Friday, August 6, 2010
Pam Reed Interview
On July 21, 2010, days after the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon in Death Valley, I had the opportunity to speak to elite ultrarunner and world-class endurance athlete, Pam Reed. Pam, a veteran of the race and overall winner two years in a row, describes this last attempt as her “worst Badwater ever.” She discusses what went wrong; We talked about life, family, running, and the limitless potential of human endurance. Pam is 49 years-old and lives with her husband and three kids in Jackson Hole, WY. She is the race director of the Tucson Marathon in Arizona.
Pam, why do you run?
I used to say that it was for my sanity. I think it's evolved. I feel like God has given me a gift and that gift is running. And I feel like I need to honor that by running and sharing that with other people - that running really helps your self-esteem; it boosts your confidence. It helps you do a lot of different things in your everyday life. I love it.
Do you remember your very first race?
I do. My first race was a 10 mile run up in Houghton, MI. I was going to school there at Michigan Technological University; I was an aerobics instructor, and one day these hockey players said they were going to do a 10 mile run. I'm thinking, "Oh! Sure! I can do that." I'll have you know every one of them beat me! (Laughs). That was my first introduction to running races.
A lot of people love to run, but not everyone runs as much as you do. What attracts you to ultramarathons?
I have this thing inside of me that I don't like to be normal or average. I think that's what attracted me to Badwater and to different ultra runs. They are not your normal kind of thing. Ever since I was really young, I never wanted to be average. I always thought to myself, I want to do things that are above average. I wasn't really very good in school. I didn't even like school. So, I chose athletics. When it comes to running, I always look for something that's different or challenging. Another thing is that I am not a fast runner. I never really have been fast. I go for distance. Longer distance races really level out the playing field. I really need the race [I enter] to be longer in order stay in the competition.
When did you start thinking of yourself as a top-level athlete?
I didn't and I don't. Honestly, I still don't think of myself as an exceptional runner. It's just really hard for me to fly with that. I don't feel like I'm any different or better than anybody. Let me tell you, this last Badwater a couple of days ago, oh-my-God, I just felt so horrible. I felt like, I am not a runner. I know I've done a lot of things and I guess I'm at the top, but I don't know. I just feel like I put myself in more weird situations, and that's why I'm up there. (Laughs). It's hard for me to explain. I definitely don't feel like an elite runner.
Do you get intimidated by the competition?
When I go up against some of these other athletes, I still feel like I don't belong, that they are way better than me. I try to be a realist. Look at Jamie Donaldson. She is 35 years-old. I'm going to be 50. There's a definite separation there. That's not to say I cannot win. What is so interesting about these kinds of events is that you don't know what is going to happen. No matter how much you train, you never know who's going to show up, what body is going to show up.
The competition is younger.
I don't want to look at age as a definitive factor, because it isn't. Well, it is and it isn't. First of all, when you increase the distance of the event, you level the playing field. That's what I like about longer distances. But, now, with advances in technology and nutrition, people are running a lot faster. It's amazing how fast these people can go in a 100 mile race. And they are younger people. A lot also depends on the conditions of the race. Badwater is an extreme race. The conditions in Death Valley are just so extreme. It really levels out the playing field.
Jack Denness finished his 12th Badwater at the age of 75. Do you think older runners have some advantage in the sport?
Yes, definitely. I think they have lots of advantages. Number one, you have a lot more mileage in your body. So you have a lot of muscle memory. Number two, patience. Your mindset is such that you know how to be more patient. Patience is so important in ultrarunning. The longer the race gets, the more patience comes into play.
What do your kids think about your running?
Right now, they are kind of tired of it. (Laughs). My 15 year-old is tired of me leaving and going to do this stuff. He definitely is. Part of it is that my kids don't think of it as a big deal at all. They almost never ask me how I did in a race. I say, "Guys, I'm going to Badwater!" They say, "Oh. Okay. That's fine. Good luck." They just don't think of it as a big deal anymore.
Do you and your husband try to emphasize the importance of athletics to your kids?
