Let's talk about Periods

I’ve been competing as a professional runner for 10 years. I’ve had my share of ups and downs, won, lost, given birth to 2 beautiful boys, but through it all I’ve stayed the course. I’ve never walked away because it is a part of me, but not something that defines me. Attachment of your identify to your times and performance is dangerous. To me it is what leads to shortcuts, unhealthy decisions, a stubborn drive for greatness. I’ve never truly never experienced these because while I want to kick some ass, see how great I can be, I also know it’s not worth sabotaging my health as a human and as a woman.

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Here’s my female health story: For the last 10 years I have weighed between 106-113 lbs. That involves the weight I mostly train at, give or take a few pounds when I’m not running and taking a break. I’ve gotten my period every 28 days for the last 10 years. Ok I lied, I had 2 kids so for those 18 months I did not get my period and my weight topped out at about 130 lbs. I would say I’m pretty typical for an elite female distance runner. One who has been sustainable in their career. My weight doesn’t fluctuate too much. I weigh myself regularly not to see a certain number but for feedback. I don’t avoid any foods (aside from those I’m allergic to.) I eat dessert, drink wine, eat french fries. I’m all in when I show up to practice, when I step on the starting line. Nothing else from my life feels like a sacrifice to be all in. Yes we’re not all the same and what works for some may not work for others. But I do know one thing. I’m strong in my convictions. I’m vocal about my opinions and what I believe is important in our sport, and for women. I want young girls and women to be able to see me and think that’s longevity in their sport. To be able to reach out and say “hey Steph I’m struggling with this.. have any advice?” I have always chosen the long term approach. To me that means training at a very high level, but getting my period every month, naturally. I’ve never been on birth control. Yes I have my own ways of birth control but it’s never been through the pill or IUD. That is a huge marker of health in my opinion in female athletes. To get your period regularly, naturally. Much to the contrary of what some doctors and coaches may say it is not normal to miss your period because you’re training a lot or you have low body fat. I check all those boxes and have been getting a regular cycle for a decade. Now where it becomes tricky is when women think they are heavier than their counterparts but still not getting a period. There is no magic weight, body % weight where your period comes or goes. There is a natural set point for everyone, and it’s unique to each person. In college there was a 6 month stretch where I lost my period. My coach at UCSB was very upfront and blunt about the issue. So I had to check in with myself and ask “why did this happen?” From what I’ve researched and learned over the years, I came up with a few theories. My father passed away my senior year of HS, before I left for college. College is new and stressful, and we’re learning about who we are and who we want to become. I also was an undiagnosed Celiac at the time. I wouldn’t find out for 5 more years that I had this. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I lost about 8-9 lbs. I had gained 12-15 my freshman year, which seemed very normal for that period in your life. My mileage went from 50s to 70s and I think it was too short of a timeframe that I dropped the weight. I began researching the female athlete triad and what the parameters of that were. I didn’t believe I had an eating disorder, my dexa scan in college came back well, but I did miss my period for 6 months. I didn’t like it. So here’s what I found:

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1. Caloric Intake vs. Caloric Output: If your body senses too much energy drain it will stop menstruating as a protective mechanism against pregnancy in a time of physiological stress. Sounds simple: Eat more than you burn. Harder than it sounds for a lot of people. It sometimes means eating a little more than you think until you find that natural balance and your period returns. This is confusing to some because some women may not be losing weight but still miss their cycle.
2. Body weight and body fat % do not equal loss of menstruation. This is one of the huge myths I feel exists in our sport culture. I call this judging a book by it’s cover. For most of my professional career I have weighed between 106-113lbs, slightly less than college and not skipped my period once. I’ve run 80-120 mile weeks and have had a pretty low body fat% for well over a decade.

– Food is fuel and should be enjoyed and not feared. Every time I meet someone and tell them I run for a living, their 1st comment is “wow you must eat so healthy!” I say 90% of the time I do, but I also enjoy burgers and fries, bacon, mochas, potato chips, chocolate, and wine.
– What body type works for others might not work for you. I’ve known elite marathoners weighing between 90-145lbs. Some of which have won medals at the Olympics. There is no magic number, weight is individualized based on natural body type.
– Feeling strong in workouts and racing well are better indicators than a # on the scale.
-Maintaining an optimal weight can help ward off injuries and maximize training. Being underweight (for your body type) can be detrimental to your performance and health.

