Tammy Lifka trains with her friend, and fellow Chicago area runner, Julie Wankowski. Both are currently under the guidance of coach Dan Marks.
I spoke with Tammy via phone for a little over an hour. It was a very fast hour. I’ve posted audio of our interview, which is also transcribed below. The transcription is edited in spots to cut down on my own rambling questions. You can hear them in their entirety in the audio.
I wanted to start by asking you about your athletic background and how you’ve developed as a runner. I know you’re sort of a latecomer to competitive running, having jumped into a 20 mile race on what seems like kind of a lark in 2006. it sounds like you were fit in terms of having done some running and gym work before. But you hadn’t run more than about 7 miles. So that was quite a jump. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I had three kids and I was going to the gym at the time and doing spin classes. The most I was running was getting on the treadmill for three miles. One of my best friends from college, Missy Pieper, lives in Madison, WI, and I like to go visit her. She called me up in the beginning of June and asked me if I wanted to to this 20 mile walk/run race. It’s called Syttende Mai, and starts at the capital and you run to Stoughton. I was told it was very hilly.
Tammy discusses her athletic background, her marathon baptism by fire at Chicago 2007, and why she enjoys pacing others. (Duration: 26:47; Download MP3)
At first I was like, “No way. You’re crazy! How are we going to do a run?” And she said, “Oh, I know how you are. We can run/walk it. And if anything we can just walk the whole thing. But let’s sign up for the running part so we can run/walk it.”
In my mind, I was thinking we could at least walk it. I signed up and did all the rookie things. We went out the night before and had fun, and had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even own a running watch. No idea or thoughts of pace. It was very on a whim.
I did have a PowerBar, which was good. The night before we had a plan, what we should do. And I said, “When I run on the treadmill, I can run a 9:00 pace. I’m pretty good at that. Why don’t we do that?” And Missy said, “Sure.” So for the first 4-5 miles, we were running between a 9:00 and 9:30 pace, right on track. Then right about mile 8, we started to run/walk. After doing that for a few miles, I either wanted to walk or run. It was driving me nuts, walking and running.
So I said I wanted to just walk or run. Missy said, “You don’t even seem tired. You seem fine.” She saw some friends walking on the side and said, “Go ahead. Go run. Go do this. See how far you can take it.” So I went ahead and kept running. And every mile I kept going I was very surprised. I had no idea what pace I was doing. I finished running the whole thing at what turned out to be a 10:00 pace, but we were walking inbetween.
I was amazed I did that. It seemed like it wasn’t real. I had no idea, no expectations and didn’t even think I could run 6 miles.
How did you feel at the end of the race? Did you feel completely exhausted or did you feel good throughout the whole thing?
I felt pretty good the entire race. I did take the water and Gatorade on the course. I felt like I ran the last 10 miles complete, without stopping. It was a lot of fun.
After that, after going back home, the questions started: “If you can run 20 miles, can you run 26?” So that’s how it started. I don’t think if she hadn’t called me up I would have even started. I didn’t even comprehend 20 miles in my mind.
You must have gotten some inkling that you had a capacity for doing endurance sports after that.
Everyone else around me motivated me. They were asking questions similar to what you’re asking: Did you train? I said those must have been some good spin classes for cross-training. But I really did surprise myself.
Did this experience immediately trigger a desire to start training for a marathon?
It did. After that race I signed up for a half marathon with my sister. That was the Chicago half in the fall . Again, I surprised myself. My sister wanted to do a half for her first time. We agreed we’d not try to run it together, but meet at the end. I lined up in the 9:00 pace area and ended up running a 7:50 pace for a half marathon. So that’s when I knew that I should start getting serious about this, meaning figuring out things like training.
Your debut marathon was 2007 in Chicago, which was brutal. It [the heat] sent hundreds of people to the hospital. Doing your first marathon is hard enough mentally and physically. What was it like to run your first marathon under those conditions?
I’d signed up for Chicago because I was very motivated to try 26. I really didn’t know what to expect. I still was running alone, 6-7 miles a day about 5 times a week. I was still doing spin classes and a lot of cross-training. I still didn’t sign up for a running group. I was just kind of winging it. I didn’t follow a plan or do 20 milers.
A lot of people gave me advice. About a month before I talked to friends who had done the marathon and they said, “It might be hot. It might be cold.” So I had three outfits planned. Still, I was training outside and doing my spin classes. So I bought a device that allows you to hold a water bottle when you run. I trained with that because I needed fueling when I ran on the Prairie Path.
