Russ Pfaff is enjoying a breakout sophomore year for the UC Davis track and field team, leading the team in the 3,000m steeplechase.
Entering the season with a personal record well off the regional qualifying time of 9:07.00, Pfaff shattered that time on Apr. 24 at the Brutus Hamilton Invitational in Berkeley. In taking second in that race, he clocked an 8:48.81 to not only move to second all-time at UC Davis, but to also move to No. 2 in the West Region and No. 9 in the nation.
Pfaff’s performance also won him the Big West Conference Track Athlete of the Week. His steeplechase time easily ranks him tops in the conference.
Relaxing after a solo track workout, Pfaff took time to talk with Aggie Sports Writer Alex Wolf-Root about his season, his event and being thrust into the national limelight.
So you just got done with a workout. What exactly did you do?
It was two by 1,000m, two by 800m and two by 400m. It was supposed to be around 2:50 [per 1,000m] and then 2:14 [per 800m] then 63 [per 400m]. I was going like 2:47 for the 1,000m’s, and [distance coach] Drew [Wartenburg] was like, “You’re already running a faster pace than the 800‘s. So do you want to do 2:14 or 2:12?” So I say, “I’ll do 2:12.” But then I run hot there, too. Then for the first 400, I went 59 and then he relaxed so I relaxed to a 61.
Sounds like a solid workout. You’ve clearly had a big breakthrough this season. What do you think has led to that?
I guess it’s confidence. I always thought that I was good, then I come in this year and I just don’t want to settle for anything less. That’s what it comes down to. I don’t feel any different, except people notice me now.
Well, things seem different now. Your 8:48 jumped you up on the national list and turned some big heads. So what were you thinking going into that elite race in Berkeley where your personal record was over 40 seconds behind the winner’s P.R.?
I knew I’d break 9:00. I’ve had the toughest time pacing the steeple. I don’t know what I’m doing – I just go out and run. I was basically waiting to get in a race where there were other people to push me to go with. So right when I found out they [former All-American David Olson and Olympic Trials finalist Jacques Sallberg] were in the race, I knew I had to step up and make a big jump. I was super confident. I went 3:48 [for 1,500m] the last week, and I dropped a 58 for the last 400m. I had the speed, and I just needed to go out there and run with those guys. I had to run relaxed/ I knew I could run well. Once the bell lap rang and it said 7:44, I was like, “Ahhh, yeah!” I think the worst part about it was that there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I’d lose to that guy [Sallberg]. He beat me by .26 seconds.
After this race, even people outside the Big West really started to notice you. Most notably, a thread was created on the world famous Letsrun.com message boards to try to figure out who you were and where you came from. How does it feel to be getting such attention?
I didn’t even know about it. I don’t follow running as much as others on the team. After I changed my Facebook status to, “Only 3 seconds away [from the USA Track and Field National Championships standard],” [teammate] Gregor [Lloyd-Smith] posted, “You know you have made it when there is even a Letsrun forum post about you.” I mean, I’ve heard of it, but I never look at it. He posted the hyperlink. I checked it out and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was like, “Wow, people are talking about me.” It’s weird. I mean, obviously I’m not that good – yet – but people are noticing me and are like, “Where did this guy come from?” I’ve always been here.
Additionally, Track and Field News: The Bible of the Sport just updated their NCAA predictions, picking you for 10th in the steeple. But they placed you right behind David Olson, the former All-American you beat at Berkeley. How do you feel about being ranked that high, but behind him?
I don’t really mind that Olson is ahead of me. I like being the underdog, and have always been the underdog. I love to shove it in their faces when I kick a bunch of peoples‘ teeth in. I mean, I could sit here and talk trash all night, but when we step on the line, all the talking and all the rankings don’t mean a thing, so it doesn’t faze me.
Now that you’ve proven that you can make an impact at the national level, what are you looking forward to for the rest of the season?
Definitely winning Big West in the steeple. That’s the first goal. Ideally, I’d like to get top three in the 1,500m at Big West. I know I’m going to be really tired. It’ll be my third race in two days. Then basically see where that takes me. Obviously, I want to make it to [NCAA] nationals and then make it to the U.S. Nationals for the steeple.
The steeplechase, though one of the original events at the modern Olympics, is quite unlike most of the others. What got you started in such an event?
When I was coming in, I didn’t know what I wanted to run. In high school I was an okay 1,600m runner and an okay 3,200m runner, but the 3200m was too long. I could have done the 1,500m or 5,000m, but I was like, “No, that’s not going to be good.” I didn’t even know what the steeplechase was. Then [former distance coach Chris] Puppione came up to me and told me, “You’re really athletic and pretty crazy. What do you think about doing the steeplechase?” He showed me some videos and I was like, “Let’s do it. It looks tight.” It’s 3,000m, so that’s obviously not as long as a 3,200m. Right when I started, I just loved it. There’s something completely different about it. It’s not as monotonous as running 25 circles on the track. You have to be talented, a little crazy and have a little bit of speed. I felt like that was just perfect for me, coming in as this little crazy hooligan from Fresno.
Besides considering yourself a hooligan, how would you describe yourself to the Aggie faithful that asks, “Who is Russ Pfaff?”
I’m a guy who will tell it like it is, a confident runner and some one who won’t put up with stuff. I want to race anyone, anytime. I like to push my body. I want to be known as a badass rebel who would do whatever it takes – within the rules – to win.
ALEX WOLF-ROOT can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.