Heather May, originally from Indiana, is currently speeding along the tenure track at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, where she is Assistant Professor of Theatre. Heather hails from a family of professors, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who talks with her for more than a few minutes. A passionate advocate of restoring the arts’ and athletics’ previous status as staples of this country’s core educational curriculum (see sidebar), Heather qualified for and raced in the last two marathon Trials. Having recovered from knee surgery last year, she’s now attempting to balance 85-100 mile running weeks with 65-80 hour work weeks in her quest for a third Trials bib, this time as a masters runner.
When we were first in touch a few months back, you’d put your chances of qualifying at 15%. Do you still think your chances are that slim, or do you feel any sunnier about them?
I’m going to hold out on being sunnier until after Twin Cities [October 3, USA Marathon Masters Championships]. Right now I’d still put it at around 15%. And that’s for a variety of reasons. One is that I have a very limited personal window. And it’s gotten shortened by the knee injury last year. The timing on that couldn’t have been much worse. I had in my head that I would train through the rest of 2008. I had hoped to chop a little time off [of my marathon best] at the end of that year, but that didn’t happen.
So I decided to have one last blowout of running before I went into nine months’ straight of directing. When I’m directing I’m not only teaching two classes, advising students, sometimes doing independent studies — but I’m also in the rehearsal hall from around 6PM-11PM six nights a week. I do run. I think I probably managed 40-60 miles a week during that time, but it’s definitely not organized, structured training. It’s more to just stay sane.
Knowing I was heading into those other commitments, I did two marathons back to back and then in May I did my first (and possibly my last) ultra. It was barely an ultra; it was a 50K on trails. I’m a horrible trail runner. In fact, my funny story there is that I fell four times during this ultra. I’m told that the trails were not that technical. But they felt quite technical to me. I hadn’t trained for it, I didn’t have trail shoes, I didn’t know what I was doing. I wound up taking over first place sometime after halfway and of course at that point the competitive juices kicked in and I was like, “I can’t possibly lose first place. That would be horrible.” And apparently the woman who came in second — who, had that race been 800m longer, probably would have caught me — I had no idea she was there. She wasn’t either of the two people I’d passed. She came from way, way, way back and went on a tear. But apparently when she hit the last group of guys that I’d run quite a bit with, she asked if there were any more women. They said, “There’s one, but you’ll catch her. She falls all the time.”
“With the marathon, everything can go wrong. There’s something alluring about a race in which you control your training so much — you have to really put a ton of training in. And then you have one day and one shot. There’s something very appealing to me about that.”
So I’d said that that was my year to do [an ultra] — May 2009 — because if I got injured it would be fine, because I was [going to be] taking all this time off [from hard training]. Well, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure [that race] caused the injury. Or at least started some problems that I didn’t know were there. And then, literally the week before my third of three shows closed, when I was planning to start training at the end of September, early October for Grandma’s Marathon in June of this year, my knee blew up to three times its normal size.
It was a meniscus tear that precipitated the surgery?
Actually, we didn’t find the meniscus tear until we went in. I knew I was having a lot of synovial fluid problems with the plica, so I had a lot of scarring on the plica. That’s what we thought was causing all of the problems. So I went through about six weeks of physical therapy because people kept saying, “People run on plica syndrome all the time, it’s not a problem. If you can, you can try to get it back down and run on it. We’ll be happy to do surgery, but you should try this first.” After six weeks the swelling hadn’t gone down in size at all and I couldn’t bend it. So at that point I just wanted to go in and get it scoped.
So your pessimistic attitude about qualifying isn’t related to the knee per se, it’s more about your other demands intruding?
Yes, absolutely. My timeline. Because once I get through Twin Cities, I go into rehearsal the very next day. October 3 is the race, October 4 will be my first day of rehearsal for the fall show I’m doing, and that will open the week before Thanksgiving. So I have, I’d say, nine months next year where, if a basically swear off life, I can train for one shot. At a maximum, I can train for Grandma’s [June 2011] and if I crashed there, hold on or retrain for Chicago [October 2011]. After that point I go back into a heavy schedule for everything else. So basically it needs to happen by early next fall or I just don’t see it happening.
How’s your training going?
It’s going. Yeah. That’s about all I can say about it these days. I think were it not me and I didn’t know how it had gone in the past, I would probably say it’s going pretty well. But I feel out of shape and it’s been really brutally hot here this summer, as it has been everywhere. So it’s really hard for me to get a sense of how out of shape I am, how old I am and how hot I am (I wish that was “hawt,” too, but it’s not).
So it’s been really hard for me to assess what I should be doing. What’s a reasonable goal going into the marathon. I’ve been thinking that I’ll figure it out when it’s getting closer and the temperature’s cooled off. But the other day I had the brutal realization that I was in Alabama — and the marathon’s October 3. So I’m really not going to have a great sense of that in time.
Are you planning on traveling anywhere for a tune-up or test race before that?
I’m not, because I don’t really have the time or the money. I ran a small, low key 10K yesterday. I don’t know if it told me much of anything at all. But it was fun. I’d love to, but anything nearby is going to be hot and miserable. So, again, I’m not really sure how much that would help me out on the assessment part. And I just can’t afford the time or the flight.
