Jim Finlayson is a former Canadian marathon champion, three-time competitor in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and winner of the Royal Victoria Marathon (GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon). He competed for NCAA Division 1 University of Michigan before running for the University of Victoria and eventually owning the streets of Victoria, BC. He once owned the Kingston Beer Mile World Record, with his official performance – an astounding 5:09. He has since run eight seconds faster to take the supermaster world record and has recently smashed the two-mile record with his 11:39.
Finlayson (aka, ‘The Flying Finn’ or ‘Finn’) is a highly consistent runner despite a life hurdle – he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis – and is mostly a self-coached athlete; that is until recently.
Jim took the time to chat about his gradual transition to coach, while he continues to compete, balance family, work, beer-miling and continues his assault on the local masters age-group competition.
Christopher Kelsall: How old were you when you discovered you were a runner? Was there a magic moment when you thought to yourself, ‘ok that’s it, I am officially a runner’?
Jim Finlayson: I came to running through soccer. Our coach sent us for laps of the field as a warm up before practice. At that age we should have been doing a warm up before the warm up – when the coach said “go” we sprinted, the entire team would turn the crank. My best friend at the time and I were always far out in front. We figured we should give running a try. I started as a sprinter but I was pretty slow. I finished last on a dirt track at our regional meet. Regional for the city – I didn’t even qualify for our city finals. I’m not sure when I made the switch to longer distances, but I think my failure as a sprinter started me on my way.
CK: What position did you play?
JF: Outside right. I liked to run, and I was a good place kicker. I practiced until I got to the point where I could banana kick a ball into the net from the corner, though I couldn’t ever do it in a game.
CK: You are working with coach, Jon Brown. Two benefits that come to mind is his quiet approach, not unlike your own way, also you get the opportunity to run with someone who can push and pull you in training. In terms of the method of training, I would think there are some similarities between yours and Jon’s, yes?
JF: Absolutely, our training philosophies are similar. That being said, there are a lot of training principles common to almost any sound running program. Hills, tempo runs, mileage. The advantage to working with Jon is that I am able to turn my brain off and just run, something that I haven’t been able to do for a number of years while being self-coached. And he is developing a good stable of runners. Anytime I show at a workout I know I’ll have a few people to push me. He is incredibly accomplished and very wise … I have a lot of respect for Jon.
CK: You mentioned that you are interested in and practice Dr. Jack Daniel’s approach. Generally speaking, what is it about Daniel’s method that speaks to you?
JF: To be honest, it’s hard to say. His training ideas have a certain feel about it, which I like. I had the fortune of meeting Jack last Spring when I was in Flagstaff with some of our local runners, and I took to him immediately. He isn’t doing anything unusual in his training – same as Jon. He uses stuff that has worked for a long time, stuff that continues to work, and he explains it in a way that people can understand. Nothing groundbreaking, just solid principles. After meeting him, I wonder if part of what I liked about his training thoughts was simply the person coming through.
CK: So perhaps it isn’t about reinventing the wheel. There exists a thorough understanding of effective training principles and practices already; the information is easy to source. It sounds like you are saying good coaching is really in the delivery and the application of the method and perhaps that the personalities mesh well?
JF: See? That’s why you’re doing these interviews. Take my meanderings and turn them into something straightforward. You’ve nailed it.
CK: What was your relationship like with your Michigan State coach, Ron Warhurst?
JF: First of all, never confuse Michigan with Michigan State. Interviews can end quickly with that kind of mistake. Ron and I got off to a rocky start. I was running 30:30 for 10, 000m in high school and made the traveling team my first year at Michigan, but got mono at the end of that year. He and I didn’t communicate very well. I didn’t give him a very good sense of how I was doing, and neither of us sat down to the chat we needed. It set the precedent for the rest of the time I was at Michigan. I learned a lot from him, both in terms of what hard training really is, and in how to structure a season, but I wish we’d had a better relationship while I was there. It was two ways, of course, and to his credit graduates worked out with us, guys like Brian Diemer, Gerard Donakowski and John Scherer, and I think that says something about his ability as a coach and as a person. I saw Ron again after I left Michigan – he was here in Victoria watching our Commonwealth Games trials. We had both been through some challenging times and it was good to reconnect and to feel as though there wasn’t any ill will.
CK: Sounds like there exists a certain, perhaps high-level sense of competition between the two Michigan Schools.
JF: I’d imagine it’s the same for any two State vs state name schools who each have a good program. Florida vs Florida State, Michigan vs Michigan State. The closer another is to your name, the more you fight to distinguish yourself from them. I mean, we had tougher competition from Wisconsin and other schools in the Big 10, but for none of those did we have the same venom.
CK: What was your major at Michigan?
JF: I started in Mechanical Engineering and switched to math after my first year. I didn’t finish my degree there, however.
CK: I understand you are a numbers guy, a bit of a mathematician. You also happen to have some more than adequate writing skills, do you prefer downtime with a calculator and algorithm dreams or waxing poetic on a blog?
JF: Depends on the time of year, I guess. Numbers lately. I have a matrix ranking system that I use for NFL predictions. I don’t bet anything more than coffee money, but it’s fun. I created a cross-country ranking system, too, something which took the guess work out of course difficulty or weather conditions. It ranks individuals, and then it’s a simple matter of adding up the team score. With it I have been able to observe how well certain coaches peak their teams for the big races. Dave Scott-Thomas at Guelph, for example. Each year his athletes take off 30 seconds or so from their previous year, relative to the rest of the competition in the CIS. So yeah, during the winter months it seems I spend more time with a calculator, but in the summer when it’s nice outside I’d much rather be writing or reading the latest Murakami, anything with words.
CK: For a layman, how does your matrix function?
