The young group from Boulder are doing things their own way
The lunch hour rush washed over the Glendale Whole Foods as the members of Tinman Elite maneuvered to the back of the store. Sniffing around the buffet, all of them eventually migrated over to the sandwich bar, where they debated whether or not they should eat bacon before a race while they waited in line.
“You don’t want bacon,” offered Sam Parsons. “Too much fat before the race.”
The race before them was the USATF High Performance Meet in Eagle Rock, CA., where half the group would toe the line in the 1500m and the other half would partake in the 5000m.
The Tinman Elite pack before me—straight-out-of-high school and de facto leader Drew Hunter; Australia’s Jordan Gusman; newly minted Tinman Joey Berriatua; and a man with a camera who they’ve all dubbed Employee #1, Max McNerney—all nodded in agreement.
Baconless sandwiches in hand, the guys pulled together a handful of tables at the front and proceeded to shoot the shit for the next hour and a half. At one point Sam pulled out his phone and started reading aloud a DM the Tinman Instagram account received from someone looking to potentially join the crew. It’s something that’s become increasingly common over the last year of the group’s existence, but this one was a little bit different.
“Listen to this, ‘I have run a 7:05 3k!’” Sam exclaimed. The guys around the table were clearly tickled—it’s not everyday that someone with a PR 15-seconds clear of the world record is looking to join your group.
Despite the obviously trolling nature of this message, it's reminiscent of how plenty of the guys found themselves on the team. It prompted Joey Berriatua, a recent Santa Clara University grad, to dig up his own DM that got him a spot on the team.
He gave me the sparknotes of what he described as a “very long message”: “I’m not good. But I am going to be good. Just give me an opportunity and I won’t let you down.”
The message caught Sam’s eye, and he ended up forwarding him along to the team’s coach and namesake, Tom “Tinman” Schwartz. Then, very suddenly, Joey turned down the stability and salary of a full-time job in the Bay Area and headed to Boulder.
Questions abound for both sides: how do you turn down a full-time job to go train in Boulder with a bunch of kids you only know of via the internet? With a coach you’ve never heard of? Especially if, in your own words, you’re “not good”? And how, as a professional runner, do you invite a guy you’ve never met into your elite training group halfway across the country?
No one seems to have a cogent answer. But spend any amount of time talking to the Tinman Elite group and one overriding characteristic makes itself abundantly clear: everyone down the line, from their coach to all of their runners, accolades be damned, has an inherent trust in everything that everyone is doing at all times.
So when it came time to deliberate over whether Joey was Tinman material or not, the crux of the Tinman ethos—belief begets belief—led to an answer.
“I was a 13:52 guy coming out of college. Yeah, Joey was a 14:12 guy,” said Sam. “But I didn’t say no to myself. How can I possibly say no to this kid?”
Three hours until race time and the guys were holed up on the 10th floor of the Hilton. Drew attempted to nap as Sam told Jordan that the poppy seed muffin he ate for lunch was going to get him popped by USADA after the race. Drew eventually gave up on his nap and recruited Joey to rub some arnica on his back. Sam sensed a content goldmine and quickly asked Max if he was getting everything on camera.
“It’s just fun, man,” said Drew from the bed. “Sometimes people take it way too fucking serious and it can just suck the fun out of it.”
Here, Drew is addressing a few things: in a sport like running, where a premium is put on being in peak physical condition at all times, burnout, both physical and mental, are real issues. The solution for the Tinman group is not taking themselves too seriously—at least outside of training and competition. Spend any amount of time scrolling through their social handles you’ll see it on full display. It’s part of the reason that over the last year, they’ve developed an almost cult-like following.
“This isn’t the Drew Hunter show,” said Drew. “We go places and people are screaming ‘Tinman!’ or they come up to me and yell ‘Tinman guy!’ And just with how fast we sell out of merch when it goes on the website, I started to realize what we had on our hands”.
“And I think these kids can relate to us because of what they see,” Jordan said. “They see us having fun. Other people might post workouts, but kids see certain splits and might not have any idea what those times mean. But they see us jumping off boulders into a river, they see us having fun. I think it’s a different aspect of sport that they can relate to.”
In the social media era, other teams have started doing similar things under the same hypothesis: taking down the wall between athlete and fan will create more fans. But there’s an unpolished layer that lends Tinman’s tone a touch more authenticity. After all, the group as a whole is unsponsored. There are no brand managers or employees high up the chain demanding answers for something that goes up on their channels. The guys hold the keys to their growing brand, which is something they value nearly as much as running well.
“When you become a really good runner, maybe you go away to altitude for a few months a year,” said Drew. “You never post on social media what you’re doing. And then you come down and run these fast times, sure you’re going to have a fan base because you’re fast. But to actually walk out of a stadium and take time to sign autographs, take pictures with kids, give kids advice. That means the world to them.”