Does having your time sucked away for 65-80 hours a week galvanize you to get up and run more than you would have, or does it make running just another chore that you have to get out of the way?
That’s an excellent question. For me, it really depends on the day. There are times when it always forces me to be more structured because I can’t futz around and wait to fit it in. I have to get up and go. But then there are times when my motivation seriously starts to wane. It’s yet another thing that I have to cram into yet another very small window of time.
“Some days I think, ‘Eh, I could let it go.’ Other days I think, ‘No, I really want to go back.’”
I’m not great about doing all the things that one should do if they’re going to be a great runner, or even a very good runner. I don’t get nearly enough sleep. Right now I’m running 80-100 mpw on about six hours of sleep most nights. I don’t have the time or the inclination to ice bath most of the time. I’d love to do yoga. I don’t have time for that either. I might want to go out and recount a rough workweek with friends [instead], and it’s that I’m going to bed early so I can try and get six hours of sleep so I can get up at 4AM or 5AM. My time is really structured and sometimes my running doesn’t feel like it’s for me. That’s when I have to step back and refocus on what my goals actually are and what I care about. If my running becomes something where I just feel obligated, then to me it’s not worth it.
You’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s qualified previously. For the others, this is their first shot at a qualifying time, so it’s a really big deal to them. I’ve wondered, since you’ve qualified twice, does that affect your attitude about qualifying for a third time?
I think it does. Although sometimes I think it keeps me more motivated. The second time , I’d graduated from the doctorate and had my job here. I knew that [my running] could be a priority. Whereas, while I wouldn’t say that when I was working on my dissertation that my running was my priority, I was much more able to slow down the timeline and be okay with that. But now that I’m on the “tenure clock” I can’t do that. So, I knew [those commitments] were coming.
But there’s something so magical and incredible about being there, and that’s not just true of the Trials, but has been true of any of the national championships I’ve had the extreme pleasure to participate in. Being surrounded by that many strong, dedicated, focused, yet really fun and lovely individuals — I’ve met so many wonderful, beautiful people on the national distance circuit. To be in that energized room — at the Trials they always ask, “Who’s here for the first time? Who’s here for the second time? Who’s here for the third time?” and the number of hands goes down and down and down. I remember sitting there and all of a sudden thinking, “I want to come back!”
I’m not in danger of making the [Olympic marathon] team. I’ve never been in danger of making the team. On the one hand, I’ve done [the Trials] twice and it’s not a huge deal. On the other hand, it’s a huge deal to me, particularly as someone who didn’t participate competitively in college or at any time which it might be more expected to get there. So I go back and forth. Some days I think, “Eh, I could let it go.” Other days I think, “No, I really want to go back.”
I imagine that desire sustains you on the days when you’re not feeling so driven.
How many times have you run in the [USA] Marathon Championships?
I ran in Twin Cities twice. It was my second marathon in either 2000 or 2001, and I don’t think I claimed the time [on Athlinks]. I ran a 3:14, I believe. The other time I ran there was in 2005 and it was the National Championships that year. I ran it because I was directing in Grinnell, Iowa, so I could drive there. The race didn’t go well and then — I didn’t even have time to eat lunch — I got in the car and drove back to Grinnell for a tech rehearsal that I sat in until midnight.
God, that’s awful.
It was horrible, and by far the worst recovery I’ve ever had. Don’t do that at home. I don’t recommend it. But both times [at Twin Cities] I only had a limited idea of what I was doing. I simply went out too hard. The same thing happened again there — I went out at the pace that I think I should have been in shape for. But it was my first marathon after the 2004 Trials.
When I qualified for the 2004 Trials, all of my focus had been on trying to qualify in a very condensed, short period of time, kind of on a whim. So when I got there, I was just enjoying the experience. That was amazing and as a matter of fact that was the first time I was ever in a national anything race. I can remember finding that bizarre — having to go check in my gear, when I’d never been walked through the process before. At the 2004 Trials I was seeded around 125th or 123rd, and I came in 42nd, I believe.
You must have been pleased by that.
I was extremely pleased. I finished in the top third. I felt really good and had started in the back of the field and I don’t think I was passed by a single person after the second or third mile of the race. So it was pretty awesome. So I got it into my head that if I wanted to take it to the next step, I had to stop thinking about what shape I’m in per se, and try to push myself a little more. I’ve always been a much better runner if I run from the back. I would much rather be picking people off. All of my best marathons have been negative splits.
At Twin Cities in 2005, the temperature was a little warm, in the mid-70s, and a little breezy that day, and I don’t really like wind. I wound up going with a group and trying to stay with them when I probably should not have. So, again, I just went out too hard. And I found the placement of the hills at Twin Cities not ideal. At Boston they’re in a perfect place. In Twin Cities I find them too late and too long, and I’ve just not run well.
Are your negative splits big ones?
Probably around a minute or so, most of the time.
So they’ve been by design. Once you realized that going out hard in the beginning wasn’t the right strategy for you, you’ve run in a very disciplined way.
