Runners I Know: J.E. Skeets
Racing fast, pushing limits, and getting back out there with the No Dunks co-host.
One of the cool things about covering the NBA for so long was meeting so many people who were into running. From coaches and front office executives to media members, there’s something about the rhythms and structure of distance running that makes sense to those of us who spent the rest of our lives in arenas and studios.
While I had the great fortune to share miles with many basketball minded runners, one name eluded me: the incomparable J.E. Skeets. Maybe it’s because Skeets is legit fast, or maybe it’s because we were rarely in the same place at the same time long enough to get out for a run. Whatever the case, we have long standing invitations with each other to knock that off the list some day.
I chatted with the former Starter, Basketball Jones visionary, and current co-host of the No Dunks podcast about racing, scratching the competitive itch, and opting for a post-run beer over stretching.
PF: When did you start running?
JS: I guess I technically started running in Grade Seven. I grew up playing sports and for some reason I joined the cross country team. I’m not sure what got me out there, but I had a little success and really liked it.
And then I really stopped running and focused on basketball and other sports. Then around 2012-13, I was living in Toronto. We were getting ready to move to Atlanta and I learned about this running group. I think I saw them on Instagram, and I was like, ‘This looks kind of cool.’
It was the Night Terrors Run Crew. They got together at night and ran around the streets of Toronto. I was just fascinated by it. I went out and made some friends, and I also found out about the Nike running app.
It turned running into a video game for me. It was this weird thing of trying to go faster, trying to go longer, trying to beat my score. I don’t need to rely on that stuff anymore, but I know it had an effect on me in terms of getting me out there every day. I started running 5Ks and half marathons and eventually marathons.
PF: Where did you grow up?
JS: I grew up in Stratford, Ontario, which is an hour and half west of Toronto. Small town. It’s famous for the Stratford Theater Festival and the birthplace of one Justin Bieber.
PF: You mentioned having success in cross country. Have you always considered yourself fast?
JS: Yeah, I think I did. I was one the smaller kids growing up, but I was one of the quicker kids. When I say success, I was one of the better kids in my small town. The one thing that stuck with me, I remember winning a cross country race. That was probably the first thing I ever won in an individual sport. That was like, whoa.
I’m what, 12 years old? It’s not like I was training for it besides being on the team. I guess I have the genes for it. I’m very light. I am somewhat fast and can keep a pace. When I started running again as an adult, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not bad at this.’ Then it became a question of: How much faster can I go?
I love the mental game of running just as much as the physical game. That’s what really hooked me. I sort of have a weird runner’s build, but then it gets into,‘Will my mind allow me to keep going?’
PF: That’s the whole deal right there. What do you get out of running from a mental standpoint?
JS: I love how humbling it is. When I really started to take the sport seriously, you can do all this stuff in training and then for whatever reason, you can just have a really bad day. It was never my body failing me. It was just, mentally, I wasn’t there. I wanted to give up and stop, or whatever it was.
That part I find super refreshing. Not at the moment, but looking back, that’s pretty wild. I’m having this internal conversation between my body and my mind. It’s such a weird thing, and I really like it.
The other thing is, like most people, I'm on my computer all day looking at a screen. I’m watching basketball games, I’m reading about games, and I just need to get up. I can even listen to a podcast about basketball, but as long as I’m running, I can zone out a little bit more.
It’s definitely a form of therapy and meditation for me in a weird way.
PF: I vibe with that, totally. Are you familiar with the central governor theory?
JS: Hmm, no.
PF: The central governor theory is that there’s a mechanism in our brain that regulates fatigue to stop us before we crash, and if you can deal with the central governor on its own terms you can push those limits.
The proof is the closing kick. If we can kick, we could have been going faster. But you have to be able to be in touch with the central governor, understand it, and manage it.
JS: That clicks with me. I 100 percent agree with that. For my entire life, I’ve believed that as humans, we can always do more or go faster. I truly believe there is no limit. When you think you’ve reached your top speed or distance ... no, you could go faster or further.
Obviously, that's not technically true. I’m not running a marathon in one hour. There’s something about that I do believe and have always tried to live my life like that.
PF: I know you stepped away from running for a while and came back to it recently. How do you manage your running?
JS: Thankfully, right now, I’ve really found the running bug again. It's really exciting that it came back. I’m talking to my buddy Jared who I train with down here, and we’re circling the marathons that we’re going to train for to shoot for Boston 2023, stuff like that.
I need a goal or an end game, so to speak. Whether it’s a marathon or a certain time goal. I really, really like having that bit of structure in my life.
When the pandemic hit, we bought a house, we got a dog and it didn’t feel like it was as easy for me to leave the house for an hour or two. I think that’s kind of bullshit when I look back on it, like an excuse I made for myself.
But you know, the last thing I want to do when I’m training or running recreationally, I don’t want to hate it. I guess I just lost that luster for getting out there. It’s thankfully back. I also think I overdid it a little bit. I started in 2013, got really hooked on it, and was basically running every day.
My goal is to run Boston. I ran Boston in 2019 and it was like: cool, I did that. Maybe I’ll do it again, but not right now.
PF: How did Boston go in 2019?
JS: For myself, it was disappointing.
I mean, look, it was a blast. It was a bucket list item for me, and I was so excited when I qualified. You’re surrounded by a bunch of incredible runners, and I found it difficult to run my own race. I’m running with this incredible wolfpack of runners. I think I put down like a 1:18/1:19 half or something like that.
JS: It was waaaaay too fast. And then I hit Heartbreak Hill and I felt like I had to stop. I have nothing left.
