Friday, August 12, 2011


In this interview we meet Minnesota's newest Olympic Trials qualifier, Nichole Porath. Less than three years ago the 28-year-old Northfield resident boasted a PR of "just" 3:03. However, through dedication and hard work her PR kept dropping with performances of 2:58, 2:55, and 2:51. She simply followed up those races with another breakthrough, running 2:44:46 at this year's Grandma's Marathon - a time well under the 2:46 need to qualify for the trials. Now she sets her sites on another PR at the Trials in Houston in January 2012. To learn even more about Nichole, be sure to visit her blog.

First off, congratulations on earning your first Olympic Trials Marathon berth. You needed so shave over 5 minutes from your PR in order to qualify. Heading into the race what do you think your chances were for qualifying?

I knew I was in the shape of my life and had set myself up as well as I could have, but I still had major doubts. I just know so many women, who I look up to and consider so much more talented than me, that have chased qualifiers and missed. So even though my times in workout were coming down quickly (5k tempos in low 17:50s), I knew 5+ minutes would be a LOT to shave off of my PR.

Two weeks before Grandma’s, as my taper was starting, I went out for an easy run over lunch and didn’t pay attention to the fact that it was 95+ degrees out and very humid. My legs felt funny from the start, but I thought it must be the flats I was running in. The rest of the afternoon I had chills and felt terrible.

I tried a tempo workout later that week and struggled to hit 6:30s, even though I had been running easy 5:40s the previous week. Four days before Grandma’s my left calf cramped up because of dehydration. The day before the race my right calf cramped up.

So, if I had doubts BEFORE all of this happened, I had definite doubts leading up to the morning of the race.

Luckily my body recovered just enough. During the warm up, despite a calf that was hard as a rock, my legs felt amazing. I felt light, strong, and quick. It was odd, but I just KNEW it was going to be my day.

The years leading up to the Trials, Grandma’s Marathon always seems to have a large contingent of men and women trying to meet the qualifying standards. Was that the case this year? Did you have a large pack of women to run with?

There was a good pack of 20 or so women. Many of us found each other through Facebook before the race and I knew there were going to be two groups – one that went out at even splits and one that went out faster. I planned to start out a little slower and warm up into the pace so told them I’d likely catch up to the even-split pack at about mile 7 or 8.

Even though I knew there were a lot of women who I could pace off of, my plan was to run with Brenden Huber, the assistant coach at Gustavus Adolphus College (my Alma mater). We had done several of my harder workouts together and were both going for similar PRs.

I am so glad I had him. Even though there were a lot of women trying to qualify, I found myself alone from the gun. Brenden and I caught and led the “even” pace group at mile 4. The “fast” group must have gone out pretty quick because we didn’t see that pack until about mile 19 or 20 – when most of them were dropping off VERY quickly.

Can you briefly describe your race plan and how the race unfolded? (i.e. we’re you trying to run with the pack, stick to certain splits, run even, run negative, etc?)

My goal average was 6:19s, which is just under a 2:46. I planned to start with 3-4 miles at 6:30 and then move to 6:15s. I have always been a very strong closer, so starting out slower and leaving something for the end suits me very well.

That strategy worked perfectly. I ran the first three in about 6:25 pace, so a little faster than plan, and then found 6:15s effortlessly after the 4th mile and cruised from there. I ran through the half in 1:22.28, and by mile 20 I had a 1:15 cushion. At that point, Brenden encouraged me to start “racing”. I made a conscious decision not to race though – my thought was “You have this. You can only screw it up now!”

I rarely had to look at my watch. I was amazingly consistent, without effort. There were very few miles where I was more than a second or two off of the goal 6:15 pace. My first and last 10K were within a few seconds of each other, and my second half was 4 seconds faster than the first. I could not have planned for anything better!

You changed your mental approach before Grandma's. Can you also tell us a little bit about that?

My mental preparations for Grandma’s began about 4 weeks before the race. I went to bed visualizing 1-2 times a week, like I normally do. I could tell I didn’t fully believe in what I was visualizing, though. I had a lot of lingering doubts.

I mentioned this to a running group one day and they suggested I see a sports psychologist in town. What? I thought, “Do I really need professional psychological help?” After my immediate shock reaction, I told myself that it couldn’t hurt. It turned out to be one of the BEST things I did preparing for the race.

Dr. Asp in Red Wing recognized right away that I felt like I needed to qualify for all of the individuals that had helped me along the way, for my family who was coming up to watch, for my husband, my workplace, etc. That had to go. That type of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere when you’re hurting at mile 20. You have to be racing and wanting a result for YOURSELF. You also need to throw away any external and internal expectations.

He made a great CD which I used to visualize the race. He had several key phrases in it that were to be used at key portions of the marathon. He emphasized racing a “full effort”, recognizing pain as a sign that what I was doing was working, among several other things.

