When you run fast- when you place at or win races, when your times start to match those of individuals who are already known as being fast, talented runners… it’s easy to develop a reputation as someone who is just plain fast, who is built for the sport and simply talented.
I have recently become one of those people, and it fascinates me how often people assume that my speed comes naturally. Bear with me here- I know this sounds self-indulgent, but my point is that if my speed doesn’t come entirely from talent, yours doesn’t have to either. My coach in high school was a huge fan of reminding us that ‘hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard’.
To some extent, I am talented -and lucky, I know that. I come from a family of speedy, dedicated runners and grew up in an environment where I was constantly absorbing information about the sport. I was born with a certain amount of talent, yes, and I’ve been around the sport long enough that I could write a book about it.
But people assume that because of this, my speed comes naturally. I’m complimented often on my form, my stride, my times. Which is great, I’ll admit. I’m proud as hell of where I’ve gotten with running, and excited to see what more I can do with it.
I’ve been told time and again that of course I’m a runner, I’m built like one. I’m strong, I’m experienced… but I wasn’t, always. And that’s the part that gets to me, because as much as I enjoy the reputation of being fast… when you distance people who are faster than you by writing them off as naturally that way, you mentally defeat yourself in thinking that’s beyond you. Because if you really want to speed up, it’s not.
Once upon a time, I was the girl on the verge of tears when her coach asked her to run 3 miles instead of 2. “Can we do 2 and a half?” I would plead. One of my teammates teased me about the way I ended a hard run pretty much hunched over, my core too weak to support myself during a hard effort. I spent a lifetime being okay, then relatively fast. Only within the last 8 months- 8 months!!! – have I started to become truly fast (by which I mean- being able to place at local races; having the goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials be a daunting but not out-of-the-realm-of-possibility idea).
So I want to tell you what goes on behind the speed, because to a lot of people (there’s no way to say this without sounding a little cocky), I’m just- oh, that’s Kenaia- she’s fast. Which is awesome. I am, and proud of it. But I am not unattainable, crazy fast. I am years of hard work, dedication and absolute love for my sport fast. And if improvement is what you’re seeking, trust me- if I can do it, so can you.
I did run cross-country and track in high school, semi-competitively. I usually ran 5ks around 20, 21 minutes, fast enough to get me to the State meet but not further. I had a lot of body image issues, a lot of disordered eating habits. I slowed way down my senior year in high school, distracted and feeling sluggish, and was ultimately relieved to start college overseas at a school that didn’t have a cross country team. So I didn’t come from a hugely competitive running childhood. When I did club track it was hardly what you might call rigorous, and my high school coaches were focused more on making sure we enjoyed the sport and supported our teammates while doing our best than just chasing numbers.
Ultimately, I was sorta-fast for a bit and then not, and emotionally it was hard to go from “first runner to qualify for state at her school in 20 years, so much potential, she could place at state if she worked at it” to “slower than freshman year for no reason”. After high school I needed a break from the pressure I was putting on myself to perform.
Luckily, I still loved the whole running part. Throughout high school, for fun I’d done several half marathons. I figured I might as well sign up for a full.
lesson 1: running is best when you’re doing it because you love it
So I did, and at 18 finished my first marathon in just under 5 hours, with no idea of what was a good or fast time and just proud as hell that I’d done the thing. I loved being a marathoner, loved the distance and the challenge (which I’ve written about here). And I wanted to do another. So the next year I finished my second, in about 4 and a half hours, again just loving the thing, loving the training and the happiness it brought me through all of life’s craziness.
So then I began to crave a faster marathon, of course, as most of us do, and started aiming for 4 hours. I really didn’t do anything different in my training, just ran a lot and hoped for the best. I signed up for 2 marathons, Seattle’s Rock n Roll and then Seattle itself.
And that’s when the problems started.
Since I loved running so much I had written myself a training plan that went up to 80 miles a week at its peak (again- at the time I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. I just knew that I wanted to be fast, and that’s how much “fast” people ran). This might have worked, but I got to about 40 miles a week when things started hurting. Specifically, my hip would start hurting.
lesson 2: if you’re hurting, rest. if rest doesn’t fix it, see a professional and DON’T run through it
THE SMART THING would have been to ease off, check out my weird hip pains, or at least.. put some ice on it, you know?
