© Copyright – 2009 – Athletics Illustrated

With a Commonwealth Games appearance and a 2:32 marathon personal best, Nicole Stevenson has been one of Canada’s elite marathon runners since 2002.

Coached by Hugh Cameron, Stevenson transitioned from a middle-distance runner to a marathoner, smoothly. She was able to maintain fairly low-mileage training while working full time for a Pharmaceutical company, in marketing.

Cameron is the head coach with the Brooks Canada Marathon Project in Ontario. Brooks marathon project enables Canada’s best runners to maintain focus on their training and he is doing so with good success.

Martin Goulet, Chief High Performance Officer for Athletics Canada says:

“As a long time national team and Olympic distance running coach I was thrilled to learn about this new privately sponsored Brooks Canada Marathon Project when briefed about it.  Our sport certainly needs new innovative ways to attract support for our Canadian athletes.  We enthusiastically endorse the concept and approach especially knowing that under the strong leadership of coach Cameron, this initiative will harmoniously complement what Athletics Canada is doing in the global area of distance running.”

The time left for qualifying for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Track and Field Championships that take place, August 15 to 23, 2009, is coming up soon for the marathon, that final date is Sunday, May 24th 2009 at the Ottawa Marathon. The question is, will Nicole continue to hold onto one of the last spots that remain and keep her place on the team.

Christopher Kelsall: So are we going to see you in Ottawa in May 2009 attempting one of the spots for the marathon team to race the Worlds in Berlin?

NS: I’ve actually already made a qualifying time with my 2:41 in Ottawa in 2008, so unless I get “bumped” by some faster women, I am on the team.

CK: Are you going to wait to see if you get bumped? Ottawa is a last chance and I think 3 women have qualified already. I believe Cheryl Murphy has a time that is very close to yours and will be racing shortly to try to improve on that. Additionally, Loudmila hasn’t raced as far as I know.

NS: Wouldn’t it be great to say that a woman with a 2:32 marathon PB didn’t make the Canadian national team? Ok, I know that’s misleading since I didn’t run the PB during the qualifying period. However, it’s great to see more Canadian women breaking the 2:43 mark. What’s interesting is the age range of this group: with a couple women under 30 and some nearing or even over the 40-year mark. I suppose to make the really fast times of under 2:30, we need more of the younger women in the event, but it’s still good to see a full team forming for Berlin.

My guess is that Loudmila will return in 2009, though she and I are both battling some unavoidable challenges like aging and being females who have raced a lot of marathons in the last 10 years. I’d love to re-ignite our rivalry (I think my record with her is 1-100). Notice how I haven’t answered the original question? I have to wait and see how the next few weeks go with training before I commit to any races. As much as I want to be at the top of my game in 2009 and run as fast as I did just three years ago, I am fighting some physiological demons, so I’ll see how the winter goes and maybe test myself at Around the Bay 30km at the end of March.

CK: Again regarding Ottawa being a last chance event to qualify. A few years ago when you ran in the Commonwealth Games Marathon, you considered it your toughest marathon ever, partly because you ran it two months after a personal best in Houston. What are you doing to prepare for racing with minimal recovery this time for World’s?

NS: I’ve encountered a number of setbacks since the Commonwealth marathon. I thought my body would bounce back after some downtime, but I’m still looking for that bounce! I partially tore my achilles towards the end of the 2008 Scotiabank Toronto marathon in September and had to take ten weeks off. I decided to take a real break and I hardly did any exercise during that time. Needless to say, I am starting 2009 completely rested but also completely out of shape. I have started to include some cross training in my program, something I did more of back in 2001-2002 when I dipped my toe in triathlons. So I bike 1-2 times per week and I am doing lots of yoga and core work to see if I can stave off future injuries.

CK: You told Bill Lankoff of Slam Sports: “To me it’s better to have someone there and be proud of them than to say: ‘Sorry but if you’re not going to get a medal we don’t want you wearing our colours.’ I felt ripped off to be honest. I don’t want to sound full of sour grapes because I’m grateful for many things, but it is certainly an opportunity missed.”

