Footnote N°06

Roberto Mandje is a retired professional runner and an active bon vivant. We exchanged emails for this interview while he ran an ultra relay through the driest desert on earth and paced a friend to a sub-3 marathon only two weeks later. It's safe to say that for Roberto Mandje, running is a lifelong companion, a strong thread in his identity, woven into his lifestyle, and shaping how others perceive him.

BMW Berlin Marathon 2023

NEAR EARTH — When we met in Berlin in September, you just ran the marathon there, then New York, then The Speed Project in Chile, and another marathon in Tucson. Is that your typical race calendar for the fall? 

Roberto Mandje — Of all those events, only the NYC Marathon would be considered my “typical” calendar race each year. The rest were all new this year. Berlin had long been a bucket list race that I thoroughly enjoyed as a total #RunCation experience. TSP Atacama was a long time coming, as I missed out in 2020 due to the birth of my son, and since then, really wanted to see and experience the Speed Project. I’m glad Atacama was my first proper intro into the TSP family. Tucson was -like NYC Marathon- a pacing marathon, where I was helping a friend run under 3 hours. So no, none of this year was typical, but I enjoyed it so much, that I hope to be able to build some similar events into 2024! 

Roberto and Casey Neistat going sub-3

"For 12 years, I got to live, train, and race all over the world."

NE — This is a lot of running, doing it for fun but super dedicated at the same time. You’ve had a career as a professional runner though, how different was your commitment back in those days?

RM — Running as a pro is VASTLY different from the type of running I did in 2023 or do now in general. Running as a pro, while enjoyable (at times), is a more singleminded focus and selfish endeavour. Everything about your day to day life is dedicated towards what is going to make you the best runner possible. When I say, “selfish endeavour”, I don’t mean it in a negative way, but just in the sense that you have to prioritise yourself above all else. Training, racing, rest/recovery, etc are number one. Everything else falls a distant second place. So while there’s plenty of room for fun, it’s vastly different to running as an amateur or as I like to call it, a “citizen runner”, where your livelihood isn’t tied to performances. You’re not chasing sponsors or World/Olympic teams. You can just run for the pure fun of it and perhaps even have a more balanced lifestyle. I enjoyed my professional days, and now I’m enjoying this phase of my running life, as a citizen runner, and coach/pacer. 

NE — You’ve competed at the Athens Olympics, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, and XTERRA Trail World Championships. That’s a pretty good range to compete on the level you did on the track, trail, and in cross country.

RM — Yes, I’ve always enjoyed seeking diversity in all aspects of my life. I also like(d) testing myself across varying distances, terrains and disciplines. In High School, Cross Country was my favourite season. I really enjoyed the fact that times didn’t matter as much, but simply competing against yourself, the other runners, and whatever the course had to offer. This is different from the track, where you’re typically chasing times and keenly aware of the splits and finishing time. XTERRA Trail World Champs was by far the closest I got to those feelings of high school cross country. The distances were at times longer (or shorter) than advertised, the terrain was always challenging, and all that mattered was the course and your fellow runners.

NE — What was life like for you when you were a professional athlete?

RM —  I had a great time as a professional athlete. For 12 years, I got to live, train, and race all over the world. In doing so, more than results, what I take away, are all the friendships I made along the way. In sport as in life, there are always setbacks, highs and lows. Running professionally was no different. I was fortunate to have a diverse portfolio of sponsors that collectively allowed me to live as a pro runner for many years. Even then, when you’re a professional athlete, you’re always aware that your career has a shelf life, and that you’re potentially one injury away from losing it all. That being said, I enjoyed my years as a pro, and learned a lot. It helped shape who I wanted to be -after retirement, and who I’m, as I continue to seek the evolution of self. 

NE — How is your life now, as a retired pro?

RM — Life is good, I continue to seek diversity and my own growth and evolution. I’m able to devote more time to my friends, family and the sport, in a different capacity. Through coaching and pacing, I’m able to give back to the sport that has given me so much. As a retired pro, I find that my experiences still translate perfectly to the every day or “citizen runner” and their pursuit of training/racing goals. Having “been there” and “done that”, helps also lend a sense of credibility that allows for a lot of buy in, when you’re working with runners. I still run, but rather than for performance, it’s just for maintenance/fitness now. I’ll occasionally do a few proper long runs, when gearing up to pace someone to a sub 3. Otherwise, I get most of my cardio fitness from a healthy balance of running and football. Retired life means I can do other sports and activities that I wasn’t able to do as much or at all during my pro days.

NE — What have you learned from your life as a professional athlete? 

RM — Perspective, mental strength and SPORT is the universal language. To break it down further… Perspective: running as a pro at times seemed like a do or die practice. Run X time and qualify for X event and/or pick up Y sponsor. Don’t and lose out. But perspective helped me realise it wasn’t the end of the world if/when things didn’t go your way. Sometimes it’s hard to realise that when you’re in the moment, and only after you create some distance and time, can you realise this. Mental Strength: Running showed me that you’re stronger than you think. Getting after it for so many years, with so many highs and lows, you realise that you’re capable of more than you may have allowed yourself to dream. You’re also made stronger by each experience, both good and bad can provide a learning opportunity. As you go along accumulating experiences, you grow and become better and stronger for it. SPORT as universal language: traveling all over the world, I was able to experience different cultures, and get exposed to different point of views. What always remained the same and helped open doors and form bonds however, was sport. Running is a simple sport to understand, with a low barrier to entry. This helped people understand what it was that you did, no matter where in the world you were. More often than not, they too were runners. I learned the world is full of runners, and they’re all super welcoming. 

"You realize you’re capable of more than you may have allowed yourself to dream."

NE — What have you learned being a retired athlete and coaching others?

RM — I’ve learned what I long presumed during my pro career, that I really enjoy helping others accomplish their training and racing goals. Also something I knew and have confirmed over and over again, is that no matter how “slow” you are, if you’re working hard and trying your best, then there’s no difference -relatively speaking- from your 100% and Kipchoge’s. Yes, his 100% means a marathon in 2 hours, but if you’re giving your 100%, then you’re working just as hard as he is. It doesn’t matter if your marathon is 3, 4, or 5 hours. Work is work, and I love transmitting that perspective to people I work with.