The Weight Off My Back

I am one of the lucky ones. One of the ones who found running as an adolescent but still have a healthy relationship with it. One of the ones who had a healthy coach-athlete relationship where my coaches saw beyond the present and wanted us to have longevity in the sport.

Yet the adolescent mind could not help but wonder…if I hadn’t gotten my period at age 11, would I be faster? The fastest girls on my team were thin, pre-pubescent, and nearly all identical builds. I had hips, a butt, and had been menstruating for 4 years by the time I joined the track team. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was a different “build” than the traditional high school distance runner. But there was a time that I didn’t realize I was any different than anyone else.

I began running on the middle school track team, competing in the 400 meter dash most often. No one in my family was a runner and I had rarely run more than a mile at a time in soccer practice or in the high school mile. Our middle school coaches were not intense and let us pick our events; the 400 seemed like a good fit for me since I didn’t have overly quick startup speed and at the time didn’t possess much interest in running long distance. At this point in my life, running was a fun activity to enjoy with friends also on the team. I’ve always been competitive, but I knew nothing about fast times or runners’ bodies and I was primarily competitive with myself, or with others I knew from school but not much beyond that. For that reason, I was not a top runner in middle school, and at this point in my life, I was mostly focused on soccer anyway. This would continue through my freshman year of high school until I decided to make a change with my sports focus.

During my freshman year, I was playing travel soccer in the fall and it was expected that I would play high school soccer in the spring. In the time between travel soccer and high school soccer, I decided to join the track team and compete in indoor track. It was a good way to stay in shape between seasons and our girls’ track team was one of the best in the state. The culture I found in the team was unlike any other culture I had been a part of in a sports team. The coaches were serious, they were committed to bring out the best in the athletes and setting each of us up for success, but also a little goofy, forming strong relationships with many of the runners who had been on the team for multiple years. The girls were welcoming, kind, and dedicated. Because the track team was open to everyone, there was a wide range of individuals. I would argue it was one of the most diverse clubs let alone teams at the school and it felt like a safe place to be yourself, which in high school, could be hard to do. It’s a place where cliques vanished, stereotypes disappeared, and girls who would probably never talk to one another in the hall were suddenly old friends. Having been bullied online by a few of the girls on my travel soccer team (a story for another day), I finally felt like this was where I was supposed to be and felt like an integral part of the team from Day 1.

Unfortunately, once the winter season was up, I had a choice to make. Would I remain a part of the track team I had grown to love so much, or would I pick spring soccer, making good on the investment my parents had made into travel soccer to help me be able to make the high school team? I remember approaching the head girls’ track coach before practice one day, and letting her know that I had made my decision. I would be playing soccer that spring. I didn’t hold it together very well and distinctly remember crying as she gave me a hug and told me, “You’re always welcome back on the team. Many girls have gone the route you are choosing and have come back the year after.” I turned in my uniform and proceeded to have an awful spring, relying on only two peers on the team for support and knowing that chatter was always going on behind my back. I would come home from soccer practice and often go out for a run, logging a lap or two around the lake we lived on (just over a mile around) because I felt like I hadn’t gotten a good workout in; little did I know it was also a big stress-reliever at the time.

I quit travel soccer after that spring season and started running on my own, only a couple miles at a time without timing myself. I was committed to rejoining the track team that winter and when it rolled around, I decided I wanted to run with the distance crew. I had recognized that I didn’t have natural speed for sprints and had grown to enjoy running further distances. I started off running with some of the JV girls, but quickly realized that I had good endurance and was able to keep going when many of them would want to stop and catch their breath. I gathered my courage and one day asked the varsity girls if I could run with them. I had no business being there – I hadn’t proven myself yet and had only been racing in the shorter distance events at meets but I wanted to improve and I knew that running with people who were faster than me was probably the best way to do that. The girls were gracious and invited me to come with them. There was one varsity team but two groups that normally went out to run, one faster and one slightly slower. I started with the second group and was able to keep up, but was often a lot more gassed than they were, remaining quiet in the back as I was breathing heavily and letting the other girls carry the conversation. Gradually, though, I became more comfortable, joining in on the conversations when my breathing was no longer labored, and eventually being noticed by the head distance coach who encouraged me to go out for cross-country in the fall and to continue running with the girls over the summer to stay in shape.

