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.

There are 13 comments

  1. Sarah

    This was totally inspiring, funny and real. You three women inspire me. I don't know which comment I liked the best but maybe this one from Pam, which captures my feelings exactly: "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'm inspired by the older ladies in the sport — women like my friend and mentor Eldrith Gosney — whom I think of as "tough old goats." I try to keep running year after year and trying new challenges because I want to age like them, with grace and guts. Therefore, I'm much more inspired by the tough, wrinkly, weathered, bad-ass older women in our sport than the fresh, young 20- and 30-somethings.

  2. kjz

    I'm definitely motivated within and by nature in all her glorious harshness. I don't do Strava which helps temper any comparisons. I am inspired and continually encouraged by the women who do their thing regardless of and in addition to the other awesome things in their lives. I think of my Alaska women running friends and those spread throughout the US who have families and jobs and other hobbies and interests–my sister and my besties–women like Gundhild and Lisa up in WA and Meghan in Utah or wherever she is now–women in harsh climates and circumstances– women living their dreams… Each of them inspire me to keep on keeping on!

  3. sarahjbard

    Pam's words also really resonated with me – in regards to women like Jamie (who, I'll admit I didn't know of – YET – either), who have other life obligations like work and family, but who manage to still train at a high level. They prove that if you love something, you can make it work. Especially at 5am when they love isn't as strong, they're a reminder that working hard provides some really rewarding and memorable experiences.
    I'm also really inspired by master's runners – for the same reasons. The older you get, the more your life develops, the more excuses you have at the ready. Women like Sheri Piers, who have children, who work, who mentor other runners – they're really incredible. They make me feel like I, too can be incredible.
    Lastly, I have to say that Emelie Forsberg is an inspiration, but not just because she kills it at races. She's a fierce competitor, but she's also very gracious and recognizes the strength of other runners and competition. Her obvious love of the sport (and of sweets and treats) is a nice daily reminder of why we run – because despite the fact that I sometimes would rather just sit on the couch or go to bed – running always, in some way or another, makes me happier (and better :)).

  4. Meghan Hicks

    So many women inspire me:

    An emaciated, defeated, teary Liza Howard walked into camp at this year’s Marathon des Sables, many hours after she should have finished the long, fourth stage. She had been broken by the stage and had lapsed back from being competitive to being mid-pack. But the next day she stood up, put a smile on her face, ran her ass off again, and signed up for next year’s race. The ferocity that came out of her spirit when it was cracked wide open inspired me.

    When Pam Smith won Western States during the heat of 2013, she did so by combining both knowledge on how to manage the severe conditions and raw fitness. With 100% respect to all the women in the field that day, it was really impressive to see Pam user her body and her brain better than everyone else.

    Gina Lucrezi suffered badly at Western States this year. I mean, it was an epic. But she had dropped from the race last year and was determined to do what it took to get a buckle this year. I watched her run around the Placer High School track with this short, gimpy stride and a kind of embarrassed smile on her face, a few hours before the cutoff. I was inspired by the tenacity required for her to get to the track.

    Heather Anderson over on the Appalachian Trail right now, what she’s doing is flooring me. I try to envision the mental gymnastics she must put herself through every day to hike 45 or 50 miles in pursuit of a new FKT, unsupported and on her own, and I can’t. It’s precisely too difficult to imagine, so unprecedented for our gender. But that she is doing it and can do it, oh hell.

    Danelle Ballengee, the mental and physical strength that was required for her to survive her trail running accident in 2006, to wait, completely broken and all alone, for help. Wow.

    It is not how you look that inspires me, women, it’s what you do with your brains and your bodies. Our gender’s beauty, power, strength, and femininity, in my mind, comes from within our actions, not our aesthetic.

    1. @5280RunnerGal

      "It is not how you look that inspires me, women, it's what you do with your brains and your bodies. Our gender's beauty, power, strength, and femininity, in my mind, comes from within our actions, not our aesthetic."—> Hallelujah!

