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.
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/