This article was first published in early October 2022.
Ian Torchia was last seen on a race course as a professional skier at Spring Series in March 2022, when his SMS team flew him out for one last hurrah before retirement. Just over six months later, Torchia clocked a 2:27 in the Twin Cities Marathon on October 2, less than 10 minutes off the Olympic Trials qualifying standard. In his debut marathon. Off of 50 to 70 miles a week. While working full time.
What happened in the interim? The trial of miles, to be sure. But also some cameos from a summer Olympian, some brutal track workouts, and a trailer in the woods surrounded by dirt roads. It’s not quite the exact plot of Once A Runner, the epochal running novel by John L. Parker, Jr., but it’s not too far off, either. Read on for more on Torchia’s transition from skiing to running.
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High-level running, well, runs in Torchia’s family. A 2018 profile by the Rochester Post Bulletin cites his older brother’s 8:59 3200m while still in high school, and his parents’ love for physical activity and the outdoors. Torchia himself notched three top-five finishes at state xc running and track and qualified for the state xc meet while still in eighth grade, none too shabby given the deep fields of Minnesota prep athletes.
But it was a ski race that ultimately determined the course of much of Torchia’s future, athletic and otherwise. Racing in Fairbanks at 2013 Junior Nationals, Torchia took home his first ever junior title, in the J1 division of the 10-kilometer interval-start skate race. He did so only after barely navigating a treacherous downhill at Fairbanks’s Birch Hill in his second of two 5km laps.
“I literally was going around that corner and I had one ski on the trail and one ski off,” Torchia recalled in a phone interview with Nordic Insights earlier this week. “And it’s kind of funny to think about the way my life has gone — it was all kind of teetering on that ski edge. Because if I fell, I don’t think I would have won the race. If I didn’t win that I don’t think I would have gotten recruited to go to college, and then keep on going down the line. Like, I met my wife in college.”
“And it’s like, oh s–t, my life was literally teetering on the edge as I went around that corner.”
Thankfully, Torchia stayed on his feet, or at least on one foot, through the notorious curve just off the stadium on the Black Funk homologated course at Birch Hill. Sten Fjeldheim recruited him to ski for Northern Michigan University soon after. He got the girl (Torchia and Kameron Burmeister were married in July 2021). He won an individual national title at NCAAs in 2018. He skied professionally for SMS for several years after graduation. He was named to the U.S. Ski Team. He avoided becoming, in his own words, “just another college freshman with injuries, running 90 to 100” miles per week and “just getting injured.” All thanks to that one ski keeping its edge around that corner.
Torchia’s ski carer was impressive, and was ably treated by Ben Theyerl in this retrospective published by FasterSkier this March. But many years on skis didn’t necessarily prepare him to string together 5:30 miles on pavement just six months after retiring from pro skiing. How did he go about making this transition, while ensuring that he didn’t immediately get injured from all the increased pounding?
It helped that, for Torchia, running never really went away. Every skier logs ample time on their feet during the dryland season, and Torchia was able to supplement the more classic foot with pole sessions and 3-hour L2 runs that all skiers do with an admixture of more traditional speedwork.
“I guess with social media becoming bigger you see other skiers doing track repeats,” Torchia observes, “or you watch Klæbo’s vlogs and sometimes he does running intervals. And Pat [O’Brien, longtime SMS head coach] would encourage me to do those sessions that I love to do or that make me feel good. … And I was lucky enough to go to NMU, where there were good runners on the ski team.”
Bottom line, Torchia notes, he consistently “found little opportunities to pretend to be a runner when I was a skier, which was fun.”
There was also a built-in damper, Torchia says, explaining that he gets injured when pursuing higher mileage. He went over 70 miles in a week at one point during this training cycle, only to promptly strain his calf and have to take two weeks off from running. So he kept things in the range of 50–70 miles a week for the rest of his marathon build. (Yes, he ran a 2:27 off of this regimen. Yes, skiers are in better shape than most mortals.)
With such relatively low mileage for a 2:20s marathoner — triple-digit weeks at this level are likely more typical, and Torchia himself describes his training load as “pretty low for a marathoner” — Torchia focused on keeping the quality high.
“I tried to at least get in two workouts a week,” he recalls, “either two or three. Like a threshold and then the long run.” One favorite was an eight-mile tempo run, followed by 20 x one minute on and one minute off, “just to make that marathon pace feel easy.” And he fondly recalls jumping into the latter stages of his better half’s 10 miles easy/10 miles marathon pace workout, only to see her “come damn close to dropping me at mile 19. She saw that I was kind of struggling,” Torchia now recounts, “and she smirked at me and put in a surge, and it took all I could to hang with her.”