Do you feel that if an athlete qualifies, even minimally, that given solid training, anything may happen on the day – so why not be there at the Olympics?

NS: The IAAF sets qualifying times for each event already, so countries should follow those criteria and not duplicate the effort locally. I am starting to coach in 2009 and I think my experience from 2004 may help our future Olympians. I will steal Coach Hugh Cameron’s motto and suggest athletes control what they can and focus on themselves and not the politics surrounding them. Athletes have enough pressure that they put on themselves and I want to shield them from further stress.

CK: Why do you think Athletics Canada sets standards that are different than the IAAF?

NS: I could be corrected on this, but I believe AC has to negotiate standards for each event with the Canadian Olympic Committee. I don’t think the blame all falls on AC. As for the COC, I don’t know everything about the group, but I definitely do not agree with the ‘Own the Podium’ program. It doesn’t follow my interpretation of the Olympic Charter, instead it is obsessed with medals, which are significant, but there are so many other benefits of the Olympics that are neglected during the Games. I’ll never forget this past summer where for the first week the media were all complaining about Canada’s lack of medals so far in Beijing. I felt completely ashamed of the bad press. All I can say is – we’re all athletes and we all want to win. Get more people involved, build the necessary infrastructures, promote clean sport and let the athletes take care of training and competing under proper guidance. Lastly, I’d like to see more focus on and support for more accessible and popular sports in which Canadian kids participate.

CK: Whose training methodology do you practise?

NS: I’ve tried to read about 10 running books and I can’t say I’ve finished any of them. I have a short attention span for non-fiction and think most things can be explained in an essay, not a whole book! All kidding aside, I’ve been blessed with knowledgeable coaches throughout my career and I’m very grateful for all the learnings I have gained from them.

I’m not sure who coined it, but I have always favoured the 1 day hard / 1-2 days easy concept, which includes two workouts per week, and most people I know follow this plan. One of the work outs is geared towards longer tempo repeats with only a bit of quality and the other work out includes shorter intervals at a quicker pace, of course things vary depending on time of year, race plans, etc. The other days of the week are easy mileage and one long run on the weekend, which is anywhere from 1hr 20min to 3hr. I have experimented a bit with my marathon training; for example, I once tried a phase where I did a long run the day following a hard workout to practice running on tired legs. After 6 weeks I learned that I was just getting more run down and both the workout and the long run were suffering. Lesson learned!

The biggest learning I attribute to Coach Hugh is the “execution run” concept. I would do a 25-42km run every 6 weeks or so leading up to a marathon. The goal of this run would be to help prep my mind and body for the marathon race. I was supposed to average 4:00/km, though often I went faster, then the last 2-3km would be “execution” time, running faster than marathon pace, sometimes below 3:20/km, when I was really fit. Coach Hugh would follow in the van behind me, calling out splits every kilometre for the whole run. These runs definitely helped my fitness and my confidence in my marathon career.

CK: Interesting you say that about an essay containing all the training information required to run a marathon and the over-complication of training in recent history. Frank Shorter once said that he tried to write a book on training but he didn’t because it would just end up being two pages. (or something to that effect).

NS: One thing I have really noticed over the last ten years is that runners concentrate on too many things these days – and these things don’t directly involve putting one foot in front of the other! Instead it’s all about the extras, like supplements, equipment, etc, etc. Back when Sylvia Ruegger and Mike Dyon raced marathons, they barely even drank water through marathons! Running involves some basic knowledge on rest, nutrition, shoes, etc but with the running boom, we’ve been bombarded by promotions on products instead of good, old-fashioned hard training. Details can be learned through experience and through coaches, but to really get the most of out yourself, you’ve got to be smart about your program and put in the miles of hard work and there’s no pill or special clothing that will do that for you!

CK: Did you grow up playing a lot of sports? Where you a runner early on?

NS: I started running after a victory in gym class during our track week at school. I won the 400m event back in grade six. In high school I played volleyball for 3 years and I rowed crew for one season. Running was always my strongest sport, although I loved the team aspect of volleyball. In grade 11, my brother’s coach encouraged me to stick with my strength and lose the other sports, so that’s what I did. It worked out really well for me, and my running times improved dramatically.

