We often see long distance races dominated by athletes in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s. This doesn’t mean that young runners can’t compete with master athletes. The simple reason is that young people have so many things to do rather than running long distances, they don’t have enough time and patience to train and race distances longer than half marathons. The statistics show that in most marathon races, the fastest age group is M35-39.
It is my pleasure to introduce a 36-year-old Vietnamese runner currently residing in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA, Mr. Tran Nang Hung. He has only been running for a few years, but has made impressive achievements. Let’s listen to his story.
Hung Tran, at the finish line of 2019 Philadelphia Marathon
Bruce Vu: Thank you for accepting to be interviewed. I have heard good things about you and I believe you have an incredible story to share with our Vietnamese running community. Tell us about yourself. Where were you born? When did you come to the States? Did you attend schools in Maryland?
Hung Tran: Thanks anh for this interview, I was born in Saigon, Vietnam. I came here when I was 13 years old. Yes, most of my family lived in Maryland, so me, my father, and my twin brother lived with my uncle in Silver Spring MD. I went to 8th grade the first year and continued my education until the second year in college, then joined the US Navy for 6 years. I came to the US I think around December 1996.
BV: You have such a cute nickname “Canh Bún”. Do you care to share why Canh Bún?
HT: Canh bun is my childhood favorite soup, I still love it but haven’t eat much here in US.
BV: Are you married? Do you have any children? Can you talk a little about them?
HT: Yes I’m married to my beautiful wife 4 years ago and we just have a beautiful daughter 1 month ago.
Hung with wife and newborn daughter
BV: What did you do after you left the Navy? From the photo you sent to me and Luong, I guess you’re either a construction worker or a home builder. Can you talk a little about your job? BTW, congrats for becoming a dad.
HT: Thanks anh! I got to wake up many times during the night but feel happy and joyful doing that. When I got out of the Navy I went back to college. During college I worked part time for one of my brother’s friend, who was an electrician. Later that year he decided to quit his daily job at a big commercial electric company and opened his own company. He asked me to work full time for him, at the time I needed some income so I tried out to be full-time electrician, and I stuck with him until now.
Hung Tran as an electrician
BV: Now, let’s talk about your training. Two of the people that I know (Luong Le and Quy Nguyen) have been following your training plan and they have made huge progress. From what I gathered they train slow and accumulate tons of mileage, but when it comes to racing they just shined like a star. Can you explain more about this training?
HT: Well basically, it is low heart rate training using the MAF (BV: Maffetone Aerobic Function) method. By using this method we can increase mileage without risk of getting injury and build our strong base; most of us are just new to running, we don’t have a strong base. For the elites, they have been running for a long time and for many years, they already have a strong base so most of the traditional plans fit them well, but for most of new runners like us we need to build a strong base before we can attempt fast paces like interval and tempo. Our body has something called mitochondrial cell, which helps break down carbohydrates and fat for fuel, so the more mitochondrial the better fuel for our muscles. In order to get more mitochondrial counts we have to run a lot miles for at least 2 to 3 months, therefore using MAF is a great way of building the strong base, but the key is volume, we run slow but we need to increase our volume slowly to improve faster, you can’t run slow at low mileage and expect it to work. Besides, by running slow we can teach ourselves to burn fat effectively, which helps us not to hit the wall in the race.
BV: Both Luong and Quy don’t do interval or tempo runs. A lot of runners I talked to don’t understand this MAF method, they questioned if you’re not used to the fast pace how do you have the confidence to run fast during racing. What is your answer to them?
HT: MAF is a long process of training, like I said the high volume is the key, it helps our body promote more mitochondrial and burn fat effectively, just trust the system and be patient, the more slow miles you put in the faster you’re gonna get, but slow miles doesn’t mean it really slow depending on your heart rate. The longer you train at the high volume, the faster you can run at a same low heart rate in the beginning. For example, my slow running was 9:30-10 min (pace 5:40-6:13/km) a year ago but now I can run lower heart rate at 7:30-8:30 (4:40-5:16/km) for my slow easy run. I usually run 95% easy pace at MAF and 5% intervals at the end of the training block. You will be amazed what you will be able to do when comes race day, but the key is high mileage, I run high mileage week after week and using MAF helps me put in the volume I need.
And another key point is when I train on easy days, I do 2 to 3 time a week running strides at the end of the run, 4-6 strides about 50-100m at 90-95% MHR pace, to help my form and my leg remember the fast pace.
BV: On the average, how many miles do you run per week?
HT: After leaving the Navy in 2011, I went back home and joined my brother’s Vietnamese soccer team in Maryland, and 2016 I decided to run a half marathon for fun and I got hooked by the fun of the racing environment. However, from 2016 to March 2019 I didn’t train a lot for running, maybe 30-50 miles a week because soccer took priority and we had many tournaments outside the state that was really fun. I enjoyed it until March 2019 when I decided to stop playing soccer. Now, I am only training for Boston and by using MAF method I’m putting in 100-120 miles week , sometimes 130 or 140 miles (209-225 km).
