© Copyright – 2009 – Athletics Illustrated

Marilyn Arsenault (Mar) is a transplanted easterner by way of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec (collective gasp). She now lives in and loves the west coast, specifically Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island.

Arsenault is a Soprano who studied at McGill University and le Universitie de Montreal in Montreal, Quebec and is now looking forward to completing her Masters degree at the University of Victoria. For now though she is full-time in the political science department at UVic, undertaking serious running training, and committed to vocal studies with renowned teacher, Selena James.

I found out from yet another anonymous source that although she likes to train on the hundreds of miles of trails that intersect Greater Victoria, she doesn’t however, like to run them when they are too wet and sloppy, according to the source she says, “it gets my Twinkies wet.”

The interview

Christopher Kelsall: You studied at McGill University in Montreal earning a Bachelor’s of Music degree with high distinction in voice performance. You later discovered a passion for running and have now become competitive. Where may these two seemingly dissimilar pursuits intersect?

Marilyn Arsenault: I always get a funny look when people who know me as a runner find out that I sing; especially when they find out that I sing opera. I get the same look when my singing friends back east find out I train and run races. Most think that singing and running are at opposite ends of the spectrum. My singing friends assume that running would take away from my singing when in fact I have found the opposite to be true. I feel my running helps my singing and vice versa.

Photo credit: Jim Finlayson

My increased fitness has improved my singing stamina. Singing takes a lot of mental concentration but it also requires physical strength. Try and hold a tone in a strong voice for just 10 seconds and you’ll see just how physically demanding singing can be! Like in running, if you don’t train your breathing muscles by singing regularly, they get out of shape and you lose a lot of your breath capacity and ability to sustain a long vocal line. So the next time you make fun of a fat opera singer, think about the strength it takes to make all that sound and the endurance it takes to last through a three-hour opera! I think the years I spent training my voice have helped my running a lot in terms of my focus, discipline, and awareness of my body, in particular my breathing. On the psychological side (mental focus, determination, confidence etc) I approach running and singing the same way so it’s all good practice.

CK: So then where may one draw parallels between going anaerobic in a cross-country race, to singing the melody in Edvard Grieg’s, Peer Gynt? Is it like holding A5 for a whole minute?

MA: Holding a high A for a whole minute would be closer to running a 2:05 marathon in a snowsuit, in July you’d probably look the same doing it too.

CK: so it’s possible. Is there a composer that you prefer singing the works of and whose work is a better fit for your sopranic range?

MA: I sing a lot of the repertoire by Handel, Mozart, and Bach. The lieder repertoire of Schubert and Schumann are also favorites of mine. I also love Puccini and Bellini, Mahler, Debussy there are just so many composers and styles I love, it’s hard to narrow it down to even three!

CK: On the subject of education, it appears you will be returning to music study, completing your Masters degree at the University of Victoria, meanwhile you will be able to compete for the UVic Vikes. This of course will move you from a longer distance runner to middle, which distance do you think you will perform best at?

MA: I have applied to UVic but won’t know about an acceptance until March sometime. I think my audition is next week sometime. I have run a couple of outdoor track races and both were pretty low-key (1500m). I really had a blast even though it was scary. I suspect the longer cross-country races will be my stronger ones, but there may be some speed that can be squeezed out of these granny legs yet, so who knows!

CK: I know you are strong in cross-country and road racing, how do you feel about training and racing on the track?

MA: Like I said, it scares the poop out of me! If you lose your focus, you’re kind of screwed and it’s in front of a crowd. It’s a lot like singing in front of an audience but scarier.

CK: How and when did you discover your passion for competing as a runner?

MA: I ran recreationally for years before moving to Victoria in 2003. I always loved running, but I was more interested in pursuing music. It wasn’t until I met up with my friend, Malcolm Balk, who happened to be a running coach that I started to run regularly.

I think we ran about 3-4 times a week at first, usually up to 10km at a time. Occasionally he’d throw in a fartlek or a short time-trial, always on dirt trails, never on the track or road. He had me to jump into the McGill U workouts a few times when they would do intervals at the base of Mount Royal. I didn’t even know what an interval was. I would just follow everyone, running as hard as I could. I was always far behind the lead women but noticed I wasn’t the last one either. I think that’s why Malcolm had me do these, to give me some confidence.

I got hooked though when I ran my first 10km road race. It was the day before we moved out here to Victoria. I ran 41:03 and was the first female finisher (it was a really small race!). I nearly died in the last 3km but the feeling of what I had accomplished was overwhelming and I wanted to do more. I joined the Island Road Racers and began racing. I realized then that I really did love pushing my body in workouts and enjoyed competing in races.

Personal bests to date are:

35:06 – 10k, Vancouver Sun Run, 2007

28:14 – 8k, Royal Victoria Marathon 8K, 2007

89:26 – Half Marathon, Aramco Houston Half Marathon, January 13, 2008.

CK: You have worked with several experienced coaches. What type of coach’s athlete are you and have you changed over recent years?

