T&FN Interview — Woody Kincaid

Kincaid’s baptism under international fire came in the steaming cauldron that was Tokyo’s Olympics. (GLADYS CHAI/ASVOM AGENCY)

THE LAST FEW MONTHS have been a whirlwind for Woody Kincaid. One of the brightest stars in Nike Bowerman’s formidable distance stable, he left the team and the coaching of Jerry Schumacher — an unthinkable move in the eyes of many. He wandered for a bit, designing his own training awhile before landing in Flagstaff to work alongside some of Northern Arizona coach Mike Smith’s best pro runners.

A solid collegiate runner for Portland, Kincaid flourished under the coaching of Schumacher, making both the ’21 Olympic and ’22 Worlds teams. Along the way he put together great PRs of 12:58.10 and 27:12.78. But would leaving the training group be a move he would regret?

He put that question to the test in January when he entered the 5000 at Boston U’s Thomas Terrier Classic. Down by 10m with a lap to go, he sprinted madly to defeat Joe Klecker and break the American Record with his 12:51.61. (Continued below)

A week later, in the New Balance GP 3000, he again showed off impressive fitness, using a 25.79 last lap to crush another solid field in 7:40.71. Suddenly, he was on the cover of T&FN and not so many people were questioning his decision-making.

We caught up with Kincaid on a lively phone call, one we mutually decided to interrupt at the halfway point so we could follow live the Madrid 1500 that Yared Nuguse won in 3:33.69.

T&FN: First of all, how are you?

Kincaid: Good. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t say great. I got sick on Monday. I got some sort of stomach bug that’s going around Flagstaff, but I’m running today and I actually felt pretty good. You know how sometimes when you go down for one or two days and you come back, you’re like, “Man, I actually feel really good?” [laughs] So, not too bad.

T&FN: You had only a 2-race indoor season, but two pretty darn good races. What did they reveal to you?

Kincaid: I think it revealed that I like my base training. You can be in really great shape off just doing strength work with a little bit of speed in there. It revealed to me that I can do this training on my own and I can also jump into different forms of training and succeed that way. I learned a lot of things from it and… man, what did it reveal? I think living in Flagstaff is working for me.

T&FN: Going into that 5K in Boston, what was your confidence level? At the starting line, what did you think you could do?

Kincaid: I was talking to my girlfriend and the day before the race, I got the impulse — it’s kind of a strange story — I got the impulse to clean shave my arms, shave my legs, shave my chest [laughs], which I never do. And I think my girlfriend said something like, “You know you can do something if you’re doing this” [laughs] and I’m like, “Yeah, I think you’re right. I am in good shape, and they’re gonna run fast.” I knew that [the On AC] was gonna run fast. I knew I was in decent shape, but I didn’t wanna put myself in that situation where I had to run well just because I had a lot of changes in the last fall. But I think in the back of my mind I was like, “I know I feel good.”

T&FN: Did you know you felt 12:51 good?

Kincaid: No, no way. I mean, I’ve been in 12:51 shape before, but to run 12:51, you have to also feel good in the race. You can’t just be like, “I’ll show up and run 12:51.” It also has to be like, “The legs are feeling good today” in the middle of the race. You can always muscle out a good race no matter if you’re in good shape, and I think that’s kind of what I was feeling that day.

T&FN: Your kick — obviously lots of people are talking about that savage and just incredibly explosive kick. What is your relationship with your kick? Has it grown stronger over the years? Can you trust that kick to be there when you need it?

Kincaid: Well, if you really go back to even 2011, go watch the Mt. SAC race. I’m probably a 100 meters back on this guy leading with a lap to go. And I started kicking in and I passed the guy with 200 meters to go. My kick’s always been there, man. Do I have more confidence in it? I have just as much confidence in it as I always have. Even the Olympic Trials in 2016 to make the final, I had to kick a 52 and I did that too. So, you know, the kick’s always been there, when I wasn’t doing any speedwork and when I’m doing a lot of speedwork.

Kincaid’s best NCAA showing as a collegian was a 5th in the 5000 as a junior in ’15. (CHERYL TREWORGY/PRETTY SPORTY)

T&FN: Cool. Before we get to some of the current stuff with you, I want to ask about your career arc. You’re 30 now, you’re an old man…

Kincaid: I know [laughs].

T&FN: How is the 30-year-old Woody different from the 25-year-old version?

Kincaid: Oh, man. That’s a loaded question. In what form? In what context? The difference between 25 and 30 is that for me it was a very big difference. A lot of things happened between 25 and 30.

T&FN: I’m curious how you’ve evolved as a human, in terms of your perspective, your wisdom, your inner strengths, any of those major-ticket items.

