Ready to run !
Meeting Florencia Morales for the first time is an illuminating experience. Her demeanor is undeniably humble, quiet, calm and collected. Her soft voice carefully enunciates her thoughts. She sits very still and answers questions in an un-animated manner. I had expected someone who was brimming with bravado after her recent performance at the Chicago Marathon but what I witnessed in this, the first of my features on local athletes, was a rare spirit among top athletes.
When I noticed so many people congratulating her on Facebook after the race, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Even though Florencia posted updates in response saying how this was ‘the greatest day of her life’ it was still unclear how well she had actually done. For her, the need to communicate her emotion was clearly more important than the details of the race itself. A refreshing outlook I have to say.
I made a call to Don Wennerstrom, owner of the Running Wild Race Team. He confirmed the magnitude of her race. I was speechless with pride. Florencia is known as a top athlete locally and although I cannot get close to her as a runner, she is a member of my racing team at Running Wild in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I felt a connection, no matter how tenuous it was. This is one of the beauties of running for me, we run in our age groups and thus take pride in sharing races with highly talented runners who are much quicker than ourselves and thereby enjoy the camaraderie that flows from it.
I was deeply struck by the notion that anyone could go to one of the major marathons and, at their first attempt at the distance, do so well. I resolved to find out more. I approached her to discuss the possibility of a feature. To my surprise she agreed without hesitation. I was pleased to witness the initiation of correspondence that led ultimately to a meeting that produced the material for this feature.
Florencia does not trumpet her achievements from the rooftops or paste Facebook with her results and race times. Indeed time is not critical to Florencia the runner as she is quick to state. She pointed out to me that she does not wear a watch in her every day life. Her main reason for wearing one when running is to be able to keep to the training goals set by her coach James Loaring!
Making good progress !
Florencia prefers to run by ‘feeling’ and to listen to her body as a means of knowing how she is progressing in a race or training run. It is for this reason that she feels less pressure than most might expect when discussing what might follow her outstanding result in The 2013 Chicago Marathon. She posted a breathtaking time of 2:46. This was so fast that it enabled her to break into the ranks of the top twenty female athletes overall in not just any marathon but one of the major marathons. It is hard for me to comprehend the magnitude of such an incredible achievement but talking to Florencia provided such clear insights that I almost felt I had paced along side her at points during our conversation.
Prior to Chicago she had been preparing for Triathlons and therefore ‘only’ managed to dedicate two months of specific training by way of preparation for the Chicago race. I found it fascinating to hear how an athlete of this calibre described her preparation for and participation in the run. I know that my best races have always been when I am most relaxed. I also try to ‘go by feeling’ as Florencia does when I am running. In this sense I know what she means. I, of course, have never run as fast for as long as her, but in my experience ‘feeling’ is a critical part of sensing how a training session or race will evolve on the day.
In good company and running well !!!
The race in Chicago was run, in her words, completely ‘by feeling’. She ran ‘mile by mile’, as she describes it, up to a point but ‘feeling’ was the essence of her experience of the race. She did not truly sense time or pace apart from the occasional glance at the watch when she ‘felt’ she was behind goal pace. She said she did not have a genuine appreciation of how far she had run until she hit the 13.1 mile point. After this she became aware of where she was when people began shouting out mile markers after mile 20 and when she had 5 kilometers or half a mile to go. As many runners know, the crowd is a major factor in lifting runners to the finish line in a marathon. This is clearly the case if Florencia is to be believed no matter what pace is being maintained. Everyone who completes the magical 26.2 miles undertakes an emotional, physically demanding and ultimately rewarding journey from start to finish. The crowd in any race plays its part in ensuring that journey is fulfilled.
Florencia hails from Argentina where she studied nutrition before arriving in the USA. Indeed nutrition is a critical component of her approach to running. This is a common feature among the preparation of top athletes. She eats a largely plant based organic diet with no alcohol, dairy, white and unprocessed food. In keeping with the maxim, ‘you are what you eat’ top athletes seem to share the view that performance is, in part, based on the quality of what you put into your body. It is an element of the discipline of being a top runner that most of us find hard to emulate though we can certainly use many of the principles of consuming healthier foods.
At the age of 34 she has trained for and completed her first marathon after building a fine reputation as a local top runner in races from 5K to half marathons since 2009. Her first half marathon was completed in 2011. For her, the special significance of the marathon is that she feels she has ‘found her race’. Prior to finding top flight capability as a runner she was predominantly a swimmer. The swimming clearly underpins a major part of her non running life. She works as a Fort Lauderdale beach lifeguard.
In the months before Chicago I was oblivious of her preparation for the race. Even among the Running Wild Team I was not aware of any talk of how she was progressing. That said, I was conscious of her evident love of art, photography, spiritual exploration, literature and culture in general through her use of Facebook, such is the power of social media in the modern connected world. This says a lot about Florencia and the fact that she is so much more than just a fine runner.
