“Hey—there goes Kristin!”, my friend gestured to the right as a handful of runners sped past our car.
“That’s crazy,” I murmured, awestruck. I was a half hour away from running my first 5k, and the idea of running before a race, the idea of running even a yard more than 3.1 miles seemed two strides short of lunacy.
Kristin Barry went on to finish that 2007 race in 16:51, just 8 seconds shy of her PR, taking the top female spot and besting her then new training partner Sheri Piers by nearly 30 seconds. I went on to… finish. And to remain in awe of my speedy neighbor and friend.
A great deal has transpired both on and off the road for Kristin in the seven years since that race, including a 2008 and 2012 showing in the Olympic Trials marathon. As a newly minted masters runner, Barry kindly agreed to share with Salty Running her journey through injury and aging as a competitive runner.
A native of South Portland, Maine, Barry started running distance in high school and continued at Dartmouth College where she claimed 1996 Ivy League Champion in the 10,000m and 1996 New England Champion in the 5,000m. Even with these accomplishments, she never had a long stretch of consistent training and left college feeling like she had a lot more improvement in her.
Said Barry, “After college I went to law school at Georgetown. I continued to run and race, but not with much focus and with very low mileage. I worked full-time as an attorney at Kelley Drye in Washington, D.C. for five years, and had both of my children during this time (Gwen, age 13 and Zach, age 10).”
Barry moved to Maine in 2005, and met her training partner Sheri Piers shortly thereafter. But it wasn’t until late 2007 that she and Sheri began running together regularly and increasing their mileage. For the last four years, Barry has coached cross country and outdoor track at Cheverus High School, as well as spring cross country for Scarborough youth. When she’s not running or coaching, she also writes about running for Running Times and Level Renner.
Half Marathon: 1:15:50
Our Q&A with Kristin
SR: You’ve run the [Olympic] Trials twice now. Do you hope to run again in 2016? What running goals and hopes do you have for the next year and beyond as you enter the masters category?
Barry: Yes, I ran the Trials in 2008 and 2012, and I do hope to qualify again. This definitely is a big reach goal, but I will give it a try. I am going to run the US Masters Championships at Twin Cities in October with a goal of going after the qualifying time (sub 2:43). Beyond this I may run a few of the other masters championship races. I did the half marathon championship earlier this year with Sheri (Piers). Apart from this I would like to run a decent 5k and 10k as a master.
SR: A “decent” 5k or 10k, eh? How do you define decent, keeping in mind those of us who can but dream of sub-20 will probably hate your answer?
Barry: Well, I haven’t really thought about that or put any numbers to it. I don’t expect to set PRs at this point, but it would be nice to come within maybe 90 seconds of my PR in the 10k and maybe 45 seconds in the 5k.
SR: I know you’ve struggled quite a bit with injury over the last couple of years. Can you share about that process, the natures of the injuries and the duration during which you weren’t able to train?
Barry: Okay, hang on and get ready for the Lifetime for Women movie! You sure you want to know? It’s a really long story. In November 2010 I was in arguably close to the best shape of my life. I ran PRs that year from 3k up through the marathon. I ran the 2010 New York City Marathon and finished 11th in the US Championship being held within that race. As soon as I finished, I knew something was terribly wrong with my right knee. I could not bend it, and I could not bear weight on it. I took two weeks off, then tried to run. I was unable to run without sharp pain and a limp (knee would not bend). From then until April 4th of 2011 I had 3 MRIs, over 10 cortisone shots and various other treatments. Nothing worked, and I lost 6 months of running. In March I finally convinced a doctor to take a look inside my knee surgically because I knew something needed to be fixed. Sure enough, I had a plica jammed inside the knee joint. The plica was removed on April 4th, I rested for four more weeks after surgery, and I was able to begin running in May of 2011. At this point I had 8 months until the Trials and lots of lost fitness to regain quickly.
It was a slow process but I finally felt like I was getting back to feeling like myself in December 2011. I ran a half in Las Vegas during a high mileage week (1:18:03) and while that was well off my PR I felt like I was making progress and felt like I was getting back in shape. The Trials were a month away and I felt confident I could do okay.
A week before the Trials, I started to feel awful. I was tired, my heart was racing, and I had no energy. I thought maybe I was on the verge of overdoing it, but figured the taper would take care of it and I would be okay for the marathon. The 2012 Marathon Trials was one of the most awful races of my life physically. I honestly began suffering at mile 2. I finished the race, but I was in agony.
The next morning I remembered how I felt nauseous on the flight to Houston (weird for me). I found out that day I was pregnant. This was a big surprise and not planned given that I was 38 turning 39 that year and my kids were going to be 11 and 8 that year. I got through the shock and accepted it and even told my kids the news after the 3 month mark.
Unfortunately, soon after 3 months the baby’s heart stopped beating. This was devastating for my kids and very hard for me, too. To deal with all of it, I made the mistake of throwing myself into really hard training right away. This resulted in my entire system just completely shutting down after a couple months. I ended up badly overtrained. I could not elevate my heart rate anymore, I had systemic inflammation and debilitating fatigue. It was bad. I ended up having to take off that entire summer to recover from it.
I started running again that fall and slowly built up my mileage again. I had some good workouts with Sheri and ran a race in January of 2013 (23:04 4 miler). Unfortunately, a week later I had what felt like an earthquake in my pelvis. I completely fractured the pubic ramus bone. (Yep, I broke my crotch). The doctor told me I wouldn’t run for at least 9 months. I did not run a step for 4.5 months but with the help of a bone stimulator I was able to start running again in June of 2013. Knock on wood I have been running without sidelining-injury since then!