Torchia also spent some training with Very Nice Track Club, the Ann Arbor–based group led by former longtime University of Michigan coach Ron Warhurst. Tokyo Olympian Mason Ferlic and Ann Arbor wunderkind Hobbs Kessler are among its more prominent members; their CV of track meet wins, not to mention their Strava marks on some Ann Arbor staples (the Arb, Harvard hill repeats, The Michigan), are formidable.
Torchia was the self-described “mule” for this group of professional track and field athletes. “I would pace them through half of their track stuff,” he says, “which was anywhere from 400 to 600 meters of, like, four-minute-pace running.”
He found this “super fun,” and the guys were “an awesome group,” but acknowledges that it “wasn’t the best marathon training. I kind of felt myself being pretty tired for the longer tempos that I was trying to do.”
At this point, Torchia reached out to Leo Hipp, a longtime friend, formerly a teammate at NMU, and now co–head coach at Team Birkie. Hipp had some real talk for his friend.
“I know you’re having a bunch of fun” with Very Nice Track Club, Torchia recounts Hipp telling him, “but is that actually going to help you in the marathon? You need to get the time on your feet, and just get used to those long tempo runs.” He subsequently adopted more of the longer tempo work discussed above.
Torchia did all of this while working full time as a medical scribe in Ann Arbor (he aspires to med school in the near future), a far cry from the training-centered life of a pro athlete that he had previously enjoyed.
“It’s always a very different transition to go from ‘eat, sleep, train, repeat’ to working eight-hour days,” he recounts matter-of-factly. “That’s a natural limitation, that if you wanted to wake up and do a workout before work, I would have to get up at five to do it. … And then if I want to do it after work, I’d be tired after work,” mentally as well as physically. “So there were just some pretty natural limitations to training volume,” he notes.
Indeed, Torchia’s Strava account is now heavy on bike rides to and from work, interspersed with weekday runs starting painfully early or uncomfortably late. His training load this past summer, per his public Strava account, was typically in the range of 25 to 35 hours a month (including biking as well as running time), which is not nothing but is not the training log of a pro skier, either. (Think 80+ hours/month for a World Cup athlete during summer.)
In addition to working and training, Torchia and Burmeister bought a house together, a trailer in a rural area several miles west of Ann Arbor. It has easy access to dirt roads for soft-surface running, which is not a coincidence. For a reader of a certain literary inclination, the milieu evokes nothing so much as the middle portion of Once A Runner, in which Quenton Cassidy moves to Bruce Denton’s unfinished cabin in the woods and trains incessantly, though the comparison is slightly unfair because Torchia is happily married, and women in Once A Runner are largely just a nuisance harmful to Cassidy’s training.
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But back to race prep. Torchia came off a successful career as a nordic skier, a sport marked by its adoption of a focus on process goals over result goals. This is, admittedly, something of a truism; it is also true that this is a mindset that has worked for many, many athletes. Consider, say, Luke Jager’s thoughts here, or nearly any in-depth interview that Jessie Diggins has ever given. There’s a reason that this approach typically works.
So how did Torchia approach a clock-based sport such as road racing, especially one with a broadly known and inflexible result like the OTQ (Olympic Trials qualifying) standard? If you run a 2:18:00 in the relevant part of a multi-year window, you qualify for the men’s 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials; if you run a 2:18:01, you don’t. That’s a pretty stark results goal. “In his own mind time reposed in peculiar receptacles,” as we learned from Once A Runner.
Simply put, Torchia, when faced with this reality, made it less of a results goal, and more of a process goal. He and longtime friend Adam Martin initially entertained thoughts in the spring of shooting for a 2:18 (5:16 pace for 26.2 miles), reasoning, roughly, “we’re coming off our pro athlete career; we can do anything.” And as the months went on, doing individual mile repeats at that pace became increasingly comfortable.
But ultimately, Torchia thought, “as I kept going longer and longer, it felt like, If I can’t handle 5:15 pace for eight miles at a time, or at the end of a long run, how the heck am I going to do this for 26 miles. So it kind of naturally scaled back to, especially in the last couple of weeks where I was doing these longer tempos with the long runs, seeing what pace felt comfortable. So it was a natural progression back to, I’m gonna start off easier, like 5:25, 5:25. And I’m glad I respected the distance.”
Fast forward to race day, where Torchia ended up falling in with another athlete who told him early on that he was planning on running 5:30s “on the nose.” (5:30 pace for an entire marathon yields a final time of 2:24.) So that’s what Torchia did. Per Strava, here are Torchia’s splits for miles 2 through 17 on the morning of October 2: 5:35, 5:25, 5:30, 5:29, 5:29, 5:29, 5:30, 5:33, 5:26, 5:29, 5:31, 5:34, 5:36, 5:28, 5:34, 5:29. Very nice, indeed.
