Summer Running

It’s summer 2022 and life events are back in full swing – weddings, graduations, college reunions, birthday parties, the list goes on and on. I find that the pause we experienced the last two years has made me all the more grateful that I’m able to celebrate these occasions. Still, the one thing that I’m struggling to find an appreciation for….summer running. 

Here on the east coast, it’s felt like we’ve been in a heat wave for months. I know it’s August, but cooler weather seems to be ages away. Quite frankly, I’m sick of ending every easy run drenched in sweat. Living in a place with seasons, I have to learn to embrace the suck of summer running. So here are my tips and take-aways from my past few months of running in the heat:

Be humble. It’s no secret that it’s harder to hit faster paces in the heat. I’m usually pretty good about adjusting my workout paces for the heat, but when it comes to easy running, it’s hard for me to be humble. I was doing my winter easy runs at 9:10 pace or faster, with a HR under 155 BPM. Now, my heart rate spikes if I try to push under 10 minute pace. So I’m learning to slow down and respect the heat. I’ve found that if I run slower on my easy runs, I don’t have to scale back the pace as much on my harder workouts. It’s the same principle my coach totes year-round, “Run slow to run fast.” But I didn’t realize what a big difference that could make, especially in the brutal summer temperatures. 

Get out early. I’ve almost always been a morning runner. I like getting up, having a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, and hitting the road before the rest of the world is up and moving. I’ve found this to be an incredibly important habit to keep during the warmer months of the year when it often hits 80 degrees by 8 am. Unless you want to melt, or bring buckets of water, you have to get out the door early. Yet, during the summer is when I want to stay up later – I love summer and I want to make the most of it. And that leads me into my next tip…

Be consistent, but be flexible. We all know consistency is key when it comes to running, and we need to get our summer runs in to prep for fall races. But if you’re like me and you want to make the most of the summer, you have to be flexible. I want to go out for ice cream at night, have a beer on the deck, or stay out late at a baseball game. But it’s hard to do all of those things when you have to be up at the crack of dawn for a long run. So I’m learning to compromise. Sometimes that means saying no to plans, but more and more it means saying yes to plans, getting a little less sleep, getting up early, getting my run in, and then taking an afternoon nap if needed. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, so I’ve moved some of my morning runs to the evenings to accommodate an early drive. Sometimes I’ll even cut a run short if I’m too tired or just not feeling it. I try not to do this very often, because I do think there’s value in finishing runs that feel hard. But I think sometimes a run feeling crappy is a sign that you need some extra rest. So if I was out late, and spent the day by the pool, and I felt a little too drained to finish my 5 mile run, I might just do 4. And that’s perfectly okay. 

Lounge. Yes, I absolutely want to make the most of my summer, but sometimes I’m just tired and need to rest. One of the things I’ve struggled with throughout my running journey is knowing when to take a break. It’s hard for me, especially during the summer when I want to be outside and soaking up the sunshine, but the sun can be draining. So if I’m tired after a sweaty, sunny long run, I’ve started giving myself permission to lounge on the couch and enjoy the AC for the rest of the day. Or, if I feel like getting out of the house, I’ll go to the movies. Taking time to rest is all the more important during the summer when the heat and humidity are taking their toll. 

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. This is probably an obvious one, but it’s one I’m constantly working on. If it’s hot and I’m running for more than 30-40 minutes, I’ll bring my hand-held water bottle along. Some long runs I’ll plan a route where I loop back by my car or apartment in the middle so I can refill my water if needed. After the run I always always always have a nuun tablet. The lemon lime flavor has been my favorite for years. A nuun tablet dissolved in ice water at the end of a hot run is just *chef’s kiss.* I’ve also started buying watermelon to snack on when I’m feeling dehydrated throughout the day. Tasty and refreshing!

Ultimately, I think the key with summer running, as with most things, is balance. There’s no perfect formula for successful summer running, all you can do is get out the door as much as possible, and have fun doing it. 

Hartford Marathon 2021 Race Recap

It was somewhere around mile 11, when the half marathoners broke off and headed toward the finish, that I started thinking to myself, I am never doing this again. My body was already hurting and I still had another 15 miles to go. 

Last weekend I ran my third full marathon in Hartford, CT. I picked Hartford for convenience more than anything, I didn’t know where I’d be living when I registered, but my hometown is just 20 minutes outside the city, so I knew I’d be able to stay with my parents and they’d be obligated to come out and cheer me on. 

