In 1989, the great Kenyan runner John Ngugi won his 4th consecutive World Cross Country Championships. Running over a rain soaked golf course in ankle deep mud, John ran off the front and raced solo for most of the race. He appeared to skim the surface of the track, floating above it, running suspended in air, yet moving so fast. I know, because I was there, and I saw him race. I have a vision to this day of John Ngugi racing over mud like it was smooth hard asphalt; such was his ability and his prowess. John Ngugi went on to win another World title in 1992, making for a total of 5, and then Paul Tergat, another great Kenyan, won 5 in a row from 1995-99.
I was in Stavanger Norway at my first World Cross Country Championships, the first of 5 world cross country events that I attended from 1989-1993. Back then, the races were run on one day and there was a single event for the men and women to run. Endurance runners from the 1500, 3000m, 5000, 10000, and marathon all converged in this one mass start cross country event. The races were an elite smorgasbord of World, Olympic, and European distance champions. The World Cross Country Championships were so competitive that Phil Ligget, the popular sports commentator, called it the “fiercest foot race on earth”.
I was the Canadian Champion, but at 22 year of age, inexperienced and amongst this calibre of athletes I was overwhelmed by the level of competition, and the magnitude of the event itself.
It rained all week leading up to the event, and the ground was sodden and soft. At the race site, all countries were assigned an outdoor 'room' in the sprawling centre of green army tents that had been put up for the event. We Canadians arrived, and silently, nervously, we found places for our gear off of the wet ground and out of the rain. Team members came and went from the tent, quietly performing their pre-race rituals. By the time the junior women and men had raced, the hilly course was deep mud. As I paced alone nervously through the warm up area of tents, I could hear singing and laughter coming from one of the rooms and as I walked past I could see it was the Kenyan team tent and a large group of runners (juniors, senior, women, men) were in there. They were laughing and singing and some were even dancing together in a circle! I was amazed and intrigued by the sound of joy and the happiness that was coming from that tent, before such intense competition! Like children playing, the Kenyan athletes possessed a magic that was completely alluring. I was enchanted by the evident joy and the camaraderie that existed between then… there was something about the attitude that suggested a far greater importance than the races about to be run. I have never forgotten that laughter, those smiles on the faces of the relaxed runners, or the singing and I have witnessed it at many events since.
Although I was too young and far too nervous at the time to fully understand, I learned a lesson that day that became a huge part of my path as an athlete: that I needed to be serious and dedicated to training, but light-hearted about my career. There is a passion, and that passion comes from softness, not hardness. That running for joy is a childlike freedom. I realize now that my whole athletic career has been a process of moving closer and closer to finding that place of fun again. I am forever grateful for the way those Kenyan runners sang freely out loud in the rain before the World Cross Country Championships in 1989.
10 More things I learned from racing Cross Country that I continued to use throughout my run career:
1. Be Assertive. I always tried to be first off the line and first into a corner.*
2. Make Space. Cross is crowded: I would try to get out in front and put space between me and a pack, especially going into trails.
3. Use your Strengths. I was a front runner. I didn’t care if anyone knew my secret, when I went out front, and ran scared like a rabbit I was really motivated by the fear of getting caught!
4. Run down Hill Fast. I did lots of crazy hill training, but never neglected to practice running downhills very fast.
5. Start Fast, Go Fast in the Middle and Finish Fast: or, never stop pushing.
6. Own the Course: I would pre run every course, sometimes several times if it was not in my hometown. If the race was in my hometown, then I would train on that course relentlessly and own every inch of the course and would know where I was going to make my move if I had to.
7. If the weather is bad then that’s good news. In rain, snow or hurricanes, bad weather is a chance to be tougher than nails. Just make sure you always have a selection of spikes, including 10mm!!
8. Get Lost. If I was ahead, then I would try to put more time once I hit a corner or a wooded section. When people can’t see you, they don’t try as hard to catch you.