Unfortunately, the marathon does not end at mile 17. And the Twin Cities Marathon not only does not end there, it, cruelly, saves its largest hills for last. And no matter what the terrain looks like, the final eight miles of a marathon are typically rough for anyone not named Eliud Kipchoge. All of which is to say, here are Torchia’s splits for miles 18 to the end: 5:38, 5:38, 5:39, 5:51, 6:09, 6:09, 5:51, 5:59, 5:57. As debut marathons go, that frankly hardly even registers as a meltdown (this reporter logged a 21-minute positive split in his first marathon, for example), but it was a departure from the metronomic pace of the race’s opening two-thirds.
When the dust settled, Torchia had run a 2:27:45 (5:38 pace), good for ninth overall in a field of 6,500. His ultimate goal for the race was not to hit 2:18, but, he says, to “just see what you can do, and see what you can run a good race for. I wanted to feel good at the end. I actually ended up not feeling good at all at the end… But I’m glad I came into it with that approach because it was such a wild experience to just be new at something again. I was used to the racing [from skiing], but just to be a noob at racing again in terms of the distance of the marathon and all that, it was just fun.”
So, what’s harder, running a high-level road marathon or skiing 30 or 50 kilometers on a homologated course?
“I was thinking about this after the U.S. Nationals 30km” this January, Torchia muses. “Because I was like, that was the most painful moments of my life, because I was just trying to hang on to Scott [Patterson], and he was absolutely blasting. And I don’t think that it compares; I think that skiing 30km or 50km is more painful. Because you can just push yourself and push yourself, and then recover on the downhill, somewhat.”
But the marathon wasn’t easy, either.
“I think the hardest part for me [in Twin Cities] was just — there was a real mental, at least in the early miles, a real mental aspect. Like, Holy shit, I’m gonna be doing this, I’m gonna be running this pace for the next two hours. At mile five or six or something, I was like, Two hours? Can I sustain this? Like, this is already kind of hard.”
Running is not made easier by the challenges of fueling: “I just think it’s overall easier to feed in a skiing race,” Torchia notes. “That’s a boring answer, but it’s mile 20 and I tried to take a Maurten [gel], tried to feed, and it made it to the back of my throat, but then I felt like, if this gets to my stomach, I’m just gonna throw it up.”
Bottom line, Torchia concludes, “Each has its hard parts. But overall, I would say, the skiing one was more painful. But I had to dig pretty deep those last eight miles. Like, just kind of hold myself together to make it to the finish line.”
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Twin Cities did not mark the end of Torchia’s competitive marathoning career. While some first-time marathoners finish and vow, “Never again!,” Torchia, by contrast, speaking on Tuesday afternoon, observed, “I’ve taken nine days off of running [so far], and I’m already jonesing to get back into it. So I’m taking two weeks off of running, and then I’m gonna start training with the Very Nice guys again.”
In the short term, Torchia plans to focus on speedwork, and pace an ER resident friend through as much of his sub-four-minute-mile attempt as he can. And jump into some winter ski marathons, even off of relatively minimal ski training.
Longer term, Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, in June 2023, is well within the qualifying window for the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials, and is a go-to summer race for OTQ aspirants. The current men’s standard is 2:18 or below, but Torchia is hopeful that he and Adam Martin could take a crack at it. “So it’d be quite the jump from 2:27 to 2:18,” Torchia admits. “But it’s our goal to eventually get that Olympic Trials qualifier before the window closes. So I think on a faster course, and with better preparation and better fueling, I think that hopefully we can both get there.”
Oh, and Torchia’s wife, Kameron Burmeister (now Kameron Burmeister Torchia) ran a 2:42:37 at Grandma’s in 2019 to qualify for the 2020 OTQ race in Atlanta. She congratulated her husband after his recent race in the Twin Cities, of course, but then soon leaned in, Ian Torchia recounts, and whispered, “You’re only 15 minutes faster than me” (see also final Instagram image above).
The women’s qualifying standard for this Olympiad is now down to 2:37, which is Kameron’s new goal for the rest of the qualifying window. If they pull it off, Ian and Kameron would not be the first husband–wife pair to both reach the Olympic Marathon Trials in the same year — here’s a profile on four couples at the 2016 Trials, and you may have heard of the obscure athletes Sara and Ryan Hall — but they would be on a short list of people who have done this. As their dog’s namesake, Kipchoge, would be quick to remind us, no human is limited.
— Gavin Kentch
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