Success Story: Heidi Gillenwater

I am a 52 year old mother of 4. Society tells me I should be careful, I should not overexert myself, and that I should embrace my eligibility for AARP. Even the running community tells me that I should expect my pace to slow and that true PRs are a thing of the past. But I am fiercely in denial about all of this! I immediately shredded the AARP application that welcomed me as some kind of cruel joke on my 50th birthday and I still have unachieved running goals and I refuse to give up until they are achieved.

My running journey started about 30 years ago, at first just as an efficient way to stay in shape and typically involved running no more than 2-3 miles a few times a week and the occasional 5K, mostly because I liked getting the free t-shirt. About 10 years into this journey, I got the crazy idea to run a marathon. It seemed like a good way to get my body back after my first pregnancy and I was intrigued by the challenge of running that far. So that is how it started; have a baby, run a marathon; have another baby, run 2 marathons; have another baby, run another marathon; have another baby and then feel really tired because I now had 4 kids under 10 and think that I would never run another marathon again, but then 3 years later run another marathon. Then 3 years after that, finally get treated for the anemia that resulted from all these babies and lose all the weight that accumulated after all these pregnancies and suddenly find myself running faster with the same amount of effort. So in 2012, with this new unexpected speed, I set my sights to qualify for Boston. 

 Me and the gang.

Me and the gang.

To put things into perspective, the last marathon I ran before this was the 2009 Chicago Marathon where I clocked in at 5:16. I needed to run under 3:55 to qualify for Boston. I ran the Richmond Marathon in 3:56.06 that year. I was pretty happy about this significant PR, still disappointed that I didn’t quite qualify, but it gave me hope. I subsequently ran the Napa Marathon in March 2013, the Missoula Marathon in July 2013, Mountains 2 Beach in May 2015, the Houston Marathon in January 2016, the Virginia Beach Marathon 2016, AND the Wineglass Marathon in March 2016. My training was consistent, but every time something prevented me from running to my true fitness level; a stress fracture in 2014 six weeks before Mountains 2 Beach; stomach flu the morning of Houston; 20 mph headwinds and heavy rain the morning of Virginia Beach. 7 marathons in 6 years, and despite all that training I couldn’t make up that 66 seond gap.

By now, you are probably thinking, “holy crap! This poor woman has run, or at least started, 7 marathons in the past 6 years trying to qualify for Boston. Maybe it’s time for her to pick up knitting.” The thing is, I believe passionately that we are on this earth for one good life and it is our responsibility to get the most out of this gift we have. One of the ways I have chosen to honor this gift is by pushing my physical limits athletically. I truly believe that my body has not reached its potential and I am not ready to give up on this goal. And in a lot of ways, it is because of these failed attempts to reach this goal that I have gained so many more things that have resulted in maximizing this life that I have. The failures forced me to dig deeper and learn more. I have learned that just running alone will not get me to Boston. I learned that I need to have very good nutrition, sleep, and stress management, and by working on these things, not only am I helping my running, my overall quality of life is better. I also read a great book: “Fast After 50” by Joe Friel where he emphasizes the importance of both strength and high intensity interval training, especially as we age. This was a lightbulb moment for me. The training method I used for Wineglass 2016 was heart-rate based where the goal was to keep heart rate less than 140 bpm which meant that most of my running was very slow and included no high intensity. This was in direct opposition to the advice in Friel’s book and explained why I felt my fitness and speed drain away throughout that training cycle.

 Here I am running in the Olympic Stadium last summer. Thanks to Formula I’m now “an Olympian”!

Here I am running in the Olympic Stadium last summer. Thanks to Formula I’m now “an Olympian”!

Then in May 2018, I was introduced to Formula Complete Fitness by a friend. The description of the classes offered sounded exactly like the recipe for success recommended in “Fast After 50”. I met with Ann and shared my goals. I did a lactate threshold test which indicated that easy running for me should be anything under heart rates of 150 bpm and moderate intensity workout should be between 150-166 bpm and high intensity was anything above 168 bpm. This lactate threshold test gave me further understanding as to why my most recent training using low heart rate was not effective for me. She recommended taking 1-2 equilibrium classes/week and a Focus class or another quality workout outside, and round out the week with easy and long runs.

The classes were hard, but they were also really fun. There was something liberating about being in an almost dark room with loud music in the background and having an instructor tell me what to do. I blindly followed, although admittedly, many times the instructions scared me. You want me to crank the treadmill up to that pace??!! I am not sure my legs can move that fast. You want me to throw the slam ball up in the air and catch it?? 

Before long, I started noticing subtle things: my heart rate didn’t get as high when we got into faster paces. I started recovering more quickly at my “easy pace” between intervals. When I took my running to the hilly streets in my neighborhood, I found that hills that used to intimidate me were now surprisingly easy, as I seemed to float to the crest fueled by my strong glutes thanks to RDLs and kettlebell swings. The real test that demonstrated my improvement was my performance at this year’s Charlottesville Women’s 4 Miler. This is an event I have done 12 times. This year I achieved a PR time of 32:11 which was almost 3 minutes faster than last year. I can tell that something really special is happening inside me and I am finally tapping into this potential that I have always known was here. This story is not over. We are just getting to the good part and I can’t wait for the next chapter.