SR: Wow. You weren’t kidding. That’s a heartbreakingly long string of hurdles and setbacks, both physically and emotionally. When you were in the throes of dealing with those injuries, what was the hardest part of that process for you? Was there anything you found that helped you cope with being sidelined or unable to train at previous levels? Were there any silver linings that came from that time off?
Barry: Each time it was a little bit different. For the plica injury, the hardest part was losing all that fitness. Just feeling so helpless and watching that hard-earned fitness slip away while no one would listen to me and take a look inside my knee was agonizing and frustrating beyond words. I honestly believe dealing with injury is a grieving process and you go through the five stages. On the positive side, sometimes when you are injured you return with a greater appreciation for running, racing, all of it.
After everything, I will say that I am much less hard on myself now. I am grateful to make it to the line healthy and be a part of the race and I don’t beat myself up anymore over not hitting certain times. I still have goals, but I am kinder and gentler to myself. I also don’t push the envelope anymore. Any time I start to feel good and the old me voice says, “just add on four more miles” I remember everything that’s happened and make the decision to do less and make sure I can continue running. Fighting that urge is not easy though.
SR: During the recovery process, were there any therapies and/or workouts that were particularly effective and helpful? Did any of the cross training or non-running workouts you did while recovering become part of your current training, once healthy?
Barry: Given the nature of some of my injuries, I could not do anything at all. Pool running is very effective at maintaining fitness or at least buffering the decline of fitness. Whenever I was able I would do hours of pool running and include hard efforts. I’ve incorporated a lot of strength training, stability and mobility exercises into my normal routine now. I remember reading about Meb a few years ago and “pre-habbing” to prevent injury. I would say I do a lot of that now to keep myself healthy.
SR: I know you’ve trained for many years now with Sheri Piers and count her among your dearest of friends. When you were sidelined by injury, Sheri continued to excel, setting PRs even after crossing over into the masters category. While I know you must have rejoiced at seeing your best friend and long time training partner succeed, I can also imagine it would be tough not to be participating in that success alongside her. How did you support each other through this time, and did it change the dynamic in your partnership at all?
Barry: Yes, it was so hard sometimes. I also coached both of us until late 2011, so I would be putting together these workouts for her and seeing her run so well and absolutely dying inside because there was nothing I wanted more than to do them with her and race and continue to PR like she was. I remember a few times where I was bawling my eyes out and saying, “I am so happy for you, I’m sorry I am crying, I want to be out there with you so badly.” I still feel sad when I think about 2010 and what could have happened. But, I try to focus on what I can do and be grateful for everything.
It definitely made it harder to be patient in recovery and coming back. I used to just throw myself back into the workouts, keep up with her and force it until my body adapted. As I have gotten older, that no longer works and I have had to make adjustments.
I think we have been very supportive of each other in everything we have been through. I am not sure I would have kept on trying to come back without her. I know we both miss what we had from 2007-2010, and by that I mean knocking out workouts together, helping each other with workouts we don’t enjoy, and pushing each other in races. But we are still out there together (even if I am significantly slower).
SR: You mention making adjustments as you’ve gotten older. Do you find it harder to maintain your speed as you’ve aged? If you’ve been able to maintain most of your speed, (at least when injury-free), what methods/ training/ approaches do you attribute that to?
Barry: Yes, it’s harder to maintain my speed. This year I have been focusing on doing more drills, strides, hurdle walkovers and strength training. I also make sure my easy runs are truly easy. My ability to recover from workouts has declined and to address this I try to sleep more, too. Sheri and I used to meet at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning every single day. Neither one of us can do this anymore without compromising recovery. We meet a couple of times a week and make sleep and recovery a higher priority. I also make sure I have a recovery drink immediately after I finish running and I am also trying to pay closer attention to eating well.
SR: Have you needed to take any special measures to be able to tolerate OTQ-level training as an older athlete (i.e. movement prep, PT, etc)? Have you noticed any biomechanical changes/disadvantages after having kids, and if so, what you’ve done to combat those?
Barry: I have recurring pelvic issues (since Zach was born) and I focus a lot on core strength, pelvic alignment, hip mobility, making sure my glutes are strong and firing. I never ran high mileage before kids so it’s hard for me to compare before and after. I trained much harder post-kids so my results have been a lot better.
SR: You presumably give a lot of advice to the athletes you coach. What’s the one piece of advice you give that’s the hardest for you to remember and follow yourself? And, is there any advice or encouragement you’d like to give our Salty readers who are hoping to clock their own definitions of “decent” 5k and 10k times this summer?
Barry: The one piece of advice (well, two really) that I give–yet constantly have to remember myself–is that the recovery piece of running is just as important as the training piece. Workouts actually break you down temporarily and it is during recovery that you become stronger and faster and make gains. You cannot neglect recovery.
Hand in hand with that is that you have to be smart about your workouts and your easy runs. Just because you CAN do a workout does not mean that you SHOULD do a workout. (Credit to Scott Douglas for that piece of advice). It is not necessary to hammer every workout and run as fast as you can. It’s better to hit an appropriate pace than a pace that is too fast. Likewise, easy runs should be easy and should allow your body to recover and get ready for the hard training to come. Toss out your watch on easy days if you need to.
The best encouragement I can give to Salty readers is probably the biggest thing I have learned from Sheri — dream big and go after it! Do not put artificial limitations on yourself or talk yourself out of something. So much of running well (apart from putting in the time, which is a given) is believing in yourself and not being scared or intimidated by a certain time or goal. Believe in yourself, go for it and HAVE FUN!
Any more questions for Kristin, Salties? Get in on the conversation by sharing your comments below!