Let’s Get to Know … James Koceja!

Hey everyone! Sorry we’ve been a bit off the radar these past two weeks. We’ve been out running, racing and getting to know more runners in the MKE community.

One of the runners we recently met is James Koceja, a new member of Performance Running Outfitter’s Elite Team. His main focus is distances ranging from 8k to the half marathon, although he’s also raced a few marathons. But no matter the distance he is always up for putting it all out there and racing hard.

Read on to learn more about his training, Milwaukee running faves and how coaching high school cross country and track has positively influenced his own running.

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Age: 31

Years running: 17 Years; I started competing and running seriously when I was around 14.

Favorite workout: I like more “grinding” and mentally challenging workouts. One of my ultimate favorites is simply going for a 60- to 75-minute run, starting at a conservative pace and getting down to sub 6-minute pace for the last half of the run. Another all-time favorite is a cut down ladder, such as 1600-1200-1000-800-600-400. I am more of a strength runner as I arguably hate anything below 600’s. I will do them but they are usually on the bottom of the page; the way bottom. I usually tend to just go with the flow of workouts and see what the day brings.

Favorite distance to race: I really enjoy the longer races such as 8k up to the half marathon. I have only done a handful of marathons as I am fairly a rookie when it comes to the 26.2 mile distance. I always try to compete at the best of my ability, enjoying the challenges of competing against myself and others that surround me.

Pre-race routine: I drink coffee (always coffee) and eat a bowl of oatmeal and a banana for breakfast. I always warm up about 45-60 minutes before my race, do some drills, put on my racing flats and prepare myself to compete to the best of my ability.

Favorite post-race treat: Chocolate milk and a banana. Occasionally I will a have a nice adult refreshment afterwards – just depends on how the race goes.

Favorite race shoes: Nike Mayfly, Nike Lunaracer

Significant wins/placings/awards/accolades:

  • 2x Individual Champion Firecracker 10k
  • Individual Champion Talmer Turkey Trot 5k
  • 2x Junior Olympic Qualifier (Cross Country)
  • Three Top Ten Finishes at Lighthouse 10 mile Championships

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Why/How did you start running?

As a young child, running was always something I was exposed to as it was just a natural habit and part of my everyday lifestyle. My father, Richard Koceja, was a highly competitive runner who competed for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later was selected to run for the Wisconsin Runner racing team earning significant wins and accolades at various race distances and major events. He was also a well-respected coach at Burlington High School, coaching both boys and girls in cross-country and track. From this exposure, I just fell in love with the sport.

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Is there a quote or philosophy that inspires your running and racing?

I have a couple quotes and philosophies that continue to inspire me. One is the wisdom that my father always brings; he is the biggest inspiration that I have and always speaks with so much enthusiasm and positivity. The best advice I have ever gotten from him is to have strong beliefs in my gifts, talents and abilities. If you have strong beliefs in yourself as a competitor then the results remain endless. There is nothing more terrible than the habit of doubt. Doubt weakens and divides your talents and abilities. Once doubt comes into play, it’s over and hard to overcome. “Be tough, think big and get the job done.”

What does a typical training week look like for you?

While training for longer races, I usually run between 50-60 miles a week, doing one or two long runs of 60-75 minutes during the week. I always tell others that there is a huge difference between being in “shape” and being in “race shape”. During the race season I will always try to include some sharpening workouts like intervals, tempos and fartleks. During the school year, it gets a little hard with coaching, and I try to get in early runs to satisfy my mileage. On occasion I will run a workout with the athletes I coach, but I run with them as it’s their workout.

Can you tell us about a workout you do that lets you know you’re ready to race?

I can’t list one specific workout as they are ever changing. I am very laid back when it comes to workouts and intensity. During the week, I will try to do a solid workout on Wednesday, giving me a couple days to recover before a race. An example of this would be a threshold run where I am consistently hitting splits within five seconds of each other. Once I am hitting mile splits around the 5:30 mark, I’m good. I always try to gauge myself on effort and feel. If I feel I am struggling during a planned workout, I will adjust. My best advice is to listen to your body. Pushing your body too much or beyond its capability will sometimes do more damage than good.

Along with your own training and racing, you also coach high school track and cross country. Why did you decide to start coaching? Can you tell us how your own experience helps you help your teams?