Yes. I would say [that's the case with] almost every race I have run, and I do that in training. The one exception was the 2008 Trials, in which I positive split by two or three minutes. I knew I was going to. I didn’t plan that going in. I had the same plan as 2004: I’ll start toward the back and work my way up. But the race went out so slowly that even I could still see the pace car for a little while, which was terrifying to me. When things started to break up, I could tell that I was either going to be completely in no man’s land or I needed to go with this group that was right in front of me, running maybe 5-10 seconds per mile faster than I wanted to. I just decided that for the purposes of that race, because there was a little bit of a breeze, I wanted the opportunity to work with a pack — something I’ve never really done — and I would just go with them.
That was probably the race I was most tapped out in ever. I felt great through three laps of that course. I would start to feel a little badly and drift off the back. Then I’d tell myself, “No, go get yourself up with that group. Get your act together. Go stick with them.” It was amazing how much help that was. In the final loop we’d all spread apart and it hit me hard [at the end]. If I recall correctly, my last 100 meters was at 10:00 pace. I’d stayed at 6:30 through that last loop. But in that last 100 I was fried and wound up closing down the med tent. It was exciting. That was probably my most maximal effort race. But otherwise it’s much my preference to go out easy.
Did you know at the time who you were running with in that pack?
What’s really interesting about that is that there’s another woman who graduated from Grinnell. Her name’s Nicole Cueno. She graduated many years after I did. We had met once before at a cross country meet in Grinnell. She’d emailed me before the race to see if I wanted to join a group she was putting together to run around that pace at the Trials. And I said, “I don’t think I can hold that, because I think that’s kind of deadly. Maybe I’ll see you out there and hook up.” Sure enough, I didn’t know it, but I basically ran with her the entire race until she left me in her dust.
It looks like you really didn’t start running competitively until around 2002 or so. Although you’re not working with a coach now, you worked with coaches previously. Did those coaching experiences help you get to your last two Trials?
I’m going to say the first coach I worked with did because I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I probably would have made much of that progress had I picked up a good book. That’s simply because, prior to that, I had unstructured training and then a guy at a running club in Bloomington, Indiana gave me his training program for the second marathon I ran, where I chopped about half an hour off my time. But my mileage was still very low and I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. So he certainly helped me by providing a program.
But the ill effects of that relationship have unfortunately been very lingering. I finally this year was able to convince him to remove my name from his web site, where he continued to claim I supported his training methods and a bunch of things that I don’t. So that’s been ugly. I have a hard time giving him credit now. I used to give him a lot of credit, because I was nice.
To me, there’s the science of running and then there’s the actual physical, lived experience of running. His approach to coaching was basically all science. “These are the numbers you have to meet in order to be able to do x.” And, whereas certainly we are bound by our scientific limitations, I found that, as I became more knowledgeable about myself as a runner, he became very unwilling to listen to my own experience. Even though his own experience was limited to running one in somewhere over three hours. I don’t think to be a good coach you have to have done what you’re coaching, necessarily. But if you’re not going to have done it and succeeded, then you need to accept that the person who has has some some sort of knowledge or insight into themselves.
Right. Every coaching method doesn’t work for every runner, or even at the same rate. You know yourself better than any coach does.
Exactly. It just got very frustrating on the mental side of things. The first time I tried to qualify for the Trials was at Philadelphia in November of 2003. The standard was 2:48 and I ran a 2:48:40. And, really, I laid much of the burden of that [near miss] on his shoulders because his thing was, “You have to get your tempo pace down in order for your marathon pace to ever feel comfortable. Training at that marathon pace when it’s not really there at this point in time is not going to work.”
Again, the science of that is shoddy. It was fine in theory. The problem was, I went out at tempo pace. And tempo pace at the start of a marathon feels really darn good! You know, you’re tapered, it feels awesome, you’re around friends. It felt very comfortable. You feel like you might have a breakthrough and you don’t want to think, “Oh, that’s tempo pace. I’m going to dial it down.”
I started to feel bad at mile 16. I started to think, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” But I was fine through about 20. I was still [on pace for] a minute ahead of the qualifying standard. But in those last six miles I just slowly watched it tick away. It wasn’t until the last mile that I knew I wasn’t going to qualify.
Also, he’d told me two weeks prior to the race that he thought I needed a Plan B because if it wasn’t a perfect day — like if the weather was bad — I should drop out and do a different race. And I said, “Well, what do you mean ‘if the weather is bad’? I’m fine with winds gusting at 20 mph. Are you talking drizzle?” And he said to me, “If it’s a perfect day, I think you can get the standard.”
That’s not so great for building confidence.
No, that didn’t work so well. That was after the marathon I’d run earlier that year — two weeks out from Boston he’d told me I wasn’t ready to go to Boston that year and wanted me to withdraw. I said, “I’ve already reserved a room and have a ticket and I’m going.” I think I was 19th woman and maybe the 10th American. It was pretty cool. My name was in USA Today. It was pretty exciting.
So you were obviously ready when you got there.