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And yes there are other stresses in life that can lead to a women skipping or having an irregular period. Many women suffer from hormone imbalances, endocrine system, and other medical conditions that don’t regulate their menstrual cycle well and I don’t mean for this to demean their experience. But as an athlete, it’s part of your duty to nurture and fuel your body. So to ignore a warning sign like not menstruating is doing yourself and your future female health a disservice. What I wish is for more openness of this topic and for women to not feel shame, but to reach out when this happens to them. To have a team of support around to guide them in the right direction. I feel so lucky and fortunate that the men in my life have always looked out for my longevity in the sport. To my HS coach Dave Van Sickle, college coach Pete Dolan, pro coach Ben Rosario, and most of all my husband Ben, thank you. 

Please don't let someone mislead you when you’re running a lot of miles, training hard, or have low body fat and low body weight that missing your period comes with the territory. It doesn’t. Running is an amazing sport and an incredible opportunity to push your limits, find about yourself, and compete. It is not however worth sabotaging your future female health. If this resonates with you or you know someone who could hear this, please feel free to share. Please feel comfortable to reach out. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s nothing to ignore. 

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Dream Big

Steph Bruce








FROM NYC to CIM

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“She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.” Elizabeth Edwards

Moments after the NYC Marathon I was very emotional. I had finished 11th, but as the 5th American. So if the Olympic Trials marathon were to be contested on this day I would not have made the Olympic Team. For another time in my career. My confidence was low. Here I was training my butt off, acting as if I should be in the conversation of the top American women trying to make our US Olympic Team. I was 5th American, and still there were 5-10 other women who weren’t even in that race who have a legitimate chance to make the team. I thought maybe the marathon isn’t my event anymore, I can’t hang with the best.

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Do you know where this negative internal dialogue got me? Nowhere, not a better place in the race, not a different outcome, but instead I cheated myself of the chance to properly reflect on the race, discover what I could have done differently, and be proud of the training I did to get here. I let it sink in a bit more, and then I texted my agent Josh. “What do you think about CIM, terrible idea or no?” He said “yeah probably a terrible idea but how are you doing physically and emotionally?” It was a valid question. Was I making this decision under an emotional conflict or was it a thought out rational plan. The more I pondered the idea the more I realized it might not have been rational but it surely wasn’t emotional. I simply wanted to spice things up a little and take a risk. You see I want more children and so I don’t know how long my career will keep going. I’m 34, almost 35. So now felt like the time to get a little crazy. In the past 3 years since having my kids I felt we trained smart, calculated, and conservative, for the most part. Coach Ben brought me along gradually and because so I haven’t had a major injury in years. (I’m sure I just jinxed myself) So I was feeling confident in my body’s ability to recover after NY and roll the dice by running CIM 28 days later. Now it was time to do the scary thing, ask coach. Here’s what he had to say and his rationale in the decision:

When Steph asked me about doing CIM it was only three days after she finished the New York City Marathon. My initial reaction was that she was thinking emotionally, rather than rationally. She assured me that was not the case, however, and laid out her reasoning in a very calm manner. Her case was based around the acknowledgement that she and Ben have a desire to add to their family after her competitive career ends, which, in turn, means that she has a very finite number of opportunities left before that day comes. That's a pretty powerful point.
Once I was on board with the idea I knew I needed to be 100% on board. Much of the success I have had as a coach, in my opinion, has been based on belief. I am, by nature, a very self confident person. I believe in what I do. When I work with an athlete, like Steph, that has that same sort of confidence in herself then we are halfway to a really strong relationship. The final pieces are me believing in the athlete and the athlete believing in me. But that belief has to be complete. The athlete can feel it if it's not, and vice versa. That's when things break down. I knew that I couldn't "let Steph" do this. I had to want to do it as well. And that's what happened. I remember joking with her in a text message about a week into this whole crazy experiment that I was getting really excited about CIM...but not to tell anyone. I wouldn't want people thinking we were going to do things like this all the time!
To me, all of the above was the most important part of this whole process. As far as training, I just took a very pragmatic approach. First and foremost we had to recover from New York City. So we took one whole week completely off. Then we ran very easy every day for the next week. That left us with two weeks to go. At that point, the thinking was to do a workout every three days and try to do enough that she would maintain a good chunk of that NYC fitness, but not necessarily try to build on it. There simply wasn't enough time. She ran a 40-minute fartlek on Monday, the 19th. She ran eight miles at marathon effort on Thursday, the 22nd. On Sunday the 25th, we let her loose a little bit and she finished a 14-mile run with three really fast miles. The final workout, which she and I actually brainstormed about together, was a controlled version of "The Lumberjack"-- 4x400, a 2-mile tempo, 4x400, a 2-mile tempo and another 4x400. That was it. CIM was four days later and I suppose...the rest is history.

