Valerie Gonzales running in an Ironman Canada race along the shore of Skaha Lake, BC
You have to admire a runner who wins every race in the 2016 Vancouver Island Race Series that she entered! I’ve been impressed with Valerie each time I saw her at a series race and up on the podium at the end of the race, but especially when the announcer mentions that she broke the course record! And she is getting faster. She reports that she has been participating in the Island series for 10 years and this year some of her times were PBs. Maybe 70 is the new 50?
You also have to be in awe of someone who still participates in triathlons in her 70’s. Plus these are of the IRONMAN variety and that Valerie has done 21 of them – all over the world – since turning 57! Way to make me feel both inadequate and totally impressed at the same time! But it just goes to show that if you work hard enough at a sport, no matter what age you start, you can do it well and even excel!
I love Valerie’s realism. She runs to eat chocolate, not to lose weight. She loves sweets and desserts and does not plan to give them up! One of the best things about the Island Race series, she says, is that they serve food after the race! Running and eating are two of her favorite activities. Oh how I can relate! Reward yourself, I say!
She likes running outdoors, in any weather and doesn’t mind “getting lost” just to see where it takes her. She belongs to two clubs for both the coaching and the camaraderie: Mercury Rising in Victoria, and is coached for her Ironman races by Melissa Spooner from Endurance Health and Fitness, who was originally in Victoria, but now operates out of Vernon. Speaking of clubs, she suggests to aspiring runners start slow and to join a clinic or a club with trained leaders to reduce chances of injury and to build strength and ability. Excellent advice from someone who knows!
Enjoy this interview from a completely awesome, inspiring and badass runner/ironwoman and share it with others you’d like to inspire, plus leave a comment below if you’d like to share some of your experiences.
I love–and am humbled–by the fact that it is possible to keep getting better as I get older.
What is your running history?
I ran once in high school as part of a school-based physical ability assessment. I was the 2nd fastest female runner for my age and passed out 30 min later. My athletic ability was well-known to be hopelessly dismal so passing out was not necessarily a surprise to anyone. That single run began and ended my athletic career. At age 50, I decided to try triathlons and joined a “learn to run” clinic at a recreation centre; I also joined a Masters swim group and resurrected my 20 year-old bicycle. Although I am still working on the “learning the swim” part, I have come to love running.
I compete and I love the challenge of competing–regardless of my standing at the end of the race–because, first and foremost, I compete against myself.
Why do you run?
I compete and I love the challenge of competing–regardless of my standing at the end of the race–because, first and foremost, I compete against myself. I do not run on a treadmill, only outdoors, and in any type of weather because I love being out there, facing the elements, being part of the world around me, trying new routes and “getting lost” just to see where it takes me. Secondary benefits have included stress reduction, mental clarity, and much joy. Perhaps these experiences are fuelled by endorphins, and, if so, that is okay by me. I do not run to lose weight but rather so I can justify eating the things I like–such as chocolate!! I do not think I am particularly addicted to running because I only run 3x a week.
For aspiring runners: Start slow, run with a clinic or group with trained leaders to reduce chances of injury and to build strength and ability. Understand “why” you are running–internalize it and draw on it when the running gets tough, or a day is not going well and you do not want to get out the door. Identify what you love about running–some like the companionship–or competitiveness– of running with a group while others prefer to run on their own. Find your joy and go with it.
The last season of the Island Race Series… I… set 7 course records in 7 races, with 4 of my times being PBs over the 10 yrs I have run the series.
What was your last best/favorite race?
I do not have a favourite race because I love every race I have the privilege to run. Each race is special or challenging in unique ways. I have very fond memories of setting a PB at the 2010 Boston Marathon but sharing that weekend with my daughter was also a factor in why the race was so memorable. This last season of the Island Race Series will also be very special to me. I aged up to the 70-74 division, and set 7 course records in 7 races, with 4 of my times being PBs over the 10 yrs I have run the series. I love–and am humbled by–the fact that it is possible to keep getting better as I get older. I know that other women will come along and break every one of those records–and that excites me as well because it demonstrates that more older women are racing, and racing well, and still loving it.
My goals are to keep training and competing for as long as I can.
What is your next race?
My next race is an Ironman in southern Brazil on May 29th*. So, after swimming 4km, cycling 180km, I will run a marathon of 42.2km, hopefully completing the race under 14 hrs. My long time goals are to keep training and competing for as long as I can. Although I have medical challenges that will eventually end my athletic life, my plan is to keep swimming, biking and running until I cannot do so anymore.
What type of training do you do?
Given that I run only 3x times a week, I do not rack up many kms on a weekly basis. Distance covered increases as I prepare for each Ironman. Currently, a sample week might include an easy 30 min run on Monday, a 60-70 min interval run on Wed, a 20-30min transition run after my 2 bike rides, and a long run (2+ hrs on Sunday, typically right after a swim). I run anytime of the day but tend to run from late mornings to early evenings, rarely early in the morning. I do not trail run; I have a tendency to trip and break bones. The klutz I was as a kid has not changed over time!!