Exactly. I wasn’t ready to run the [Trials] standard, but I was ready to run a good race. So it was just not a good match. I’ve had three coaches and the other two [after that] have been long distance. Those have been much more pleasant experiences, though certainly I do think there’s something to be missed from doing it all through email or phone calls. I think I needed to be told to take some time off after the Trials in 2004. I didn’t and just started working with someone new. I didn’t want her first impression of me to be that I wasn’t willing to work. So I said, “Yeah, I’m gung ho and ready to go and everything’s great!” And then she didn’t want my first impression of her to be, “You need to take time off.” So, unfortunately that was something I had to deal with then and the repercussions of that played out for much longer than I think they would have otherwise.
You’re coaching yourself now. Is that okay with you?
I go back and forth on that. I think if I really were committed to making the Trials, having a coach would be preferable. But it would need to be a coach who was here and willing to spend some time with me. Because otherwise, putting together a plan, I can do. I have a fair number of people who are I can talk to about it. Kevin Beck has been really good about looking over some stuff I drafted in terms of a program. So I can get that kind of feedback. His approach to the marathon is very similar to what I like, so I find him very easy to deal with in that regard.
“I want my coach to be able to tell me, ‘Heather, you’re injured and you need to do the following things…and that exact buildup will lead to these things. And then you’ll be ready for this exact…’ I mean, come on. It doesn’t work that way.”
And a friend of mine was a distance runner at Indiana University when I was doing my Ph.D. We were doing some virtual training for marathons together for awhile, so I drafted a program for both of us based on things I’ve done in the past using things from different people that have worked well. So I feel pretty comfortable with that. And I like the fact that if I’m having a really bad day, I adjust. I know what I have to do.
It’s kind of nice not having the pressure of reporting to a coach because I feel much more obliged — if the workout is on paper then I have to make sure it happens, it has to happen at this time, etc. Whereas if it’s my own training, I can say, “This is really a bad week and I need to shift that around.” I’ve been doing a lot of that recently — realizing that the weeks as I laid them out on paper don’t mesh with, say, the first week of classes and having a lot of meetings in the evening that I wasn’t counting on. So I’ve had to cut back on some easy runs. I can do that without any problems.
The downside is that I’m sure that sometimes I’m more likely to cut things back than maybe I would be otherwise. I may not be pushing myself as hard. It sure would be nice to have someone who can say, “Okay, this is what you have. Let’s tweak it in this direction.” But I think what I want is something that there’s no magic coach to fix. I want my coach to be able to tell me, “Heather, you’re injured and you need to do the following things, and they will get you healthy, they will get you back from your surgery. You will do this exactly buildup over the next month or two months, and that exact buildup will lead to these things. And then you’ll be ready for this exact…” I mean, come on. It doesn’t work that way.
Yes. You can’t expect The Amazing Kreskin in a coach.
Exactly! And that’s exactly what I expect. I expect someone to be able to see into the future and who can puzzle out whether I’m just getting older and I’m slowing down. Or I’m out of shape and I could speed up. I want them to be able to tell me that. And, honestly, that’s not a realistic expectation.
Although something that’s emerged in talking to people is that a lot of the time the value of a coach is getting someone to stop being their own worst enemy. To get them to not adhere slavishly to a schedule when they’re tired. Or do things that will prevent them from getting injured. Which I never thought of until I started working with coaches and getting injured myself; you really need someone to stop you from running yourself into the ground if you have that kind of personality.
I think you’re so right. And most of us, like you, who are distance runners — we do have that kind of personality. That obsessive, overachiever, driven personality. I can remember running with a guy who would try a workout and when it failed, he would do 75% of it, and then he’d go out and do it again the next day. You need to coach to say, “No. That’s not good. Don’t do that.”
You describe yourself as “driven.” Are you goal-oriented in other areas besides running?
I think even with my running, I like goals as things to motivate me. But I’m much more interested by seeing what I can learn from things. Which is probably why I’m an educator. To me, the result is not the point. The process is the point. Let me take that back: in theatre, the process is extremely important, but in the end I have an audience and they need a good result, as well as all of us involved, in order to have gained something from it. I guess that’s true in everything. But, to me, if you focus on the process and the learning, the result is always good. It should the best that you can possibly get. So it’s focusing on wringing as much out of my body as I can, or wringing as much out of my brain as I can, or wringing as much out of my play as I can. If I’m just grabbing that and investing myself in it, then the end result follows, which is something I try to teach students all the time. I think in contemporary society this is a little challenging. But the point is to learn, and the result will follow. So the goals are nice, but I think I’m more driven by trying to do what I can.
I think that’s healthy. I’m currently reading From Last to First, an autobiography by the English runner Charlie Spedding. Something he learns after about seven years of decent (but he feels sub-par) performances, is that he needs to focus on just running to the best of his ability rather than using other people as a measuring stick. So much of his story has to do with the process of development and the fact that it can take years to figure out how to train properly for yourself. But that’s part of what’s satisfying about the process, I find — just learning what works and what doesn’t work. It’s obviously very frustrating at times, but it’s satisfying when you learn something that you can use.
Agreed. And often, if it didn’t work, you learn something from having done that.
Probably especially when it doesn’t work.
Yes. I always say, “We learn the most in failure.”
I want to talk about your athletic development. Going way back, you had rheumatoid arthritis as a kid. You were told that you’d never be athletic. Can you talk about that experience?
