DCCS Member of the Month

February, 2017:

This month we feature runner Heather Rosso.

The following interview is a paraphrasing of a much longer conversation between Windy and Heather. It reflects a symbiosis of their thoughts and impressions from that conversation.

Heather — Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m a 46 year old professional, fur-baby momma and lover of all people and activities. I currently live in Reston, VA. I’m a very high energy person. I’m one of those people born unable to sit still. I’ve played and participated in more sports than I can count — softball, basketball, soccer, cycling, track & field, tennis, whitewatering — and the list goes on. I grew up as a dancer in classical ballet from the time I was four years old. Dancing was actually supposed to be my first career. It gifted me with discipline and a threshold for pain and discomfort — it also enhanced the “fighter" within me. I’m most grateful for my dancing background and the rigorous training because it illuminated my strengths, my abilities, my potential — it allowed me to realize that when I had come to a point I felt I could no longer go on I was still able to dig deep and uncover a reservoir of endurance and vitality. It was one of the major ingredients in building me a strong foundation for the rest of my life and the challenges that I would face in activities and life.

Tell us about your running history:

My competitive running started in HS with Track & Field — I was a sprinter (200m, 400m). I never understood the concept of distance running until later in my life — I just thought everything was supposed to be fast with full exertion.

My love for ultra running came about kind of haphazardly. I was healing from a broken rib and feeling very physically restricted. One day I was at REI and I saw a post for the Dogwood Half Hundred (50k) in the George Washington National Forest and I thought to myself that I could hike it in the allowed cut-offs, and at the same time it would comply with doctor's orders to keep my heart rate down — before I knew it I was signed up. Granted, I didn’t finish (got 17 miles) but I found a true love and I was hooked. I was hooked on the people — my kind of people. I never turned back.

Is this when you met the DC Capital Striders:

No, I actually found out about the group later around 2006 — at the time I was working in D.C. I found them online and started doing the weekly runs and the popular Smithsonian run on a regular basis. This is actually where I met Rick (founder of DC Capital Striders), and through Rick learned about the DC Capital Striders “Wolfpack.” It’s an amazing group of people with so much energy and love of the outdoors and the ultra/trail runner mindset. It’s a wholesome and lively group—like I said “my kind of people.”

So share with us some of your history in running and competitions:

I’ve done a handful of Ultras since my first. Some of my favorites were Finger Lakes 50s (NY), Dogwood Half Hundred, which I ran three times, Highlands Sky 40miler (which I DNFd), and Montgomery County CCT 40 miler—that one wasn’t a race, just a spontaneous run with friends. I’ve also run a handful of trail 12ks, 20ks, & 25ks. So my first love is trail running but I haven’t discriminated — I’ve run multiple road 5ks, 10ks, and MCM. These days I primarily stick to trails.

My other passion is triathlons, which I also came to through an injury while training for BRR50. I’ve participated in 18 triathlons thus far. My first one was the Women’s Sprint Triathlon. Most have been open water, but a couple, like the Reston Sprint, have been in-pool. My last major triathlon was the Chicago Triathlon, which is where my accident occurred and disabled me from sports for the next seven years.

Tell us a little more about your accident and how it plays into your history with running:

My accident (2008) was and still is a journey and still sometimes a battle. It is very much like an ultra — I have experienced some extremely dark places while going through the ups and downs of daily physical and mental struggles. I’ve had days so grueling that I’ve wanted nothing more than to give up. I’ve felt every emotion and physical discomfort that the human body can imagine and then some — I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been lonesome, afraid, beaten, bruised, and just plain obliterated. But I would have those few days, combined with an inner fire, that would give me some light, just enough to hold on and continue pushing forward because deep down I knew I could — simply because it was My Choice and that was My strength — My control. Plus I’m just horribly stubborn with a total A Type personality that refuses defeat (laughs).

I had suffered a blow to the face that resulted in major internal injuries that led to a massive infection that ultimately invaded my spine, but it took 7 years for doctors to discover the extent of the damage. As my health steadily decreased and I continued to work with doctors to figure out why, I lost my beloved outlets. My body was too damaged and tired to carry me. There were small segments of time that I was able to pick back up in my running, swimming or cycling again. However, my body would always recoil and I would be sidelined once again. My loss and my struggle was crippling. I was constantly craving for something "Good" again. I was so afraid that this suffering was going to be the rest of my life. And to this day I cannot verbalize the depth of that agony.

This is where being an ultra-runner, triathlete, disciplined dancer all came into play. I dug deep yet again and I chose to Fight. Just like running a 100 miler — you’re out there in the middle of no where with no way out but to keep moving forward through the pain, the fear, the darkness, the not knowing — just one foot in front of the other until you're out of the woods and into the daylight. This is where RAK Run was born.

Tell us more about the RAK run, the inspiration, history, what it means to you and what you wish for it to become in the years ahead:

Through all of my loss, my pain and my devastation I was being equally devastated by the anger and fear and violence I was seeing in the world around me — school shootings, theater shootings, angry politics, people hating and lashing out instead of working together toward a better world. But I felt helpless to even help myself, much less help the world. 