So I got used to training with that. About two weeks before the race, they were talking about heat. It didn’t really stress me out because I didn’t know how heat can affect you for running. I hooked up with some of the Glen Ellyn runners in town and for $20 I would have a place to keep my stuff. I went down the day of and since it was going to be hot I thought I’d better use this water bottle. And that was the thing that saved me, that probably got me through the whole marathon. The other part that saved me was that, since I ran a half marathon in a certain time, I was in the B corral. I had water the whole time on the course.
“I never did track except a little in high school. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t a sprinter. I never made state. I was just a very average runner.”
So I was figuring my pace was going to be around an 8:15 or 8:30. And someone said, “You might qualify for Boston.” And I didn’t know. I said, “What’s Boston?” I never followed running. And they told me about this race where you had to get a certain time, and the time I had to get was a 3:45. And I said, “Oh, well, that’s nice.” I didn’t know what it was about.
When I went to the expo I saw that they had pace teams, which I thought might be a good idea. But there wasn’t a 3:45 pace group there, so the guy told me to do a 3:40. I had a 3:40 pace band. I went out and started running and did the rookie move: “It’s going to be hot, so maybe I should bank some time.”
You kind of did everything wrong, but it worked out well anyway.
I know! I ran ahead and went in front of the pace group. I figured it was going to be cooler out [earlier], so why not run faster when it’s going to be cooler between the buildings rather than in the heat of the day. So I ran 8:00 pace, ahead of my pace. I was filling my bottle with Gatorade and sipping it the whole time.
Things went pretty well and at mile 20-22, there was no shade. People were dropping, by that I mean walking. I saw emergencies on the side of the road. And that’s when it really hit me: something’s going on here. It was kind of scary. I was trying to block it out.
I was still running my pace and saw the 3:40 pacer pass me at mile 23. And I knew I had to get a 3:45. I was so close. There was no way I was going to miss it by 30 seconds or a minute. So I knew if I could keep that pacer in my sight, I could do this. I could qualify for Boston. And I really didn’t know what it was about, but I do have a competitive personality with myself. So I was thinking, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this.” I didn’t finish with them but I kept them in my sight and finished with a 3:42.
Still, I didn’t know what was going on around me. All I knew was that after I finished I saw this stream of people in front of me, walking, like they’d gotten off the bus. I didn’t know what was going on. And people were saying, “The course is closed.” And I was worried. “Did I really finish? Did I get a time?” I finished in time and it all worked out. But I heard all those stories after that. But I had my thermos. It was really those two things: if I didn’t have water on the course, I wouldn’t have made it. Other people didn’t have water. I don’t think I would have finished.
I imagine a lot of marathons have felt easy after that.
Well, you know, I guess “easy” is compared to what your goal is. I don’t think any marathon’s easy. Even when I pace. There’s always a point when you’re running and you want to stop, for me. Whether it’s a 5K or a marathon. Even pacing — there’s some point in the race where I question if I’m going to be able to do this. I’ve gotten that question a lot when I was pacing: “Is this real easy for you?” Not really, because you’re still out there for a certain amount of time, and it’s still taxing on the body. There isn’t a time when it’s so easy; it’s a challenge.
Looking at your Athlinks racing history, not only are you prodigious racer but you’re also successful at racing. It looks like in just about every race you’ve gotten a PR, which is kind of amazing. You’ve had this very steady downward progress in your times in most distances. Looking at your major races, you went from a 3:16 in Boston last year to a 3:03 in the fall in Chicago. Do you think your progress has to do with having a predisposition to being a good distance runner, or does it reflect your more serious training for the marathon over that time?
What has helped me the most has been starting later [in life]. My PRs have jumped drastically. And I’m really competitive with myself. I also print my pace band out ahead of time and I race against that. That’s my competition. If I can beat that next time and get a PR, that to me is success. I really don’t race against other people, whether it’s a 5K or a marathon. That’s how I motivate myself.
In terms of how I’ve improved the most, I never did track except a little in high school. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t a sprinter. They always put in the mile or 2 mile. I never made state. I was just a very average runner. That was the last time I did track. Then when I met Dan Marks and this group of Wheaton runners, that’s when I made the biggest jump. Track has been the most important part of my training.
And by that do you mean speedwork? Or longer intervals?
Uh, huh. Speedwork and doing tempo runs. Before that I was really just running the same pace all the time. So by having that increase in mileage, and you’re doing a 15 mile run and you’re going to do a pickup for 20 minutes, it really helps you get faster. And also doing the different track workouts.
Questions for Tammy’s coach, Dan Marks
Training for the marathon involves walking a fine line between improvement and injury/overtraining. How are you balancing Tammy’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 Tammy’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 Tammy’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.
Yeah, you can see the difference in your top end speed when you look at your race times. Even just in the last year and a half you’ve gone from high 20:00s down to mid 18:00s in the 5K, which is really amazing progress. So you’re saying you attribute that to the track work.