Grandma’s marathon was my strongest mental race – ever. I drew on his key phrases throughout the race, and it was weird – I FULLY believed in them. I’ve always told myself cheesy sayings when I’m racing, but never like this. When I began to hurt, I welcomed the feeling - I remember thinking “Oh, good!” Then I was strong enough to shut out the feeling. I don’t remember hurting much at all during the entire race, and my positive mental state carried me all the way to the finish. If a negative thought did start to creep into my mind, I was strong enough to counter it with something positive. It’s completely cheesy, but completely awesome at the same time.

I am now a HUGE believer in what proper mental preparation can do for a racer.

Since you bettered the 2:46 standard by nearly 90 seconds, I’m guessing somewhere along Superior Street it occurred to you that you were going to qualify. Is that true or did the thought never occur until you crossed the finish line?

I knew it was a very real possibility at half way. At 18 miles I checked my hand, which had a few times written on it, and realized for the first time that it was really going to happen. I had a healthy cushion and still felt great. I was so excited that I accidently dropped a 6:06 mile for mile 19. Oops!

Simply question, could the weather have been any better?


What do you have planned for the rest of the year?

I’ve had a really hard time defining what I want to do this summer/fall. A lot of people said stuff to me after Grandma’s like; “A huge PR! Wow! And you’ve only been training consistently for the marathon for a year! Gee I wonder what you could do with 15 or 20 months of training. Do you think you could shoot for the A-standard?” That got me pretty excited and I started to wonder what would happen if I was able to put together another great cycle of training, become a little stronger, a little smarter, etc.

Above that, though, I sorely MISSED training after Grandma’s. I missed waking up in the morning and struggling to get my workouts, strength work, and all of the little things into my day on top of a demanding full-time job and a part-time hobby job. I missed chasing a “big” goal. I usually get so wrapped up in achieving goals that I don’t enjoy the “process” of achieving the goal. This was one of the first things I’ve done that I truly enjoyed the process, and recognized that during the cycle. Without any of this, I was completely lost. I NEEDED a new goal. So I emailed my coach, Jerry Schaubach, within a couple of days to ask him to write up a fall marathon plan right away.

He, very smartly, didn’t respond until at least a week after the race, which gave me time to cool off and think more clearly. We talked about a few things, including trying to shoot for the A-standard at either Chicago or NYC (where I was extended an offer to run in their professional women’s division), but decided that there was just too little time –either after Grandma’s to prep for Chicago, or after NYC to prep for the Trials. So my focus will be on the Trials, trying to run somewhere in the low to sub-2:40s, and trying to place as high as I can. Basically, I just want to stay healthy and in love with running and competing, while also pushing myself as far as I can. What am I capable of? How much faster can I be? I can’t wait to find out.

Focusing on the Trials also leaves a summer and fall for me to throw in some fun team circuit and other local races, which I’m excited about!

Alright, let’s back up. How did you get involved with running? Did you run in high school or college?

I ran cross-country and track beginning in junior high for Marshall High School. I was fairly successful from the get-go, moving up to Varsity almost immediately. I finished All-State 3 times in cross country and set 4 school records, but by my senior year I was pretty burned out. Each of my races was progressively slower and I was really hard on myself.

I think that was a blessing, because it led me to turn down D1 and D2 scholarships and instead choose to run D3 at Gustavus. Running there completely revitalized me. My attitude almost immediately changed, and I re-learned to love running and especially competing. I improved significantly there, and by my senior year I was ranked in the top 12 nationally in the 10k. I was injured frequently, though, so I often look back on those years and wonder what I could have done if I could have put together more than 6 or 7 months without an injury.

After college I joined the Run N Fun team, which has been a blast. I ran a few races “for fun” between graduation and 2009, when I picked up marathoning and became much more serious about training and seeing what I could achieve.

Just two-and-a-half years ago your PR was 3:03. Now you’re a 2:44 marathoner. What do you attribute your tremendous improvement to?

1. Finding and working with my coach, Jerry Schaubach (retired Red Wing High School CC and Track coach). I found him in 2010 after the worst injury I’ve ever had. I couldn’t run or workout for over 3 months, and was in the worst shape of my life. Within 10 weeks, he had me in shape enough to run a 2:51 at TCM. With another 7 months under his guidance, I was more than capable of a 2:44. I don’t know what it is about the plans he writes, his simplicity, or perhaps it was the switch to the Daniels’ training program, but whatever it is, it has worked!

2. Strength training: I didn’t do any of this in college, and I completely regret it! I honestly think this was the reason I was always injured. Chrissy Bloemendal, a good high school friend and now a certified personal trainer, wrote me a plan and I found I actually really liked strength training. Who knew?

