ATLANTA – December 15, 2016 – Atlanta Track Club’s Sonja Friend-Uhl had one of the best years for a masters runner in recent history. The 45-year-old won two silver medals at the USATF Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships, set a Masters World Record in the 4×400, won the Masters Mile at the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships and set a new American Masters Record in the 1500m. But before attempting to repeat her USATF Club Cross Country title, she suffered a series of setbacks. We talked to Sonja who went into great detail about how she overcame injuries and health issues and what she did on race day to win her second consecutive national title.
What was your mindset coming into the race? I know you mentioned there had been some setbacks.
Honestly I was tired and therefore a bit anxious! I was able to start training again in late August after a plantar fasciitis injury had sidelined me since June. Things were going very well through the Masters National XC Championships November 6th (also in Tallahassee on the 5k course). I won that race running from the front and felt amazing! The weeks leading into that race I had felt very strong as well. There had been a positive upswing in my overall fitness. I was completing workouts such as 4 x 1 mile on the road in 5:25-5:28 average with a 2:00 recovery and running 300 repeats on the track in 48-49. Two days after the race, I ran ten miles at a sub-7:00 average and it felt very comfortable. Three days after that (Coach) Andrew had assigned “The Michigan” workout for me. I crashed and burned. I could barely hold a 5:50 pace. The next week was the same, and the week after that. I was also feeling extremely lethargic from midday on which is not like me at all. By the third week even after 2-3 days off in a row my five mile recovery runs were miserable. My entire body was sore and fatigued. I went to get blood work done because this had happened once before. I knew it was either my thyroid or my ferritin. It turned out to be my ferritin. It was about 20 points below where I usually am. I tend to run low and usually manage it better, but with the stress of the family move over the summer, the extra sweat loss from training daily again in a tropical environment, not absorbing enough dietary iron, and lack of adequate sleep I just fell off balance. This was discouraging! I had felt so fit and powerful just 3 weeks prior and now after all of that work and effort I felt weak and vulnerable. I could write an entire article on how sensitive female middle distance and distance runners can be to ferritin levels. So I was not anemic, I was iron deficient. Knowing how bad I felt with a deficiency alone I would hate to experience actual anemia! I am now taking a prescribed iron supplement called Integra-F with vitamin C and being much more diligent about consuming iron rich foods at the same time as those high in vitamin C such as oranges and mangoes. This increases your iron absorption. I am also back on schedule getting blood work done every three to four months so I can stay in front of the curve. I had only been on the iron supplement about seven days prior to the Club Championships so I am still not where I need to be as far as optimal health but I could tell I did feel a bit better because my legs were no longer sore and heavy.
It is important to note for anyone else struggling with this that my ferritin was in the normal range…just not normal for me. A wellness doctor or a GP familiar with athletes is your best choice to manage particular health standards crucial to an endurance athlete because they will look beyond “normal” measures of health and help you find your optimal level along the bell curve.
You talked about your family, friends, teammates and coaching buoying your faith in yourself. What is your athlete/coach relationship like with Coach Andrew Begley?
First and foremost I have a lot of respect and appreciation for Andrew and Amy. Most know their amazing athletic background and accomplishments as NCAA champions at the University of Arkansas and then of course Amy’s incredible race to qualify in the 10k for the 2008 Olympic Team. I remember watching that race on TV and I had tears running down my face at the end. You could see the pain but more importantly the determination on her face during that final 600 meters. That was a huge moment of inspiration for me! What I admire most about them though is who they are as people. Humble, kind, disciplined, hard-working, and tenacious. How can I complain about an injury that sets me back for 8-10 weeks, or that I am weary of the grind of training when Andrew (and Amy eventually) had to shut down running careers while still in their prime due to recurrent injuries? Instead of being disheartened they took all of that energy and love for the sport and put it into others. Their heart and determination truly give me courage. We don’t get to interact in person very often because I lived in Nashville and now Florida while the rest of the team is in Atlanta. Of course it would be more ideal if I could train with the team and Andrew could see my workouts at least a couple of times each week, but we still make it work! I am used to training alone which I have done for most of my post-collegiate career (a couple of days each week I volunteer with the Florida Atlantic University XC and Track teams so I can train with them in season which is awesome!) I am a coach myself and a 20 year veteran of the fitness industry so I understand the science behind the workouts and my body. I also think I am a good communicator. So whether