9. Run corners fast. Take tangents, run the corners at speed and try to get a step ahead of competitors in the corner.
10. It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over. Run hard past the finish line. There may be someone to catch just before the chute, or in the case of the Worlds, if you stop pushing for even one second, ten runners push by.
*Once, I was a little too aggressive into a corner. I was running neck and neck with Leah Pells down Citadel Hill at the Nationals in Halifax. There was a downhill sharp corner about 600m from the finish. I attempted to cut into the inside of that last corner, but slipped in the mud, lost my balance and wiped out. Leah surged ahead and beat me to the line.
Lucy Smith started running in Halifax, Nova Scotia, racing cross country in the Bantam category. She went on to win 5 Senior National Cross Country Championships and 2 University Cross Country Champs. She raced at World Cross Country Championships 5 Times.
I'm older than I was. That's just the way it goes. Five decades on the planet for me, four of them spent running and a good three of those spent running hard with purpose, direction and fire in my heart. This is going to sound cheesy, but I don’t feel old. I look older: grey hair, wrinkles and all that and I am not as fast, but I never expected to run faster than I did at my peak years in my late 30's. Those days of running are behind me, and that’s ok. When that door closed, a whole other world of doors opened. I am exploring them one by one. I will share those stories in the days ahead, but first, I need to share this one. This is my truth about getting older as a female runner.
First, I believe it’s important for people, as they age, to understand the cultural context in which their experience is unfolding. Our feelings about an event are also based on our perceptions that we have gained along the way. Youth and beauty have story attached to them, and how many stories about the multifaceted and connected paths of menstruation, pregnancy, birthing, perimenopause and menopause have run alongside your reality? (If you are struggling here, look no further than the glossy magazine covers at the grocery store check out.) If we lived in a society that fully embraced female aging (or any aging for that matter) and all the associated changes, I truly believe women wouldn’t ‘fight’ it so hard nor find it as stressful. If we lived in a society with less petty comparison and shallow judgement and with allowance for natural beauty to unfold without bias, it certainly would be emotionally easier to get older, although Photoshop might go out of business. Everywhere I turn I see this fight: of women mindlessly pushing back against aging gracefully with cosmetic surgery, ridiculous diets, non-surgical body treatments, and a whole host of anti-wrinkle beauty products pushed on us by emotional marketing campaigns that convince us we aren’t enough just as we are. We can’t control what products and advertising campaigns are out there, but we can control our own responses, so I truly believe that the perimenopause years (anywhere starting after 35) should be approached soulfully, with a deep respect and commitment to our own self-care and self-awareness. I also believe that mindfulness practice in exercise, strength training and following a nutritious diet help throughout this time immensely. Most of us are also at the most stressful periods of our lives with busy family, teenagers (more hormones!), and career, and mindfulness and compassion can be our grounding.
I could never have dreamed up saying these words at 35, as I was recovering from having my first baby and heading into another Olympic Campaign in 2002, for Athens ’04. It is only because I have lived and learned and experimented and failed and succeeded and searched and researched and asked a lot of questions of both myself and many other women over the age of 40 that I can even write this.
Yes, You are Getting Older and Entering a New Phase of Life
At 40, twenty two years into a life as a competitive athlete, I was still running like a 39 year old, winning races outright and sleeping well at night. I won the Masters at Freihoffer’s 5k for Women that year, raced as an elite at Ironman Canada and ran 2:48 in the Elite Masters category at the New York City Marathon. I was tapering off the life as a full time professional and elite athlete—my last Worlds was at 39- and after that I focussed on my now busy family of two small children and a growing coaching business. It was impossible to put the mindset of the athletic lifestyle behind me however, and the desire to work out and be fast was still strong, as was the desire to race. At this point however, the laser focus on National Team goals and winning prize money was waning and I found myself looking for an intention to release the high performance mindset while still focussing on personal excellence. And then, at 42, I suffered a huge injury because that intention wasn’t yet strong enough in practice - I wasn’t paying attention to my body and it was a wakeup call that my tendons, joints and connective tissue weren’t as resilient as they used to be and my training couldn’t be supported by the severely insufficient amount of sleep and recovery I was now getting as a busy mum of two, and coach.
