Melissa Wawrzkiewicz is one of those rare runners who is incredibly impressive and incredibly unintimidating at the same time. She hasn’t been running her whole life, but since she started, it seems like she hasn’t stopped. She recently won the Oleta Down 2 Earth Half Marathon (won overall, for men and women), and I imagine there are more on the horizon. She makes me want to be a runner, which is saying quite a lot. In this interview she tells us about her training methods, street running versus trail running, and eating entire pizzas.

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Tell us your run story. When did you start? When did you start to get serious? When did you start doing long distances?

I started running almost exactly three years ago, on August 13, 2012. As of today, August 5, 2015, I have run 4,207.63 miles (6,771.52 km). I track every run and every workout on mapmyrun.com, because I love statistics. I started running as a form of exercise, and because I couldn’t afford a gym membership. It was a cheap, easy, and fun (well, not initially). At first I couldn’t make it to the end of the block without having to stop to walk. I wasn’t exactly seriously out of shape (I’ve always played sports), or even overweight, but running was a lot more difficult than I expected. But I progressed rather quickly, and after about two months I could run 10k, slowly, without stopping. I started to get serious around January 2013, when I decided I wanted to run a half marathon. So, I realized pretty early on that long distances were what made me feel the most accomplished. The more miles, the better. I did a lot of research online and crafted my own training plan. I ran the half in May 2013, and finished in 1:43:20.

 

You just won the Down 2 Earth Oleta Trail Half Marathon (woo!). Why did you choose to do that half?

Every Sunday I do a long run, between 12-16 miles, even when I’m not training for anything, because I want my body to alway be “used to” long distances. That particular Sunday (July 26, 2015) I was away on vacation in Florida with my mom, and I figured that instead of having to bother mapping a route in an unfamiliar place, especially when I wasn’t acclimated to the weather, and having to worry about hydration, etc. I would sign up for whatever half marathon I could find in the area. The Oleta trail run happened to the be the only run going on nearby that day. They actually have this race a few times a year, if I’m not mistaken.

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What were the challenges of the trail? This was in…June? Was it so incredibly hot out? Any mishaps/spills? (I’m always hearing trail running ankle twisting horror stories.)

I originally thought the heat would be my biggest challenge, but since the race started at 7:30am and the trail was through a dense forest there was shade the entire time. The biggest challenge turned out to be the trail itself. The terrain. I primarily run on the sidewalk and  paved trails, and occasionally gravel or tightly packed dirt trails, so I was completely unprepared for a “real” trail run. Not just physically, but mentally, because I had no idea it was going to be this type of trail when I signed up for the race. The trail was very narrow, the thick brush often encroaching on the path (very happy I wore a hat because I might have lost an eyeball otherwise, haha), the elevation was constantly changing, tight turns every ten feet or so, rocks, mud, tree roots, logs and fallen trees to jump over or climb under, makeshift bridges.

But this new type of terrain is what made it fun, and the excitement of the situation energized me. I also realized very early on that even the most serious looking runners weren’t moving that much faster than me, so if I pushed hard I knew I could pass them. Once I passed everyone (about mile 2) I realized that I just needed to sustain my pace (which was no where near my usual road racing pace, it was impossible to pick up any speed with the terrain) and I had a chance of finishing first. The thought that someone might be close behind me kept me from slowing down, even through all the mishaps.

I twisted my left ankle three times, and the right ankle once. Never severely, but enough to make me limp-run until the pain subsided. I also stubbed my toes countless times on rocks and roots, and because I wasn’t wearing trail running shoes, but my minimalist road racing shoes — my feet were completely unprotected. I have four black toenails right now that are threatening to fall off. But the worst mishap came in the final mile, when I actually tripped over a root and fell. I’ve fallen a few times on runs before so I know the best thing to do is to just bounce right back up and keep going, not missing a beat. I was exhausted and frustrated at that point, and ready for the race to be over. I was afraid if I looked at my injuries I would freak out/get overwhelmed, and I had to stay strong mentally. I also didn’t want to waste time, it is a race after all. I didn’t even brush myself off. My knee was in a lot of pain, and I could tell it was bleeding because I felt the wetness running down my shin and into my shoe, but I did the ol’ limp-run until it went numb and then picked up the pace to the finish. My knee is still looking pretty gnarly now, and I ended up with tons of other scrapes and bruises that revealed themselves later in the shower, but every single injury was worth it.

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How do you train for a trail run versus a street race?

Well, I can’t say since I didn’t train for this trail run, but I would advise anyone looking to run serious trails to get the proper footwear, and to start small, on easy routes. And to not be frustrated by a slower pace; it comes with the territory. Also, you can’t be afraid to get dirty. Trail running makes you really dirty.

 

How do you train in general?

