Nobody was taking Noah Droddy’s picture, which seemed strange considering the rail-thin runner’s recent rise to relative fame has been as much about his sensational (for the track world) ill brah appearance as his fast races, and the unlikely combo of the two.
As Droddy—who was a close second to Sam Chelanga at the Twin Cities 10-Mile, which also served as the U.S. championship—took off his racing flats and put on warm clothes, he called his aggressively front-run 47:28 race “life changing,” and not just from a financial standpoint. He wasn’t sure how much he’d won—third placer Tim Ritchie said he thought Droddy would get $10,000, and that proved correct—but regardless, it was more than he had at the moment.
“After finishing dead last in the Olympic Trials 10,000, this was a breakthrough for me,” Droddy said. “I mean, I’m a D3 guy, never made it to state in high school. To be able to run with a guy like Sam Chelanga ... this bumps me up a tier in American running.”
Droddy directly credited his coach, Richey Hansen, and training group, Roots Running Project in Boulder, for his quick progress. He packed up and moved from his parents’ house in Indianapolis to Boulder about a year ago. In that time, he went from a 68-minute half-marathoner to a 64-minute half-marathoner and qualifier for the Olympic Trials Marathon in February, and a few months later, chopped 80-seconds from his 10,000 meter PR to qualify for the Olympic Trials 10,000. Nine months earlier, he’d planned to be a spectator at those events.
Knowing how he enjoys a recovery brew, three minutes post-race did not seem too early to ask about it. “I’ll probably have more than one beer,” he said, “at the closest tap.”
He toddled off to drug testing and from there, a cold one. Not wanting to stand in the way of post-race protocol, I caught up with him by phone a few days later.
Deadspin: Thanks to the Indy Star and your mom, your only-childhood can be summed up in a few poignant snapshots—the Civil War outfit you wore lovingly for three years, thick books, Beanie Baby collection, vegetarian, International School of Indiana, employed as a lifeguard and at Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza, in a punk band. This seems like a recipe for a distance runner. When and why did you start running?
Noah Droddy: I started running in freshman year of high school. I had played other sports—football, basketball, baseball. My dad was a good runner, and I knew that, but he never pushed me into cross country. You didn’t have to try out—our school was really small and we had a really small team. We didn’t run very much, a few miles after school. I enjoyed being out there with my friends. Why? There was nothing special. I felt like I was improving every year, but I didn’t take running super seriously. I had some natural ability, had the body type for it. Running came naturally to me—I ran a few miles at my very first practice. I didn’t have to work very hard to be pretty good, and enjoyed being with my teammates. It was not life changing; just something I enjoyed doing.
Describe your high school self. Popular? Outgoing? Risk taker? Cerebral? Punk band guy?
I went to a really small high school—24 kids in my graduating class—so I’m not sure we really broke down along typical school stereotypes. Okay, yearbook terms—I was outgoing, I liked to write. I was in a punk band [Where’s The Cake] with some friends who didn’t go to my high school. The band was my main focus. We played a few shows a week. Music was my number one thing, even more than school work. I played guitar and was sort of the manager—I booked shows, set recording times. I guess it was a pretty aggressive schedule, but there are a lot of all-ages venues in Indianapolis. We usually played Friday and Saturday, sometimes two shows on Saturday. We wrote our own stuff mostly, but threw in a few covers. We had one experienced guy who already knew how to play. The band had sort of a tragic end. My friend Joe passed away in my senior year. He was the heart and soul of the band. We recorded one album, and released it right after he died. It was called Greatest Hits.
You made it to semi-state?
Indianapolis cross country doesn’t have class levels. There are sectionals, regionals, then semi- state, then state—so it’s a four-race tournament. My senior year was the only year I even got out of regionals. That was a huge achievement; I was so thankful I had gotten as far as I did. I honestly thought I’d be done running in high school. The improvement in my senior year opened the possibility to continue in running, at the same time as my friend Joe died and music became less a part of my life. Running started to show promise; it looked like maybe running was the next thing.
Despite improvements senior year, you didn’t get many recruiting calls, and ended up going to D3 DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. You told the Indy Star, “It’s not a knock, but DePauw will take anybody.” If you could have gone D1, would you have?
I’m a D3 guy anyway. I came from a small school and didn’t love the idea of a big university. My high school coach, Brian Power, was influential—he made me believe I could run—and he’s a DePauw alum. And I got a scholarship from the Lilly Foundation that allowed me to go to any Indiana school tuition-free, so that limited my search to Indiana. The decision to go to DePauw was a combination of those things.
You were All-American in cross country your junior and senior years at DePauw, which is good but doesn’t scream professional running career, then moved back with the folks after graduation . What was the plan? Did you ever think that cutting your hair, giving up beer, becoming, in your words, a robot runner was the way to go?
Pursuing running was not really on my mind. Right after I graduated, I moved to Chicago for an internship. So, that five months I was jogging but certainly not training. Then I moved home and worked a couple jobs—landscaping and managing a running store. I bounced around for a while, not knowing where my place was. I had a fairly active social life, I was running okay, but not anything like I’m doing now.
And no, it never really crossed my mind to follow the robot runner path. I don’t think neglecting things I enjoy would necessarily improve my running. I try to be a balanced person; I like to do other things too, and that keeps running in perspective. When you make running the only thing in your life, I actually think it has the way opposite effect.
What prompted the move to Boulder? Did you contact other groups beside Roots Running Project?
I needed a change in environment. I loved Indianapolis, but I was ready to branch out. I had no training partners; there were not a lot of people running at my level, so I was doing everything alone. Most of my friends were non-runners and didn’t necessarily understand the lifestyle. So it was either stop or go all-in.
