Finding Inspiration

[Editor’s Note: This month, the Trail Sisters column begins a new chapter. Long-time Trail Sister Gina Lucrezi is joined by Liza Howard and Pam Smith. Together this trio will continue the monthly Trail Sisters column. Welcome, Liza and Pam, and we hope you enjoy!]

From Liza:
I was trying to coax my two year old to jump into the pool a few weeks ago when a bunch of my mom friends started talking about a new weight-loss and energy-boosting program. It involved a pricey monthly subscription, shakes, capsules, and a dermal patch that infused a medley of stimulating vitamins and extracts. One woman had already signed up and another lady subscribed poolside after hearing the first woman’s testimonial. I kept my mouth shut. Aside from a deep skepticism about vitalizing transdermal patches, I was bummed. My weight is healthy, and while I’m not a paragon of vigor, I do have enough energy to get some stuff done. But I could have been a dead frog floating in the pool skimmer for all the difference my athleticism made to these women.

The conversation got me thinking about influence and inspiration. What makes someone’s behavior helpful and persuasive? What runners do I know whose lifestyles and accomplishments have been useful and valuable to others? Who motivates me to aim higher? What role does age and physical appearance play in the whole thing? I thought about it as the other moms buzzed about minerals and energy. And I thought about it as I herded the kids out of the pool and into the minivan. I thought about it when Krissy Moehl, Anna Frost, and Stephanie Howe chose to wear black dresses in that Udo’s Oil ad instead of running gear. And I thought about it after I ran Leadville. And I just kept thinking about it. Finally I bugged Pam and Gina about it. And now here we all are. So, ladies, what makes for inspiration and influence? And would having a six pack help?

From Gina:
This is an interesting and tricky topic for me and many of us, I’m sure, so thanks, Liza, for bringing it up! What inspires and influences differs from person to person, so is there a right or wrong? For me, I’m motivated into action by a plethora of ideas, instincts, and outside influences.

My drive to run and play in the mountains is definitely something that comes from within. It is just there, something that is as motorized and automatic as breathing. I do it without even thinking or commanding it.

Now, let’s add in the complications. After a while, the simple act of skipping through the woods like a curious seven year old doesn’t seem to be enough. Outside propaganda steps in and tells you how you should be skipping, what you need for skipping, and how you should look while skipping. The innocent, free-floating child was just challenged on everything that felt natural and human.

People want to fit in. They start questioning the things they’ve been doing. Am I training enough? She-Runner just updated her Strava and I’m definitely not working as hard as her. Maybe I need to run more miles? She-Runner looks so tiny in her Instagram photo. Maybe I’m eating too much and that’s why I don’t look like that. The list of concerns goes on.

Unfortunately, I think people are easy prey to outside pressures. I’m certainly not exempt. Keeping many elite runners in close company can make it easy for me to drift from my instincts. Sometimes I fall victim to putting in extra miles because I’m unsure if I’ve done enough. But when it comes to image, I’m able to stop my irrational manifestations before taking the plunge. No one is perfect, but hopefully more people will start questioning outside influences and make decisions based on their internal instincts. Hell, we are all awesome in our own ways, and we should be embracing it.

From Pam:
I am always impressed by fast performances, but it is not what inspires me. Like Gina, I am internally motivated to get outdoors and to run, but there are certainly people who make me want to do more and be better. It’s not the sponsored athletes who have all day to run in the mountains, but rather the athletes to whom I feel like I can most relate or athletes that make me think, If they can do it, then I can do it, too.

When I first got into this sport, I was a huge Jamie Donaldson fan. Jamie’s shorter-distance road times weren’t super impressive, yet Jamie was a multiple-time Badwater winner (and course-record holder) and a 24-hour world championship team member. What impressed me about Jamie was how hard she trained while holding down a full-time job as a middle-school math teacher, sometimes putting in up to 200 miles a week. Like Jamie, I had a full-time job and had similar shorter-distance road times. The fact that Jamie and I differed in age by only a couple of weeks made her even more relatable. Instead of religious connotations, to me the abbreviation “WWJD” meant “What Would Jamie Do?” That phrase used to get me out of bed on dark mornings before work. If Jamie could get up at 4:30 a.m. to run, then so could I.

These days, it’s the working moms who really inspire me because that is the group that most aligns with my current situation. Anita Ortiz’s win at Western States in 2009 was pivotal in making me think that I could balance high-level training with a job and kids, especially since she was doing it with four kids, not just two like me! And the ladies who are breastfeeding or pumping during ultras make me think I could take on more, because that is certainly something I never did! Moms can still be major badasses and that inspires me!

From Liza:
I am a big Jamie Donaldson fan, too! I’m pretty sure I cut out a picture of her and taped it to one of my poster-board training plans when I started trail running. (This was back in the days when I only had one sack-of-potatoes baby and I had time to decorate pieces of poster board and I knew where the Scotch tape was.) Jamie always emphasized her rigorous training, and it was that message–“Hard work pays off.”–that motivated me to use the scissors and Scotch tape. I also stuck her on the poster board because she didn’t look like an athlete model. As a new mom, with a standard new-mom body, it helped to know that you didn’t have to have an obvious six pack or shredded quads to succeed. (Jamie, if you’re reading, and you’ve always had an obvious six pack and shredded quads, my apologies. I am very glad I missed those pictures of you in UltraRunning Magazine and any I-could-be-a-model selfies you posted to Facebook.)

