Running Ahead with Eric Yee - Creator, Owner, and Manager of RunningAHEAD

tips4running is proud to interview Eric Yee, the creator, manager, and director of a wonderful web based running log called RunningAHEAD. I started using this log in the summer of 2008. My track and cross country runners are now beginning to use it this spring.

David Tiefenthaler – First of all, thank you very much for your time. Now, you might laugh when you hear my first two questions. They are quite familiar to the people who log their runs on RunningAHEAD. Why did you start running?

Eric Yee – I recognized these two questions! Most, if not all profile pages on websites generally have “About Me” sections. I thought that since RunningAHEAD is a running site, it would be more interesting to hear stories about why we run. We all have reasons to start running and maybe they will inspire someone to start.

Before I started running, I never understood why people do it. It didn’t seem all that fun, and honestly, after all these years, it’s still not all that “fun” for me. I started running when I was a junior in college. I wasn’t a particularly happy kid and needed a way to vent. One day, after I came home from my summer job, I put on my cotton shirt, cotton shorts, long cotton tube socks and a very old pair of neon green cross trainers and went for my first “run.” I don’t quite remember how far I ran (probably a mile or two) but I remember that when my quads started burning and my lungs screamed at me, I found peace.

DT – Why do you run?

EY – I made the distinction between “Why did you start running” and “Why do you run” because the reason may change. I’ve long grew out of that phase in my life. Nowadays, I run just because it’s part of me. It’s what I do, like eating and going to work.

DT – I reached my running peak in my college years. I have come to accept I won’t ever be as fast as I was then. Did you have a period of time that was your peak? Are there any personal records you are proud of that you’d like to share? (days in a row running, race times, longest run, marathons…)

EY – I ran by myself for about seven years, until I decided to train for a marathon. I had no idea where to start so I joined a running group offered by my local YMCA, and then later joined my local running club. After about a year or so of running with other people, I noticed my race times improved. Still, they were nothing to brag about.

Some of my running friends pointed out that I make a much better short distance runner, like 400m and they’re probably right. I never competed in that sort of distance because I’m drawn to the half and full marathons, probably because they are not easy for me.

DT – Have you had any setbacks during your running career that you had to overcome?

EY – Pretty much every runner can tell you stories about their injuries. I was training for the 2007 Disney Goofy Challenge when I felt shooting pains from my hip all the way down to the foot about a month before the races. I probably should have stayed home but since I got a bunch of my friends going with me, I decided to go and play it by feel. I managed to get my medals but never really raced.

After several months of doctor’s visits and chronic back pains, I was told that I had two bulging discs in my lower back. My physical therapist told me that I should stop running. I didn’t take her advice but did all the prescribed exercises religiously ever since and have gotten everything under control.

That experience changed my perspective on running. Now it’s more about enjoying the run rather than pushing myself constantly to shave off seconds at the next race.

DT – Now the website you have created is absolutely phenomenal. Are you proud of your site right now?

EY – I try not to dwell on it much, actually. It breeds complacency and that is detrimental to progress. Technology is improving constantly so I need to keep pace. A lot of technologies went into the site, although most of them are not obvious. I like to think that you won’t notice the niceties if the site is designed properly. I’m a long way from getting to the point where everything “just works.”

DT – How did you get the idea of creating an online running log?

EY – When I started training for my marathon, I wanted to keep track of the numbers. I looked around and the closest thing to what I needed was Cool Running, but it lacked many of the functionalities that I wanted so I used Excel instead.

After about a month of recording my data, I found the process to be too cumbersome. I automated most of the calculations but didn’t like having to create graphs constantly or refine the value ranges so I took my first crack at writing an online log.

DT – tips4running is incredibly basic because I simply don’t have the technical knowledge. I have to stick to just writing articles. What is your educational background? I ask this because you must have history working with computer programming or mathematics.

EY – I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Computer Science. I spent much of my programming career working on enterprise classed servers and their database backends.

Web development is not my forte. I don’t like the mishmash of technologies and much of the programming is rather mundane. I keep my work exciting by over engineering the features with every opportunity I get. The advantage is that each over engineered feature tends to make the next feature a little easier to implement.

The extra work doesn’t slow me down much since I probably spend more time tweaking the page layout and appearance than the actual coding. It’s sad that I spend so much time in making the site look nice and it still has an amateurish feel to it.

DT – I don’t agree with that. The site look is quite sophisticated if you ask me. Your site is clean while others can get too cluttered. Was it difficult to get the site started?

EY – The hardest part was getting the word out and convincing people to try it. I searched for running clubs with a web presence and sent emails to the webmasters hoping they could get the word out for me. I must have sent out hundreds of emails and I don’t think it was all that effective. Nowadays, it’s the users that spread the word.

DT – Count me as one of those that spreads the word. I love it. When was RunningAHEAD officially online?