I did send out a handful of emails [to other training groups]. Richey [Hansen, coach of RRP] was the first and only one to respond. I mean, I was a 68-½ minute half-marathoner. That’s not elite. My times on paper hadn’t indicated I’d be any good, but we had a couple phone conversations, he looked at my training log and thought my low mileage indicated an upside, and said if I wanted to come out, he’d willing to coach me. There was no stipend or anything.
According to the July Runner’s World article, you work two jobs, about 30 hours a week, live with a roommate, and will earn $5,000 to $10,000 this year from running. Obviously you’ve blown that income estimate out of the water. Is the rest of that still accurate?
Honestly, before last weekend, $5,000 [income from running in a year] was an ambitious goal. I haven’t got the $10,000 yet, but that race definitely changed my financial outlook. I still work those two jobs, and I actually have three roommates. I feel lucky to make anything from running really. When it’s more of a struggle you get people doing it who really love it, authentic athletes. That’s what everyone in my group does—we’re not in it for the money.
I just read that Colin Kaepernick’s contract for $126 million was considered bad. He seems to like football alright and is making a crap-ton of money at it. I wonder if broke runners adopt a purist attitude because it makes being broke seem noble and intentional? I also wonder if sponsors think, If these guys are willing to hammer themselves for love of the sport, why the hell should we pay them?
[Laughs] I’d take $126 million, for sure. I mean, I’d love to be able to earn a living running, but it’s okay if that doesn’t happen—I’m not on a crusade here. I hope that eventually a brand finds enough value in me as a person. I’m learning about getting an agent and testing those waters right now. I feel I’m in a better position now, I’ve had a good year, and hopefully my story will resonate as a human and an athlete. Otherwise, I’ll be doing the same thing as I’m doing now.
I think it might be relevant here to talk about your social media profile—“professional amateur distance racer” who “recently stopped sleeping on the floor.”
Yeah, I live a fairly professional lifestyle. Running is the main focus of my days, but amateur because no one is paying me to do it. I guess I’m an extreme hobbyist since I’m not really getting financial gain from it. Racer rather than runner because we’re there to race, not just run. I wrote it that way because I don’t want anyone to think I’m something I’m not. I mean, I run part-time in that, right now, the bulk of my income comes from my other jobs. I like to think a runner like me can be a true professional.
As far as sleeping on the floor, I had this king-size mattress but when I changed houses, it wouldn’t fit. I slept on a camping pad on the floor for quite a while. Richey [Hansen] recently gave me a mattress, which is on the floor.
You gave big credit to Roots Running for your breakthrough performance at the 10-Mile. How did your training/lifestyle change when you moved to Boulder?
It all changed; it was a dramatic turnaround. We do a [Joe] Vigil-style program, touching on all the systems in a week. There’s more quality work—I was doing one or two quality workouts a week; we now do up to five in a week—and the intensity is a lot higher. Since the Track Trials, we bumped up mileage to about 80 miles per week, which is still in the lower range for a distance runner, but the quality of those miles is high. Having Richey presiding over the workouts, taking care of the little things, is extremely helpful. I can just focus on the workout—I show up, he tells me what to do and we do it. Also I’d have to say, being at altitude has helped. I’ve been here a year now and can see the benefits. Yes, I work 30-35 hours a week, but I don’t go in until afternoon so I have morning for training. I can make running more of a priority.
You described the 10-Mile as life changing. How so?
As a runner, it’s changed the way I see myself. I show up to races with confidence, it puts me up with best guys in the country. You have to have the mentality that you’re capable of running with Tim Ritchie and Sam Chelanga. I’ve only done it once so until I do it again—fingers crossed. It tells me the talent level is there, the system is working. It tells me I’m on the right track to be one of the best guys in the country. And it opens doors in the running world, to get into races, in looking at contracts and sponsorship opportunities. It’s a bargaining chip, that I led a field of really respectable runners and I beat a lot of those guys. On any given day it could have been a different outcome but I put myself in that conversation. Especially after the Olympic Trials 10K, you question yourself. Now I can say, Okay, the Trials was a fluke. It’s validation.
In every photo at the TC 10-Mile, your mouth is closed, and you look cool and composed, like it was no big thing. Do you always run with your mouth closed?
[Laughed] No, I wouldn’t say that I do. That was just a lucky photograph I guess. Every once in a while I take a deep breath through my nose. It relaxes me.
Were you surprised to be leading that very talented field?
Yes and no. My coach told me it was in the realm of possibility to be in the top five. I’d run a really good time trial that showed I was fit, but I’ve never been in that position before. There was a moment when I looked over both shoulders and thought, holy shit, I’m going to be top three. Actually someone made a GIF of that moment...
Otherwise, I didn’t dwell on it. I recognized I was having a good day and thought I’d better take advantage of it, keep pushing and keep calm. I felt powerful, to be honest; let’s see if I can make these guys hurt.
Did you get the post-race beer(s)?
I did. Actually the hotel had some beer, which was great, and I had some pizza. I flew out that afternoon, planted myself at the airport bar and tried to bask in the moment.
Were you wearing your medal? Because an integral part of basking is wearing the medal.
[Laughed] I wasn’t wearing the medal but maybe I should have.
Well, one more for the trophy case. Wait, do you have a trophy case?
Actually, I do have a trophy case. It’s at my parents’ house. My dad is pretty handy; he made it. That was my Christmas gift last year. It’s pretty cool. My parents have been super supportive of me no matter what—even if their kid’s going to go just be a runner, they’re great, very supportive.
Are those designer sunglasses?
Droddy: Nah, cheap sunglasses. They’re actually my roommate’s.