What kind of food philosophy do you follow?
I eat mostly healthy foods. I do not drink alcohol and I have never smoked. These are personal choices totally unrelated to my training or racing. I have a love of sweets and desserts and do not plan on giving them up. 🙂 I was a vegetarian for many years but when I started doing ironman races at 57, I could not stay healthy enough to sustain that option. I eat anything and everything but rarely fried or greasy food, and more poultry and fish than beef or lamb. Before a race, I have a good breakfast 2-3 hrs earlier and then have an energy gel shortly before the start of the race. Black coffee and water are also staples of my diet.
I have two people who continue to inspire me to carry on: my daughter and my coach.
Do you have a running hero/ role model?
There are no runners in my family although my brother was a surfer from early adolescence until his death from pancreatic cancer at age 49. I have no running heroes or role models but I have two people who continue to inspire me to carry on: my daughter and my coach.
Most of my holidays take place as part of racing internationally so, yes, I run when I am on holiday!
How do you relax, when you are not running?
I am an avid reader, mostly high-quality fiction and biographies. I garden whenever I can and am re-landscaping my garden at the moments and expanding my vegetable and berry garden. I am a dedicated Sudoku fan and start my day with coffee, porridge with yoghurt and fruit, the newspaper and a Sudoku. I love experimenting with new recipes. I do not blog, do facebook, twitter, etc. simply because I have no time in my day to do so! Most of my holidays take place as part of racing internationally so, yes, I run when I am on holiday!
Have you had any running setbacks?
Yep, there has been some stuff that set me back a bit (broken leg during a run, 2nd degree burns on the way to a race in Australia, a concussion from a bike crash) but I just deal with what I can and get philosophical about the stuff I can not prevent or make go away. Broken legs mend, burns heal even when it meant spending the 3 weeks on my back prior to an Ironman race in Cairns, Australia. Somehow I managed to complete that race, win my age-group and qualify for the world championship in Hawaii that year.
Her [coach’s] mantra–“less is more” is so incredibly right-on; her “suck-it-up, buttercup” is equally effective.
Do you have a coach?
Yes, when I decided to move from Olympic distance to ironman racing (2002) I hired a coach because I was then in my mid-fifties and I did not want to be responsible for devising my own training program. I did not know how endurance racing would impact my aging body. Hiring Melissa Spooner (3x IM champion) was the best decision I ever made–and she continues to coach me today. As noted below, she tailors my workouts to my still-crazy lifestyle, and my inevitably aging body. She has gotten me through every race I have ever entered and with admirable outcomes. I bow to her brilliance but I also embrace her life philosophy. Her mantra–“less is more” is so incredibly right-on; her “suck-it-up, buttercup” is equally effective. When I first hired Mel, she lived in Victoria. Now that she has moved away (now lives in Vernon) we communicate primarily by email, occasionally by phone, she sees me when she visits Victoria, and she sometimes comes to my races. After 14 yrs, she knows me well enough– sometimes better than I know myself.
What is your career/job?
When I started triathlon in my early 50s, I was working 80hrs a week as a university professor. My daughter was on her own by then and my family was just me. Still I do not know how I managed to train for triathlons. Once I starting doing ironman races, I hired a coach and just did what she told me to do. She was phenomenal in being able to build my training program around my crazy work schedule. With her guidance, I have completed 21 ironman races. She is also the one who encouraged me to do the Island Race Series. I resisted at first–until I discovered that they feed you at these races!!! Now I am hooked on them–I can run and eat– two of my favourite activities.
Do you listen to music when you run?
During training I often run with music–and love doing so but can run without music just as well. I have lots of favourite music but my playlist is not familiar to most people–I am a child of the 60s and folk music, world music, Adele, and a real mix of music from my daughter’s era make up my playlist.
Do you have anything else to add that you were not asked?
Do what you love, love what you do, embrace challenges as new goals to meet, understand the “why” for what you do.
*Unfortunately Valerie will not be competing in the Ironman race in southern Brazil this weekend! A month ago she was hit while on a training ride by a distracted cyclist who suddenly turned left right in front of her. Leaving her no time to stop to avoid a collision, the impact catapulted her out of her clip-in bike pedals, over her handlebars, and over her bike. She sustained a concussion that has not resolved, however, she still travelled to this destination and is enjoying herself despite not completing. Curse you distracted cyclists and drivers! I wish you a full and healthy recovery, Valerie.
I will be watching for Valerie in next year’s Island series and perhaps in other local races throughout the rest of the year. One last thought that Valerie left me with was that she loves the challenge of the endurance distance, which she says has been, on so many levels, a metaphor for her life. And the joy she has the privilege to experience is so life-affirming! A lovely note to end on and it should be so for everyone!