I often write about people who are fast. About runners who routinely are bringing home trophies from local races, about athletes with a ton of natural ability.
But for every one of these superspeedy men and women, there are thousands upon thousands of us who are grinding out the miles in complete anonymity, who will never win a race, who have to make up for average or below-average athleticism through sheer power of will.
Anyway, after compiling the times put up by Charlotte participants at the Chicago Marathon last weekend, I briefly flirted with the idea of reaching out to the fastest finisher in the area for an interview. Then I thought, Why not talk to the slowest?
That's how I came to interview Julia Bousman Vertreese, a 36-year-old paralegal who crossed the mat Sunday in 6:02:07 -- a time that on the surface seems so unremarkable ... but a time that was a PR for her and becomes increasingly inspiring the more you talk to her.
If you're a rather slow runner, hopefully you'll find in her a kindred spirit. And if you're rather fast? Well, she'll explain what you might be missing out on as you fly through the course.
Q. How'd you get started running?
In the summer of '06, I felt a strong urge to accomplish something on my own as well as a desire to give back and be a helpful part of society. As if the universe felt me flailing about in search for that "thing," I received a mailer from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. And there it was ... the answer: run a marathon to raise money for an organization that help hundreds of thousands of people -- including a dear friend from college who was fighting lymphoma -- and will train me to run the marathon. How's that for full circle!? The catch, and the challenge: I am an asthmatic who had never run a mile. Wondering if I'd lost my mind but filled with determination, I completed my registration card to join the North Charlotte chapter of Team in Training, mailed it in, attended an information/kick-off meeting in early August of '06 and was on my way.
Q. What was the Team in Training experience like?
Those five months of training were life-changing. I quickly realized that I was never going to qualify for Boston -- and I am OK with that -- but I found in myself a desire and determination that I didn't know existed. Sadly, in that five-month period, the lives of so many people I love dearly changed as well. In October of '06, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and in December, a week before Christmas, my cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. In January, I completed my first marathon in Phoenix with their names on the back of my shirt while mentally chanting, "This is so much easier than chemo." Two days later, I was on marathonguide.com looking for my next race. [Note: Julia's dad is on year three of being cancer-free and her cousin "is living a happy, healthy life" with her husband and three teenage sons.]
Q. How was Chicago?
Chicago was FANTASTIC. The city put on a clinic for how races should be organized. In all the races I've run, none compare with respect to organization and crowd support.
Q. Did you go in with goals?
I always go with two goals: 1. to finish and 2. to beat my previous time. The latter doesn't always happen but I'm OK with that. This time, I achieved both goals. Additionally, I was really hoping to break the six-hour mark and missed that by two minutes.
Q. Can you talk about the run-walk method you use when you do marathons?
Because races are typically very slow in the beginning because of the crowds, I run the first mile to get warmed up -- and pure adrenaline carries me for a bit. From there, I run for five minutes and walk for one minute and as I get tired or sore or what have you, I lessen the running part. ... My approach is always to finish with hopes of improving -- and beyond that, I want to take in everything that I can on whatever course I'm on. For example, on Sunday we ran through Chinatown and it was a great community. I slowed down and took it all in. In fact, there's a picture of me in Chinatown and it appears as if I might just be standing still. Oh well, it was wonderful. There was an elderly man banging a gong and people were in shop windows on a narrow street. If I concentrated more on running and less on the surroundings, I would have made that six-hour goal ... but at what cost? What would I have missed? The Galloway method allows me to walk occasionally and look around in a city or part of a city that I've never seen. For me, it's part of the total experience.
Q. How much of a factor is your asthma?
The first two miles always suck, for lack of a better way of putting it. As an asthmatic there are so many contributing factors to a good run -- the temperature, the humidity, your tempo, your breathing patterns, did I remember the inhaler, blah, blah, blah. I resent my asthma, can you tell? But after two miles, my lungs start cooperating and I know if I can find my zone, my rhythm and get past the first two miles, I'm good. After that, it's all about getting the miles in no matter how ugly or slow it is.
