I mentioned my friend and teammate Caroline Williams in my last blog, The “Worthy.” Since Caroline was so brave as to let me use her as an example in my last blog, I wanted to share a little more about her story with those of you who may be interested. Not only is she an awesome person, but she has an incredible story that in some ways is extremely relatable, but in others is extremely remarkable.
A little background: Caroline is 23 years old. She grew up in suburban New Jersey as an Irish dancer turned runner. In 2014, she graduated from Columbia with a degree in Psychology and now spends most of her time in New York City.
Caroline followed that Ivy League path of signing with a huge consulting firm in the fall of her senior year. But after doing so, she had a huge senior track season and knew she wouldn’t be satisfied with giving up on running. I first met her at the 2014 NYRR Oakley Mini 10k, just weeks after her last collegiate race, and I immediately knew she had bigger goals than most full-time professionals.
After Jacksonville Half, she spent a week with the New England Distance team in Tallahassee (where I have been training since then), so we got to talk on a bunch of runs. With my background having visited groups in 2010 (a totally different world from today) and spent 3 years with ZAP Fitness, we talked about the pros and cons of joining a group in her specific situation. And toyed with ideas of which groups might be the best fit for her if their coaches agree.
But, as you may have read in my last article, she was crushed by her inability to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials after 3 attempts, the closest just over 30 seconds shy of the qualifying time. And these dreams of joining a team that we had hashed out on our runs in Tallahassee were what went into question when she failed to achieve her goal.
She is such a great writer that I think it’s best to just present what she shared with me in Q&A format. Enjoy!
First tell us a little about yourself.
- What do you do when you’re not running?
I work in consulting as a Human Capital Analyst.
- How many hours do you work?
In typical consulting fashion, it depends! But generally between 50-60 hours a week. I also travel to the client site of my current projects, so I’m on the road and in hotels 3-4 days a week. As you may imagine, this can get tiring after a while, but it’s exciting to experience different cities on a regular basis. It’s definitely never boring!
- What are your best PRs?
34:30 10k (the one time I ran it on the track)
1:15:35 half marathon (while working full-time)
What are your long-term goals?
That is a wide open question for me right now. I’ve only recently considered making the switch to a more running-focused lifestyle, and I’m confident that with the right tools and environment, I can improve a lot. I think my ultimate potential lies on the roads and in the marathon (both an exciting and daunting realization at the same time!), but I would really like to prove some things on the track as well. I’m still young, too, so I have time to experiment with different distances.
What were your 3 favorite things about training in Tallahassee with NE Distance (and me)?
Oh gosh, so many things! That week was completely different than my typical week of training. My favorite thing was just having more time to dedicate to running. Working 10 or 12 hour days doesn’t leave much time for strength training or doubles or even longer workouts, so this was a really nice chance for me to see what my training would look like if I has the luxury of a more flexible schedule. I also obviously loved having people to run with. I almost exclusively train alone, so it was amazing to be surrounded by other runners for a week who share the same passion that I do. My third favorite aspect of that week…NAPS! Or just relaxation time in general. Sleep is something I always wish I had more of!
Didn’t you get bored just running and doing nothing else?
Not for just one week! I enjoyed the change of pace, and the opportunity to focus solely on my training and recovery. It was like every day was the weekend! However, I can definitely see how just running and doing nothing else could take a toll on me mentally over the long term. I wouldn’t necessarily call it boring, but I personally need some outside stimulus in my life other than running to balance it out.
If you lived this way year-round what kind of issues could you see for yourself?
I’m definitely the type of person that needs a balance in my life. I’ve always been one to burn the candle at both ends, and stretch myself in a lot of different directions at the same time. Running has consistently taken a front seat and has been a priority all along, but if I exclusively ran, I can see how I might start to overanalyze my training, how I’m feeling, or put too much pressure on myself.
Being a highly motivated individual, what do you think would be the perfect job/running balance? What would make you happiest? What would make you the best at running?
I think those two go hand-in-hand! My ideal lifestyle would involve a job with a flexible schedule that allows me to devote the amount of time to my training that’s required to be competitive at the next level. My current schedule (especially while traveling) doesn’t always allow me to do all those little extra things that make a huge difference at the elite level. This can include everything from being able to control what I eat and when I eat, to having time to stretch or roll out after runs. Having the flexibility to give 100% to my training while having some outside stimulation from a part time job would make me happiest, which would in turn, make me best at running!
Aside from loss of income (I know, that’s a big one), what do you think you would miss most if you were to leave the working full time and “go pro”?
Yep, not making money anymore would definitely be at the top of the list! My job also has a lot of perks like flight miles and hotel points, which would be sad to say goodbye to. A part of me would also miss the corporate lifestyle. Working for a global firm has opened my eyes to so many things that I didn’t know existed coming out of college, and I‘ve met some amazing people both in my company and with my clients. There’s also a certain sense of power and independence that comes with working in the business world, and it’s helped me grow a lot over the past two years. It’s also given me the confidence to take risks, which is why I’m considering this big switch to focus on running while I still can.