I had reached a point where I was seriously wondering what, if anything, I had left to offer the world. Still the fighter, I decided to take a week off at my birthday to meditate and think through it all, make some sense of it all. I had the epiphany that even if I lost everything, all belongings, all ability to support myself, all physical ability, despite that I could still be kind. And that could be a huge gift to the world. Kindness, at that moment, became my mission. For the first year, I started out putting these tiny cards with Happy sayings on them in all these random places like bathrooms, newspaper boxes, on each step of my apartment building. I did this in secret. It was very personal and very private. It was a constant reminder of the gift that I’d been given. It later blossomed into daily RAKs (Random Acts of Kindness), like holding the door for someone, letting someone go first in line, putting flowers on a person's doorstep. The next year I invited a few friends to join me at the Reston Town Center.

Since then it has evolved into the RAK Run where social goodness runs, walks, skips, dances, cartwheels through town sprinkling the inspirations of Love and Kindness throughout the community. You can practically see and feel the rich colors of affection transmit throughout the city. It’s indescribable. You have to experience it. One of the beauties of the RAK Run is that the mission, the giving of Kindness — The Beauty, the Love the Richness from giving — is by default reciprocal, always giving back to the giver — it is something that should be shared because EVERYONE deserves to feel, witness and experience the depth and intensity of humanity. We’ve sadly lost that somewhere along the way through generations and I believe our world will be a better place if we bleed that kindness back into our world one community at a time.

As of right now, I have quite a few creative ideas that I’m working toward in helping to grow the RAK Run. Of course continuing to get more and more people involved in it and spreading kindness is always first and foremost. I’m also working on doing something in schools. I’d like to see children being more engaged in fostering kindness. Building character. Learning to participate in social activities that lead them to step outside of themselves and to connect with the world around them. I feel strongly that children need to be in touch with love, kindness and gratitude on a daily basis because as we grow it’s so easy to forget or to become complacent. Schools need to be infiltrated with kindness, not violence. We NEED This! We must nurture the souls of our youth to make for better human beings and better communities.

Are there any running accomplishments or races you’re looking forward to in the near future:

I have registered for the Reston Sprint Triathlon and Rosaryville 10k, and am eyeing the North Face 10k, and the BYB series races. I also have some other races I may sign up for in the later part of the year, but they’re still up in the air, pending expenses for my big race.

I have planned two amazing excursions, and one is centered on my major race for the year. In July I’m scheduled to travel to Iceland to compete in the Challenge Iceland Half-Ironman. I can’t wait to swim in a storybook, glacial lake. I’m going to cycle and run through some of the most breathtaking countryside one has ever seen. It’s all going to be so overwhelming and amazing. I’m just thrilled.

After that, I may do the WHM and the fall BYB races. In addition to racing, I’ve planned to visit Venice in December for a week. One thing I have definitely internalized through everything I’ve been through, and that is to thoroughly embrace life and all the opportunities. Keeping these goals in sight keeps me pushing on. In Venice, I plan to completely enmesh myself in the culture and traditions. Life itself is my ultrarun these days, and I’m not concerned with reaching the finish line anytime too soon, just enjoying the experience!

Congratulations Heather Rosso on being nominated the February Member of the Month!


January, 2017: 

This month we feature runner Tracy Cooley.  

Tracy is an Arlington based ultra-runner, professional and mother.  She had an accomplished 2016.  In addition to balancing the demands of a career and motherhood, she has run many ultra-distance races this year and done so with finesse. 

Tracy and I sat down to talk about her experiences and I had the great opportunity to hear her story in detail.  She is a real motivation, for me and for anyone else who understands what it is to balance so many things on the life platter and to keep up with the running sport all at once.  

January 11, 2017

Tracy, discuss your starting point and how you got to where you are today.  Also, talk a bit towards your favorite “genre” of running:  I grew up around running, both my mom and uncle were runners.  I’ve been running for more than 20 years.  I started running to stay fit and quickly became passionate about the sport.  At the time, I was living on Miami Beach and would run between the Islands.

I run both road and trail but prefer trail running.  I like longer distance races,  my comfort zone is between 30-35 miles.  Anything beyond this distance is where I discover true challenges that require a different mind set.  Around 5-10 years ago, I transitioned over to trail running. Trail running gives me a continuous challenge, a means of looking at running in different ways and helps me set new goals.  It is very meditative for me to be out on a trail.  I feel alive, it brings energy in to my life, it is very therapeutic.  My endurance grew over years, certainly when I started out I couldn’t be going the distances that I do now. The trail has helped with that as well, and looking at it as a total experience. It is not just running.  It’s being in nature, being with friends, with people.  It’s getting out there and being part of a race, being part of the community and supporting each other.

