Julie Wankowski is training partner to fellow hopeful Tammy Lifka. I had this interview on hold for awhile as Julie worked through a period of recovery from a hamstring injury that had put a crimp on her training over the summer. Now she’s back, racing well and hitting triple digit mileage in her buildup to the California International Marathon (CIM) in December.
The audio of this interview will get you through at least a 1 hour run, including putting on and taking off your shoes. (Duration: 1:10:05; Download MP3)
So let’s start with the race [The Chicago Half]. Tell me how it went.
Anytime you win your age group in a major race, you have to happy, right? It was just under 1:28. I was hoping for a little faster time. But, realistically, I honestly didn’t know what to expect because this was my first big race post-injury. I did a 5K the previous weekend. That went okay, but I was having some minor discomfort in my hamstring. I was really trying to stretch and do my physical therapy. So I got on the line Sunday morning and kind of went for it. I was really happy with how it went.
Did the hamstring feel good during the race?
My hamstring felt perfect. I did go out a little too fast, so my splits were a little all over the place, but not too bad. My 10 mile split was 1:06 and then the final time was high 1:27s. That tells you that my last 5K was off. But considering that this was a 10 mile PR for me too, that’s a great thing. So I’ll take it.
Apart from the age group award, which is great, did you have a goal time for the race?
Actually, I didn’t. I just wanted to do this race to get a race under my belt and have something good happen. Just kind of get back in the game. Because I was racing so well in the spring, and then I had the injury. I had to cancel all of my racing plans for the summer. So, while I knew I wasn’t ready to race well, I wanted to get back on the line. I wanted to get that hunger back. I’m running another half [about a month from now], so this was to get a baseline, see where I’m at, and go from there.
Sounds like it was a good test run. Not only to see where you were injurywise, but also as a good confidence builder.
Oh, exactly. I left it all out there, that’s for sure.
That’s what you’re supposed to do!
Yes, that’s right!
“I’ve always been very driven, kind of an overachiever. That kind of goes well with the racing.”
I liked how in the background materials you sent, you referred to yourself as a “racer.” A lot of runners make a distinction between being a runner vs. being a racer. How do you define that difference?
For me it’s two things. One, I have to have a goal. I’m extremely goal oriented. Sales is a good example. I had a sales career for many years. Every year, you have to have x number of dollars in sales. So having a goal to work toward has always motivated me. If I’ve got a marathon, or even an 8K that I’m training for, that helps focus me. And, two, I’m very competitive. I’ll compete in just about anything. I love the competition. When I get on the line, I just want to do the best I can. It’s hard to say why I’m that way. I think it’s in my blood.
Did you always know this about yourself?
Growing up, playing games and stuff, I always wanted to win. I think my family would concur with that, as would my husband. I’ve always been very driven, kind of an overachiever. That kind of goes well with the racing.
That seems to be a common theme that’s emerging in these interviews, which really shouldn’t surprise me.
No, not at all.
I wanted to talk about your background a bit. In high school, you were primarily a sprinter more than a distance runner. Although obviously you emerged as one later on, and you refer to yourself as a slow twitcher runner, and have done lots of marathons and triathlons. So it seems like you’re built for distance.
I ran Boston this year with my sister – I think that was my 25th or 26th marathon. But I kind of lost count after 20.
So not only are you built for distance, but you’re obviously very durable too.
Well, my body’s been a little beat up from time to time. You know, it’s really weird, because in high school I just thought, “I’m a sprinter.” I ran cross country, but I was never really good at it. I did it mostly to stay in shape for track. But once I started running marathons I kept gravitating toward that distance. And it didn’t really dawn on me until I started working with Dan Marks, my current coach. He said, “Oh, you’re slow twitch” right away, based on my 5K time being super weak.When first started working with him, I’d just run a 3:13 marathon. But my 5K PR was just under 21 minutes. If you look at that on paper, it makes no sense.
Yeah, that is out of whack. Although not for marathoners. In other words, it was very astute of him to note that.
He figured it out right away based on how I ran my track workouts and the fact that my stride is more of a shuffle. I’ve got endurance like you can’t believe. But my speed is where I really have to work. But the funny thing is, in high school I ran 62 in the 400, and I was on some 4×100, 4×200 relay teams that did pretty well. I was running a lot of 400s in high school and that was fun. I didn’t have to run as many miles as the “distance people” who were doing the 2 mile. So I stuck with that.
Did you enjoy the shorter races? I hear a lot of longer distance runners say (and I include myself in this) that they really hate 5Ks or anything shorter than that, because it’s too hard to run that fast.
One of the things Dan really wanted me to work on [in pursuit of a Trials qualifer] was my speed. So this winter I ran a couple of indoor mile races on the track – 8 laps to the mile – college races that were open races. And I had so much fun and did a lot better than I thought I would. Then at that point my 5K times were coming down and I was feeling better. But right now, I just ran that 5K race last weekend, and I’m not in that kind of shape. It’s a different kind of fitness, I think.
Yes, you really have to train for it.
You do. And I think if you’re not inherently good at it, you have to do a lot of 100s and 200s, a lot of really anaerobic work. Right now I’m afraid to do that because of the hamstring.
There really no reason to either.
Not when you’re doing marathon training. It very different than what I was working on in the spring before I got injured. That being said, I had fun doing the track races. It was just a whole different world for me. It kind of keeps things fresh.
I did the same thing this spring. I had been so focused on marathons and then had a bad year last year that I decided to take a season and do different things. The track racing was really a blast. I’m terrible at it, but it’s fun. It’s a new kind of pain, though.