EY – I started working on it some time in 2004, it was only meant for myself, to be run off my home computer. I didn’t think of the possibility that someone else would want to use it. Each week, I would show the latest developments to my friends. After a while, they said, if you’re spending so much time on it, why don’t you make it publicly available? After I added support for multiple users, RunningAHEAD went live in March of 2005.

DT – You must have to work on it often because the site has countless tools to help runners. There is the log, the forums, the graphs and charts you can generate, the maps you can create and store, the user groups, and so much more. Do you ever get overwhelmed with all the things your site can do?

EY – The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland said, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Are there a lot of features in RunningAHEAD? I don’t know. Compared to what?

When I decided to create the site, I have a list of major features that I want. Many of these features, such as a concise summary, detailed data recording and pretty graphs, are realized. There are still many more that I have yet to get to. As I worked on each major feature, I would look forward to taking a breather once it is released. It never happens because just like the Red Queen, I can’t stop. Part of it is that I crave the challenge. I enjoy creating. It is also rewarding to know that each new feature will make someone’s life easier.

DT – On your site you can store almost any kind of workout. Do some bikers, swimmers or triathletes use the site?

EY – Athletes of all sorts use RunningAHEAD these days. A couple of my triathlete friends use the site and I wish that it could handle the triathlon more gracefully.

DT – What part of RunningAHEAD are you most proud of?

EY – Didn’t you ask this already?

DT – I guess in a round about fashion.

EY – The most complex part of the site is the reporting capabilities. There is a reason why most if not all other sites use a predefined graph model. That is, you can only choose from a set of graphs when viewing your data. It is tricky to fetch data and then graph it based on what the user wants. I did it because it was hard. If it was easy, someone else would have done it a long time ago.

DT – Now I have been on a number of forums to basically promote my running site. One thing I notice more now than ever is how genuinely nice the people are on your site. Have you ever got the sense that your users just seem to be a fantastic collection of people?

EY – I always believed that users define a site. It doesn’t matter if the site is technologically advanced or well designed. Without its users, it’ll just sit in a dusty corner of the internet. Every day I’m grateful to have such a great group of users. They made RunningAHEAD what it is today.

DT – I am continually amazed that your site is totally free. What motivates you to keep it this way, and how can you operate this site without ads, or membership fees?

EY – The irony of having a free site is that people didn’t want to use it in the beginning. I used to get emails back in 2005 from visitors asking about my business plan or how I can operate it for free. They are unwilling to trust their data with a site with no obvious revenue source and I don’t blame them. Back then, the site didn’t generate much traffic so it didn’t cost much to operate.

With the rapid growth, I can no longer afford to pay for the site’s operating costs even though I do my best to keep my expenses low. I strongly believe that a training log should be free for all to use. Having a premium membership system that gives additional features to a privileged few creates a separation of class, and that’s not running is about. It is a sport that’s open to everyone, and RunningAHEAD will do the same.

Right now, RunningAHEAD is financially supported by its members. Users that find value in the site have made donations, some multiple times, to help pay for the expenses. As the site continues to grow, there will come a day when the gap between donations and expenses are so wide that I will need to put on some ads. I’ll worry about that when it happens.

DT – Do you work full time, part time, or is your job specifically working on RunningAHEAD?

EY – The donations cover most of my expenses each year so I need a full time job and work on it at nights and weekends. If I don’t have to worry about money, I would work on RunningAHEAD full time.

DT – I read in the forums that the running log on RunnersWorld is a former version of the RunningAHEAD log. Can you explain how this came about?

EY – Runner’s World was looking for a log for their website and they approached me back in 2007. They had several candidates and mine was the one they decided to approach. It was a pleasure working with them through the process and I learned a lot about negotiations.

DT – Here’s a little back story to how I found RunningAHEAD. I took the job as an assistant cross country coach at the school I teach at. In the summer of 2008 I had to get in shape to keep up with the high school runners. I wanted to stay motivated by seeing my progress, but I didn’t want to write my runs down on a calendar like I did in college. I just typed in running logs on the internet, and your site popped up. I started using RunningAHEAD along with a few others at the same time to see what I liked the best, and I stopped using the others only after one week. Now, no one recommended this site to me, but now I am a faithful user. Do most RunningAHEAD users find it on an internet search like me, or more by word of mouth?

EY – I probably should do a better job keeping statistics but I don’t. I don’t like sites that require a life history in order to create an account so I only require the minimal amount of information: email address (used only for password recovery), screen name and password. I can’t provide you with demographics or anything but I imagine it is a mix of internet searches and word of mouth.

DT – Once again, I thank you so much for this interview, and even more so for creating such a dynamic running web site. The track runners at the school I work at are starting to use your log now. I guarantee they will improve by storing and analyzing their workouts on RunningAHEAD. Thank you so much for your time.

EY – Thank you for the interview. It was fun. Good luck with tips4running.com. I hope it will become what you’ve envisioned.


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