Kincaid: Wow! That requires a novel. I don’t have a short quip. Let’s go back to where I was when I was 25. I was in Bowerman, I was just coming out of injury or just going into injury. I didn’t break 13 in the 5K until I think it was 11 days before I turned 27. So when I was 25, I was still in the injury cycle.

It’s tough to really explain all the things that are different now. My family situation is different. My dad got sick when I was 26 and that was a whole process where I was away from my dad when he was sick and I was still trying to make the team. And at that time when I was 25, it was kind of a precarious situation if I was going to keep my contract or not. So that was a very unsettling time in my life, those years of 25 to 27.

And then, things started to come together when I was 27 in terms of running where I was staying healthy and I was getting in good training and it seemed like my dad’s health was doing better, that he would live longer than they thought he would.

I kind of had that jumpstart when I was like 26 to get things done and I had to take these extra risks. I really had to get it done then. And then once I made that jump, I kind of was able to maintain that for a couple years. It changed a lot in my life, you know?

My dad passed away last year, last November. So, now this last year was incredibly a different part of my life. My dad being sick was a different time in my life than my dad having passed away. You know, runners don’t… we don’t exist in a box. We’re not just like, “How’s your running career?” And it’s not this steady progression. We still live lives just like everyone else.

There’s some things I’m more independent on, like I’m able to do a lot of the work on my own but there are things that I know that I need other people for. I really enjoy being around my teammates and talking to them and helping them, and I need them in workouts to push me. I guess what’s changed from 25 is just learning what I need people for and what I can do on my own. I think that’s really maturity as an athlete — OK, where are you going to put your energy? And what things are necessary? (Continued below)

T&FN: In your pre-Bowerman days, you were, I guess you might say, a journeyman college runner. You weren’t a superstar, a NCAA 5th was amazing, but it doesn’t scream out “pro contract!” necessarily. What kept you going? Was there an inner vision that you could somehow eventually make it to where you are now?

Kincaid: Yeah, I think everybody’s got that, right?

T&FN: I didn’t have it.

Kincaid: [laughs] I think you do. I think you do. Maybe I always see it from my perspective, but I have to believe that everybody kind of has this inner vision that they still have more to give to something they’re passionate about. And, that’s what keeps you going, right? Even when things aren’t going right, you have this idea that there’s still something there. And I think everyone has that.

T&FN: It definitely panned out in your case. As someone who interviews athletes all the time, I see so many times it doesn’t pan out.

Kincaid: Believe me, I know and I heard that a lot. I’m not unaware of that and I’m grateful that it has for me, but you know, it doesn’t guarantee it for next year either. Each year is a new panning [laughs] — you have to keep panning for gold, man. Just cuz you strike it once doesn’t mean you’re gonna get it tomorrow.

And I think there is kind of that weird disconnect too between people who do make it and people who have not. Cuz it’s kinda like, “What is the difference there?” And I’m not always sure.

T&FN: Well, no one is truly sure. If you could bottle that, you’d be…

Kincaid: Right. [laughs].

T&FN: Looking back on the 2022 season, after your USATF 2nd, did you feel like it was going to be the season you wanted?

Kincaid: Last year was kind of a day-by-day kind of thing. I was struggling last year. I was really close with my dad and after he passed away, I had good days and I had really bad days. And I was still getting in the work.

If you look back at my season, I’ll have really good races and I’ll have really bad races. That’s kind of a reflection of just where my mental state was. But I kept running, man, and to my own credit, I went to Europe and really, that changed my whole career right there because I’d never really raced in Europe before. And when I went out there and I raced with Grant Fisher, Elise Cranny, Josh Thompson, and we were just racing and we just got back to what we’re supposed to be doing as pro athletes.

I just realized that I really loved racing in Europe, first of all, like the whole atmosphere; the love for the sport out there is so fun. That really changed how I looked at this whole sport because it’s just a different environment over there.

T&FN: I hadn’t really realized that you hadn’t raced there before.

Kincaid: Yeah. My first international race was Tokyo. My first time running on a foreign track was the Tokyo Olympics. If I could go back and change anything, I would tell people, “Hey, you should get as much international experience as you can when you’re young.” And I just [hadn’t], for whatever reason, I was either injured or it wasn’t good timing. And Jerry’s not really big on letting people race outside of his scope. So, I think if there’s anything I’d go back and wish I did sooner, it’d be race internationally.

Kincaid’s kick was too much for favored Grant Fisher in the ’21 Olympic Trials 10K. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

T&FN: Looking at the World Championships in Eugene, what was your postmortem of what happened there?

Kincaid: After I fell and broke my elbow? Postmortem [laughs]. I was in great shape. I had really high expectations for that race. I knew I was in shape to do something and when I didn’t even get a chance in the final, I mean, that one bugs me. And that’s kind of what motivated me to say, “Alright, I want to keep doing something with this fitness.”