It was a no-brainer. I was committed to the team and to the girls I was running with and felt like I had found the sport I truly belonged in. I was continuing to improve because I was doing something I hadn’t done before; there was a lot of room for growth and progression. I quickly became one of the top 5 runners on the cross-country team my junior year, happy that I was scoring points for the team (there are 7 runners who run in a Varsity race and only the top 5 actually score points for the overall team score). My body was changing as I was running more and more, becoming very lean and toned, and people were recognizing it. I remember my junior homecoming all of the moms commenting on how thin I was, as if it was a very positive thing, and liking the attention I was getting for the way I looked. I didn’t change my eating habits, and if anything I probably ate more carbs than I had before at carbo-loading parties we’d have before big invitational meets, but it was the first time I really started associating body type with running and recognizing that a certain look was considered “normal” for distance runners.

I went on to have a strong junior year in both cross-country and track, breaking 12 minutes in the 2-mile with 11:53 and running my fastest mile in 5:33. I claim no natural ability in running; truly this was the result of hard work and determination and it would has been the backbone of all of my training for years to come. I was also selected as one of captains for both the cross-country teams and track teams respectively for my senior year. I felt on top of the world, loving every minute of running and school, so I wasn’t ready for the changes that would happen on our team that next year, or in my mind.

During my senior year of high school, there were a few new faces on the Varsity team, girls who had either come out of middle school as strong runners or had made a lot of progress during the track season in the spring. I found myself just vying to stay in the top 7 that year and to be able to compete for Varsity. We had a very competitive, strong team; in nearly every other team in our area apart from a couple schools, a 19:23 3-mile athlete could run Varsity and be in the top 5 runners consistently. It was hard for me to take in mentally, but it definitely pushed everyone to be their best and continue to work hard. It also unintentionally bred a cutthroat environment. Instead of the supportive, caring group we once had, it seemed like it was everyone out for themselves. We were working together in practice, but we knew that every workout and every dual meet mattered for which of the “Top 12” (12 individuals can be listed on a Varsity roster but only 7 get to race in the Varsity race), would get to compete for the Varsity team on the weekend invitationals and which would run from the front of the pack in JV. I found myself often winning JV races that season as I was typically number 8 when it came to speed that year. It was heartbreaking to always be just one spot away from running the varsity race, but I tried to let it fuel me, crossing the line in the top 3 consistently in the JV race and trying to prove to my coach that I belonged on the varsity starting line. I had waged mental warfare on myself, and I saw other teammates crumble under the pressure to stay at the top as well. I remember protein powder infiltrating its way into our practices and having to take it immediately after we finished a hard workout or after a big meet. I also remember it being the first season we had a session with a sports psychologist and our coaches encouraging us to begin seeing him regularly. I felt weird asking my parents to pay for such a thing in high school so I refrained from going, but I started to question if part of the reason some of my teammates were improving was because they had someone to talk through the mental challenges of running with.

I think the darkest thing I saw, however, was a new obsession with weight. It wasn’t just by the girls on the team, it was by parents who subtly made comments when they thought no one else was listening, or other high schoolers who didn’t realize how far their words went. “Oh well she’s so tiny, of course she’s fast.” “She hasn’t hit puberty yet, as soon as she does, she’s going to slow way down.” I had already gone through puberty so I couldn’t change that fact, but I could control my weight from getting any higher. It was during this season that I became obsessed with weighing myself daily, thinking that if I could stay under 120 pounds that I would stay fast. At 5’5’’, the normal weight for a female is 113 pounds-138 pounds according to online research. I would hover around 118 pounds that season, within normal limits which is probably why no one had reason to question anything, but at this weight I sustained injury after injury that would plague the rest of my senior year. It obviously wasn’t a healthy weight for me to be at, but I didn’t realize this until very recently when reflecting on how I’m at my heaviest today have been running my fastest times because I am healthy and have let my body dictate where its weight should fall.

