Mason Ferlic: Thoughts from the Next Great American Steeplechaser
By: Carlos Fernandes II
Some of you may know Mason Ferlic from his decorated career at the University of Michigan, where he flourished as a steeplechaser. Or perhaps you first heard his name after you saw the soaked, orange singlet clad, gloved fist pumping Ferlic after he dropped the 2016 Olympic 5,000m Silver medalist, Paul Chelimo, at the XC Town USA Meet of Champions on November 14th, 2020. I first met Ferlic at a High School Cross Country camp in Wolverine, MI and immediately knew this guy was legit. I knew he’d be a contender on the World and the Olympic stages. Following the win over Chelimo, Ferlic launched himself into 4 fantastic performances to start the 2021 season.
The man a couple days ago achieved the win, a new PR, and the Olympic Trials Standard at the USATF Golden Games with a time of 13:24.94. He’s on fire right now.
Who is Mason Ferlic?
Mason Ferlic is a 2016 Graduate of the University of Michigan (UM) with a Masters in Aerospace Engineering. Following college, he secured a 3 year contract with Nike. Due to some Achilles issues, he battled injury during the term of his contract, and Nike ended up dropping him at the start of 2020. Following his departure from Nike, Covid-19 struct the world, causing all major competitions to be cancelled.
With nothing on the calendar to shoot for, Ferlic decided to dial back his running and spend time with family. However, he also decided to use the open time to focus on finally breaking the 4-minute mile, which he did twice in 2020, first with a 3:58 performance in Indiana (nullified by USATF because of spectators at the meet), and second with a 3:59 at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville, TN.
He describes this time of training as a point where he got “sneaky fit,” where with less focus and less mental pressure he got fitter than he’d ever been before. This all culminated into a stellar Cross-Country performance with the win over Paul Chelimo. This win acted as a “spring board” for Ferlic as he believes it “showed the athlete [he’d] become.” He always believed he was this caliber of runner, but due to injuries and setbacks, he didn’t have much on paper to prove this belief. The win over Chelimo was the first mark on the paper that has now been followed by two wins in loaded 5k fields and a win in the steeplechase so far in 2021.
He’s now studying to earn his PhD in Statistics from the UM and make the USA Olympic team in the Steeplechase.
The Perfect Balance: Running and Working
From the beginning, Ferlic has been a big believer in working in tandem with your running pursuits. During the last two years of his Nike contract, he was working as a research engineer at the sports science lab at UM, which ultimately got him interested in pursuing a PhD in Statistics.
For Ferlic, “when you come from school, you have this structure in this day with the team, being at practice a certain time, and then class...you have this schedule to the day. When you become a pro you realize there’s a lot of time in the day where you can’t be training.”
During the first year of being a pro, he missed the structure he had in college as he discovered that when you are “just running” there’s a bunch of free time where he didn’t have anything planned to do. He also suffered from an Achilles injury that year, so he had even more free time for him to think about how he was using his time.
He eventually came to the realization that, “I actually have the time and bandwidth to train at the highest level I want to train at and that’s required to be successful. Also just advance my career and have some security and have something else going on.”
If you can sign a contract after college, Ferlic says that’s great, but you’re not going to make millions of dollars running. Eventually running will end and he said that he didn’t want to have to “dive into the deep end” to find a job in the real world once running ends. The truth is “running contracts are so stingy. They don’t give you health insurance, there’s no benefits, there’s no retirement savings.” Once he got a job working at a lab, he realized he had more structure, he got benefits, the people were nice and supportive, and he was still able to train at a high level.
The trick for Ferlic was to be able to carve out time to have great training sessions, but then also find a rhythm in the other areas of your life. He believes that, “when you’re running well or you’re working well, they feed into each other.” It’s all about the attitude for Ferlic, because when your training is going well, you’re fit, and you’re taking care of yourself, everything is working smoothly. You then take this positivity from running and it effects your school/work in the same way.
“Setting aside different goals in different areas and not letting them overlap is useful...running is an outlet from the stress of school and school is an outlet for the stress of thinking about running [for Ferlic].” It’s like a scale, where in order to be balanced and remain steady, you need to place something on either side. One is not a negative distraction from the other, but instead a beneficial one that allows you to take your mind off of focusing on one thing too long. This allows you to avoid burnout and overstress.
If the College Kids are Running so Well, Why Shouldn’t Pros have Jobs?
Ferlic says that, “[college] is the normal model for growth. Everyone is like, ‘go to college and get better’. If doing anything other than running was such an inhibitor, then you would see way more people [just going pro].”
He brings up another good point that some of Track and Field’s best athletes are college students. Oregon has runners like Cole Hocker and Cooper Teare who are tearing it up in the 800, mile, 3k, and 5k, while still being full time students. Athing Mu of Texas A&M this year broke the NCAA 800 record and also currently can boast having the fastest time in the world this year. Matthew Boling of Georgia is the reigning 200m indoor NCAA champion and with the win he claimed the fastest time in the world for the event at that time. Terrance Laird of LSU ran the third fastest time in the NCAA ever for his season opener, while simultaneously running the fastest 200m time in the world. These are just a few examples of the excellent performers currently still in college and excelling on the track.
