Arizona State University alumnus CJ Alberston has taken the American marathon scene by storm. His outstanding performance at the 2022 Boston Marathon earned him a spot in the top three American finishers with an official time of 2:10:23.
Albertson is no stranger to the marathon. He’s the indoor marathon (that’s 150 laps) world record holder (2019; 2:17:59) and briefly held the 50K world record in 2020 after running 125 laps on an outdoor track in 2:42:30. Safe to say CJ Albertson does not get dizzy.
Leading up to Boston, the Brooks-sponsored athlete was garnering attention from across the country for his non-traditional (not that non-traditional in his opinion) approach to marathon training that he shared publicly on Strava.
We caught up with Albertson to hear more about his career as a runner and coach at Clovis College, and his experience at Boston.
You set multiple school records while you were running at Arizona State University, but you weren’t really a marathoner. What inspires your post-collegiate marathon career?
Just enjoying running. The marathon is this big event that people just kind of “do”, even people that have never run before, it’s open to everyone. When I moved back to my hometown [after college], I wanted to do my hometown marathon, just because I like to run and I wanted to train for something casually.
How has coaching changed your relationship with running?
Coaching overall has taken some pressure off my personal running. In college, I felt like running was a big deal, I always wanted to perform well and train hard. When I started coaching I was more focused on helping people enjoy the sport and learn what it takes to be good.
Now, running isn’t this intimidating thing where I have to hit these hard workouts, it feels more casual now that I’m coaching.
What are some of the core pillars of your coaching philosophy?
Being consistent, especially leading with emotional consistency. Physical consistency comes with mental and emotional consistency. As a coach, I try not to be too emotional regardless of how my athletes perform and, hopefully, that translates to them so they can take things day by day.
Why the marathon?
I ran an OTQ (Olympic Trials Qualifying time) at the World Indoor Marathon Challenge in April 2019 (2:17:59) and felt confident coming off only 3 months of training. From there, I kind of flipped the switch to focus on my Trials performance and chasing a faster time. It felt casual continuing with it, and I enjoyed training, it just felt natural to keep running.
Do you have plans to expand beyond the marathon and try ultra-running?
Eventually I think I could have some success in ultra races. They’re races I'd be good at, but there's not too many of them. There would never be a full switch because then I’d have to do trails, and I’m not really skilled with trail races. I’d like to do the 50k and the 100 mile on the roads, though. I’d definitely dabble in it but right now the focus is on the marathon.
A lot of professional athletes aren’t as public with their training on platforms like Strava as you are. How does sharing your training impact your training, if at all? Do you think it impacts competition?
I’ve had a Strava account for years, so it’s not that I’m actively putting my training out there, it’s just there. It motivates me more than it hinders me in any way. There’s always a mental aspect of racing when you’re trying to beat people, and you can always use things to your advantage — sometimes the pressure from Strava helps me in some way because everyone can see my performance.
Walk us through your build to Boston. What was on your mind? How do you tackle nerves and stay focused on your goals?
It was almost unexpectedly good. In January, I was pretty out of shape and not running well at all. I started focusing on training and getting better and at one point, it all just started to click about 7-8 weeks out from the race. I was training really well and hit some good workouts and good long runs. It built on itself week after week. The last month [before Boston], every workout I was doing clicked, I had never run that fast before. I was probably in the best shape of my life.
It was very public what I was doing, so everyone kind of knew I was in pretty good shape and some pressure came with that because a lot of people were talking about me before the race, and that has never really happened before. People knew me from last year at Boston, and in combination with my training leading up to this year’s race there was a lot of buzz. That was my first time experiencing that. I felt a little nervous, but I think I would have felt that regardless. When you know you’re in good shape, there’s a little more pressure on the race because if you don't do well it hurts a little bit more.
There was really only one option and that was to run really good because I had built up to such good shape.
Your mentality going into Boston was super competitive and fierce, where does this come from?
Everyone runs faster in a pack with people there to push you. I also run better when I’m near the front, and taking the lead helps keep me engaged mentally. At Boston, I wasn’t necessarily trying to take the lead— a lot of runners in the elite field slow down when they hit the downhills and I don't like to run that way, it’s not the best way for me to perform my best. I found myself in the lead by default and I just kind of kept the same effort throughout.
You’re not currently training with a group, do you see yourself looking for a training group or do you prefer to train solo?
I like training alone, it’s how I’ve trained for the past few years. There’s always times when it’s hard to get out there and run but you kind of get used to it. I like having others with me on the track for speed workouts, but on my long runs I like being alone. Plus, realistically, there’s not anyone [in the U.S] that would run with me on my long runs. Everyone thinks my long runs are kind of crazy fast anyways, but I really don’t mind pushing myself for the longer efforts.
Reflecting on your Boston performance, where are you setting your next horizon?
Boston was encouraging in a way. My finish was disappointing, but it was also the first race where I can walk away from it and feel confident in my next performance. I know there’s some tweaks I can make in training to reach my dreams, like setting the American record.
I still don’t really know what happened with the finish, my muscles were not relaxing and I felt like I still had gas to go but it just wasn’t happening. Looking at how other people were finishing, it felt reasonable for me to place fifth, so to not be able to race that last 4.5 miles the way I wanted was disappointing.
Every other marathon that I've been in shape for I have finished well. It's normal for people to have a blow up at some point in their career in the marathon, but I've never had one at a major race like this.
I’m definitely excited for the future and ready to see where things go from here.