But nope. I chose to keep running through it. It got to the point where I knew I was injured but so determined to run another marathon that I blindly kept pushing. I remember one run in particular, just being TIRED, heading out for 21 miles, and on mile 8 being in so much pain that right then I knew, oh, this is bad. This is real bad.
And yet. I didn’t stop. I got through the last 13 miles. When I hit 20 I was in such excruciating pain that I was bent over and also limping, quite a sight to see. I so badly didn’t want to be injured that I was literally running myself into the ground in denial. I ran those last 3 miles at a ridiculous pace, hobbling like a madman and causing one person on the highly-trafficked waterfront path I was running to ask me if I needed help. I shook my head and smiled, then started crying as soon as he passed and carried on like that all the way home. I spent the rest of the day rolling around in bed, uncomfortable even laying down. I’d learned a few valuable things; firstly, that I had a surprising ability to push myself through incredible pain, and second- that something was wrong and I was in real trouble.
I didn’t run at all after that until my marathon, in June, which I finished in 4:11, my best yet, but again in excruciating pain in my hip, so badly that as soon as I finished I sat down in the medical tent with a massive bag of ice around my hip, in tears again.
So I took about 3 weeks off, maybe 4, but then I was supposed to start training for my next marathon. So, stupidly, I started training again. And stopped, still hurting. Started again and stopped again. I was on my feet all day at work at the time too, and by the end of the day I was usually limping. Finally I scheduled an appointment at Avant Physical Therapy in Seattle, which I chose solely because it was close to my house.
I got very, very lucky. I started working with Brenna Murray, who was absolutely BRILLIANT. She convinced me that if I wanted to be able to run again pain free, I had to really truly take some time off. I wasn’t allowed to run at all, first of all. I was so tender and inflamed all around that when she tried to press into my hip, if only lightly, I would flinch away violently. Since I couldn’t afford an MRI to see what was going on for sure, she based my strength training on what we guessed initially might be a labral tear. Later on, we shifted the guess to some compression on my sciatic nerve, but again without imaging there was nothing we could officially diagnose.
I did have one x-ray with an awful doctor who told me, uncomfortable and alone in his office in thin paper medical shorts, that if I wanted an MRI maybe I should have gone to college so that I had enough money for one… needless to say, I never returned to his office – and I never received any follow up on the x ray.
Despite the lack of clarity, Brenna was patient and dedicated enough to work with me on my form and overall strength. The first thing we worked on was the fact that my knees knocked together when I ran- my hips weren’t working at all when I was running, really, so they were collapsing inward with each step, unnecessarily stressing my hips and knees. I wasn’t utilizing my glutes either, and had become overly reliant on my quads.
Basically I was a nightmare as far as running form and strength went. This came as a shock to me, as I’d always considered myself fairly strong. I mean, I ran- runners were strong, right? I’d also been a gymnast, a figure skater, gone to dozens of workout classes at the YMCA… how could I not be strong?
lesson 3: “strong” in general is not the same as doing running-specific exercises to strengthen the muscles you need to run well and injury-free
Unable to run and needing an outlet while I rebuilt my understanding of strength, I joined a 24 hour fitness. For a few months, I just went to work on my body. At the time I got off work around 10:30 PM usually, after which I would walk to the deserted gym and work on my glutes, hips and core until early morning. When I was finally allowed to do a little cardio again, I went down to the University of Washington to borrow their anti-gravity treadmill, in order to practice my running form without impact. At 15$ for 30 minutes, I couldn’t do this very often, so I began spending hours on the elliptical at the gym, treating it like running. 30 minutes for a short “run”, 45-60 for a little more of a workout, any more than that acting as a weekend “long run”. The thing about the elliptical was that it was really easy to feel out my form and self-correct when I could hear the machine clonk unevenly, meaning my hips were collapsing again. Basically, the elliptical became form practice, hours of it.