Ooh, it is. That 7th and 8th lap, when you’re running indoors, is like, “What?! What just happened here?” But then you finish and you can’t feel your legs. But if one day I decided that I don’t want to run marathons anymore, maybe I’ll focus on that for awhile. It wasn’t too bad. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, actually.
“I was doing the century bike rides and charity rides on weekends. And a lot of people said, ‘You’re a really good cyclist. You should race.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s races?’”
I know you have a history of trying a lot of different things. For awhile you did some competitive cycling and triathlons. What made you move from running to cycling?
I’m a farm girl, so I grew up with my closest girlfriend living about two miles from me. So I always had a bike and rode it everywhere. When I got to college it never dawned on me to keep running on my own. In high school I was always running with my team. After I college I moved to the Twin Cities for a couple years and bought a bike and I started riding, and I loved it. That’s how I stayed fit. It never occured to me to run. So eventually I moved back to Wisconsin and got a job where my coworkers rode a lot. I would ride with a couple of my friends there every day after work.
I wasn’t racing right away. I was doing the century bike rides and charity rides on weekends. And a lot of people said, “You’re a really good cyclist. You should race.” And I’m like, “Oh, there’s races?”
“I can compete against people? Hmm…”
Right! I was in my mid-twenties and that seemed attractive to me. So that’s how I got into it. I wasn’t really doing stuff on my own, but [in this case] was influenced by the people around me. That was what got me into competitive cycling.
A lot of people ran in high school, then stopped for a number of years and then, sometimes on a lark, got back into it. That sounds like what happened to you in 1996 when you got back into it with an 8K.
I was doing a lot of cycling that year and a couple of guys who I worked with were trying to qualify for Boston. There was an 8K run in Milwaukee in the fall. We had a team where the company sponsored us, meaning they’d pay for our entry, and we got shirts. They were looking for a woman for the team because they only had one and they needed two. And they said, “If you can bike 100 miles then you can run 5.” And I hadn’t run since high school. But that logic made sense to me, so I said I’d do it.
It’s a Saturday morning race. So Friday night after work I hop on the treadmill. “Let’s see if I can run…” I ran a couple miles on the treadmill at around 10:00 pace and thought, “Okay, I can run. This is no problem.” I get down to the race and there’s this other girl on the team. In my mind, she was a real runner. And I thought, “Okay, if I can just stay with her, it won’t be so awful.” And I actually ended up beating her. She was a recreational runner and I guess I was fitter than I thougth I was. But I was so sore afterwards. Because I hadn’t used those muscles, obviously. After that I thought, “I can’t run enough miles to be as fit as I am cycling,” so it wasn’t a case where I was immediately hooked on it. But I thought, “Hmm. I could actually beat people running. I’m not too bad at this. Now what am I going to do?”
After your post-run suffering, did it take you awhile to get back into running?
Actually, it did. That was in the fall of 1996. And then these same two guys who were trying to qualify for Boston were going to run a half marathon the following spring. That had a 10K with it. They said, “You should come with us. You should run the 10K and we’ll run the half.” So that’s how it progressed. I ran around 50 minutes for the 10K, around 8:00 pace. At the time I had no concept of pacing. I really didn’t train much for it. And then these guys did end up qualifying for Boston – and of course that intrigued me. So there was kind of this progression: “Okay, there are marathons. It seems far, but maybe it’s something I could do.”
“When we started to feel crappy after about 20 miles, we walked through the water stops. People would say, ‘You only have six miles left!’ and we’d want to kill them. When we both crossed the finish line my response was, ‘Well, I’m never doing this again.’”
You ended up doing your first marathon about two years after that 10K, right?
It was less than two years, now that I think about it. I was working full time and was also in grad school, so I had a lot going on my life and didn’t really think a whole lot about it. But then for some reason, one night, driving home from school, I got to thinking about running a marathon. So when I got home I called my sister and I said, “Hey, we should run the Madison marathon.” This was seven months before the race. “I think we could be ready.” She was in college at the time, in Madison, and she was like, “Yeah, why not?”
Ignorance can be a good thing in these cases.
That was the case with us. We were just, “Okay, let’s run a marathon!”
I bought the Jeff Galloway marathon book and looked at what I thought was the beginner program. I just tried to do the long runs. During the week it was really hard for me to stick to any kind of schedule because of school and work. What I had heard was that it was really important to get your long runs in. I started out by doing my long runs on the treadmill in the winter, because this was a spring marathon. I did a couple of my long runs toward the end [of training] outside. I was near rustic trails that were pretty challenging running, now that I look back on it. At the time I wasn’t really running on the roads. We were out in the country and the shoulders weren’t real wide and I didn’t feel safe. So I was doing my 20 milers either on a treadmill or on these trails.
You should have been a trail runner.
I did enjoy that, but after awhile I realized I liked running faster than that. A couple of times my sister came and ran with me and we ran 11:00 or 12:00 pace. We walked a lot. So, at the time, our goal was just to finish, to see what we could do, with no idea of what pace we were going to run.
How did it go?
We woke up the morning of the race and it was pouring rain. Thunder and lightning. But they still had the race. I was wearing a cotton t-shirt and I had never heard of BodyGlide. We just went out there and one of us decided that 10:00 pace sounded like a good idea. My sister had a watch that she could set to beep every 10 minutes. If we hit a mile mark before the watch beeped, she’d say, “Slow down! You’re running too fast!” Then I had a bathroom issue and that was the first and only time that I ever had to go to the bathroom during a race. I had no idea how to eat, no idea about warming up. I just went out there and ran. So of course I had some gastrointestinal issues. I learned so much from that race. First of all, I wasn’t mentally prepared. I think we ended up running a 4:20, which is about 10:00 pace.
That’s really not bad for a first effort, all things considered.