That’s what we’re working on now. There are two different phases in training. Without getting into too many details, it’s trying to work on your 5K time first to get that faster before you go into marathon training.
You’re not the first person I’ve heard say this. I’ve known a couple people who have taken a break from marathoning and have concentrated on just 5Ks or 10Ks for a season. They’ve said it’s had a dramatic effect once they’ve gone back into marathon training.
Yes, they say to run fast. And to do it, you have to build your speed up. My strength is distance. I’ve never been a fast twitch runner. Since I’m more slow twitch, I need to work on my weakness, which is the 5K. If you looked at where my marathon is at 2:58 and then look at the calculators that say what I should run for the 5K, it was way off. My strength is in the endurance, but I don’t have that fast twitch. But I’m working on it. I have to work on my weaknesses.
Well, I guess everyone does. You mention that you have a competitive personality. And that you have a background in tennis in high school and college. That’s very different sport from running. Can you draw any parallels between how you competed as a tennis player vs. how you compete as a runner.
Tennis was a big part of my life. My whole family played. Tennis was my life, I would have to say. I taught tennis in summer. The dedication, the long hours, doing the same repetitive thing over and over again and not giving up — that, to me, has really transferred over to the running. Having determination in any sport — that’s what drives and motivates you. Why are we out there, in any sport, for so many hours doing the same thing over and over again? Even when you have failures, and successes — what makes you go out there? For me, even after losing a tennis match, it’s about trying to get better. That’s definitely carried over into running. I have seen the most success in running than in any sport I’ve played before.
“Pacing helps me enjoy the sport more. I feel it’s given running another purpose. Instead of going out there and focusing on my goal all the time, pacing opens up your mind. I also feel like I’m giving back to the sport.”
Well, you seem like a natural.
Well, I’m feeling very young right now. I tell my husband that this is a good midlife crisis. I’m going to be 40 in a month. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m running faster than I was even in high school. I feel youth again, so that’s a good thing.
And you’ve only just started. They say that no matter what age you start running, you’ve got a good 10 year window in which to improve. So I’d say you’ve got at least another 6 or 7 years of improvement.
I hope that’s true.
I want to ask you about your pacing experiences. Can you talk about why you like pacing others and what you get out of it?
Pacing helps me enjoy the sport more. I used to be a teacher. I enjoy helping people and teaching. Now that I’m at home with my kids, pacing helps fill the void of not being able to teach in the classroom every day. I do enjoy it and it makes running even more fun. I feel it’s given running another purpose. Instead of going out there and focusing on my goal all the time, pacing opens up your mind.
I also feel like I’m giving back to the sport. I can really relate to people, as you can tell from by beginning stories. I’ve been there, and it wasn’t too long ago. So I can relate to the people who are trying to achieve their goals, or doing their first marathons. I can give them tips. I also help lead running groups and help other runners out. When they tell me they tried something I suggested that worked for them, that’s what keeps me going. If I was just out there every day, doing track workouts and just focusing on this one goal, I would get burned out. So this helps me move forward.
When I first started running in races, I would sometimes run with a pacing group. The pacing group leaders were always one part technician and one part cheerleader. The good ones were very good at motivating people along the course to help them keep up. Or in some cases encouraging them to drop back if they were running outside of their capabilities. It seems like it takes a special personality to do it.
It’s a long time to be out there. There’s a lot of conversation going on. I try to make it fun, like playing the game “You know you’re a runner when…” and they blurt out things along the course. We talk about our goals. You’re out there for quite a long time, so we have a long time to talk and get to know each other. It keeps their minds off of it. And I found out that I’m actually pretty good at pacing.
I’d say you’re very good at it. You just paced a half in Madison, WI this weekend and you were half a second underneath the goal time. How did you get that close?
I use my Garmin and then I always print my pacing band and see where we are on the course. I tried to keep an 8:00 pace and come in at 1:45. It was 1:44:59.4.
Talking about my personality — there’s even a little bit of competition amongst the pacers. We try to get closest to the “pin,” meaning closest to your goal time. So far, with everyone I’ve paced, I’ve come closest to the pin. It’s bragging rights. It makes it fun. It’s fun to meet all the different pacers and different people.
Like me, you probably live extremely close to sea level. But you’ve recently invested in some altitude simulation equipment. Can you describe what the equipment is and how you use it?
Tammy describes the altitude simulation equipment she trains and lives with. (Duration: 4:12, Download MP3)
Right now I’m using a Hypoxico Simulated Altitude system. It’s a generator and there’s a tent that you put over your bed. It literally looks like a real tent [and allows you to sleep at altitude]. But it’s clear, so you don’t have to feel claustrophobic in there. Then there’s an exercise mask that you can run on a treadmill with. You adjust it so it’s like you’re breathing the air at 5,000 feet or 7,000 feet.
