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One 5K Changed The Game For Elite Runner Stephanie Bruce

Sometimes breakthrough moments in running come when you're not even expecting it.

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Sometimes you need a kick in the pants to get over a hump in training, even for elite runners. Not a literal kick in the pants but an effort that pushes you through a pain threshold you haven’t experienced in a long time. By “pain,” I’m not referring to running through an injury and pushing your body beyond its physical limit. I mean the type of pain that burns deep in your lungs, causing almost hyperventilation, a heaviness in your legs, and a feeling of euphoria once you finish.

I experienced my kick in the pants on Thanksgiving morning. Before that day I had been running post-baby for about three weeks, with 4 miles being my longest run and most runs lasting between 10 to 15 minutes. Having pelvic and spinal instability from my pregnancy, I have to gauge my return to training based on a pain scale and how I feel the next day. There’s no written guidelines to returning from pregnancy, and every women’s body is different in how they respond. My first 10 to 15 runs, I had pelvis pain (probably 3-4 on a scale of 1-10) that would come on within two to three minutes of the run and just stay there for its entirety. Once I finished, the pain was gone. My test would be hours later: how did I feel, and the next morning, how did I feel? It was a scary last couple of weeks, as I generally don’t run through any “pain” and didn’t know if I could trust myself to be the judge of what was an appropriate amount of load on my body. The idea is, as I get my body and core stronger with exercises, there is an adaption process that is taking place simultaneously. I apparently had to spearhead that process.

Damnit, why can’t someone do this for me? It felt like I’d never get over the 10-minute run hump. The trend started to look like this: run 10 minutes, pain most of the run, but none later in the day. Wake up the next day, no residual symptoms. Run 10 minutes again. Rinse, wash, repeat for the next week or so. Then I stepped up my game to 15 minutes, and, within a few days, 2 miles. When you get to gauging your runs in actual mileage, you know it’s legit progress.

The week of Thanksgiving I had taken a trip to Santa Cruz, Calif., for a friend’s baby shower, to get some treatment, and to take advantage of a few days at sea level. I ran my longest run to date—4 miles—with my six-months pregnant friend, Sara. It was glorious yet difficult, and I felt a bit nervous that I would never turn the corner, still feeling my pelvis and my extreme lack of fitness. Four days later I decided to run a fun turkey trot 5K in Sedona, Ariz.—because why not? I could run 3 miles, so why not be surrounded by hundreds of people and the scenery of the Red Rocks?

I woke up that morning after one of Hudson’s worst nights of sleep since he was born. He was up every 90 minutes, from midnight to 5:30 a.m. After getting him asleep at 5:30 a.m., I staggered into the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee and packed our bags for the drive down to Sedona. Pre-race mornings take on a different meaning and routine now that I have kids. Even though this wasn’t really a race for me, it still reminded me of the pre-race rituals I will eventually go through again. Typically I would warm up 50 to 55 minutes before start time, but this morning I found myself breastfeeding in the car about 40 minutes before race start.

With 25 minutes before race time, I bundled up when the morning brought a chill that told me winter was imminent. I ran for about 5 minutes, peed two to three times (a combo result of coffee and post-partum) and did some light drills and maybe a stride. I lined up in the middle of the pack, the gun went off, and the euphoria came back. Twenty minutes later,  my legs and lungs remembered what it felt like to suffer again. Ben, Riley and Hudson were all waiting at the finish, and I knew I made it over a hump.

There was nothing spectacular about my run other than it was significantly faster (6:45-minute miles) than I had been running on my easy days (8-8:30-minute miles). There was a significant shift, however. I had no pain in my pelvis for the first time in weeks, my body wasn’t sore the next day, and I felt amazing on my runs for the next three days. That 5K was my game changer. Coach Ben and I sat down to talk training, and we were able to write out a decent block that included the start of real workouts for me again.

It’s been about three weeks since that moment, and training has really started to ramp up; I’m noticing gains in fitness by the week. It’s easy to become discouraged and lose patience when returning from an injury, illness, or, in my case, pregnancy. As runners we are creatures of immediate gratification and want to see results yesterday. I’ve learned throughout my running career that if you can have the courage to not rush the process and the patience to relish in the uncomfortable and ugly, you can claw your way back to fitness. You might even enjoy the journey to being fit once you’ve arrived at your destination.

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