It seems to me that people who are passionate and successful in one area of their life are often just as passionate in other areas. In this interview series “The Successful and the Passionate” I will talk to some successful and passionate people about some of the things they share a passion for that they aren’t so well-known.
Today, we talk to Peter Lubbers about running. And jumping.
Peter Lubbers is best known for his work with HTML5. He is the author of the book Pro HTML5 Programming (2nd Edition Apress, 2011) and the founder of the San Francisco HTML5 User Group—the world’s first and largest HTML5 user group with over 7,000 members. Peter now works as the Chrome Developer Relations Program Manager at Google.”
Peter also has a penchant for running.
Three-time winner of the Tahoe Super Triple (26.2M + 26.2M + 72M in 3 days), Peter also ran the entire 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) in one go, in 57h:54m and completed the River City Marathon in under three hours.
Peter, I understand you are a former Special Forces commando in the Royal Dutch Green Berets. That is quite extreme itself — were you a superhero before you were a special forces commando?
No, not at all. I was really only good at one thing: long distance walking. That skill served me pretty well and I owe it all to my dad, who took me out walking on weekends. We started with 5 and 10K walks (my mom would also come along for those walks) and then it became more serious (Mom would stay home for those walks). We would routinely hike 20 to 50K a weekend and by the time I was 14 we hiked all across the Netherlands (where I was born), Germany, and large parts of England and Scotland. I remember we hiked 1000K in a summer vacation when I turned 13 or 14.
In those days, joining the army was mandatory. One interesting anecdote about that was that to join the green berets you had to pass a physical and mental fitness test on the first day you arrived. They sent the requirements a few months ahead of time and one of the items was the ability to perform 8 pullups. I tried it and was horrified I could not even do one! A friend of mine welded an iron pullup bar together for me and every night I would practice before going to bed. It was only the night before I had to go to the base that I was able to so 8 pullups. I was super excited! I arrived at the base and passed all of the other tests and when I came to the pullup station I jumped up to the rail and started pulling myself up, knowing I would be able to do 8. Almost immediately, the drill instructor said “that one does not count, you jumped.” I managed 7 “correct ones” and then tried my best for an 8th, but it took too long and I was dismissed. It was a memorable moment — I was certain I had failed and would need to be stationed somewhere else, but they let it slide and the rest was history.
Authors and programmers aren’t normally associated with being elite athletes. Have you ever had to make a decision to choose between a passion for technology and for running?
I certainly don’t think of myself as an elite athlete. Also, lately I have not been running at nearly the pace I used to — having been super busy with the HTML5 work. In the ultra marathon world there are guys like Karl Meltzer, Scott Jurek, and Kilian Jornet who are the real elite athletes. One elite endurance runner who is a full time husband, father, and top-notch IT professional is Tim Twietmeyer, who held the Tahoe Rim Trail record until a few years ago. Tim has been a source of inspiration for me and many others for years.
What has been the best about the ultrarunning elites though is how non-elitist and generous they were with their advice and time. It is such a great community. For example, when I approached Tim about trying for a Tahoe Rim Trail speed record attempt, he literally gave me all the tips and tricks he had accumulated over the years, including his timing spreadsheets.
I’ve never had to pick between the tech and running, but it is exciting to combine them. For example, in the Pro HTML5 Programming book you will see some examples based on running. In general, there is not a lot of money in ultrarunning and I think that is a good thing: it has kept it very clean. That does make it hard for the elite athletes to make a living, though.
A friend of mine recently ran the London Marathon for the first time. Tell me about the first marathon you ever ran — or if, it is more interesting for you, another memorable race. Or both.
A colleague of mine suggested I should really try out the marathon, so I signed up for the 2004 Big Sur marathon and started training. I still remember driving to the full 26.2 miles to the start in an old school bus and thinking to myself “I have to run all of this?” I paced the run pretty well with a short walk break every mile. It was a beautiful course. Although it was hard between miles 20 and 23, I finished in just under 4 hours and was wondering “is that all there is too it?” It just did not feel like it was the “ultimate achievement” I had expected it to be.
As luck would have it, Les Wright, the race director of the Tahoe marathon and Tahoe Triple Marathon was at the finish line. I picked up a brochure, but as soon as I saw triple marathon, I was sold. Five months later I found myself at the infamous pre race Tahoe Triple Spaghetti dinner buffet, where Les was asking how many of us were running their 500th marathon.