Coach Ben and I have a solid relationship. I’ve worked to earn his trust and he in return has mine. He wanted to be clear this wouldn’t be a normal occurrence but he was on board with me giving it a go.

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I woke up so calmly on that Sunday. It was a crisp and cool 39 degrees with light winds. Coach Ben had heated up my dark roast coffee and bowl of white race and delivered it at 4:15 am. I ate a Picky Bar along with the rice and coffee and packed my bags. Ben too would be lining up alongside of me in hopes of having a solid day, and running in his mind a respectable time. Had he not had a series of hiccups the last few weeks, including falling on his bike with our son Riley and hitting his knee, I’m 100% confident he would have had a day. His training and mileage had returned to a high level after a year off from a pelvic stress fracture. Even though he walked away in 2:24, coming undone the last 10k, he is still hopeful and proud he finished what he started in that race.

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I had nothing to lose and nothing to prove. If I fell apart and ran a poor race, people would have thought of course she just ran NYC 28 days ago. But there was this slight chance, glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe I could pull this damn thing off. It may seem pompous to say this but I’ve never raced a marathon with more mental strength than physical than CIM. My legs were dead and heavy by mile 10. I had 16 to go. That’s a scary distance to still have ahead of you when you’re feeling that fatigued. I played every positive mantra I could drum up in my head. I was Rocky fighting Clubber Lang, Rocky fighting the Russian Ivan Drago, and Rocky fighting himself. How much pain can I push through, how tough can I be, and how do I want to define myself? It was another weekend I left my boys, another month I asked my therapists to keep me healthy and get me to the starting line. I know they don’t care, but I owe them. I owe them the time and sacrifice they put into me. I owed myself a chance to finally destroy a 7 year old PR, even if only by 15 seconds. A PR is a PR. As my agent Josh says “that’s the best you have ever been.” So own that and be proud. Don’t look ahead or behind. Own the moment. For you never know if another PR is 3 months away, 7 years away, or this is it.

Although I ran 2:29:21, and placed 2nd at the US Marathon Champs I’m still not a contender for the marathon team. At year’s end I was ranked 9th in the US for 2018. I’m in the trials, yes, and I will be gearing towards 2020 in Atlanta, but I have steps to take, and work to do, and I will put in the time. Because although there are no guarantees, I guarantee I will use 2019 to work on my weaknesses, to believe in myself, to stay healthy, and to put myself in a position to be a force in every race I line up in. Whatever that outcome may be, I’ll know that’s the very best version of me on the day.

PHOTO: Foon @ufnoof

PHOTO: Foon @ufnoof

DREAM BIG

STEPH

Finding GRIT in the NYC Marathon and Beyond

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The marathon is a cruel event. Maybe the cruelest. But that’s why I keep coming back. For the chance. The chance to feel alive. There is nothing more alive than feeling every part of your body working and then struggle to work as the race goes on. The last 400m of the NYC Marathon I was yelling at my body to kick. My mind wanted to go. But the body had no response. It’s like living outside your body where you are watching what’s happening and you can’t do anything about it. As another athlete passed me to what would push me from 10th to 11th place I was in slow motion. I had run to my limit. I barely got to the line, and went down after I crossed. Peter Ciaccia was there to grab me. If I was in a more humorous mood I would have whispered to Peter I just wanted to give you a little drama as your last time as race director. I didn’t have much to say or much energy to take another step.

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What did I do wrong?, That was my initial stream of consciousness. Note to future self and to others who have just finished a marathon. Disregard anything that comes out of your mouth within the 1-8 hours following your race. Emotions are high and doing all the illogical thinking. Regret. Defeat. Embarrassment. Those were my initial reactions. I wanted more, I trained for more. The results stood. 2:30:59, 11th place and 5th American. Reflecting now, there is far more hidden within results if we are willing to look.

