Catching up with Anthony Famiglietti

Olympic steeplechaser's self-portrait in Athens in August 2004.

Olympic steeplechaser’s self-portrait in Athens in August 2004.

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (March 16, 2014) — For a June 2003 article for the Arizona Daily Sun, steeplechase runner Anthony Famiglietti summed up his thoughts for me on multiple topics at once with the following articulate remarks:

“I don’t look up to or idolize many athletes,” said Famiglietti, then 24 and not yet a two-time Olympian. “Most of my heroes are artists or creative people in some way. They are people who push themselves and challenge every aspect of who they are.

“I don’t like to look at running as a sport. It’s more of an immense challenge, a metaphor for what life is in a microcosm. That’s why I think any person at any level can be successful at running if they learn how to discipline themselves and keep pushing (themselves) to new heights, new goals, new challenges every day of every week. It’s a great way to prepare for life in general.”

Nearly 11 years later, Famigiletti’s life has taken him to the Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics as a 3,000-meter steeplechase competitor. The native New Yorker got married, become a father, relocated to North Carolina, co-founded Reckless Running, a running apparel company, and also participated in road races, including the 2008 USA 5-km Road Championship (first place) and 2009 15-km Road Championshp (first place). His creative interests have included what he one called “avant-garde-abstract-electro-pop” and on another occasion as “electronic ambiance music” (for a self-produced CD “Starts The Party”) and painting (he once had an online gallery). And he’s a man of strong Christian faith, sharing a few of his favorite Bible verses, too.

I recently caught up with Famiglietti, whom I chatted with briefly in Beijing, after getting to know hm during several interviews in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he used to hold month-long training sessions twice a year. Our wide-ranging interview follows.

* * *

After competing in the Olympics twice and having a few years to reflect on those experiences in Athens and Beijing, what memories are most special to you from both of those trips?

In Athens I had struck my knee on a barrier and fallen during my heat of the steeplechase.  I had seriously injured my knee during the race and fell from second position to last place.  Somehow I found the will to stay on my feet and kept racing.  Initially after the strike, my left leg became partially immobile and cramped, similar to hitting the “funny bone” nerve behind the elbow.  When the numbness subsided just a few more meters into the race, the pain became very intense.  Each time I had to jump and land on the knee it felt agonizing. I pushed through the last few laps in the race and I think I ended up in eighth position of about 13 runners.  After the race I was devastated as I did not qualify for the final. 

A few days later when I had healed a bit, I went out of the Olympic village to tour Athens in an effort to lift my spirits. I couldn’t walk very far, but I remember limping through the Acropolis and ancient ruins of the Parthenon on my own.  I had stopped for a moment to take a self-portrait and was approached by a local who had recognized my Mohawk haircut.  He was an older man who seemed like he worked nearby or on the grounds. 

Apparently the local Greek television station had aired my race in its entirety.  This man recognized me from the race and instantly grabbed my hands and smiled.  I’ll never forget his smile and deep wrinkles on his sun-scorched face.  He looked straight into my eyes and in very broken English said, “Yes, you get up!” He stood there and held onto both of my hands for a while. He had summed up my Olympic experience in four words.

His reaction as a native Greek abiding in the cultural birthplace of the Olympics (at the Acropolis of all places) helped me recognize what the Olympic Games are truly about.  This man helped teach me that the Olympics are not about outperforming other athletes in a show of dominance and ability, they are about pushing one another to new heights of achievement, so that we might learn to overcome the greatest struggles and obstacles in life. Obstacles eventuality appear in all of our lives. The message I learned is to fight to stay on your feet and keep driving forward.  

I often refer to Romans 5:3-5:5 as a guide when thinking about this experience.

Romans 5:3-5:5: ” Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (King James Version)

Can you share some thoughts and details on the friendships you made with fellow Americans and other athletes and individuals – perhaps just someone you met working or watching the Olympics – from those two years?

