Runner pushes comfort zone

Running coach Stacy Chesnutt times The Chronicle Herald's Deborah Wiles running around the Halifax Commons earlier this week. (TED PRITCHARD / Staff)

Written by Deborah Wiles
Published in The Chronicle Herald

Better than average.

That’s all I want: to run the Scotiabank Blue Nose half marathon in May with a better-than-average finishing time.

Last year’s average finishing time in this event was 2:04.08.

I want to finish in under two hours.

I keep repeating this to myself as I run circles around the Halifax Commons on Tuesday in an effort to determine my current pace and fitness level.

"Keep working, Deborah!" my coach, Stacy Chesnutt, yells as I run past her. "When your watch beeps, go for it."

Chestnutt’s instructions were to run two laps at a decent clip and then really push it for the third lap.

The watch beeps and I try to surge but it’s useless. The frigid -11 C temperature and icy gusts sweeping across the open field have awakened my exercise-induced asthma. It feels as though there is a heavy weight resting on my chest preventing me from taking a deep breath.

I slow down a bit — I really want to stop. But that would be too easy. And besides, Stacy would likely fire me as a client for being a wimp.

Chesnutt knows a thing or two about pain and perseverance. Her fastest time in the marathon — 2:59:05 — came two months ago in Houston, 20 years after she started doing marathons. It earned her second place in her age division.

In the past, the Dartmouth woman has coached groups but never an individual. "You will be my first athlete in 14 years," she said during our initial meeting last month.

I snort, unaccustomed to being called an athlete. A plodder, perhaps. An enthusiastic participant, for sure. But an athlete? Nah.

Since 2005, I have run one marathon and six half marathons. My best time, posted three years ago, was 2:07. My time in the Hypothermic Half last month was 2:20. In other words, I have been finishing solidly in the top half of the bottom third.

That’s no longer much fun; I am tired of being slow and getting slower.

So I have hired Chestnutt to kick my butt. The tall, slender 41-year-old won three half marathons last fall and has competed in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, triathlon’s holy grail.

She’s outspoken, blunt and knows her stuff. In other words, she’s the perfect person to help me get faster.

It’s a tall order.

"That’s very ambitious," Stacy says of my goal during our February meeting. "On paper it’s doable. But you have to realize that it will be work and you have to be totally focused on it."

We agreed that after an initial 5-km time trial, she would send me weekly training plans based around doing four runs a week. Once or twice a month, she would do a workout with me, talking me through the tough parts.

I had a goal, the plan was set and I was psyched to get running. But then things got painful.

The day after meeting Chestnutt, an old back injury flared up keeping me off the roads for almost three weeks. It was not a great start.

Long days of rest, ice, stretches and anti-inflammatories followed before the pain finally subsided and I was ready to get started on The Plan.

It was finally time for the 5k time trial.

And so that’s how I have ended up here, staggering on a wind-swept sidewalk, wondering why I couldn’t have just been happy with being below average.

The thought of Chestnutt watching propels me forward. I manage to finish the final lap without needing oxygen but I know it wasn’t pretty.

Chestnutt has good news.

"You have good running form," she says enthusiastically. "You are an efficient runner. That’s good."

And Chestnutt has bad news.

"Your last lap was slower than the first two," she says. The exact opposite of what she had asked me to do and likely a result of almost three weeks of virtual inactivity. Not to mention my nasty wheezing that is starting to alarm her.

Armed with my data, she will come up with a plan to get me back up to my usual speed — and then past it — all by May 20.

Can I still reach my sub-2 goal at the Blue Nose? Chestnutt waffles when I ask her and she dances around the answer.

But that’s OK. I am ready to work for it, to see how fast I can get in the time remaining. If a sub-2 happens in May, fantastic. If it takes a few more months of training, no problem.

At least I am lucky enough to be out here, running in the icy wind instead of inside, stretched out icing my back with no chance of running at all.

Let’s just hope my newest ache subsides: The nail on one of my toes turned black during the run and now the toe is throbbing. Try as I might, I am not done with the ice just yet.

Oh, the joys of being an athlete.

Deborah Wiles is an editor with The Chronicle Herald. Follow her on Twitter @CurlyGirlRuns.


Thinking about entering a race but need motivation? Here are some tips:

1. Money talks: Pick a race and register for it. Do you really want that money to go to waste by not training?

2. Set a goal: Pick a reasonable time or distance goal and then tell everyone about it. It will make you more accountable and let friends and family offer support.

3. Make friends: Find a running group to train with because pain is better when it’s shared. A few to try:

•Cape Breton Road Runners (

•Halifax Running Club (

•Heart & Sole Running Club (

•Paradise Running Club (

A number of stores also have running clubs including:

•The Running Room (

•Lululemon Athletica (

4. Get inspired: Tap into running’s emotional side with a documentary. Here are two to watch:

•The Perfect Runner, produced and directed by Gemini-winning host Niobe Thompson. This documentary looks at the miracle of running through the science of evolution. It will air on CBC’s The Nature of Things, on March 15 at 9 p.m. (

•Spirit of the Marathon follows six elite and average runners as they prepare for the Chicago Marathon. Just try and watch it without tearing up. (