Coach Ben and I discussed race plans earlier in the week before we left for NY. He thought I could run 5:35s all day, or at least that effort on the course. We went over scenarios that could happen and how I should handle them. I’ll be honest in saying I was 99% sure the race would not go out tactical and conservative like it did last year. Well, cue me leading on the Verrazano bridge at mile 1. Over the next 5k, I exchanged a laugh with Des about how slow we were running (for us) and then she busted a move. The rest of the race was a mixture of checking in with how I was feeling and wondering when the big move would be made. We’d surge into a fluid station and then the pack of 20 or so women would string out and pack up like an accordion. Through Brooklyn and Queens I heard the crowds on every corner, but pushed their energy into a quiet place until it was time to use it, later in the race. The pack splits around mile 12 and I know this is the move. I cover it, but only half. It is not my race to go with mile splits under 5:20. That’s not my forte. Our pack has 4-5 women in it and we charge up the 59th St. Bridge, in eery silence. I know what’s coming. Thousands of people waiting on 1st Ave. to inject adrenaline into our bodies. We fly off the bridge and one of the women in our pack Allie, starts charging. I forget the watch and commit. 5:28. 5:27. 5:24. 5:31. 5:34. These are my splits from miles 17-21. They are the fastest I’ve ever run in a marathon. I went for it, hard. As I’m now alone battling up 5th Ave. towards mile 23, I’m in a lot of pain. I anticipated this pain, but it’s coming sooner and faster than I envisioned. The fast splits I ran are catching up to me and I’m hanging on. Pushing gravity forward with every stride and looking ahead. People are yelling and willing you to dig deeper, and I’m at the bottom of the well.

My mind wandered back to Flagstaff. Back to Lake Mary Rd, to Camp Verde, to coach Ben’s voice, to Kellyn pushing alongside me, to Wes adding more weight to my squats, to painfully productive massages, to delicious dinners cooked by Ben, to 5:45 am wake ups and to my boys hugs. These are the reasons, the people that I want to make proud. Then I ask myself. You know what proud is? Proud is knowing you gave everything you had, made all the right decisions you believed in the moment, and finished with no regrets. If I do that, and come out the other side, I can live with that result.

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This fall transcended much higher than the actual 26.2 miles that I ran in NYC. I found a change in myself as runner, as a mom, as a human. I had some days I questioned my sanity a little, some days I felt I couldn’t fulfill my role as a decent mom because I was so fatigued from training, but most days I felt alive. Waking up with such purpose to knock out 12 x a mile with 1 minute rest, begging the question of how tough would I be today. What would I tell myself when the little voice started creeping in to slow down or stop. I found inspiration everywhere I looked. I rode on the pain train that Kellyn was the conductor of. I travelled to the UK with the Scotts and learned from their humor and their simplicity. I watched their different style of how they approach training this fall and how success can show up differently on paper. I had friends give birth to their first babies. I had friends desperately trying to have babies. My brother Jamie is alive and voluntarily in a drug rehab facility. I met strangers who had such an impact on me. I witnessed coach Ben and my Ben’s belief in me grow. We made hard decisions together that got me to the starting line healthy. I found GRIT. When I crossed the finish line and made it to the post race tent, Ben brought Riley and Hudson in. Riley’s first question was “did you winned mom?” No Riley I came in 11th, but I ran the hardest I absolutely could and that’s what counts.” As I heard myself explaining this to my 4 year old, my chest clamped up a little because I realized that is what I need to live by. Goals are goals and I’ll keep setting them high, not out of my mind high, but high enough to resist complacency. I’ll remind myself that even if I don’t achieve what I envision I probably loved the shit out of the process. And so I’ll keep lining up, keep doing hard things, and writing my story. For you are the only one that can define what it means to you and that is powerful stuff.

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Dream Big

Steph

G-R-I-T

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“Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase- as much as the capture- that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring. In a word, they had grit.”