Eventually, I got to add running back in. Slowly. 1/8 of a mile at a time, 3 times a week. I’d get up to half a mile and hurt and go back down to 1/4 mile.
It sucked. It was a lesson in patience, in teaching my body to use the right muscles. I had to self correct, constantly.
But I wanted to run again, easily, freely, happily, and I was willing to dedicate myself to it.
lesson 4: put in the work, whether that means rest or training. hard work always pays off.
By the time I moved away from Seattle, I was able to run 3-5 miles at a time, 3-4 times a week. If my hip started acting up, I was diligent about taking a day off.
But I was strong enough to start running for real again… for the most part. I joined some running groups here in Texas and quickly learned that it still hurt to run more than 5 miles. And in my excitement to be running again, I had already signed up for a spring marathon and agreed to do a Ragnar relay with some local runners.
So I sought help again, this time with Dr. Wilson at Airrosti, who had helped my younger sister with her own running injuries. Through a series of extremely painful deep-tissue massages, he released a bunch of knots in my glutes and hip area, as well as my lower back. After a few weeks of this and continued strength work in the same areas Brenna had taught me to work on, I was feeling like I was finally all clear.
lesson 5: learning how to run well can take a village. seek help when you need it and keep learning about your sport, your body, and how to take care of it.
I did that trail relay, all 31 miles I’d agreed to (not at once!) and managed 2 trail running trips in Mexico. None of this was timed, so although I felt stronger and happy, I didn’t have a measurement yet of the improvements I’d made, until I did a half marathon in New Orleans for fun, having run no more than 8 miles at a time in I think a year. With hardly any training I ran 1:29 and won the women’s race. Overall.
I was STUNNED. If you’ve read my blog on that race, you’ll understand. As I mentioned earlier, I do have some talent. But it was not just talent that brought me across that finish line. It was the year I had devoted to getting strong so I could prevent injury and continue doing a sport that I absolutely loved. It was the constant learning, the questions I asked the people that were helping me get better, the books I read on strength and running form.
Before my injury, my 5k PR was 19:43, and that race was the hardest thing I thought I’d ever pushed for in my life. Now, it’s 18:56, which I hit in the middle of a 5 mile race, less than a week after that half. I raced another half marathon recently and brought that time down to a 1:26.
lesson 6: sometimes an injury can be a blessing in disguise
I hated being injured. I cried for hours because I longed so, so badly for the feeling of wind rushing past my face, my legs moving freely beneath me without pain. I learned what it felt like to be stripped of the thing you were most passionate about, feeling like without the ability to run I had lost my identity as well.
But ultimately, as I realized how much stronger and more capable I’d become, I developed a huge sense of gratitude for the struggle.
lesson 7: there are a million things that make you faster
You may not have the same times or goals as me. You may not care as much as I do about being fast. But if you’ve been running for a while and feel stuck, if you want to be better, faster, stronger… I hope my story proves to you that it is not just about talent. It is about daily effort. I still do running-specific strength exercises 3-4 times per week. I read about running form all the time, about new strength and conditioning workouts. I study training plans. I write plans for myself that incorporate challenging speed work, long runs, and notes that remind me to focus on the nutrition my body needs. I have my mother, a lifetime marathoner, and my high school coach review them. I discuss plans and ideas with coworkers and fellow coaches.
In short, if you want to be fast, work hard. Learn. Put the work in and without fail, you will take whatever talent you have to the next level.
If you want to be faster and you’re not doing everything you can yet… Well, how badly do you want it? The effort you’re willing to put in is equivalent to the gains you’re going to make.
I wrote this after a conversation I had today with someone who was genuinely shocked that this level of speed was new to me. I hate the idea that we separate ourselves from people who we think are super fast- we place them in some unattainable category and disrespect our own capabilities.
So… how bad do you want it, I guess, is the question I have for you. How much are you willing to work for speed? Because I’ll tell you firsthand- we underestimate ourselves.
I bet you could be doing just a little bit more. And who knows, maybe it’s that one thing, that one piece of the puzzle you’re missing that is the key to unlocking those big goals you have tucked into the corner of your mind.
Isn’t it worth finding out?