How long have you been using it?
About three months.
Your husband’s a triathlete, so he’s benefitting from it and is okay with sleeping in a tent. Have you both gained a noticeable benefit from it?
There isn’t a definite measure. I’m also training harder and I’ve changed my diet — I’m doing all these different things in my training, so it’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing. But I will tell you that I’ve gone off of it for a week or two. They say after 4-5 days you can notice the difference. Just as if you were in Colorado and came to lower elevation. When I would start running I’d notice a difference in how I felt. But I can’t pinpoint my times and say I’ve improved by this much.
I do feel it helps and that’s why I bought it. My husband said, “I don’t want to hear it, that you could have used this one thing and maybe it would have made the difference of 30 seconds or a minute.” My philosophy, going forward toward this goal, is that I want to do everything I can — with diet, training, weight lifting, the whole package — and in the end I can say I gave 100%. If I did everything I could then I’ll be happy.
So I don’t have a certain measure. I sleep with it. I’ve done all my research and I know the elite athletes are using this type of simulated altitude training. I figure since they’re using it, it has to work or improve your times. All these coaches are also going out to Colorado and doing their training in altitude. There’ve been lots of studies and it’s not this new thing.
I guess it’s cheaper than going to Albuquerque or Mexico City every year.
Right. I have three kids. If I could move out to Colorado or whatever three months before my training I would do that.
You’ve got three kids under the age of 11. With both you and your husband training, how do you balance parenting with your training demands?
What does help is that I’m not working full time. I’m at home with the kids, but I do tutor and do different things on the side. But I have a philosophy that says I can’t do everything, nothing’s going to be 100% with the general things that I normally do. The cleaning and going out, gardening — just the things that you have to do around the house. I would have to say that I’ve let some things go. I might not have everything spic and span, but I just feel that the one thing that’s most important to my husband and myself is spending time with the kids. So that’s what we’ve put as top priority. If there’s weeds in the garden, we let that go.
Balancing parenting with training; avoiding injury; why developing speed is so important to marathon training. (Duration: 20:18, Download MP3)
Also, I train early in the morning. Our group runs at 5:15 or 5:30. So when I come home from my training, my kids are just getting out of bed. Then I have the day to do my other things, whether it’s my weight training or different things throughout the day. My husband’s training for an ironman, so he trains in the morning and then at night. It’s kind of hectic, but our kids are proud and they are involved in sports. If anything, they’ll look back and we’re setting good examples for them.
Have they shown any interest in running themselves?
No, they haven’t. And that’s fine. Both my kids are on the swim team and they play baseball. So they’re active in other ways. But my daughter did say she wants to run the Freedom Four, which is a Fourth of July family race, which is four miles. We’re going to run/walk that, and she asked me, so that was good.
Where are you looking to run a qualifying time? Your race in Sacramento was kind of a preview of the California International Marathon [CIM] course. It looks like you want to do that again this year, along with Chicago again. And if you haven’t qualified at those, then try again at CIM in 2011 about a month before the trials. So that’s two or three chances. Marathons are so unforgiving. You can arrive at race day and the weather’s bad or you’re not feeling right. Do you have a backup plan in terms of other races planned in case everything doesn’t fall into place for these races?
I agree 100%. There’s a lot of things that can happen. Chicago ’07 is a perfect example. If I show up in California and the weather is not ideal, say, whipping rain — it’s not going to be the day to run — I won’t run that. I’ll just go home and look ahead to what marathon there might be in the next week or two. If I look too far ahead I’ll lose focus and be worried about the weather being right. I don’t want to jinx myself by looking at the next race. I know there’s other marathons out there you can do. If there’s another one out there I can always switch the date.
It seems like in the past your strength has been in not overthinking things. That seems to be working for you.
Yes, it’s kind of a side plan. Closer to it, I’ll look around to at least have an idea of what the other races are. I’m just going to focus on California. I’m not even focused on Chicago at this point. One race at a time, right?
How many miles are you running at this point?
It varies because I’ve been doing a lot of races. 5Ks, lately. It’s been between 70-80. We’re planning on increasing it to about 90-100. It’s going to be different for me vs. my training partner, Julie. 100 miles might be where she needs to be. For me, it might be 90. There isn’t a magic number. If I have 98 miles, I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to go out and run those extra 2 miles to get 100 in. My coach is stressing that what might be good for Julie might not be good for me. Or I might need more miles.
Are you going to be hitting those numbers in doubles or singles?
