Heather May, originally from Indiana, is currently speeding along the tenure track at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, where she is Assistant Professor of Theatre. Heather hails from a family of professors, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who talks with her for more than a few minutes. A passionate advocate of restoring the arts’ and athletics’ previous status as staples of this country’s core educational curriculum (see sidebar), Heather qualified for and raced in the last two marathon Trials. Having recovered from knee surgery last year, she’s now attempting to balance 85-100 mile running weeks with 65-80 hour work weeks in her quest for a third Trials bib, this time as a masters runner.
When we were first in touch a few months back, you’d put your chances of qualifying at 15%. Do you still think your chances are that slim, or do you feel any sunnier about them?
I’m going to hold out on being sunnier until after Twin Cities [October 3, USA Marathon Masters Championships]. Right now I’d still put it at around 15%. And that’s for a variety of reasons. One is that I have a very limited personal window. And it’s gotten shortened by the knee injury last year. The timing on that couldn’t have been much worse. I had in my head that I would train through the rest of 2008. I had hoped to chop a little time off [of my marathon best] at the end of that year, but that didn’t happen.
So I decided to have one last blowout of running before I went into nine months’ straight of directing. When I’m directing I’m not only teaching two classes, advising students, sometimes doing independent studies — but I’m also in the rehearsal hall from around 6PM-11PM six nights a week. I do run. I think I probably managed 40-60 miles a week during that time, but it’s definitely not organized, structured training. It’s more to just stay sane.
Knowing I was heading into those other commitments, I did two marathons back to back and then in May I did my first (and possibly my last) ultra. It was barely an ultra; it was a 50K on trails. I’m a horrible trail runner. In fact, my funny story there is that I fell four times during this ultra. I’m told that the trails were not that technical. But they felt quite technical to me. I hadn’t trained for it, I didn’t have trail shoes, I didn’t know what I was doing. I wound up taking over first place sometime after halfway and of course at that point the competitive juices kicked in and I was like, “I can’t possibly lose first place. That would be horrible.” And apparently the woman who came in second — who, had that race been 800m longer, probably would have caught me — I had no idea she was there. She wasn’t either of the two people I’d passed. She came from way, way, way back and went on a tear. But apparently when she hit the last group of guys that I’d run quite a bit with, she asked if there were any more women. They said, “There’s one, but you’ll catch her. She falls all the time.”
“With the marathon, everything can go wrong. There’s something alluring about a race in which you control your training so much — you have to really put a ton of training in. And then you have one day and one shot. There’s something very appealing to me about that.”
So I’d said that that was my year to do [an ultra] — May 2009 — because if I got injured it would be fine, because I was [going to be] taking all this time off [from hard training]. Well, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure [that race] caused the injury. Or at least started some problems that I didn’t know were there. And then, literally the week before my third of three shows closed, when I was planning to start training at the end of September, early October for Grandma’s Marathon in June of this year, my knee blew up to three times its normal size.
It was a meniscus tear that precipitated the surgery?
Actually, we didn’t find the meniscus tear until we went in. I knew I was having a lot of synovial fluid problems with the plica, so I had a lot of scarring on the plica. That’s what we thought was causing all of the problems. So I went through about six weeks of physical therapy because people kept saying, “People run on plica syndrome all the time, it’s not a problem. If you can, you can try to get it back down and run on it. We’ll be happy to do surgery, but you should try this first.” After six weeks the swelling hadn’t gone down in size at all and I couldn’t bend it. So at that point I just wanted to go in and get it scoped.
So your pessimistic attitude about qualifying isn’t related to the knee per se, it’s more about your other demands intruding?
Yes, absolutely. My timeline. Because once I get through Twin Cities, I go into rehearsal the very next day. October 3 is the race, October 4 will be my first day of rehearsal for the fall show I’m doing, and that will open the week before Thanksgiving. So I have, I’d say, nine months next year where, if a basically swear off life, I can train for one shot. At a maximum, I can train for Grandma’s [June 2011] and if I crashed there, hold on or retrain for Chicago [October 2011]. After that point I go back into a heavy schedule for everything else. So basically it needs to happen by early next fall or I just don’t see it happening.