I remember driving Lopez Lomong to team processing in Eugene at the 2008 Olympic trials.  During the car ride over I suggested he consider running for flag bearer.  In Beijing, when he received the honor to carry the flag, I was elated.  I also remember meeting Presidents George Bush Sr and Jr.   As I shook President George Bush Sr.’s hand I turned and said, “Mr. President, please meet our flag bearer Lopez Lomong.”  That was one of my most memorable moments.

Currently, what is your primary athletic focus? What are you training for … and what goals have you set as a runner for 2014? What’s a normal week — a basic day-to-day rundown — for you in terms of training and also activities that you do tied into your business, civic and personal responsibilities?

I was planning to do a half marathon this winter.  Unfortunately, after a three-month training buildup, I fell ill with an infection and had to go through two rounds of potent antibiotics. I had to stop training for about a month. So I had to abandon my half-marathon goals and start over.  Because of the setback, I am currently working on 5k training and hope to race some competitive 5ks in mid to late Spring.  My plan is to take up longer distances again later in the year after a long block of healthy running.

During the week I am with my 1-year old son for 12 hours a day on average.  In that time I also assist in taking care of work obligations for Reckless Running.  After dinner I lace up at about 8pm and go for a run or workout. This winter has mostly been treadmill sessions since we have had cold weather, ice and early darkness. I’ve done some fun things on the treadmill so far.  I’ll do mostly longer interval sessions like mile repeats. 

I actually ran a sub four-minute mile on the treadmill just a few weeks ago.  I did it by running at 15.1 mph (3:58 pace) for four minutes. Cycling the legs over at that speed on a shaky treadmill is very challenging and dangerous. Without a 1% incline on the treadmill, that is the equivalent effort of about a 4:12 mile.  I’ve been practicing with a 1.5% incline and may attempt a sub four-mile equivalent effort with incline soon. 

Safety is my main concern with those treadmill speeds at the YMCA gym that I use with other patrons present.  The gym is not a specialized training environment or anything.  During a workout session I had noticed the treadmill at my YMCA hits 16 mph. The aim is just to have fun in what could be seen as a difficult or boring training environment.  With overspeed training like this you can turn a disadvantage of poor weather into an advantage.  You always need to be searching for the positive.

You can see the video of my first sub 4 treadmill attempt here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyeC6C7jwEk

Of all the philosophies, training methods, slogans, etc. related to your approach to athletics, what best sums up your approach to running?

Truth.  An “ideal” performance, where one is fully engrossed in and in sync with what they’re doing (such as described in flow psychology), can illicit deep levels of understanding and joy by opening oneself up to the truth that dwells in the experience of being alive.  In that way, the process and athletic act itself becomes the aim as opposed to some end result, award or accolade. One would have no reason to cheat or take shortcuts when practicing this way.

If you pursue your life as an athlete with righteous intention, then these ideal moments come not only in races, but also in solo runs or personal workouts. The scripture passages below resonate for me regarding this way of living.  My intention here is not to push my beliefs on anyone.  I just enjoy highlighting things that have inspired me to fulfillment.

Galatians 5:7: “‘Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth.”

2nd Timothy 2:5: “And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

As and artist, painter and entrepreneur, Reckless Running has helped you combine all of those interests and passions. When was your company first established? And what are some of its key milestones over the years?  

We’ve been around for just a few years now, yet we’ve been fortunate to have had success right out of the gate.  Our business model has been a study in sustainability and simplicity. We make apparel that fits great, feels great and looks great.  Our designs are meant to help fulfill a need as well as inspire. I have a trove of ill-fitting championship racing jerseys that I’ve accrued over 14 years as a professional racer.  I had no shortage of inspiration to make better racing gear at Reckless Running.  Competing in the very first Reckless Running racing singlet was a great milestone for me personally.  We’re very thankful for all of the amazing feedback we get from repeat customers.  I personally enjoy seeing the individuals who’ve made great efforts to collect all of our limited edition racing tops.  