3. Volume: I have found that high mileage suits me very well.

4. Attitude: I am in love with running, training, and achieving goals more than I EVER have been before. It’s hard to describe - I looked forward to each workout and giving it everything I could. I craved the feeling of exhaustion after a hard tempo workout.

5. Working on nutrition and my weight.

6. My “team”: SO many people were key in helping me get to where I’m at. Jerry, my coach. Jim Patterson, my chiropractor. I saw him once every 7-12 days during my peak mileage. Chrissy, who put together my strength program. Dr. Asp who helped me with my mental game a few weeks prior to the marathon. Dr. Bahl (Red Wing) and Dr. Roberts (in the Cities). Brenden, who helped with my workouts and to pace me the day of the race. I’m so surprised at all of the people who have offered to help, without asking for anything in return. I will be FOREVER grateful to each and every one of them.

In general, what is your training philosophy? Do you tend to follow a certain plan?

100% Jack Daniels.

Your husband, Nathan, is an outstanding x-c skier. How does having a husband that also competes help when it comes to your own training?

It’s SO helpful. He understands what I am going through and is 100% supportive of my goals and the time commitment it takes to get there. Honestly, he puts up with a ton of running talk, questions (which was why he was very supportive of me reaching out for a “real” coach!!), aches and pains (massage, please!), etc. I think if we both weren’t athletes it would have been really hard to continue running after college, and probably impossible to run at this level.

We’re also very lucky to be about the same speed, which allows us to use our workouts as time together. We met on the XC running team at GAC – I was one of the fastest women, he one of the slowest men (with running shoes – with skis it’s another story). Turns out, that makes for a perfect training partner! I’ve gotten fast enough that he can’t keep up on my hard workouts now, so he straps on a pair of rollerskis to help pace me.

Speaking of x-c skiing, lots of people like to tout the benefits of cross-training and they often site that x-c skiing is one the best forms of cross-training for runners. You’ve done some x-c skiing the last couple of years. What does your experience tell you regarding cross-training vs. sport-specific training? As you got more and more serious about qualifying for the trials were you still able to ski or did you find yourself running more?

Oh, man… don’t get me started talking about skiing! It’s a love/hate relationship, really. Because my husband is an elite skier and loves skiing, I have always felt that I should also be a skier. Plus, it’s just great cross-training and is low impact. There have been periods of time that I have wanted to spend a ton of time on the sport, improve a lot, etc. It’s truly a beautiful sport. But there have also been a lot of times that I fall out of love with it, mostly because I don’t have the technique to move fast enough to compete, or even get a workout (Uhg, I get so frustrated! And Nate is the first one to know about it!). My early “learning to ski” blog posts are entertaining to look back on. One post has a picture that sums up most of my time on skis: a frustrated kid on a tricycle with square wheels.

Lately, as I have increased my running mileage, I found it nearly impossible to find time for any cross-training. If I have a period of injury, I may hop on the bike or rollerskis, but that has fortunately been very rare this last year. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to cross-train, and I know that in order to be a competitive marathoner I need to RUN – so I’ve allowed myself to not feel bad about abandoning skiing.

I think eventually I’ll pick it up, and will probably really enjoy it – but likely not until my legs are broken and I have to.

What are your PRs?

3k: 10:12
5k: 17:36
8k: 29:19
10k: 36:48
10 Mile: 1:01:54
Half Marathon: 1:23:00 (unofficially the 2nd half of Grandma’s was actually a PR – 1:22:24)
Marathon: 2:44:46

Do you have a favorite local and/or national race?

It’s hard to beat Grandma’s, they do such a nice job of putting on the race and catering to the runners. I also get a kick out of going back for Gustavus’ Alumni CC and Track races every year.

If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?

My mom. I had the chance to run with her for the first time this spring, when I had a long run planned and my mom and dad went out to do two miles at the same time. It was the coolest thing, mainly because I NEVER thought I’d be running with the two of them.

My mom had never run until the spring of 2010, when she asked me to sign her up for the Fargo 5k. Had I heard her right? She had never wanted to run, not even a step. I had suggested it a couple of times, but she said she was always too busy, someone might see her (gasp!), couldn’t because of X and Y, etc. Once she got herself out the door to train for the 5k, though, it was like a switch was flipped. She is totally into it now, running nearly every day, finding and signing up for races on her own, trying to better her previous times. Apparently she’s even commented to my dad, “I wish I would have picked this up years ago. I wonder how fast I could have been?”. Ha! Now I know where I get it.

Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?

I wish I would have known to listen to my body. I ran through way too many injuries – running through them is a sign of stupidity, not toughness.

I also wish I would have discovered higher mileage earlier in my running career. It’s made me stronger and faster at nearly every race distance.

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