At the time, it was an extremely difficult decision.
Nearly six years ago, Ivy League-educated Max King was planning to leave his promising career as a chemical engineer at Bend Research to become a full-time professional runner. But he was a new father, and pursing a career in running can be risky.
“You don’t just leave a good chemical engineering job in Bend and try to go off and make a living in running, because it doesn’t really pay very well,” King says now. “Every year you’re worried about money, and you’re worried about being able to make enough to live on, because there are no guarantees that you’re going to win the same prize money, or that your contract is going to be renewed. It’s just being confident in what you’re doing is the right thing to be doing.”
Now, it is hard to imagine that he ever wrestled with the decision. King, 36, has evolved into one of the most accomplished distance runners in the country, perhaps even in the world.
He has raced at an impressive range of distances, from the 3,000-meter steeplechase to 100-mile ultramarathons. He won the world mountain running championships in Albania in 2011 and the 100K world championships in Qatar in 2014.
King earns an annual salary from his main sponsor, Salomon, and he wins decent prize money most years. His running camps provide income, and he also works part time at Bend’s FootZone store. His wife, Dory, is a chemical engineer at Bend Research, so the couple has carved out a nice living for their family, which includes son Micah, 7, and daughter Hazel, 4.
“It’s been a really fun ride, and it’s still going, which is nice,” King says of that decision six years ago to make a career out of running. “I’ve been able to stay healthy and have a lot of success over the last couple of years. Every year it’s something new and exciting, which has been fun.”
Next Sunday, King will race in the 46-mile Les Templiers Trail Run in France. Last week, he drove to his hometown of Central Point, near Medford, to attend the Max King Invitational cross-country race at Crater High School, his alma mater.
Yes, they named a race after him.
But as recognized as he is in Southern Oregon, he is even more well-known in Central Oregon, where he has lived since 2002 after graduating from Cornell University in New York.
If folks around here do not know him for his running endeavors specifically, they might from the long-running local television commercial that features clips of King training. He says Bend residents often tell him that they are tired of seeing him on TV.
“I know, I know, it’s like every 15 minutes,” King says sheepishly. “They’re like, ‘Oh man, I’m so sick of that commercial.’ I didn’t know it would be on that much. It’s been going for a long time. I run into people all the time who are like, ‘Man, I see you all the time.’”
Mostly, though, King can be found training, racing, or spending time with his family.
In late May he finished eighth in the Comrades Marathon, a 56-mile road race in South Africa, becoming the first American to finish in the top 10 of the race since Alberto Salazar won it in 1994.
The Les Templiers race next week is important to Salomon because the sports equipment company is based in Annecy, France, but King is not necessarily expecting to win. He admits that he is still feeling the effects of his ninth-place finish in the Leadville Trail 100 Run through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado on Aug. 20. He built a huge lead in the first 80 miles, then his body betrayed him and he walked the last 20 miles, still managing to finish in less than 20 hours.
“My body just has not been the same since then,” King says. “I’ve just been starting to run, and everything just kind of hurts. Hundred-milers are so hard on your body. It’s mostly hip tightness and hip stuff, the mechanics not working quite right. After a hundred-mile race, you’re running for so long that your muscles get so fatigued they start to shut down. You have to rebuild that chain up after the race. That’s been a real challenge for me this time.”
King is still doing strength training and running about 80 miles a week — though at a slower pace than normal — and is receiving physical therapy.
He finished 12th in the U.S. marathon Olympic trials this past January. He also competed in the Olympic track and field trials in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2008 and 2012, reaching the final in 2012.
King says he may go back to racing shorter distances next year, giving his body a bit of a break from the 50- and 100-milers. He has made that switch in the past; he started racing ultramarathons in 2008 but went back to steeplechase in 2012.
“It’s all running,” King says. “It’s just a little bit different physiology. As long as you work on all of that, then you can eventually adapt to those different distances. Shorter distances are a little more intense; it just gets your body in a different place. It gets you fit in a way that running slowly doesn’t. I kind of want to take a step back and just do some shorter stuff, just for the enjoyment of it again.”
Half-marathon to marathon distances are probably where he is most competitive, King adds.
He wants to continue running professionally as long as he possibly can, but King has given thought to his career after running as he approaches 40. His plans do not include a return to chemical engineering. “I’m just too far removed,” he says. “It would be really hard. It’s not as much fun.”
Rather, he wants to pursue a career in the running industry, perhaps in product development or marketing.
He has recently been starring in adventure-running shows for Salomon, and he launched his own running camps this year at Suttle Lake near Sisters and at Mount Shasta in Northern California.
“I’m going to keep racing as long as I can and as long as it’s fun for me,” King says. “I still enjoy the competition. Every year it gets a little bit harder to train at that level that I feel like I need to. At the same time, new challenges and new goals are always fun to kind of reinvigorate things and keep me motivated.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,