Blog of the Unknown Runner: Angel Mathis

It seems common for magazines or blogs or books or whatever to take time out from their hero worship to focus attention on normal people in order to express the idea that we're all extraordinary in our own way.  In 2006, for instance, Time Magazine abdicated its very important responsibility to tell the world who the 'Person of the Year' is by giving the award to 'You'.  A few months ago, Runner's World had an issue focused on ordinary runners - taking a month off from their normal cover image of a beautiful person with awesome abs to give us a shot of normal beautiful people whose abs we cannot see at the moment.  This week, I'll do the same - rather than profiling somebody or some race or some club in the Seattle area that runners know, I'll focus the attention on my wife, Angel Mathis.

The first reason I'm doing this now is that today (June 1) is our 10 year anniversary, and I think she's deserving of some kind of tribute for 10 years of my shenanigans.  (Happy Anniversary honey!)  The second reason, though, is that my wife actually is awesome.  Elite runners are impressive - I love watching really talented people do their thing, and elite ultrarunners are particularly amazing.  Personally, I spend hours watching their videos and looking at their results on the internet and secretly wishing I was them when I should be paying attention in nursing school.  But there's a lot more to the running community than just the fastest people.  I've found that most runners, and pretty much everyone that pushes themselves to the point of running a marathon or further have to have some good qualities.  It's not just something you can go out and do - you have to make a plan and follow through with it despite pain and tedium, so you have to be both tough and smart.  And I'm not the first person to recognize that usually the running part is important, but is also a cypher for some other drive - a need to prove yourself, or to compete, or to test your own limits, or experience things that most people don't, or to get other people to tell you you're awesome.  And that kind of drive usually comes with a good story - you used to weigh 360 lbs and started to see negative health effects, so you got on a treadmill and changed your life, or you had a cancer scare, or you wanted to prove that you weren't too old to do amazing things, or you lost a job or a spouse and had to make some meaning in your life.  And because of that, runners tend to be reliably inspiring people.

And in that way, my wife's no exception.  For a bit of background, she grew up in a working class family in Ohio and Kentucky - first in a series of apartments and trailers, and then a small house - in the kind of towns that are unpretentious, but don't tend to inspire world-class ambitions - the kind of places that Country singers pretend to be from.  She ran cross country for a few years in high school with a coach she admired, but was never particularly competitive, and essentially didn't run at all between her Senior year of high school and the age of 30.   A little bit of hiking, a little bit of biking, but was generally sedentary in the way that most Americans are sedentary.  They take pictures of themselves doing active things to post of Facebook, but mostly just sit around watching TV and posting things on Facebook.

Angel and I got married young(ish), at 22, and we did a lot in our first few years together - we moved from Kentucky to New Zealand for a couple of years, I finished a Masters degree and she finished two,  we settled in Seattle and bought a house, established some roots and began carving out careers.  But at 30, we were in the middle of significant transition because after a series of negative experiences, I had a little third-life crisis and decided to abruptly leave my previous career path (ministry in the Episcopal Church) and figure something else out entirely.  At that stage, I didn't have any idea exactly what I would be doing, and I had previously invested copious amounts of time and energy in my career without any real return in terms of financial savings.  Most people aren't interested in hiring a former minister for any real work - Angel's career was plugging along well, but my contribution to our life generally felt like a precarious directionless mess, and I had no idea how I would make money or contribute to our relationship.

In the middle of that situation, on New Years Day 2010, we were sitting watching a show about the Ironman Triathlon on TV, and Angel said "I want to do something like that.  Let's do that."  Angel's a driven person, but at most other points in life, I would have dismissed her comment and tried to talk her out of it - those people are crazy, and neither of us has ever run further than a 5k (which we hadn't done even once since college).  But at that stage, my response was something along the lines of, 'Yeah, what the hell else are we doing with our life?  Let's do it.'  And so, we started looking up training programs for sprint triathlons, and started exercising the next week.  Our first workout will probably always be iconic for us - it was an exhausting 1 mile/12 minute run around Cal Anderson Park (The best place to run in Seattle), followed by pastries and coffee to refuel, and a trip to Fleet Feet to buy running shoes from real runners. 