College athletes need to juggle both school and training while in college and it looks like the cream of the crop are doing it well. This then poses the question, if they can balance work and play, why can’t pros do it too? Another thought to consider is how having this structure provided by school is helping these athletes excel on the track. For Ferlic, having structure leads to success. The fact that college kids are thriving off of structure should open the pros and future pros eyes into realizing that pursuing other activities alongside of running is actually beneficial for your running improvement instead of detrimental.
At the end of April, Ferlic tweeted:
And in my interview with him he followed up on this tweet by saying,
“Unfortunately there’s a stigma that if you want to be the best you can be, you have to project your devotion to how good you want to be. Like I just run because I want to be the best runner ever, which signals to others that you’re dedicated and bought in. I just don’t buy that. I don’t need to tell anyone anymore that my goals are to make the Olympic team and make it look like I’m doing everything possible [to make the team]. I already know I’m doing everything possible.”
You don’t need to prove to anyone that you’re committed to running, the only person you need to convince and hold yourself accountable to is yourself. Talk is cheap, only actions are worth anything. You can put on the persona on social media and to the public that you are this “great runner,” but what are you doing when no one is looking? Are you recovering? Are you eating right? Are you training smartly? You don’t need to make anyone believe you’re the best and doing everything well except yourself. They’ll believe when you go out on the Olympic stage and win a medal.
The Misconception of the All in Mentality
The pro model of our sport is flawed as it seeks to portray that what you need to do to be great is to run and meditate on running constantly. Track and Field is not like Basketball or Soccer, where if you want to perfect your free throw shot or your corner kicks, you can just go onto the court and field for 3-5 hours and practice. In these sports, you show up to team practice to run drills, plays and, “if you break down the amount of time they spend actually practicing [not walking around or talking] … it’s probably 50%.” In these sports it appears as if these athletes are spending all this time practicing, but in actuality, there’s a lot of filler time.
In the sport of Track and Field, we cut out the filler time and just show up to practice, put in work for 2-2.5 hours, and then spend the rest of the day recovering to get ready for the next session the following day. Ferlic feels like the ‘all in mentality’ should be changed into demonstrating what it actually is. It’s not thinking about running 24/7, but instead when it’s time to practice, you show up and give your best for those 2-2.5 hours. It continues into the recovery portion, where ‘going all in’ means making sure you’re getting 9-10 hours of sleep every night and eating right. There are specific times during the day where you go all into running, but a majority of the day you have open to do other things and Ferlic believes you should capitalize on that time by pursuing other passions.
Ferlic’s All in Definition: “All in is a mindset [where you’re] committed, focused, and enjoying the process and committing to [your] goals.”
Training Room Syndrome
Another hot take Ferlic holds is that he doesn’t believe in activation drills or rehab. He finds them to be a waste of time that balloon your day and take away from true recovery. The example he provides comes from his time as a college athlete. Countless athletes would spend so much time in the training room ‘getting treatment’, mostly talking, and wasting time. They would have to push starting their homework later at night, which caused them to lose precious sleep time and then they would be left scratching their head wondering ‘why am I injured if I go to the training room?’
Cut the training room time out. Nine to ten hours of sleep is all you need.
Day to Day
Ferlic doesn’t like to rise early, but instead prefers to wake up at 8am and make a nice pour over cup of coffee and enjoy a toasted cinnamon bagel with butter and honey before sending some emails and other mindless work tasks. He then leaves home for his training session between the hours of 9 am and 10 am.
Following the session for the day, he comes home to make lunch before hoping on to his afternoon PhD classes or he logs into teaching his undergrad class. He then takes a break, maybe working on something for his consulting job at Tracksmith and then he makes dinner. After dinner, he doesn’t do any work and instead relaxes as he gets ready for bed; always making sure he gets nine to ten hours of sleep each night.
Ferlic finds 70-75 miles a week to be his sweet spot.
He isn’t a believer in doubles, so he runs all his milage for the week in singles. Another part of his weekly training that he emphasized as the key to his current success is that he always takes the day after the long run completely off from running. His training week is on a rolling schedule where he always has 3 days of easy/recovery running in between his two hard track sessions. The long run session comes after the second track session of the week.
The focus of his training is on recovery and he believes you should always show up to the hard track sessions without feeling like you haven’t fully recovered from the last one. Sure, he acknowledges that there will be days where you feel a little off, but generally you should be showing up fully recovered.
The Portland steeplechase on May 28th-29th will be Ferlic’s final tune-up before he toes the line for the Olympic Steeplechase Trials in Euguene. If you’re not a Ferlic fan, you should be!