Well, looking back, I still can’t believe that I was the same person that I am now. We had no idea. When we started to feel crappy after about 20 miles, we walked through the water stops. People would say, “You only have six miles left!” and we’d want to kill them. When we both crossed the finish line my response was, “Well, I’m never doing this again.” And she kind of felt the same way. But a couple of weeks later I thought, “I’m going to do this again some day.” But I had a lot of learning to do before I tried another one, so it took me a couple of years to try again. It took her longer than it took me, but that’s a story for another time.
You seem to be a quick study, since you managed to qualify for Boston not long after that.
It was my second marathon, actually. After that first one, I took some time, I had some stuff going on in my personal life. I moved a couple times. And then I met my current husband, and we were dating. It was in June and I said to him, “I’m going to qualify for Boston in October.” I would do my long runs with him biking alongside of me. I stuck with doing two or three 20 milers and runs every day. No speedwork. But in that second marathon I found a pacer and said to the guy at the start, “I’m going to qualify for Boston and you’re going to help me get there.” It was a weird situation because he didn’t know the Boston qualifying standards and thought I needed to run faster than a 3:40. I said, “I’m pretty sure I need to run a 3:40. I was 30 at the time. And I did it.”
You came in well under.
Yeah. So of course my next step was that I had to go to Boston, which didn’t work out so well. I went there without really training and I ran a 3:50.
Well, it’s a tough course. Even if you’ve trained.
It is. But I think my longest run before Boston was 14 miles. So that wasn’t wise.
Wow. You are brave.
Yeah. I cried. I said, “I’m not doing this again.” I decided I was going to go back the following year and run faster. And the following year I ran a 3:30. So then I was happy.
I wanted to ask you about that. Looking at your Athlinks history, you have a whole string of marathons where you’re kind of in the same range 3:20 range, give or take 5 minutes. It looks like you hit a plateau.
At the time, I was going through a lot of changes in my personal life and career stuff. But aside from that, I was more infatuated with the idea of running marathons than actually training for them. I wanted to be able to say, “I’m a marathon runner.” But when it came down to actually training, it never came together for me. I didn’t have anyone to run with on long runs. I ran with my husband, who was running half marathons, in those days. We’d do local races together, like 5Ks.
But for most of my runs, I was alone. It was pretty daunting to me to get up and do a 20 miler by myself. So I wasn’t really faithful to my training. I would go out there without a plan. I did it for the achievement and to be able to say, “I ran so many marathons.” At one point I was looking up the 50 states thing, thinking that running a marathon in all 50 states would be a good idea. But after that I started to get injured.
Let’s talk about that. I know you moved to triathlons around 2003, you said partly because of issues with running injuries.
I didn’t do my first until 2004. But I started swimming in 2003. We’d just moved to Pleasant Prairie, Wisconson, where there’s a thriving triathlon community. They host several big races, like the Danskin Women’s Chicagoland race and their own Pleasant Prairie triathlon. I saw a of that. They had everything set up in my gym there and I started to think, “I wonder if I could do this.” But I really couldn’t swim at the time. But I was starting to have some problems. I had a stress fracture that started in 2002. It was off and on, but I ended up having surgery.
In 2003 I got it in my head that I wasn’t going to be able to run for much longer and that I was going to do triathlons. The cycling wasn’t an issue for me. I did that a lot – hop on my bike and ride 40 miles whenever I felt like it. But for some reason this sounded kind of fun and that’s when I started to have this whole battle between marathons and triathlons.
Were you particularly strong in one of the triathlon disciplines?
My bike splits were always the strongest. I think my run splits would have been stronger if I hadn’t hammered the bike so hard. I never had a good strategy either. I would be midpack in the swim. Then I’d come out of the water and note how many bikes were on the rack. “Okay, about half of the bikes are gone, so I’ve got to really chase these girls.” So I’d get out and hammer the bike. Sometimes that paid off and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t I would die in the run. When it did I would have a decent run and then I would end up winning some of the local triathlons, which was awesome. I had some training and I was working with a coach, but I never pulled it all together. I never did it the right way. If I had, I think I would have been a lot more successful. And I was still moderately successful, but it was more, “This is kind of a cool thing to do.” Again, I liked the idea of it. I met some cool people.
Do you want to do triathlons again in the future?
A lot of my friends would say, “Oh, she’s going to do ironman some day.” It is on my bucket list. But I’m at a point right now where I’m not going to do it unless I can really do well. Now I’ve had the realization that if I’m going to put my time and effort into something, it’s going to be at a very high level. So, yeah, I’d like to do ironman, but only when it’s at a time in my life where I have the time to devote to doing it well. Not just go there to finish, but to race it.
That obviously has to come after this venture.
Well, I’ve recently said to some of my friends that once I stop getting faster at marathons, then I’ll think about [triathlons]. But even if my times aren’t getting faster at the marathon, if I’m still doing well and having fun and enjoying it, then I’m going to keep running marathons. That’s my niche. That’s where I feel I’m most competitive. And I think my results have proven that. So I don’t see anything other than [marathons] in the next five years, anyway.
You’re still in early days yet. There’s that theory about everyone has about a 10 year window in which to improve at the marathon, regardless of what age you are when you start.
Right. Once you get serious. I’m not starting my window until, like, late 2007. Before that, I considered myself a serious runner, but it’s like night and day between that [earlier] time period and once I got serious about it. I’ve been taking a whole different approach.
“You can’t do both [triathlons and marathons] at a high level, and have a career, and have a life – it’s just not possible.”
Part of “getting serious” seems to have been deciding that you couldn’t do both marathons and triathlons successfully at the same time.