Meghan Arbogast is also a garage pin-up. She is an accomplished, hard-working runner, and she is a little older than me. Pam, you are my touchstone for a professionally successful woman with happy kids and a good marriage who also manages to train hard and run well. I also appreciate that you don’t constantly post about how great you feel during training runs.

If being relatable is part of being motivational to others, maybe that’s why I’m useless to my non-running mom friends. The stories I share with them about trail running make it seem too extreme and me too much of an oddball. (“And then, after running 63 miles, I just started vomiting… for seven hours straight. But the belt buckle was totally worth it!”) I think appearing imperfect or vulnerable, à la Brene Brown, is necessary for relatability too. Nikki Kimball’s monumental athletic accomplishments didn’t really inspire me to set challenging goals for myself until she shared how she struggles with depression. And I’ve certainly received a lot of backhanded compliments over the years from runners who’ve read my blog. “Your life and your house are so messy, and you’re so scatterbrained… I figure if you can run ultras, I can, too.” (It’s a nice, inspirational niche.)

Maybe the runners who inspire most are the runners who share their stories and vulnerabilities the best. Still, it seems like there’s more to being motivational or inspirational. I think being a happy person–or at least a positive person–comes into play, too. And physical appearance? Have either of you motivated a non-runner to become a runner? Or someone who was very unfit to get fit?

From Gina:
Jamie Donaldson, being a newer arrival into this sport, I definitely missed the boat on her. Now I have someone new to Google.

This goes a bit back for me, but when I was a little squirt running loops around the track, I wanted to be like Suzy Favor. She was mile specialist, and I was, too. She crushed it! Suzy could run sub-four minutes for 1500 meters, which was something I dreamed of doing. (I only got down to a 4:31.) She had boobs (well, for a while) and looked healthy. I felt more able to identify with her since I was never a super twig and enjoyed afternoon snacks of Doritos. She aspired to win every race she started, and thus I did, too. (I almost pulled it off my senior year in track except for the state champs.) Suzy was definitely a huge inspiration to me (only in running though, eek!)

Switching to the sport of trail and ultrarunning, there are too many people to name. Each runner brings something unique to the table. For example, the characteristic that comes to mind when I think of Nikki Kimball, Anita Ortiz, and Darcy Piceu is toughness. Rory Bosio is my inspiration when trying to release my spirit or do some mountain dancing. And finally (and most importantly), there is Momma Lucrezi, my mother. She wasn’t allowed to run in school because sports weren’t where women yet belonged, or so society dictated. She received no encouragement or support to explore her athletic ability, or even consider being an athlete. I run for all the days she couldn’t. I’m dedicated to pushing my athletic limits because I am an extension of her, and want her to know just how amazing her gifts are. Hell yeah, Title IX.

With all I put into running, whether it be racing, working for a running company, training with friends, coaching, or blogging, I hope my messages to get out the door, explore, and be healthy (in both the mind and body) have caught on for at least one person. Running has done wonders for me, so I hope to share those same feelings.

From Pam:
I admit I am a total cynic (plus I am old and curmudgeonly now!), but I often find myself questioning the motives behind posting selfies of six-pack abs, muscled gym workouts, or other ‘glam’ shots. Are people really posting those to share their love of running or is it more about fishing for compliments? And if I am questioning someone’s motives, then it is not really inspiring to me. I love running because it makes me feel free, alive, and happy. Some days it even makes me feel fast. If physical appearance was the true motivator, then I might as well be spending my days on the Stairmaster or doing a million crunches at the gym! (I probably shouldn’t have had those two kids, either!)

Now certainly, running is a great way to get fit and there are many runners with great bodies, and heck, I am not above ogling a bit. Likewise, I am not above posting pictures for narcissistic reasons. I mean, when I find a race picture where I look good, you better believe that thing is going on the internet somewhere! But when I am really moved by a run, the things I want to share are pictures of the scenery, a thought or an emotion, the feelings of triumph after a good race, or even the sense of determination to do things differently after a bad race. And so those are the kinds of posts that inspire me, because I know the sentiment behind them is one of true love for the sport.

I certainly like to think I inspire other people, but it is hard to know what your real influence is. When I started running ultras, pretty much no one else running with the local running store had done one. Now a large number of them have. Of course, some of this is just due to the increasing popularity of ultrarunning in general, but I like to think that some of the people may have been more inclined to try because they saw me doing them and they knew me as a ‘normal’ person. I know I have inspired several of my family members, including my brother who took up running after I won Western States and recently completed his first marathon. But like Liza at the pool, I have had my experiences where I have failed to inspire those around me. Last fall, I gave the keynote speech at the town hospital’s women’s health fair which focused on research-proven benefits of exercise for mental and physical health peppered with a few of my own stories. Afterward, I was talking with a group of ladies who praised me for being educational and entertaining, but who told me “they were too far gone” or “too set in their ways” to want to start exercising. *sigh*

Conclusion and Call for Comments
No matter how much you love running, at some point we all need a little motivation and inspiration, whether it is to move up to a longer distance, train a little harder, or get out the door when you just aren’t feeling it. And maybe someone inspired you to take up running in the first place. Glossy pictures of elites or selfies of ‘hot’ athletes might make for nice eye candy, but they aren’t necessarily what inspires us. Instead, the successes of down-to-earth people who remind us a bit of ourselves are the runners who get us fired up and excited to get out running.

So, who inspires you and why?

Trail Sisters

is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.