Rebel Without A Pause
Driven, Free-Spirited AR Holder For 24 Hour Run Does It Her Own Way
Connie Gardner can. And she is not satisfied. “I don’t have any PR’s yet. I am not content with anything,” she declares. “I am not content with any times or any distances.”
Gardner is not even content with the stunning American Record she set last month at the IAU World 24-Hour Run Championships in Katowice, Poland. The new American record-holder covered 149.368 miles to eclipse the pre-existing American best by a mile and a half. Led by Gardner, the USA women also captured the world team title.
Amazingly, Gardner actually was the second woman finisher — behind overall female champion Michaela Dimitridau of the Czech Republic. The new American record holder actually held the lead in the 22nd hour, but ultimately was overcome by the eventual winner. To put the finish in miler’s terms, it was as if Gardner was leading “coming off the final curve”, but was “outkicked” — over the final two hours.
Oh, and here’s the kicker: Connie Gardner will be 49 in November. Can you name another elite American athlete who performed at their best in their late forties? When George Blanda was passing and kicking for the Oakland Raiders in the twilight of his career, he was 47. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title — his sixth and last ring -when he was 41. And Nolan Ryan pitched his 7th and final no-hitter when he was 44. All were younger than Gardner.
A grade school field day first sparked Gardner’s interest in running. “I started running in elementary school to train for field day. I was terrible,” she laughs. “They wouldn’t put me in anything because I wasn’t very fast. If you weren’t good at anything else, they threw you into the distance run because nobody wanted to do it. So the first year I failed and then I started to train for it. I wanted to do it,” she notes in earnest. “I’ve always wanted to see what I could do.”
After an upbringing in several different cities which featured high school running on several different teams, Gardner headed off to the University of Massachusetts. At UMass she rowed on the crew team. But she also kept up with her running. “I would always run a marathon in the fall and one in the spring,” explains Gardner. She ran her first marathon — the Columbus Marathon — in 1981 at age 17. She finished in 4:11. “Twenty years later, I came back to Columbus to run the marathon again. Same course. I ran 3:11 — one hour faster,” she laughs. The following year she set her PR — excuse me — her current fastest marathon time of 3:04.
By then, she was in the midst of a post-collegiate geographic odyssey which saw her hopscotch around the country — first to Oregon, then to Michigan, then to Connecticut, and finally to Ohio. The travels were a quest to get centered, get settled, and find a home for herself and her two daughters. She seems to have found it Medina, Ohio where she and her girls have lived for the past 15 years. “It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere,” she smiles.
Through her travels along the way, many of her training partners encouraged her to try longer distances, fueling a curiosity that was sparked when she read a story about the Western States 100 Mile Trail Run when she was 17. But it wasn’t until she landed in Ohio that she undertook her first ultra — a 50K trail run. Shortly thereafter she was ready for the next step — a 50 miler. She found one in Kentucky. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she concedes. “I knew I was passing a lot of people between mile 20 and mile 30-35,” she explains. “And then I came up on this guy at about mile 35 and I asked, ‘Who’s up ahead.’ And he answered, ‘It just us,'” she says laughingly. “We had about 15 miles to go and I’m thinking that this guy probably doesn’t like me very much at all. If I were a guy, I know I wouldn’t want me coming up on me.” Gardner’s competitor copped a quick lead as Gardner refueled at a late aid station. He was able to hold on for the win. But Gardner, who was finishing fast for a close second, discovered an event, a joy that she has embraced ever since.
What has transpired since then has been a steady diet of ultras — 6 to 10 a year, on the roads and on the trails — sprinkled among the “over 120 marathons” she has logged over the years. Her overall body of work is most impressive. For more than a decade, her ultra finishes are mind-numbing. A review of her performances shows that she has been the first woman finisher in the clear majority of her races. And, on occasion, she has been the first overall finisher — beating everyone.