My family physician referred me to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, which is an amazingly outstanding facility for children. When I went there, I believe I had to go through the arthritis ward, where there were a number of children in wheelchairs or on crutches. I do remember being told, “You’re not going to progress to that point. You’re not going to be disabled by this.” But I was told that I probably wouldn’t be a very athletic child.
How did that affect how you felt about yourself, or your experience of being a child with a body that was giving you problems?
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t remember it terribly well. The way it was diagnosed is that one knee was — about how it looked last year — about three or four times the size of the other one. I do have a really funny memory that I was sharing with a physician a few years ago. They drained my knee and in my mind, they were using this huge, turkey-baster sized thing attached to huge tubes going across the building. The physician I was describing this to pulled out a syringe that was probably what they used. Let’s just say that the image in my mind was way, way more terrifying.
So [the arthritis] wasn’t a huge part of how I saw myself because it didn’t drastically affect my daily life. I was always a pretty active kid. I remember exercises I had to do, like swinging my legs around while eating dinner and that kind of thing. But I don’t remember it limiting me all that much.
And you obviously recovered, since you were doing things like tennis and team sports later on.
Yes. I was a total tomboy as a child. We didn’t have a girl’s soccer team as a kid, so I was the only girl on my elementary school soccer team for a couple of years. I was always very interested in sports. I didn’t have a lot of girl friends. Basically a tomboy.
I know you were a late starter to running and mentioned a few “false starts.” You used the word “hate” — you hated running. What happened to change that?
Honestly, I have no idea. I was working in an office complex in St. Louis that had a gym. I had danced all through college and a little bit post-collegiately. But I wasn’t really getting to dance a lot. So I need to start working out to stop from getting out of shape. I would go at the end of the workday and mostly do the stairmaster and lift weights. I usually concluded with a little walk on the treadmill. For whatever reason, I remember one day thinking, “I wonder if I could run a mile.” And I did. And then, for whatever reason, it become kind of an obsession, to see if I could run a little further every time I was in the gym. Why I liked it that time, I don’t know. It might have been that I finally didn’t try to run it too fast, so it felt better. That’s a mistake a lot of beginning runners make: going out and running too hard and then it’s miserable and they don’t want to do it again.
I just know that it kind of stuck this time. For the first year I ran on a treadmill all the time because I was convinced that one day I’d wake up and hate it again. So if I was on the treadmill, I could just turn it off. Then I started running on a track at Washington University. I did up to 10 miles there because, again, I was convinced I was going to hate it one day.
“I was clueless. I had run 10 miles — so what was the point of training for, say, a 10K? I didn’t even know you could do that! I only measured distance, clearly.”
I wanted to ask you about that, having read something to this effect in another interview you did. I just thought it was amazing that you ran 10 miles on the track. That’s so monotonous for a beginning runner! You really did that because you thought you’d get out in the middle of nowhere and not want to run all the way back?
Yeah. I was convinced. But I will admit that I do a lot of my harder workouts on the track. I’m weird. I wouldn’t want the monotony every day, but there’s something about being able to shut the brain off. I don’t have to think, there’s no traffic. I can just do one lap at a time and I know I’m marching toward that finish. I can just click in and not think about it. I will still do a lot of long workouts on the track — long runs and tempos. Next week I have a 20 mile run with the last 10 at marathon pace and it’s entirely possible that I’ll do those last 10 miles on a track.
I’d had a question for Heather about making comparisons between running and theatre, which I managed to miss asking in the interview as we veered off onto an unexpected tangent. A few hours later I received a thoughtful answer to the question in an email. Below is an edited version of that email.
Heather believes in the vital importance of both sport and art in life, and wishes to call people to recognize that we must include these programs not simply as extracurricular activities for those who can afford them in time and money, but that they should be an integral part of our education system from grade school through college and beyond. Both disciplines have always struggled with being seen as unnecessary luxuries, but the current economic climate has prompted cuts to arts and athletic programming across the United States.
The arts and athletics: educational and cultural imperatives, not expendable luxuries
As we become more and more concerned with education, including higher ed, as a means of vocational training (see Mark Slouka’s wonderful article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School), we cut both arts and athletics from curriculums because we cannot point to direct links between the skills gained in these classes and the focused job skills our students will need in their “real” lives. Given the limited timeline of educational experience, and a sense that our graduates are lagging behind those in other countries in gaining skill sets that will make them most employable, we cut programming that does not directly relate to students’ fields of study.
Yet our current generation of college students and recent graduates will change jobs more frequently than any previous generation. Teaching straight skill sets does them an enormous disservice given that they are unlikely to remain for all of their working lives in the field for which they trained. We need to teach skills that the arts and athletics are uniquely positioned to convey. There is a preponderance of evidence that current generations are losing the ability to listen and communicate. Whether this is due to the increased reliance on one-way forms of communication like social networking sites and text messaging, or due to the obsession with acquiring grades, money, etc. — or more likely all of the above and more — is unclear.
Nevertheless, this lack of ability to have difficult discussions, which require listening, is harming the development of our young adults and our communities, and requiring a great deal of outside intervention. Both the arts and athletics teach participants to listen and engage in difficult discussions, and are some of the last spaces in which people are forced to communicate and collaborate with each other.