CK: While you work full time, what quantity of mileage do you manage to get in on a weekly basis?

NS: Back in 2002, when I raced my first marathon, I was only running 60-65 miles a week and clocked 2:36. After that I increased my mileage every season so that for Houston 2006 I was averaging 80-85 miles per week, which I would consider to be pretty low for most marathon runners. I have tried running higher mileage but I’ve found that the quality of my work-outs suffers and I get super tired, which I can’t afford to feel during the day with a demanding job.

For 2009 I will go back to lower mileage of 60-70 miles per week and see how that works out, though I’ll add in some cross training as well since I might hop in a triathlon in the spring. For the last two years I’ve been traveling a ton with my job so it’s always a juggle to fit in the necessary training, especially the quality aspect. And this year I’m throwing a coaching business into the mix, so we’ll see how that life balance thing goes!

Quickfire questions:

CK: Steak and beer or soy and smoothie?

NS: How about steak and beer and smoothie and forget the soy?

CK: Sounds good to me! Top three songs on your iPod right now?

NS: Head On by Jesus and the Mary Chain, Today by Smashing Pumpkins and Too Legit to Quit by MC Hammer, a true 80’s child.

CK: Post 20 mile run indulgence?

NS: Almond butter, honey and banana on a fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip bagel.

CK: Did Oprah ruin the marathon?

NS: No but I question why so many people want to run a marathon in over 4 hours instead of improving their 5k and 10k times. The training is more fun and less time-consuming and the gratification is even better.

CK: Come on she ruined it, Chocolate or Vanilla?

NS: Chocolate / vanilla swirl.

CK: Brad Pitt or Steve Yzerman?

NS: Robert Buckley from Lipstick Jungle – I love, love him!

CK: Let’s Run or runnersweb?

NS: Runnersweb for results and track and field north for gossip!

CK’s note: And I know you have read Flotrack!!

CK: Ok coach, here is your opportunity: early you said that you cycle and do yoga specifically, how do these forms of cross training help your marathon training?

NS: I’ll start with the yoga. I’ve been told by a whole crew of therapists that as strong as I look (I’m built more like a brick wall than a marathoner!) my core is super weak and I will continue hitting road blocks until I build more core strength. Recently, my friend pointed me to some on-line yoga, which I have followed diligently over the holiday break. Now that the New Year has started, I just need to fit this in with training, working and all the other stuff I do. I choose classes that are specific to my weaknesses and I just have to hope they work! In the past, when my therapists have given me exercises, I would do them a few times then totally fall off the wagon. Having on-line classes has (so far) kept me consistent, even though I often only do 30-40 of the 60 minutes. Another reason for the yoga is to improve my focus on specific muscles and focus on the present, I’m always multi-tasking and need to learn to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Cycling adds some aerobic activity without taxing my tender joints from more running and it’s an easy way to burn calories since I eat way too many sweets all the time! I spin at an easy gear because my leg muscles aren’t strong enough to do real workouts. Also, I am friends with some triathletes and it’s fun to dabble in one of their disciplines. I would say that the benefits from cycling are more psychological than physical for me since my heart rate is really low on the bike and my power output is minimal. However, I have the hopes of doing a triathlon in the spring so this keeps that possibility alive. Just don’t ask me to swim until race day because I hate pools!

CK: Yes…the New Year…this year is the Year of the Ox, Gung Hei Fat Choy! Speaking of Oxen, have you gained a lot of weight since being off from running?

NS: Ha ha! So that is why I’ve put on some pounds! I can blame the year of the ox!!! Yes, I have put on an extra layer, but losing the weight will be a good way to integrate discipline back into my life after my break from exercise and consuming copious amounts of chocolate.

CK: Will you have a Nicole Stevenson coaching website? If so what is the URL?

NS: Yes, thanks for the opportunity to put in a plug! The website is very clever: www.nicolestevenson.ca. Also, I will be a volunteer coach with the University of Toronto Track Club a couple of times per week to work with developmental athletes. I’m really excited about this new phase of my running career. I’ve been asked many times to take on a coaching role and I can hardly wait to start helping people improve their times.