Stephanie Bruce, mom of 2 and 2016 Olympic Trials Qualifier in the 10,000 meters, shares her thoughts on training, parenting and her upcoming race in Eugene with Sarah Robinson for Freeplay magazine.
You’ve had the perspective that running is a gift not an obligation long before most athletes arrive at that epiphany. How do you think that’s shaped your career?
It’s helped me battle back during the really hard times. Because in any runner’s career you’re going to face setbacks, whether that’s injury or overtraining,. For a lot of people it’s losing their mojo.
But because I think “I get to run”, I’ve never lost the love of the sport. It’s broken my heart many times. And there have been days when I’ve woken up and thought, I can’t do this anymore. But not because I don’t love the sport but because I don’t know if I have the physical and mental capacity to handle more heartache or more setbacks.
This perspective has helped me claw my way back from the depths of hell. And the depths of hell is all relative, but when it’s your love and your passion or in my case, my career it can feel like you are at rock bottom. But it’s given me the fight to get back up, even if I’m going to get knocked down again, I know it’s worth it.
How do you maintain the daily passion or focus?
I’m a pretty cheesy person as far as like “everything happens for a reason.”
I follow along with little quotes or inspiration from movies. Actually I’m a huge Rocky fan. Because, honestly, Sly reminds me of my dad a lot. You know, he’s an Italian guy from the east coast. My dad was from New York.
There are parts of Rocky, like Rocky III, he’s fighting Mr. T and it’s impossible. The guy is outweighing him, he’s so much bigger and Rocky finally knocks him down. And he’s saying, “you ain’t so bad! You ain’t so bad!” And then in Rocky IV, when he’s fighting the Russian. And when I think of the Russian – I picture that person that’s running so well, the favorite, there’s no way you can beat them. Because on paper they should win every time, but then Rocky cuts the Russian. And his trainer says, “You cut him! You hurt him! You see? You see? He’s not a machine, he’s a man! “
It shows you can go toe to toe with anyone.
So do you repeat in your head, “he ain’t so bad” or “you cut him”?
(laughs) Actually that’s funny, I do think, “he ain’t so bad” in my head. But more than that, there’s a scene where Rocky is talking to Adrian and she says, “You can’t win.” And he answers, “No, maybe I can’t win. Maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he’s got. But to beat me, he’s going to have to kill me. And to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me. And to do that, he’s got to be willing to die himself. I don’t know if he’s ready to do that. I don’t know.”
That’s what I think about when I line up to compete.
When you see the perversion of the sport, whether doping or sponsorship wars, how do you fight the good fight while maintaining your pure love for the sport?
One of the goals that I have, and I share this with Ben, is that I just want to leave the sport better than when I arrived. However that looks.
I might not have as loud of voice or big of a platform as some athletes, like say Nick Symmonds, Lauren Fleshman or Kara Goucher, but I believe in speaking out about the issues. I do it by connecting with fans, and bringing the elite world to the public. Maybe someone who starts following me, will start following some different handles like USA Track and Field, and start asking questions like what’s this lawsuit? Then get deeper into the sport and the issues.
I believe we need to be affecting positive change. If we were all negative, people would be asking, “why follow this sport anyway?” You have to find a balance between being frustrated and inspiring change.
The road is never smooth, and yours has been no different. How do you think about setbacks? About injuries?
I have yet to figure those out. I’ll be in the middle of a setback and think, I don’t get this! I was doing things really well. I was doing all the little things. Sometimes I can’t figure injuries or setbacks out, and it makes me look back to figure out if there was a moment where I got too complacent. Was there I moment I stopped doing my little exercises, was there a moment I didn’t prioritize recovery.
And now with kids, it has to be a balance. Maybe I didn’t give myself 10 minutes post run to stretch because I was playing with the kids. But I can’t really say that’s a bad thing. I need that time with my kids. But maybe I did that too many days in a row, and then I got hurt. I have to look and find that balance.
There’s always a reason you get hurt, you just don’t see it in the midst of it. And there’s always a positive though. And even though I don’t always know why injury happens, I’ve never lost the love of the sport. It gives me time off to fight my way back. They make me mentally tougher, they give me a fight, and an edge, and they teach me how to listen to my body in the future. You’re always learning from a setback if you look closely.