it’s via our online logs or email recaps I try to give Andrew as much detail as I can so he has a picture of how I am progressing with the training. I think one of the main reasons Andrew and I work well in the coach/athlete dynamic is because he is so even keeled. He stays solid when I get stressed or down or overwhelmed regarding an issue with my training or racing. I am not dramatic by any means, but sometimes I over-analyze or lack confidence. Especially lately when racing in large open/collegiate meets on the track I forget I am 45 once I am out there, but every once in a while doubt and fear creep in. When I voice it to him he always reminds me that I am a strength runner and I have done the work and have seasoned experience. I will never forget the night in Nashville at the Music City Distance Carnival in 2015. It had stormed most of the day. It was hot and muggy and nearly 10 p.m. (my bed time!) I was the only masters female entered in the Elite Women’s Mile and the field was fast! I had a bad attitude that night. I just felt tired and unmotivated and like I had no business in this mega meet. Basically I was being a baby. Andrew never says a lot before my races but what he does say is on point and very valuable. He is extremely patient and does not absorb nor project negativity or fear. When I approached him that night I was trying to put on a happy face and I asked him what the plan was. He replied that my Atlanta Track Club teammates were going to take it out quick (68-69 for the first lap) and I was to hang off the back of them. As the pace settled in he felt I was ready to stay steady at 70-71 and close hard. He told me he felt I was ready to run 4:40-4:44. I nearly laughed out loud. I felt this was so out of my wheelhouse under the circumstances. He saw the look of disbelief on my face and said: “I have seen your workout results! You are ready to do this!” On my warm up I had to re-frame my brain and I kept visualizing 4:44 in my head. This happened to be my Masters Indoor World Record for the Mile which I set in 2012. I still couldn’t quite accept it so I decided on 4:45. Well, that ended up being one of the best races of my life, open or master. Not just because I actually did run 4:45 and set a new masters American Record but because I felt so AMAZING! It was so effortless and powerful. My 3rd lap was my fastest (69) and I closed hard passing several people on the final straight just as he had predicted. When I finished he just smiled and said: “Now do you trust me?” Yes Coach! I do!
You won the 5K Championships here in November. How beneficial was it to have that familiarity with the course?
Extremely helpful! This is a great course regardless, but as a miler and a track (rhythm) runner it is very important that I be able to divide the course into sections in my mind and then assign myself a goal or task at each section. After racing there at FSU’s invitational in September, and then again for Masters Nationals in November I knew each turn, hill and even how the different surfaces would feel to me on that course. I used that in my imagery preparation and felt very “at home” there during the Club Championship.
As a track athlete, what is different about your preparation for a longer cross country race?
On the physical side we increased my overall mileage by about 15%. My long runs increase by two to three miles on average (from nine to 10 miles during track season to 12 miles during xc prep.) My intervals were longer and more focused on 5k-10k race pace. I still had a speed day each week but more emphasis was on steady state lactate threshold runs and longer intervals. On the mental side I really have to focus and be patient during cross country. Especially if the course surface is choppy or thick field grass instead of dirt or manicured grass. As I mentioned I am a rhythm runner. Once my rhythm is disrupted I have to work extra hard and stay focused on maintaining the pace. It really helps to know the course beforehand and be able to section it off in my mind. It also helps to have people to pace with. Cross country has always been a challenge for me but it is one of the best ways to prep for a successful season on the track. Strength is speed!
What strategy did you discuss with Coach Andrew Begley going into the race?
Honestly we didn’t get to talk much the morning of the race. We had communicated via email during the week prior so there was not much left to say. We had discussed that since I was still recovering from the iron issue and early fatigue was a concern that I should be conservative in the early part of the race. My speed would be my strength over the last 600 meters especially with the final 200 meters being downhill. I knew he believed in me as did the team. I wasn’t at my best but I knew they needed me and I intended to leave everything I had out on the course.
How does that added 1,000 meters change your race plan between the 5K and 6K?
6k is tough for me! The first priority is preparation. Any race paced workouts from the beginning of the season total four to five miles instead of three to four. That is very helpful to me both mentally and physically to prepare for the longer effort. Mentally I try to divide the race into two 3k segments. I also remember to race smart instead of worrying about my splits or finishing time. Especially in a team scored event the purpose is to win or place. When courses and conditions vary so much time goes out the window for the most part.
You ran shoulder with Janet McDevitt through most of the race. When did you decide to make a move and how were you able to pull away?
