Inspiration: Leigh Gerson
So, as you know, I run with the mighty Run Dem Crew. One of the best things about the crew over the past couple of years has been our connection with similar crews around the world and our annual/bi-annual ‘Bridge The Gap’ events, in which all these crews descend on a city somewhere in the world and terrorize it for a weekend, culminating, usually, in a Half Marathon.
One of the brightest stars to emerge from this Bridge the Gap movement has most definitely been Leigh Gerson of New York City’s Black Roses running crew. Leigh seemed to come out of nowhere, got her head down and trained. Then last year, she was the female winner of New York’s annual Midnight Half Marathon. We all started to pay attention. At the Berlin Half Marathon back in April, I think she was the 8th woman home. Not long after that, she went to the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington, DC and came 2nd. And just to show us she ain’t fuckin’ around, she defended her title at this year’s Midnight Half a few weeks ago too, rollin’ in as the first woman home yet again.
Not only is she winning, she’s doing it with a smile. She’s training harder than I’ve seen anyone train and she’s contributing so much positive energy to the movement, you can’t help but get the feeling that this is about more than running for her. Her attitude is one I think we can all learn something from, so I decided to pick her brains and find out what makes the speediest woman on the scene tick.
– How long have you been running?
This is strangely a multi-part answer for such a simple question. I grew up playing football from a very young age and as a mid-fielder, most often center mid, you spend most of your time running back and forth to control the game. But I first came to participate in running as it’s own sport as a high school freshman. Once I got to college however, it was 11 years before I ever decided to run again. I mean, not one single step that whole time. So I say to most everyone who asks that I began running two and a half years ago (because it’s true) and that I’ve only been training seriously for the past nine months.
– What were your running goals when you started out?
Initially my goals were simple: I wanted to be fit. I was very very skinny but not in shape and it made me self conscious. So I started running because you see results quickly and at the time, I believed it was essentially an inexpensive hobby (can I get sponsorship please?!)
– How has that changed as you progressed?
It turned out that I really enjoyed running. It’s my daily therapy session so I continued on with it and under a friend’s suggestion ran a race and liked the competition so I decided I wanted to get serious with my training and become a better runner and simultaneously a better me as well.
– You recently were the first place women’s winner of the Midnight Half Marathon and took second place at the Nike Women’s Half in DC. How does running a race to win differ from simply running to just run it?
I don’t really think there is a difference. It’s really about how you are going to define winning. Yes, there is coming in first place–no one person running faster than you; but there’s also winning in your age group, being first in your gender or running a personal best. In the latter, no one else might recognize the victory, but does that not count as a win? Trying to win is the whole point of racing–some people just do it on a grander scale. So at the end o the day, whether you came in first, 50th or last you still ran as fast as you could that day and THAT’S something
– What is a typical training week like for you? Do you cross train at all?
Most people will think this is crazy but I run and cross train every day. It’s a rarity that I take a day off. I don’t know what to do with myself on those days and it’s uncomfortable. My ADHD doesn’t allow for me to keep my excess energy pent up.
During season, I have a track session, a tempo run and a long run every week. The other four days I try to run for at least an hour at a relaxed pace which has gotten faster as my ability has improved. I also practice Bikram yoga on average of three times per week (during the winter, I practically live at the studio–taking classes sometimes twice daily to keep out of the cold); I swim; I go to Brooklyn Bodyburn twice weekly – it’s the hardest workout ever; and do some form of weight training 1-2 times a week. I just started biking as my means of transportation and have just been turned on to spin. I’m really loving being on a bike. It’s something I was never any good at and learned while I was in Berlin in April.
– Are there any training sessions that you hate doing?
I hate track sessions. Running in circles is the most painfully boring activity. Curse words come out of my mouth many times over the course of several hours on the oval.
– How do you motivate yourself when you don’t want to train?
This winter was painfully cold in NYC. From October’s end through all of February, I did not miss a single day of running outside. There were MANY days I did not want to go. I would take 30 minutes just to tie my shoe laces, which only prolonged the inevitable. To get through this challenge I would just tell myself that if I made an excuse today, what would stop me from making one tomorrow? Which would then perpetuate a cycle of not running. And then I would feel badly about myself and get depressed. The weather was bad enough, I didn’t need to feel the same way too. And when it’s nice out sometimes you have those days as well, but it’s part of my routine and I need to run to feel like myself – just as much as taking a shower and brushing my teeth.
– How important is the mental aspect of training for you?
The mental aspect is very important, but in other ways as well. There are a lot of times when I’m on the track doing speed work were I don’t even bother with my watch; I run on feeling. I try to visualize where I want to be and how to get there. Some days you struggle to the mark pace wise but if you can stay relaxed mentally, come race day you’ll be the same way.
– What’s your game plan when you go into a race with the aiming of placing in it?
The game plan is this. Always a hard first mile, relax and settle in – which oddly enough does not mean slow down – then depending on the length of the race, step up and push the last 1-3 miles hard. When I’m done running I shouldn’t have anything left in the tank. My pre-race plan includes getting to the start line having broken a sweat. So I usually jog a couple miles, do activation drills and striders.
– How do you keep your cool if you feel like the game plan is slipping away from you somehow?
When things don’t go to plan – and they don’t always go to plan – you definitely get frustrated. Case in point: Nike Women’s Half in DC. Every 5k I talked myself out of the race and then right back in. Running is pain. It’s the farthest thing from pleasant to go out and run repeats at sub 6min/mile. Otherwise, everyone would do it. So when that doubt creeps in or I can tell I’m not where I should be, I run faster. When I’m tired, I push harder. Because the faster you run, the sooner you’re done.
– I have it on good authority that you party as hard as you run (mainly ‘cause I’ve been there to see it happen!). How do you find that balance?
Lets just say that the best cure for a hangover is a big bottle of water, 2 Advil and a 5mile run. I don’t know if I balance things very well. But if I go out hard, I certainly do not let that interfere with my training the next day. Sometimes it feels like punishment, but the night before was usually worth it.
– What is next on your racing agenda?
Next up on the schedule is the queens 10k on June 22, part of New York road runners 5 borough series and then I’ll be trying my foot in the 42k distance at the New York City Marathon on November 2. I’m looking forward to a little break in racing this summer and to just focus on training. I’m also crossing my fingers that I’ll get to go to Copenhagen for the Half in September, but I don’t have any definite plans yet.
– What are your long term goals with running? Olympics are in two years, just sayin’…
My long term goals with running are to qualify for the Olympic trials. I’d also like to run on every continent.
– What are your top tips for anyone looking to improve both their enjoyment and times in running?
My top tips for improving your time is to run with someone faster than you. Incorporate speed work and intervals each week an to also strength train. To get more enjoyment out of running you need to keep things fresh: try a new route. Explore a trail on the weekend if you always run on roads. Find people to run with if you always go it alone. And if you don’t like the actual process of running, treat yourself to something you do enjoy afterwards as motivation.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I totally want to go out for a run now after reading that. You can follow Leigh on Instagram to keep up with all her training shenanigans. I have a feeling we may be seeing this girl reppin’ the US come Olympic time – she is most definitely one to watch.