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Once a Tiger: James Chu '00

<h5>James Chu ’00 at the 2019 Brooklyn Mile.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Ben Ko</h6>
James Chu ’00 at the 2019 Brooklyn Mile.
Courtesy of Ben Ko

When James Chu ’00 was accepted to Princeton, he immediately went on a run. He probably would’ve gone on a run if he was rejected, too. 

On the University’s alumni network site TigerNet, Chu’s profile picture, an action shot from the 2012 Brooklyn Half Marathon, stands out in a sea of the default tiger silhouettes. Despite his day job, his Twitter page reads more like a runner’s than a finance professional’s. And if you Google his name — with the identifier “Princeton” afterwards — the result directly under his LinkedIn page is his bio on the Brooklyn Track Club (BKTC) website, adorned with another high-definition action shot and an all-caps title: “COACH CHU.”

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It would be easy to assume that running has been a constant in Chu’s life, that one could draw an unbroken line from his beginnings in ninth grade indoor track all the way to the present. But Chu’s progression from athlete to coach wasn’t so clear-cut. 

“I actually didn’t finish out my Princeton career… I only had one healthy cross country season,” he said. 

According to Chu, after about eight years of competitive running, persistent stress fractures took their toll. Entering his senior-year cross country season, Chu once again found himself injured and needing to recover — a familiar scenario. But this time, his mindset was slightly different. 

“After these injuries, I just didn't feel right. It just got hard. I’m like, you know, this is my senior year, maybe I just want to enjoy civilian life,” he said.

Chu notified his coaches that he wouldn’t be returning, and then, spurred on by one of his pole vaulter roommates, Chu started weightlifting — “you know, like Ryan Hall,” he said. 

“I was just like, ‘I just want to bench more and more and more,’” Chu said. “And that just kind of took the place of running for a while.”

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College athletes have a variety of experiences post-graduation. Very few of them go on to play professionally; according to a 2013 study, almost 80 percent of former college athletes reported being less active than they were in college. Busy with careers and family life, athletic activity can fall by the wayside. 

As an economics concentrator, Chu’s future career seemed poised to be an especially large time commitment. Wall Street is a popular first stop for newly graduated Ivy Leaguers, despite the “horror stories” with which Chu was familiar.  

“You hear, ‘Oh, you got to work 60 to 100 hours a week.’ Is that even possible? I'd never wanted that,” he said. 

But one of his roommates recommended trading, a financial career path that’s mostly restricted to market hours, as opposed to investment banking’s more punishing schedule. Chu applied to Susquehanna International Group, had what he described as “a really fun interview” — if you find Bayesian statistics to be fun — received an offer, and moved to New York. 

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For nearly a decade, Chu’s running side lay dormant as he worked as an options trader, or a self-directed investor, and bulked up through weightlifting — and it showed.

“My wife just said that I looked stupid with these big arms,” he said with a laugh. 

Around 2010, with the help of his high school coach, Chu started running again. He joined North Brooklyn Runners, a running club that, according to its website, “run[s] the gamut from former elite runners and serious runners to recreational/casual runners.” 

Armed with knowledge and experience, Chu soon found himself offering advice to his teammates. His past injuries and setbacks could almost be described as an asset in this role: “Sometimes when you're too good,” he said, “you're just not necessarily a good coach, because you never had to deal with any challenges.”

Chu’s had his fair share of running-related challenges — even in college, his body didn’t appreciate the strain that running put on him; at almost 43 years old, things hadn’t exactly gotten better. 

“My age has really caught up with me,” he said. “It’s almost as if I can feel every injury I’ve ever had, all at once, in the first mile or so before things start to loosen up.” 

Now, a large part of Chu’s motivation is running with other people, so quarantine was a disappointment in that regard — “that’s when I realized how much I needed my teammates,” he said. 

With less socialization currently happening within his new club, BKTC, Chu recognizes that it’s easier for people at the fringes of the club to not feel as engaged. And now, as an assistant coach for BKTC, he said, he tries to reach out to those people and let them know “we’re still here.”

I asked Chu: if he was writing this profile, what would be important to mention? What major themes should I include?

“How much running has given me,” he said. 

This wasn’t surprising — we talked about career stuff for a little less than 10 minutes, with most of the rest of our conversation revolving around running to some extent. He didn’t even talk much about a nine-month layoff from work in 2013. 

He tried to find a way to weave everything together: “It would have been great if it was like, ‘Oh yeah, and this Princeton runner ended up giving me my job,’ but that’s not exactly what happened,” he said. Instead, he grinded through free courses for nine months to transition from options trading to data analytics. But Chu didn’t dwell on this career pivot, instead circling right back to what he really lives and breathes: running.

Stalking Chu online for hours just yielded more running material. His Instagram page @runcoachu has over 1,500 posts, many of which have captions like “Team Chu race report” and “Tbt to the very last moment that I thought the marathon was fun.” He’s been profiled by his old club, the North Brooklyn Runners, in a piece that discussed his race strategies and lactate threshold workouts. And he’s even done some of his own writing for Cloud259, a website devoted to distance running — the “259,” of course, signifying the timestamp needed to break three hours in the marathon. 

Chu’s writing analyzes track performances at New York City’s storied indoor venue, the Armory, with a couple articles focusing on post-meet workouts and others examining actual race performances. Reading his work, his excitement for the sport is palpable.

He remains especially fond of competitive collegiate runners, who, as he writes in his analysis of the 2016 Millrose Games, are driven by something more “pure” than money: “the glory and love of sport and competition.”

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