I’d like to make it clear, I’ve never had an eating disorder, I think back in high school I just wasn’t eating enough calories to fuel my body for long distance running. I remember in health class, we once went to the computer lab to do research on caloric intake. If we were to go back to the lab today, I could tell you exactly where I was sitting and at what computer I was sitting at, that’s how etched into my brain this is. We put in our height and weight into a website and it spit out an average number of how many calories someone with our body type should be consuming per day. It had an option to put whether or not you were active, but it didn’t quite specify how active. I selected the “active” option. 1800-2100 calories. So naturally, the 17 year old brain fixated on the lowest number only. In my mind, 1800 calories was the recommended consumption for a 5’5’’ female with an active lifestyle (to give you an idea, according to the registered dietician I recently worked with, I should be consuming 1800-2300 calories per day; 1800 is on the low end and is essentially for when my activity level is low, not when I am in peak training). Back in high school, I didn’t know any better, so I began following that guideline; if we learned it in health class, it had to be accurate, right?

The computer research should have been a harmless exercise, but looking back I think, shame on those teachers for having high school students researching this at a vulnerable time in their lives. I understand their intent was to help students make healthy choices later down the road when they were living on their own but high school girls, especially, are already so self-conscious about themselves during high school, and this was just one more reason for us to be. I began counting calories on wrappers, always opting for the non-fat or low-fat option when there was one, and at 17 years old I was choosing salads over cheeseburgers at fast food restaurants. While cheeseburgers are not necessarily the answer to a balanced diet, helping athletes understand that food is fuel is critical. I was trying to eat like the media was promoting in commercials (low fat or non-fat everything because all fat was bad for you – very, very false) or what others around me were eating, not like an endurance athlete should be. Without the right balance, bad things can happen.

And bad things did happen. Shortly before the cross-country state meet, I sustained a stress fracture in my foot and was in a boot for a month. I remember swimming to try to stay in cardio shape but falling into a deep sadness over muscle tone that disappeared and pounds that were added to the scale. It was around this same time that I had decided to become a pescatarian, a person who is a vegetarian but also consumes fish. The funny part is, I only like salmon and tilapia so really I just severely cut down my protein intake and increased carbs because I was hungry all of the time. I continued to eat like this for 4 years, eventually growing frustrated with feeling exhausted from not fueling properly and also gaining weight from eating carbs constantly, and added back in chicken and turkey to my diet. My energy levels returned and my weight started to normalize because I was eating a more balanced diet again. I think there is a right way to eliminate meat and still be an endurance athlete but as a 17-year old whose family did not eat this way, I had no idea what I was doing and how to eat properly to fuel myself (note this is not on them at all; I take full responsibility for irresponsibly cutting an entire food group out).

I struggled through my senior year of track after coming back from my stress fracture, but found myself in physical therapy later on for IT Band Syndrome which had gotten so bad that I once collapsed on the field while doing a stride during track practice because my knee just gave out. The signs were clear long before this incident that I should have taken a break, but I was stubborn and more than anything I wanted to get to the state meet and run around the infamous blue track. Instead, it was a season riddled by injury and frustration, and as a result I never had an opportunity to actually run in a state meet, which when I look back on my time in high school is the one thing I feel like I never accomplished (I would later feel the satisfaction I was searching for from this by qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon). I would continue running in college because I enjoyed it for both exercise and stress relief and later in my sophomore year, my weight started to increase, more towards where it probably should have been to be healthy for me. It took me a very long time to accept the changes my body went through, often looking back at old pictures from my high school running days and idolizing the way my body used to look.

I wish I could go back in time and throw out the scale in my bathroom at home. I wish someone could’ve told me that 1800 calories a day was not enough to fuel my body running and lifting 6 days a week. I wish it wasn’t assumed that anyone who had gone through puberty early would never make it at the top in high school. I wish that I loved my body then as much as I do now and could show my younger self all that it could accomplish when all of the pieces are aligned.

