Catch her if you can

Olympian Natasha Wodak is smashing PBs in a pandemic

Hi, I’m Wing Sze Tang and you’re reading The Knowhow, a weekly newsletter about ambitious women doing noteworthy things, and other stuff I find fascinating. If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email below to join the list.


A decade ago, I had the very whimsical notion that I’d try to get into running, despite a total lack of athleticism. I didn’t love the sport for, oh, several years (because it feels like this), but I’m nothing if not stubborn. Eventually, I joined the super inspiring Pace & Mind team coached by Rejean Chiasson, who keeps training me despite the fact that I curse him during hilly intervals. Improbably, I’ve done 10 marathons.

Running has ended up being life-changing, and I’ve made most of my dearest friends through it. While I can’t dispense any expert advice—read the following interview for that—the one bit of wisdom I’d offer is that even wild ideas are worth trying.

HOW NATASHA WODAK CLOCKED THE SECOND-FASTEST MARATHON EVER BY A CANADIAN WOMAN

For most people, 2020 felt like a lost year, with grand ambitions in limbo. For Vancouver-based professional distance runner Natasha Wodak, it was one for the record books. She kicked it off in January by becoming the first Canadian woman to run a sub-1:10 half, crossing the line in 1:09:41 at the Houston Half Marathon.

Then last month, she clocked the second-fastest marathon by a Canadian woman in history—an Olympic-qualifying 2:26:19 at the elites-by-invitation-only Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona. Wodak is the 10,000m national record holder, but this was only her second go at the marathon distance. (Her first was way back in 2013.) And she nailed it after a 13-week build, during the most unpredictable of times.

Recently, I caught up with Wodak in her recovery mode (plans: sipping pinot noir and eating cookies) to talk about how she pulled off the race of her career.

Interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

The two fastest marathons ever run by Canadian women belong to you and Malindi Elmore. Both of you were 39 on race day. There’s a generalization that runners slow down with age, but do you have a competitive advantage now that you didn’t have earlier?

Absolutely. I have 20-plus years of experience under my belt. I know how to train smarter and more efficiently. I’m at the top of my mental game. You don’t have those tools when you’re younger. You have to develop the mental toughness.

When you’re training for a marathon, I think a lot of the younger runners make the mistake of not valuing recovery and being scared to take days off, because it’s like losing fitness. I’m confident enough to know that, and I trust the process. It’s taken me a long time not to get caught up in the mileage and what everyone else is doing.

Are there things you do now that you didn’t do before?

Before the 2017 World Championships, I sat down with my sports psychologist, who asked, “When it gets hard in a race, what are you thinking?” And it was the classic things like, I’m tired. Or if my goal had been to get in the top 16 and I’m sitting in 20th, thinking, You know what, 20th is still good, and making those decisions mid-race.

So I wrote down the phrases I wanted to use when it got tough. My sports psychologist said, “I want you to remember these phrases and use them when the other ones come.” It sounds simple, but it’s really hard to do in the moment. For me, it was “Yes, I can, yes, I can”—repeated in my mind like a choo-choo train. It’s amazing the difference repeating these affirmations makes.

Also, for a very long time, when it got tough in races, to me that meant I wasn’t fit enough to be there. I’d think, Oh my gosh, this hurts. You need to slow down. You can’t handle this. I had to change my mindset to be like, No, it’s gonna hurt. That doesn’t mean you’re not fit enough. That means you’re pushing yourself to a place you’ve never been. And that’s when you need to fight.

I read in a CBC article that once you decided to race the Marathon Project, you “picked the brains of Canada‘s elite female runners,” and incorporated their workouts into your program. Who did you chat with, and what did they share?

Through the past five years, I haven’t been in the marathon game, so all the marathon girls I’m good friends with—I wasn’t really their competition. When I told them I was thinking of doing the marathon, I was kind of expecting a bit of like, “Stay in the 10,000,” but instead I was met with enthusiasm. That was really special because here I am, being like, I’m going to try to make the Olympics now and make it more difficult for all of you. And they were all so great.