Down by the hotel pool, the guys commandeered all the yoga mats from the weight room and dragged them outside. Slowly, they executed a series of activation drills, some took the time to meditate (“quiet, I have to get centered!”), and talked a bit about what it’s like training under Tom.
Tom’s philosophy leans heavy on the science and uses some language that even the most seasoned athlete or self-coach might not be familiar with. I won’t attempt to recreate any of the specifics. This is mostly so I don’t say anything stupid. In 2016, after a profile was written about Tom on LetsRun, he submitted a letter to the editor to clarify some information that he felt was “a bit off-target.”
From what I gather, though, he likes to keep his athletes under control and leans more towards getting to the starting line of a race well-rested and maybe a touch under-prepared.
“You don’t get any real ‘oh shit I’m in shape’ workouts,” said Sam.
“Oh yeah you totally have to trust the training,” followed up Drew.
It’s a trust that, at least for Sam, had to be developed over time. Early on in particular, he recalled questioning the lack of tempo runs in the training. Tom met him with an encyclopedic answer, Sam described it as the “dumbed-down version,” that ultimately helped things click in his mind.
“It was like ‘ohhhh,’” he said, miming a lightbulb going off in his head.
“And then it was like, why do I ever question anything this guy ever gives me. He’s already thought this through and he has the science to back it up.”
“Now, I want to finish a workout feeling like I could have done two more reps,” Sam continued. “Do I want to rip a 56 last 400 rep just so I can really show my fucking juice? Get it on social media and show people how fit I am? Sure. But he doesn’t give us that.”
For others in the group, trust has come from results.
“I just had the actual results to back it up,” said Joey when I asked him where the trust in his coach comes from. He gestures to the room, “if he’s done it with them, then he can do it with me. And since he’s so scientifically oriented, I knew it wasn’t just going to be ‘O.K. I’m going to give Drew and Sam a workout but make the times a little bit slower for everyone else.’ I knew he was going to say ‘alright Joey’s at this level, this is what he’s going to do at this pace.’’
Tom’s results were on full display just a few weeks prior at the Payton Jordan Invitational, where a handful of the guys made their outdoor debuts. Drew, Sam, and Jordan all walked away with the IAAF World Standard in the 5,000m. If you’re looking for a time and place to “show your juice,” a season opener that includes a world standard isn’t a bad place to do it.
When we got to the track at Occidental College, I finally met the eponymous Tinman. Tom “Tinman” Schwartz was coming out of some sort of coaches-only technical meeting and was standing on the infield. I recognized him from a headshot I had seen over the course of my research for this article so I went over and introduced myself.
“Are you Tom?”
“I am,” he answered, and looked up at me with his enormous inquisitive eyes before stretching out the catcher’s mitt he calls a hand. I briefly explained who I was and we agreed to take a seat on some benches scattered along the backstretch.
Tom, or simply “Coach” to the Tinman crew, coaches a laundry list of athletes ranging from middle schoolers to masters athletes all across the country. Before assisting in developing Drew during his high school career, the Boise, Ida., resident actually coached Drew’s mom, Joan.
“She actually read about Tom on the LetsRun message boards,” Drew explained to me. “She hired him for six months and ended up PR’ing in everything from 400 all the way up to 5k.”
This was enough of an endorsement, and after Drew graduated high school and signed with adidas, Tom became his coach full time. This is where the Tinman group starts to take shape. After a year under Tom full-time while living with his parents, Drew decided it was time to flee the nest and search for his next stop. By 2017 he landed on Boulder, Colo.
“When I told my parents I was going to move to Boulder I remember they said ‘okay, well who are you going to move with?’”, Drew said. “My agent begged me not to move to Boulder.”
At the time, Tom only trained one other athlete who was living in Boulder, former University of Colorado All-American and 13:36 guy, Morgan Pearson. As Drew put it he “didn’t know him that well” and in the face of the raised eyebrows of his parents, agent, and friends, he left Virginia to train in Boulder full time.
Now, not even three years later, Tom finds himself at the helm of one of the most intriguing young training groups in the country. Though aspiring Tinfolk are reaching out in droves via DM and email to the Tinman handles, Tom remains the gatekeeper to aspiring runners that show some promise.
“We’re kind of slow in the developmental process,” Tom said. “We’re not trying to rush it but at the same time we have a huge amount of momentum on our side in terms of fan base and media exposure. So a lot of people are taking a serious look at joining us. But in some cases I advise people to look elsewhere. Because I think after hearing their story and what they want, they may fit better into a different system.”