I shouldn’t have to be considered “lucky” that I made it out of the sport at a young age and still love running and competing today. I have quite a few teammates who were at the top and have either stopped running altogether or only do so on occasion and it makes me sad that something that used to bring them so much joy became a monster. I want the new normal of adolescent running to be all body types represented at the highest levels, letting girls’ bodies come into their own and not forcing them to fit a mold they weren’t meant to. I want to set that example for younger girls who might be following my running journey, and if I ever have the opportunity to coach high school athletes, to put a focus on helping them be comfortable with the body they’re in and celebrating what it can do for them. I would love for my own future children to be runners, and if they choose to be, I want them to be in environments that support them as people first and runners second. My life is better because running is in it, and that’s how it always should be.

Indy Monumental Half Marathon Race Recap

I ran the Indy Monumental Half Marathon as a tuneup race for CIM in 4 weeks. I did a small taper the week leading up to the race, but because this was during the marathon buildup, I was really running on tired, un-tapered marathon legs. I talked to my coach on Wednesday before the race to get a race strategy in place. I had come off of a really strong workout on Tuesday and was feeling a lot more confident going into Saturday’s race. We were shooting for a sub-1:30 half, around a 1:29, and the plan was to go out with the 1:30 pace group through 7 miles and then for me to pull away and race the last 6.1. I felt comfortable with the plan, but admitted that running all my mile splits beginning with “6” was still pretty intimidating. I had never done it before in a half marathon and this would be the first attempt. She reassured me that I was ready and capable of running these times and so I trusted in her, in my training, and in myself.

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Ross and I at the expo. I wanted him to get a photo with me because he’s always traveling to these races taking my photo but he’s never in any!

Ross and I took the day off of work on Friday and I ran my shakeout miles prior to hitting the road for Indianapolis. It was a 3.5 hour drive with an hour time change and my original goal had been to get to the expo in time to hear Deena Kastor’s talk. When we reached Indianapolis, it was shortly after 2 p.m. and I was really just in the mood to get my packet and get out of the expo. I don’t like to spend much time at expos the day before a race because it can be a lot of time on your feet plus with so many people around I get nervous that I’m going to catch a cold or some virus so we went in, got the race packet, snapped a photo, and went back to our hotel. Everything was within walking distance since we were staying downtown and it was very convenient. I tried to take a short nap back at the hotel, maybe got 10-15 minutes of intermittent sleep, and then we left for dinner with running friends at Buca di Beppo (thanks for organizing, Chris and Marie!). It was a big group but everyone knew at least one person in the group; I had been messaging with Marrisa Castner, another Team Sugar Runs athlete, and we finally got to meet in person for dinner after many Instagram DMs over the last year or so. Dinner was a great way to calm my nerves and to share some laughs and smiles with other runners. We said our goodbyes around 7 p.m., and then went back to the hotel where Ross and I would watch 2 hours of Animal Planet before going to sleep. I remember telling him that I was scared for the race because it was going to hurt and him reassuring me that I was ready for this and that I’d do great. I’m lucky to have a really supportive husband who while not a runner himself, understands how important this is to me and travels with me to nearly every big race I run.

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Meeting Marissa, a Team Sugar Runs teammate and fellow Illini, for the first time at dinner!

My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. Saturday and I got up and did a quick 10 minute shakeout in the hotel gym. I have done a shakeout mile at 10 min pace 2-3 hours before every half marathon I’ve run in the last 18 months and I really like that it gets the blood flowing early in the morning. After the mile, I got a cup of coffee and half a bagel with some peanut butter on it from the hotel breakfast and headed back up to the room to make my bowl of oatmeal. I made sure I was done eating by 6:45 (the race started at 8) to give myself time to digest, but also to not be hungry at the start. The temperature was cold outside, 28 degrees with a real feel of 21, so I stayed inside the hotel as long as possible to avoid standing in the cold outside. There were a few things I did on race day that looking back on really helped me with the race. The first was wearing compression arm sleeves under my long sleeve shirt, which Ross had recommended I do the night before to help stay warm. My arms have the tendency to really tighten up in the cold and I’ve lost time not from my legs being tired but from my arms being so tight and I didn’t want that to happen since it’s not fun to watch your goal slowly creep away because of something silly like tight arms. I made the decision to wear long tights as well knowing that I have suffered from hypothermia in a race before and that my body doesn’t react well to cold weather. I had an old sweatshirt of Ross’ that I wore over everything to warm up in and to stand in the corral with and though I was a bit sweaty by the end of the warm-up, I was toasty. The second thing I did right was putting hand warmers in each of my gloves to keep my hands warm. I suffer from raynaud’s syndrome where the cold makes my fingers go colorless and numb and I typically run in big puffy mittens in the winter, but for the race I wanted to be able to use my fingers to open gels so I was happy to be able to use the hand-warmers in gloves to make it happen.