I’ll probably do doubles.
Have you done a lot of doubles work before?
I’ve done a few. With altitude training I’ve done a few where I’ve run [outside] and then gone on the treadmill for four miles [with the altitude equipment] and done that twice a week. I do doubles after track, and that helps my legs. In the evening I’ll go out and run real slow and do 3-4 miles. I was doing it not to get the miles in but because it helped me recover the next day. It’s going to be harder because we’re going to be putting a lot more miles in.
I’ve talked to other runners who are running 100 miles per week. They’ve said that taking one day off and doing more doubles is easier for them. They needed that mentally. I’m going to have to test it out because the most I’ve run was 80 miles so far, and that was just recently. All this is new to me. I’m not sure how this is going to feel or what’s going to work. But my coach understands that it’s not going to be the same and I have to figure out what works for me. Trial and error.
Speaking of volume, one of the other runners I’ve talked to, Jaymee Marty, feels that volume has been the one thing that’s probably contributed the most to her progress. Although you’ve mentioned speedwork. Are there aspects of your training over the last couple of years that have had the most effect on your improvement? Besides speedwork, I mean. For example, you mentioned weight training. Has that helped you?
Oh, yeah. I’m just like a lot of other runners. I’m always looking to see what the elites or other faster runners are doing. Not that there’s a magic workout. But what am I missing? Before this point I wouldn’t take multivitamins. Or I wasn’t watching what I was eating. I was eating healthy, but in terms of protein or different foods. And weight training is a real weakness of mine. I really don’t get motivated to do the weight training. So that’s what I need to work on, and work on the core by taking core classes.
I went to see a nutritionist (Monique Ryan), who’s been helping me with nutrition. I’ve been reading Matt Fitzgerald’s book “Racing Weight.” It’s only in the last 5-6 months that I’ve changed my diet. I’ve felt better. I’m now eating within 10-15 minutes after running any hard workout. It’s a of information and I didn’t know these things, like taking vitamins or glucosamine for my joints. So this has all really helped a lot.
I’ve always found it ironic that running seems like such a simple thing but the more serious you become about it, you realize how complicated it is. You have to do all of these other things to augment just going out and running. Paying attention to when you eat and what you eat, for example.
And I didn’t really have that in tennis. That’s a big difference between the two sports. I would say that eating has been the biggest change — so you do a track workout and two days later you’re doing a 15 mile run with pickups. You need your rest. For the first time ever, I have a book club in my neighborhood and I have to get up and say, “I’m sorry, but I have to go home.” It’s a huge commitment. This whole process has been a big life change for me. That’s what I feel it takes to do this. You have to be committed 100%.
Something that’s been impressive is that you’ve managed to avoid a lot of problems that plague people who jump into this fairly seriously. The big one being injury. But overtraining is often something that happens to people. I know a lot of masters runners also become iron defiicient if they suddenly up the mileage and training intensity. But you’ve managed to avoid all that. Do you know why?
If you define an injury as something that takes you out for a few weeks, I’ve had injuries. I had plantar fasciaitis. I ran through it, where I was limping home. But everything I’ve had, I’ve trained through. But there’s a fine line of knowing when to back off the mileage. I’ve had bursitis on my foot, where I’ve had to take off a week. Listening to your body, knowing when to take off, or knowing you didn’t recover long enough from a race — that’s important.
Out of all these things: nutrition. Nutrition has helped me recover. If your muscles are tired and not getting the proper nutrition, I think that causes a lot of injury. We see a lot of runners at different weights and with different eating patterns, and I’ve read a lot of articles [about nutrition], and that might have contributed to [injury]. I’m eating what I should be eating and that helps a lot.
To switch subjects, I’m going to go back to your racing history. You tend to race a lot, but on either extreme of the distance spectrum. You do a lot of 5K and 10K races, and the on the other end of the spectrum, you do half marathons and marathons. Are you using the shorter races as time trials, or ways to evaluate how your speedwork is going? Or are you racing them because you enjoy them? Or for all of those reasons?
I’m doing them for my training, not just to race them. My coach believes that there are certain checkpoints along the way, times that you should be able to run certain distances at. For the 5K, it would be running an 18:00 flat or under, as one of the stepping stones or guidelines. So I’m getting closer [Tammy’s best time for the 5K is 18:22, run in early May]. For the half marathon it’s running a 1:20. So that would be my next goal, and then you do the marathon. There’s no science behind it, meaning you don’t have to run exactly that time. But you have to be within that range to consider the OTQ goal. There have been people who have run 18 flat and a 1:20 half and still haven’t been able to get that qualifying time. I want to be realistic, but they’re just benchmarks along the way.