At first both of us generally disliked running.  It's hard when you first start, your lungs hurt, you go slow, and you feel like a wimp because all of the more experienced runners pass you (and, frankly, because you are a wimp).  But the triathlon training kept us active and engaged enough that we kept it up, and we only had to run twice a week on that program, never more than 4 - 5 miles at a time, if I remember correctly.  And across six months, we got ourselves into good enough shape to complete the prestigious Moses Lake Sprint Triathlon - 0.25 mile swim, 10 mile bike, 3.1 mile run - after which we strutted around town like we'd just won an Ironman.  Following that, we signed up for another Sprint, at Seafair, with the intentions of potentially working our way up to longer events in coming years.  From a running perspective, the triathlons were encouraging, because we both sucked at swimming, and our bikes weren't racing bikes, so by the time we got to the running portions we were at the back of the pack well behind our peers, and spent the final 5k passing people with severe injuries and/or deficient training, generally feeling like we were winning.

At that stage, running, and exercising generally, had functioned as a kind of couples therapy for us.  It was a way that we could take on a joint project, spend lots of time together, and focus on doing something positive for our health at a time when a lot of other areas of life felt like they were off track.  And, for the most part, Angel was the driving force behind our training - making sure we got out and did our program, and signing us up for events.  For me that was a total godsend - I was generally an emotional wreck, and the training program gave me something positive and productive to focus on, and let me work off the stress in a way that didn't involve beer, whining, or defeatism, my previous go-to strategies.  And, I think, it exemplifies the kind of runner she was becoming - a natural leader, and someone who uses running as a way to improve her own life and others'. 

After our triathlons we signed up for an 8k at the Victoria Marathon, and generally felt like we were sitting at the kiddie table after we finished our race and watched the marathoners during their last mile.  (We saw one of the leaders vomit without breaking stride, and continue on at full speed - that's a real runner.)  At that stage, the 8k was as far as we'd ever run, and neither of us could imagine doing a full marathon, but watching the event was fantastic - we were particularly inspired by one of those old guys who seem to be at every major marathon, who've been doing like 30 a year for the last 40 years, and are on the verge of finishing their millionth mile of running at the age of 104.  After that event, Angel signed up with a friend to run the Seattle 1/2 Marathon, which I ended up joining in on due to my pride and her encouragement.  The first time we ran 8 miles during that training program, we were sore for days, and felt like we'd accomplished the unthinkable.  But by the time we got to the race, the 13.1 was relatively manageable, and the following week we ran 16, somewhat by accident when we miscalculated our training route and ended up further from home than we'd planned.

Directly after the Seattle Half, Angel began to establish what would become a new direction for her running - moving from something she/we did in the attempt to get in shape and/or to get ourselves healthy, to something we do because we love it, and because it allows us to have adventures that we wouldn't otherwise be able to.  At the Marathon expo, basically out of curiosity we picked up flyers from various other Marathons around the world - Helsinki, Puerta Vallarta, Maui, Berlin, London, etc.   After we finished the half, and a few beers, we were sitting at our table talking about whether we'd ever do a full - generally agreeing that we  wouldn't.  And then Angel said, "but what if we combined it with some kind of big trip"?  One thing led to another, and in a few minutes we were folding up promotional brochures and putting them in a hat, agreeing that we would do whichever event we pulled out.  The first one we pulled was Maui, but the event was in the summer, and we'd just been to Hawaii the previous year, so we gave ourselves a re-draw.  The next one we pulled was the Rome Marathon, which happened to fall on my Spring Break, so we agreed that it must be meant to be.  During the next several months, we reminded ourselves that we couldn't give up during training because we weren't going to want to give up after going all the way to Rome, listened to Born to Run on our IPods during our long runs for inspiration, and trained ourselves into what was at that point the best shape of our lives.

We flew in to Rome on a Friday, and ran the race on Sunday still completely jet lagged.  It started and finished next to the Coliseum, and circled past most of Rome's major awesome spots - Constantine's Arch, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, along the Tiber, etc. etc. - across ancient cobblestone roads most of the way, and was generally an amazing experience.  I did what a lot of intrepid stupid people do in their first marathon, and went out like I was going to qualify for Boston, and crashed at mile 16, cursing my muscles and punching myself in the legs to get them moving a couple miles after passing St. Peter's.  Angel ran a smarter race, keeping a steady pace the whole way.  We finished at about the same time, both completely wasted, but really happy to have finished a marathon.  Angel placed really impressively somewhere in the top 4 - 5% of female runners.  Both of us had a hard time climbing stairs for about a week.

After that race, there was a moment when we thought about dropping back to focus on shorter races, but pretty shortly did what most people do - forgot about how much the first marathon sucked, and decided to do another.  I wanted to finish one without having to stop to walk, and Angel was willing to give it another shot, so we signed up for the Bellingham Bay Marathon, happening about 6 months later.