So I was like, “Jerry, I want to go to Europe. I’m going to race in Europe.” And he was like, “Go to Europe.” I guess that [Trials] race kind of made me see the greater scope of the sport in a lot of ways.

T&FN: Hey, let me pause you for a second. Are you watching this race? The 1500?

Kincaid: Thank you for reminding me. I was just going to do that.

T&FN: Okay. I’ll call you in 5:00?

[2 texts arrive from Woody in the next few minutes: “Erik took it out in 54.84?” and “a painful, painful 3:33”… then we’re back on the phone again.]

T&FN: Wow.

Kincaid: I was watching the live results and the lap count, and I’m like, “Geez, that looks painful”… I mean, that was a good race.

T&FN: It was.

Kincaid: Yared’s on fire. The goose is loose, man.

T&FN: Let me ask you about something that I heard while I was watching that broadcast. The commentators, who were British, kept talking about it as an honest race: “It’s an honest pace. It’s honest, honest, honest.” And I’m curious: as a kicker, how do you feel about your racing style essentially being called dishonest?

Kincaid: I’m not a huge fan of people saying that. “It’s an honest race, a dishonest race.” A lot of the way that I’m able to hang on in both workouts and racing is I just have to latch on. I just am able to be a hunter. I mean, is that really dishonest? I think it just means I’m able to pull more out of myself when I’m chasing someone down. And that’s perfectly normal. I don’t think it’s dishonest in any way.

T&FN: The name of the game is getting there 1st.

Kincaid: Yeah. I think you have to race the way you have the best chance of winning. That’s how it works, man.

T&FN: We were talking about the World Championships and you said you broke your elbow [in the 5000 heats]. I’ve been googling your name and “elbow” and I can’t find that anyone reported about this. What’s going on there?

Kincaid: I broke my elbow in the race and I protested that race up until the very last second, even to an hour before the final. I took a hard fall in that race and I went and got an X-ray that night and my elbow was broken.

In Tokyo, if you fell in a race, you had a really good chance of advancing. But in Eugene, I think the U.S. kind of overcompensated a little bit. They didn’t want to show any favoritism to the U.S. or really to anyone, I guess. The protest was very unlikely to get you advanced. I thought I had a really good case to be advanced, I like to say objectively, but I can’t be objective in this situation. I should have been advanced. They just were not advancing anybody last year. (Continued below)

T&FN: That must have been disappointing and especially so coming after the Olympics where I think you were probably a little disappointed too. Are those races a big motivator for you going forward?

Kincaid: No, I don’t think so. The motivation is just always there no matter how I race, it really is. I think the motivation is I want to just keep getting better and getting more chances. Once the race is over, the race is over, man. That’s it. Yeah. So no, I won’t say it is.

T&FN: Your closing speed may be as good as anyone on earth. But championship races lately seem to be a big windup over the final kilometer. How do you address that as a competitor? How do you prepare yourself for that in the future?

Kincaid: I think having more volume now is going to help that; part of my problem was not having that. That kick is there. I don’t think that has to do with my fitness so much as it’s a mental thing that I’m able to do. But I think you’re right. If there is any weakness of mine, it’s probably that last kilometer. A lot of these fast races now or championship races, they just take off with a kilometer to go, because everyone feels good for whatever reason.

You can say it’s because of the shoes or because people are just getting faster. I don’t know. I think having more volume will give me at least the confidence to stay up there for longer. And I don’t have to be on someone’s shoulders to outkick them. I really don’t. I just have to be able to see them and I will do it. So if I can just close the gap by, let’s say, 5 more seconds, I have a good chance of really doing something.

T&FN: Your volume, how much have you increased it this winter?

Kincaid: Quite a lot, man. I mean, I think that’s part of the reason why I probably got this stomach virus. I was doing a lot of volume. On Bowerman I was probably averaging about 90M/week, but up here I’m averaging closer to 110.

T&FN: Back when we talked 2½ years ago, it seemed like the sky was the limit in your situation at Bowerman. What bumps in the road did you hit there?

Kincaid: The bumps in the road were more outside of running than anything else. I think back to losing my dad, and just having last year where I was just struggling the whole year, I think I just needed a change in my life. And I finally found a good situation out here in Flag. Two years ago was a very different me.

T&FN: Was that a gradual thought process? The decision to leave? Or was there a light bulb going off: “Hey, I’m gonna do this?”

Kincaid: It was kind of a gradual process and then you eventually have to make the decision, right? The light bulb of, “Alright, I’m outta here, this has to happen.” In the fall I eventually had to make that decision, that hard line of, “OK, I’m not going back,” but I think it was a gradual process of realizing I needed to change something.