Hung Tran on the soccer field
BV: How do you manage to run those many miles while having to balance with work and family?
HT: So to put in that many miles in the week I have to run 2 times a day most of the time, so I wake up early before my work at 4am to run and then after work around 6 or 7pm I do another run, it worked out back then because by the time my wife got at 830pm I already finished, but now we have a new born so I try to wake up early to run and then afternoon I may run on my treadmill while babysitting and probably the same thing on the weekend, I wake up early to run and the do another run on treadmill while babysitting. I have to see how it goes and work around it.
BV: Did you run tracks or cross country in High School?
HT: Nah I never run track or anything, I played basketball almost everyday in high school and some in the Navy, after the Navy I played soccer, so basically I was active all my life which helps me when I start running long distance.
(Note: the soccer team that Hung participated in won many championship tournaments in the Vietnamese and American community)
2014 New Jersey Championship (Song Viet Tournament)
2015 Buffalo Championship (Song Viet Tournament)
Hung Tran with teammates at the 2017 DC Soccer Championship
BV: Currently do you have a coach?
HT: No I don’t have any coach, I like to coach myself, if I fail I just blame me and not the coach, there are so much information on social media, on strava… and a lot of elite runners share their run on strava and YouTube, I just take little bit here and there and tweak a little bit into my training, so far it’s working for me, when it’s not working then I will find a different way.
BV: Do you train mostly by yourself or do you have running partners?
HT: Yes mostly I train by myself because I wake up early to run, sometimes I run with my brother on the weekend but most of the times I’m by myself grinding on the street, I have a lot of friends but most of them don’t train like me, and we also have time conflicts so I usually train on my own.
BV: Many runners believe the importance of running form and breathing techniques. Quy Nguyen pays close attention to those factors, what’s your opinion?
HT: Oh yes running economy is very important. When we get older, our VO2max decreases. In order to run faster we need to improve our running economy. So when I run I don’t listen to the music, I listen to my body, pay attention to my form, my breathing, cadence and all that. The ideal for running form is run like Chi running with mid-foot landing, relax you body, open your shoulder blade a little to breath in more air. I breath in my nose down to my belly and breath out my mouth. When I run slow I do a rhythm breathing with my step, first 3 steps I breath in my nose and next 3 steps I breath out my mouth. When I run harder at faster pace I do more like 2-2 ratio, and once a while I take a very deep breath and breath out my mouth and then back into the rhythm. For a while you don’t really pay attention at it anymore, but I do check in my breathing to make sure I am back on the rhythm. As for the cadence, the ideal for science is 180 step per min so you have less impact on your feet; I try to shorten my stride, turning over little bit faster, I used to get around 184 for my easy run but when I run faster my cadence is higher, so I need to work more on my butt kick to lower my cadence.
BV: Tell us about your nutrition during training and racing.
HT: Nutrition is a big subject and everyone is different. Let’s talk about my diet first, since last March I tried to do full flow on my running and same thing on my diet, so I used intermittent fasting everyday, and I used 16/8 ratio, meaning I will not consume any food for 16 hours and only eat during an 8-hour window, so I don’t eat from 8 or 9 pm until 12-1 pm the next day. During this time I drink a lot of water or tea, intermittent fasting is really good for health, and natural diet for weight loss if anybody wants to lose some weight naturally. For me it’s just for my health and my running since I’m already skinny guy. In our body we have 2 types of energy to fuel for running: carbohydrates and fat. Carbohydrates only last for 1 and a half hours or 2 during hard running like in a marathon race, but our body is not using fat for fuel efficiency as an energy source, that is why we see a lot of people hitting the wall when they run out of carbohydrates. So in order to train our body use fat effectively we have to run slow and fasted, meaning no gel or fuel during training. Back to the topic, I use intermittent fasting to teach my body use fat for fuel all the time and I love to run early in the morning when I’m in fasted hour , it feels hard in a couple of weeks but after that I feel really good when my body starts using fat as fuel. Wow when I go run I don’t carry any water or gel and almost all my runs I feel good except tired leg sometimes because of the high mileage.
I drink a lot of water during the day so when I train I don’t drink any water, it teaches my mind to be tougher, so when in the race when you hit your hard spot you can push a lot more and that is very important; most of the time your mind will tell you to stop running before your body does, so this is a great way to teach your body to push it hard when in training you don’t even take anything, but remember to hydrate well during a day and it shouldn’t be any problem. I know many good athletes way faster than me training this way.
So, I’m trying to eat plant-based everyday like vegan, no meat, no diary, but I’m not 100% vegan because my wife is not, so sometimes I eat a little meat, but 99% of the time I try to eat like a vegan, because I believe it allows me to recover faster to train everyday. Another thing is that we need red blood cell for running so I eat a lot of dark leafy like kale and spinach everyday to get more red blood cell, and I eat beets like 3 times a week to get better blood circulation so I can have more oxygen in my body to run faster and longer.
