Houston’s Renaissance Man of Running

For Calum Neff, variety is the spice of life.

Calum Neff’s resume reads like a long list of dares:

  • Marathon World Record with Stroller
  • Half Marathon World Record with Stroller
  • Canadian Ultra Marathon Champion
  • Member of 24 Hour 12 Man Treadmill World Record Team
  • Third place in Indoor Marathon World Record Attempt
  • Course Record at Creemore Vertical Challenge
  • Brazos Bend Trail Half Marathon Champion (*in gator costume)

And then you get to the father part—of three.

UTMB | Photo courtesy of Calum Neff

Little about Neff’s approach to running resembles that of the typical endurance athlete. When asked how he labels himself, he stumbles through a few attempts: “One mile to ultra… track, road, cross-country, ultra, trail…” Then, with a laugh, he says he “races everything all the time.” The simplest way to categorize his style, Neff says, is MUT (mountain, ultra, and trail running)—just don’t forget the track, treadmill, and traditional road races that also pack his schedule.

Neff ran his first race at age four and has been enamored by the endurance world since.

Though Neff is really into the 50K distance at the moment, he’s perpetually torn. To him, every discipline has its own appeal: Cross-country rewards pure guts, track and road races involve precision and speed, and MUT “is more about exploring and adventuring and connecting with nature.” Might Neff be better at a single discipline if he took the tunnel vision approach like many of his competitors? Sure. But the assortment of distances, terrains, and challenges fulfill him in a way that specificity cannot.

An active lifestyle is all Neff knows. Moving all over the world when he was young (including stints in Scotland, Louisiana, England, Thailand, and Canada), running was his way of connecting: to a foreign city, a new peer group, and his own marathon-fiend father. His legs provided intimate explorations while his talent helped give him an identity. Neff ran his first race at age four and has been enamored by the endurance world since.

Fourteen years later, he earned a spot on the University of Houston track and cross-country teams, but a collegiate career of little improvement or demonstration of true potential left him wanting more. After a short break, Neff found a new fix in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where he escaped for long hiking treks that parlayed into punishing mountain runs. If he wasn’t already hooked, a successful 12.5K trail race in 2010 in Alberta, Canada, sealed the deal. The record books chronicle the rest.

Neff crossing the finish line at the Katy Half | Photo: Bill Baumeyer

While few people could keep up with Neff’s racing schedule—several weekends a year find him in a different city, chasing down some new grueling goal—even fewer could fathom balancing it with his home life. When he’s not working as a full-time operations manager or coaching high school cross-country, his attention is on his three young daughters: Alessandra (4), Holland (2), and Maya (born March 25, 2017). Neff’s training schedule revolves around the four ladies in his life and relies heavily on the support of his wife Julie.

If a “typical” day existed for Neff, it might look something like this: Eat breakfast with his girls, drop Alessandra off at school, put in a full day’s work, and arrive home in time to eat dinner as a family. Only when he tucks his daughters into bed at night does he lace up his running shoes, slip out the door, and decide what’s on tap for training. (Because of his packed and unpredictable schedule, Neff has been self-coached since college.) His longer runs are reserved for weekend mornings, often with a daughter or two strapped in the stroller, bumping along on the pavement ahead. He cherishes those shared training runs most of all—and the world records they’ve set are the cherry on top (2:31:21 for the full marathon with a stroller, and 1:11:27 for the half).

Running rewards those who are comfortable being uncomfortable.

Many runners would view his unorthodox training regimen as a hindrance. Neff sees it differently. He may not log the super high volumes of many of his competitors—his only two triple-digit weeks ever were in college—but his adaptability as a father is taking him far. With ultra and trail running, especially, “You have to be ready to run at any time of day,” whether chipper or exhausted, starving or stuffed. And as Neff learned through his mobile upbringing, running rewards those who are comfortable being uncomfortable. A look at his schedule suggests he’s sufficient there.

Houston’s San Jacinto Trail | Photo TRP contributor Theodore Scott

Houston is not exactly a fitness destination, known more for its pancake-flat roads and stick-to-your-ribs cuisine—but that hasn’t deterred Neff a bit. He has placed high, if not taken the title, over a variety of distances, including a top-50 finish at the World Mountain Running Championships. Not only does Houston have year-round running weather (assuming you beat the sun in the summertime), but it can also impart altitude-like benefits on those who train there and then race in cooler, dryer climates.

It may not have the altitude or undulation of many other locations, but in Houston, Neff has found a community of runners as cohesive and friendly as any.

The country’s fourth most populous city is equipped with a surprising number of soft surfaces and trails, if you know where to look. Neff’s favorite place to train, Memorial Park, features a network of technical trails close to downtown; Hermann Park and Rice University offer two- and three-mile loops that are great for speed work; and, within a short drive, the Texas Hill Country offers exponentially more options for undulating runs. There is no shortage of races tempting Neff across the state each weekend, and in fact, he has been influential in the establishment of a new six-race series beginning this spring: two road, two cross-country, and two trail, with the victory going to the highest point scorer. The goal is to introduce more people to the array of endurance events available to them. The question is whether anyone will be able to challenge Neff.

The Cowtown Marathon | Photo courtesy of Calum Neff

Beyond its training grounds, the strength and size of Houston’s running population elevate Neff’s running in an intangible way. Among his first friends when he returned to Houston after college were members of the Houston Area Trail Runners, with whom he still runs regularly, and he both races and socializes with the Trail Racing Over Texas group. Characteristically, Neff puts as much into his running community as he gets from it; for one, in January, he expertly navigated the course and paced my friend and me to two top-six finishes in the Houston Marathon. He wasn’t even racing, yet hardly a corner of the course lacked a Cal Neff fan. It may not have the altitude or undulation of many other locations, but in Houston, Neff has found a community of runners as cohesive and friendly as any.

Calum Neff is right up there with them—until the gun goes off. The double- and triple-stroller world records are just a matter of time.

Explore Calum’s Training Grounds