Speedy NU Postdocs—Or East Meets West in the Midwest

Laura and Diana enjoying a well deserved post race beer after the 2014 Shamrock Shuffle

 Diana (left) and Laura (right) enjoying a well deserved post race beer after the 2014 Shamrock Shuffle

Laura Batterink and Diana Davis are two very fast runners currently living in Evanston, Illinois. They arrived in the summer of 2013. Laura came from the west, Eugene, Oregon and the University of Oregon, and Diana came from the east, Providence, Rhode Island and Brown University. Fate brought them together as postdoctoral students at Northwestern University—Laura in Neuroscience and Diana in Mathematics—where they have become running companions and good friends. They have each taken very different paths to their running success. Diana is a long time runner who ran for her high school track and cross country teams, and later for Williams College in western Massachusetts. She has run over 350 races in her career so far, at very distance, including the marathon, and is currently running for the New Balance Boston running team. Laura by contrast has only been running seriously for about 18 months, and prior to 2013 had only run a handful of races, but among those races was a very fast second place finish at the Eugene Half Marathon in 2013.

Diana running a fast time on the track

Diana running a fast time on the track

I first met them on a Wednesday in July 2013 at the Evanston High School track while timing our weekly Evanston Running Club (ERC) track runs. We have four groups arranged according to ability and I usually time Group 1, which includes our fastest runners. Imagine my surprise when I saw two new women running in Group 1, which consisted almost exclusively of men. One of the women was running near the front of the group wearing a Eugene Half Marathon shirt. That turned out to be Laura. After the workout I went up to her and asked about the tee shirt and the race. “Did you run that race,” I asked. “How did you do?” She replied, “I finished second and my time was 1:21.” My jaw dropped at her response. “That is a very fast time and would win a lot of races around here,” I thought to myself. At that point I noticed Diana was standing next to us, so I introduced them and told Diana about Laura’s half marathon time. Not to be outdone Diana replied, “I’ve run a 1:20 half too.” So we had not one, but two, new fast women who were now running for the Evanston Running Club.

Everyone in our club who saw them run at our Wednesday track workouts recognized their talent and potential, especially for Laura, who still considered herself a recreational runner, because she was only running about 40 miles a week at the time. I started to do some calculations after she told me her time from Eugene and realized that Laura’s half marathon time translated to an excellent marathon time with an outside chance of running 2:43 to qualify for the United States Olympic Marathon Trial race in 2016. It would of course require lots of work, but seemed achievable with an increase in training volume and intensity. It was only later that I found out Laura is a Canadian citizen and not eligible for the US Olympic Trials.

Laura and Diana with some of their Evanston Running Club teammates at Fox Valley 10 Mile Race

Laura and Diana with some of their Evanston Running Club teammates at Fox Valley 10 Mile Race

Laura and Diana continued to come to the regular Wednesday night track workouts and they also began to run together at other times, which was convenient for both of them since they were only living a few blocks apart. Laura at that point was just beginning her journey to become a serious runner and Diana provided some context and vast racing experience to guide her, as well as an astute understanding of running history. They began running races on the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) circuit, usually finishing very well in their 25-29 year old age group. Laura was just learning how to race and have confidence in her ability, but Diana was a very experienced racer. Before one of the CARA circuit race, the Park Ridge Charity Classic 5k in September 2013, she asked me what time she should run. She said she had run one or two 5ks and usually ran them at the same pace as her half marathons. Clearly she had the ability to run a much faster 5k, so I told her to not worry about the time, but to run with the fastest women, because that’s where she belonged—up front with the leaders. She took my advice and was even leading the race for quite a while before fading to a close second place, only four seconds from the winner, in a time of 17:19. That race boosted her confidence and showed her she could run with the elite runners. Diana finished 5th in that race in 18:04, so we did indeed have two speedy NU postdocs on the ERC team.

At the beginning of 2014 Laura’s stated goal was to win the CARA 25-29 age group, and Diana’s to finish in the top three. However, knowing that Laura was a Canadian citizen I began to do some research about championship races in Canada, and discovered the “Canadian Running Series,” with several championship races, including the half marathon championship in Montreal in April, and suggested that Laura look into running it. She did run it, and had some of her expenses paid as an “elite” athlete, a first for her. She finished the race in 4th place in a time of 1:17, a personal best and a four-minute improvement for the half marathon. While at the race she had the opportunity to meet with other elite Canadian runners and met John Lofranco, newly appointed Canadian Road Running Coordinator, who agreed to coach her and help develop her considerable potential. The two of them have been working together since then. Laura’s mileage has increased considerably and she has continued to steadily improve. With that relationship her goals changed, and she began to chart a path to be one of Canada’s elite runners. In September she finished 4th in the Canadian10k Championship in Toronto in 34:29, just a few seconds out of 3rd place. In between she burned up the CARA running circuit setting several course records. In August she ran a 33:47 10k at the DeKalb Corn Classic race achieving her goal of a sub 34 minutes. She was the third runner overall, male or female, a mere 20 seconds out of first place! She was on a roll!