Surprisingly, people got up and they kept jumping up at 750 and 1,000. I felt woefully out of my league all of a sudden. When asked how many people were running their first marathon, I was thinking, “well, that’s not me either,” but it might as well have been.
The next day we started the first marathon. One of the runners was the amazing Helen Klein, who was around 80 years old and going strong, going for another age group record in her long list of records. I kept a decent pace and was able to repeat almost identical times on day 2 and 3 (the last day it is run in parallel with the regular Tahoe Marathon. Finishing that was a great feeling, no matter what place you finished in.
I was instantly hooked and came back again in ’05 and stepped up to the Super Triple (26.2M + 26.2M + 72M in 3 days) in 2006. I trained harder and had a lot of help from my dear friends Chris and Rebecca who crewed for me. (CREW here stands for Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting). That very first Super Triple was one of my most memorable races. I was in second place overall and completely hit the wall with about 50 miles to go. It was a very long dark night, but I made it through and with the help from my super crew, I found that second wind and was able to start running again and actually won the race overall in the end.
It seems like a big leap to go from half marathons and marathons to Triple Marathons and 165 miles races. Did you always intend to do these ultra marathons, or did it come from wanting to always do bigger and better things?
When I ran my first 50K trail race on the Tahoe Rim Trail, I looked at the map and said, “one day, I want to just run the entire trail in one go.” That was the start of a 4 year training expedition in which I kept running longer and longer, but also really studied the trail and how other runners had tackled it. The 165 mile run all around the TRT was not an official race with other runners, but a solo record attempt. Lots of friends from the ultra community came help me and I had 4 crew members and 7 pacers who I can’t thank enough. That was the most memorable adventure I have ever experienced. when you run straight for 57 hours (2 x 12 minute sleep breaks) you go through a lot of highs and—unforgettable times!
Life to me is all about experiencing a series of “moments.” Sometimes doing something extreme can force you into the present moment and allow you to experience it more vividly, however, it is also simply being present in the more “mundane” moments of our lives that can be surprisingly powerful. It’s like the elusive runners’ high. You can’t really reproduce it at will, but you can create the circumstances to allow it to happen. We can add rich experiences like that to what I like to think of as an “imaginary backpack full of life experience.” I am glad to have put some great moments in my backpack along the way, but there is still space left ;-)
After I completed the 165-mile run and the sub-3 hour marathon, it was time for something a little different and that is when I started writing the book and that led to a lot of other great stuff. I am still running a little bit (currently training to run the 72-mile, 7-person Tahoe Relay with my kids and some of their friends in June). Something that I am planning for the future is a speed record attempt on the Pacific Crest Trail (2600+ miles). That is currently at around 60 days. It would play into my multi-day long walk strengths, but would require some serious time off. One day!
Speaking of big leaps — you tell me that you also skydive, and that it started with parachuting when you were in the military. What made you recently want to go back to jumping out of aircraft?
Yes, I love the thrill of skydiving and learnt how to do it in the army. My oldest son, Sean, recently turned 18 and wanted to go skydiving for his birthday (you have to be at least 18), so I was happy to get back into it. This time we jumped from a lot higher altitude (13,000 feet) than I was used to (in the army, you mainly learn how to dive from just above 1000 feet to lessen the chance you will get shot out of the sky), so we had a lot more time in freefall and that was a lot of fun. We already decided to go back for the full certification this summer. I can’t wait!
Aside from skydiving, you also bungee jump. Tell me about the attraction of bungee jumping for you?
Although many people think they are very similar, skydiving and bungee jumping are quite different. Bungee jumping is a lot more direct. Unlike Skydiving, when you are about to bungee jump, you see the ground below very clearly and close. The rush is incredible and very therapeutic. On a side note, every time I have made a bungee jump, I have somehow gotten very lucky. Once I even won a trip to Hawaii right afterwards!
Other than running and jumping, and generally being an authority on HTML5, do you have any other passions?
I love spending time with my wife Vicky and my sons Sean and Rocky.
Most recently I have also become really excited about the power of Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) education.
The HTML5 Game Programming course we recently launched with Udacity has more than 65K students enrolled now—an incredible number, but somehow it seems like it is still just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot of untapped potential in that area.
Also… did I mention HTML5? ;-)