Warning: this next bit details the Very Real Aspects of AGING: your reading vision may start to fail, among other symptoms of physical decay.
That year, I was out of run training for over 6 months, and also noticed that, as I lay in bed at night with son reading, my life long clear vision was starting to get blurry. I got my first pair of readers, and it turns out that was only the beginning of the physical and emotional changes to come! From then on I started to notice that things I had taken for granted most of my life were in flux. PMS changes, moodiness, hot flashes, night sweats, sleeplessness and insomnia crept in and most noticeably, was the fact that I was taking longer to recover from workouts and definitely from races. There were times when exhaustion from lack of sleep threw me into intense feelings of hopelessness from an inability to cope. My high performance mindset that yelled: “Giving up is not an option!" "wasn’t being entirely helpful during this time. More positive thinking can not make up for the inner work that needs to be done.
Somewhere during this time, with the support of several empathic and insightful individuals in my life - and the works of Pema Chodron, Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Thich Nhat Hanh – I phased out resisting and phased in acceptance and ‘knowing’. I began to see the changes as teachers, and as events to be embraced. I began to understand the way we can be hostile, instead of loving, to ourselves, and how that is manifest in the world around us, and especially in media. I started to track my periods and tailor my training, using the 7 day phase before periods as my recovery weeks. It was pretty obvious that I was tired, sluggish and unable to hit usual effort during those weeks, and the gentleness and honesty it took to make that change set in motion a new kindness to myself, and I gave myself permission to be whatever I was at the moment. How often do we keep making the same mistakes, berating ourselves and suffering repeatedly, when all we need to do is STOP what is causing the suffering?
This planning ahead and accepting, really helped me craft my training into something that worked for me instead of something that I was trying to make work. I rarely trained with groups during this phase, fully became self-coached and then I put my workout and race goals onto the back seat behind motherhood and coaching from ages 46-49. This really took the pressure off from ‘trying’ so hard to make my body do something that it couldn’t or wouldn’t do, and it allowed me to experiment with other ways to train around a much looser schedule. In some ways, I was experimenting with letting myself off the hook for ‘high performing’ all the time. It took a lot of growth to move from running to prove, to running for joy. (Actually, this was Phase 2 of ‘Running for Joy’, as I had already implemented a new Joy mindset during the height of my professional career, when the pressure to perform and achieve was out of balance with my innate desire to move).
I was getting older, and wiser, and instead of turning up the volume of the “Positive Self Talk” channel when I was feeling down, (which was highly necessary as a career tactic during the middle miles of the Ironman marathon), I started to ask myself where these inner voices were coming from, why they were coming, and what did it mean about me and my journey. This self-awareness began to seep into a new kind of gentleness with myself, a new kind of gratitude about what I had accomplished, and more permission to leave the high performance persona behind and transcend once more.
Like a lot of athletes, I simply love training, so it was difficult and different to stop running every day, but after 4 years of trial and error and pretty intuitive winging it (I think after 30 years of training and being a coach my winging it is powerfully intelligent) it became obvious to me that I had years of stamina and endurance, very strong motivation and emotional resilience and I needed mindfulness and physical strength, not endless endurance and more time on my feet.
While I had done yoga intensively from 2002-2004 during my Olympic campaign, I started mobility and strength training again at 46, which I continue still. Both have enormous benefits outside the obvious one of preserving muscle mass, mobility and strength for basic life tasks. I actually ‘feel’ better when I do strength, and it is documented that lifting helps perimenopause and menopausal women, as it supports hormonal changes and a sense of well-being. I will write another article on my adventures with strength – from basic core, to learning to swing the kettlebell, heavy deadlifts, practicing movements has been an enriching challenge and education – as that was one of the doors that opened up when I shelved the racing flats.
