Essay: She Said I Could

I promised myself that I would not turn this blog into a bunch of race reports for running or duathlon, and here I am, veering into risky territory. But this little bit of rambling has a larger meaning than splits and pace per mile, which is interesting to probably no one else but me.

Last month for my birthday, a group of women friends of mine met at a sunny little eatery called Plant Café in San Francisco. With one exception, all of the women at the table were runners, competitive to varying degrees. After some discussion about the food and other random small talk, the conversation naturally gravitated toward running. When a group of women get together, we may talk about men, relationships, books, any number of things, but when the conversation centers on the benefits of foam rollers, trigger point balls versus tennis balls, missing toenails, and how long to hold a stretch, you know you have a unique tribe.

Karen, a longtime runner who organizes group runs, leads a beginning running program and sits on the board for Lake Merritt Joggers & Striders, told me about her latest group of new runners and how proud she was that many of them ran in the 5K held in conjunction with the Oakland Marathon that morning.

I ran around my neighborhood in Nashville for most of a year before I even considered entering a race, much less gathered my nerve to sign up. Karen and I agreed that a runner should have a lot of time on their feet before jumping into longer events, and definitely before stepping onto the track for speed work. I ran for years, at around 10 minutes a mile, before I put any real effort into training, I told Karen.

“So what prompted you to start running faster?” she asked.

I thought for a minute and replied, “Someone told me I could.”

I finished my first marathon, in Cleveland, Ohio, in 3:58, without changing anything except for the Saturday long run, which got progressively longer over a period of about 12 weeks. I moved to San Francisco and joined the San Francisco Road Runners Club about three weeks before the marathon and finished my last long run with the group. When I got back from Cleveland, I told Diane Ambrose, the club’s coach and one of the main organizers of the club, my finishing time. “That’s great!” she said. “You should move up to the next pace group.” Me, move up to the club’s next level of pace group? I didn’t think I was good enough to run with people capable of running faster than nine-minute miles. But someone else thought I was.

I took Diane’s advice and settled in to my new pace group without any issue. By the time the summer was over, I had finished a few shorter races and was seeing incremental improvement. The Boston qualifying time for my age group that year (2003) was 3:40. It seemed ambitious. I asked Diane if she thought I had a shot. Sure, I could probably do it, she said. She probably advised me to spend some time running 8:40 per mile, or whatever I needed to run to hit my goal time.

In December 2003, eight months after my first marathon, I qualified for Boston with a 3:38 at California International Marathon in Sacramento.

Had it not been for Diane’s positive encouragement, I doubt I would have ever tried to qualify for Boston. Because one person told me, “yes, you can,” I have gone on to run dozens and dozens of races at distances ranging from 800 meters on the track to 26.2 miles (I did this two more times after CIM, including Boston, which I finally completed in 2009.). I have improved to the extent where I can occasionally win a race and often place high in my age group. Along the way, I found the sport of Duathlon, which combines two sports I love, and am now about five weeks away from my second time competing for Team USA at the ITU Duathlon World Championships, this year held in Pontevedra, Spain.

Would any of this have happened without that one yes? Hard to say, but it’s quite possible I would have continued to cruise along at my recreational pace without pushing the boundaries, because I didn’t think I was capable of anything more.

When we encounter folks who are just starting on a path that we’ve been down many times, consider the impact of a few simple words of encouragement. You just might change someone’s life.

Do you have a Diane?

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