Ariana Hilborn: You Owe it to Yourself to Chase Your Dreams

Dream big. Then dream bigger. You’re capable of so much more than you think. No elite runner today reminds me more of this Salty Running Manifesto principle than Ariana Hilborn. In 2008, Ariana ran her first marathon in 4:36. In 2011 she upped the ante and ran a 2:37, an Olympic Trials A Standard!  Look at her 4 year progression. It’s nothing short of amazing!

Date Marathon Time
1.13.08 RNR Arizona 4:36:58
6.01.08 RNR Marathon 4:10:18
12.07.08 Tucson Marathon 3:32:24
4.20.09 Boston Marathon 3:28:09
5.31.09 RNR Marathon 3:19:23
12.13.09 Tucson Marathon 2:58:54
4.19.10 Boston Marathon 2:54:57
10.10.10 Chicago Marathon 2:51:33
1.16.11 RNR Arizona 2:45:37
6.18.11 Grandma’s Marathon 2:37:28
1.14.12 US Oly Trials 2:37:37
6.16.12 Grandma’s Marathon 2:40:08

In just three years, she took 2 hours off of her marathon PR and the crazy thing is when you talk to her about it she makes it sound like you could do it too! Recently, I had a chance to speak with Ariana about her rise to marathon stardom, her recent move from Arizona to Michigan to join the legendary Hansons-Brooks team and about life in general.

Ariana and one of her first running buddies, Tank.

Salty: Your first marathon was 4:36 in 2008. What inspired you to run your first marathon and how long prior to the race were you running regularly and what kind of training did you do?

Ariana: I had always enjoyed exercise and was your typical gym rat. I started jogging after college, mostly to lose that inevitable college weight. I really enjoyed it and started running about an hour a day (5 miles) most days of the week. I had seen people at the gym in their race t-shirts and I decided that I would like to give a race a try. I had never even seen a running race, but I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. Ha! I had NO idea where to begin, so I signed up to train with the The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training. My Grandma had passed away from Leukemia, so I thought it would be a good way to honor her and to raise money for research. They did a really great job with us beginning runners. We eased into training, and I was able to learn about gu’s, hand-held waterbottles, dry-wick socks, runner’s gut, all the things I was clueless about! We probably ran 20-40 miles per week. When I started, I got really bad IT Band Syndrome, so I did a lot of pool running for that first marathon.

 Just a year after your first marathon, you ran your first Boston Qualifier (BQ). Was that a big goal for you back then? Did you change your training at all to take that hour off your marathon PR?

Qualifying for Boston was HUGE for me. After my first marathon, I was addicted and read and researched everything I could about running. I learned about the Boston Marathon on the Runner’s World website and knew that I wanted to go! I ran my second marathon in June of 2008 and took 20 minutes off of my time using the same training plan I had used for my first marathon. For my third marathon I upped my mileage to about 50-60 miles per week and followed Pete Pfitzinger’s advanced marathon training plan. I trained on my own and worked really hard to get my BQ in December of 2008. Running a net downhill course at the Tucson Marathon certainly helped matters.

At what point did you identify an Olympic Trials Qualifier (OTQ) as a goal for yourself? Was sub-3 the big goal before that or did you target the OTQ before that?

Running Sub-3 was definitely my next big goal after the BQ. At the time, I did not even know what an OTQ was or how to get it! I told myself that if I could break 3 hours training on my own, then I would hire a coach. I broke 3 hours at the 2009 Tucson Marathon. It was right before that when OTQ chatter was on the message boards on running websites, so I looked into it. When I sat down with my coach, John Reich for the first time I told him that getting the OTQ was one of my goals. I had heard of girls with similar marathon times trying to train for the OTQ so I thought “If they can do it, I can too!” Qualifying for the Olympic Trials was such an amazing experience. I would have NEVER thought that one day I would be running in the Olympic Trials! I felt so honored and it was the most amazing journey!

Ariana trained with her team, the Bandidos, when she was going for the OTQ. The coach she hired after her sub-3, John Reich is kneeling.

When you first told people you were targeting an OTQ, what were some of the most supportive things people said and the least supportive things they said?