In late September she was planning to run the Oasis Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Montreal competing with many of Canada’s best women. It was the weekend the air traffic control system at O’Hare International Airport was having difficulties and many flights were being canceled or delayed. The day before the race, I texted her to see if she was having problems getting to the race as a result of the air traffic issues. She texted back that her flight was being canceled not because of the air traffic issues, but because of an equipment issue, and there was no hope of rebooking a flight to get her to Montreal in time for the race. I could tell she was very disappointed to miss the race, but she quickly changed course and did some Internet research to locate a half marathon in Moline, Illinois the next day, which is about three hours from Chicago. She e-mailed the race director and got in as an elite athlete. The next day she shattered the course record and ran 1:14:21 to improve her personal best by over two minutes. How’s that for making lemonade out of the lemons you’ve been given?

Laura shattering the course record in Moline Half Marathon

Laura shattering the course record in Moline Half Marathon

In July she ran the Bix7 in Davenport, Iowa and finished the hilly seven mile race 10th in a loaded field of talented women runners. As a result of that finish she was invited to the USATF 12k Championship race in Alexandria, Virginia, where she finished 13th in 40:18, just ahead of US Olympian Jen Rhines, in another loaded field led by American 5k record holder Molly Huddle.

Laura was hoping to qualify for the Canadian National Cross Country Team at the National Championships in Vancouver in November, but the muddy course got the best of her, even though she was running with the leaders at the 2k mark of the 8k race.

Laura running with the best at the Canadian Cross Country Championships in Vancouver

Laura running with the best at the Canadian Cross Country Championships in Vancouver

Not to be left behind, Diana has finished 3rd in the CARA 25-29 age group, despite missing many races this summer as she traveled to New England and Seoul, Korean. She just ran with her New Balance Boston team at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this December. Next year, Diana wants to run a five-minute mile and a 1:21 half marathon, as well as continuing to compete in the CARA Circuit and do well in her age group.

Diana at the 2013 USATF Club Cross Country Country Championships

Diana at the 2013 USATF Club Cross Country Country Championships

I asked the two of them to answer a few questions about their respective running journeys, and here’s how they answered:

Diana’s Comments

1. When did you start running? 

The summer I turned 10 years old, my parents told me that I would be joining the middle school cross country team in the fall. I ran a little bit in the summer, but when I got to school and the team runs started, I was not in shape, and I hated it, and wanted to quit! I was told that I needed to finish the whole season. A couple of weeks later, my fitness had improved so I was able to run two miles without much trouble (albeit slowly), and I had made friends on the team, and I loved it. I have been running on a team ever since—middle school, high school, college, and now post-collegiately.

2. What is your favorite racing distance? Why?

My favorite distance is the 10,000m on the track. I like the 10,000 because it is long enough to get in a good rhythm; the 5,000 is too fast for this. I like it on the track because it is very predictable, and you can control everything. I also like racing indoor track because the laps feel so short that I don’t feel like I’m running laps at all. I also like racing the half marathon, when I am in shape.

3. Have you had what you would consider a breakthrough race? What was the race and what made it a breakthrough for you?

In grad school, I started consistently running 60+ miles per week, and after a few months of that, I was suddenly achieving all of my distant goals in running. My PR from college was about 20:00 for 5k, so my first goal was to break 19:00. In Fall 2009, after a year of 60 plus miles per week, I ran 18:58 at the CVS Downtown 5k in Providence, Rhode Island, achieving my goal. Two weeks later I ran 18:26, and a week after that, in the Tufts 10k for Women, in Boston, I ran 37:53 for 10k, which is two sub-19 10ks back to back. That is still my 10k road PR!