The race for that one was less important to consider for Angel's running career than the training.  (She ended up cutting back to the 5k because she suffered a severe calf injury that stopped her from running entirely for two months before the race).

 Firstly, during that training she also began organizing a team of co-workers for the 2011 Ragnar Relay - Northwest Passage - a 200 mile relay from Blaine, WA to the bottom of Whidbey Island.  She recruited a lot of co-workers who had never been runners before, and generally encouraged a team of 12 women through the entire experience - demonstrating her personality as a running evangelist, a great coach, and a tireless supporter of people who are trying to get healthy and enjoy the experiences that good health can provide.  She would go on to repeat this experience in 2012, along with participating in, and helping recruit former non-runners for, the Sunflower Relay in Winthrop, WA.

Secondly, while training for the Bellingham Marathon, she and I took a trip to Whistler and decided  to try out trail running while we were there.  Three runs in three days - 6 miles, 2000 feet elevation gain, 8 miles, 3000 feet, 18 miles, 4500 feet, including the absolutely incredible view at the top of this page.  It was the first time we really tried to combine our love of hiking and the outdoors with our ability to run long distances, and we were quickly hooked.  When we got back to Seattle, we signed up for our first trail race - the Summit Ridge 20 Mile in Black Diamond.  Relative to Whistler, the scenery wasn't particularly spectacular, but we both really liked the experience - despite the fact that Angel badly injured her calf, and was out of training for several months.  In October of that year, after Angel was back up and running (and after I finished Bellingham), we started running on Sunday mornings in the Issaquah Alps with the Seattle Running Club (which I talked about here), and started to gain some trail running skills and endurance for the hills.  We haven't really looked back.  Over the Christmas holiday we ran two fat ass marathons organized loosely by folks in the trail running community in the area (Pigtails Flatass and Last Chance in Bellingham), and Angel won the women's division of Pigtails for her first race win, and marathon PR!  She's a solid runner.

And thirdly, during that time period she started using her running knowledge for health promotion purposes in her career as a Nurse Practitioner.  When appropriate, she began to encourage her patients to find exercise programs that they liked, and began encouraging patients to go to their local running store (Fleet Feet!) for advice, training groups and programs, and fittings for running shoes to get them going.

After the winter Marathons, and after running with a bunch of ultra-types at SRC, we were inspired, and signed up for our first 50k - James Varner's Yakima Skyline Rim - notoriously difficult and notoriously awesome.  If we've already established that Angel is 1) adventurous, 2) a great running evangelist, and 3) pretty damn fast for someone who just started two years ago, this race proved that she was hard as nails.  After the Christmas marathons, she reinjured her leg (peroneal tendon this time) and decided to sit out of training for a couple of months to let it heal, on advice from her PT.  So, until a month before the 50k she was doing no running, and only cross training on a bike and elliptical to stay fit.  I tried to talk her in to dropping down to a 25k because I'd heard from ultrarunners that Yakima is brutal, but she never wavered.  Her first run back on the trails was less than a month before the race, and involved Mt. Si repeats.  She got to the day of race, and powered through to finish a course that 20% of racers DNF'd.  Pretty badass.  And Angel's still having adventures running - we're doing Rainier to Ruston 50 Mile as a 2 person relay tomorrow to celebrate our anniversary, doing the Edge to Edge Marathon in Tofino, BC next weekend, and debating when to schedule our next ultra (I'm pretty sure I'll talk her in to White River - make sure you put in a plug if you're reading this.).

 I think Angel's story is important because she's my wife, but also, I think, because she represents a lot of  local runners who aren't going to set course records (and don't really care to), but are doing really impressive things, gutting out distances, improving their mood in the soggy PNW winter, promoting health and fun among their friends, taking on adventures, and generally pushing themselves to get the most out of life in this beautiful part of the country.  She's exemplary of the hundreds of locals who are enthusiastic about the way that running can improve life, and she's inspiring as someone who has managed to do impressive things without a running background, formal coaching, or a particularly large amount of time to train.  She's a realistic picture of what is possible for just about anyone who dedicates themselves to getting fit, and she's integrated running into her life as a way to bring balance, improve her marriage, get healthy, inspire others, and get involved in her community in positive ways. 
And I'm lucky enough to have spent the last 10 years married to her.  I love you honey!  Happy Anniversary!