I really wasn’t met with any negativity, at least to my face. All of my friends and family were really supportive. I am not sure if everyone thought I could do it at first… My friend and mentor Susan Loken always told me to believe in myself. Her support was really helped to put me in the mindset to get my qualifier. That being said, I think that sometimes we are our own naysayers. I think that is something I struggle with, not having run in high school or college, I get down on myself wondering if I deserve this. But I have to remind myself that I worked just as hard to get where I am and that I am allowed to have big dreams also. Even if I don’t achieve all of my goals, the process of trying will open many doors of opportunities that I may have never known existed.

How did you manage to keep the faith that you could achieve your OTQ goals in the face of setbacks in training and racing?

In training, you just have to realize you ARE going to have setbacks. They could last days, weeks, months, or even years! I have had plenty of bad races, plenty of training runs where I felt awful. You have to persevere. It’s not easy and there are days that I really do not want to go run. You just can’t give up on yourself. Give yourself every opportunity to be great and to realize your dreams.

Hanging on to almost PR at the Olympic Trials in January!

You PRd every time you toed the marathon starting line, even when your race didn’t go as well as you hoped, all the way through your A standard in Grandma’s 2011. Your first non-PR was the OT race. Was it hard not to PR?

It really was. Coach John and I decided that my training was going really well and that I would just go for it at the Olympic Trials. Every marathon I had run previously I treated as a time trial. For the Trials, I wanted to put it all on the line and just go for it and race! My goal was around 2:32 and to get into the top 15. I was feeling good until about mile 20. ha, the wall! Was my goal too ambitious? Probably. But I knew there would be plenty of chances after the trials to take baby steps to strengthen my marathon PR. I laid it on the line, and although I was that girl who was passed by 10 (!!) people in the last 4 miles, I am happy that I did take chances and try.

Ariana hanging with her friend and fellow Salty-interviewee, Camille Herron after Grandma’s 2012.

While reading your blog, it seemed like you took the non-PR at Grandma’s 2012 a bit harder than the OT marathon. What have you learned from Grandma’s 2012 and how are you moving past your disappointment?

Definitely having 2 bad marathons in a row is not easy in the confidence department. There are those setbacks we were talking about! Looking back my coach and I thought I peaked too early. I probably dug myself into a hole running a new PR of 1:15:32 for the half only 2 weeks before Grandmas. That was probably not my smartest decision!  I went in to Grandmas feeling tired and sore, but I thought it was just part of the taper and that I would be fine. I really love Grandmas Marathon and I am happy I ran it, I just wish I had done things a little differently leading up to the race. Each time I race, I learn something and at this race I learned just how important rest is before the marathon. You can either go too hard before the race, or save it for the race and trust that they hay is in the barn. From now on, I will choose the latter.

Do you think your success is more talent or hard work?

I feel like my success stems from pure hard work. It’s not easy for me by any means. I always worked hard really hard for it. When I was teaching full time, I was up at 3:30am every morning to get my run in before work. I didn’t just become fast without sacrifices and working super hard. However, everything I have done to get here I would not consider a sacrifice in a bad way. I love what I do and I love the lifestyle that comes with it. Yes, now I have the luxury of running full-time and recovering without having to work a full time job, but I worked my bootie off while I was working full time to get here.

Besides the hard work, what else do you attribute your success in running to?

Ariana and her number 1 fan, husband Matt.

1. The support of my husband, Matt. He never misses a race and helps me with my goals in any way he can. Heck, he moved to Michigan! He is just so fantastic at being there for me. Talking to me after bad workouts/races, un-crunching my plantar fascia 🙂 Riding his bike with me on my second runs and making sure I am getting really good rest and nutrition. I could never do this without him. Also the support from my sponsors Brooks and Perfect Foods Bar has helped tremendously.

Do you have a marathon pacing strategy that tends to work for you? Do you think you could ever race a marathon without a watch?

I ran Grandma’s this year without a watch after my Garmin strap broke at mile 5, so that was interesting!  My best races that I have run are those that I have negative split. Those are the ones I have PR’d at and have felt the best. You would think I would learn! My best races I have gone out feeling like I am running so slow. My watch, whether it be a Timex or Garmin is like a little crutch for me. I know I would be fine racing without it as most races have timers on the course, but I feel like you should do whatever makes you most relaxed during a race and if wearing a watch causes me less anxiety, I will wear it. I don’t think I need it, but I do like wearing one.

