16 in the half marathon is probably the highlight. It was a big PR for me and wasn’t expected on that day.”

Two major goals

Now, as Cook enjoys his second stage of running, he has set two major goals for himself. He admits, however, that they don’t complement each other very well.

“My family has a rich tradition with the St. George Marathon,” he says. “I would love to win that race; a race that has meant so much to my family over the years. The second goal is to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon.”

In order to qualify, Cook would need to run either 2:18 in the marathon or 1:05 in the half.

“The reason these goals are somewhat in conflict is that you cannot use the St. George Marathon to run a qualifying time, because it has too much downhill (or elevation drop per mile),” he explains. “If I run St. George Marathon, it takes away an opportunity to attempt qualifying for the trials. So, as of now the goal is to run St. George and if I get really fit before then, I may change plans and run a fall marathon at sea level on a flat, eligible course.”

Running with a growing family

But that’s not the only challenge Cook faces. He and his wife, Amy, recently welcomed their third daughter into the world. “My wife still runs; she’s getting back into shape right now,” he says. “But it’s much harder to fit in our training with three than it was with two. With two kids I would do my second run of the day pushing the girls in our double jogger. But now with three they don’t fit. The other challenge is the Saturday morning long run. One of us takes the early shift and runs at 5:30 or so, while the other has to wait and run later at like 8 a.m. By the time we’re both done, half of the day is gone. But somehow we manage and fit it all in.”

The Cooks both ran track at Weber State University and met while in school.

“It’s great to be married to someone who shares and understands my passion for running,” he says. “She understands the early morning runs and the short trips to go to a race. She also understands what is and isn’t a good workout or race for me, which I appreciate. I was always annoyed when I ran poorly in a race and a friend would say ‘Great race.’ Part of you wants to say, ‘Well it wasn’t my best effort; I can run much faster,’ and the other part feels the need to be polite and appreciative of the comment and say, ‘Thanks.’ But she knows when I’ve killed a workout or race and when I probably didn’t have my ‘A’ game and she responds accordingly and offers either accolades or support as necessary.”

The Cooks have a schedule so that they can both get in their runs — Cook runs six days a week, taking Sundays off. “It’s tough to fit in, but it works for us,” he says. “Once she starts ramping up her mileage though, we may need to start incorporating treadmill runs more often so we can both run at the same time (we both despise running on a treadmill).”

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For couples who balance running/training, family commitments and work, communication is the key. “We both have in our minds what we want/plan to do, but if we don’t communicate that early on, we’ll often have conflicting plans. So I would recommend to others planning and communicating a few days in advance and work out who is running and when.”

After all the miles, awards and his return to running, Cook has a simple message for those embracing the sport: Enjoy the journey.

“Running can bring so many memorable moments,” he says. “It can lift your spirits on an otherwise tough day. If you get a PR in a race, no matter how small of one, enjoy it and celebrate it like it’s your last ever PR. Because you never know what the future holds, and one day eventually it will be your last PR. Be appreciative of your running talent and work to cultivate it and grow it. Finally, try to give back to running, knowing how much running has given to you.”

Speed drill

Name: Riley Cook
Hometown: South Weber, Utah
Number of years running: 21 years, with a three-year break in the middle
How many miles a week do you typically run: 70-90 miles a week
Point of pride: I’m very proud to be supported by Brooks Running and to be able to participate in the Brooks Inspire Daily (I.D.) Elite Program. The program has been a huge help for me by ensuring I have top-of-the-line gear to help me in pursuit of my running dreams, and I’m extremely appreciative of that.
Favorite race distance: It has changed over the years. In high school it was 3200 meters, in college it was 1500 meters, and now it’s the half marathon.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I usually don’t eat anything pre-race, unless it’s a marathon. So I don’t really have a favorite food. Favorite drink is probably either Gu Brew or Nuun hydration tablets, but I mostly only drink those post-run. Chocolate milk is also tough to beat post-run!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t listen to music too often while running, but I like “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor every now and then to get pumped up.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: These are from my college coach, Chick Hislop: “Steady the Pace Wins the Race” and “Running Is a Science, Not a Guessing Games.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: There’s a few places: on Strava at https://www.strava.com/athletes/riley_cook, on Twitter @RunnerRiley7, my running blog is rileycook.fastrunningblog.com, and my training group has a website at www.ogdencrew.com.

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