So you’re about half a minute off an 18:00 5K. How close are you to a 1:20 half?
I just ran a 1:23 at Rockford. We’ve been training for the 5K. Without being in that kind of training phase [the half], I wanted to see where I was at. Before that time, last year, I ran a 1:29.
That’s a huge improvement.
From 1:29 to 1:23…
That’s got to give you some confidence.
Yeah, it has. I wasn’t going for the 1:20. I just wanted a guideline. It was hard to comprehend going to a 1:20 from a 1:29.
You’re closer to the lower end than the top end now.
You keep trying.
How do you deal with training in Chicago’s weather extremes? Do you just get used to it, or do you do any of your training inside?
We go to an indoor track one day a week. All the other days are outside. Unless it’s icy or there’s a lot of snow. Then we’ll go inside just to run. It’s very difficult running on a tiny track that’s 12 laps to a mile. Or even some of them are 8 laps to a mile. It’s taxing on your hips and you really feel the indoor track. It’s difficult [to run outside], but we’re out there if the roads are clear. In the wintertime when it’s 20 degrees out and I have all these layers on, it’s hard to go and run a 6:00 pace outside in the cold. It’s hard to train.
That’s another reason why none of my goal marathons are in the spring. I don’t want to train for a marathon during the winter. We’re running outside year round. But I actually fell last winter, I slipped on some ice and hurt my back. That kind of scared me. And it was just a casual run. I had to take a week off, so it was pretty scary.
I want to move on to your coaching experience and training with Julie. You’re both coached by Dan Marks. Most of the people I’m interviewing work with a coach and get different things out of that relationship. How do you feel he’s helped you, aside from the obvious things like putting together a training plan?
Training alone, I need someone to check in with. Even if I’m gone for the weekend, I send him my Garmin data. He keeps me accountable for my training. If it’s 80 degrees, or pouring rain, and I really don’t want to go out there and run, I know I have to because this is what’s on the schedule.
The value of training with a group; deciding to go for an OTQ; why you should never underestimate a masters runner. (Duration: 13:32, Download MP3)
He also helps analyze where I’m at, what I’m doing. He helps me set goals, such as reaching an 18:00 5K, as incremental ones to reach along the way to this larger goal. And put things in perspective. You have to look at all the little things you have to do to lead up to the final goal, to kind of break it up.
What’s also nice is that we run as a group. He’s running races I’m doing and also running speedwork with us. When I’m waking up at 5:15 or 5:30, we have our whole group there and he’s running too. With him there, I can report on something that hurts or how I’m feeling. So when we go out to the track, he’s not the coach with the timer telling me my splits. It’s “Here’s the workout” and we all do the workout. Some of it might be more specific for certain runners, but he’s out there doing his workout too.
I don’t think I could have a “paper” coach, meaning he sends me my workouts and I go do them and they live out in California. I need to have someone I can talk to that’s there, that knows me as a person and a runner. That’s what’s helped the most.
“I think there’s a lot of negativity about running over 40. There really isn’t a lot of encouragement for our age group. It’s like, “Okay, you’re done.”
Are you all running as a club?
It’s a group. We’re called the Buffaloes. Some people are there just to run. Some of us like to do more racing. But we run seven days a week and we have certain routes that we meet at. That really helps me. If I showed up at 5:15 and it’s 30 degrees and there was no one [else], I’m already thinking of driving back home. I am not motivated to run by myself when the weather is not ideal.
You and Julie are both going for a qualifier. Is this an idea that came to you both at the same time, or did you start thinking about this independently and then talk to each other?
It was independently. It came up in conversation, but at the time my PR was 3:16 and I didn’t think I was even in the ballpark. So I didn’t think about it too much. But I thought I’d see how I’d do in Chicago (2009). I’d only been doing training, doing speedwork, for a year. So I ran Chicago (in 3:03). It was a good race, but I didn’t go all out. My coach didn’t want me to go for a huge PR — from 3:16 to sub-3:00 — and be disappointed.
So I ran what I could do. I’m not a runner who can start off slow and then increase later in the second half. I like to do a steady pace. After Chicago, I thought that if I was going to do this course [CIM] in California, I wanted to see what it was like. So I signed up for that race to just see the course. I was told that I might not run as well, I’d have tired legs. But I knew I had more in me.
It [a push for a qualifier] mostly started after California [in December]. All these women were saying I could have run faster if there hadn’t been that wind and I was like, “Really?” So, after California I was motivated to really put my goal out there and tell people about it and talk to my coach about it.