Take distance running as one example. Although it is frequently experienced as a solitary sport, it teaches the individual the vital skill of listening within. Distance running develops the ability to be completely present in the moment. As a distance runner, the runner is constantly monitoring how she feels: “What is my breathing like? Should it sound like that for the kind of running I’m doing? Am I feeling any pain? Are those pains simply discomforts or are they things I should worry about? If discomfort, how do I handle being present for it while also training my mind not to obsess on something that should not hold me back?”
Running trains us to be alive at each moment. For me, the runs in which I am thinking about being done and fixated on finishing are my worst runs. My best runs are those in which I know that I’ll get to the finish, but lets those thoughts go, instead focusing on living each moment as it develops. In this state, I notice the ways in which my actions affect the world around me. I listen to the birds, watch for deer, make eye contact with drivers, etc. I am fully present within and without. When running with others, I’m also aware of the impact my decisions have on others — constantly monitoring race strategy whether with teammates or against opponents.
Theatre also demands that those involved be fully present in each moment as it happens. Actors must be finely in tune with their bodies, their voices, and their characters’ lives and minds. But they cannot simply live in a predetermined world — they must react in the moment to the actions of the other characters/actors with whom they share the stage. And to do this they must listen. They must also be present with their audience, communicating with them, feeding off of the energy in the space and the dynamics of the room.
Furthermore, theatre teaches us how to think beyond our own personal experiences of the world, demanding that we open ourselves up to seeing through others’ eyes. We are required to consider the culture in which an author wrote, the culture and life experience of the characters in the world created by the playwright, as well as the ways in which our own contemporary culture responds to those expectations.
The only way to produce a piece of theatre is to approach it from a mindset of openness and acceptance. Our society would benefit tremendously if we did more of this. As American society becomes more fragmented and reactionary, what would happen if more of us were trained in the art of acting, learning to understand the motivations and circumstances that prompt particular worldviews and how the ways in which others treat us affects how we see both ourselves and them?
These are not luxury skills. They are the essential skills upon which we live and die as a society — skills for obtaining the intimate personal knowledge used to collaborate with others of diverse backgrounds and capabilities, with the understanding that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
Do you reverse direction so you don’t put too much strain on one side?
I would like to and I try to, though recently there’s always been other people on the track with me.
That doesn’t stop me. They just think you’re rude or ignorant. I just explain to them why I’m doing it if they look annoyed.
Maybe I can try that.
You seemed to jump into the marathon pretty quickly, about a year after you started running. You ran a 3:45, which isn’t great but it’s not terrible. Did you run that off of proper marathon training?
Not off of what I would consider proper marathon training now. My sister got me into running. She’d been doing it her entire life and I’d always liked it in theory. We would meet up on occasion and she would run with me, which was pretty cool. She could give me some pointers. But when I was working at summer camp one year, I had a friend who did marathons, and still does. I remember at the time thinking it was crazy and the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. We’d be sleep-exhausted and it would be her one day off — and rather than sleeping in she’d be up at the crack of dawn and going for a 20 mile run. I really did not understand that.
So when all of a sudden I was liking running, I remember writing to her and saying — and most of this is because I was clueless — I had run 10 miles on the track, so what was the point of training for, say, a 10K? I didn’t know you could do that! I only measured distance, clearly. I wasn’t measuring time. So I wrote to her and asked, “Do you think I could run a marathon?” And she said yes, she thought I could, and sent me a Hal Higdon training program.
It’s only 16 more miles…
Yeah, exactly! So I followed his Intermediate Plan, which had a maximum of 45-50 miles per week, for my first one. I went into [that race] having three goals: the top goal was to finish; the second goal was to finish in under 4 hours; and my third goal, which I didn’t meet, was to make the Boston qualifying time.
People rarely get it on their first shot.
But you seemed to do really well [racing] at the 10 mile distance. You’ve got some particularly good 10 mile races in there, and some good half marathon times in there too. Why the focus on the marathon?
It’s a variety of things. There was an amazing 10 miler, the Park Forest Scenic 10 Miler (which is now a 5 mile race due to street closure issues). Bud James, the race director, brought in great runners and made the whole experience really incredible. Some of my best times [58:14 in 2005] there were simply because the timing was good, the competition was phenomenal and I loved it.
My half PR [1:18:38 in 2004 at Grandma's [in the USA Marathon Championships] I kept thinking I would break someday. That came right on the heels of the Trials in 2004. I remember going there and thinking I’d probably run the first 10K faster than my 10K PR. And I didn’t. I was crawling. I don’t know what was going on in my head. I had gone out way in the back of the pack, and I was still there and I remember passing the 10K mark thinking, “This is ridiculous. You didn’t come all the way here for a Sunday jog. If you wanted that, you should have stayed home.” For whatever reason I set a 10K PR in the second half and a 5K PR in the last 5K of the race.
So I feel like some of my PRs are from “charmed race” scenarios as much as [being] better distances for me. But I love 10 miles and 13.1 miles. They’re great. They’re the right kind of intensity for me. I hate 5Ks — I don’t like that kind of physical discomfort. I’m probably motivated by the Trials as much as what might all go back to that original hangup: I’ve run 10K, so why would I train for that?
