Runners…on your mark!

Growing up, I don’t ever recall stating the desire to become a runner, but there were plenty of signs early on that I was good at it. The baton relay at my elementary school Olympic Day, the coach always putting me at half back in my very short-lived youth soccer career, oh and the 9,452 times I mouthed off to my parents as a kid, bolted out the front door at lightning speed and across the backyard, to sit on the drainage block and declare to the entire neighborhood, “I was not coming home!“. Yeah, I wasn’t the most well behaved child.

The relay race at Olympic Day (1988-1989-ish)

After a season or two of youth soccer, and my doing everything possible to avoid going near the ball, it was clear this was not my sport. In middle school, they had what was called the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. According to a quick Google search, this was started in the late 1950’s by President Eisenhower in an effort to encourage American to be more active. After 60+ years, it was done away with in 2012…much to every middle schooler’s excitement I’m sure!

For those of you who may not have participated in this, it consisted of the following tasks…

  • Max number of pull-ups you can achieve without stopping
  • How far can you reach forward sitting with your legs in a V Shape
  • Max number of sit-ups you can achieve without stopping
  • A 30-foot shuttle run
  • And this folks, is the important one…a timed One-Mile run.

Your efforts were then measured against other students your age across the country to determine how physically fit (or not physically fit) you were, and awards were handed out. Because of course there is nothing a group of already awkward middle schoolers need for their self-esteem more, then to have their physical fitness level announced to the entire class.

I don’t recall my scores in any of these tasks, mainly because I did horribly at most and have blocked it out of my memory, but I do recall crushing that mile run. My PE teacher suggested I try out for the middle school track team along with a few of my friends. If it gets me out of sheepishly hiding from a soccer ball, sign me up!

So off I went after school to run middle school track with my friends. We had no clue what we were doing! The track at our middle school was gravel, and still is I believe. Nutrition and lifting were not yet “a thing”. In fact, I’m pretty sure any one of us currently weigh more than two of us combined would have weighed back then. And really, we just ran to have fun. We didn’t care what our times were or who we beat. It was just one big social hangout.

Middle School Track (1995)
First ever cross country meet freshman year at North Penn – On the Right (1995)

Fast forward a few years to 9thgrade, and boy did things change. Averaging over 1,000 students per grade, my school district is so big, they physically cannot fit the 9thgrade students in the actual high school building. They decided to do an experiment the year I was in 9thgrade, though it clearly didn’t work, as they switched everything around again the following year. As 9thgraders, we had our own school. Yes, that’s right. One entire school designated for one single grade. For some sports they had a 9thgrade only team, for others you were bused to the high school at the end of the day to join the 10-12thgraders. Talk about intimidating!

My friend and I show up to our first day of cross country practice all of 85 pounds max soaking wet, nervous and still completely clueless as to how we would compare to the older runners. Well as it turns out, we weren’t too bad and both made varsity for the first meet of the season. It should come as no surprise, we were not well liked at first because of this. High School is not like adult run clubs where everyone is welcoming and glad to help you get better and faster.  You see, high schoolers, girls especially, are mean. Need I reference the movie Mean Girls? We were pretty miserable for the first month or so. Both of us wanted nothing more than to quit and never go back, but we didn’t. We stuck with it together and kept going.

Also to no surprise, the workouts were significantly harder than our social hour “workouts” in middle school. We would actually leave the school campus and run various routes around town, some of them flat, but most had what at the time seemed like sizable hills (except Fishers Park, that hill still kicks my butt!). We would also run fartleks or other speed workouts and spent a couple of hours a week in the weight room. It was clear quite early, this was less of a social hour and more of a serious sport. Winter track and spring track proved to be no different, but after a while we found our place on the team and became more comfortable.

Suburban I Cross Country League Championships – Third from left #464 (1995)

One summer afternoon, my friend and I were out minding our own business on a run, when an older gentleman pulls up next to us in a car and says, “Hi ladies, I have had my eye on you running around the neighborhood.” Now I know what you are thinking, we are about to be kidnapped! He quickly realized by the look of fear on our faces we were thinking that as well. He quickly explains, “I coach for this local youth running club and would like you to come run for the team.” And because it’s the early 90’s (and apparently we didn’t pay close enough attention in the Stranger Danger lesson), we get his contact information and show up with our parents to what thankfully turned out to be Ambler Olympic Club (AOC) practice a few days later. We still laugh about this interaction. If it had happened in present times, cops would have been called, angry parents would have been mass sharing posts on social media and there would have been a witch-hunt for his head.

