DigiLetter: What inspired you to become a runner?
Stacy Smith: I come from an athletic family with whom I grew up playing tennis, and my weekends were always dominated by soccer games. When I got into high school I ran a few local 5Ks for fun, but running never excited me as much as team sports. However, all that changed when I got to Japan and was introduced to the rampant running culture over there. At the time I was living in Kumamoto, where they had all kinds of cool events like the Ichigo Half Marathon, where you could enjoy strawberries along the course, and the Amakusa Pearl Line Marathon, whose 20K course allowed participants to cross each of the five bridges spanning this area. At the time 10K was my max so I ran that distance in both of those events, but I yearned to be able to go further. When I came home from Japan I was missing living there greatly, as well as unemployed and living with my parents. While job searching I had all the time in the world, so I began training seriously in the hopes of running my first half marathon. When I succeeded in completing that, it gave me the confidence to try my first full marathon. I was lucky enough to win the lottery for a spot in the New York City marathon the following year, and that was my marathon debut, at which point I was hooked on long distance running.
DL: How do you envision your ideal readers?
SS: I picture them as being already dedicated runners, those looking to get into the sport, or those wanting to learn about the marathon world, particularly the scene here in the U.S.
DL: What are your strong/weak points and how do they make you interesting as a writer and person?
SS: When I am passionate about something, I tackle it head on, whether it is for work or pleasure. I am also a big fan of taking on challenges that people say are crazy or can’t be done, and both of these personality traits tie into my 50sub4 goal. I am very independent and don’t tend to follow the crowd, so I am always happy charting my own course and doing things on my own. For the most part this leads to lots of interesting adventures, but there are other times when I wish I were better at reaching out to others. Some people would characterize me as stubborn, but being stubborn is not just a character flaw as it has a positive flip side. For example, this characteristic allows me to push through in marathons when quitting is the more appealing option. Also, I have high standards for myself in terms of my writing and in general, and I don’t tend to settle for just good enough. I have amazing perseverance, but could work on being mellower.
DL: How do you deal with the dreaded wall?
SS: I can honestly say that I fortunately have not really encountered the wall. I would love to attribute that to my wonderful training, but I think it’s more likely a combination of that plus luck and my now extensive marathon experience. I think another factor is that I ran my earliest marathons in New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu, where the power of the crowd helps to carry you through even when your body is pushing its limit.
DL: How do you train?
I don’t follow a specific training plan, but my personal style is to do at least one long (16-20 mile) run in the weeks leading up to race day. If I am able to squeeze in more than one even better, but doing one long run (ideally 20 miles) gives me the mental and physical toughness to know I will be ok on race day, as well as reminds me of what my body is capable of (as I do forget sometimes, especially if it’s been a while since my last marathon). Above all, my golden rule is to listen to my body!!! I have never had a serious injury (knock on wood!) and I largely attribute that to the fact that I will not push myself when my body is telling me to do otherwise, whether it’s for reasons of physical fatigue, general tiredness, impending sickness or just getting over a cold. Although it can be frustrating when you are unable to do a training run as planned, waiting for when you are in good condition to do a run will allow you to have a better quality workout, and more importantly prevent you from making yourself worse.
DL: Do you have a special pre-marathon routine? (e.g., a certain meal, stretching, etc.)?
SS: I tend to get serious about an upcoming marathon in the preceding week, which is the final stretch leading to game day. One idea I subscribe to is that of a “sleep bank,” or building up the hours you sleep pre-marathon. This is based on the premise that you are likely not going to be able to get a good sleep the night before the race due to nerves, excitement, etc. Therefore, it is recommended that you go to bed an hour earlier than normal starting a week before the event to build up this “sleep bank.” Thanks to the extra hours you accumulate each night, you will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the marathon despite potentially getting a restless sleep the night before.
In terms of nutrition, I generally am not that strict with my diet, but I do try to pay special attention when I am in the home stretch. For example, I have a sweet tooth but try to limit excess calorie consumption in the days leading up to a marathon. Although I enjoy drinking socially, if at all possible I avoid alcohol starting a week before the marathon, and at the same time increase my water consumption. Hydration is a key part of the marathon, and this doesn’t just start on the day of. I normally drink a lot of water to begin with, but am especially conscious of keeping myself well hydrated in the days leading up to a marathon. Also, pre-marathon is the one time you are encouraged to salt your food and eat more carbs, so I adhere to this as much as possible at that time. The salt retention is to make up for the great amount you will sweat while running 26.2 miles, and the carbs are for the well-known practice of carb loading, or increasing consumption of carbohydrates to allow you to stockpile fuel in your muscles which will be energy for race day. For me, this doesn’t usually start until a day or two before, and the most important carb loading will be during my marathon eve dinner. In most cases this will be pasta, but I’ve done sushi and alternate options in the past and it’s seemed to work out ok as long as I manage to get that crucial amount of carbs in some form. On race morning I tend to stick to a simple breakfast of tea with an energy bar and banana, and I bring several energy gels to take as needed to keep my glucose level up while I run.
DL: Do you have any really memorable runs?
SS: I think for most people it is their first marathon, and for me the effect was amplified as my debut was in my hometown of New York. There is nothing like this day when a powerful energy is formed from the combination of amazing crowds, wonderful volunteers and inspiring runners. The course goes through all five boroughs and a variety of neighborhoods, so it truly brings the whole city together to create unity out of vast diversity. Standing on the Verrazano Bridge before the start as the song New York, New York plays is an emotional moment that never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. A close second in terms of memorable runs is Tokyo. Similar to New York, it is a day when millions come out to cheer on the runners and generate a palpable electricity. The course passes the Imperial Palace, Ginza and other Tokyo’s landmarks, with the streets packed to the gills with volunteers and onlookers. I have posters from both marathons in my bedroom, reminding me of the many great runs I’ve done in both places.
DL: Any advice for aspiring marathoners?
Anyone can be a marathoner, provided your knees and other body parts cooperate! In all seriousness, it is just a matter of building up your mileage (or as the case may be, kilometers) little by little. When I lived in Japan I saw those around me doing 20Ks and half marathons and wished that I could attempt those distances. When I did my first half I wondered if I would be able to finish, and when I was able to I thought, “I wonder if I could finish a marathon?” It’s purely a matter of wanting to challenge yourself to do something you are not sure you can, to push your body past the point you think you can. And of course training and dedication to the larger goal are huge factors, though you can certainly do a marathon without training though it will be very painful on the day of and for several after! In general, I think there are probably two types of people who attempt marathons. Some just want to check it off their bucket list, and say “Never again!” after crossing the finish line. I fall into the other camp, those whose first thought after crossing the finish line is, “When’s my next marathon?”