Of course, right when I start walking a little bit, I see the one guy who’s come out to support me. I didn’t know he was there, but he was a fan of the show. He had a Starters sign and I see him while I’m walking. I took a photo with him and I was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to enjoy this for a minute.’
And then I started running again. I think I finished in 3 hours and 7 minutes. It wasn’t atrocious, but I don’t consider it a great race. Again, it was humbling. Next time I do this I’m going to be so much better prepared.
PF: It’s funny about Heartbreak Hill. It's there for a reason.
JS: Oh man. This is going to sound like an excuse, but I know the way my mind works. You start to see other people stopping, and walking, and really hurting. It has an effect on me.
If I never saw anyone else walking, would I have stopped? You just don’t know. It allows me to say, ‘It’s Ok to walk here because that person is walking and they’re an elite runner.’
PF: Racing is such a different animal. Some of my friends who had blowups in races, I used to tell them, they’re not racing enough. Race your local 5Ks and 10Ks and get used to the idea of being around other people.
JS: That is so true, man. Some people have that competitive nature and you’ve got to learn about it. I love racing for that very fact. Oh, there’s someone ahead of me, let’s reel them in. But you can get yourself in trouble where you’re not racing your own race.
PF: One of the fun things about this series is how everyone has a different relationship with the sport. You seem to really thrive on racing.
JS: Oh, I absolutely love it. I love it because it pushes me. It’s not like I’m going out there thinking I’m going to win. I’ve had some success winning smaller races here in Atlanta, local 5Ks and 10Ks.
It’s really cool to come in first, don’t get me wrong, but I just love it because there’s always a group of great runners and I like to see how long I can stick with them. To me, it’s a great barometer. And I love the hype of the starting line. It’s such a cool energy.
PF: What’s your routine like?
JS: I’m trying to not overdo it. I’m going for 4-5 runs a week. There’s some speedwork in there with a long run on the weekend. I’ll try and do that with my buddy Jared when our schedules line up.
I know you go early, I’m just not built to run at 5 or 6 in the morning. I have no problem running in the middle of the day with the sun at its highest point. Here in Atlanta, it can get stinking hot. I love the heat. On race day, I’m hoping it’s warm, even a little humid. I’m sicko that way.
I just like being outside. Nice sunshine on my face. To answer your question, I follow a basic plan. I set my goal of whatever time I want to run in this particular race and then 16 weeks out, start breaking it down.
PF: Are you self training?
JS: I follow a plan. Oh man, I’m drawing a blank right now.
PF: The Hal Higdon plan?
JS: That’s exactly the name I was trying to remember.
PF: That man is a saint. Every road race I’ve ever done was with a Hal Higdon plan.
JS: Every half to full that I’ve done that I really trained for, I just followed that plan. Tweak it a little bit here or there. It works. I cut off 15 minutes from my marathon time in one year. I give a lot of credit to following that plan.
PF: What is your marathon PR?
JS: Ugh, it’s three hours and 32 seconds. I only say ugh because I really want to run a sub three.
PF: You were 32 seconds off a sub three?
JS: Yep. And I really gave it a go. It was the one I qualified for Boston in Jacksonville. I just felt so good. At a certain part of the race, it hit me, I’m really going to qualify.
And then I got 22 miles in, and I was like: it’s there. I can do sub three. So I gave it a go. I gave it my best effort and came up a little bit short. But it gives me something to shoot for, which is nice.
PF: When you said 3 hours and 32 seconds my heart immediately broke for you. If it was like, 3:02 ... but 32 seconds is tough.
JS: It’s so close. I remember we ended on a high school track and I could see the clock, and I just remember booking around this corner of the track going as fast as I could. I gave it my all. I was one of those things. Bummer I didn’t break three, but my real goal was to qualify for Boston.
PF: That’s a very healthy attitude. Do you identify as a runner?
JS: That’s a good question. I think I do. A big part of it is that I talk about it a lot on our podcast. With our show, we share a lot about ourselves, we’ve been doing it for a long time. People know a lot about us.
Over the last 3-5 years when I was trying to qualify for Boston that would come up on the show, and then I ran Boston during the playoffs and all that. People see me as the runner of the group.
I get a lot of questions and people saying, ‘Oh man, you encouraged me to get out there.’ They ask me for tips and I’m like, I do this, but I'm not an expert. You’ve got to subscribe to Paul’s newsletter.
But that has made me feel like a runner. I felt like a fake runner the past year but now I’m getting back into it.
PF: That’s one of the big things with the newsletter. You put your shoes on, you go out the door, you’re a runner. But we all kind of struggle with that perception.
JS: That’s why it makes total sense for someone like you or I to look at an elite runner, and go, that’s a runner. But someone who’s just starting out, they look at you or me and the races we’ve done, it would make sense to look at us as runners.
Honestly, you could convince me that if you get out and walk your dog, you’re a runner. It’s all levels.
PF: I have to ask the stretching question because we’ve bantered about it in the past. Do you stretch?
JS: (laughs) I don’t, a lot. One thing I did when I wasn’t running a lot, I did get into yoga. I started doing Yoga with Adrienne. My wife and I were doing it every day, we were doing those 30-day programs. We did it once and were like, ‘Wow this is fun. We feel great.’ So, we did it a couple more times.
I want to try and incorporate both, but I haven’t done it yet. There’s no doubt that it helps. I do find it tough when I go out and run 90 minutes to two hours, and now I have to stretch for another 30 minutes? I really struggle with that. Screw that. I want to have a shower and a beer.