As an artist, coming up with our trademarked brand logo was one of the highlights of my creative life.  It really stands out among other brands and makes a bold statement.  Creating new product ideas coupled with our unique designs and slogans is no easy task.  Fashion design really forces you to hit on all creative cylinders. 

I learned this well while observing my wife designing in New York City in high fashion.  She is a graduate of the prestigious Parsons School of Design.  As far as other milestones, we have many goals we have set ahead of us.  As runners we’re no strangers to setting and fulfilling long-term goals.  …

I would love to see us eventually excel in the Japanese market.  That would be a great milestone.  The consumers there have a great eye for uniqueness and quality.

Who are the co-founders of RR?

My wife and I.

Are Reckless Running products sold, first and foremost, in stores — if so, where? Or is it mostly done online?

Our site is http://www.recklessrunning.com We have been in stores, but it was difficult to keep up with demand.  Right now we focus primarily on online sales as we are hand making our racing tops in the USA.  That extra effort is time-consuming and our agenda is to always maintain high quality. That attention to detail is what sets us apart.  We have been working hard on implementing creative strategies towards scaling up our production in the U.S.  We have some great new ideas and are excited about where we’ll be in the near future and the impact we’ll have within the sport.

What makes Davidson, North Carolina, a comfortable place for you to train? What’s ideal, if that’s the right word, about Davidson? And are you training in Flagstaff and/or other high-altitude places regularly these days?

Family. I was close to family in New York City for many years and raced extremely well in that environment.  Now we are close to my wife’s family.  Family support is paramount to achieving success in anything.

Flagstaff was a great place for me to get in frequent high-altitude training.  I would typically go to Flagstaff twice a year for a month each trip.  For me, Flagstaff was more of a retreat rather than a rigid schedule replete with coaches and intense training partners.  The trails of Flagstaff and Sedona were a wonderful place of solitude and reflection for me.  I would often train alone and live alone in a hotel, using my days as more of a period of stress-free recharge and contemplation.   Running on the beautiful trails of Sedona and the San Francisco peaks in Flagstaff was immensely inspirational and uplifting for me. 

I feel fortunate to have been able to train there annually for nearly a decade. The lifestyle and schedule of a professional runner affords a privileged freedom to live any way you want.  There is no one way to train to success. Some runners unknowingly throw that freedom away and get caught in the trap of performance, constantly measuring themselves race to race in an endless cycle of anxiety and doubt.  I used the gift of that free time to find deeper meaning and purpose.  I measured my success more in terms of how much enjoyment I was getting out of workouts and runs as well as racing.  In the end this approach ultimately lead to better races. Putting yourself in an environment like Northern Arizona easily lends to greater running enjoyment and introspection.  Sadly, I have not been back there in recent years for several reasons.  

When I first came up to train at Sedona High School in 2003, they had a dirt/cinder track with not a soul in sight. I remember heading to that same track during my last trip and seeing it fully refurbished with an all weather surface. I waited in the car and watched as over a dozen elite runners jockeyed for position in lane one.  My place of retreat and solitude had become a hotspot of activity.  For me, this was a distraction.  For American distance running, this was a great thing.  

Also, at that time I had briefly stayed with a fellow elite runner in Flagstaff.  During the stay I had found some signs that indicated to me that he might be cheating with banned PEDs. I had no solid physical evidence of it and was speculating, but one of the red flags came when I found information near the contents of his wallet which he’d emptied onto the kitchen counter.  This runner was a messy guy and heavy supplement user.  Items would build up here and there and the small article in question was sitting with a pile of the sprawled wallet contents. I had noticed it while sitting at the counter during breakfast. 

The object in question listed some alarming information about specific banned PEDs and dosages.  I felt concerned, so I took a picture of it with my phone.  Shortly after that, when this individual was away from home, the doorbell rang.  It was USADA who had come to drug test him.  I answered the door and said he was away. Having been tested myself many times, I asked if this individual was outside of his 1 hour designated testing time where he’d be required to appear regardless.  They said he was, but I was intrigued and confused by the USADA tester’s specific response to my question. 