Because I am no longer going for PR efforts, my performance expectations are difference, yet my intrinsic joy and desire are the same if not higher. I am more interested in the quality of my run and ride days, and the wonderful soul filling benefits acquired by the actual practice of training well, than I am with getting as many workouts in as possible as physiological markers and confidence for future performance. While this was a necessary way to train while I was in my 20’s and I love that I did it that way, as I know the brilliant honesty is that to develop as a young athlete you just need to work hard. The hard work shapes who you are as an athlete—both physically and mentally.
I will never again run 32:46 for 10k, and while I love occasionally chasing age group goals, and love running fast even more, I am not hooked into times and pace like I used to be. That is a book that is complete. This has allowed me to stop a lot of the practices that have the potential to cause injuries—mainly overtraining, under resting, not being mindful and the plain stress of performance. Strength training has made me a stronger more injury free runner. It helps my posture, my form, my speed, and my mind. I can run less mileage but run stronger longer. The physical strength has also given me confidence; I am learning a new skill, it is a commitment and intrinsically motivating.
For all you schedule lovers out there, this is a “Coles Notes” of what my training looked like at 35 and again at age 51. These days, it is basically a non-schedule, anchored by 3 weekly strength sessions. It is highly subject to change at any time:
Age 35 In Season Training
Run 7 x a week (including 2 brick workouts, one track session, one long run over 90 minutes, a hard tempo)
Ride 4-5 x a week (including 2 speed and one ride up to 4 hours for 70.3 training)
Swim 3 x a week (including one open water session)
Strength minimal with basic core and mobility
Total = 20+ hours a week, not including visits to chiro/physio and massage)
Age 53 Training
Strength 3 x a week (about 60 min/session) These sessions are the cornerstone now.
Run 2-3 x a week (20-30 min easy, aerobic. Every couple of months I go for 10K just for fun.
Ride road bike 1 x a week (if I feel like it and usually 75 minutes)
Total = 7 hours, give or take a couple depending on my energy.
The 2 things that are completely different than my high performance training days:
1. I can miss any workout at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, because I have earned the right for that too.
2. I prioritize strength training over all other training. Swinging and snatching a kettlebell is my conditioning and pulls, presses and hinges keep me strong for every thing else I want to do in my life.
I feel so grateful for all my earlier days of competition: the intensity, the anxiety, and the discomfort, both physical and mental. I have had both incredible success and incredible disappointment in my life, and both have taught me the calm that comes with choosing the middle ground. I learned not only to cope with the sharpness of competition, but to embrace it and move through it with joy, and that I was tough enough to cope with whatever happened. It is because of those heavy days and all the days that came after through my transition away from high performance that I can now train with the freedom I have now, and turn to supporting others along their own path. I turned 53 this year and respect my body and what it can do, but age really is only a number, and no predictor for how you want to take on the adventure of life. Attitude is age less.
We can always choose to perceive things differently. You can focus on what's wrong in your life, or you can focus on what's right. – Marianne Williamson
My body, my racing, and many things in my life have changed over the last decade. I retired organically, letting my age and my family commitments create my priorities, and while it is still far from complete, it is actually perfect.
Run For Joy!
Resources that have supported my path:
Pema Chodron: “Taking the Leap”; “Start where you Are”; “The Places that Scare You”
Thich Nhat Hanh: “The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation”
Elizabeth Gilbert: “Big Magic”
Brene Brown: “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who you are”
And my favourite mental training book of all time, and one that I think all athletes should read at least once:
Terry Orlick: “In Pursuit of Excellence”
Lucy Smith is a 19 Time Canadian Champion in distance running, triathlon and duathlon, and won 2 Silver World Championship medals. Now a coach, speaker, mentor and writer, Lucy has two children, a Run Club for girls, and is passionate about educating others to find their own power through sport.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.