Drew called the move his leap of faith, but his story shares characteristics with nearly everyone on the team. One at a time, the Tinman group that materialized over the summer of 2017 seemed to fall backwards into Boulder, like some sort of Olympic fever-induced trust fall.
Reed Fischer was a friend of a friend. Joe Klecker, who was running at the University of Colorado, caught wind that Drew was moving to town. Drew and Joe were friendly from their days competing against each other in high school and as it turns out, Joe went to high school with Reed. Reed had just finished college at Drake University and “was looking for something to do.” Joe texted Drew, Drew texted Reed, Reed talked to Tom, and bam, a Tinman was born.
Sam followed. A chance encounter while on the Europeon circuit resulted in Sam telling Drew he was going to move out to Boulder to train with him.
“I did not believe him,” said Drew. “I said when I see you out there I’ll believe you.” But sure enough, Sam packed up his car and made the long lonely drive across Missouri, Kansas and Nebreska, only to land in Boulder to see Drew wearing a walking boot. “I can’t imagine how that looked. ‘Welcome to Boulder, by the way I have a stress fracture.’”
And as the team grew, so did the trust athletes were willing to put into the system. Case in point is Australian-native Jordan Gusman, or simply “Goose.” Despite the beginnings of a promising career in Australia and good performances from 1500m to 10,000m, he began looking for a change in mid-2018.
“I didn’t really know a lot about Tom before joining the group,” he said. “But I had a series of things happen that lead to me feeling like I needed a change. I would get sick or would go into races with a few little niggles here or there. I had run some quick times, but when it came down to the crunch, it just wasn’t really clicking and I felt like I needed something new.”
Something new brought him back to a conversation he had with Drew in a again in 2017.
“He basically offered me a bed anytime I needed it if I was ever in the US after half an hour of speaking to him,” he said. So the chain started again. He reached out to Drew. Drew sent him to Sam, who sent him to Tom, and within a few weeks he found himself in Boulder.
“I spent five weeks with them. And I guess the boys liked me enough to invite me around full time.”
Putting together the pieces of the group and ensuring that each member is not only open to the philosophy, but an active participant in it, is a difficult task. But this is the “system” that Tom was referencing: do you want to be apart of a family? For Tom and his crew, buying into the group is a must. Individually, and at separate times, all the guys explained to me the difference between a group and team, emphasizing the need to show up for one another on a regular basis.
“I formed a team, I did not form a group,” said Tom.
“If we’re going to do something as challenging as being the very best we can be in a sport that’s all about pushing yourself to the absolute limits, then we have to support each other because it’s not going to be an easy journey.”
After the races, word made it back to the guys that there were “a bunch of kids” waiting outside the stadium to meet them. Sam quickly shuffled through his backpack and grabbed a handful of yet-to-be-released Tinman bracelets. It was roughly 10 p.m. and the guys all made their way out to see what the fuss was about. Outside the doors of the track were roughly 30 people (mostly male, and mostly, by my assessment, high schoolers), who gave a quick round of yips as they saw the Tinman crew emerge.
Bracelets were thrown into the throng. Some impromptu trivia was done, and correct answers had a Tinman t-shirt thrust into their chest. Articles of clothing were signed, pictures taken. The guys literally took the shirts off their backs and threw them at people that didn’t get any merch. The atmosphere was one of disbelief from both the fans—courtesy of having the pleasure of meeting the guys—and the guys themselves—courtesy of this many people showing up just for them.
As this was the main exit from the track, people slowly streamed around the group, including members of the Bowerman Track Club. The fans missed Olympians, US and NCAA Champions from one of the other most promising groups in the country, but stood in front of Tinman Elite too awestruck--or perhaps even indifferent--to notice.
“I’d never experienced anything like that,” said Jordan. “To have that many people waiting outside of the stadium is...I mean we ran reasonably well, but we didn’t hit the race out of the park or anything. And those kids really didn’t care. It’s about the strength of the Tinman logo and what we’re doing.”
It’s this scene where the Tinman ideals really start to click. Over the course of the afternoon the Tinman crew explained the movement they were working to usher in, though the general thesis remained somewhat nebulous to me. Here are a bunch of guys in their early 20s, talking extensively about “pushing the sport forward” and “doing something bigger than themselves.” These are great soundbites, but what does it mean in practice? The kids outside the stadium are the perfect answer to that question. In a short period of time Tinman has been able to sew fans in a sport desperate for them, and show people a different side of running that makes world class athletes feel like your friend, all in an effort to inspire.
“Growing up, we run,” said Drew. “But at some point in your running career you have to ask yourself why are you actually doing this? Is it because you’re good at it or is it because running is something that is deeply important to you?”
If the answer is "yes, running is deeply important to me" then a follow up might be “well what are you going to do about it?” It’s a tough question for some. But not for the members of Tinman Elite.