    2. lizahoward

      I worked for both Outward Bound and NOLS, and one really fun parts of the 3 and 4-week long courses in the wilderness was watching the young men came to reassess how much they valued female beauty over other characteristics.

  5. paulandmer

    I sent Jamie and text and let her know that lovely things have been said about her, and that she is still an inspiration to so many. I feel so fortunate to have known all sides of Jamie…from the little remembered moment of when she dragged her shin splinted and blistered leg and feet up to the finish of Badwater (I still have the video) getting passed more times and still pressing on, to moments in the middle of summer when we would drive down the road with the heater blasting in the car…right after the most ridiculous sauna sessions. She knew what it took to be successful, but her non-running nature friendship and life will always be what is inspirational to me.

    Whenever I think about slacking off on a planned workout I think of the fact that she did every single one of her workouts on her own and never gave less than 200% of what she planned to do. It showed every time she stepped onto a race course, and she will remain inspirational for me for those reasons too.

    But, in the end what inspires me is every person who sets a goal and heads out the door every. single. day. to accomplish it. Our lives and goals come in all shapes and sizes and we are fortunate to watch (thanks to social media) so many amazing moments everyday.

    1. SeanMeissner

      Jamie is definitely one of the greats. Her commitment, determination, and willingness to suffer are traits I will always fondly remember about her. As you mention, her non-running side is what made her a dear friend to me. She's just so incredibly nice and fun to be around, and loves to get out and play hard once the work is done. As I know you do, I miss her.

      1. paulandmer

        So much and I knew you could appreciate all of these thoughts more than anyone. Sad no one mentioned appreciation for your pink tutu and wig Badwater pacing :)

  6. @eliothoward

    As life partner to one of the old goats, I can intimately attest to her commitment and toughness. Ultra runners more than most can appreciate that these qualities of hers are the sum of many small actions. That's the insight I've come by as spouse to an "immortal elite": that her achievements come out of very ordinary and relatable moments. More people would be inspired if they just came live with us for a week!

  7. @shiningspeidel

    I'm inspired by women like Pam, Liza, and Sarah L-S who don't quit when their races aren't turning out the way they had hoped, but gut it out to the end. Likewise, I'm inspired by these same moms who are able to balance their running, parenting, and working with grace and humor. I'm also inspired by tough runners like Meghan and Heather Anderson ( who I saw on the AT last week and she is crushing it, btw) who take on incredible, epic adventures with a plan, determined focus, with little media hype and no excuses. But mostly, I am inspired by other women ultrarunners who help others be their best selves by being supportive, friendly, and nonjudgmental, from the front of the pack to the very back. Thanks for your great column, Trail Sisters!

  8. olgav100

    Women who have life commitments – kids, work, demanding careers, other hobbies – multifaceted, who are not wrapped into running existence as the "one and only", who love nature not only to participate in a high profile ultra (it was so awesome to see Stephanie Howe backpacking, I learned a new side of her). Women who get out there, often in non-inspiring places (a short road hill near Pam's home or a block around Liza's, anyone?) and put on the work. Those who miss "the work" from time to time, and are ok with it, still continuing their life. Fierce competitors and gentle souls.

  9. @undefined

    I'm going to have to second Sarah above. I volunteered for the local hundred this past weekend and I was in awe of some of these older (I'm almost 40, so older than me I guess) folks who were just going about it like it was no big thing. I took everything I had not to ask them if I could tag along with them for a couple of hours. While I like social media as much as the next guy, I do get annoyed with the self-aggrandizement that is so epidemic. A virtual community is no replacement for a real, flesh and blood, community and seeing those flesh and blood runners was indeed inspiring. Great article!

  10. DawidNowa44

    I'm going to have to second Sarah above. I volunteered for the local hundred this past weekend and I was in awe of some of these older (I'm almost 40, so older than me I guess) folks who were just going about it like it was no big thing. I took everything I had not to ask them if I could tag along with them for a couple of hours. While I like social media as much as the next guy, I do get annoyed with the self-aggrandizement that is so epidemic. A virtual community is no replacement for a real, flesh and blood, community and seeing those flesh and blood runners was indeed inspiring. Great article!