And when you’re back you never take anything for granted. Like these past few weeks haven’t been super smooth, but I’m running, and that makes me happy.
Flashback to 2012, you’re training harder than ever, you’re focused on a spot on Olympic Marathon Team but you miss it. What would Steph today tell that Steph?
It’s easy to look back and see things now. Everything I did to get ready for the Houston Marathon the year before went well. I was very relaxed in my approach, I did all the hard work and I put in the time. And I thought, I think I can run under 2:30. But I didn’t do that in practice, I just tried to run all the effort based workouts.
And then when I ran under 2:30, I thought, okay if I can run that I need to just run all my workouts faster and harder and I’ll be in a better spot. But I believe I should have just done the same training. And told myself you’ll be a year fitter, rather than chasing times in practice. I should have let effort continue to guide my training. Not numbers.
I think I overtrained a little bit going into the Trials and I didn’t feel good overall at the start. The best position I was in was 8th, but I wasn’t running my own race. I was running my splits too fast in the beginning and I hit that wall at 22. And I started to run differently. My hip was dragging. I stepped off the road.
I would tell that Steph during the training block to have confidence and not to chase the goal; let it come to you.
How has your definition of success changed for you over the years?
It’s changed a lot. It’s obviously changed a lot with having kids. Our big joke is success is making it to practice on time with our watches and shoes on. That’s a win. It’s gotten better, as they get older.
Honestly, success is being healthy consistently, making it through training cycles and making it to starting lines healthy and full of energy.
And it’s still making an Olympic Team…I know it’s the hardest thing to do in our sport. But if I don’t I won’t think my career is for nothing, but I also don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing that goal. Being open about that goal. Even if I fail.
The other success is trying to inspire people along the way. To be human. To be brave and open with my goals.
I mean after the 10k, I read a message board and it was like, the past few years I thought Steph was pretending to be a pro runner on social media and just having kids, but I guess she is actually still a good runner.
I feel that pressure, like you need the times to prove yourself. But I also know how good I am. I don’t need to prove it. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t always come together in the public view every time. That doesn’t define success. I would rather inspire someone to chase their goals, wherever they are.
If someone joins this sport because of something they identified with or with what I share, that’s a success.
You’ve built a really strong coaching business on the side, have your athletes shaped your relationship with the sport? And with your own training and competition?
It makes me want to be a better athlete, because if I preach a philosophy I better follow it myself. It makes want to be positive despite setbacks, because that’s what I would tell my athletes. It forces me to take my best advice. It inspires me be a better version of myself.
It also reminds me that even though we do this as our job, we still love it. And that love for running is shared by so many different people. Whether it’s your job or your passion. You can’t underestimate anyone’s personal goals. No goal is more important than another.
You’ve also become a positive body image activist for mothers and women in general. Was that surprising?
It was very surprising. Honestly, throughout all my life I’ve been deemed as too skinny. People would speculate I had an eating disorder. But I didn’t feel I needed to prove otherwise, I was very confident that I was okay. I was healthy and running well. And having two kids helped prove that. I always made sure I got my period; that was always a good sign to me that I was fueling well and that I was healthy.
So then when, in turn, I had my babies and my body changed. I mean I’m the same person with my little noodle arms, but I had a little flab, and stretch marks. Women were suddenly like, yeah! It made me realize that women should be confident in their healthy bodies, whether they are really small or bigger, or whatever.
It also made me aware of damaging messages that are being sent to women. We need to throw away terms like runner body. You’re running and you have a body. You have a runner body. Looking at my stomach could make me think I’m not strong or I can’t beat that girl, but it’s not true. What your body looks like doesn’t decide what you’re capable of.
Does it inspire you to continue that work? What does that look like?
It makes me want to be honest. Like last week I had to step back and couldn’t race the 5k. And many pros wouldn’t say anything, but I was like no. We’re training at a very high level and sometimes it tips. It’s a fine line and things are bound to pop up. And sharing that I couldn’t race opened it up for people to encourage me and to hopefully be kinder with themselves.