Yes. My kids are all really athletic. We hike together; we play tennis together. I want my kids to always be fit. I want them to be healthy for the rest of their lives. But, right now, I think my 15 year-old is trying to find himself. He's a great soccer player. He is a really good athlete, but he is rebelling. He doesn't want to be athletic. But, he's getting straight A's in school. He wants to go to pharmacy school and he's reading lots of books. He is trying to come up with his own identity, and I think he's trying to do everything opposite of what I represent right now. I might have to force him because he has to be in some type of sport at school. It doesn't have to be competitive sports. Now, they have bike riding, skiing; you can run on a treadmill. Emphasizing healthy physical activity is important for my family. I try to set a good example for them, and maybe that's all you can do. When kids are very young, you can make them do things, but as they grow up, you have to let them make their own decisions. You just hope they will watch you do good things and then come to the point of wanting to do it, too.
This year at Badwater, there were 80 runners, and only 13 were female. Do you feel like this is a male-dominated sport?
When I started running in 1991, let me tell you, there were only a few women doing these events then. I think it definitely still is a male-dominated sport. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because, in a family situation, it's easier for men to leave than for women. It's easier for them to go out and train and do this kind of stuff. I may be wrong. People can argue with me. It just seems that way to me. Maybe, mentally, men can leave and not feel as guilty about it. I remember the minute I had a child, I had guilt all the time about leaving.
That makes sense. Traditionally, women were expected to stay home and cook, clean, and take care of the kids, whereas men were allowed to leave and go do other things.
Exactly. I think the expectations of a male are different than the expectations of a female. I'm sure a lot of people talk about me now and say, "How can she leave her family? How can she go and do all these things and be away when she has a family?" I think it's the social expectations for a woman.
As a race director, do you have any recommendations as to how other race directors can encourage women to sign up for these kinds of events?
I don't know that we as race directors can do anything to encourage women to race. The event is there. The course is there. It is what it is. But, I do think that things are evolving. Do you see what is happening with marathons right now? For instance, this past Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half-Marathon had 9,000 women in it and 3,000 men. The full marathon had 3,900 men and 3,300 women. That is unheard of. I think what's happening is that women are realizing that they can do it. So, I guess in answer to that question, my message to women is, Why not do this stuff? You can do it. Don't be afraid to take on the challenge. Also, women can endure pain. Here is an example: up until three years ago, I had never had a facial or a pedicure. Well, I decided to get a facial done. Oh, my gosh! It hurts! Then I got a pedicure, and it hurt, too! I thought to myself, Women go through a lot of pain to look good. Some women do that Botox stuff. If they can endure all that, then they can run. (Laughs). Women are so strong.
What is your personal philosophy on pain in ultrarunning?
I don't know if I believe those people who say they love the pain. But, I guess all I can do is speak for myself. I don't love the pain. I don't. Look, the pain comes and then it goes. When it goes, you try to learn how to manage it. Managing it is accepting it. So, accept it, and then move on. You have to accept that it's there, and you have to be grateful that you're able to run in the first place because there are so many people that can't. Then, the pain just goes away and it's not pain anymore. It subsides. Some women I know have compared the pain to going through labor. I don't buy it. When I think of labor, I think of the most intense pain. In ultrarunning, the pain totally subsides. It gets better.
In your book, you talk about your own personal struggle with anorexia. You certainly are not alone in that struggle. A lot of endurance athletes grapple with it. Especially female athletes. Anita Fromm, for instance, talked about her struggle with anorexia and bulimia in an article in Marathon & Beyond. On the Internet, there are message boards full of people, distance runners, who are talking about their experiences with eating disorders. Do you think this is an issue all of us should be talking about more?
Yes, I do. It’s really cool that you bring that up. I really think we need to be talking more about anorexia and bulimia. You know what else we need to be talking about? Depression. A friend and I googled "anorexia." You know what came up right next to it? “Depression.” The two go hand-in-hand. It all needs to be brought to the forefront. There are so many people that suffer from these things, and they are afraid to talk about it because they are embarrassed. Mental illness is not an easy thing for people to be open about. I don't mind talking about it. I think that the more people talk about it, the more it will come out. We all have problems and we need to talk about these problems. It’s kind of like how parents don’t want to talk about when their kids get in trouble. They want to paint this picture for everyone else to see. It’s a façade, and it’s just not real. I want people to know real.
How did you overcome anorexia?