Between registration and race day my plans for a “convenient” race grew into something much more fun and exciting. My two childhood best friends wound up registering for the half marathon. Neither were crazy enough to join me for the full, but it would be nice to have a few friendly faces on the course.

My cheer squad grew too.  It was my middle sister’s fall break so she was home from college. My brother happened to have a free weekend and decided to come down from Boston. My youngest sister still lives at home so she was obligated to come regardless. My parents, my most loyal fans, would also be around. It would be the first time my entire family would be able to watch me run, which was incredibly exciting. 

I woke up early the morning of the marathon, put on the race outfit I’d picked out weeks ago, and made myself a cup of coffee and toast, my usual pre-run breakfast. I did my best to stay “in the zone.” My mom was nice enough to get up early and drive me to the start, the rest of the family would sleep in a little and join the fun later.

Thanks to a slow moving line at the port-a-potty, I slipped into my corral just before the starting gun went off. There was no more time for me to be nervous, I just had to do what I’d been training my body to do for months – run. 

The first few miles I just tried to find my rhythm and not waste too much energy weaving through the mass of runners. By mile three, the crowd had thinned and I settled in with the 3:35 pace group. The first half cursed us with rolling hills, but I’d prepared for that. I took the uphill slow and relaxed, and let myself glide on the downhills. I’d made the mistake of taking the hills too hard in my last marathon and my quads paid for it dearly in the end. I learned that lesson the hard way, and was playing safe and smart this time around. 

The first few miles were some of the more exciting of the race, weaving through the streets of downtown Hartford. My cheerleaders yelled my name and waved around homemade signs as I ran by. I fist pumped as I passed, filled with the energy of the race environment. 

I let the race-day adrenaline get to me a little, and I knew I’d taken the first few miles a little too fast. I slowed a bit and focused on staying with the 3:35 pacer. My big, lofty goal was to run 3:30. So I figured I would stay with the 3:35 pacer for now and if I felt good at the half, I could pick up the pace from there. 

I breezed through the first 11 miles, but as the half marathoners veered left and headed toward the finish, I could help but envy them. I felt okay now, but would I still feel okay for another 15 miles? Why would I put myself through all this pain? Is it worth it?

It was in that moment I decided that this would be my last marathon. I would do more half marathons, but this would be my last full. And if that was the case, I had to give it my all. 

As I passed the half-way marker, I assessed how I was feeling. Good, but not great. I decided to stay with the 3:35 pacer. I felt challenged, but relaxed cruising along at 8:15 pace, so I stayed with the group. It was nice to run with other people. The morale was high and I fed off that energy. I chatted with a few of the guys about another race they’d done recently – a Spartan race where runners completed challenges while climbing Mount Killington in Vermont. I told them my brother had done the race, but went into it completely unprepared. He and his friends hadn’t realized it would take 8 hours and require climbing the mountain multiple times. They didn’t bring any food or water, and I’m really not sure how they survived. I joked with my new friends that this marathon would be a breeze in comparison. I wasn’t sure I really believed that, but it was nice to know we were all in this together. And at least I’d prepared for this. 

We worked our way through the later miles and a few folks dropped off – some sped up ahead of the group, and others succumbed to the pain. But I stayed with it, for now. 

Why would I put myself through all of this pain? Is it worth it?

The way the course was designed, around mile 18 or 19 we could see some of the elite runners headed toward the finish. They had about 2 miles left while we had another hour of running a head of us. I tried to be inspired by their speed instead of feeling discouraged by how far I still had to go. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fans who came out and supported us through the later miles, including my dad who ran alongside the race course shouting words of encouragement. My sisters showed up with some signs and my brother gave me a high five so aggressive I nearly fell over. Still, I fed off the fans and their energy. 

Or at least I tried to. The little water bottle I carried with me ran dry around mile 20 so I just focused on making it to the next water stop. I felt tired and dehydrated and I wanted to take another gel to boost my energy, but I knew I needed water first. It felt like forever, but eventually the water stop came and I was able to suck down some hydration and refill my bottle. It was the first water stop I’d actually slowed to a walk for and that may have been a mistake. Thanks to the brief walk break I could feel my legs cramping up. They were tired and heavy, but I had to put it out of my mind. I just had another four miles to go, I could do this. 