That is huge. In 2006, I had a decent marathon year. I had a couple marathons right around 3:20. Also, I did my first half ironman, which didn’t go that great, and several triathlons. It seemed like I was just gone all the time. My husband was very kind about it: “You know, Julie, you have to pick. You can’t do everything well. You have to pick one or the other.” At first I was very resistant to that. I didn’t know which to do. And then, at the end of the tri season I just thought, “I can’t give up marathons.” But then my triathlon coach at the time, Willie LaBonne, sent me this sponsorship opportunity for triathlon, and it seemed like a pretty good deal. I filled it out to see if could get it, and I did, so I was sponsored for the 2007 triathlon season by Her Sports magazine. There was all this free stuff, and I was going to be in the magazine – it was just kind of seductive.
Kind of hard to turn down…
Yeah, I couldn’t turn it down. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to do triathlons in 2007.” But the kicker was that I’d planned on doing Flying Pig in 2006, but I got sick. So I already had the entry rolled over, so I thought I’d do Flying Pig and then triathlons. Flying Pig is May. My first triathlon was in June. So, guess what? I did Flying Pig, and I had a huge PR. “Oh, my gosh. I can’t give up marathons…” but then I went into my tri season. I had an okay season, but none of my times improved and we’d just moved to Chicago, and I did not enjoy riding around here. It’s dangerous. I’m not a trainer kind of girl; I want to be outside riding my bike. So after 2007 my decision was made. I was going to stick with running and that was going to be it. But it took a year of much patience on my husband’s part, knowing that I wasn’t being very smart with my choices. But he let me go through the process of finding things out on my own and that was that. You can’t do both at a high level, and have a career, and have a life – it’s just not possible.
Especially when you’ve got things competing for your attention. It’s hard to turn down a sponsorship.
Exactly. And I don’t regret it. It’s all part of what I went through to get to where I’m at today. But in a way I wish I’d started getting serious about marathons a lot sooner than I had. But you can’t go back, so you have to go forward.
Well, it hasn’t been that long. And it looks like once you made that decision, you started to make some dramatic progress.
You got marathon PRs starting in January of 2008 and about 18 months later broke 3 hours in Chicago.
Yeah. My first marathon after following the program I’m following now was the Disney Marathon in 2008. I had run Chicago in 2007, when it was really hot. After doing triathlons all summer I did that race for fun. Disney was my goal race. I wanted to break 3:10. I did that. After that, in my next marathon, I wanted to break 3 hours. The whole year in 2008 I worked toward breaking 3 hours at Chicago in ’08. That day came and it was 85 degrees. I didn’t quite make [sub 3:00], but I stilled PRed.
So last year the plan was that I was going to do one marathon, and it was going to be Chicago, and I was going to break 3 hours. But then I got injured. It was the same injury that I had this year. But I got it earlier in the year. So around March of last year I took a good month off from running. So, again, I struggled quite a bit last year, even before my sub-3, thinking, “Well, maybe this year is shot too.” And then, for some reason, on that day in October last year, it just came together for me. So that gave me hope, that maybe it wasn’t over for me and I could still keep improving. What it told me is that I have a lot left in me.
It sounds like, in some ways, you just needed the right opportunity. The right race and the right timing.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle change. Trying to get to bed at a decent time…There are lots of choices you have to make that maybe you wouldn’t have made a few years ago. You want to go to that party or have the extra glass of wine. But you have to say, ‘I’ve got a hard workout tomorrow. I’m not going to do that.’”
When did you start thinking about a Trials qualifier? Was it something you had in the back of your mind to go after once you broke 3 hours? Or was it a new realm of possibility that presented itself only after you passed that threshhold?
Actually, it never occured to me until I broke 3:00. One of my training partners, Suzanne Ryan, had been trying for a qualifier in 2008. So I ran with her from time to time, and I would look at her as this super stud runner. She was so much faster than me. And so it just never crossed my mind. But then my old coach, Willie LaBonne, who I mentioned before – I ran into after she’d gone to Boston in 2008, where she’d watched the Trials, because she was running Boston. She came up to me and said, “You know, Julie, I watched that race and I thought you should be there. You should be in the Trials.” And I just said, “What are you talking about?” She was the first person who told me around six years ago that I could break 3 hours; that was when my PR was 3:20. She said, “No, you can do it.” So that kind of stuck in the back of my mind, but I was so focused at the time on breaking 3 hours.
Then after I broke 3 hours, I had a lot of people saying, “Are you going to go for the Trials next?” I just thought this was kind of a wacky idea. I bounced the idea off my coach and he said, “Absolutely you should try for it. There’s no reason why you can’t do it.” So it was probably last November that I started to think, “I can really do this. What do I need to do to make it happen?”
I know that one of your training partners, Tammy Lifka, had the same idea around the same time, when she managed to break 3 hours in California.
Yeah, she and I came to the same conclusion, but not after talking to each other. It was kind of weird, because we did it separately and then when we both started talking about it, we said, “Oh, we could train together. That would be so cool.”
Questions for Julie’s coach, Dan Marks
Training for the marathon involves walking a fine line between improvement and injury/overtraining. How are you balancing Julie’s workload vs. recovery to facilitate better performances while avoiding problems?
One of the major lessons they got from me was when the workout calls for recovery/easy, I mean easy. More often than not, runners tend to run their easy days too hard. And when you are upping either the intensity and/or miles, it is a recipe for injury. So both know that recovery pace is 8:00 per mile or slower. This is especially true since we are taking both of the women into higher mileage than they have ever run.
How have you structured Julie’s training to prepare her for hitting a qualifying time?
There are two parts to this question and the answer applies to both Julie and Tammy.
