Updated: Dec 15, 2020
by Laura Henry
I started coaching athletes in 2013. Like so many coaches, I started off with a small number of athletes, and with each passing year, I have worked with more and more. What I’ve found through this process is that my focus has shifted from my own training and racing to that of the athletes who I am working for. While I do still exercise and train regularly, that’s not where the main focus of my energy lies.
In 2015, I was signed up for IRONMAN Lake Placid, a race that I ended up not being able to participate in because I broke my foot four weeks before race day. I was very public about my preparation for IRONMAN Lake Placid, and as a result, my withdrawal from that event was also relatively public. A lot of the feedback that I received for this decision was unkind. I heard everything from, “Why can’t you just tough it out??” to “If you hadn’t gone to the doctor, you could still do your IRONMAN.” to one person actually expressing joy that I was out of the race. All of this started steering me in a direction of remaining more private about my own training and racing, which was corresponding to the mental shift I was already experiencing as a coach: my athletes’ journeys were more important than my own. Like the CEO of Team MPI, Mark Sortino says, I wanted to be the best coach at what I coach. This meant that I could not simultaneously be the best athlete at what I coach. I was, and am, very okay with this.
In 2016 I signed up, trained for, and raced IRONMAN Louisville and I only told ten people about it prior to race day; six of those were my immediate family. That experience reaffirmed my choice to remain private about my training and racing; I raced IRONMAN Louisville because finishing an IRONMAN was important to ME. I LOVED doing my own thing without the “pressure” of questions from other people (even if most of those people would have been well-meaning).
I ended up having to take most of 2017 off from racing and structured training due to a couple of surgeries I had to have in order to repair my long-broken arm. In the summer of 2017, I started talking to my coach about goal-setting for when I could resume focused training. I am the type of athlete who does best when there is a goal out there, even if it’s a long-term goal. So, I decided in August 2017 that I would set my sights on the Wrightsville Beach Marathon, which was set to take place on Saturday, March 17, 2018.
As I started my recovery from my third and final surgery to repair my arm, I realized that, for the first time in over two years, my arm was not going to be my main concern as I resumed activity. Instead, my left hip, where my surgeon harvested bone to repair my arm, was my biggest issue. This permanent loss of three inches of bone has made it so all activities are harder now; my muscles in my leg needed to find new “homes” and attachment points, and my brain/central nervous system doesn’t always cue my muscles in the correct order. This makes all activities, but especially walking, lifting my leg, cycling, and swimming, difficult.
I began working with a physical therapist and strength coach in the fall of 2017. As I so often say: every coach needs a coach. To overcome this obstacle and navigate the path of my new normal, I’ve needed several working with me on several things simultaneously. Also like I often say: my goal of crossing the finish line of the Wrightsville Beach Marathon was cast in stone, so the path to get there needed to be in sand. My original goal for this race was to set a new marathon personal best time. I knew as early as October 2017 that this was not going to be possible, and that just finishing a race of that length was going to be a major victory with how my leg was functioning.
My endurance coach Mark Turner had to put up with a lot from me during this training cycle. I was constantly having to tell him that I couldn’t do things. MarkT is very supportive, and would often tell me that I could. Unfortunately, some of the obstacles on my path were truly roadblocks. There were certain things I could not do. Lifting my leg repetitively and quickly (i.e. running with intensity) is still something I cannot do, and even attempts at it result in negative repercussions. Add this to a very stressful and emotional fall and winter (for personal reasons), and you have one heck of a coach who prepared me as best he could mentally and physically for this race.
Plenty of people have asked me over the last several months what I’m training for. I have answered honestly each time: I’m training to live within my new normal. I didn’t see any need to talk about a race I had signed up for. I also didn’t see a need to voluntarily bring it up in conversation. The one time I did tell someone I was going to be running the marathon at Wrightsville Beach was a couple of weeks prior to race day, and it didn’t go well. This person questioned my ability to do it since I had not gotten in any run longer than 10 miles in training and asked me why I wasn’t running the half instead. Again, this person likely was well-meaning, but it really upset me; I know me, I know what I am physically and mentally capable of, and I don’t need (or like) unsolicited advice from people who don’t understand my journey. I knew that if I crossed the start line of Wrightsville Beach under-trained, but without a training-related injury, that I would also be able to cross the finish line.
And so, on Saturday, March 17, 2018, Vader Arm 3.0, Jetfire the Hip, and I toed the start line of the Wrightsville Beach Marathon. I knew what I was capable of training-wise, but what the finish clock would say would be entirely dependent on how my body (and specifically Jetfire) responded to this distance. My only “true” goal of the day was crossing the finish line in less than 6:30 (the official course cut-off) so I could cross my 19th state off of my 50 Races in 50 States list.
I followed my normal race day preparations and I implemented my normal race day strategies. These are routines that I have fine-tuned after years and years of mistakes and learning; they are now plans that definitely work for me and that I have confidence in. My race plan called for HR Zone 2/RPE 4 when running (which I hoped I would be able to do for 9:00 at a time) and then walking for at least 1:00. I was able to follow this plan for 15.5 miles, and for those 15.5 miles, I was able to sustain the paces I trained at.
After about 26,000 repetitions, Jetfire the Hip decided it was D-O-N-E with running normally. It became very, very difficult for me to lift my left leg up; I had to stop and stretch it often and there were times I actually had to physically help it move forward. Other times, I had to start “falling forward” to give it momentum to go. I had to modify my run/walk strategy; at first, I went to 9:00/2:00. Then I went to just walking for 8:00, running for another 9:00, and then walking for 8:00. After some active rest, Jetfire felt slightly better, so I was able to go 4:00/1:00, then finally I had to go 3:30/1:30. Throughout the entire race, I was scanning my body and checking in with how I felt. My strategy was modified based on how I was currently feeling, and based on how I felt that the rest of my body was responding. I knew that one of the biggest mistakes I could make would be trying to run when my body was telling me not to. If I started compensating for my left leg, then I would be at high risk of secondary injury, which is no bueno. I wasn’t willing to risk that just for a shorter time on a finish line clock, so I listened to my body and kept up with forward motion.
Approximately 45,000 repetitions after I crossed the start line of the Wrightsville Beach Marathon, I crossed the finish line. It was the first time in four years that I finished a marathon without a broken arm. I still haven’t looked up my official results, splits, or placing because, quite frankly, I don’t care. I cared that I saw my family out on the course supporting me as I trudged along towards this goal. I cared that I got to high-five my father as I headed into the finish chute. I cared that I got to experience the state of North Carolina in a way that few people get to and that I got to tick another state off of my 50 states list. I cared that I set a goal and that I reached it on my terms. Most importantly, I care that I did this for me. After hundreds of races, thousands of hours of training, and countless mistakes, I’ve learned what works best for me and I stick to it, even if others don’t understand. This - being true to myself - is the greatest lesson that endurance sports have taught me.
“When something is important enough, you do it even if odds are not in your favor.” -Elon Musk