Elizabeth Northern's postpartum return to running to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials and U.S. 50K Team
If you were to look at my 8th grade yearbook, it says: “When I grow up, I want to be a ballerina.” The first 15 years of my life were filled with tutus, glitter, and hours at the dance studio. I loved it, and dance was my life.
Come August 2005 and my first year in college at Trinity University, there was no dance program and no dance company to be a part of… so I went for a jog around the campus during freshmen orientation week. And what a twist in fate – during that run, I was spotted on the track and recruited to walk on the TU Tiger cross country team. The rest is history!
In a way, I consider myself a runner by accident. I landed into a collegiate program that was holistic and supportive, and my coaches shaped me from a 21-minute 5K runner to a three-time national qualifier by the time I graduated. And since college, my times and confidence have only improved.
But, the craziest year of my running career (so far) occurred in 2019. After having back-to-back pregnancies in 2016 and 2017 (my beautiful, perfect children were born a mere twelve months apart), I staggered into postpartum running with a new body, an inordinate lack of sleep, and a growing fire of excitement to be back running on the roads. I hired a coach, and I told him I had two big goals.
First, I wanted to qualify for the 2020 Olympic marathon trials, and we chose the 2019 Houston Marathon as the goal race. And secondly, I dreamed of making the American 50KM team, to compete in the 2019 IAU World 50KM Championships. It was a long shot, but my coach didn’t outright call me crazy. Maybe just a little crazy.
Fast-forward through 2018 when there were lots of miles and workouts and sickness from babies going to daycare. My training was haphazard and inconsistent, but we got it done. If there is any advice I can give to new parents: flexibility is key. And some days, even ten minutes jogging outside is just what you need.
I stumbled into January 2019 knowing it was going to take a miracle to cross the finish line at Houston under 2:45. And by the grit of my teeth, we did it. I was surrounded by an incredible tribe of women reaching for the same goal, and we worked beautifully together along the course to achieve the standard. Goal one accomplished!
Five weeks after Houston was the Cowtown Marathon, which included a road 50KM. I registered for the 50KM race with hopes of running around 3:20-3:25 or so, to be able to apply for the American 50KM team. But on race day, I had endured one of “those” nights that all parents remember – when kids were cranky, and sleep was maybe collectively around four or five hours. By mile 20, I knew it wasn’t my day. I dropped to the marathon and finished the race with a friend.
Feeling defeated, the next day I emailed USATF about options for the 50KM team. The contact mentioned that the USATF 50KM Championships was the following Sunday, suggesting that racing the championship event was my best shot at earning a place on the team. Afraid to make a decision, I procrastinated for four days and finally bought a ticket to Long Island on Friday, flew up on Saturday, and ran the race on Sunday.
But here’s the story: I didn’t tell a soul that I was racing the event, except my husband. I didn’t even tell my coach! I walked up to the starting line shoulder to shoulder with an incredible trail runner and an Olympian, realizing that I was likely going to run most of the race alone, focused on the qualifying time. And sure enough, these two women took off after the first loop, so I stayed behind and kept to my pace. By the 5th lap, one of the ladies had to drop out of the race. And by the last lap, I had reeled in the other runner and managed to put seven minutes on her time. By the grace of God, I won the race – my third marathon or longer race in six weeks! This secured my spot on the American 50KM team, goal two accomplished!
The summer of 2019 was some of my best training, and I then ran the race of my life in Brasov, Romania, proudly representing our country. I finished that race with a PR and a 6th overall placement. The icing on top was sharing the race with my family, especially my two kids. It’s crazy looking back, now, and seeing just how young they were during that trip.
One of the ways I’ve tackled the pandemic is being open to some new running challenges. In May of 2020, my high school neighbors challenged me to an all-out-mile race on our street. (There was lots of vomit.) Then in August of 2020, I ran a six-hour run along a one-mile loop. (There was even more vomit.) Fittingly, my next big running goal is to race the 2021 USATF 100KM Road Championships in Sacramento in October 2021 – and I can’t be more excited. It will be my first attempt at the distance!
When I think back to my childhood as a ballet dancer, I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to my parents and teachers for helping shape me to be the person I am today. Through ballet, I learned about grace and coordination. I credit all of my current foot and ankle strength to years of dancing. And, I mastered the art of “appearing to know what I am doing” when in fact I was and still am clueless most of the time!
All in all, running has been the best surprise gift. My improvements didn’t happen overnight, but golly - the journey has the best part!
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