For the next few miles I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t my fastest, but I kept a good pace and I was just ahead of the 3:35 pace group. That was until the final hill. It was only really a slight incline over the bridge and back into downtown Hartford. I was only a mile from the finish, but my legs had never felt heavier. I made a deal with myself I would walk for just a second, then finish strong. And that’s what I did. My dad appeared as I slowly climbed the hill, cheering as if I had a shot at winning the race. As I crossed the bridge I started running again and my dad jogged alongside me, just like he had done during my high school cross country races.

As much as I wanted to stop and walk the last mile to the finish I told myself I couldn’t do that. I thought about the 16 year old girl who hated running but joined the cross country team anyway. I thought about how badly she wanted to quit during her first practice, but she stuck with it and somehow running had changed her life for the better. It occurred to me that now, ten years later, that same girl was running a full marathon at a faster pace than she ran her best cross country races in high school. So I dug deep for her. 

I sped up as I crossed over into Hartford. The remainder of the 3:35 pace group passed me during my walk break and I couldn’t quite catch them, but I kept a good pace as I headed back into the city and towards the finish. Someone yelled, “Only a quarter mile to go!” Which I knew was a lie since I couldn’t even see the finish yet. Then, it came into view. The Arch. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch marked the finish of the race. I picked up the pace and gave it everything I had to get to that finish. I crossed the line in 3:38:33. More than 10 minutes faster than my last marathon. 

I was deliriously tired and everything hurt. I stumbled through the finish where I saw and thanked the 3:35 pacer for helping me get through the bulk of the race. I got my medal, mylar blanket, and a bag of goodies then found a bench where I could sit down. I reunited with my friends and loyal cheer squad somewhere in between the finish line and the beer garden. We took some time so celebrate our accomplishments and complain of our achy muscles. I vowed that this was it, this was my last marathon, I was never going to put myself through that again. I was sure I didn’t want to do 26.2 again. 

Now, however, as I reflect on the race, I think I will do it again. Yes it hurt, and my legs will be sore for at least another week, but there’s something about the marathon that keeps me coming back. For one, I know that I have more to give. I want to run a race where I’m mentally strong enough to push through when it hurts and not walk up that last hill. I want to take what I learned in this race and apply it to another one and see how much faster I can go. I want to see if I can nab an elusive Boston Qualifying time. I’d just have to shave another 10 minutes off my time. I think it might be do-able?

I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m sure I’ll be back. The marathon and I still have some unfinished business. 

Why am I doing this?

Why would anyone run a marathon?

Training for and running a marathon is a grueling process. You really only know how truly grueling it is until you’re in the thick of it. It’ll test you mentally, as well as physically. The marathon will force you to explore the limits of your body and, most often, push past them. 

As I begin my fourth* marathon training cycle, I am already being tested. 

*This is the fourth marathon I’ve trained for, though I’ve only completed two thus far. The last marathon I trained for I decided not to run last minute due to a nagging ankle injury. Marathon training is tough on the body!

Today I had a long run on the calendar. 16 miles. A doozy, especially given that the temps have been creeping up past 90 all week. Thankfully it had rained overnight bringing relief to the unbearable heat, but still, I wanted to get up and out early so as not to get stuck running in the mid day sun. Not to mention that a 16 miler would take up a good chunk of my day, well over 2 hours for sure. 

So I got up and got going early, or at least somewhat early. 7am was late compared to the regular 5:30 wake up calls of previous marathon training cycles, but it was a Sunday and I did need my sleep. I started my usual pre-run routine with a cup of coffee and some toast. I journaled a bit while I nursed my cup of coffee, only half procrastinating my run. Eventually I got around to lacing up my sneakers and doing my warmup drills. I packed up a small bag with water, electrolytes, a towel, and a few other things I thought I might need for the run. I drove just a few minutes down the road and parked along one of my favorite trails. I surely could have just run from my apartment to the trail, but today I felt like starting my run on the trail. The vibe just felt right, so I rolled with it. 

I did a few more warmup drills and contemplated a trip to the port-a-poty before taking off down the trail. Aright, I thought, this isn’t so bad. I kept the pace nice and relaxed to start, easing into the repetitive motion. One foot, then the other. I had plenty of miles ahead of me to pick up the pace. Just as I felt like I was hitting my groove I felt my ankle twist and went straight down to the ground. 