I had brought a half-full water bottle with me for the warm-up to take my first gel with before starting the race. This was a suggestion by my coach since I would be trying to run a fast time and was going to be using a lot more energy per mile than I had before. It was my first time “pre-geling” and I think it really helped keep my energy levels even throughout the race. I ended up keeping the water bottle with me for the first 6.5 miles of the race, the third thing I did right that day as it allowed me to skip all of the early aid stations and be able to take my gel throughout mile 6 instead of shoving it down in one go with a little cup like I normally do. But more on that later. I was able to enter the corral just after 7:45 which was really nice since I’d never be able to do that at one of the majors like Chicago. I found the 3 hour marathon pacer and shortly after, the 1:30 pacer who was specific to the half marathon. We introduced ourselves to him and I ended up talking with a Notre Dame undergrad student for the first 10 minutes before the race started who was also planning on running with the pace group. The atmosphere was friendly and nerves really weren’t kicking in, and then all of a sudden some air horns went off and everyone started rushing forward to the start.

The 1:30 pacer went out hard and I just let them go initially, keeping his flag in my sights but not wasting energy weaving in and out of people just yet. Mile 1 felt pretty uncomfortable and not really in control but I would catch the group shortly before mile 1 clicked at a 6:39 and it made sense to me why it felt fast – it was 13 seconds faster than it should’ve been! I decided to give the group another mile to see if the pace would settle down hoping that I wouldn’t have to run the whole race solo as I was hoping to just tuck in for awhile and let the pacer do the pacing work so I could just run. Mile 2 was a 6:44. A little more in control but still about 8 seconds fast, but I felt really good so I decided to stick it out with the group. Miles 3 and 4 were quick again at a 6:38 and 6:31 but they didn’t feel that fast, I just hoped that I wasn’t messing up my whole race by hanging with this group. After mile 4 the pacer apologized for the fast pacing and things started clicking a little more consistently. Mile 5 actually felt a little more recovery-like at 6:48, or at least that’s what I told myself in my head. I turned my headphones off for a little bit and listened to the conversation going on around me. I decided not to join in on the talking though as I wanted to save my energy for the race since this was still really early on and I still had 8 miles to go. At mile 6 (6:51), I found myself running side by side with the pacer and began to take my gel. I was grateful to have my water bottle still with me to be able to take small sips of water and small sips of the gel. Just after about 6.5 miles, I tossed the water bottle off to the side of the course with it being empty and started mentally preparing to break away from the pack as my coach had instructed me to do at 7. Seeing the flag for mile 7 I started running in front of the group and reminded myself that this was just like a workout where I have the warm-up portion and then go straight into the speedwork without stopping. I wanted to look strong as I pulled away and knew that now was when the race really began for me.

I felt good pulling away but wanted to keep it under control. I started having fun passing people and got energy from being the one passing and not being the one being passed. When mile 8 clicked at 6:26, though, I realized it was too early to be kicking like this and tried to dial it back. I think it was around mile 8 that I took a cup of water and choked on it, coughing a bunch and thinking to myself, “this is not how this is going down”, and then finding my stride again. I thought I had dialed it back, until 6:23 came up on the watch for mile 9. “What the heck is happening,” I asked myself. At this point my watch was clicking a little before each mile marker so I knew it wasn’t exactly dead on, but something special was happening. It’s also when the race started to get hard, however, as miles 9-13 were all running south towards a direct headwind. I hoped that leaving the pace group behind was the right choice as at this point, there weren’t many people around to block the wind so I was on my own battling the elements. I reminded myself of the runs I had the past weekend and week where I was dealing with 15 mph winds and told myself that I could manage 8 mph winds for the next 4 miles. “The faster you run the faster you’re done!”

