The Limit Does Not Exist for Leigh Anne Sharek

Leigh Anne Sharek breaks the tape at the 2017 Pete McArdle Cross Country Championship. To get faster, you have to run faster. This may seem like an obvious lesson to some runners, but it changed Leigh Anne Sharek’s view on her sport and led her to an Olympic Trials berth for the marathon.

Sharek, a former competitive gymnast, grew up being forced by her mother, an accomplished runner who still puts in daily miles, to run on family vacations. She ran (also at the behest of her mom) a cross-country season in high school, but would stop and walk the course and was scorned by younger teammates for not trying her best. In college at Pace University in New York, recognizing that she needed to balance out dining hall food and party drinks with some exercise, she began running the Brooklyn Bridge at night, after the tourists cleared out. She signed up for a New York Road Runners race and got swept up in the challenge of getting into the TCS New York City Marathon.

She was supposed to run New York in 2012, but that event was canceled after Hurricane Sandy devastated the city. She ran the Philadelphia Marathon instead, and came in under four hours. She ran New York in 2013, only to come in just over four hours. But she knew she wanted to keep running and racing.

Craving more structure and a level of accountability for her training, Sharek and her boyfriend, Steven Finley, founded the Brooklyn Track Club in 2016. The club, Sharek said, is meant to offer runners of all shapes, sizes and paces training to accomplish their goals, whatever those goals may be—whether it’s running a mile under five minutes or running a marathon at a consistent 9:30 pace. “It’s only as competitive as you make it,” Sharek said.

Sharek, like many locally competitive runners who have qualified to the Olympic Marathon Trials, has a full-time job beyond running. She is a forensic scientist with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office. Asked what appeals to her most about looking for DNA evidence in criminal cases day in and day out, she said, simply, “it matters.” She said that she views her job as community service.

As to balancing a demanding job, oversight of a 350-person running club, and Olympic Trials training, Sharek suggests that it’s in a New Yorker’s DNA to multitask at a high level.

New York runners are tough, Sharek said, because it is not easy to train as a distance runner here. “To live in New York and to train here means that running you’ve made running a priority. You will dodge traffic, cross bridges, do loops to get in a long run.” Sharek trains often in Central Park and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to prepare her for the Olympic Trials course, which is full of rolling hills. Her favorite long-run course, she said, is a Brooklyn loop spanning several neighborhoods, from Dumbo, up to and around Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery, down through Sunset Park to Red Hook and back. She praised New York Road Runners for its “crucial” role in the New York running scene. “We’re all better athletes for [NYRR],” she said. Her favorite race with NYRR is the New Balance Bronx 10 Mile, she said. In 2019, she was named the NYRR Runner of the Year Women 25-29 (see photo below). 

But living in New York, with its constantly active running scene and races nearly every weekend, can lead to FOMO-induced burnout, cautions Sharek. A few years ago, Sharek signed up for three marathons in the span of six months and was also running as many local races as she could in between. But she was not getting any faster, she said. She tried to break three hours in the marathon for four years and started to doubt that it was possible for her. Finally, she said, she had the realization that she needed to step back. “This is why you have training cycles, and this is why you have buildup and a peaking season. You can’t be on all the time,” she said.

She focused all her energy on the 2017 Chicago Marathon. She finished the race in 2:52:23.

“I had never considered an OTQ until that race,” she said. “Not on the radar.” Then she began questioning how much faster she could be. She signed up for the 2018 California International Marathon with the single-minded goal of qualifying for the Olympic trials. She did not run a spring marathon that year and zeroed in on training with the Brooklyn Track Club. She made her goal public and worried that she would be embarrassed if she did not follow through, and concerned that she might not have the energy to try again. “I needed to make this time goal so badly,” she said.

As her fellow marathoners completed their fall races that year, she found herself the last woman standing. “I was terrified,” she said. She went over and over every workout she had completed, every mile of every long run. Nerves built, and tears came daily.

Spoiler alert: Sharek got her OTQ at CIM, crossing the finish line in 2:42:02. Finley took the photo above, of Sharek at mile 25 ("when I knew I was safe," Sharek said). “Looking back, I can say that hopefully I never need to feel this way again,” she said.

Sharek describes her mood leading up to the Trials as " focused, ready to go, grateful to be there, and proud of myself.” She said in contrast to her qualifying race, she hopes to let go of her nerves and “find joy in being there with wonderful athetes.”

Once the Trials, which Sharek describes as “my Olympics,” are finished, she will turn her focus to the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon.

What took Sharek from competent to competitive? Chasing faster runners, she said. “How the heck is it that simple, that running with other people can change your run?” she said. “But If you’re not relying on other people for workouts, you’re doing yourself a disservice.” She said she sought out people running the paces she wanted to run and set a goal to keep up with them. Small goals, like moving up a corral in an NYRR race, can be just as effective as big PR goals, she said.

“You think you know yourself and your limits, but you’re probably wrong,” she said. “Give yourself that chance to get better.”

Author: Lela Moore

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