“Are you okay?” A lady called from a car in the nearby parking lot. It took me a second to realize what had happened. “Yeah, I think so.” I quickly assessed the damage. It hurt, but it didn’t seem too bad. “My car isn’t far,” I replied to the kind lady who’d offered to help. I sat on the ground for another minute, before scooping up my phone and water bottle that had scattered on the sidewalk. 

Thankfully my phone only had a few minor scratches. I’d had the phone for months and still hadn’t bothered to get a new screen protector. I could hear my mom lecturing me. I stood up to better assess the damage. My knee was scraped up but not badly and elbow had a small cut, but that barely hurt. I was more worried about the ankle that had rolled. I put a little weight on it and then a little more. It felt surprisingly okay. I must have just caught a rock and lost balance, I didn’t really roll my ankle. Thank god. 

I exhaled, grateful things weren’t worse. 

I knew things could have been much worse. I had a history of breaking my wrist during simple falls like this. So I was thankful for a few simple cuts and bruises. 

Still, I wasn’t sure if I was okay enough to finish the run. I was barely a half mile in when I fell, so thankfully my car really wasn’t far. But, I did have a long way to go if I was going to complete my mileage for the day. 

I jogged back to the car cautiously. 

I used the towel I’d packed and a little extra water to clean up my wounds. It really wasn’t that bad, seemed like a pretty standard scraped knee. I was cautiously optimistic, but my ankle seemed okay too. 

I could finish the run. But did I want to?

There was part of me that just wanted to get back in my car and go home and skip the next 15 miles. Or tell myself I’d go home and get cleaned up and finish the run later. But I knew that if I didn’t do it now I definitely wouldn’t do it later. 

I wanted to cry. The scraped knee was dumb, I was fine, but I was tired. I didn’t really want to run 15 more miles. In that moment all I wanted was someone to feel sorry for me that I’d scraped up my knee. Was I just a five year old kid on the playground? 

I think I really only started running again because my choice was either run or pout like a little kid. No run is perfect, I told myself. 

I got into a flow. The cuts on my knee stung for a while, but eventually the pain subsided and I actually felt okay. I somehow finished the 10 mile trail loop and made it back to my car, yet again. 

Just six more miles

I remember telling myself that at mile 20 of my first marathon. “Just six more miles, just a 10k, you’ve done that a million times, you can do it.” It worked wonders for me then. I’d never run a marathon before at that point, so breaking it down into easily digestible chunks, like “just one more 10k” made it seem possible, and it was. I finished that race in just about 4 hours 20 minutes, very respectable for a first go at the marathon. 

Today, six more miles felt more daunting. I was tired. It was warm and humid. Thankfully the sun hadn’t decided to make much of appearance, but still, I was tired and sweaty. I thought about calling it there, but I didn’t. Overall, I felt okay, so I pushed on. I got a second wind in the next few miles, and I breezed through to mile 13. Then I started to not feel so good. 

I should have had a second piece of toast. I could feel my stomach aching. Really all that was in there was some water and the two gels I’d had gotten down thus far. My stomach was saying that it needed sustenance, but I wasn’t sure if it could take another gel. Since I was low on energy and I had no other options, I took the third gel. And it did not sit well. The nausea came first, then the cramps. I tried just slowing down, but the cramps only got worse. I hated stopping during a long run, especially so close to the finish, but I felt like I couldn’t keep moving like this. 

I paused and took a few deep breaths. I didn’t want to start running again, at least not yet, so I walked for a few minutes. 

What is the point? Why am I doing this? Why did I sign up for another marathon?

The negative thoughts didn’t just creep up on me, they surrounded me on all sides.

I was happy running 5k’s and 10k’s last year, and I never felt like this. So why am I doing this? Why?

I didn’t have a good answer for myself, but I knew I wasn’t a quitter, so I started up a jog again to quiet my thoughts. Somehow the 16 mile mark came and I finally got to stop. I felt accomplished sure, but that wasn’t enough to keep the ultimate question at bay. 

Why the hell am I running (another) marathon?

I told myself it’s because I want to qualify for Boston. But then the devil on my shoulder came back with the “why the hell would you want to do that?”

Even if I did qualify for Boston, who knows if I would make the registration cut off. And even if I did make the cut off, I’d then have to run another marathon, Boston. 

Sure, yes, I have this lofty golden goal of qualifying and running Boston. But I could have other goals, that are just as impressive, that don’t require me to run multiple additional marathons. 