Running actually helped my anorexia. I know a lot of people out there would say, "Come on; you're full of it. You run because you're anorexic." They think I exercise to get rid of whatever I'm eating. That is not true. Yes, I know that I'm very thin, but it is absolutely not true for me. I’ve been through every level of anorexia. I used to think that everyone went through the things I went through. I thought it was completely normal. Eventually, it got to the point where I had to be hospitalized. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t put food in my mouth. I couldn’t even drink water. I finally realized that if I wanted to run, I had to eat. If I don’t eat, I can’t run.
What did the doctors at the hospital tell you?
Some psychiatrists try to force labels on it. There was this one label of, You’ve been molested. I’ve never been molested before in my life, but in the hospital, that’s what they tried to tell everyone who had anorexia. You’ve all been molested. They wanted to have this quick fix, and I don’t think there is one.
What advice would you give to someone who might be going through the same things you went through?
Seek help. You need to go and get help. Go to a hospital. It is so important that you get help and realize that you don’t have to go through it alone. But, in addition to that, I would also say that you have to find your own answers. You have to come to grips with it yourself. All the hospitals and all the doctors won’t help you unless you come to terms with it yourself. Once you leave the controlled environment of the hospital, you have to do it for yourself. Most anorexics are very intelligent people, but what they are doing to themselves is not smart at all. Look, it might even help to look at food as fuel. Forget about food as tasting good, and just look at it as fuel for your body. You have to put something in your body; otherwise, it’s just not going to run.
What is your training regimen like when preparing for Badwater?
I go run about five times a day. I only do that four or five days a week. I run some mountains here in Jackson Hole, WY. I do about 120 miles a week. Once in a while, I will go bike riding. I swim three to four times a week. I’m always out doing something, either running or bike riding or swimming.
How far in advance of Badwater do you train?
I'm always ready to do anything. I don't necessarily prepare for anything. It's just kind of my life, so I don't necessarily train.
Do you heat train?
Well, I used to live in Tucson, so I never really had to heat train. This year, I went to Tucson to train. Next year, I’ll have to do that again since I’m living in Wyoming now. I don’t believe in the sauna thing. I really don’t think heat training in the sauna is going to help you at Badwater. The sun is what’s so intense in the desert. You have to train for that sun, and you just can’t do that in a sauna. I really believe that you have to be somewhere where it’s hot and where there’s sun. That is so important. It’s funny, because I personally love saunas. I have a sauna. They’re wonderful. But, when I think of Badwater, I just can’t see the sauna as helping much. Maybe it does and I don’t even know it.
You don’t pull the treadmill into the sauna like some runners do?
One time, way back when I was in high school, I was exercising in a sauna and I got a cramp. I could barely get out. I never exercised in a sauna again.
This year at Badwater, you had some heat problems.
I did get hot. I got overheated. One thing that’s going on is that I’m going through menopause. As a result, I get these hot flashes. I don’t know if that was part of the problem or if I just didn’t train in the heat long enough. It’s hard to tell. But, it was just bad. It was my worst Badwater ever.
Was it really?
It was! Absolutely. I was so slow. This year, I feel like I let a lot of people down, even though they all tell me, "You did a great job" and blah, blah, blah. I feel like I did not perform at the level that I wanted to perform at. I came in third woman, 14th overall. I just have so much more in me than that.
Everything went wrong. I got sick and threw up; I’ve never thrown up at Badwater before. I got tired, sleepy tired, which has also never happened to me before. I got really bad blisters. My feet started hurting at about mile 20, and they never got better. That’s a long time to go with aching feet. All these things were accumulating and it slowed me down. Once all this stuff starts going wrong, you start thinking, Oh my God! How much farther do I have to go? (Laughs). Everything just happens at an exponential rate. First one thing goes wrong, then another. It just makes it so much harder. You know, it’s not like I haven’t dealt with any of those things before either. I’ve had all of those things happen to me many, many times before. But, when it all happens at once, it’s just overwhelming.
You’ve dropped out of Badwater before, right?