What are your favorite and least favorite workouts? How do you handle it when a workout goes awry?

My favorite workout is always the long run with a fast finish. Any speed work is hard for me. I get anxiety the night before speed workouts and I can’t sleep! Silly, I know! I am doing cross country style speed work [ed. note: running on grass] now. I have never done that before and I am using muscles to stabilize that I never knew I had. It is very different from doing speed work on the track and although it is hard, I love the feeling of accomplishment when it is over! Not going to lie, sometimes I cry when I get home if I have an awful workout. I give myself time to feel bad about it and than I make myself get over it and try to identify the cause. Usually a bad workout stems from not enough rest, so rather than pushing myself on my next run I try to take it easier. Even if a workout is not going well I try to finish to help build mental toughness (as long as nothing hurts). Usually the next workout, I crush it, so that helps to re-motivate me!

How it looks to achieve one of those impossibly big dreams! Ariana finishing the 2011 Grandma’s with a smile.

What tips would you recommend for determining a tough but attainable marathon goal time?

I think that first, you have to determine a big dream goal and work backwards from there. Say your big goal is Sub 3 hours. Start at 2:40 and work your way up to a time that sounds attainable with some hard work. For example- “2:46? Still too ambitious… 2:53? hmmm…maybe getting closer….2:55? I think I can do this” It should be a goal you are a bit afraid of, but one that you can achieve if you are willing to put in the work. Reassess your goal every few weeks in your training to make sure you are still on track. Goals can always, and should change depending on how your training is going.

I know you’ve had a lot of GI struggles in your marathon journey. This is an incredibly common problem. What have you tried to fix it and what are you doing now if anything to get on top of it. Do you view it as something that can be “cured” or is it always going to be one of those variables on race day?

I know it is something I will always have to deal with. The days preceding the marathon I have to be really careful. I eat a lot of Perfect Foods Bars, rice, bananas, potatoes, things that are really easy on the stomach. I also know that coffee will come back to haunt me, so the morning of the race I will have tea instead. Lately I have been having a morning meal of a meal replacement shake and a banana 3 hours before my long runs and using GenUCAN as my energy throughout the run. This has really worked well! I think that I have a tendancy to over-eat when I get nervous so I think that my carbo-loading was a bit extreme in the past and contributed to race day GI issues.

In reading your blog, you seem like one who is very conscious and controlling of her diet. Other Salty bloggers and I find that when we are too conscious of our diets we tend to start restricting and getting too hyper vigilant about calories, etc. It feels like a slippery slope from trying to be healthy and then getting too obsessed with what we’re eating. Do you ever feel that way?

Yes, I feel that way quite often. It is such a fine line. Running professionally definitely makes one more aware of their weight when standing at the start line! I think that all athletes think about it to some degree. I eat a really healthy diet and just try to make sure everything I eat has a purpose. To fuel, recover, or just for pleasure! I definitely treat myself to pizza, ice cream, doughnuts, etc. a few times a week, but for the most part I eat really clean. Lots of fruits, yogurt, veggies. I feel like now that I am a bit older, I have to keep a more mindful eye on my diet, however, I do feel that too much restriction can lead to injuries, so I make sure I am getting all of the nutrients I need through my diet. It is really tough, and I would not be telling the truth if I said that I don’t worry about weight. The best part of being out here in Michigan is having a team of girls to talk with. They have taught me to be much more relaxed with food and to enjoy everything-including full fat ice cream (!!) in moderation…without getting down on myself! My Hansons teammate Mel [ed. note: Melissa White] has said “I train way too much to just eat salads” and I love that because it is SO true! I think that when you place yourself around people that have healthy attitudes regarding weight and food, that is a good thing! In the past I have definitely been around runners that have severely restricted calories and would talk about it, which then started to make me a little kooky about it! I feel like I am in a really good place now and I am realizing that strength, not calorie restriction will help me to reach my goals. My body knows what I need, I just need to trust it. That doesn’t mean I am going to go out and eat a large pizza, beer, and a chocolate cake the week before the race, but maybe after!