    Sorry to repost, that was me above, but I'm not sure how I became undefined.

  11. @koffeeklatch

    Thanks so much for the inspiration! I'm A mom of four and a runner and love to hear others' stories of how they integrate training and racing into regular life (with messy houses and all -lol!).
    It's also challenging to manage a rigorous training schedule along with family and jobs so I'm delighted to see that the training sisters are sharing their experiences (that's much more interesting to me than people who have all day to run and no real obstacles in their lives to work around).

  12. steve_gh

    I find this article really quite sad: the 2nd paragraph shows it for what it really is – an attack on Krissy Moehl, Anna Frost and Stephanie Howe, with the clear intention of ostracising them for appearing in the Udo's oil advert.

    The relationship between athlete and sponsor is based on the athlete gaining money to pursue their career, while the sponsor hopes to improve their reputation by association with the athlete – most obviously by using the athletes in advertising campaigns. There are some very valid criticisms of the Udo's Oil advertising – particularly that it is sexist and does nothing to encourage womens' participation in sport. But the blame for this should be placed squarely with the sponsors and advertisers, not these three athletes, who are all wonderful role models, as are the other athletes discussed in this piece.

    Why are the female athletes in this advert criticised, and not the male athletes. Is it because of their attire? Are the black dresses sexy? It is no secret that athletes are generally physically attractive, and that sex sells. But I haven't seen any criticism of Anton Krupicka for appearing in Buff adverts wearing only a pair of shorts (and a headband) – there is a lot more well-toned flesh on display there.

    Perhaps the truth is that Krissy, Anna and Stephanie have punctured an illusion: there is a cultural meme that trail and long distance running is a somehow and unsullied pure thing; it starts with Philippides, and runs through Forest Gump and has most recently been encouraged by Salomon's brilliant series of short films. This crude piece of advertising tears the veil – we see the same pressures on ultra athletes as in other sports. They were always there, we just chose to ignore them.

    To use a soccer metaphor: play the ball, not the woman.

    1. GinaLucrezi

      Hi Steve!

      First off, thanks for taking the time to read our post on inspiration, and for taking the time to state your thoughts.

      Liza, Pam, and I are all very good friends with the ladies who happen to be in the Flora ad and respect them very much. In fact, I'm headed to Tahoe in few days to pace Krissy on an FKT attempt…don't think I'd be doing that if I wasn't her friend or a supporter. Do describe the ad, we would have written the names of any three women who could have been chosen for that photo. It wasn't personal.

      Truth be told the ad did get us talking about how the women were presented and whether or not we found that inspiring. We understand the concept of "sex sells" but that is not what inspires us or gets us excited to go out and run. It could have been anyone in black dresses…we were merely analyzing the creative concept.

      Steve, I actually work for an outdoor company (running, climbing, skiing, etc.) as their team manager, and am very happy to explain how sponsorships really work. Shoot me your email and I'll be happy to give you the in's and out's since you are missing some major pieces.

      And finally…the main reason we did not bring up any men is because our blog is titled Trail Sisters. We just focus on topics surrounding the female gender (for the most part).

      Thanks again for taking the time to read the post, and for standing up for your thoughts.

  13. LaraRunningWild

    Liza, I have to say that you have been a wellspring of inspiration for me since the birth on my second child in December 2013. When I heard about your race at 2014 Umstead, I didn't feel like such a weirdo in my quest for my first 100-miler. "Enjoy your babymoon" they said. "Take it easy" they said, and with a tone that insinuated I was deviant for wanting to return to running so quickly postpartum. Listening to your interview on URP let me know that maybe I was out in left field, but at least I wasn't alone. Even though my times will never be equal to yours, I feel kindred to you through your honesty. Thank you ❤️

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