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The Moment I Knew I Was a Runner

The Moment That Defined Me As a Runner

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On Tuesday, I did an interval workout with a few of my favorite running friends. It was tough but great. I was bounding around Central Park, feeling light as a feather and speedy as a cheetah. (OK, maybe more like a kind of clumsy puppy finding its legs, but, still, it worked for me.)

Three days later, I ran again with those same friends. And I just couldn't keep up. They were jogging, chatting, and having an effortless good time, and I was sucking wind 20 paces back.

Running is funny that way. Some days we can seemingly run for hours, expelling minimal effort and feeling weightless. Then, just a day or two later, it can feel like our legs are filled with lead and we just can't. Move. Forward.

But between the great runs and the bummer ones, there are endless lessons to be learned that can affect us as runners—and humans. From epic race fails to key moments in training, here are nine takeaways that changed the game for professional runners, weekend warriors, and everyone in between. (Meet nine more Amazing Women Who Prove Every Body Is a Runner's Body.)

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"I Set a Huge Goal and Failed to Reach It"

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Setting your sights on a big goal is equal parts exciting and terrifying. And for Type-A runners, failing to reach that goal can be utterly devastating. After taking eight years off from running marathons, Jess Underhill, owner of the coaching service Race Pace Wellness, decided she wanted to revisit her old pastime and qualify for the Boston Marathon. "My first attempt to qualify was a complete disaster," she says. "Everything that could have gone wrong the week before the race went wrong. But despite all of that, I was naive enough to think I could still hit my goal." Underhill barely finished the race, almost dropping out at mile 15, and crossed the finish line devastated.

"It took me a few months to get over it," she admits. "But I regrouped and started over." Underhill adjusted her training plan, switched up her diet, and tweaked her mentality. "Training my brain was something that was missing from my previous training plans," she says. "I became just as dedicated to the process of changing my thoughts as I did to my workouts. When the opportunity to qualify for Boston came up again, I hit my goal. I knew how to tackle whatever the day threw at me, and nothing was going to stop me. That day forever changed how I approach training and racing. It was proof that I can accomplish anything in life or on the pavement if I have the right mindset."

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"I Finally Focused On My Core"

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Many running injuries stem from having weak core muscles. So when we get injured, we go home, do our PT-prescribed ab, glutes, and hip exercises and, upon returning to perfect health, immediately abandon our core training program. Sound familiar? It did for professional long-distance runner and Olympian Kara Goucher. "After being injured off and on since the 2012 Olympics and never having a training block longer than three months before getting injured, I knew something had to change," Goucher says. "So this past fall, I finally committed to doing my core exercises on a daily basis." (Beware of these 5 Beginner Running Injuries.)

As Goucher ramped up her training for the 2016 Olympic Trials marathon, she told herself she wouldn't skip a single day between then and the race. "There were days I was doing my exercises at 11 p.m. after I had already gotten into bed and realized I had forgotten to do them, but I got them done," she says. "The result led to the longest stretch in which I've been healthy since my son was born in 2010. Just 20 minutes of exercises every day made all the difference in the world and saved my running career. We all have our weak link, but until we truly address it, it will always be there."

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"I Finally Identified As a Runner"

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Despite running and training regularly, it took Megha Doshi, local marketing director for Strava, a long time to fully embrace her runner status. But after running an 18-minute personal record at the California International Marathon (nabbing a 3:17 finish time), Doshi finally gave in to the title. "It was the run that gave me the confidence that I had real potential," she says. "That's when I decided to actually commit to training for a marathon instead of just trying to finish the race."

Less than a year later, she ran a 2:58 at the Boston Marathon, and has since finished several sub-three-hour marathons. "I attribute these to years of solid, successful running and having the confidence in myself to invest in my training and my potential," she says. "I knew I couldn't be scared of failing." (What makes you a runner?)

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"I Took a Step Back From Racing for a While"

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It's easy to get addicted to racing. The adrenaline, the crowds, the finish line fatigue—it's all so brutally rewarding. (And Runner's High Is As Strong As a Drug High.) But too much of a good thing can lead to burnout and frustration. "When I first started running, I felt like I had to do all the races and be training all the time," says triathlete Beth Risdon, who blogs at Shut Up and Run. "One day, as I limped home from a 20-mile training run with my stomach in knots and tears running down my face, I realized this wasn't the runner I wanted to be—broken, tearful, obsessive." 

After that wake-up call, Risdon started incorporating recovery weeks into her training, and added cross-training activities like cycling and swimming to her routine. "It made me a more well-rounded athlete and not someone who was constantly on the verge of injury," she says. "The phrase 'everything in moderation' applies to running too."

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"I Stopped Putting So Much Pressure On Myself"

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Sometimes, whether we're working toward a big goal (#ultrarunners) or we just want to kick our own butts with some casual cardio, we end up stressing ourselves out over it. That's what happened to Michele King Gonzalez of NYC Running Mama after she set her sights on a personal record and wasn't able to deliver. "It took me some time to process the race, but eventually I realized my biggest issue," she says. "I was putting entirely too much pressure on myself and one single race."

Today, Gonzalez still trains her booty off (she regularly runs at 4 a.m., NBD), but she has learned to treat race day as a celebration of all her hard training—and if it doesn't go well, she moves on. "Race day no longer defines me," she says. "Those early wake-ups, long runs in 0° weather, and nailed tempo runs are what define me. The race is the exclamation point to the training cycle."

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"I Learned to Relax"

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It's tempting to want to go all-out during every run. But in training and racing, that mindset isn't always best. "My coach used to constantly remind me to hold back and relax," says running coach Isang Smith. "I would always go out too hard or too fast and would be crawling by the end of the run. But I thought that if I didn't hit my goal pace right away, I might as well say farewell to my goal time."

One night before a race, Smith's coach sent her a convincing email. "He said I should feel like I'm jogging out from the start, and reminded me to have fun," she says. "I accepted the strategy, and it worked. I relaxed, focused on my breathing, took in the beautiful morning, and smiled at spectators along the way. I found myself at the end with energy left to sprint. You can have fun, feel more empowered, and be more energetic if you just relax." (P.S. Cutting Yourself Some Slack Can Lower Your Risk of Running Injuries too.)

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"I Turned 40"

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"I'm slowly starting to realize that the things I was able to get away with before are a problem if I ignore them now," says running biomechanics coach Elizabeth Maiuolo. "I can't get by without decent sleep or crappy nutrition. My running really suffers." It's important to pay attention to our bodies at every age, and to accept that they change along the way.

"I Ran Five Marathons In Five Days."

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Casual, right? When ultramarathoner Robin Arzon set out to run five daily 26.2-mile runs across Utah, she had no idea the inner strength she would gain from the experience. "It compounded and redefined what my body could do," she says. "In the last 10 miles of the fifth marathon, I realized my mind was more fatigued than my body. That was when I realized that our thoughts are our greatest training partners." Say see ya later to that little voice inside your head that says "can't." (Is it even safe to run 3 Races In One Weekend?)

Photo: Corbis Images

"I Let Myself Sleep More"

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While training for the Olympic Trials Marathon, New York Athletic Club runner Sarah Cummings found herself overwhelmed with high-mileage training (she tops out at 100+ miles per week!) and a lack of self-care. She knew she would never make it to the starting line of that crucial race unless she made some major changes, so she cut back on her mileage, stepped up her cross-training, and finally let herself snooze. "Sleep is when our muscles and minds heal," she says. "Without it, neither can perform."

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