Most of the notes Tyler McCandless has received from elementary students in the Pittsburgh Marathon Kids of STEEL Program are written in crayon. They offer such messages of encouragement as, “Good Luck, Tyler!!” and “Tyler is #1.” They have drawings of running shoes and Olympic rings, but also of clouds and lightning bolts.
The varied artwork makes sense when you hear McCandless discuss “solar irradiance variability” with the same ease as he describes his Sunday long run.
While the 29-year-old elite distance runner, who lives in Boulder, Colo., won’t receive the same level of attention as favorites Meb Keflezighi and Galen Rupp at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles on Saturday, McCandless does hold a title that few, if any, other contenders can claim: Ph.D.
“It’s almost unfair how good he is at so many things,” says Megan Duerring, who coached McCandless at Northampton (Penn.) High School.
Duerring wasn’t sure what to expect when the “little genius freshman” from her Spanish class toed the line on Northampton’s gravel track for the mile race at their first dual meet. He had no formal running training and had joined the team to prepare for the soccer season. He ran 4:56.
Duerring was shocked. McCandless was hooked.
His interest in meteorology had taken root earlier. Growing up in Bath, Penn., McCandless was fascinated by snow—especially snow days. But unlike most kids, McCandless dressed in a suit and tie and presented forecasts to his parents, Ralph and Brenda McCandless, like a TV meteorologist. For Christmas when he was 10, McCandless got a home weather station that monitored humidity, wind speed, and precipitation. It was his favorite present.
McCandless’s analytical side also fueled his passion for running. He liked that it was an individual sport and lacked variables. He liked that it was empirical.
“Running is simple,” he says. “It comes down to the numbers. If you put in the work then you will see the results.”
Before McCandless’s final high school race, the 3,200 meters at the PIAA District 11 championships, Duerring showed him an index card on which she had written down his projected splits.
“No way,” McCandless replied. They added up to a time 10 seconds faster than his personal record.
In the race they next day, McCandless came from behind and won by .019 seconds. His time, 9:13.01, remains the district record.
The time Duerring had showed him? 9:13.
In college, McCandless continued to defy expectations. At Penn State, he was the only Meteorology major on the team. In his meteorology classes, he was the only varsity athlete. He earned All-America honors in the 10,000 meters his senior year. He graduated with a bachelors and masters degree, a 3.81 GPA, and both of his theses published in scholarly journals.
When Dr. Sue Haupt, McCandless’s advisor, moved to Colorado in 2010 to become the director of the Weather Systems Assessment Program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, McCandless was not far behind. He relocated to Boulder that August, focused on a professional running career.
The singular approach had a promising start. McCandless ran 2:17:22 at the California International Marathon that December then followed with a 2:17:09 at Grandma’s Marathon (in Duluth, Minn.) in June of 2011.
Yet, with such a heavy race schedule (he ran three half- and four full marathons in 2011), his performance declined. At the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, McCandless hit the wall around mile 20. He finished in 2:19:56 and placed 50th.
Running had become a job.
Before McCandless graduated, Haupt had offered him the opportunity to continue his studies through collaborative research between NCAR and Penn State. In September 2012, he accepted. Two months later, he started working with Steve Jones, who set the world record at the 1985 Chicago Marathon and is known for his no-frills coaching approach.
Jones’s instructions for McCandless’s first tempo workout? Run hard.
After McCandless won the Pensacola Double Bridge Run 15K and the Great Aloha Run in Hawaii, Jones congratulated him. Still, he thought McCandless hadn’t fulfilled his potential. He wanted McCandless, who has tracked every run since January 1, 2008, to simplify his training.
He wanted McCandless to run on feel.
McCandless stopped wearing a GPS watch during workouts. He focused on effort, not pace. The new outlook, fewer races, and long hours of Ph.D. research didn’t hinder his progression. It all refreshed him. He regained balance.
“It became the best two hours of my day,” McCandless says of running. “When you pursue something, whether it is running or another career, with full purpose that is where the purity is. Having another career takes the pressure off running for me. ”
At the Grandma's Half Marathon four months after his meeting with Jones, McCandless lowered his PR from 1:04:59 to 1:03:14.
He seemed poised to reach the pinnacle in all his pursuits last summer. His dissertation defense was scheduled for July 25. He was named to his first U.S. team—for the Pan American Games in Toronto. He was thrilled. He posted a picture of his USA singlet on Instagram. His name appeared on the official roster.
But on July 10, McCandless called his girlfriend, Kristin McCormick. She could tell by his tone something was wrong. Another runner, Craig Leon, had filed a grievance that the USA Track and Field had overlooked the 2:14:43 he had run in Houston in January, a time which would have given him precedence over McCandless, whose qualifying mark was 2:15:26 from the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon.
The USATF resubmitted their team nominations—without McCandless. It was two weeks before the Games.
He had deferred a job offer from MarathonGuide.com, and pushed back his dissertation defense one month.
“I never thought that accepting a nomination to the Pan Am Games would end in heartbreak,” he wrote in a statement on his website.
McCandless filed for arbitration. Although the arbitrator found USATF “the sole cause of the extraordinary issues that gave rise to this dispute,” the decision stood.
“Of course he was disappointed, but I was amazed at how quickly he rose above it,” Haupt says. “He said, This is a setback, but I will finish my Ph.D. and run more races. I will make a U.S. team.”
McCandless kept training. He kept studying. After running 12 miles on the morning of August 25, he wasn’t nervous for his dissertation defense.
“It’s similar to a race,” he says. “If I go to a race and I know I am prepared and fit, then I’m excited.”
He felt he was an expert on the subject: using artificial intelligence methods to forecast solar power. After a 45-minute presentation and two hours of questioning, he felt the committee’s unanimous decision was anti-climatic.
His preparation had left nothing to chance.
McCandless now divides his time between 100- to 110-mile weeks along and his responsibilities as Director of Development for MarathonGuide.com, where he applies his research skills to the running industry. His current project is a statistical analysis of marathon finisher numbers.
And he runs every morning before work, including last Tuesday after 18 inches of snowfall. McCandless woke up at 5 a.m. He shoveled his driveway for an easier commute. Then he went back inside his log-cabin style home. He had his pre-workout bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter, cup of coffee and organic beet juice. He put on his running shoes.
As he pounds out a 10-mile tempo run on his treadmill in the pre-dawn darkness, he can make out the city lights of Boulder. On his left hang an American flag and his Penn State singlet. On the right, there’s a collage from the Pittsburgh Marathon and the latest addition to the decor: his framed Ph.D. diploma.
The temperature hovers in the low 20s outside, but inside McCandless cranks the heat close to 80 degrees to simulate the conditions he’ll encounter in L.A.
With his latest test approaching, there are no snow days.