The Un-Retirement of Blake Russell, by Cait Chock

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Cait Chock has written for RunBlogRun for several years. Cait comes up with great ideas on athletes and their journeys, and I like them. Normally, I get knows from her when I am jet lagged in some country or city and the ideas wake me up. This is one of them. I have watched Blake Russell develop from a pretty good track runner to a fine marathoner, and yes, Olympian.

Blake Russell, USA title, LA Marathon .jpgBlake Russell, Winner 2015 USA Marathon title, LA Marathon, photo courtesy of USATF

The Un-Retirement of Blake Russell

By: Cait Chock

A year ago Blake Russell decided she was done competing as a professional runner. She told her husband, Jon, "Alright, I'll let it go. It's time to move on." She was at peace with the decision and decided to refocus her time.

She was already a mom of two, she had plenty to keep herself busy in that regard, and she had always planned on getting back into the business of physical therapy, so she went back to school and got her license back current.

Russell opened her own private practice, On Track Physical Therapy & Performance, (Talk to any entrepreneur and they'll tell you that that's a marathon kind of achievement.), started coaching, writing, and race directed for the first time. She was staying involved in the sport, only now experiencing it from new perspectives.

Russell got to try her hand at race directing for the Big Sur Half Marathon and, "I discovered it's way easier to be an athlete!" she laughed. In what she describes as "four days of madness," Russell was coordinating airport runs and hotels, getting up at 2am to drive athletes around, "we had a really fun time [but] I [didn't] have time to run." The race went off successfully thanks to her part, but as the finishers came barreling through the chute a part of Russell did wish she was out there among them.

Mother, entrepreneur, writer, and now 'recreational' runner, Russell had settled into her new life. She didn't 'have' to run every day, she was insanely busy and her priorities had shifted. She joked to her husband, "My warm-up has become my actual run." She would go out for 30 minutes, be tired, and think, "yea, 30 minutes, that's gonna be good for me."

But then one of her five mile runs turned into a twelve mile run and from there that little voice in the back of her mind woke back up, "What if?"

What if she did one more marathon? Was she crazy? Was it ridiculous? She had thought she had come to peace with retiring her racing flats...but what if the months away from training had given her body the restoration it had needed? Outside of major injuries and pregnancies, Russell had never taken a break from the long grind. And even in those instances she still had cross trained and had structured workouts.

Her body felt strong, it felt healed, thanks to her own physical therapy lessons she had worked on a lot of her own deficits and imbalances, so her "body just felt really like it was clicking and in sync." It just felt out of marathon shape.

Russell caught herself toying with the idea of another marathon. She called mentor and former coach, Bob Sevene, to talk some sense into her. "I need you to talk me out of this, because I'm thinking I can run Boston." This was in December, Boston was in April....she knew it was crazy, but then again aren't all runners crazy?

Sevene replied, "Yea, I think you can do it."

"Oh, crap," Russell had all the affirmation she needed. It was back to the repeats, back to the long runs, back to the siren's song call of the marathon.

Russell set her sights on Boston. She had started it once before but hadn't finished. The Boston Marathon is almost a marathoner's right of passage so who could fault Russell for not being able to resist it? She jumped back into her flats, but she did so differently than she had ever done previously in her career.

Running isn't the main, or only priority any more. Her main priority is her family, nurturing her now thriving physical therapy business, and spending time with her husband. Her time was spread thin already and rather than cut things out, Russell has embarked to piece and fit running in around the rest of her life.

She hasn't hit any 100 mile weeks, which previously were staples, she hovers in the 85-95 mile range all off of single days. She's retired the doubles out of necessity. Working full time in addition to being a mom means Russell doesn't have the luxury to come back from an exhausting long run and nap the rest the of the day away. In fact, it's quite the opposite, "My workout went longer than I thought it would, so right after I finished I raced to preschool...the problem is my body can still do what I used to do, but I just don't have the time. So it's the focus [that's different], I'm just not able to be as focused as when I was 20 and had no kids."

And Russell wouldn't have it any other way. "I heard somewhere, 'You gotta make the life you want,' and that was kind of like my 'click.'" The rest of Russell's life is fulfilling her, sustaining her, and running is no longer her definitive purpose. The new perspective eases a lot of the pressure. This renewed outlook means she'll never get back to the time when she just couldn't talk herself up to do a workout.

Those days aren't that far past. At the end of 2015, having run "horribly" at Chicago, she planned to regroup and nail the Olympic Marathon Trials. But Russell was struggling with the motivation to grind. She'd worked out by herself since moving to California, and with no teammates to push her, she'd gotten sucked into the vicious cycle of pushing her hard workouts off until tomorrow. Until tomorrow, until tomorrow. Finally one morning, "I was warming up and I literally could not make myself workout. So I just got in my car, went home, and cried."

That was the beginning of the end in terms of her desire to compete. She jumped into a race or two, but it was between long stretches of forced time off. She'd had ongoing niggles from her pregnancies that had to heal, then had a really hard fall that left her with broken ribs. Anyone who's broken a rib can attest that just breathing with such an injury is hard enough, try running with that, it's virtually impossible. Russell didn't do much running and that's eventually what led her to her decision to 'retire.'

Now she's un-retired. Her goals and mindset are different this time, probably for the best. She comes in with a balanced life and a squad of little fans who cheer for her just as loudly at the finish line as they do when she brings freshly baked cookies to the dinner table.

Russell speaks of her more 'modest' training, "Mondays are usually my easy run days, Tuesday are workouts, so road intervals or something like 3-4 by two miles....[I] get a marathon pace workout on Fridays and long run on Sundays." Her long runs tend to hover around 18 miles, she does get up to 21 miles but no more than that. "I get too bored....it's enough." She's also ditched the GPS on her easy days, another element she promised to keep herself accountable to in this return...she wouldn't stress the paces of the days that don't matter.

She's enjoyed working a muscle that she claims had been dormant for 10 years, her brain. I will argue that it wasn't fully dormant, but she laughs and explains that it feels good to use her brain again in staying up to date in the world of physical therapy. She jokes that if you aren't learning something new every day, you're not doing your job right; the business and what we know about the body is constantly evolving.

Her approach to her clients is highly personalized, on an as-needed basis, it could be multiple times a week or just a check-in once a month. Drawing from personal experience, Russell has spent her fair share amount of time on the PT table, she knows the intricacies of the body in a way most of her peers never could. The results speak for themselves, as Russell modestly says, "It's been a slow process, but it's picking up, and I just got two new people today and I asked them where they heard about me and it's off my website!" Take a type-A, driven individual and they will succeed no matter the platform.

In terms of running, Russell's eyes are set on Boston. The first goal is just to finish, from there she wants to run somewhere in the 2:35 and below range. "Not to run crazy fast times...[but] kind of a comeback marathon. She isn't going for a record because at this point she's already won even before the gun has gone off.

Blake Russell is happy, she's a mother, a business owner, and yes, back to being one of America's top distance runners.

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Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and comedian, you can see more of her work on her website, Instagram @caitchock, and Twitter @caitlinchock.

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