So I thought back on why I started running. Or at least, why I started running half marathons/marathon. Something that was a big factor in my decision to run so many of those early races that I wanted so badly to impress people. I felt like I’d been overlooked for so much of my life, my accomplishments paled in comparison to those of my siblings and my peers. Or so I felt at the time. So the marathon was a chance for me to prove myself. None of my siblings had run, or probably ever would run a marathon, and it wasn’t something many of my peers chose to do, so it was something that could be mine. Plus, it was impressive no matter what time I ran, just so long as I had run a marathon. 

The accomplishment factor just didn’t ring true for me anymore, at least not in the same way. In training for and running my past marathons, I’d also learned to run fast at shorter distances. Not incredibly fast, but fast enough to be the 2nd place female in a local 10k, and win $50, which felt pretty cool to me. I didn’t need the marathon to be impressive anymore. I’ve also now made peace with myself and my accomplishments and I don’t feel the need to do things just for the attention or the “wow” factor. 

So then, why was I doing this?

I then thought that was because I wanted to escape. Which is, or was, somewhat true. Between work and school and social media, running was a chance to spend a few hours outside not looking at my phone or checking my email. Especially when work was stressful, or I wanted to try and forget that I was waiting for a text from the guy I had a massive crush on, running was an excellent escape. 

I still feel that way, at least to some extent. I don’t feel the need to run away from my problems anymore. And I don’t feel like I need running to put away my phone and unplug. I now face my problems head on, and deal with them in a healthy way. I’ve also gotten much better at setting boundaries with work and various aspects of my life so that I can unplug when I need to.

What I do still enjoy is getting outside and spending a few hours appreciating all that mother nature has to offer. I feel a little less appreciative when it’s 80 degrees and humid, but I do still appreciate it. I also appreciate the movement. I appreciate all that my body can do for me, like running 26.2 miles consecutively. 

I then thought back to why I started running at all. I wasn’t much of a runner growing up, and I definitely wouldn’t have considered myself an athlete, but for one reason or another I found myself showing up to cross country practices my junior year of high school. I remembered how I felt then, especially in those first few practices. My mindset was much the same as it was today.  Why am I doing this? 

I’ll never forget how badly I wanted to quit during those first few cross country practices. I wanted so badly to feign an injury so that I could stop running. But I didn’t. I didn’t have a good reason for why I was doing it, other than I didn’t have a good enough reason to quit. And I’m so glad I didn’t quit. 

Running has given me so much. It’s given me strength, both physical and mental. It’s given me confidence in myself and my ability to do just about anything I set my mind to. It’s given me an appreciation for my body, and for the world around me. 

Running has made me an all around better person, as so I guess that’s why I don’t quit. And sure, I could run 5k’s, 10k’s, or even just half marathon’s and see those benefits and avoid torturing myself with 16+ mile runs. But I don’t, and not just because I don’t have a good enough reason not to. But because days like these, days where it feels like everything is going wrong and I want to quit, those are the days that make me stronger. 

Also because, I’m so grateful that I laced up my shoes for that first cross country practice, so I’m sure I’ll one day be grateful that I laced up my shoes today. 

Join me on Tik Tok for more real-time run recaps.

Racing During the Pandemic

The Granby Road Race 2020

I jogged down the hill to where people were lining up for the start. It was 8:26 and the race started at 8:30, or at least the first wave started at 8:30. I knew I was a little close to the start time, but I was shocked how many people were already lined up. 

I was expecting a small race, capped at fifty, maybe a hundred people, but there were easily a hundred and fifty runners already lined up. Or maybe it just looked like there were more people since runners were required to be spaced single file, six feet apart. 

I jogged up closer to the start and tried to find a place in the line of runners. I was probably pushing the six feet rule, but we had our masks up, and I wasn’t about to get stuck at the back behind a hundred slower runners.

“Did you sign up for virtual New York or guaranteed entry next year?” A group of friends in front of me was chatting. “I did guaranteed entry, I’ll have to pay for that again which is a pain.” It was a typical conversation between runner friends these days. What races are you running…next year? Is it going to be virtual? Will it be postponed to 2022 or 2023?

There was no gun to signal the start of the race, we just saw the line start moving. Slowly I inched up to the starting line. The guy manning the start put his hand up indicating the group in front of me to stop. They paused. After a minute or so break he waved them forward. 