First, both are naturally good endurance runners. In our running group they might be referred to as “slow twitch” runners. Both are excellent consumers of fat as a fuel source, which is why they had good initial success in longer races. Both of them are severely lacking in the speed department and to be a top marathon runner you really need to have access to your anaerobic engine. So one of the main goals for the women is to improve their 5K times into the 18:00 flat range before we embark on marathon mode. That will be indicator number one.
Second, we use a heart rate monitor to gauge their paces as it applies to their fitness. We know from experience that both of them can race the marathon right at 89-90% of their max heart rate. Our goal will be to get their 90% heart rate in line with the pace it takes to qualify. Most of the work we will do once we are in the climb up to the big day will be based on a percentage of heart race versus pace. We’ll know when they stand on the line if they are ready or not.
What would you say is Julie’s greatest strength as a competitive runner?
Obviously both Julie and Tammy have exceptional inner drive to succeed. I truly believe you can be an average runner talent-wise (they are both better than average) but you have to have the inner drive and the discipline to go with it in order to get to the next level. Mix exceptional talent, inner drive and discipline and you have a world beater.
Is there anyone else in your group who’s training for this?
Yeah, actually – Suzanne Ryan, who I mentioned before. She’s run 2:50, so she’s a lot closer. But she’s had a few injuries since her last marathon; it’s been, I think, about three years since her last marathon. But I think she’s ready to do it now. She’s running really well. She’s the only other person I know well who’s going for it. I know of other people in the Chicago area who are going for it. But I don’t focus on them. I’m focusing on myself and obviously the people I run with. We all really support each other and we want to help each other get there.
It seems that for some people the process of going for a qualifier involves changing the perception of yourself. Taking yourself seriously in a way that you didn’t before. “I’m going from someone who’s sort of serious about marathons to really getting serious about them to the extent that I’m now trying to get into [a race] that’s incredibly difficult to get into.”
That’s for sure. It’s definitely a lifestyle change. Trying to get to bed at a decent time. Not hanging out that bar – not that I was ever a barfly. But you clean things up. I’m going to do everything I can to reach my goal. It’s not always easy. There are lots of choices you have to make that maybe you wouldn’t have made a few years ago. You want to go to that party or have the extra glass of wine. But you have to say, “I’ve got a hard workout tomorrow. I’m not going to do that.” And even stuff like nutrition – I never paid much attention to that before. “I can eat anything I want, because I’ll burn it off.” Well, that’s really not the way it works when you’re trying to compete at a higher level. You have to really watch what you’re putting in your body.
You also become a lot more efficient as you train. I find you burn a lot fewer calories the fitter you get.
Right. And you actually feel better when you eat well. It’s kind of a cycle. Once you get into good habits, your body does adapt. I don’t even want chocolate anymore, and I used to eat it every day. That’s a good thing. It’s definitely an eye-opener, when you start thinking about all these little things that aren’t that little. Things like strength training. I never did any of that. Now I’m doing pushups every day and doing core work. I have to do physical therapy still for my hamstring. I was doing a lot of upper body stuff over the winter and into the spring. All of that is the little extra sharpening that you do that make you a more well-rounded athlete.
What are you doing for your upper body? Free weights? Circuit training?
I was doing some TRX with one of my girlfriends who’s extremely strong and also an ultra runner.
I don’t know what that is. What is TRX?
It’s suspension training. You stick your feet in these straps and do pushups, so you’re kind of hanging. You should Google it sometime.
It’s like balance and strength all in one. So we were doing that a lot over the winter. And now I drop down and do pushups whenever I get a chance. You just kind of fit it in. When you’re running it’s hard to find the time to do all of that. But it is really important, especially as we get older, to keep your muscle mass from shrinking too much.
Are you doing any other kind of cross-training?
Right now, I have no time. I was riding my bike a lot when I had my injury. But, to be honest, I really don’t like the elliptical. I don’t like swimming. So, no, I haven’t been. My physical therapy regimen is 30 minutes a day if I do the whole thing, so there only so many hours in the day to do all that.
I do a lot of stuff in front of the television in the evening. All the stretching and strengthening that you can do in the living room.
That’s really smart. There’s a lot you can do there, if you think about it.
Are you getting regular massages?
I haven’t been, mainly because of the time issue. I’m going to start doing that, especially for the high mileage. That’s another thing I’ve heard is really good when you’re running high mileage.
Yes, it can keep small problems from becoming big problems. I highly recommend it.
My physical therapist was giving me massages from time to time, but I’ve only got a few more sessions with her. I’ve got another one who’s been recommended. We’ll see if I can fit that in. It’s one of the last pieces of the puzzle that I need to put into place.
When did you start working with your current coach, Dan Marks, and his group?
Right after I ran a 3:13 at Flying Pig in 2007, I was starting tri season. I went to a little local 5K and saw Suzanne Ryan at that race and thought, “She looks pretty fast. Let me see who she trains with.” So I went up and started talking to her, and she introduced me to Dan. At that point, I was just looking for someone to do track work with, since I was still doing triathlons. I started going to their track workouts and really didn’t talk to Dan much about what I was doing. But once tri season ended that fall and I was going to start training for the Disney Marathon, I asked Dan if he would write a training program for me. That was the first real marathon that I trained for with him. And, actually, it went really well. I learned a lot about how to train right, and how you should do your long runs with faster segments if you want to train your body to run at marathon speeds; training by heart rate; nutrition. That seemed to be working so I thought I should stick with it.
Is Dan a marathoner himself?
Yes, he is. He’s training for the same marathon that I’m training for, California International, in December.
That’s a unique thing about him, that he’s actually training with you. He’s not just standing there with a stopwatch.