T&FN: What’s your situation in Flagstaff? Did you actually rent a place or are you sleeping on a couch?

Kincaid: [laughs] I got a 2-month lease. I do Fully-Furnished, which is kind of like Airbnb, but for professionals. I tried to find the highest altitude home I could find [laughs]. I mean, you can take me out of Bowerman but you can’t take the Bowerman out of me. I’m still looking for the highest possible altitude. But yeah, I’m going to hopefully get a little longer term if Mike [Smith] really takes me on. We still haven’t had the discussion, but I’m feeling good about it.

T&FN: Who are your training partners these days?

Kincaid: Luis [Grijalva] and Abdi [Nur]. Pretty much just them, which is good. Luis and I work well together. For a 23-year-old, he’s incredibly developed. He’s able to handle sessions that I would say are comparable to Bowerman 5K sessions almost on his own. A 23-year-old usually takes a couple years to really get to that aerobic base and volume that you need to run such hard 5K sessions.

But for whatever reason, the way he’s trained with Mike Smith or whatever, or maybe he just has crazy talent, he’s far developed for how young he is. But I haven’t really got a chance to really train with him a lot because he’s been traveling.

T&FN: With your departure from Bowerman, I’m curious, did Nike ask you to please stay with Bowerman or are they just pretty much hands-off on something like that?

Kincaid: The key is they just want you to be in a situation where you’re happy. They’re not going to press you to go any way. I’ll say this, if you want to go to Bowerman, they have a lot invested in the program, but their money is going to go to the Bowerman budget, not necessarily to the Bowerman athletes, if that makes sense. They finance the team and so when you go to Bowerman, I would say there’s just more resources.

T&FN: In Flagstaff if you need therapy, massage, whatever, that’s coming out of your own pocket right now?

Kincaid: That’s right.

T&FN: When we last talked, you had mentioned that you wanted to keep riding the 5K a while before becoming a 10K guy, but then that next season you won the Trials 10K. In hindsight, was that too soon? Do you prefer the 5K still?

Kincaid: I wanted the 5K. I feel good about this 5K. I think we’re going see how this 10K goes [The TEN on March 04]. I know I’m in shape to get the standard but if I’m honest, I don’t think the American Record will probably be there.

First of all, the American Record in the 10K [26:33.84 by Grant Fisher last year] is going to be really hard to get. It was set up in such a perfect situation. I mean, I paced that race. I took it 7K and then they had Moh Ahmed who’s Olympic silver medalist in the 5000, essentially go after the fastest time he could go after. And Grant outkicked him to get the American Record.

So that’s going to be a really hard situation to replicate. We’ll see how the thing goes. I feel good about the 5K though. I like the length of the race. I know I’m good at really riding that line and I feel like that’s just my life in general. I’m really good at riding a line.

T&FN: How about doubling at Nationals? Is that something that’s going to continue for you?

Kincaid: Maybe in the Trials I could see myself trying that, but in this year there’s going to be such a quick turnaround, I don’t really plan on it.

T&FN: Last year USATF split up the Nationals, running the 10,000 earlier, but it doesn’t seem to be on the schedule this year. Is that something you wish they would do more?

Kincaid: Yeah, I think it’s good. I think it’s really good for us. It definitely gives like the best athletes a chance to run two events. It’s what you want. But it’s really about what USATF wants. Do they want the best athletes in more races, or do they want more athletes in different races? Because if you open up the door, it’s for say like Grant Fisher to run both events or then you have Grant Fisher in both events versus two athletes. It depends what you want.

T&FN: Makes sense. OK, career timeline. Now that you’re in the ancient over-30 category, do you have any benchmarks set in your head for like, “I’m competing until the ‘28 Olympics and then I’ll reevaluate?” or are you just going to keep riding as long as you can?

Kincaid: I would like to make it to Tokyo25 on the track. But I know how quickly things can unwind. Still, I think that’s the goal, to make it to Tokyo on the track and then move to the marathon after that.

T&FN: That was my next question. I was wondering if you ever had any road impulses.

Kincaid: I do. I think that’s what I want to do. And frankly I think I will just probably enjoy training for the marathon. I’ve trained with people training for the marathon and I like that kind of high-mileage, high-altitude lifestyle.

T&FN: When the day comes to not worry about contracts anymore and not be invited to races anymore, do you see yourself still playing a role in the sport or moving on to some 9-to-5 instead?

Kincaid: I think more and more I really do see myself staying in the sport in some form. I think I enjoy helping people get better and, and getting invested in running and watching racing. So yeah, I do want to stay in there. I think coaching would be interesting but it’s something that I don’t even want to think about right now. I still have too many aspirations here.

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