What do you visualize Saturday morning on July 2nd walking into the stadium, what do you see.
I want to bottle that moment up. I will think of the journey I was on to get there. Obviously I want to make the team, but I don’t want to forget to pat myself on the back for the accomplishment of getting there. I want to take the time to acknowledge what it took to get there, what I fought through to get to that starting line.
I want to look at the crowd. I don’t want to go inward. Wave. Look out and see all these people that love this sport, and who are going to watch me suffer. I hope to be really present in the moment. This is what we work everyday for. The competition. The battle. I want to be mentally prepared to go to battle and to have no regrets when I cross that finish line.
Along those lines, what does success look like when you cross that finish line? What does it mean to have no regrets?
The American field is so deep right now, I could pretty much run a twenty second PR in the race and finish 4th. That’s just how good our country has become in at distance running. And I can’t be upset with that or with running a huge PR.
As long as I finish the race and I left everything I had out there physically. I fought mental demons when it got really tough. I made all the moves when I wanted to. I just want to run as hard and as smart as I can. Wherever that puts me on the day, I can’t be upset.
I can’t control what other people do. I can only run my hardest.
TWITTER Qs from Fans:
What was running like for you during first trimester with Riley? Were you surprised by all the crazy changes happening?
I didn’t run. I was so sick. I didn’t run until 15 or 16 weeks.
Are there skills that make a runner suitable to be a coach?
Yes, I think so. First, you should have a working knowledge of training physiology. Words like threshold should be familiar. Also you should have a working understanding of human anatomy and injury prevention. A bit of psychology can help too. And most important, you have you genuinely want to help people.
What about coaching certification, do you feel elites need one to be coaches?
I don’t. I know some coaches with certifications that aren’t good coaches. If you become a coach, and you’re not good they will leave or it won’t out. It has its own cleaning out process. So no, if you have the knowledge and mojo go for it.
Do you do same strength exercises routine all the time or change it up?
Two days a week I do weights. Deadlifts, front squats… we try to hit each week different parts of the body. And before all runs, I do activation exercises. Priming glutes, calves,
What did you do for your 21st birthday?
This is really sad, I don’t remember.
Do you get sleep with two kids?
Yeah, I do sleep. I’m lucky the boys are sleeping. There were rough periods, when I wasn’t sleeping I would cut my training. And I try to nap every day. Every night I try to be in bed at 9pm.
Did you run while breastfeeding? Have you noticed a difference in your body and running after you weaned?
Yes. I ran the Olympic standard while still BFing. Yes, I had way more energy after I stopped.
Is there a fall marathon on the plate?
Great question. My coach and I have talked about it. But we’re staying focused on the Trials first.
How do you manage with Celiac?
Lots of planning, packing snacks, and sad faces when I walked by donut shops and pizza joints! Really I try to stick with foods that are nutrient dense and sit well with me. At home it’s very easy but traveling to races can make it a little more difficult hence the planning ahead
Biggest Surprise coming back after pregnancies?
The physical changes my body went through and some that may never return to pre-baby status. Think stomach, muscle activation, lady parts, small boobs (if that was possible).
USCB alum, Freebirds vs. Cantina?
Freebirds all the way, sorry to my coach Pete.
How do you and Ben divide childcare and training?
We are lucky to have a great childcare situation in Flagstaff where the boys go to daycare a few days a week and we have some rotating babysitters. Mainly we trade off in increments of the day so one parent can rest if they had a hard workout or have one the next day. We will flip flop who gets up in the morning with the kids allowing the other parent to sleep in (sleep in refers to like 7 am).
When and where did you decide to be so honest about sharing post baby journey?
I don’t know exactly when it hit me but somewhere between living off very little sleep, trying to return to training, and having some female issues I wondered how many other women out there experience this stuff and have no one to turn to? I had no intention or motive simply to share my journey as a pro runner balancing raising kids, training full time, and making sure I was enjoying it all. The more I shared, the more it touched people and they reached out thanking me. That motivated me to keep working hard, forgiving my shortcomings, and being honest about the mental demons I fought on the bad days and celebrating the good ones.
Written by Sarah Robinson for Freeplay magazine
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