While my friend didn’t stick with the club team too long, I ended up competing for them for multiple cross-country and track seasons, even competing in the AAU National Cross-Country Championships two years in high school. Don’t get me wrong, I loved competing for both teams, but it was exhausting. To train for nationals, I would participate in our daily practices at North Penn, but instead of going home for dinner, I would drive to Wissahickon High School and run another practice with the club team. Yep, that’s right, two practices in one afternoon, multiple days a week! Then there was the national meet itself. These typically occur the first week of December, so when the rest of my teammates had a break between the PIAA Cross-Country State Championships and the first week of winter track practice, I was traveling out of state to run a final meet of the season. On top of doing double duty during cross-country season, AOC track meets ran on a summer schedule. I was literally competing all year long, sophomore through senior year of high school.

Running at my first AAU Cross Country National Championships, Orlando, Florida – On the right #34 (1996)
AAU National Cross Country Championships Award Ceremony, Orlando, Florida – Far Left (1996)

I had a fairly successful running career though between North Penn and AOC, and planned to continue running at the collegiate level.  Thanks to my poor grades and not wanting to spend a bajillion dollars on tuition (mostly the poor grades though), I decided it was best to attend one of the Pennsylvania state schools. I applied to both East Stroudsburg University and Lock Haven University, the latter of which I ended up attending, mainly because it was the only one I was accepted into. This actually worked out well for me, as once I was there it very quickly became home and the friends I met are now considered family!

On the start line of NCAA Division II Cross Country Regional Championships – Third from left #255 (2001)

It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine at first though. Remember when I said high school practices were hard? Yeah, they weren’t. Like not even a little bit. Having been a bit drained from so much running in high school, I really slacked off on the training plan that was provided to prepare us for pre-season. I have never regretted anything so much in my life, during that first week of practice. Lock Haven if you are not familiar is located in central Pennsylvania…in the mountains. Remember those local “hills” I thought were hard? Those now seem like blips compared to the hills we ran at Lock Haven on a regular basis. We sadly didn’t have any sort of fancy GPS watches or smart phones with apps to give us elevation charts, but a fellow Alumni ran some of them recently and posted the data to Strava. Below is the elevation chart I snagged from a run we call Junkyard, just to give you an idea of what I am talking about.

Elevation chart (admittedly stolen from a friends Strava) from a run called Junkyard. Our turn up the steep hill began at a local junkyard which is how the run got its name.

Aside from the hills though, the sheer amount of running was INSANE. Two, sometimes three, workouts a day was the norm during pre-season. There were your normal 4-5 mile easy runs, your 8-10 mile long runs, your speed workouts, early morning runs at 6am, lifting in the weight room and pool runs (yes, literally running in the deep end of a pool with an aqua jogger belt on).

My roommate the first two years at Lock Haven was thankfully also an athlete, but played Field Hockey. We started out with bunk beds day one. By day two, they were both at floor level. Why you ask? Because we were both so sore, neither one could climb the ladder to go to bed. Just like in high school though, I slowly adjusted and the runs got easier and the hills didn’t seem so big and scary.

Also like high school, I ran not only cross-country, but indoor track and outdoor track as well. Track practice thankfully didn’t involve quite as many hills as cross-country, but the workouts were much faster and much longer than what I was used to. I ended up with a massive stress fracture in my lower right leg my junior year, forcing me to sit out both track seasons to heal. I also, thanks to a pair of very lightweight and very unsupportive pair of track spikes, tore the fibers in the arch of my foot during a workout one day, leading to chronic plantar fasciitis. It was becoming clear it was going to be time to hang up the sneakers after graduation and give my body a rest.

NCAA Division II Cross Country Regionals and my last ever collegiate cross country race. Canaan Valley Resort, Parsons, West Virginia  – On the right #288(2002)

At this point, I was mentally and physically done with running anyway. I had been running an average of 7 days a week, for almost 13 years straight in a competitive nature, and my body had had enough. This period of rest went on a wee bit too long. What was once a fit set of six-pack abs quickly became a little pudgy belly, and my once toned arms and legs were carrying a bit of extra weight. I gained what most refer to as the “Freshman 15” (plus some), but about 5 years later than scheduled. I tried to go out for a few runs here and there but what was once insanely easy, was now insanely hard, and insanely painful. The motivation was long gone to try and get back into shape, that is until a woman at a local Wawa one day pointed at my shirt and said “That’s cute! It’s nice they make those clothes more stylish now a days”. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow?” I said back. “You are expecting, right?” was her response. She thought I was wearing a maternity shirt. It was at that point, I knew something needed to change.

Transitioning from being a DII competitive collegiate runner, to someone who ran for fun, was mentally challenging to say the least. Friends had been begging me for years after college to join them in some local 5K races, but I always refused. I was too afraid of embarrassing myself, having gone from someone who regularly ran sub 20 minute 5K’s all through school, to not even being sure if I could run sub 30 minutes. Spoiler alert, I could not! It was easier mentally to sit out than it was to try and fail. In an attempt to motivate myself, I signed up for the local Blue Cross Broad Street 10 miler run not once, but twice. I ran it zero times (until 2018 – hilarious review of that debacle here) in case you were wondering. No amount of money at that point was going to get me out there running solo in the winter to train.