Then my goal was to qualify for the New Balance Boston team. I really wanted to join that team because my high school and college assistant coaches were both on it, and I felt like it was the best team in the Boston area. To do this, I needed to run under 18:00 for 5k. Unfortunately, throughout the winter, spring and summer, my times stayed the same: I ran 18:34, 18:28, 18:24, 18:21, 18:41, and 18:33. It was very frustrating. I was doing a lot of hard training, including a 5-mile tempo run each week all summer. In September, I signed up for a local race in Providence, and stuck with a top local runner as long as possible, basically equaled my 3k PR along the way, and finished in 17:40. What a breakthrough! It was a 41-second PR, all in one race. (Yes, on a USATF-certified course — I checked. And the course-measurer was there.) I signed up for New Balance Boston that evening and went to my first practice two days later.

4. What’s the farthest you’ve run?

Twice I have done the “100 on 100” relay in Vermont as part of a three-person team. I ran about 32 miles, in 6 runs spread over about 12 hours. The farthest I have run continuously is a marathon; I have done that three times.

5. What do you most enjoy about running?

I love running fast. The feeling I get when I run a PR is one of the most exhilarating feelings in my life, the same feeling as being in love. I am chasing that feeling every day. On a day-to-day basis, I like that it is a social time when I can talk with friends.

6. What do you least enjoy about running?

I don’t like running when it is dangerous outside, like when there is ice or when I am in a dangerous neighborhood.

7. Diana, what have you learned from running with Laura?

I have learned that talent exists. I used to think that saying someone was “talented” was kind of an insult — it means that they didn’t have to work as hard to achieve their success. I would never have said that I am talented, because I know how much work has been required to get me to where I am now. I didn’t really believe that talent existed in distance running; I thought it was mostly about putting in the work, and maybe sleep, nutrition, lifting, core, and so on. But now that I have met Laura, I believe in talent. She ran 5:05 in the mile after just a few track workouts in her life. She has excellent natural speed; when we do strides together, she gets ahead of me faster than anyone I’ve ever done strides with.

8. What are your running goals for 2015?

My goal this winter is to run under 5:00 for the mile. I would also like to run under 1:20 for the half marathon this spring, but I need to do a lot of base training to make that happen.

Laura’s Comments

1. When did you start running?

The spring and summer after second year of college (age 20).  I started running with a friend from college twice a week just to get in shape.  My friend actually quit after a couple of weeks, but I was enjoying it and kept going on my own.  Over the years I went from running 2-3 times per week to usually about 6 times per week, because I enjoyed it and it was a good physical outlet.  (My day to day job doesn’t involve a lot of physical activity). I just started training more seriously and racing competitively about a year ago.

2. What is your favorite racing distance? Why?

I’m still trying to figure out what my favorite distance is.  I think there are trade-offs, but I’m probably most comfortable between 8K and the half marathon.

3. Have you had what you would consider a breakthrough race? What was the race and what made it a breakthrough for you?

I had two races where I really surprised myself with my finish place.  The Eugene Half Marathon in 2013, when I came in second very unexpectedly (time-1:21).  And more recently, the Shamrock Shuffle 8k (Chicago) in 2014, where I also finished in second place unexpectedly (time-27:30).

 4. What’s the farthest you’ve run?

I think just over 17 miles. The farthest I’ve raced is a half marathon.

5. What do you most enjoy about running?

The experience during a great run when everything comes together: when it’s sunny out and a nice temperature, your body feels good, you’re on a trail or in a nice nature area, you feel like you’re running fast but not working too hard, etc. It’s a great, happy, vibrant feeling.

6. What do you least enjoy about running? 

I don’t like knowing I have to head out the door when it’s really cold out or really rainy or dark.  I also dislike running on treadmills because they’re so boring, but sometimes you have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

7. Laura, what have you learned from running with Diana? 

Diana is incredibly knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to running and training, and I’ve learned a lot from her.  As a more recreational runner, the concept of doing different runs at different paces on different days was completely foreign to me.  I would just run at the same, relatively comfortable pace every day, usually for about the same time.  Diana introduced me to different types of running workouts like mile repeats and tempo runs. I also learned about things like warming up before races (it won’t make you tired and it’s a good idea) and what “strides” are.  During our runs, we also sometimes talk about racing strategy tips, running/racing history and who’s who in the current racing era.

8. What are your running goals for 2015? 

For the first part of 2015 I’m going to be focusing on trying to get a fast 10,000 m time on the track.

9. How many races had you run before the Eugene half marathon?

 It depends what year you’re talking about.  I ran the Eugene half marathon every year from 2008 to 2013.  Before that, I didn’t run any races, except in college I did a 5K fun run once.

We are fortunate to have them in the Evanston Running Club while they are at Northwestern University and look forward to following their exploits here, and wherever their academic journeys take them. They are indeed two fast postdocs!