Yeah, he does most of the workouts. Obviously, he’s a little bit faster than we are. But he’s there. I go about three days a week, on harder days. He’ll give me feedback about my workouts. For the most part, I know what I need to work out. It’s a solid relationship right now, where I know where I know where I need help from him and where I don’t. I could so some of [the work] by myself, but having that extra accountability and support ties it all together for me.
Are there other aspects to working with him and with a group that are helping you? For example, the structure of the workouts? Or even just things like camaraderie?
When I’m on vacation and have to run by myself for a week, it gets really hard. I don’t like running with people every day. I like to do my easy runs alone. But when you’ve got a hard workout to do, it’s so much easier knowing you’re going to have 10 of your friends show up to do the same workout. We’ve got a lot of really fast women now in our group. We all have our strengths. It’s been really awesome this year. We’ve got some triathletes in there. We’ve got a girl who’s a really fast track girl. We’ve got our ultra girl who comes out and does our workouts with us, and she can do 50 miles faster than most people in the world. It’s just a great group that we have. And, not that the guys aren’t all great too, but these women all inspire me. Most of them are in their thirties and forties, and we’re all super supportive of each other. It’s a great thing knowing that when I show up at the track, there’s going to be all these people pushing me.
“It just hit me about two years ago – I don’t have a whole lot of time to continue to improve. Just based on pure biology…It’s kind of like a bizarre type of biological clock. And I think it’s different kint of athlete that comes to maturity later.”
Every year I look at the statistics on road racing in these “state of the sport” reports that come out. And, typically, the most competitive age group for women seems to be the 40-44 age group. I have a theory that some women sort of “wake up” in their late thirties, or when they hit 40, and realize that this is important to them. They want to put something into this. Is that your experience?
Absolutely. It just hit me about two years ago – I don’t have a whole lot of time to continue to improve. Just based on pure biology…
…you realize the clock is ticking.
Yeah. It’s kind of like a bizarre type of biological clock. And I think it’s different kint of athlete that comes to maturity later. For me, I’ve learned so much along the way from dabbling in running marathons. Every PR I get, I appreciate it so much more because 10 years ago, if someone had told me I was going to break 3 hours, I would have said, “Get out of here!” I looked at those women who were running 2:59 as unapproachable. I had no concept. Having been around running all these years – I wasn’t a midpacker, but I wasn’t super competitive. Now, every single time I run a strong race, I think, “I’m 40 and I’m getting faster. How cool is that?”
That’s very exciting.
I think there’s a lot of women who, for whatever reason – they have their kids in their early thirties – for me it was more about establishing my career and putting a lot of effort into that at a time when I could have been maximizing my running potential. But I had other things in my life. Now I’m at a point in my career where I know what I want to do, and that’s going well. Yeah, there’s times when it’s crazy, but I don’t have to prove myself so much anymore. So the timing probably works out the same for a lot of women, for maybe a number of different reasons.
To touch on your career for a moment – it sounds like you have a really supportive employer.
Yes, I’ve been with the same company for 12 years. I started out in sales and when I was ready to move on from that, they enabled me to move into marketing. I did that for a couple of years, and now I’m in operations. But I’ve been working with the same group of people for 12 years. On Monday, after my half marathon, I came into work and my boss had taped my race results to my monitor with “Congratulations” on them. That’s how cool they are. I run on my lunch break. I do a lot of doubles now to get the miles in. They’re very supportive. When I was just starting in my career, I don’t think it would have been possible to do what I’m doing now.
Can they even fathom what you’re doing? Do they understand what the Olympic Marathon Trials are?
No, probably not.
They just know you’re doing something serious.
“When are you trying out for the Olympics?” They don’t get it that, first of all, there’s probably zero chance that I’ll be in the Olympics. Just the fact that I’m willing to put it out there, that I’m going for the Trials. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it for most people. Five years ago it would have been hard for me to wrap my mind around it too. But now I’ve realized what potential I have, and I really want to pursue that.
Now you’re one of those fast women. And now you know what they had to do to get that fast.
Speaking of that, I was curious to know what kind of mileage you’re up to.
I hit 100 for the first time about three weeks ago. After my injury I started running again in mid-July, around 50 miles a week, then 70. In August I was getting into the 90s. The last few weeks I’ve raced, so I’ve been at 70 for that time. But I’m going to try to get back up to 100 again. But the problem with a 100 mile week is you have no time and you’re tired all the time. When I did that it was with a 20 miler as my long run. It was actually almost 103 miles that week…
…but who’s counting?
Yeah, well, I wanted to count! I’m like that. I download all my data instantly. I like the numbers. So that was my big milestone. I’m most concerned about feeling good and getting in the quality [work]. I would like to be in the 90s at least. If I can hit the 100s, that’s great. I’ve done a lot of reading on high mileage, and as long as your easy runs are easy, it’s a good thing. I try to keep those anywhere between 8:00, even 8:45 pace some days, depending on what I did the day before. I don’t worry about my pace. I just go by feel. So doing the doubles has been working well for me. I go out for 4-6 miles every day at work. That’s how I get the mileage in.
I imagine you can knock those out pretty quickly, given the paces you’re running.
Yeah. Sometimes I’ll come back at 1:00 o’clock. “I just ran 4 miles at 7:30 pace.” That’s probably faster than I should, but some days I just feel really good. It works out well.
Do you ever use your Garmin’s heart rate monitor to rein yourself in on easy days, to make sure you’re not running to hard?
I should. I don’t. I only wear my heart rate monitor for longs runs and workouts. You’re making a good point. I probably should do that more. It hasn’t really been an issue for me, especially having been injured. My easy days have been pretty slow. But I had one day last week where I was supposed to do 10 miles easy, and I was running close to 7:00 pace because I felt so good. That was a day where it helps to have a heart rate monitor on. But some days you just have it and sometimes you don’t. Normally that doesn’t happen to me, but when it does it’s almost too good to pass up. But then you pay for it the next day.