Q. I'm told you do all of these races alone. Why?
For me the running -- more specifically the races -- is a very personal journey. It's my thing. It has nothing to do with me being a mommy or a wife or a daughter or a sister or even a friend. It's about my desire and determination to complete something that quite honestly is extraordinary. Aside from any injury, freak accident or oddity on the course, my success or failure, my speed or lack of, my net time to the finish line, etc., is all determined by me. And although I have a tremendous amount of support from my family and friends throughout training and even during the races via text messages, I feel so empowered and proud when I cross the finish line knowing that I did just that -- I finished. I do have to admit that part of my desire to run alone is the self-imposed pressure and sometimes the anxiety to perform at a certain level if I'm with others. I don't want to feel like I'm holding someone back. I don't want to feel pressured into keeping up with another runner. I want to run comfortably without thinking or worrying or stressing.
Q. Do you talk to other runners throughout races?
I do talk to other runners and some pretty neat ones at that! Again, it's part of the overall experience. ... [But] there are plenty of stretches where I run alone, go into a zone and just run/walk. I enjoy those times just as much. I shut out the world and I think about everything from my son to my next pair of fabulous shoes to how crazy marathoners must be to how much and what kinds of food I'm going to eat (inhale) after the race. Sometimes a mile or two can go by and I have no idea what happened or how I got there. Running is my time, my experience ... mentally and physically.
Q. Does putting up slower times ever make you self-conscious?
Sometimes. People in my training group run four-hour marathons and look great doing it. Oftentimes I'm the last person in from a training run and as we sit around at breakfast I can laugh about it and the majority of the time it doesn't bother me. Other times it does, but never so much that I'll stop running. When I was at the expo for the Phoenix race in January of '07, one of the speakers said that only 2 percent of Americans will ever complete a marathon. Although I'm sure that number has gone up ... holy moly! I'm in that 2 percent! And there are typically plenty of slow runners right along with me so I'm not alone in the world of slow times. ... Occasionally a person asks my time, I tell them, and this look of what seems to be disgust comes across their face, or they tell me it's ridiculous that it takes that long. I just smile and move on. That person is either a running snob and isn't supportive so I don't care what they think, or that person isn't a part of the 2 percent and has no idea what it takes to complete a 26.2-mile course. They don't get to lessen my accomplishment.
Q. I'm sure you get plenty of positive feedback, though, too. Right?
There's a hundred times more positive than negative. I posted a few pictures of the race on my Facebook page and have received some very nice comments. My friend, Rodney, who I have known since elementary school, lost touch with after high school and found again thanks to Facebook, just posted this message, "I've probably said this to you before, but seeing you run these marathons is such an inspiration. I remember you in elementary school as this kid with an inhaler and now look at you go! I'm very proud of you." It brings tears to my eyes. Truly does. I may be a slow runner but people are still proud of me. Whether you're 6 or 36, that feels GREAT! ... [And] on Monday, the day after the Chicago race, one of my co-workers sent me an e-mail congratulating me and asking about the result. I gave him my slow, steady 6:02 time and joked that the winner did it in 2:05. His response was so kind and uplifting. He said, "I am as impressed with the slow and steady finishers as the winners. You ran three times longer than that guy." Yes, I did! I did that. I did that.
Q. Are you interested in getting faster?
I am interested in getting faster, but I'll never run nonstop for an entire race. I think about all that I would miss and it's not worth it to me. The scenery, the people, the culture ... . In my mind, as a slow runner, I get the best of both worlds: I finish the race with a huge amount of pride and I take in the best and most interesting part of the races which are the location and the people. If I ran a four-hour marathon [laughs], then I'd miss that and I just don't want to miss a single thing.
Q. What's the best piece of advice you have for slower runners who want to tackle a marathon but might be afraid to try?
Just go for it! Is it scary and intimidating? Yes! But it's not the scariest or most intimidating thing you'll ever do. I've run eight large races and each one is scary and fun and thrilling and exciting and nerve-wracking and every other emotion you can imagine. But the payoff is so grand and you'll be so proud of yourself when it's all over. I decided to go as big as I could ever imagine going and then I know that anything less would be as easy as a training run. Challenge yourself. Surprise yourself. Let others be proud of you and be proud of yourself.