Cheers to winning the body image battle!

One thing we at Salty Running discuss often is body image. We issued our Salty Challenge this summer, which encouraged women to love their bodies for what they do rather than fixating on how they look. Have you ever struggled with your body image?

To be completely candid, I have always struggled with body image. I am starting to be better about it, but I do think about it daily. I have found that with every workout I complete, I realize that my success has nothing to do with my weight, but more to do with the strength I have built in my body. Being lean on race day will take care of itself as long as I am eating healthy and happy.

In your blog a while back, you said something like for most runners “there’s too much fueling going on.” What’s your prerace meal and how do you approach gels and such during races?

Everyone is different and experimentation is required to make sure that you are getting enough fuel for what you are trying to accomplish. I feel like a lot of my GI issues were stemming from eating too much prior and during a race. I have my biggest meal before the race during lunch the day before. For dinner, I will have something small like toast with some PB&J. Three hours before a marathon I will have a banana and a Boost shake, thirty minutes before some GenUcan and then some GenUcan halfway into the race. I have tried this on my long runs so far this training cycle and it seems to work well, so I am going to go with it. I used to take 5 gels during a marathon and my stomach would be a wreck! I am hoping this new approach will be better. For the half marathon distance and below, I will just have a packet of Gen Ucan 30 minutes before and take water on the course. This minimalistic approach was something I had read about on the Hammer Nutrition site. I looked into it after noticing 2 years ago that my Coach at the time ate nothing for breakfast the morning of the half marathon we were all racing. He just said that he would be fine for the hour and 10 minutes he would be out there. I started researching this and experimenting and realized that I was fine and felt better without having a ton of calories the morning of or during a race. Theoretically, I have enough glycogen in my muscles from the carbohydrates I have eaten in the days leading up to the race to last me for those shorter distances. I read somewhere to not be afraid to go into a race feeling ‘hungry’. Mostly it is nerves!

Ariana’s new teamies!

After you began marathoning, you gradually seemed to focus your life around it: you quit your job as a teacher after your first OTQ and now you and your husband have moved to Michigan from Arizona so you can train with the Hansons-Brooks team. Why have you decided to put all of your eggs in this running basket? I often struggle with whether pursuing my running goals is worth the sacrifices. Do you ever wonder that? What does running mean to you that makes it all worth it? 

Why? That is a really good question! I think part of it had to be my stubbornness. After the first few marathons, I wanted to be my best and I knew I could push myself to be better. I am like that in whatever I do – when I was teaching, my teacher friends and I would be at school every single weekend working just to have the most awesome lessons, bulletin boards, projects, etc. I have a certain competitiveness. I get it from my father’s side. He told me that there is always someone out there practicing more, doing more and that I should give everything I have to follow my dreams or I would regret it. However, he is still the one who tells me before every single race to “Go have fun!” So it is a great balance of healthy competitive drive and fun.
I love being out on a run to think, zone out. You can run wherever you are. It is a sport everyone can do! What you put in to running, you get back so there is always room for improvement.

Running has also allowed me to travel, to meet AMAZING friends, and has made me an over-all better person. I feel like whatever your dream is, you owe it to yourself to chase it. I don’t want to live with regrets and look back wishing I had done all I could to make myself a better runner. I know that I am in prime age for women right now and I know it won’t last forever. I will run forever, but there will be a time when, let’s face it, I won’t be as competitive anymore. Sally Meyerhoff (who passed away in 2011) was a huge inspiration to me. She really lived her life to the fullest and followed her dreams. She really showed other athletes-and everyone she met how to live and to take chances and risks to make your dreams a reality.

At the end of the day, I just love to run. I love the way it makes me feel fit, happy, and it calms me. I tend to have a fluster-y, anxious, personality so I think running helps me to calm down and just enjoy life.

 So what’s next? What’s on the horizon for 2012 – 2013 and what’s your ultimate long-term goal?

Next up I will be running the Philly Half Marathon on 9/16 and the 10 Mile Championships in October. I am excited to see how things are coming along as I adjust to new training methods here in Michigan. Following this will be some shorter distance speed segments and most likely a Spring Marathon. I would love to run Boston! The first time I ran Boston I told Matt that one day I want to run it as an elite, so that would be pretty cool! My long term goal is definitely the Olympic Trials in 2016. That is where all things are headed right now. After that, I think it will be time to take a break and start a family of little runners!