Fourteen women over the age of 40 qualified in 2008. Something I often think about is why so few women over 40 qualify when I think that there are probably more than that who are capable of doing it. I question whether it’s sociological — meaning for a lot of women, it just doesn’t occur to them to go after his. Or if it’s that there are so few people who are physiologically able to do it. But then I talk to people like you who took up racing competitively fairly late in life, without a lot of background it in, and yet have excelled very quickly. Do you think there are more people who are like you out there, who may be nascent very good marathoners, but just don’t ever discover it and so never go after something like this?
Women in our society today are having children later in life. I think having their families later, getting married later, has a big role in women achieving that goal or even knowing that they can be at that level. For me, I would have never started this if it wasn’t something like my friend Missy [suggesting we do a 20 mile race]. I was done having children and I didn’t have any idea.
If you have kids and you’re working in a very demanding job, it’s very hard to balance. For me, I’m lucky because my husband’s understanding. Having him be in the traithlon world, he’s a little bit more understanding than some other people might be because he understands what the training involves.
I also think there’s a lot of negativity about running over 40. There’s not a lot of motivation to do that when you’re older. In many sports, there really isn’t a lot of encouragement for our age group. It’s like, “Okay, you’re done.”
I don’t know what the racing scene is like where you are, but here in New York the most competitive age group is women’s 40-44. I have a theory that a lot of women wake up in their late 30s and realize that this is something that’s important to them and they really start applying themselves. I was so happy to finally move out of that age group because it’s so much easier now, now that I’m 45.
What I say to a lot of women out there [in their 30s and 40s] is that it’s really a lot of fun going out there and finishing with all these young girls. At the starting line, I get the look. In even the 5Ks. They look at me like, “What are you doing on the front line?” I can tell what they’re thinking, when I’m doing my strides; “Who is this woman out here?” And then to win the race…I had a girl come up to me after a 5K and say, “That was a great race. How old are you?” And when I told her I’m almost 40, it’s like, “Oh…wow…” It’s a compliment. But people need to realize that you can do things later on in life. It’s not like you can’t start a new dream or a new goal. That makes my day.
CIM 2009: a racing breakthrough — and a lesson in friendship. (Duration: 10:00, Download MP3)
I want to finish up by asking you for some more details about your race at Sacramento this December because I think it was an important race for a lot of other reasons besides your finishing time. Can you talk a little bit about it?
Yes, so I signed up to go to California. I went with my friend, Kurt Fiene. He’s a visually impaired runner and he was in Runner’s World and runs over in Elmhurst. So we went out there together and he was running with the visually impaired group. We went out there and I told him I wanted to see the course and see what’s happening. But then I hinted to him, “It would be so great to get under three hours. But I just don’t know…”
“We’re driving the course and going up and down these hills. And I was nervous. This course was terrible. The car was having trouble going up. I was like, “Are you sure this is the right course?'”
After Chicago I really didn’t do any speedwork and my coach is like, “I don’t want to put too much pressure on you.” I think he was worried about me going out and running a slower time and having me be depressed about it, or not motivated. So he said to take it easy and was playing it on the safe side.
But Kurt helps me mentally, with my mental game, in running. He’s the guy that I go to. If I have a question, I’ll go to Kurt. I can call him any time. So he was, like, “Well, I think you can do it. Let’s just see. ” I thought he was going to run his own race.
It was funny — I was told this course was very, very fast. We were staying in Folsom, where the race starts, and we went to the home where the other visually impaired runners were meeting up. I was told I was going to be the driver, because I was driving six other visually impaired runners. And I said, “Well, I don’t know where I’m going!” So we’re going to drive the course. We start at the start and they’re telling me where to go. And I’m thinking, “This is great — visually impaired runners telling me where to go.” But the one man, Rich, was from the area.
So we drove it, and we’re driving this course and going up and down these hills. And I was nervous. This course was terrible. The car was having trouble going up. I was like, “Are you sure this is the right course?” At one point, I think it was [mile] 23, there’s a bridge and Kurt goes, “If you can get past this point, you’re home free.” And I said, “Okay, this is not a goal race. Whatever. I’m just going to run as best I can. I don’t know what you guys are talking about, this being a fast course.”
The next morning we went to Folsom and I had an elite start. It was very nice, just like Chicago. I had my three hour pace band on and thought, “What’s it going to hurt? If I try it and I don’t think it’s going to happen, I can just slow up and pass on.” So I started with the three hour pace group … which had 150 runners. So Kurt, being visually impaired — he doesn’t need a guide — found it easier to run on the outside. He told me stay with the group.