Then it was my turn. 

I hadn’t raced in over a year. My last race was the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge last September in San Francisco. I ran a solid time for the 3.5 mile race, 23:31, somewhere around 6:44/mile. Nothing crazy, but a pretty good time, especially for someone who was still discovering the limits of her speed. 

But that was a year ago. Since then I’d trained for a marathon only to injure my ankle a few weeks out from the race. Then the pandemic hit and my upcoming half and full marathon plans were derailed. Although in hindsight, it may have been a blessing in disguise as I was plagued by yet another injury in the spring – this time a pulled muscle in my lower back. 

I had three solid months of healthy training behind me now, and the racing gap had me fired up to run a really good time. 

I took off. 

The first mile was fast. I looked at my watch at the first mile marker – just over seven minutes. I should probably slow down. My goal was to average around 7:20 pace so I knew I’d gone out a little too fast, I should have been closer to 7:25-7:30 for the first mile. Still, I pressed on but tried to settle down a little. 

Then the hills came. 

The Granby Road race is my hometown race, I don’t know that I would have known about the race or decided to run it if it wasn’t the local race for the town I grew up in. I’d been back living with my family in Granby since May after I decided I wanted to escape San Francisco and my little apartment for more space and the fresh country air. I’d initially planned to go back to SF around Labor Day, but then I found out that the road race was happening and I decided to stick around a few extra weeks for the opportunity to run a “real” race. 

The course starts at the local high school/middle school and cuts through the center of town before looping up and into McClean Game Refuge and then down though the game refuge, back through the town center and up another hill back to the school. 

The first mile or so of the race is mostly down hill which explains why I ran it to fast, that, and the adrenaline of finally being able to race again. The course then cuts off the main road, up a hill to an opening in the game refuge. In the refuge you run on windy, rocky trails, up and down through the woods before coming back out to the main road and into town again. The final stretch is a challenging uphill to the finish in front of the school. 

It’s a difficult course for two reasons – the first being the hills, particularly because the majority of the downhills are in the woods, covered in rocks, where you have to slow down to make sure you don’t trip or roll an ankle as you roll down the hill. The woods mean you have all of the suffering of the uphill, and none of the easy, fast flow down the hill. Then there’s the roots and sand and general challenges of running the trails and the uphill finish, which is never fun. 

I knew all this going in – I’d run the race once before and I’d done some training runs in the game refuge. I was ready to go and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run an exceedingly fast race. I just wanted a solid time good enough to put me in the top finishers and based on prior year race results I thought I could do it. 

Eyes on the prize. 

The first hill wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I passed a few people on the uphill, and I’d passed many more on the quick stretch through town after the start. My mom, sister, and dog were waiting for me at the edge of the game refuge with a cup of water. I grabbed the cup for a quick sip, just as I would at a normal water station, then tossed the cup back in their direction. I’d told my sister to pick up the cup – I didn’t want to litter. 

There were no water stations at the race this year. Usually they had two positioned strategically throughout the course, but to reduce human interaction they cut those out this year. 

I wasn’t the only one to have family and friends placed throughout the course to pass a bottle of water. My mom lended an extra cup for another mother to hand to her daughter, and there was a group cheering and passing out water bottles to their crew a little later in the race. 

The trails were just as challenging as I’d expected. The downhill was slow going as I was afraid of falling or rolling an ankle. Someone I’d passed earlier passed me back as a struggled not to trip. The flat sections of the trail were also slower, but more fun. I enjoyed pushing the pace on the clearer sections and then dodging the roots and other things on the trail. I passed back the guy who passed me on the downhill, along with a few others. 

As I neared the exit to the game refuge I passed a group of young runners. “Marzo?!” One shouted. I turned to see a familiar face. It was a friend of my sister’s who I knew was running the race. He pulled out his phone to snap a quick pic for my sister, and then I kept going. 

At the exit to the game refuge was my dad on his bike. As he saw coming out of the woods he reached for the water bottle he kept in holder on his bike. “I’m good,” I gestured as it was a cool day and I didn’t want to slow down for another water break. 

My dad hopped back on his bike and rode alongside the course cheering me and the other runners on. The group of young runners, including my sister’s friend, stayed close throughout the last stretch of the race. I would pass one of them, another would pass me back. It was a fight to the finish and I loved it. 