You can read more about Ariana Hilborn at her blog or follow her on twitter. Also, be sure to cheer her on this Sunday as she races the Rock n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon this Sunday. It’s her first race as a member of the Hansons-Brooks team! 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Awesome interview! I admire Ariana’s persistence and drive. I’m hoping to run my first marathon next year, and Ariana’s story is such an inspiration to what we’re all capable of. Thanks!

  2. Great interview – as you know I interviewed Ariana a few years ago ( – so I can say I knew here before she was “truly” elite – that 2:54 Boston Marathon came when she was fighting the flu, so it was clear then and there the potential she had. What has always amazed me about Ariana is how late she came to running and how quick her progress has been – you assume all “elite” marathon runners ran in college, but I have come to find that many of them started running sometime later. I find that inspiring to those of us who also started running later in life (not that I have an OTQ in my future). It’s going to be fun to watch Ariana’s training and race progression as part of Hansons-Brooks, especially since theirs is a method that I haven’t studied much yet.

    1. You’re quite the talent scout, Greg! Ariana’s story is just so inspiring and simply cool I was so excited to share it. I hope it inspires many others to similar paths!

  3. I can really identify with Ariana’s attitude that if other women are chasing the standard, it makes it seem possible. I first started seriously thinking about it after Salty, Pepper and I ran a 10-mile race and finished really close to each other. I found out Pepper was gunning for the OTQ and thought, why not me? Then I started running with CRC and two of my teammates, Paige and Liz, we’re also considering the OTQ. Having the support of other ladies with HUGE goals was instrumental in my training. And though we didn’t hit the OTQ, I can say, I gained incredible fitness, confidence, and perspective, and most of all, had SO much fun running toward that goal.

    1. Part of me wants to jump on this OTQ bandwagon too, but part of me wonders if that ship sailed while I went down the path to the family way. I need to see what time management is like with 3 little ones before I can dream that kind of big. Right now big dreaming consists of getting a full night on uninterrupted sleep in the next two years and stringing together some semblance of decent training for any stretch of time! I envy Ariana in a way – she chose to chase down her running dreams while I didn’t and I might have lost my opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE MY KIDS and I am so happy I’ve had them and I can’t wait to have another, but there is a little part that will always wonder what-if. That being said, I’m lucky to have great friends to cheer along the way as they go for these goals! I’ve never been shy about admitting I love living vicariously through my big dream pursuing friends 🙂

      1. Of course, I don’t mean it to say that I could have accomplished nearly what Ariana or even you or Pepper has done! I just wonder where I’d be with running if I trained consistently the last 4 years.

        1. Salty, I get you. Pepper and I both ran Chicago ’06 and our goals and training were fairly similar. It’s hard sometimes to see the amazing things she has accomplished and not wonder what if I’d focused on running a little more before heading down the kids path. Not regretting the kids at all, just pondering the various paths we take.

      2. There were a few mommies over 35 at the Trials, Salty! And I guess I’ll say it here, on this inspiring post, that I, too, have the OTQ dream. And I’m technically a 4:30 “marathoner” right now! Her story reminds us that with hard work and determination, anything really is possible. In just a little under the two weeks with a coach and training plan, I’m realizing that I have never worked this hard for running, which makes the future exciting! When you are back at it, we should shoot for “the dream” together! Although, I might have to gun for 2020.

        P.S. Ariana, you rock! Thanks for being so inspiring, open, and candid in this interview!

  4. @Salty – I too have been down the “What If” path many times before – both over choices I’ve made and by situations I had absolutely no control over. It’s a dangerous game. We can’t go back in time, and many times we can’t, or ultimately don’t want to, change those deciding factors. The best we can do is keep on chugging down the path we’re on, not looking back but forward. And most importantly, we can’t look over, to the path of others. Their choices and life circumstances are different, and so is their path and end reward.

      1. Honesty is good. And one of these days I’ll get around to writing a guest post. I can probably think of one or two things to write about 🙂