It’s hard to know when to run by feel vs. doing what someone’s told you to do.
Exactly. I don’t want to be totally by the numbers all the time. I guess if I thought I was having a constant problem I would start being more diligent about wearing my heart rate monitor.
You may have found this during your 90+ mile weeks, but I find that once you start hitting triple digits, your recovery pace starts taking care of itself. It’s impossible to run too fast because you’re so tired anyway.
That is true. That week was kind of a blur. There was one day when it was 95 degrees out at noon and we’re going to do 4 miles. After 3 miles I said, “I’m done.” It was too hot and I’d done a hard workout that morning, and I said, “No, this is craziness. I’m just doing this to get up to 100.” But I think the more 100 mile weeks I put in, the less of a big deal they’ll be. My only concern now is that it’s so dark in the morning, so the safety factor comes into play. I’ve started running with my headlamp and have tried to be really careful.
Yeah, it is. But I think then the pace also takes care of itself because you don’t want to trip and fall.
I know the Chicago area gets very icy in winter, so a lot of people take it inside and use the treadmill.
I take it more to the indoor track rather than the treadmill. I try to run outside in the winter as much as I can.
I know Dan is a big believer in building up in stages, training for a fast 5K and a fast half as part of the initial stage of marathon training. Is that what you’re doing?
I’ve learned that that’s what I need to do to get my marathon time down. He believes that you don’t get faster by running more marathons. You get faster by running shorter stuff. Because I’m so good at burning fat and running long distances, I believe that to be true. Although it would be great to break 18:00 for the 5K, I’m not so concerned about breaking a certain time. I’m more concerned about getting some good, solid races in. I don’t know what a fast 5K for me would translate to for a marathon. I just want to give it my best shot. So I’ve got another 5K coming up next weekend [look this up and see how she did].
And then I’m going with Tammy to Des Moines for a half marathon there. I think it’s October 17. We’re both going to run that as – I don’t want to say “test” for California – but for me it’s a goal race. I’d like to see how much my time can improve from the Chicago Half. By then I will have had a few more good weeks in, and my hamstring will keep getting better. I learned some things [in Sunday's race] about myself that I can apply to the next one. I think it’s good to have incremental goals and not just one or two races a year. Having all these smaller milestones to work toward is really helpful.
Yeah, it’s very difficult mentally to focus on just one or two races a year, especially when something goes wrong. It helps to have other [races] to break things up.
That is so true.
“For me, the benefits of Chicago aren’t just that it’s a flat course. I can sleep in my own bed. My family can come out and support me.”
Speaking of marathons, I know you have two goal races for trying for a qualifying time: California and Chicago. These are both fall marathons. How come you’re not targeting any spring races?
If I thought I’d be ready to try again in the spring, I’d probably try. It depends on what happens in California, of course. But I found out after running Boston this year that it does take a lot out of my body, to run a marathon. Even though I didn’t run at my goal pace, just running the distance, you lose a lot of time in training. I want to give myself the best shot at it. So after California [assuming this race goes well], I’d like to work on my speed again, do some more track work, and then see what my half marathon looks like and go from there. I’d like to try at Chicago because I know that course. I’ve run it five times and have had good experiences there. That’s Dan’s coaching philosophy: a slow twitch runner has to maiximize potential with getting that speed work under your belt and doing a good job with that. I’m sold on that idea, so that’s what I’m going to try to do next year.
Chicago is notoriously flat. Do you do well on flat courses as opposed to hilly ones?
Competitively speaking, I do better on hills. I’m definitely a hill runner. Early on, some of my PRs were on hilly courses. Flying Pig is hilly. I had a PR at Boston many years ago. For me, the benefits of Chicago aren’t just that it’s a flat course. I can sleep in my own bed. My family can come out and support me. There’s a lot of plusses to it. I wanted to do California because I’ve heard such good things about it, and I needed a break from Chicago this year. So I thought I’d give CIM a shot. But if there was a spring marathon that spoke to me, maybe I’d consider it. But I don’t think that for me that’s a good option; I want to focus on speed in the spring.
Are you planning on running CIM with anyone?
No. I do better in races if I just focus on myself. We’ve got [quite a few people] from my group going out there to do the race. I have to be very inwardly focused for an effort like that. I’m going to isolate myself before the race and focus on what I need to do. The worst thing I can do is worry about what someone else is doing and get sucked into that. That’s not a good idea for me.
Do you do anything in particular to mentally prepare for a goal race? For example, do you like to preview the course?
I’ll drive the course with my husband. We’ll drive the course a couple days before the race. I’ve heard there are some hills out there. I’ll do a lot of visualization, and say some prayers. At that point I’m going to know what my goal pace is. We do a test on the track about three weeks before the race, by heart rate, to see that the goal pace should be within a few seconds per mile. I’ll just be very focused. That’s when I have my best race: when I’m very calm, and I have a plan. I really can’t worry about what anyone else is doing.
It sounds like having a plan is something you learned…
…the hard way, maybe? Yeah, well, I’m a different runner than I was even three years ago. I have so much more confidence. A lot of it comes from, I won’t say bad experiences, but just dumb experiences. But that’s all part of life, right?
What’s your most memorable racing experience?
That’s an easy one. It was when I broke 3 hours in Chicago last year. I went into that race not putting any pressure on myself. I was really down in 2008 after I didn’t break 3 hours. Even though I know why – the weather was bad. But I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. So I went in thinking, “I’m going to have the best race I can.” I knew I would PR. My friend Amanda told me, “You will break 3 hours.” And I was like, “Okay, whatever. I’m not going to think about it.” I went out there and knew where my heart rated need to be. Every little bit I’d glance down and it was lower than that, and that continued. I was running 6:40s. By the halfway point, which was just under 1:29, I was thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I really could do this.”