I also don’t like spending a lot of money on a shorter race. It’s ridiculous, right? For some reason, to get my money’s worth it has to be a major goal. I want to feel that accomplishment for awhile.
I’ve never heard anyone talk about their choice of a distance in economical terms!
It’s crazy! But there is something to that for me. And with the marathon, everything can go wrong. There’s something alluring about a race in which you control your training so much — you have to really put a ton of training in. And then you have one day and one shot — and a lot of the time the weather sucks, or you don’t feel good, or who knows what happens. But those are the cards; you’ve got to deal with them. There’s something very appealing to me about that.
Do you have a favorite course type? Do you race well on hills vs. flats?
I would say that I don’t love an extraordinarily hilly course. That’s changing right now. I used to like hills quite a bit, but that’s the one thing that my knee does not like right now. We’re still not friends on hills. I used to climb hills very well and now I get dropped on the hills all the time. So I’m guessing that my choice of races is in the process of changing. But I tend to like a little variety over the terrain. Running 26 miles flat gets pretty hard on the body. You’re using the exact same muscles the exact same way the whole time.
You’re currently up in the 85-100 miles per week range?
The knee’s not giving you a problem in terms of hitting that mileage. Are you feeling any twinges while you run?
Not usually, although yesterday in that 10K race I had a couple of really weird, obnoxious pains. This morning I did an 18 miler and the start was pretty rocky with my knee. But mostly it’s been okay.
Injuries are a subject that’s very close to my heart right now. What was the longest that you were sidelined because of an injury?
It probably was the knee. Although I also did have a stress fracture [earlier]. So it was one or the other of those. But I was more or less completely off running for a couple of months, and then slowly building back up.
You did some pool running. What else did you do to try to keep in shape?
When I had the stress fracture I did a lot of pool running. Then as I transitioned back I did a lot of workouts where I would go hard on the elliptical and then get in the pool and run, that kind of thing. That was the reason I started working with the first coach: I knew I wanted to try and break 3 hours. And I had this weird goal — which most people laughed at — which was to qualify for the Trials, when I’d run a 3:13. [My coach] put me on an extremely conservative buildup, which was probably incredibly smart. Now I don’t think I would have needed that slow buildup. But then I’d only been running for three years, so I didn’t have a lot of miles in my legs. It was a lot of cross training and then slowly adding in a mile here and there of running.
This time, after the knee surgery, while I was doing physical therapy I was mostly doing elliptical and stationary biking. I didn’t ever pool run. If I was wealthy and had my own pool, I would do it all the time. I’d probably use it for supplemental training, because you can work your ass off and not get injured. But trying to fit around pool hours is a royal pain in the neck. It just made me so full of rage by the end of when I was doing it at Indiana University that, this time I was thinking, “I’m not even going to do it.”
I haven’t even started, and I’m already full of rage. So I can imagine what I’m going to be like in a couple of weeks.
Are you having a hard time with pool hours?
Aside from the fact that my local Y system’s pools are closed for cleaning until after Labor Day, it’s the concept of having to pool run that fills me with rage, which is something I have to get over. I’m still in denial about the fact that I have a problem. Which I’m reminded of every time I get up out of a chair and try to walk. So I experience rage about 20 times a day now.
The problem for me was that I used the University’s facilities because they were free to me as a grad student — but their normal swim hours were constantly being compromised and taken over by swim clubs. So I’d get all changed and ready to do a workout, and get maybe 30 minutes in, and then I’d get told that I had to get out of the pool.
Pool running can be fun, in its own mindless way. My sister and I had this idea that you should have swimming pools that can show movies while you’re in there.
That’s a great idea.
Yeah, then you could watch movies while you pool run. But, alas, I haven’t found one yet.
Maybe it’s a business idea. For a very small audience: people whose faces aren’t underwater when they’re swimming.
To totally switch topics, I wanted to get your thoughts on the actual qualifying time. The USATF has been slowly lowering it, taking a minute off in the last few Olympic cycles [from 2:48 in 2004 to 2:46 in 2012]. Do you have opinions about how that might affect the field?
At a selfish level, it would be great if it was still 2:48. On a non-selfish level, I was surprised this time. I thought it would be below 2:45 after the last Trials. American women are still looking for some major breakthroughs at the front of the field to match Deena Kastor. I think those are coming and are right around the corner, actually, with some of the newer talent that we have getting into the marathon.
When I look at the next tier of women, there are an awful lot who are running from 2:35-2:45. That’s really ballooned, which is exciting. So I thought they’d lower the standard further than they did, but I was more than happy when they did not. If they’d said it was 2:45, I probably would have said, “Eh, I’m probably not going to get it, so I’m going to quit thinking about trip number three.” I don’t think the field has to be tiny. But on the other hand, when you get so many people in that range, there’s something to be said for having the standard to be pushing for that helps bring out the best in runners.
I think it’s great that they’ve continued, unlike the men’s, to have the two standards [A = 2:39, in which all expenses are paid; and B = 2:46, in which a runner must pay her own way to the Trials]. In terms of development effects, I think that’s probably really smart. Women’s running [has lagged] simply because we haven’t been allowed to do it for very long. It is further back than men’s running in terms of development. So I think it’s important to continue to develop the talent before trying to just focus on the front of the field. I don’t know if that answers your question.