I love that last statement about consulting making you more confident to take risks. Can you briefly expand on that? How has your consulting experience given you more confidence to take risks?
I think my consulting experience has pushed me to take risks more than anything in my life. Coming right out of college, I entered into a fast pace job environment that demanded confidence and high performance while juggling a lot of unknowns. My job is project-based, so I’m constantly changing gears once one project finishes up and another begins. Projects can last anywhere from a couple weeks to a full year, and can change on a day’s notice. I’ve gained a lot of confidence from managing my own travel, and I’ve acclimated to living, working, and running in 7 different cities over the past 18 months. Managing all this change and ambiguity has empowered me to make a lot of difficult decisions, sometimes without knowing the end result. I’ve learned that if you want to do something bad enough, you’ll find a way to get it done, regardless of the circumstances.
Now for the heavy-hitters:
You told me today that you felt like you needed to run sub-1:15 in order to prove to yourself that you were a good enough runner to be worth taking the risk on yourself. Can you tell me a little more about what went into your thought process there? What does it take to be “worth it”?
I’m a very goal driven and action-oriented person, so having an achievable goal that is backed up by a concrete plan really motivates me. Once I decided to go for the trials standard of 1:15:00, that became a line drawn in the sand, a goal that was unmovable in my mind. I came within 35 seconds of that goal in October, and became determined to continue training to try again for the time before the January 17 deadline. My training was on such an upward trajectory, it seemed unimaginable that I wouldn’t make it. When I got an injury that derailed me three weeks before the race, I continued to push through, determined to make it to the starting line of another half. This goal of making the qualifying standard had taken on a life of its own, and nothing could dissuade me from trying to achieve it at this point. I tried to regain fitness in time and pushed myself to compete in two more halves in January, both of which I realized halfway through that I wasn’t going to make the time. In the end, despite my best efforts and 6 months of hard work, I had failed to achieve my goal.
A few days have passed since the qualifying deadline, and I’ve had a chance to look at the situation in a new light. I realize now that this whole process was not a failure in the end, but a very valuable learning experience for me at my current stage of running. I owned up to the fact that, even if I had made the standard, there was a fat chance I would have been able to successfully run a full marathon 4 weeks later. I emerged with a better understanding of how my body responds to injury, and realized the steps needed to get back to peak fitness. I realized that I DO have a lot of potential, but I’m still figuring things out along the way. And when it all comes down to it, 1:15:00 is still an arbitrary number and not a deciding factor for how much I’m capable of as a runner. It’s necessary in our sport to have objective standards to define qualifying marks, etc., but it’s important to not let these be the only barometer for success.
We all like to think about how much better we’d be if only x, y, z. I’m not going to ask you how much better you could be if you weren’t working full-time, but what would be the biggest differences in your training if you had ample time and resources to do whatever you need training-wise? What events would you focus on? How does your current work schedule hamper one’s ability to train? (I mean, I know it’s obvious, but just spell out a few of the factors that some people might not think about).
When I graduated from Columbia, I knew I still wanted to run competitively on a local level and train to improve my times. I had accepted my job the previous November and was living in New York, so joining New York Athletic Club’s team seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to pursue my passion for running while working full-time. Originally, my intention was to continue to train for the 5k and 10k. However, I quickly realized that my schedule didn’t lend itself well to fast workouts early in the morning. For six months, I struggled through solo track workouts at 5:30 am or 9:00 pm, and was unable to hit times that had been routine for me back in school. So I moved up in distance. Another teammate, Sarah Cummings had clued me in that the longer, tempo effort workouts required for distance road races were more manageable with a full-time work schedule. When I saw early success in my first half marathon, I decided to give the Olympic Trials standard a shot.
But I don’t want to put the shorter distances behind me. If given the time and resources, that would be my current focus. With my current job, I miss out on a lot of the recovery and supplemental components of training that help propel runners to the next level, such as strength training and physical therapy. While exciting, the consulting lifestyle involves a lot of variables that are out of my control, and my schedule is often unpredictable from day-to-day. My running has to fit around my work hours, my travel schedule, and the city I’m staffed in at the moment. A key training week may fall on a 60+ hour work-week, and I have to do my best to adjust. In the past, this has meant leaving the office at 9pm and making the choice between doubling or eating dinner (I generally choose the latter!). These demands can sometimes throw a wrench in an otherwise seamless training plan, leaving me feeling unprepared before a key race. The past year and a half has been a great learning experience for me, though. I try my best to change what I can control, but to not stress about things that are outside my control.
Most people can identify with the struggle to balance their passion with a job that pays the bills. That’s why I love Caroline’s story so much. Not all of us elite runners have the option of such an incredible job opportunity as hers, but we all constantly weigh our own running success against our potential in the working world.
As I always say, the working world will always be there, but world-class running is something I definitely can’t do when I’m 65. So I’ll just take my retirement first.