Yes. I quit one year, a couple of years ago, because at mile nine, I got dehydrated. I have a few theories as to how that happened. First, I had that Hi-Tech shirt on. That thing was wicking away the moisture off my body, and I felt like my body wasn’t cooling itself. When I wear cotton, I’m fine. So, I will never wear Hi-Tech stuff again. That was one thing. Another thing was that my crew that year, for the first 17 miles, didn’t crew me like they normally do. From then on, my crew has always been very cognizant of my eating and drinking. This year, we totally did a great job on the first 17 miles, but then the heat thing kicked in and the feet hurting.
How did your crew respond to the feet problem?
Well, I didn’t really tell them about my feet hurting. I didn’t even mention my feet until about 95 miles into the race. I finally told them, “Guys, I’m going to stop and change my shoes. So they helped me put a different pair on.
Did it help?
No. It actually turned out to be worse. When I look back, I don’t think I should have stopped. I think it’s better not to talk about stuff like that. Just keep going and deal with it.
Did you ever think to stop and just take the DNF?
Oh, yes. I was really hot. I just felt awful. My feet were starting to get very painful. I was coming up on Stovepipe Wells, which is mile 40. I told my crew, “I feel like I need a cold dip. Can you get something together and make an ice bath for me?” So, they went and got all the stuff together. As they were putting the ice in the cooler, it just hit me; I thought, If I stop here, I don’t know if I’m going to keep going. I just told myself, I’m not going to DNF! I’m not going to DNF! So, I just kept running. I just ran on by.
What kept you going?
Well, part of me was going, I can’t do this. I just cannot do this. But, I also kept thinking, This will pass. You will feel better. Usually, that’s what happens in ultrarunning. You bounce back. You start to feel bad, but then, you feel good again. So, I just kept telling myself it would get better. Keep going. The sad thing is I never felt better again. Till the end of the race, I was miserable. I guess I should be really proud of myself for finishing. I gutted it out for the whole time.
Definitely. But, why do I sense that you are disappointed in yourself?
I am. I am really disappointed in myself. I’m just so disappointed.
Pam, you just ran the toughest footrace on the planet, and despite severe issues, you finished third woman. That seems like something to be extremely proud of.
You know what’s funny? I am disappointed in my head. I am disappointed at the way I behaved. I wasn’t grateful enough for just being able to be there. I kept thinking about all my aches and pains. It makes the whole experience so different if you go out there being grateful for being able to run and for being able to be there. Then, as things come up, you just deal with them.
You really love this stuff, don’t you? Badwater. Everything.
I really do. I love it all. I love the heat. By body likes heat. I love the extreme of it. The whole thing is so neat. Badwater is such a cool event. It’s a great experience. The desert is just so beautiful. It’s gorgeous out there. Running on the road, surrounded by mountains, it is so serene. The course is just so runable. It’s totally runable. And, definitely, it’s the people. You’re on a level playing field with everybody, and it’s so wonderful being surrounded by these incredible athletes.
Will you be back next year?
Yes. I can’t believe it; this is the earliest I’ve ever said that I want to go back! I want to do it again just so I can do a better job.
What about after Badwater? What lies in store for Pam Reed?
I’m going to turn 50 next year, and I want to do something big. We’re talking about running across America. If we can get enough sponsorship, I want to do that. Or maybe I will run fifty 50k runs or fifty 50 mile runs. We’ll see what happens. The message I want to get across to people is that you can do a lot more than you think you can. Just get out there and go for it. Just do something extraordinary. Walk. Run. Do a 5k. Do a 10k. Go for a bike ride. Just do something. You feel so much more alive when you’re moving.
Earlier, I asked you why you run. You said it’s a gift from God. But what does it all mean? Is there a purpose?
How old are you?
Okay, you are very young. Let me tell you: way back when, back when Jane Fonda came out with her aerobics, she’d smile as she was exercising on the TV; she’d say things like, “Smile! This is fun!” Partially, it’s fun. But, it’s not always fun. It’s not easy for sure. If it were easy, at the end of the day, we wouldn’t have that feeling of accomplishment. That is what running is. When you’re doing it, it’s not exactly the best thing in the world. But, when you cross that finish line, then you get to say, “Oh, wow! That was really cool.”
Pam, thank you so much for talking with me today. It has been an absolute pleasure. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors, and I look forward to hearing great things about your upcoming accomplishments.