I said, you know, I’m like a baby in this—I don’t know what I’m doing. So I just asked them all, “What were your favourite workouts? And what was your mileage? Did you take days off?” I talked to Lyndsay Tessier, who was my main go-to. I reached out to Mel Myrand. Of course, Kinsey Middleton. Dayna Pidhoresky, one of my really good friends. Malindi Elmore. Emily Setlack. Lanni Marchant. Basically, all the names—I don’t think there’s a woman at the top I didn’t reach out to.

Some girls were doing 200k a week; some 150 to 160k. A lot of them liked the 4x 5k workout, which is what I did. I really wanted to do Malindi’s 3x 9k, but ran out of time to fit that workout in. There are so many different ways to run a good marathon—it was really interesting to hear.

You’ve talked about how you don’t run yourself into the ground with “garbage miles,” because that doesn’t really work for you. And you do a lot of cross-training on the elliptical and pool running.

I definitely take more days off than most [elite athletes] do. In my regular training schedule, I take a day off every week. And in the marathon, we changed that to every 10 days. The majority of girls were taking days off once a month, or maybe twice in the entire build. The reality is, I need longer to recover from things. And that’s just the way it is. If I don’t respect that, I’ll get injured or burnt out.

If you were a running coach, what principles would you want to teach?

Respect recovery. Quality over quantity. Take your easy days easy. I think with this Strava world, it’s hard for a lot of people to do that.

I do want to coach, and I want to be the kind of coach who’s on top of it with my athletes—not just how they’re doing physically, but how are they doing mentally? What’s their nutrition like? These are the things that sometimes get overlooked.

And I’m lucky with Coach Lynn because she’s asked me these things: Are you eating enough? What did you have for dinner last night? How much do you weigh? And not in a way like, I need you to lose weight, but like, I want to make sure you’re not losing weight. I think it’s so important for women in distance running to have a coach looking at you and really asking these questions. Are you getting a period? What’s going on in the background? Is everything okay with your life?

I can talk about Lynn forever. I couldn’t pick a more perfect coach. She’s a frickin’ legend—she’s done it on the road, she’s done it on the track, she has the background of a health science degree. She’s got it all. But more importantly, she’s a friend to her athletes, and sometimes a lot of coaches don’t really want that. They see “athletes” and “coach,” and those are the roles. With Lynn, that’s not how it is. I’m Natasha—I’m a human first, an athlete second.

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WHAT I’M READING

How a 22-Year-Old L.A. Native Became Biden’s Inauguration Poet” (Los Angeles Times): This profile of the dazzling Amanda Gorman is full of lovely little details.

Four Years in the Front Row” (ELLE): End-of-an-era interviews with 23 women journalists on what it was really like covering Trump’s America.

Why Do I Spend Weeks Avoiding Tasks That Will Take Me 10 Minutes to Do?” (Vice): It’s not about crappy time management.

How to Be Lucky” (Psyche): Everything’s obsessed with building good habits right now, but how about cultivating serendipity?

WHAT I’M DOING

Diving into a review copy of Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Joan Didion’s new collection of early essays, in stores January 26.

Rarely wearing not-sweatpants, but at least these are mercifully comfy.

Keeping my hair shiny with something my stylist Morgan recently dreamed up.

Organizing my work in a way that suits my brain: with this deceptively simple app (it has a cult following).

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

If you’re wondering who’s writing this:

My name is Wing Sze Tang, and I’m a freelance journalist. I’ve spent my career telling stories for some of Canada’s biggest magazines. (Find some of my articles here.)

You can support this free newsletter (thank you) by forwarding it to your friends, sharing it on social media or clicking that heart ♡ you see below. Or send me your thoughts! I check my email ([email protected]) far too much.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!