So I’m thinking, “What’s going on here? It’s mile six and he’s still running with me.” He was coaching me: “Lean in a little, drop your arms, pull the rope like you’re running uphill…” Coaching me with all these tips. So then at the halfway point, the pacer was fast, like five seconds [per mile] fast. I came through the halfway mark and ran my half marathon PR. It was like 1:28 something, and my PR was 1:29. And Kurt’s like, “Okay, you just PR’ed! Great!” And then when you turn at the halfway point, the hills are not as bad. We had the headwind, but I stayed in the [pacing group] pack and I think that really saved me.
Kurt’s not leaving. I ask him why he’s still here. He ran a 2:42 at Boston [Fiene ran 2:43:44, a new American visually impaired record for the event]. I thought he was going to run faster. I’m not going to say anything, because then he’s going to feel obligated to stay with me. We kept going and at mile 18 the pacer is starting to slow down and says, “I was sick last week and I’m not going to make it. So if you want to go under three hours, go ahead.” I saw a Starbucks up ahead and said, “Okay, Kurt, get me a Starbucks. I’m coming up front. We’re going to do this thing.”
So I followed him and he still was coaching me, “You’re going to do it.” And I’m like, “Really? How do you know?” And he said he was listening to me breathe and talk. He’s very in tune with his body and the others around him. Even when I just run with him, he can tell when I’m working hard. So we kept running and went past a mile mark where the woman was calling out the time. I said, “Kurt, are we going to be under three hours?” And he says, “Oh, I think we’ll just make it. We’d better pick up the pace.”
Okay, so now we’re running 6:40s. I look at my watch all the time. At one point I say, “Kurt, we’re running a 6:20!” He’s like, “Stop looking at your watch and just go with the feel.” We’re passing all these people, it was the best feeling. We did get back down to 6:30 or something, but we were just zooming, passing all these people.
We finished [in 2:58:37] and it was the best feeling ever. I was in tears. And I asked why he did that for me and he said, “Because I knew you could do it. I knew that if you did this…you could go forward with your goal. If I felt you couldn’t do it then I was going go ahead. But I could tell with your breathing.”
For someone to give up his marathon — I mean, we flew out there — for me. It was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. And he said that he knew if he’d told me his plans I wouldn’t have let him do that. He’s always been there for me and is a really good friend. It means to much so give back to other people and help others in the sport. I highly encourage anyone to do that…because that’s what really makes it worth doing what we’re doing. That race was better than any race I’ve ever run, because he did that for me.
I just love the part about how he’s telling you to stop looking at your watch and run by how you feel. You can often be your own worst enemy at the end of a marathon because you can convince yourself that you’re going to fall apart when, really, everything’s okay.
Yeah, and I asked him why he told me to start [running faster] and he said, “You yelled at me, saying we were doing a 6:20. If you could yell at me, I knew you were fine. You wouldn’t be able to yell that to me if we were going too fast.” So he’s a great runner and person. That was my highlight and I told him we’ll look into next year and maybe he can pace me. We’ll see. I like to take it a day at a time and see where I’m at.
I have my coach, Dan. But Kurt is my coach mentally, which is just as important. If I’m questioning what I should do, I’ll talk to him about it.
We’ve talked about so much in terms of having the right people around you, eating correctly, sleeping and having everything else in place. Is there anything else that you can think of that other women who are pursuing this might be able to benefit from knowing?
Words of advice for anyone pursuing an ambitious goal. (Duration: 2:35, Download MP3)
I think when you’re trying to have a goal, whether it be the trials or [something else] — before I was searching for the magic workout or the training plan or the diets. The most important thing is getting to know yourself, your body and what works for you. Because what works for someone else might not be what you should do. You should read and try things out, but make sure to listen to to your body and know what works for you. And know that every runner’s different and unique. That’s really, I feel, the key to success.
Being determined and setting your goal: For me it really became a reality when I started putting it out there. I started coming up with the plan: “Now, what can I do in my life to help make this become possible?” Then you have to find what drives you. For me, it’s time. For some people, it might be something else inside of them. But you need to stay focused along the way and stay motivated. I’ve gone through that already with staying motivated by doing other things. For me, it’s pacing and helping other runners. If you just do the training you can get burned out pretty quickly.
Yeah, it gets old.
It does. It really does.
Well, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and hearing about what you’re putting into this. And I’m looking forward to following your progress over the next year and half or so.
Hopefully sooner! I’m just going to keep working at it and, like I said, in the end, I will give 100% and see where that takes me.
Marathon PR: 2:58:37 (CIM 2009)
Age on Trials date: 41
Previous OTQs: None
Next attempt: CIM 2010
Miles per week: 75, adding more soon
Favorite racing shoe: Brooks T5
Hometown: Glen Ellyn, IL
Job(s): Mom, tutor, pacer, running group leader
Hours per week: Nonstop
Personal: Married; three kids
Other athletics: Tennis, spin classes, weights