Because of that, I assisted in helping them summon him on the phone. I was shocked at how this individual’s significant other talked to and treated the drug testers over the phone.  I was very disheartened by the entire experience, yet I still maintain hope that he did not cheat.  Either way, a confluence of factors made the environment begin to feel toxic in relation to my personal training goals there.  I often miss being there and reminisce about my runs in Northern Arizona.  What a great place.

What do you think your legacy-in-the-making has already cemented as legacy within running circles in the U.S. and abroad?

If I’ve helped motivate other people to investigate and pursue their full potential and ability in a meaningful way, then that would be enough.

Looking ahead, what’s the ultimate event you want to compete in and win?

The afterlife. The race to attain everlasting happiness is currently taking place in our daily lives.  

Hebrews 12:1: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,”

You’ve transitioned to road racing and half-marathons in recent years, but do you still dabble in steeplechase training or reps as part of your workout routine?

I have a specific injury of osteoarthritis in my foot that came about from shoes I was wearing. With the injury I cannot hurdle for long periods without significant pain. I tried to adjust with rehab and push through to steeple in 2012. I did very well in individual workout sessions and was actually attaining PRs in tried and true workouts. Over time though, the cumulative effect of back-to-back sessions aggravated the inflammation and forced too many down days in between workouts and races. The situation was literally two steps forward, one step back.

To reach your best as a runner, you need to have long periods of consistent high-level training without interruption. This injury and other things were causing far too much interruption with steeplechase training and running in general.   Now that I’ve had a few years of extensive rehab, I’ve found that I can manage well in flat road races and on the track.  But, I still have great difficulty wearing racing spikes. 

Apparently I’m fine in particular road racing shoes.  However, the nature of my injury greatly limits fit and what I can wear.  The sponsorship rules of professional running as upheld by USATF prohibit me from racing in major meets in anything other than shoe company (manufacturers) apparel.  Since I have been extremely limited in my choice of racing sneakers, I have been relegated to competing without a shoe sponsorship. 

This ironic turn had helped instigate my interest in growing Reckless Running as a brand (manufacturer).  By successfully doing so, I’m not only fulfilling my needs, but also making in-roads to help create a business model that puts athletes in the drivers seat.  Reckless Running has no immediate plans to develop sneakers, so I am free to race in whatever works for me.  Other athletes are at the mercy of the products their sponsors produce.  As any serious runners knows, a frequent problem is that brands often discontinue or modify shoes designs.  It is common practice for companies to require their sponsored runners to wear and promote the newest products.

So, I have not fully ruled out racing another steeplechase in the future. I will just have to take a completely new approach to getting to the same destination if I do race the event.  Overcoming common injuries predominately comes down to having the time and persistent desire to do so. That is the message I like to pass on to runners with chronic injury. Your passion and drive will get you through if you’re patient.

What advice would the 35-year-old Fam give to the 17-year-old Fam entering college to help him during his university years?  

I don’t think I’d say much.  I have achieved far more than I initially set out to in running.  If I were to go back and try to change certain mistakes, I would be taking away some of the most important experiences of my life.  For example, what if I said, “Be extra careful not to hit that 12th hurdle in the Olympic prelim in Athens.”  Saying that might help my performance, but I’d be taking away the experience that I had a few days later at the Parthenon.  I’ve learned that mistakes and failures can sometimes be much more important than a flawless success or win. The #1 rule that I give to young runners I coach or advise is to be patient.  I’ve already followed that rule for the vast majority of my running career to much success.

You’ve seen the media attention and public support that distance runner and fellow U.S. Olympians Lopez Lomong has received in telling his story as a Lost Boy of Sudan and then reaching out to establish his own foundation and keep South Sudan in the spotlight. How does this illustrate how significant a role athletes can have for the greater good?