JF: It creates a power rating for each team in a system. Maybe, for example, the Lions didn’t play the Saints in a season, but the Lions played the Packers and the Packers played the Colts and the Colts played the Saints. They’re all connected by a degree of separation. The matrix reduces that degree of separation to one, as though each team has played every other team, and gives an expected score between any two teams.
CK: What is the next rank below Layman?
JF: Maybe just give me your money and I’ll place the bets?
CK: Sure. Whats a hot ‘n smokin’ song on your iPod right now?
JF: Smoke Baby, by Hawksley Workman.
CK: Ironic. You are currently reading?
JF: The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon.
CK: Avatar, 1 to 10?
JF: Haven’t seen it, but it’s 6 on the scale of “want to see it”.
CK: Personal vice?
JF: Chocolate. No question.
CK: You like Irish Celtic music, yes? Current favourite?
JF: Kitangus, if live, but they just disbanded. Waterboys. Are they Irish? They sound it.
CK: They are a mix of Scottish, Irish and English, Guiness or Hermannator?
JF: Guinness, two “n”s. Easy to tell yours!
CK: I have two ‘n’s in my favourite – Ok your real favourite beer?
JF: Probably still Guinness, but there’s this beautiful Lambic Kriek beer by Lindeman and it’s a little bit sweet and it’s gorgeous with chocolate.
Back to running
CK: You finished your degree at the University of Victoria, I assume?
JF: I went to UVic for a couple of semesters, but didn’t ever finish. Somewhere along the way I lost my passion for math and it didn’t make sense to continue. I guess I realized I wasn’t ever going to be a researcher, and I didn’t want to teach. Other things became more interesting.
CK: With Jon now coaching you after years of self-coaching, do you have a new level of running goals? You have run 10k around 30:30 for over half of your life with a 29:21 pb.
JF: Oi, yeah, I’ve run 30:30 or quicker for 19 years and have only managed to post a 29:21 p.b. I’m not sure if I can get back down to that level. I’m 37 now and my body isn’t what it used to be. I’d like to work on staying healthy for the next couple of years so that I can breathe new life into my running by turning 40. If I can come anywhere close to the 30 flat mark at 40 I’d be pretty happy. It’s asking a lot of the next few years. I’ll need to take good care of my body. Other factors come into play, too. Family, work, desire. It’s great being accountable to a program and a coach again, though. When my schedule comes in, I lace up my shoes and head out the door to complete it. I’m not going to say that I can’t run some personal bests, because at times during the training I feel as good as I ever have and who knows where some consistency could take me, but it will take some work. My bests are still targets.
CK: Yes who knows where consistency can take you, and a little wisdom.
JF: Absolutely. Through consistency is where I’ll realize the greatest gains. I haven’t had much of that over the years, but when I’ve been able to string a couple of seasons together I have had some good results. Now it’s a matter of applying what I’ve learned to my program and my body so that I’m able to be steady with my training. I’m not thinking: will I get to the end of the season training like this? anymore. That was a University thought. Now, it’s: is this something I can keep up for years. In a single season any athlete can make a good jump in performance, but it will never match what consistency over years will give you. We have some great examples of that, locally. Steve Osaduik, Marilyn Arsenault. Bruce Denton attitudes, from Once A Runner.
CK: Graeme Fell holds the Canadian record for masters 10k on the roads with his 30:09. Do you have designs on that time?
JF: He has the Canadian record on the roads. I can’t remember who holds the track record, but I’m pretty sure it’s 30:09 or 30:11. I’m a couple of years ahead of myself by saying yes, but those marks are in my mind. So much can change in two and a half years, just a regular few years like turning 28 when you were once 25. But going from 37 to 40 is an entirely different shift. I can imagine it’s the difference between dropping from 38 minutes to 37 minutes for a 10km, and dropping from 30 minutes to 29. At some point all the wisdom and consistency and hard work won’t be enough to keep me where I’ve been, and I have no idea when that will happen. Maybe this season, maybe next. Hopefully not until I’m 41.
CK: Currently you seem to be running near your typical performance level – not too far off. With MS at this time, do you think other than during an episode, the effect is muted?
JF: It’s a good question, to which I really don’t have an answer. My neurologist, in one of his professional moments, said in 2004 that I’d never again run the way I had. Then in 2005 I ran personal bests in the 10km (road), half-marathon and marathon, all off relatively low mileage. But I struggled in 2006 and 2007. What I noticed is that I carried a lot of neuromuscular fatigue. There were entire seasons when I couldn’t get my heart rate up, and my race performances similarly were sub-par. And I was tired. Some mornings I would wake to find my shoes on, my lights on, and would remember that I had laid down for a short nap after work the night before. I started to feel like I was finally getting fit over the summer in 2008, but that Fall I had another attack which set me back for all of 2009. It seems as though I am able to get back to, or near, my old performances but I haven’t been able to build on them, and it is bloody hard work getting back to level.
CK: You have been coaching others since at least 2004. Was being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis something of a turning point for you to perhaps share some of your training knowledge with others?
JF: Being diagnosed with MS and starting to coach was more of a coincidence, but in the last year and a half I’ve thought more about my limits and how I still would like to try some things in training that my body may not be able to handle. My athletes let me try those ideas out on them and we learn together. But really, I got into coaching in 2004, just after my first attack. At the time we didn’t realize the attack was MS. I wasn’t officially diagnosed until last February, so it has only been in the last year when I have had to wrap my head around what it all means. Getting into coaching has been a timely transition.
CK: What level of athlete are you taking on?
JF: Any level. Right now the athletes I work with are in the 34′ to 50′ range for 10km. I’m not selective with performance level. I want to work with good people who have dreams and are willing to work, even if they sometimes balk at the sessions.