And, you know, you have your moments during the race. But every time I had a bad moment, I would see someone I knew, like my husband was out there, and Dan was out there, and a few other people I know who weren’t racing; my neighbor was even out on the course. So every time I had a bad spot I would see somebody. It was just the coolest thing.
So when I got to the “one mile to go” mark and I saw 2:52 on the clock, I thought, “I only have to run a 7:00 mile.” It was almost like a dream. Everything went perfectly. I’m not big on eating or drinking during races. I took Gatorade maybe three or four times. The weather was perfect – in the 30s, which for me is perfect. I was so emotional when I go done. I looked for my husband right away. It was just an awesome day. If I could have that feeling and just bottle it up I would be happy forever.
It’s really wonderful when you hit a perfect day and you have a perfect race. It’s so rare.
It is! You don’t get a whole lot of them.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on your goals; take it day by day; and never doubt that you can do it.”
I think it’s what keeps people racing, to try to get it back again.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s that elusive perfect race. And even though my splits weren’t quite even, they were close enough to even that I was really happy with the whole day. That’s why I’d like to go back and do Chicago again next year. I’ll see what happens this year – hopefully I’ll have the same experience in California this year as I had in Chicago last year.
Well, it sounds like you’re doing everything to prepare.
I’m doing everything I can, yes. Absolutely.
My final question, which I ask everyone, is if you have any advice for other masters women who are going after a qualifier?
Yes. I would say: Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on your goals; take it day by day; and never doubt that you can do it. As soon as you start to have doubts, such as when you have a bad day and you start to question things, it’s wasted energy. So have a plan, stick to it, and go for it. Because you only live once, right?
I hope that’s not true. But it probably is.
Well, that’s a whole other topic right there.
Yes. But I think we should plan for that contingency. And race accordingly.
Exactly. I just think this is your time to shine. I wasn’t afraid of turning 40. But I thought 40 was so old. And now, I’ve never felt this good in my life. I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride, know who I am, know what I want to do, and have the confidence to go for it. And so this is the time to do it.
You’re echoing a sentiment that I hear a lot. I tell people who are approaching 40 that it gets a lot better after 40.
So far, I have found that to be true and agree with that. It just keeps getting better. So now that I’ve talked your ear off – am I more talkative than your other interviewees? Or are we all pretty much the same…
This has really been a delightful discovery. You’ve all been very talkative and and very articulate. It’s made this really easy for me, because I just have to come up with questions and everyone just answers them with great answers – and clear answers!
We spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff. We all do. It’s very important to all of us. It’s a big part of our lives. I don’t want to speak for the rest of your interviewees, but I’m sure we all take this very seriously. It’s easy to talk about something when you’re so passionate about it.
What’s been interesting to me is how people’s paths to this have been so varied. You’ve got people with high school running backgrounds, no running backgrounds, triathlon backgrounds. It’s interesting how people make their way to this and it’s very common – and I went through the same thing – where I started racing and I didn’t know anything about racing. I didn’t even know where to pin the number. Nothing.
Right! I pinned it on my back the first time! Can you believe it?
You just think about all the stupid things you used to do. And you soak up so much knowledge by osmosis, that when you talk to new runners, you realize how much you know. It doesn’t seem like you’ve made that big an effort over time, to absorb all this information. But you end up becoming an expert about all these things: nutrition; injury; physiology; weight training. You realize, once you get serious about this, that everyone’s kind of an “amateur expert”…everyone has this incredible store of knowledge.
It’s true. I even volunteered to do a webinar for my coworkers on starting an exercise program. And I’m thinking, “What the heck do I know about this?”
I’m sure you’re qualified at this point.
I know a lot about it, actually. Our HR/benefits director was talking about it on our last conference call: “Well, Julie’s a professional marathoner…” She said something like that, and I was like, “Well, I don’t know about that. But I do feel that it’s very important for people to be fit, so I’ll be happy to talk about it.” But people are going to be intimidated, so I’m going to have to really put it down at that level: if you’re starting from scratch, then this is what you do.
But if you do it the right way, you may plant a seed in someone’s mind.
Exactly. I do think that I’ve inspired some people to do some things over the years that they maybe wouldn’t have done otherwise. I think that’s a good thing. If you can have positive influences on others, that’s just icing on the cake.
That’s what a lot of this series is about. I felt like there were probably some very interesting, inspiring stories out there. And my suspicions have been proven true. I’ve gotten some good feedback on these interviews. So I think you all have managed to inspire a few people.
Plus I think it’s good to bring people together. You’re training with Tammy, but a lot of people I’ve interviewed are sort of toiling away on their own without anyone else around, and I think they’ve found it valuable to know that there are other people out there doing this.
I can’t imagine. That would be so much harder, to me. Without that support system. All the women I run with are so inspirational to me in their own way. It just gives you that boost that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Marathon PR: 2:59:44 (Chicago 2009)
Age on Trials date: 41
Previous OTQs: None
Miles per week: Around 100
Favorite running shoe: Brooks T5 (discontinued; boo! Like any smart runner, Julie has hoarded several pairs)
Pre-race meal: Bagel with peanut butter; coffee
Hometown: Glen Ellyn, IL
Job(s): Director/Project Manager for a Global Food Laboratories Company
Hours per week: 40, but always on call
Personal: Married; two grown stepchildren; a long-haired chihuahua
Favorite non-running hobby: Reading
Vices (tied for biggest): Starbucks and wine