“You got this Caroline!” My dad shouted from his bike and I suffered up the last hill and turned into the loop in front of the school. I pushed for a final kick, but could only muster so much speed to get myself up the hill. 

I crossed the finish line in 46:38, at least according to my watch – the finish clock read 51:54. Thanks to the staggered start I wouldn’t know the official results or my place until later in the day. 

I was ushered away from the finish line and found my family amongst the small group gathered along the finish. I wanted to keep moving to cool down so we walked toward the car. There was no finish festival or awards ceremony so we were free to head home. I took a few minutes to drink the water and electrolytes my sister had brought for me and did some active stretches. I then passed the water back to my sister and jogged home. 

My Journey to a Plant-based Diet

My journey to a plant-based diet, like most journey’s, is not linear. And, like the journey of life, it’s ever growing and evolving. My purpose today is to share a little bit about what a plant-based diet means for me, how I got here, and where I foresee this journey taking me.

The driving force in this story are food intolerances, which I have struggled with for more or less my entire life. My mom told me recently that even as a baby I spit up my food far more often than any of my siblings. While I can’t remember what I was thinking or how I was feeling as a baby when I spit up my food, nor was I diagnosed with any specific intolerances or allergies as a child, let’s call this the starting point for my nutrition evolution. 

Growing up I ate like most kids – I ate everything… except the vegetables. Although, compared to most kids, I was probably pretty good at eating my vegetables. I wasn’t a terribly picky kid. I liked the burgers my dad would make on the grill, my mom’s famous lasagna recipe, and the mocha chip ice cream I’d get every summer from Four Seas Ice Cream on Cape Cod. 

While Four Seas Mocha Chip will forever hold a special place in my heart, Oatly coffee “ice cream” topped with chocolate chips is a pretty delicious dairy-free alternative.

As far as I can remember I didn’t have any terrible reactions to food; nothing that would indicate an allergy or severe intolerance. This was more or less the case up until middle school/high school when I showed signs of lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance generally develops and worsens as you age, and for me the age it hit was thirteen. However, as most good lactose intolerant people do, I kept eating dairy and accepted the consequences of my intolerance. Ice cream is good…it seemed worth it! That was the case up until I started running. 

I hadn’t been much of a runner until I decided to join the cross country team halfway through high school. Running changed my perspective on a lot of things…particularly my food intolerances. While I was struggling through many of my cross country workouts, I found them to be even more challenging and miserable when I ate a lot of dairy or processed foods during the day. I quickly learned that ice cream the night before a race was a bad idea, but I could tolerate some chocolate milk after. It wasn’t long before I began cutting back on dairy, using calcium supplements, and taking a lactaid pill when I decided I needed to indulge in some ice cream. These changes helped, but the system wasn’t perfect. 

As I started taking the whole running thing more seriously I, somewhat subconsciously, began cleaning up my diet more. I cut out a lot of processed foods and if I didn’t feel well after eating something I decided I couldn’t eat that ever again. Dramatic, I know, but I was a teenager who didn’t know any better. Naturally, this limited the things that I would eat. I cut back on a lot of meat as more than a small portion would upset my stomach. I ordered simple salads when I ate out as this was less likely to make me feel ill than a burger or a sandwich. 

However, while I cut out a lot of unhealthy foods, I failed to add in alternatives to fill the gaps. I was running more than I ever head, but severely under-nourishing my body. The change in eating habits, increased physical activity, along with being a growing teenager lead to an unhealthy weight-loss. My bones were weakening, putting myself at risk for a stress fracture, and further, I was putting my heart at risk. In order to get healthy I had to undo some of my changes to my diet, which was easier said than done. I was afraid of eating a lot of things again as I had cut them out for a reason – they didn’t make me feel good. 

Ultimately, all I wanted was for my body to feel good, but not eating enough also wasn’t helping. I began eating more meat and dairy and generally was less restrictive in my diet. At the same time I also began eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less processed snacks and sodas. While at the time I thought I was backpeddling, this was actually building the foundation for my plant based diet. 

The legendary Campus Corner”Fat Cat.” A hoagie with chicken tenders, French fries, mozzarella sticks, and topped with ranch was one of the popular indulgences by students at Villanova University.

While there were often times that I felt unwell eating certain things, I decided I was better off eating than putting my bones and heart at risk again. Plus, I had then gone off to college where all anyone eats is cheese fries and pizza, so I just learned to deal with the consequences. 