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I’m racing the NYC Marathon on Sunday November 4th. My teammates Scott and Scott are also lining up, and so we have all been training together this fall. I’ve run 8 marathons and each buildup has it’s own story, it’s own path. Heading into this NYC I wanted to capture what we do, day in and day out. The hard days. The workouts that written on paper are scary as hell. The days that challenge us for the sake of challenging. So GRIT was born. Born from a need to define what it is that keeps pushing me through mile repeats at 7000ft, through a 20 mile progression run up and down Lake Mary, and through taking risks. “Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it. It’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love- staying in love.” -Angela Duckworth

building the fire

5 weeks out from NYC is when the heat gets turned up. The miles are starting to pile up, and you’re starting every workout on fatigue laden legs. Freshness is no longer an option. Building the fire is essentially putting in the uncomfortable work early in a training segment that allows you to handle what’s to come. The session we filmed in Episode 1 was 12 x a mile with 1 min rest, with every 4th mile a surge, at 7000 ft. (6600 to be exact). The pace prescribed was 5:35, and 5:25, 5:15, and 5:05 for the surge miles, and 2 mins rest after those. Here are the my splits: 5:33, 5:34, 5:33, 5:22, 5:32, 5:33, 5:33, 5:16, 5:34, 5:33, 5:15. Here’s the story.

Having trained at altitude for 8 years I am all too familiar with discomfort. Almost the entire NAZ Elite team was out at Doney Park this morning. I was getting over a head cold, and I felt flat. I had to somehow make 5:35s feel smooth on a day I already knew they would not. But don’t run the workout in your head before you run the workout. We took off running a square mile, back and forth. Kellyn and I were in sync, matching each other’s stride, and breath. 1st rep, 5:33. I felt in control but knew that would be short lived. 5:35 isn’t a particularly scary and fast pace, but at 6500 ft and with 1 min rest, the effect of fatigue begins to snowball. The next few reps clicked off and the surge mile was very manageable. Then the hurt began to set in. My stomach was churning, my quads were heavy, and my breathing became more pronounced. Each 1 minute recovery I chugged a few gulps of water and gatorade. The temp was creeping up. We passed the Scotts and Futsum, gave an unspoken nod that acknowledged the work we’re all putting in. On our 8th mile, the surge mile, my stomach rebelled….I stopped 800 in, dry heaved for 10 seconds and kept pushing on for a 5:16. Kellyn looked back when I stopped and muttered “you all right?” Yeah just dry heaving I thought jokingly.” Although not ideal that I had to stop in that interval it wasn’t a sign I needed to stop and call the workout. Workouts have hiccups, interruptions, and challenges. They are never perfect. But you don’t need perfection in marathon training, you need consistency. We head into our last set with 4 miles to go. I’m hot, and my body is feeling out of sorts. This is hard. But the marathon is hard so you gotta get ready. I run 5:34 and 5:33 for #9 and #10, but I’m drained. I asked Coach Ben if I should continue based on how I’m feeling. He says “10 mile repeats is solid, take this next one off and try to help Kellyn through 800 of the last one.” I welcome the rest and freshen up quite easily. We’re trying to hit 5:05 and Coach Ben knows it’s a reach but he puts it out there for us. That’s how you get better, set almost unattainable times and see where you end up. I take a deep breath, click my watch and pull Kellyn through 800 at 2:38, and feel I can grind on. She pulls up alongside me and we push one another every step that last 800. She surges, I surge. We hit 5:15 and although not 5:05, it was a successful day. We got better. I began building the fire for NYC today and found my own version of GRIT on that last mile rep.

“To be gritty is to resist complaceny.” -Angela Duckworth



Episode 1: building the fire

So in this series, captured by Rabbitwolf, taking me through the training cycle building towards NYC, you’ll see my workouts, my splits, my hands on my knees. I wanted to captured what we train for, train through, and how we handle the adversity that is presented. It’s about being willing to go to places in workouts that are very dark and daunting. It’s about trying to get the most out of yourself for the sake of of getting the most from yourself. That’s what GRIT is about. Staying on course even when it’s gets tough, challenging, and threatens comfort. So I hope you enjoy this other side of me as a professional runner that I haven’t shed as much light on. We all have that other side, that’s just waiting to come out. The badass mom that brings it. The guy chasing the dream that’s seems unattainable but revels in the chase. The woman that never gives up and pursues relentlessly. That’s GRIT. Get Ready It’s Time.

-STEPH BRUCE