But without question, the longer ultras are events in which Connie Gardner thrives. The longer the better. But what makes Gardner so dominant in these events? She has figured out the nutrition regimen that works for her: 100 calories and fluid every 30 minutes. “I have a lot of options. I fuel at the top of the hour and the bottom of the hour. I’ll grab a gel or some peanut butter and some water,” she explains. “Then you run your loops and about a half hour later you grab another.” Another critical element is a type of gliding locomotion. “I just try to stay as relaxed as possible and as efficient as possible, so it’s smooth and relaxed,” says Gardner. And as for concentration, Gardner is as an associative runner, focusing on the task at hand. “I just stay focused on my running,” she notes. “Nothing else is distracting me.”
And perhaps, more than anything else, that focus to stay in the moment may be the key. By her own admission, Gardner’s life is a flurry of frenzied activity. And sometimes attending to all of those competing demands on her time and attention can be overwhelming. Gardner’s younger daughter, now 18, is developmentally delayed and has special, time-consuming needs. Gardner shapes her life so that her mother is there for her. In a way, adhering to a training schedule that has her approaching 150 miles per week has become a rejuvenating activity for Gardner — a safe haven away from the demands of everyday life and a daily place of solace, a place where she can reaffirm her strength to do it all.
And the ultra-races may prove to be the ultimate safe retreat, the place where she can shut out all of the noise and bring a simple and undistracted approach to a monumental challenge. “I don’t care if its hour 8 or hour 12 or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s a relaxed pace and I’m just moving forward — real simple. If a dog is eating all the chickens at home, if things are going crazy, there’s nothing I can do about
it, I’m in Poland or wherever. It is very, very simple. It’s as simple as it could possibly be.”
There is a shop-worn expression: show me a great distance runner, and I’ll show you a person with anger management issues. Is anger at work here? For Gardner, it seems as if the process of training for and racing these incredible distances is able to unlock a special power from within that enhances her coping skills. “It’s not like anger,” asserts Gardner. “It’s hard to focus, to balance things, to manage money, and things like that. So there are a lot of things in my life that are out of control. So when I am running, I think about all that running has given to me and I am able project myself into the race and the challenges of running 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, or 24 hours. And a lot of times, if I have a really good race, I think to myself, ‘I can do this.'”
Many would suspect that Gardner, in the afterglow of her American record at 24 hours, might adopt a more relaxed, reflective view on a career full of impressive accomplishments. They would be wrong. The new American record holder hears time’s winged chariot hurrying near. “It’s starting to be a panic now,” confesses Gardner. “I want to run 150 in the 24 hour and I know I can. And time’s running out. So I’m going crazy. I also feel confident at the 100 mile distance. If I win a 50 mile championship, I feel lucky. 50 miles is still too short. There are still good marathoners that I worry about all the time, that can hang with me for 40 miles in that kind of race.”
Gardner’s more immediate goals are intriguing: a 50-miler the third week in October, a 100-miler the following week; and then, 6 weeks later, a date with destiny: a 24 hour race on a track. “I really want to try to get the 24 in the mid-150 range,” she outlines in all seriousness. “I know I am capable of 5 more miles. And that’s why I’m not content right now.”
But is this 48-year old American record holder capable of attaining contentment? What would take her there? “Mid 150’s for a 24,” she offers matter-of-factly. “I should be sub 20 hours for Western States 100.”
In a rare reflective moment, Gardner concedes, “I think I am getting too old to do that [the 50 mile and 100k events]. But the 24 hour stuff, 100 mile stuff, the Spartathlon [the Greek 153 mile ultra run from Athens to Sparta] I think I could still be very good at those distances.” And, with a wry smile, she can’t resist adding, “Those are the kinds of things you can do when you get older.”
“You see, it’s the process along the way of trying to accomplish something,” explains Gardner. “It’s trying to get there, trying to fit the training runs in, trying to squeeze everything in, and balance everything.” And with a smile, she adds, “And doing it on your own with my personality is very tricky.” It may be tricky, but as her competitors in Poland can attest, Connie Gardner is America’s best at taking it one day at a time.