For Racing nutrition, so this is what works for me: the last 3 days before the race I’m usually carb loading and well hydrated, the morning before the race I wake up early around 4am, eat a bagel and banana and drink some beet juice 1-2 hr before the race, 15 min before the race I take 1 gel and 2 salt pills, which have magnesium in them too. I believe salt and magnesium make a big difference for me, magnesium helps me balance out the electrolyte so I don’t have spike.
During the race, I don’t sweat a lot but somehow I lose a lot of salt, by taking salt pills since last year I don’t have any cramp or anything yet, but it might be because of my training too. During the race I take a gel every 4 miles and 1 salt pill every 5 miles.
There are a lot of information how I train, I just want to put it out as much as I can, and you can use whatever, maybe someone can pick up little bit here and there to help with their training.
BV: Do you cross train?
HT: No I don’t do any cross training except when I’m injured I get on bike trainer to keep my cardio, I got an injury when playing soccer couple years ago so I was on the bike for a couple months, but now I don’t play soccer much and I run slow most of time so I don’t usually get injury anymore except for the fatigue leg and I just take one day off or 1 section off and then back on training.
BV: Now, let’s talk about your latest achievement. You ran an incredible time 56:29 for 10 miles (16km) at the 2020 Reston 10-Miler race, that is 5:38/mile (3:30/km) pace. You came in third but your time is exactly the same as Kevin Wright’s (bib 245), who came in second. In the race photo, you were running side by side with Kevin. Can you tell us about this race?
HT: Yes my last race was a 10 miler on a pretty hilly course. I am training for Boston and I know Boston is a hilly course and I haven’t put much hill training lately, so I decided to race this with my brother to train for a hilly course and see where my fitness is now after 3 months of base training. I was planning to run at 5:45 (3:34/km) pace to see how long I can hold but there were some fast runners at the race so I just tried to stick with the first and second guy and see how long I could hold. After 4 miles at average 5:30 pace a mile (3:25/km) all the guys were dropping back except for the top 3, and the first guy ran faster a little at mile 6 so I just tried to hold on the second guy, me and the second guy was running together the whole time, but it was more like me trying to hold on to him because I never ran fast and long at this pace in training. My legs felt fine the whole time because I had been running high mileage, my body could hold at the fast pace, just my breathing that I need to work on when running at that fast pace. Well, to be honest at the end I could have raced the second guy at the last mile, but I decided to let him come in second because if I wanted to race I would race to get first place, but I couldn’t catch the first guy, so second or third didn’t matter to me, to run at that pace and PR I was happy at the result.
Hung Tran and Kevin Wright, 2020 Reston 10-Miler
BV: Last year at the Marines Corp Marathon (MCM) the weather was horrible, it was cold and windy. A lot of my friends suffered and failed their targets by 20-30 minutes. Yet, you ran an incredible time of 2:54:07 and came in 32 out of 18,355 runners and fourth in your age group. Please tell us about this race.
HT: This race I think not just improve my pace but my mental toughness to push through at faster pace. Like I said I was putting high mileage and without water or gel, I think it helped me push through the race. I remember the last 2 or 3 miles was tough but I don’t know how I pushed it. (BV: a month after MCM Hung ran another marathon in 2:48:39 at Philadelphia Marathon)
Hung Tran, 2019 MCM post-race
Hung Tran, 2019 MCM Award Ceremony
BV: Obviously we haven’t seen the best of you yet. Can you share with us your plan, what is your next goal?
HT: Luong Le suggested me to run 2:19 and become the first Vietnamese to qualify for USA Olympic Trials. Heck no! I am 36 years old now, I have to be realistic. I will become 40 in four more years, so my goal is to become a good master runner with a marathon time of 2:30. That is my ultimate goal. Olympic goal is out of reach.
BV: Do you have anything else to share with our runner audience?
HT: My slogan is train slow and race fast, there are many training plans out there, don’t just stick with the traditional plan and find yourself not improving, be able to open to other type of training, and tweak it around and make it work for you, but I believe volume, consistency and patience are the keys to success, at least it allows you to run close to your limit. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something in life to achieve something that you really want. Lastly, I’ve been introduced to the SJVRC club by my brother and Chairman Luong Le, now I know a lot of great friends in the club who love running and help a great cause in Vietnam for the unfortunate kids. I want to thank them to introduce me to this club, because now whenever I race I honorably represent the great cause and help promote the club so whoever know about it can help the kids in Vietnam. And it is also a big motivation for me to train harder to present the club and the kids.
I feel different now when I go racing because it’s not just about my PR. I run with a different purpose, and that is to raise awareness about One Mile for One Child and to help the unfortunate children in Vietnam.
BV: Before I let you go I have to ask this question as you know, there is a coronavirus pandemic. Does it affect your training at all? How do you cope with it?
HT: Not at all because I’ve been training by myself anyways, besides I’m ok with the races being canceled because it’s safety for everyone and my family. There are many races later, I’m fine with it, more base training for me, which is good anyway.
Hung Tran at Philadelphia Marathon, 2:48:39