Josh Cox is one of the great American runners, but it wasn’t that long ago when he was dirt poor with awful hair. When K-Swiss had their four-day shoot to restart their awesome Kenny Powers “MFCEO” campaign, With Leather’s Josh Zerkle was invited to check it out and spend time with the athletes supporting the California-based shoe brand. Among those was ultramarathon runner and reality show alum Josh Cox, who discussed some of the tools of his trade with Zerkle in a roundtable discussion last month. While you may never set the American record for the 50K or run a marathon in 2:15:01, you might try after reading this inspiring discussion. Portions of this Q&A were edited for clarity and space.
With Leather: So how long can you actually run on a single pair of shoes?
Josh Cox: That’s an interesting question. I was on the standard athlete shipment, so I assume I was getting these shoes like all the triathletes are getting and everyone else, and I’m like, “I need more shoes, man!” [laughs] Shoes will typically last up to 500 miles. That’s the rule of thumb, but now the way that they’re made, the treads don’t wear out as fast. I look at the bottoms and I think, “My shoes look great.” But what you want to look at is the cushioning system. Look at the side of the shoe, and when you start to see a breakdown through the sole, that’s the cushioning system breaking down. You won’t realize it until you put on the fresh pair and go, “Whoa! These feel awesome!”
In your peak training, is that a new pair every two weeks or so?
Yeah. But I like them new and I get them for free. I like to get new shoes after every 350 miles or so.
Did you ever use those barefoot-simulating shoes? The ones with the toes in them?
Oh yeah. So…[long pause]…I have a large social network, and I get guys on Twitter and Facebook and they’re always asking me, “What do you think about these?” These are guys that identify themselves as barefoot runners. “Barefoot Runner Mike,” like that’s literally his screenname. Whatever. But I’ll tell you this: I thank barefoot running for learning how to run properly. It’s a great tool and we actually do some of that. You want to strike you foot in the middle of your foot. You don’t want a heel strike. Heel striking is breaking.
A lot more stress goes into the leg when you’re heel striking. It’s a shock. When you strike on the mid-foot, the shock happens underneath the body. When you’re out on your heel, it’s too much. Lots of injuries happen that way.
I’ve been to Africa. I’ve trained with the Kenyans in their camps. And I’ve been out there with them, and yeah, the schoolchildren are chasing us while they’re carrying their books and yelling “Mazunga! Mazunga!” That’s Swahili for “white man!” They would come up to me and say, “Why are you running? Europeans don’t run.” And I’d say, I’m not European. But they’ve been doing this since they were four years old, and they’re built…they’re Kenyan. They weigh 120 pounds and they’re running on dirt.
I wish I had a nickel for every Barefoot Runner Mike who reached out to me in the last year, saying he was dedicated to barefoot running and later said, “I’m injured.” People want to go out and run 20 miles barefoot and I know it’s cool or whatever but you’re gonna get hurt. And to each his own, but…
Would you recommend doing that once a week? Or–
Yeah. In small doses, I think it’s fine, it’s actually a good idea. If you can start by walking around the house, the mall in your bare feet [Editor’s Note: Ew.], there are a lot of muscles in your feet you don’t use because we have shoes. Then, when you start running with those things, stay on soft surfaces. There’s nothing worse as a runner than being injured. When you want to get out the door, and you can’t, it’s horrible. You need to start slow. That would be my advice.
How did you decide to make running a career? Surely there’s a lot more adversity in doing that than, say, playing professional baseball or tennis.
I’ve been running marathons full-time since 2000. I ran my first marathon in 1999. I was supposed to pace a guy through 17 miles. I ran 2:19. I was the youngest qualifier for the Olympic trials ever. That got me into some physiological testing with another shoe company at the UC-Davis labs. I was one of 55 people tested for their distance-running potential. I was signed along with five other guys. Changing running from my avocation to my vocation was a huge turning point for me. Being able to focus and say, “My job is to run” and running 140 miles a week without a job was easier than running 110 miles with a job. That was huge.
What was your job?
I graduated school [from Liberty University] and was looking at master’s programs in kinesiology. I was a phys ed major and I just didn’t want to go to school anymore. I just wanted to qualify for the trials. I had a part-time job working for my dad initially, but we nearly killed each other, so I went to work for my buddy’s dad at a technology firm. Management. Projects. Making calls to people. They were flexible with scheduling around my workouts. I was trying to make ends meet with Bisquick and Smart Start cereal. I had that for every meal. Not just breakfast.
But you asked about the challenges. For me I’ve always followed my heart. I think you have to do what you love and pursue your passions. And when you love what you do, you never go to work. I knew that if I could make this a career, I would love waking up every day to do my job. And I do.
But yeah, there are those days when I’m sitting on the couch and don’t want to go out, especially when I have a 35-mile run on the schedule. And I just think to myself, “This is gonna hurt.” But I enjoy it and relish it. I’m doing what I love. Like you guys, you followed your passions. You’re doing what you love. It’s fun.
You were on “The Bachelorette,” right?
I was on the show in 2005, and one of the guys on the show said, “Well you’re just lucky. You get to do what you love for your job.” And I said “Thanks,” and smiled, but [starting to get disgusted] it wasn’t luck. It was a chore. You make a choice. I was broke. I wrecked my Toyota truck with no insurance. Had to sell it for scraps. I bought a 10-speed bike and was running in the morning and then biking to work, riding home, working out again, going to bed. No social life. I’d wake up the next morning, and second verse/same as the first. I burned the candle at both ends. I couldn’t have done that for ten years, but I said, “I’m gonna try this, and I’m gonna get over the hump.”
Most people aren’t willing to go through those lean times. After every Tuesday night we’d all go to this pub called Shakespeare’s. We’d go there and the soccer matches would be on. Everyone would order their food, and I’d be sitting there with $1.10, but I knew for $1.10, I could get two biscuits for 55 cents each and a water. And I’d put Splenda in the water so it’d kinda taste like…something. And that was my life. And then I’d go home and I’d make some waffles.
But I was willing to sacrifice. People don’t walk up to you and say, “Hey, here’s your TV commercial and here’s your six-figure contract.” It doesn’t work that way. If you’re willing to pay the price and you’re willing to go through the lean times, you can pursue whatever’s in your heart. But that comes at a price.