Lopez operates from a place of great optimism in his heart.  I wish many more people would do the same more often, myself included.  An athlete’s only job (if he has one) is to inspire positive action and achievement in others through his own performance.  Modern advertising projects the opposite of this.  It projects and reinforces an image of self-glorification. 

Many corporations want to be seen as flawless and dominant, so they commonly project that false image through athletes in their ads.  Lance Armstrong comes to mind.  I also recall seeing a popular Super Bowl ad this year with a song playing called “I’m the man.”  The song just kept repeating the phrase, “Im the man, I’m the man, yes I am.”  Young athletes will emulate what they are presented.  Unfortunately, they don’t often understand they’re being conditioned by marketing.  And, a lot of times they are conditioned towards unhappiness since most them won’t ever win a race or championship game.  How then does one fulfill their desire to become “the man”? 

You start to see there is an incongruence to this way of thinking. Athletes and their achievements are not meant to be worshiped.  The focus should be on examining and pursuing the freedom he/she can gain from personal mastery.  This mastery can take place at any level of ability if one achieves their own highest potential.  

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You’re stranded on a desert island and can only bring along five books and five CDs. Which ones would you take?  

I’d try to spend the time in silent reflection and meditation, similar to a hermitage.  I like to read non-fiction.  I’m currently listening to Beck’s new track “Wave” from his album “Morning Light.”  The lyrics of that song would probably be appropriate for the scenario.

Beck’s “Wave”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2DLZkv4Yvg&list=RDm2DLZkv4Yvg

Where did you have your most delicious meal? And what was it? 

With family at my grandmother’s house in the Bronx.  I specifically enjoyed her manicotti recipe.  

Which athletes today in any sport are most interesting and compelling to you, watching them on TV or in person?

I like seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr win.  I’ve run at his teammate Kasey Kahne’s charity 5k and have grown to be a fan of Kasey as well as Jimmie Johnson.  Both Jimmie and Kasey are avid runners. The Mooresville, N.C., area where I live has been a long-time home base for NASCAR.  Other than that I don’t watch sports much at all.

Do you have a favorite pro or college team you go bananas over to support or pay attention to? 

No. I support my alma mater, the University of Tennessee. I also support Appalachian State University and Davidson College in my hometown.

Going back to your art/creative work – paintings and music – of several years ago, are you actively doing these things nowadays? If so, can you provide some details?  

The last oil painting I did was a large diptych for my son’s bedroom. I don’t have much free time to paint.  I occasionally make music for Reckless Running promotions.  These days I take my son to art class once a week.  It’s not an instructional art class, just free time to paint or create with a bigger mix of mediums.  The best part is when we don’t have to clean up afterward.  We also have art time everyday at home and he loves it.  Sometimes he’ll just randomly start saying, “Art time, art time.” His interests are my interests now.

 

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A series of stories on … Anthony Famiglietti

Steeplechaser Anthony Famiglietti is one of the most compelling Olympians I’ve gotten a chance to speak to on a number of occasions.

He’s a true original with his own style on and off the track.

These stories, written during my time at the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff (2001-06) show a glimpse of that one-of-a-kind personality, and the competitive mind-set of an aspiring Olympian, and the insights of one after reaching that goal and pushing to get back.

Steeplechase artistry — June 2003

http://azdailysun.com/steeplechase-artistry/article_7dfab71a-3502-5e96-8d35-092b7d56e4ac.html

House of Runners – May 2004

http://azdailysun.com/house-of-runners/article_9c583a3e-4f0c-5dcd-acee-c8f6b6f249fc.html

A dream fulfilled – August 2004

http://azdailysun.com/a-dream-fulfilled/article_05ee27d6-fcec-5c2e-82a6-6fa63de6fd68.html

Chasing their dreams – April 2005

http://azdailysun.com/still-chasing-their-dreams/article_9d597f4e-7379-57e2-8438-f71be329fbc1.html