MA: I think a good coach to me is anyone who is able to inspire their athlete to do their best while having fun doing it. If I am happy and the atmosphere in the workouts is positive, I will work my butt off and will improve. I think most people are like that. I also think a good coach has the ability to know when to push the athlete and when to tell them to take a step back and rest. I am a people pleaser so I tend to do what I am told and if I don’t, I feel terribly guilty!

A good coach though will also pass along the tools to be independent so as time goes by you can make some intelligent decisions on your own based on the knowledge you have collected along the way. I would say I have more resources than I did a few years ago. I read as much as I can about running and training and listen to advice from anyone knowledgeable. I think now I can discern better between good and bad training advice. I am certainly no expert but compared to what I knew a few years ago, I’ve come a long way.

CK: Tell me a little about growing up in Ontario, was your lifestyle and home environment very musical or athletic or both?

MA: I moved to Montreal in my late teens to attend McGill U. I did most of my growing up in Northern Ontario and Kingston, Ontario. My parents were both amateur musicians. My Mom sang and taught piano at home and my Dad played guitar and sang. My four brothers and two sisters are all very athletic and my Mom taught them all how to play piano and guitar, so there was definitely a mix growing up.

CK: In Montreal, there seems to be a fantastic sense of style and a general collective effort to be ‘ready’ when one goes out, be it business or casual. Victorians, as you know are very casual. Have you adapted to the fashion void of the west coast?

MA: Yep. I think I’ve worn nylons about 5 times since 2003 – that’s probably fewer times than you! Haha!

CK: Not sharing. The nickname thing we know you are ‘Mar’, Joey (Mar’s significant other) is ‘Juice’, your running club president has the most complimentary moniker of ‘Boob’, you have very quickly taken to referring to me as my childhood nickname, ‘Coleslaw’. What was your nickname growing up? And don’t try to tell me it was ‘Mar.’

MA: It was Lump-Lumps, or Mar-Lumps or just Lumps, don’t ask. My brothers still call me that in public too and as often as possible.

CK: The other day, I overheard you talking about vegetable juicers or something with a mutual friend (Kevin) is this right? Is it possible that you are going to practice veganism?

MA: [yelling] GOOD GAWD NO! Not that I have anything against veganism, but I am a meat-eater and that will never change. I have been picking Kev’s brain (like Hannibal) about eating healthier, but I would only be able to meet his diet regime about a quarter of the way.

CK: I thought you really liked the Beacon Hill Drive-in hamburgers?

MA: The burgers there are ok. It’s more the idea of grabbing a burger and fries (sorry Kev!) at Beacon Hill Drive-In and then walking over to Dallas Rd and eating it on a bench with the view of the ocean and the mountains. There are great burger joints in town and I know them all it’s just that this one has a great view.

CK: Your life must be quite full, are you and Juice reduced to speed dating each other?

MA: Joey has become unbelievably fit this past year so now we can do most of our easy runs together, which is so fun! I will be doing a couple of music gigs with him next year so we will get to spend even more time together. I am sure he’d agree that he spends enough time with me!

CK’s note: Joey (earlier referred to as Juice) is the Conductor in Residence of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Opera Victoria. He recently received a long-standing ovation at his performance of Madame Butterfly, which completely sold out before any friends could get tickets.

CK: Having run a few half marathons, including the Houston Half Marathon recently you seem to run as well in the longer distances. Do you see yourself attempting to go longer like for instance the marathon one day?

MA: I have no real desire to run a marathon right now. I am not sure if I could handle the amount of training it would take, at least not yet. I would like to run as fast as I can get in the shorter distances first, then we’ll see.

CK: You, as I understand it run by the Pose Method. Is this style of running something that you consciously have to remind yourself to do or have you adopted it and run Pose without thought?

MA: I learned the Pose Method about five years ago. It dramatically changed my running form. While I was learning it, I thought about it with every step. I had to; otherwise, my old bad habits would sneak back in. A lot of the basics are now engrained, but I am definitely nowhere near to running with a perfect Pose technique.

I do know that when I put my awareness on running with Pose, I feel so much better.

CK: What is your favourite run? Do you prefer long runs with a group, specific workouts, or solo runs?

MA: I love any trail run with a group of friends. My favorite workouts are sessions on the track. I think that’s where I work the hardest.

CK: Favorite time of day for running?

MA: Dusk.

CK: How many kilometers do you run in an average week?

MA: About 75-90km on average.

CK: When running higher volumes, do you personally have a limit where you hit that number and just need to be away from it for a couple days?

MA: I got up to 115km this winter. I know that’s not a lot to some, but when you’re working full-time, it’s enough! Like a lot of obsessed runners, I have trouble deciding on my own to take a break. If I am told to rest I will do it, but I still have to be told. I am such a baby that way!

CK: Where do you see your long-term singing goals taking you? Do you have a specific piece that you would really like to master and perform on tour?

MA: I don’t really have one specific goal. I would like to do more performing though, that’s for sure. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but if I could make singing a full-time gig, that would be brilliant. Being a part-time singer and part-time runner would be the best. I guess next year will be my chance to do just that. I’ll be poor, but really happy!

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