After college when my diet naturally became less reliant on cheese, I eventually cut out diary. I also became more focused on running again. I ran my first marathon as a junior in college and my second a year after graduating. I loved the rhythm of training for a long distance race.

I’d read a book freshman year of college called Finding Ultra where a man named Rich Roll recounts his journey from overweight and unhealthy to a vegan unltramarathon champion. As I was running more, the idea of an ultramarathon appealed to me, so I picked up a similar book called Eat & Run by Scott Jurek. I was instantly inspired. Jurek discusses how as an avid runner, he found that a plant based diet helped him better fuel his body. In the book he includes recipes and recounts the types of this he eats to fuel his runs. I tried a few of his recipes and did some more research on what it really meant to be vegan.

Eat & Run lead me to read several more books on becoming vegan, most notably, The China Study by T. Collin Campbell. The book discusses the health benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet. Maybe more notably, and much more controversially, the book also examines the link between animal products, especially the meats and dairy typical of an American diet, and many chronic illnesses common in the United States. 

The studies and analyses were enough to sway me to never eat meat again. 

I cut out meat immediately, and fish and eggs shortly after. It was surprisingly easy and natural to do. Having educated myself on the health benefits, as well as some of the environmental pros, it seemed like a natural next step. Moreover, it felt very true to me, like plant-based, health and enviromentally-concious living was exactly what I’d been looking for and it had been looking for me. Moreover, the change in diet was exactly what my digestive system had been looking for. 

Yes, I cut had things out, but I had also educated myself on “replacements” and ways to fill the gaps and ensure I was properly nourishing my body. I no longer felt afraid of meals – afraid that if I ate too much my stomach might put me out for the count for the rest of the day. I could eat as many whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as I wanted and feel great. It wasn’t an overnight change, but I did, and still do, feel a difference. I feel alert and well-fed. I am more in-tune with my body and hunger cues than ever before, and I feed my body the things it really wants and needs. 

Friendsgiving spread featuring a traditional charcuterie board along with some more vegan-friendly options.

Naturally, this translates well to running where I need my body to be well fueled for the marathons I want to run. I know my body needs lots of whole grains and plant-based protein, both before and after long workouts. I know that I feel much better when I fuel myself properly, and the plant-based diet has made nourishing my body easier and more natural. 

It’s been almost two years now since I last ate meat or fish. I will admit that I occasionally indulge in a non-vegan treat or two. I have friends and family who are very good bakers and if they send me a box of cookies I have a hard time saying no, even if there is an egg or two in there.

I try to note that I follow a “plant-based” diet and not “vegan” diet. Ocassionally, when people press me on what I do and don’t eat, I’ll just say “vegan” to keep it simple, or “mostly vegan.” Nonetheless, I don’t want to offend anyone who is vegan. I respect and admire those who follow a strictly vegan lifestyle, I’m just at a different point in my journey. 

I think that in the future I may go vegan, both in diet, and lifestyle. However, I need to educate myself more. I will admit that there is a whole other realm of the “lifestyle” aspect of being vegan that I don’t know everything about. I know it means not doing harm to animals or any living being, including and most noteworthy, not purchasing or wearing leather. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of not doing any harm and I want to learn more about vegan fashion and beauty products, and generally about what it means to live a vegan lifestyle.

At this point I’m well aware of the diet aspect. Over time I’ve naturally cut back on the non-vegan sweets and goodies, both because I don’t crave them so much anymore and because I am consciously trying to wean myself off of them. But it is hard to say no to friends and family, especially when they don’t always understand what I eat and why. So, while I am transitioning, I am also transitioning them and hoping they may come understand why I’ve undertaken this journey. 

“We can live as we were meant to live—simply, joyously, of and on the earth. We can live with all our effort and with pure happiness.”

Scott Jurek, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

I hope that by sharing the impact a plant-based diet has had on my life, that I may set an example for others who struggle with food intonerances and/or under-fueling their body. While at one point in my life, I felt as though my body was fighting against me, I now feel much more at peace now with both my body and the world around me, and peace is a beautiful thing. 

I am by no means a doctor or a nutritionist, so consult with your doctor before making changes to your life.

Books and other resources:

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek

Finding Ultra by Rich Roll

The China Study by Thomas M. Campbell II

Main Street Vegan (website, book, podcast & more)