If I’m training in general: I do a long run on Sundays, 3 medium runs during the week, 2 short runs, and 1 cross-training day. I also lift weights 3 times a week.

If I’m training for a race: I create a 12-16 week plan (depending on the race distance), and I stick to it. I usually take a pre-made plan, like Hal Higdon, and then customize it to my schedule. I don’t stray in terms of the run distances and number of runs though. I continue to lift weights 3 times a week on top of the running and cross training.

I don’t take any rest days, mostly because I feel like the runs where I am exhausted and feeling like shit, sometimes hating every minute, every step, are the ones that benefit me the most, at least mentally. Because when you’re racing, it’s uncomfortable, and you’re tired, and you feel like shit because you’re going all out, so it’s good to be used to that, and be able to power through regardless. Running is much more mental than you could ever imagine.

 

Have you done a full marathon? If so, which? If not, will you?

I’ve run one marathon, the Toronto Goodlife Fitness Marathon in May 2014. It was amazing, and went a lot better than expected. I read so many horror stories of people “hitting the wall” and crashing and burning during their first marathon (bad idea, don’t do that to yourself if you’re planning to run a marathon!) but I needlessly psyched myself out. My first goal was simply to finish and my second goal was to finish in under 4 hours. My time was 3:49:32, so I was really pleased. I plan to run the same race in May 2016, hopefully finishing in under 3:40:00. The most difficult part about running a marathon is finding the time to train, because the training will take over your life, not just time-wise, but mentally and emotionally and physically.

 

Is there such a thing as a runner’s high? I’m skeptical because I don’t think I’ve ever run enough to get there.

Yes! And it’s the most powerful when you’re running a race, whether or not you’re going to place, especially when you cross the finish line. The atmosphere, the endorphins — very powerful. And for me, the more miles I run the “higher” I feel at the end of the run.

 

What’s next for you (run-wise and life-wise)? What do you do when you’re not running?

I’m currently training for the Toronto Scotiabank Half Marathon, which is in October 2015. I’m hoping to finish in under 1:35:00. My current 10K and 5K PRs are 43:30 and 20:50, respectfully, so I’m hoping to improve on those in 2016, as well. I hope to one day run an ultra marathon as well, a 50 miler.

Life-wise, I am starting my PhD in industrial relations and human resources at the University of Toronto in September 2015. And when I’m not running, or at the gym lifting weights, I’m eating, haha. I eat a lot, and people give me a lot of flack for it, for some reason. But whatever, I’m happy killing entire pizzas every now and then, so haters can just hate 🙂 But on a serious note, my other interests are traveling, camping, hiking (I hiked the West Coast trail in BC last September!), sports (primarily baseball and NFL), reading, and jigsaw puzzles.

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Any advice for people who run casually and are trying to step it up in terms of distance and difficulty? Or people who think they’re starting too late in life?

If you want to run further, you have to run slower. Don’t be afraid to cut your pace in order to build up the miles. In terms of speed, what has worked for me (because I hate speed work!) is running hills. Try to include hills on every run. Because after a steep climb, the flat ground will feel like a piece of cake, and you’ll feel like you’re flying. It’s also important to train running downhill, because with a proper technique you’ll be able to effortlessly sprint downhill and shave precious seconds off your time.

Other advice: Schedule runs into your week, and treat them as unbreakable appointments. You may feel tired and crappy before the run, but just get changed, lace up your shoes, and do it. Once you get your heart rate up and your blood pumping you WILL feel better. Also, MORNING RUNS. It’s much easier to just “get it over with” than to have it hanging over your head all day. You’re more likely to talk yourself out of it by the evening.

You don’t need fancy shoes or clothes or gear if you’re just starting out, but if you’re serious about running/racing, there are certain items that you may want not want to skimp on, like a good pair of running shoes, a sports bra, and a hydration pack (for the long runs). And if you live somewhere cold, get a good hat! My 40$ winter running hat is one of my all time best running purchases. And if you’re really serious about long distance running, I would highly recommend getting a GPS running watch. Pacing yourself properly is so important with long distances. Doesn’t need to be top of the line, but it should be able to display your pace while you’re running.

Never think to yourself, “I can’t” while you’re running. Even if you feel like you can’t, just think, “I will try.” You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish when you just try.

It’s never too late to start. Don’t use age as an excuse (for anything, not just running). You don’t have to run marathons, or even 10ks. You don’t have to run fast, or run hard. Even if you’re just running a 12-minute-mile for a couple of miles, a few times a week, you’re still running, and you’re still out there getting exercise, moving your body, clearing your mind, and engaging with a huge community (the running community) that is welcoming and encouraging of everyone, regardless of ability or age or sex or race.

*all photos copyright Melissa Wawrzkiewicz