No, it does. I managed to get some age-related statistics on previous Trials race fields, and the average age of women qualifiers has gone down, not significantly, but noticeably. My theory is that, for one, a lot of women are pursuing the marathon at a younger age than they were 10 or 15 years ago. I also think the addition of the option of using a shorter qualifying distances [a half marathon or a track 10K] is pulling in some younger runners. Although the times for those distances are totally out of whack, relatively speaking, with the marathon times.
Absolutely. I would have no chance at qualifying on any standard other than the marathon.
Yeah, it’s ridiculous. The half marathon standard is 1:15, which is a lot “faster” than a 2:46 full.
Yes. I think it would be great if we had something that was between, say, qualifying for Boston and qualifying for the Trials, that could be a really big goal for people. Men and women. Because it is a shame that for most masters runners, as the standard gets tighter and tighter, that’s going to get harder and harder to make.
On the other hand, when I think about it, what’s the point of the Olympic Trials? The point is to determine the team that goes to the Olympics. I’ve never been in danger of running the standard to even go to the Olympics. Even if I’d won [the Trials] I wouldn’t have had the Olympic standard. I recognize that in the grand scheme of things, my being there is a little bit of stretch. That’s not true of everyone who qualified with a 2:45 — some of them could get the Olympic standard. I thought I would be, but I didn’t happen to be one of them. So I can recognize the need to tighten the field and focus on the point of that race. It’s frustrating sometimes that your options for goals are Boston or the Trials. For me, I don’t see the Boston standard as being challenging for many, many years.
And they’re making it looser [for masters] as time goes on.
Exactly. That’s a great goal, and I by no means mean to imply that it’s not a huge achievement. My qualification for my first Boston was one of the proudest moments of my life. But it would be great if there was something in-between.
“My advice would be to enjoy the process and what you’re learning about yourself, and the challenges. Who knows if you’ll make it there or not. But at least if you’re enjoying the process, that’s pretty wonderful.”
Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of women who are running right in the 2:50 range, who just can’t quite make it. But on the other end of the speed spectrum, I guess it’s good that [the standard] is where it is, meaning fairly liberal, because a race with 16 people wouldn’t be that exciting.
No, and I think that’s the tough balancing act that the USATF has to do. How do you get to a race size that’s manageable without it being a tiny, tiny little race? There’s a lot of evidence that some women make huge breakthroughs — men as well — from the time they qualify to the time they run the Trials.
Yes, I was going to mention that. I’ve seen some women get incredible PRs — 8 or 9 minutes — in their Trials race. I think it’s a real motivator.
I’d hate to lose that chance of [an outlier] making the team. But at the same time, I think it’s a pretty big stretch to guess that someone who qualifies with a 2:50 is going to make it. I think you have to run around a 2:38 to be able to run in the Olympics. I don’t know if it’s been determined yet [for 2012]. So I’m skeptical that that kind of leap [for someone running 2:50] is going to happen very often. But certainly, I’ve seen huge leaps from 2:42-2:45 on down.
Having qualified twice already, do you have advice for any women who are attempting this, especially for the first time?
My advice would be to enjoy the process and what you’re learning about yourself, and the challenges. And also that feeling of accomplishment [that comes from] making the huge gains that come from just doing training is likely to have. You don’t know how long that opportunity to do that training will last. I mentioned my sister earlier. She’s since been diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome and can’t run very much at all anymore. That was a huge part of her life for much of her life. She was a very good runner, having run a sub-3:10 marathon and I think absolutely could have gotten under 3 hours. Now she’s sidelined for life.
So you don’t know how long you have. I’m not just saying, “You need to try it now.” You need to enjoy it while you’re doing it. Who knows if you’ll make it there or not. But at least if you’re enjoying the process, that’s pretty wonderful.
The other thing I would say is to not pay too much attention to races as predictors. I do use those to help me assess where I am. But I think there’s a danger in putting too much value into one number or result. I had a lot of people tell me early on that if I couldn’t run a sub-17:00 5K (my PR is 17:40, which I haven’t hit in a long time)…maybe they even told me I had to be running around a 5:00 mile, which I doubt I ever ran…then there was no chance that I would ever make the Trials. So it’s important to remember that one person’s set of standards is not necessarily your own. I happen to have a much better ability to run well over long distance than I do over short.
But to me, the enjoyment is putting the time in — and learning about yourself. You learn a lot about yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s about enjoying that learning.
Marathon PR: 2:45:41 (2008 Trials)
Age on Trials date: 41
Previous OTQs: Two
Next attempt: Grandma’s Marathon (2011)
Miles per week: 85-100
Job: Theatre Professor
Hours per week: Peaking at 65-80
Hometown: Auburn, AL
Personal: Married for 12 years; no kids; three cats (Mojo, Spooky and Mabel)
Favorite play: The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks
Food: Yes. Lacto-ovo since 1988; maker of baked goods; loves post-race pizza; serious issues with gelato addiction
Other passions: Currently finishing work on a biography of Francis Leon, a 19th century American female impersonator who performed on minstrel stages; intense desire to learn to play the cello