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How Olympic Triathlete Morgan Pearson Ran A 1:01 Half-Marathon

On Dec. 5, the Olympic silver medalist may have ran the fastest half-marathon by a triathlete, ever. The craziest part? He was just coming off his off-season.

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Morgan Pearson has just run the fastest half-marathon by a triathlete we’ve probably ever seen. Let that sink in.

This is no 28-year-old pro runner, notching 100+ mile weeks and throwing in a bit of swimming and cycling for fun.

The New Jersey racer is the leading U.S. short-course male in tri, with two World Series podiums and an Olympic silver medal bagged this summer in the mixed relay.

So, after leading for 10 miles and stopping the clock at 1:01:47 at the USATF Half-Marathon Championships in Hardeeville, South Carolina a few weekend ago, what did he make of it all?

“I don’t think my performance was that amazing—the training wasn’t great. Right after the race I was like: ‘Dang it!’ At 11 miles, I was feeling aerobically strong, but then my legs just came off. Every step was agony, and that’s not how you want to feel. That’s not racing, it’s surviving!”

RELATED: Get to Know Morgan Pearson, the Newest U.S. Olympic Qualifier

How fast does he think he can go? “If I put out that I think I can run under 61 minutes in this article, people will take it the wrong way. But I don’t care, I know my training. I was on vacation two weeks before in Colorado Springs, rock climbing and disc golfing.”

Pearson may not have had the miles under his belt, but he did have a secret weapon. Having traveled home from his training base in Colorado, he drove to Carolina with mom Christine for the race, complete with giant banner proclaiming “GO MO!”

“She hasn’t been to a race since before COVID, so it was special,” Pearson said. “She cheers a lot, and she brought her bike so she could see me multiple times. She really gets into it.”

It’s been one heck of a year for Pearson. A relative latecomer to triathlon, having only started racing professionally in 2018, he clinched automatic qualification for the Games after finishing third in Yokohama in May, a cue for the emotions to flow as he dedicated the success to his older brother, Andrew, who had recently passed.

A runner-up spot in the following WTCS race in Leeds proved the performance in Japan was no fluke, and despite a disappointing 42nd place in the individual competition in Tokyo, there was redemption in the relay as Pearson anchored USA to silver.

“An Olympic medal is something that doesn’t come around every day,” he said. “I was upset with my individual race, and it made the relay that much more special—to come back and have a pretty good performance, knowing I wasn’t feeling my best.”

That Tokyo reflection hints at what followed. With the possibility of a high finish in the World Triathlon rankings and even an outside shot at the world title, Pearson took a break from the racing.

“It’s been an emotional year with my older brother passing away, and after Tokyo it just hit me,” he explained. “It was a struggle for me to stay healthy and I wasn’t able to train at my normal level.”

Pearson did return for the Abu Dhabi WTCS on the first weekend of November, but went in a bit undercooked. “I realized I’m not good enough to show up unfit and have a good race—I don’t know if there’s anyone who can. But if I’m training and I’m fit, I have a chance at any Olympic-style race—and that’s a good feeling. It’s motivating. Before Yokohama and Leeds, I knew I was a good runner, I was swimming in the top 15 in WTCS races a lot, and I was new to biking but would get better. But to do it… that’s when the belief turns into excitement, and that’s when it gets fun.”

Exactly a month post Abu Dhabi, the half-marathon in Carolina almost slipped past. Upon returning from the Middle East, Pearson felt so rundown and jet-lagged he quit on one 10-mile run and started walking. The week’s training was effectively a write-off and thoughts of scratching the race were foremost in his mind. A call to coach Dean Golich took the pressure off. The message was clear: It’s the off-season, just keep it fun. “I relaxed after that, but of course, I still wanted to do well.”

The performance in Carolina didn’t come without precedent. Pearson had made the endurance sport world sit up and take notice with his debut half-marathon in October last year, when he posted 1:02:15 in Michigan.

“That was a huge confidence boost,” he said. “I’m training for triathlon, so it can be really hard to predict where my running is at, but I enjoy running races and to do well is a reminder that I am a good runner.

“I was leading at 10 miles [in Carolina] and was still feeling strong, but knew it would be hard to win because there were still eight guys, myself included. I’ve noticed with long distance that my lungs are super strong from biking and swimming. Aerobically, I’m a machine, but the muscle endurance is not at the level of my engine.

“Sam Chelanga, who finished second, made a big sprint at 11 miles, and I was being a bit reckless, so I tried to go with him for 200m. It was as if I started my finishing kick, and it just tightened my legs. Had I let him go, I could maybe have run 30 seconds faster.

“Instead, I went from being second to out the back of the lead pack, and from there it was a case of gritting my teeth. But I’m not regretting it. That’s racing, and it’s motivating. If I ever really wanted to run a fast one, a few more weeks of constant mileage, and maybe I can be in the sprint rather than holding on for dear life.”

From September onwards, Pearson estimates he averaged around 60 miles a week; that’s in comparison to the winner in Carolina, Conner Mantz, who finished in 1:00:55 and was racking up around 110 miles per week. Pearson’s quick to acknowledge that given his swimming and biking, direct parallels are impossible to draw, but it’s an ongoing debate over the volume of training miles needed for fast times.

Talking of fast runners, does he feel there are any other triathletes that can match his footspeed over a half? “

“I’m not going to doubt Alex Yee. He’s run 27:51 over 10K and is the gold standard—maybe because he looks good when he’s running, but he’s backed it up in races too. I think Jelle Geens is one of the better runners in triathlon and doesn’t get talked about enough, but anyone who is getting an Olympic medal and running sub-30 minutes off the bike has a chance to run a good half-marathon.”

The goal for 2022 is simple: just get as much experience as possible. “I want to race a ton of tri: World Cups, World Series, Super League would be epic. I know that’s kind of a silly goal, but I’ve only been in the sport since 2018 as a pro. I’m also hoping to run a 10K race in March. I’d love to run a fast 10K and maybe have Alex Yee as not the only sub-28 guy!”

Below, Morgan shares two key run sessions he used to prepare himself for the half-marathon.

Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/Getty Images

Session 1: 1km track repeats

Total Distance: 11mi.

Warm-up:

3 miles

Main set:

10 x 1km, below race pace

200m jog in between intervals

Cooldown:

2 miles

“This was a workout I did in Colorado Springs with my coach. It’s a threshold session to build strength and efficiency. Over a long enough period, it should help raise my threshold. My average pace for the 1km reps was 2:56 wearing training shoes—not super shoes—and at 6,000ft of altitude. Sometimes I’ll mix it up and do a fartlek on the grass, or 10 x 3min on the gravel. On a workout day I’ll usually try and get 12 miles in, so I’ll jog the cooldown until I hit 12 miles.”

Session 2: Long, steady run

Total Distance: 17 miles

Main set:

17 miles gradually increasing intensity (Aim for average pace around 80 seconds per mile slower than half-marathon goal pace)

“Everyone knows the importance of the long run. I actually think this is under-distance if I was training seriously for a half, but it was the longest run in my build, and completed at 6 min/mile average pace on the hilly dirt roads in Boulder. I used to worry about average pace a lot more, but now try and run up hills a bit harder and never smash the downhills—although maybe I should have for this half-marathon! I started at 6:30 min/mile pace and by the end it was 5:50 min/mile [for context, Morgan’s half-marathon pace was 4:42 min/mile].”