It was at about two and a half miles before we headed back into the wooded area with the harder packed dirt trail. We rounded a wide turn and I accelerated through the turn. She did not accelerate with me and when I settled back into the pace she was not at my side. It seemed that I gradually gained separation. Because I ran a smart race (for myself) I was not overspent aerobically over the last 2k. I knew exactly where the 5k was and I had already made a decision that no matter how I felt when I hit that point I was to push and not let up. While I was certainly getting more fatigued I still felt strong with 1k to go and used every rise and dip in the terrain I could to keep my turnover at a quick cadence. I also ran my tangents like a boss over that last mile! I knew if I got to the top of the final hill and was in the top spot that I would not let anyone pass me over the last 400m.
It’s been the same one-two for the past two years at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships. What was different about your race with Janet this year than last year?
I am going to be very transparent here and tell you that last year (2015 in San Francisco) I was still racing like I had something to prove. I had been third and second in the masters race the prior two years (first in Bend in 2013 when I went out too hard for the conditions and altitude and then at Lehigh in 2014 when Kris Kimbrough was in full beast mode and crushing anything 5k and over). 2016 has been a challenging year for me. It started out great with a 4:49 indoor mile at Vanderbilt, then taking a silver in the 400m and a win in the 800m at the Masters Indoor Nationals in Albuquerque and a Masters World Record Setting 4 x 400m relay. Next up was racing and winning the women’s masters mile event at the IAAF Indoor World Championships in Portland and a few weeks later running a new Masters American Record (4:29) for women 45-49 in the 1500m at Florida Relays on March 31. Very soon after that things started to go south. I battled allergy-induced asthma from late March through early June. Straining excessively because of this, I injured my right hamstring at one of the Atlanta Track Club All Comer Meets on May 12 in the first 300m of the 800m event. Being stubborn and knowing the biggest track race of the season was coming up (the Olympic Trials Masters Women 1500m Exhibition) I did not rest and rehab the leg as I should have. I was running at 70% most of the time and not healing. The result was a horrible case of plantar fasciitis in my right foot along with posterior tibial tendonitis in that ankle. It was a heartbreaking and humbling experience for me. Running is a huge part of my identity and it was out of my power to “fix it” for quite a while. During that time off I focused more on my family, my friends and the runners I coach. I was reminded that it is a privilege and not a right to train and compete at the level we do especially as masters athletes. I also was reminded of how much I truly love running; just being able to run freely, to explore, to feel powerful and fast all without pain. So as I approached the race at Club XC this year I think overall I was more at peace. The worst had already happened. People had witnessed my time of weakness yet still believed in me and supported me. I also had the opportunity to get to know Janet a bit more after a few other races this past year. I identified with and respected her as a fellow woman, mother, wife, and runner. She was less a rival to me and more of an ally out on the course that morning. I had read a poem a few days prior in which a part of it said: “You lean into me and I will lean into you so that neither of us will falter.” I remember thinking of that while we were racing side by side in the first 2 miles. Together we were stronger. There were points in the first two miles where I could feel the impulse to push ahead and then thought better of it and chose to stay with her and share the work. This created a much more positive race for me and I honestly enjoyed it even though I was very glad to cross that finish line!
Repeat championships are hard enough. Is a three-peat on your radar?
Anything is possible. This year has taught me that it is best to keep your energy and focus present in the current moment. I think I will take one season at a time from now on!
Is this the end of the season? What does the buildup for indoors look like?
Yes! Cross Country is complete for me this season. Andrew already has my training mapped out for the next couple of weeks. I have two local road races I will use to continue to develop my endurance and stamina. In early January I will start training with the FAU team. There is a Masters Indoor Southeast Regional Meet at the JDL Fast Track facility in North Carolina in late January and then I will travel with FAU to the Boston University meet the following week. February 3 and 4 we compete at Penn State and then I will have Masters Indoor Championships February 17-19. It’s a short indoor season but I plan on enjoying every minute of it!
Sonja Friend-Uhl is a member of Atlanta Track Club and a certified Coach and Health and Wellness Instructor based in Florida. Sonja currently holds the Masters’ World Record for the Indoor Mile (4:44.81) and the Masters’ U.S. Record in the 1500 (4:16.90). She is the mother of two daughters. You can learn more about Sonja here and follow her on Twitter by following @SonjaFriendUhl