Great Question! I decided to get into coaching for a number of reasons; a major reason of which is to help contribute to a sport that has done so much for me, and I figured that I could give back and offer developing athletes a chance to find their own success in the sport. Through watching my father coach and watching other coaches’’ styles and philosophies, I felt that I always had the appropriate tools and mindset to help others. Some of my greatest coaching influences are my father Richard Koceja, Jeff Miller at UW-Whitewater, Matt Dollins, Michael J. Sliwa, Paul Hiegel, Pete Henkes, Richard Dodd, Mike Dewitt, Mike Mulrooney, Tom Scheller, Bill Grieten, Michael Butcher and Wally Bradford. All of these men have very dynamic personalities and philosophies. From an experience standpoint, I always try to develop an appropriate relationship with the student athlete and use my own dynamic personality to help them succeed. I always tell them to not sweat the little stuff and to just focus on their own goals and performance instead of being overwhelmed by the performances of others. I tell them to compete with a one-track mind and avoid a world of stress and confusion. I sometimes have to pull out a past story involving my own running career that may help their situation. I have a whole book of stories as does everyone – some good, some bad.

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What have you learned through coaching? Has it benefitted your own running?

I’ve learned so much! I have been coaching for about 10 years at the high school level and I can honestly tell you that every day I keep learning something new. I feel that at the high school level, athletes seem to stress out about such little things; it’s quite entertaining at times. Sometimes I can’t help but to scratch my head and laugh. At times, I have to reset my mindset and acknowledge that a long time ago I was once a high school athlete, too, and that I do understand (even at times when I really don’t). It’s the little things, like having a down-to-earth conversation, that allow the athlete to become more comfortable and adaptive to your coaching style. Just being around these athletes makes me more aware of the special gift and talents I have in the coaching world and make me that much more grateful for the opportunity to work with so many great athletes. Coaching high school athletes has definitely helped improve my own running, inspiring me to compete at a higher level. If anything, coaching also gives me a great background in sports psychology 🙂

You’re a newer member of Performance Running Outfitter’s Elite Team – how does running as part of a team enhance your running?

I am so grateful that Jessica and Trae Hoepner offered me this opportunity to compete on the PRO Elite Team this year. I believe that running as part of a team is a huge component that can automatically enhance your own abilities and performances. I feel that teammates are very crucial and can help propel you further. Through positive feedback, I have heard many great things about Performance Running Outfitters and I am very fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity to promote this outstanding organization. Big shout outs to my new teammates, including Jessica Hoepner, Trae Hoepner, Jackie Giacalone, Andy Ruffalo, Matt Barcus, Kyle Fraser, Richard Dodd, James Daul, Angie Kaiser, Cameron Ausen, Ben Garbe, Nathan Lanser and Mac Laksa.

What running goals are you looking to tackle in the next few years?

I would just like to continue to use my gifts and talents to the best of their abilities and continue to contribute to a sport that has done so much for me. To put it bluntly, my goal is to kick some butt in whatever races I decide to run.

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What are your favorite Milwaukee races?

I really enjoyed competing at Al’s Run. I’ve only participated in the event once. From my experience, I was overwhelmed at the amount of support and encouragement that the city of Milwaukee brought to this meaningful event. I remember jogging to that starting line on Wisconsin Avenue thinking “This is freaking amazing.” I also really enjoyed competing at the PNC Milwaukee Running Festival as race director Chris Ponteri did a truly outstanding job managing the event.

Where are your favorite places to run in Milwaukee?

I often enjoy the scenic views of Grant Park in South Milwaukee or Eastown Tosa. My girlfriend resides in Oak Creek, so I am always extremely eager to venture off and discover new areas to run. Be back in half an hour? Yeah … right.

What makes Milwaukee a great place for runners?

Milwaukee is truly a great community. Everyone is so welcoming. I have been very flattered and humbled by the amount of support and positive encouragement throughout this community. You can meet so many outstanding people and interact with a community of runners that seek enjoyment in fulfilling their passion for the sport of running.

Any other comments?

Thank you for the interview. I am truly grateful to have this opportunity. A very special thanks to Jessica and Trae Hoepner for allowing me to contribute to PRO Elite by becoming a new member.

Thanks so much for chatting with us, James! If you’re a runner in MKE, we’d love to chat with you. Send us an email at keeprunningmke@gmail.com if you’d like to be featured or know someone who should be featured in an upcoming Let’s Get to Know post.

Keep Running MKE – you’re doing great!

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