What has running helped you to accomplish in your personal life?  My running life has changed over the years. I really got into doing longer distances to recover from a difficult divorce.  I didn’t want to have friends, I cut off from most people aside from family and co-workers. The only thing that helped me and kept me positive through the experience was running.  I chose not to wallow in misery or self pity- I kept running.  Continually being out there, and pushing forward and setting goals became therapeutic.  It’s what kept me going, what kept me being a good role model for my child, instead of taking the low road.  I put in some serious miles, I ran alone, and that became very comforting. It still is, but I’ve found it is valuable to be part of a wonderfully vibrant running community. 

What about your challenges?  For me, I would say competing interests.  I always have a lot of different things that I want to do in my life.  What is most valuable about running is that it forces me to be committed.  I can’t get away with running once in a while and getting though some of these races.  Running has brought a lot of focus in to my life.  I had to learn to block out other things that aren't big priorities and find a way to make something happen no matter what is in the way.  Life is the biggest challenge at times; there are lots of competing responsibilities, but I have to prioritize running and stay true to race day and my goals.

You had quite a successful 2016.  Describe to me your running experiences this past year:  I completed about 10 ultra races in 2016.  I came in second place overall in the 12-hour athletic equation trail run and third place in a 100k In May, which was also an Athletic Equation event.  I ran the Stone Mill 50 in October, which I had won entry through the Strider’s member lottery, and a week later I ran the the JFK 50.  

One of my highlights for the year was the JFK 50 mile- I cut 20-minutes off my time.  During the race I struggled around mile 18 when I hit a point of full-on exhaustion, and started to panic, wondering how I was going to finish but was able to push through it.  I met up with some first time runners and I ran the last section harder than I have ever run it before.  I loved encouraging other runners and watching them succeed, they really inspired me that day and I found a lot of strength in running with them.

I also ran 100k in the Devil Dog.  I originally signed up for the 100 miler, but I think races that distance are very personal and I had to trust my instincts.  As race day approached, I realized that I wasn't feeling the distance deep down so I decided to switch to 100k.  I wanted it to be a race that I could run strong the entire distance, which I pretty much accomplished although the last 20 or so miles were a bit challenging. 

Taking on the 100 miler:  The 100 mile race is very personal.  I have talked to people who have faith that I could take on the distance so I appreciate the vote of confidence. To run that distance I know that I have to really want it.  And until I do, I’m not going to force it.  I’m not going to do it to prove it to myself or someone else.  I’m going to do it because I feel that it is the right time to do it.  My mileage and my endurance has improved over time so I know there will come a point where 100 miles will be a shorter distance to me, and maybe I will feel deeply inspired to go after it.  When I see someone who can go out and do that distance, I am just awestruck.  It’s hard for me to get my head around how they do it.  There are so many people in life that make excuses, and they are all talk.  So, when I see somebody go out and do something like this, with minimal complaint, minimal drama, minimal bragging, I have so much respect for those people.  It’s truly amazing.

What keeps you motivated?  My motivation comes from being passionate about running.  If there is a day when I really don’t want to get out there, if there is bad weather, I know that when I start running that I will feel amazing.  I tell myself, “I’m just doing one thing at a time here, putting one piece of clothing on at a time, and that as soon as I step out that door I am going to be blissfully happy.”  I’m doing it for a reason, and that is because it fills me with so much joy.  Running is one of those things where you don’t have to find time for it.  It’s important.  It’s not something that I do, it’s a part of me.  When someone asks me, “why do I run,”  the reason is because I can’t imagine not running.  I can’t imagine living my life without having an outlet where I feel that much joy inside.  

Talk about your running support network, and how you got involved with DC Capital Striders.  What is your favorite aspect of running with the Striders?  What does Striders mean to you?  I met fellow Strider Jennifer Norris years ago.  That is how I was introduced to the group.  I love the Wednesday night group and being with the people who go.  I’m able to go exploring.  For the Stone Mill race, I had received a free entry through DCCS, and there were also a lot of people out there as well as at other events from the group.  It’s nice to be able to get out and run with people I know or to see people at the aid stations.  A lot of those runners also volunteer to support the races.  I get to see them out there, to know there is someone waiting there at an aid station who can help you;  and, they get me. They understand why I do it and they share the same feelings.  That means a lot to me- many of these folks are instant friends who are madly passionate about running like me.

Plans for the future?  I would like to do more group runs out on the trail.  I also want to do a little less racing this year.  If it feels right then I will sign up for a 100 mile run in the fall.  Again, I’m patiently waiting to see if that inspiration strikes me; the 100 miler is certainly the next level for me.  If there are any interesting races that pop up out of town, interesting terrain that I have not done before, perhaps something a little more mountainous, then I’ll jump on it. 

I’m also a writer.  I’m looking to do more in depth writing about the experience, especially about the mystical experience that I have on the trail when you’re out in nature:  I feel like I am a million miles away, that I am part of something much bigger, and creating something much more powerful in my life other than the mundane day-to-day.  This is one of my longer term goals: to figure out how will I take it to the next level with my writing and sharing the experience of running.  It's not just my experience either, it is a collective experience that so many of us runners share and I want the power of words to capture that and inspire others to go get after it as it is good for the soul.

You can visit Tracy’s blog to read more about her running adventures at https://highmileagemama.wordpress.com/