Things changed though in the spring of 2015. Matt and Jana, two very close friends from college, jokingly suggested we all train for and run a half marathon. Matt who lives in California mentioned the Big Sur Half Marathon. The course is an out and back loop that starts and finishes in downtown Monterey, CA and runs along the coast near the famous 17 mile drive. It is held the first week of November every year, so we had about six months to get our butts in gear and train. When this was first suggested, I informed them they were crazy, and over my dead body would this be occurring. Day by day they wore me down though and I begrudgingly agreed. As a group, we all signed up for the race, and the two of us living in Pennsylvania booked flights. It was real, and this this was happening. I may have been able to bail on two attempts at the locally run Broad Street 10 Miler, but I wasn’t wiggling myself out of a race that required a flight across the country.

VIews from a training run in Baltimore, Maryland (2015)
The Brooklyn Bridge as seen from a training run along the East River, New York, New York (2015)

We looked up some training plans online, and with a new pair of running shoes and a fancy Garmin watch, I hit the roads. The runs were short and slow at first, and I had to walk even the slightest uphill. I ran the same 2.77 mile out and back route for weeks, until I could do the entire run without walking. The way out is almost entirely downhill and the way back is of course almost entirely uphill, with some parts being much steeper than others. Someone spray-painted a big smiley face on the telephone pole that sits just at the top of the last long incline. That smiley face was my goal every single time. Just make it to the smiley face I would tell myself, and would always smile back at it when I did. Once the plan called for longer runs, I would head the opposite direction and do an out and back, less hilly route. There is a shopping center about 3 miles from my house, which was my goal turnaround point. For whatever reason that day, my legs felt amazing. I got to the shopping center and decided to keep going…and going…and going. Next thing I knew, I had run 5 miles. Only problem was, I had to run another 5 miles to get back home. Oops! I made it, but with quite a few walking breaks in the last couple of miles. That day was my reality check though, I can actually do this!

Race week finally approached and I was ready! Insanely nervous, but ready. After a missed connecting flight, an unscheduled sleep over in Minneapolis and an arrival in a completely different airport than we booked, we were in California and making the 3 hour drive down to Monterey. Not wanting to tire our legs out sightseeing, we booked flights to arrive two days before the race and stay a full week after. The missed flight snafu however meant we arrived the afternoon before race day. We checked into the hotel and then headed straight over to packet pickup and then out for dinner. It was horrible planning on our part, as we were exhausted and jet lagged. Being firmly still on east coast time and having major race jitters, Jana and I were both awake around 4am local time. So we sat and we waited with nervous bellies for the rest of the crew to wake up, so we could trek the 2 miles to the start line.

Monterey Bay, California where the Big Sur Half Marathon Starts and Finishes (2015)

We knew from reading the race booklet included in our runner packets that Olympian Kara Goucher would be running the race that day as well. We hoped to catch a glimpse of her at some point during the day, but to our surprise, she came blowing past us on her warm up as we approached the start area. Oh dear Lord, what did we get ourselves into?? We weren’t sure, but there was no turning back now.

We nervously found our coral on the starting line and waited for the gun to go off. Being slower than the rest of the group, I lost track of my friends within a block or two of the start line and ended up running the whole thing on my own. The course was beyond beautiful, the fans were amazing and I only stopped to walk two or thee times, finishing within my goal time of just under two and a half hours.

Running along the coast in the Big Sur Half Marathon – #5073 (2015)
Finish line area of the Big Sur Half Marathon – In the maroon (2015)

It felt amazing to have accomplished my goal and to have gotten back into the swing of running again! So amazing in fact I got home and immediately signed up for another race…and then another one, and joined not one but TWO local running clubs. Full insanity kicked in around summer of 2017, when I signed up for the Full Monty! Yes, that’s right…26.2 miles! So here I sit, 14+ years after graduating college and only four years after agreeing to run my first half marathon, and am back to running 3-4 days per week, have now completed countless 5K’s, nine half marathons, one Broad Street 10 Miler and one full marathon, with a full race schedule for 2019. I have met countless new friends and am slowly getting rid of my “Freshman 15” pudge.

I have had a few setbacks over the last year, requiring physical therapy and with much pouting, no running. A forced deferral of the Via Marathon this summer (mid-way through the training cycle) resulted in a brief pitty party, but now has me more focused than ever and ready to come back stronger then before.

Sub 4 hour marathon, watch out, I’m coming for you!