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I’m cold looking at this woman’s outfit but everyone has something that works best for them! For me that was layering up even though I really wanted to wear some shorts!

Mile 10 came through in 6:30 and I was starting to hurt. The wind was not letting up, but neither was I. It was at this mile that I came to a critical point in the race asking myself, “why not you?” What I was asking myself was why couldn’t I run a faster time than a 1:29. I was feeling a little bit of imposter syndrome running the way I was, as I had never come close to this before, and talked to myself throughout the next mile (in my head, of course!) about why I was questioning if I belonged in this group and why I was scared to make something magical happen. I still can’t find the right words for it, but I think I was scratching the surface of some suppressed thoughts from earlier running days where I had accepted my speed for what it was and that I’d always be a good, but not exceptional runner. So the question “why not me” was giving me some freedom to write my own story and break out of that old mold I had created for myself back in high school running. Mile 10 was full of raw emotion, and I quickly came back to reality when I could no longer control my bladder and yep, I peed myself. I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t include that bit but when I’ve gone to the well in a hard workout or race, this typically happens to me. Sorry not sorry.

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Mile 11 was slower at a 6:41 but I was still running well below the 6:52 average needed to break 1:30. My coach had told me to give everything I had in those last 2 miles and so I didn’t step off the gas, but it just got harder as the wind gusted in our direction and we were tired having run for so many miles already. When I hit mile 11, however, I saw that I had 16 minutes to run 2.1 miles and still get under 1:30, and I knew in that moment that it was up to me to determine just how far under 1:30 we were going to go. Mile 12 was consistent with mile 11 and came in at a 6:43 and I knew that I only had a little running left to go. I saw a couple women ahead and pushed myself to catch up to them and ultimately pass them in that final stretch. I knew 1:28 was likely, and then I saw my Ross at 12.9ish cheering for me and thought, “you know what? At this point you could keep running this pace and easily get 1:28, but if you push yourself this last bit, you could run a 1:27 half marathon. What’s it going to be?” I used his cheering energy to blast forward past a couple men, hitting mile 13 in 6:36. We turned the corner to run the last 0.10 into the finish and I could see the timing clock in front of me ticking down. It had already reached 1:28 but this was chip timed and I hadn’t started right at the beginning so I had some time left. I didn’t want to waste energy looking at my watch knowing it would be close so I continued to push forward, faster and faster, crossing the line, clicking off my watch, and stumbled to get a heat sheet before getting down on my knees trying to catch my breath.

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Running past Ross to go kick into the finish. I would end up passing this pack in front of me in that final surge.

I finally looked at the watch, 1:27:50. I had not only broken 1:30, I had broken two more minutes and became a 1:27 half marathoner. My official time would come in at 1:27:48 and truthfully, looking at it today still doesn’t feel real (though my sore body would tell you otherwise!). Ross found me at the finish and gave me a big hug and told me that I was going to NYC (the qualifying time to run the NYC Marathon with a half marathon time is 1:32 for my age group and gender) before we started walking back to our hotel. I had forgotten all about it and quite frankly was too tired after the race to really think or feel much emotion; all I wanted was to get out of the cold and wind and to take a hot shower. But don’t worry, on the walk back I started getting pretty excited about what I had just done and started acting less stunned, which probably had something to do with the ups and down I’ve experienced this cycle.

Splits from the half

This training cycle for CIM has not been perfect and many runs, especially long runs, have felt much harder than in previous cycles. I have been struggling with some health issues and it’s weighed on me physically as much as it has mentally. I felt really, really lucky that I wasn’t dealing with any of those issues on race week for the first time in weeks; the timing really couldn’t have been any better. I think the biggest lesson I’m walking away with from this race is that you don’t have to have a perfect cycle or perfect build-up to have an A+ day. I was able to 100% execute my race plan from start to finish yesterday, negative splitting, running a 4:31 PR, and I can tell you while I’ve run nearly all the miles I’ve needed to this cycle, the workouts and long runs have been pretty challenging and I can count more long runs that I’ve felt discouraged from than gained confidence from. It was a reminder in continuing to show up even when things get tough because when we show up, we win at least half the battle and sometimes that’s more than enough.