Stefani Penn Harvey learned the hard way to respect the marathon distance. As a recently-graduated post-collegiate runner with one half marathon and a few 12-mile training runs under her belt, she jumped into the Rock’n Roll Arizona marathon fully expecting to qualify for Boston, but she was in for a rude awakening and a 34-minute positive split.
Her resulting 3:58 gave her a new-found appreciation for the hard work, dedication and training it would take to become a successful marathoner. She took that lesson to heart, and eight months later on her next marathon attempt she nabbed that Boston qualifying time in Portland. Now, six marathons, thousands of miles, two cities, a Ph.D, a marriage, and a new career later, she’s heading back to Boston with a marathon personal best 55 minutes faster than her first. In less than two weeks, she’ll cross the starting line in Hopkinton with the big goal of breaking 3:00 for the first time.
A self-professed nerd in a family of athletes, Stefani took up running in eighth grade, thinking “just running” would be a good fit for a girl who “didn’t often catch a ball that was thrown her way.” She ran high school cross-country, and though she describes herself as an average runner, she fell in love with the sport and continued to run in college at Carnegie Mellon. There, she discovered her fellow runners were “the perfect intersect of nerdy and athletic” and met her husband, Brian Harvey, also a competitive runner who has participated in the Olympic Trials marathon. Both currently run for the prestigious Boston Athletic Association Running Club.
Though Stefani has always enjoyed both the mental and physical challenges of training and competing, the past few years have not been without their difficulties. For nearly two years she was sidelined by a longstanding hamstring injury, which finally subsided last spring. Having her health back, running weekly workouts and long runs with her B.A.A. teammates, and the guidance of fellow teammate and coach Dan Smith have allowed Stefani to watch her workout paces drop steadily. She says:
“I’ve learned that for me, a lot of hard work leads to being able to chip away slowly at my times, so in the future, I’d love to keep on pressing and become a better runner, and take a crack at improving my times in shorter races. The marathon always takes the main stage for me, but I’ve learned that I can’t keep my mileage too high all time if I want to stay in one piece. And, as strange as it sounds, being in my early 30s and wanting kids eventually, I am kind of looking forward to the challenge of becoming a running (and racing and training) mom, too!”
In the short term she is looking ahead to breaking that 3-hour mark for the first time at this year’s Boston Marathon. Here is how things are going from her perspective:
What keeps you motivated to continue to chase down your running dreams?
I just love to run. I look forward to getting outside each morning and experiencing the scenery – whether it’s a new place or the same familiar route, the weather – whether it is a bright fall day or a freezing cold morning in January, and running. You never regret going for a run. Often I’m even lucky enough to run with friends and philosophize about the world’s issues or just catch up on our latest hijinks.
You made a huge leap from a 3:58 to a BQ in a short time. How did you do it? What was the greatest obstacle you overcame to make it happen? What do you think was your secret to success?
As trite as it sounds, I realized I needed to have some respect for the marathon distance! Before I ran 3:58, my longest run had been 12 miles, which I did maybe twice. Going into that, I thought running 8:00-minute pace for any distance would be a piece of cake. Clearly, that wasn’t true! Before the Portland Marathon where I first qualified for Boston, I made sure to get in weekly long runs up to 20 miles, which made all the difference. I also moved to Seattle that summer and had the motivation of wanting to keep up with one of my talented college teammates who lived in town.
Your husband, Brian, just ran in the Olympic Trials marathon. How has having a significant other who also has big running goals helped or hindered your pursuit of your own goals? Tell us more about being part of a power-running couple.
The phrase “power-running couple” makes me laugh! Admittedly, our friends have separately dubbed us both “Captain”, since we always put ourselves in charge of coordinating a run or workout’s logistics. I really love the fact that we both consistently want more out of running – having long term running goals helps to keep us both honest and focused in our pursuits. Brian can sometimes seem superhuman – he never gets injured, does maybe 90 seconds worth of planks each month, and has had success at distances from the 1500m through the marathon. I could waste energy being jealous of him, but instead I am inspired by his work ethic, love to watch him race, and am pretty happy that on any given Sunday, we’ve put in enough miles that we are both up for a big brunch.
What are your favorite and least favorite marathon prep workouts?
My favorite workout is 4 x 2-mile intervals with two minutes rest. I just did it the other day. Depending on where you are in the season, you can run them at marathon pace, half marathon pace, or somewhere in between. They’re just the right length to help build confidence (and other physiological benefits). Conversely, my least favorite is an easy long run. I get too tempted to run faster when I know I could be running that same distance and taking much less time to do it, which defeats the purpose. I think because of this I will never transition to ultra-marathoning.
Do you specifically work on mental training?
I have found that preparing your mental game is so much more important in marathon racing than you might at first think. Before the Hartford Marathon this fall I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would react at certain times throughout the race… if the pace felt tough too early, if I felt too energized by spectators, even what I’d do if things were going great and I was on pace at mile 22.
Running through all of those scenarios and having a planned or rehearsed reaction can make the difference between deciding that you are tough and well prepared for the day or deciding that it’s too hard and slowing down is okay. Hartford was the first time I felt like I got a good grasp on how to mentally prepare, and it was just through thinking about my plans for a minute or so each day leading up to the race. Don’t discount the power of a simple mantra!
You work with a coach; how has this helped your training?
In my experience with a coach, I’m working with Dan Smith, a friend and BAA teammate, I’ve realized how nice it is to have somebody else be in charge of your training. Sometimes putting together a plan and deciding on a day to day basis whether or not your legs are the appropriate amount of tired or peppy can be exhausting in its own right. It is refreshing to trust somebody else and know that they know what they are doing in terms of training and they want the best for you, too.
What percentage of your running success is talent and what percentage is hard work?
Such a good and tough question! This is something I have thought about a lot. I like to work hard, and think my progression toward faster race times has come from consistency of miles, workouts, recovery efforts, and thoughtful training overall. I don’t believe I am a talented runner – I don’t have any earth-shattering PRs under my belt and I’m not going to cut a chunk off my time simply by being focused on race day. I am very lucky, though. I am fortunate to have my health, the time to get outside and run each day, a work schedule that is flexible enough to accommodate my running to work, and to have a supportive husband, family, and friends. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say my “success” is attributed to 85% hard work and 15% talent.
What is the best piece of running advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of running advice I have received is from a wise girlfriend and former teammate of mine: “A PR is a PR.” Sure, I may have thought I could run faster on that day, and maybe I trained to run faster, but when it comes to a race, you can only really hope to do better than you have before. In a grander sense, this advice reminds me to be grateful for where I am right now instead of always wishing for more.
If you could give one piece of running advice to our readers what would it be?
Always be happy with a PR! Even if things don’t go quite as well as you’d planned, you should give yourself credit for making the improvement that you did. It helps to maintain a healthy relationship with running if you can stop for a second and be proud of the work that you put in and what you achieved. I have to remind myself of this more often than I’d like to admit, but it always serves to bring clarity to a moment that can otherwise be overfilled with emotion.
We look forward to cheering Stefani on in Boston and hope she nabs a PR of her own on race day!