On meeting Florencia, her intelligence and curiosity about wider issues in life becomes quickly evident. She is a talented painter. Her cultural and intellectual interests encompass many aspects of art and even include issues related to violence against women which she intelligently expresses with a quiet passion. This recognizes the importance of her potential for inspiring other women of all levels to run, achieve their goals and progress as people. All runners including men would do well to understand what motivates her and be inspired by it.
Interestingly Florencia was particularly interested in communicating how she felt before, during and after the race in addition to how the race ‘felt’. In the two weeks before the race she was like a ‘caged animal’ as her coach emphasized rest and shorter runs before the race. He called her regularly to be certain she was holding back as her instinct was to keep training and training hard. Clearly her success is founded on her natural ability, genetics, training and diet, but the role and influence of her coach cannot be underestimated. She readily acknowledges her debt to James.
At the Expo and before the race she stated that she became very emotional and was crying before the start. She sensed deeply that she was on the brink of something that transcended the normal experience of life. Running 26.2 miles at pace is no ordinary undertaking. Having run one marathon I recall feeling powerful emotions as I stood in the pouring rain of Houston spellbound, on the threshold of the greatest athletic test I had ever set myself. I can only speculate how this effects the very best runners as they stand at the apex of 4-6 months preparation with, it is hoped, perfect conditions on hand and nothing but the starters gun to focus on.
Even in this respect Florencia is different. She articulates clearly the idea that many runners have a tendency to ‘over think’ their races. For her the way to overcome the emotion of the lead up to the race is to relax as best she can on the start line, empty her mind and simply focus on ‘doing your thing’. She notes that she was relaxed during the whole race apart from where she hit the 13.1 mile mark and posted a time of 1:22. At this moment she told herself something special might be possible. As the second half of the race evolved she assured herself that ‘everything was ok’. She was surprised not to hit the dreaded ‘wall’ outside of changing her cadence a little at mile 20 which enabled her to accelerate smoothly to the end of the race. She ran to the finish in an phenomenal debut time of 2 hours and 46 minutes. A wonderful achievement by any standards.
When she crossed the finish line she experienced a sense of incredible peacefulness and calm. It was some time after this that the magnitude of what she had done started to dawn on her. She even admitted to being shocked by the result. This became more apparent with the torrents of emails, Facebook posts and text messages that engulfed her after news of her performance in the race became known. Of the communications and congratulations : ‘It took me days to answer them all’, she said.
The last few strides – an incredible 2:46 posted in an incredible marathon debut !
I found her expression of peace in her running to be very insightful. Even at my level, the longer races and the training for them often feel like meditation in motion. Florencia confirmed that this is something she commonly experiences on long runs. I was pleased to hear that she too values the ability to hear her breathing and feel her cadence and flow unencumbered by any technical devices when running. The rhythm of our body often induces a meditative state or as Florencia maintains : ‘running makes me free’.
I have little doubt that her inner strength, highly evolved approach to the discipline of the marathon and the spirituality of running will serve her well in the coming years. She says she feels no pressure for future marathon races because she is able to ‘ live in the now, live in the present’. I understand this to mean that future races will take into account her training, the weather conditions on the day and how she is feeling. Most runners would acknowledge this, but many use this as a reason to say why a race did not go well. I do this myself. Florencia seems not to subscribe to that notion, she asserts that she ‘has nothing to prove’ and that, as previously noted, she will try to relax and just run,‘run by feeling’.
If she continues to progress as expected after this spectacular debut in the hardest of all running races, there is the very real prospect of her participating in the Pan American games and maybe even an invitation to the Olympic trials either for Argentina or the United States. Clearly the future is bright for her barring injuries or setbacks along the way. She has endured injury in the past but dealt with it with in her customary calm manner. She has an ability to accept her reality and therefore understand what needs to be done to get past any obstacle and return to running stronger in body and mind.
I was left with the distinct impression that Florencia has an approach to her craft that has the rare attribute of being utterly inspirational to others. Her philosophical and spiritual approach to running is one that I, for one, readily identify with. Running, training for races and the marathon in particular has, in her words, made her ‘a stronger person’. I have heard many stories from other runners of how they started running after a personal crisis or life changing experience. Such is the power and majesty of the personal challenge running issues us at times when we need to reach deep and learn about who we really are !
The training demanded for racing enables people to test themselves, feel good about their achievements and grow. There is also the added bonus of meeting great people as friends who often perform incredible acts of selflessness to help fellow runners develop and progress in training and in races. This is almost unique to running. Florencia confirmed much of this to be true in her experience. By sharing her story she will unwittingly help thousands of others at all levels of running ability to better understand why they are driven to do what they do and eventually run a marathon. In her words, ‘the marathon changes you, it is unbelievable’.
It was refreshing to meet Florencia, to learn more of her success and her approach to running. While many can never run as quickly, there is a great deal all runners can learn from this talented, unassuming woman who keeps it simple : she eats well, works hard, nurtures her spirit and does no more, no less than run. She runs ‘in the moment’, she runs very well. Very well indeed.
The hard work continues……………..
Mark Darley aka Britrunner