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Master Of Her Domain: Exclusive Interview With Sonja Friend-Uhl

She's quietly been one of the best distance runners in the U.S. for two decades now.

Sonja Friend-Uhl is set to make an assault on multiple U.S. Masters records.

She’s quietly been one of the best distance runners in the U.S. for two decades now.

Interview by: Kevin Beck

Sonja Friend-Uhl celebrated her 40th birthday in March by promptly knocking five seconds off Joan Nesbit-Mabe’s U.S. Masters outdoor 1,500-meter record with a 4:27.00 at the Vanderbilt Black & Gold Invitational. The College of William & Mary graduate and mother of Brianna, 9, and Alexa, 2, has been a national-class runner from the 1,500 meters (personal best: 4:13.9) to the half marathon (1:15:20) for nearly two decades.

Friend-Uhl – a member of the 2006 U.S. World Half-Marathon Championship team and a three-time USATF Age-Group Track Athlete of the Year – may not be a household name to many track followers, partly as a result of being a year-round resident of South Florida for most her career but also because her versatility and self-effacing nature have helped deflect the spotlight from performances that include 16:17 for 5k, 33:57 for 10k and a win at the 2007 Marathon of the Palm Beaches. She’s like the Garret Anderson of running: Unusually long career as a star, fantastic numbers, but not quite noisy enough to make big blips on the radar.

But the longer she keeps running fast, the more likely this is to change. Having relocated to Nashville last fall, Friend-Uhl, always a meticulous planner, has her sights set on doing some serious damage in the masters ranks in 2011. caught up with Friend-Uhl recently and talker to her about her move, her goals, and her work as a coach and fitness consultant that has paralleled her long competitive streak. We might as well start with the obvious, since you did just recently shatter a record. What are your upcoming races and what are your goals for those? Do you have times in mind, or are you thinking places?

Sonja Friend-Uhl: My next two races are the U.S. Masters 8k and 10k Championships [in Williamsburg, Va. on May 21 and Ann Arbor, Michigan on June 5 respectively].  For each of those races, the primary goal is to win, and secondary goals are to run under 28:00 for the 8k and under 35:00 for the 10k.  In July at the World Masters Track Champs in Sacramento, again, the primary goal is to win my events (the 800 and 1500), but I also want to set a new American masters record in the 800 [the record is 2:07.57, set by Alisa Harvey Hill] and I want to better my own pending record in the 1,500 and get back down to the low 4:20s or ultimately 4:19.

South Florida is famed for its welcoming weather, but it’s not welcoming for distance runners. Yet you spent your entire professional career as an open runner there. How did that fall into place?

We moved to South Florida for [husband] Brad’s job. He was initially placed in Miami, but we lived in Weston and then West Palm Beach.  I always knew I was going to continue my running career past college, so it didn’t matter where I lived; it was still a passion for me and I just adapted to my environment as best I could.  I actually found it more conducive to my interval training and speedwork because I could pretty much always count on stable, if hot, weather.  I have never been a high-mileage runner; the most mileage I have ever run is an average of 60 to 65 a week during my marathon prep in 2007.

What prompted your move to Nashville and when did you arrive?

My husband was promoted and transferred. We arrived in Nashville on October 1st of 2010.

What is it like training in Nashville compared to South Florida?

Well, the scenery is more variable and therefore stimulating on a run. We have beautiful trails here, just miles and miles of them where you see all kinds of wildlife, run by a small river or brook, etc. The fall is just gorgeous!  It is also quite hilly. The hills still take my breath away a bit, and they did cause the iliotibial band issue to flare up so badly that I had to take time off from running and stick to the treadmill for a while.

Obviously we also have the seasonal changes here. We had quite a bit of snowfall this winter, and it gets very cold here.  I did an interval workout on the track in January where it was 23 degrees — very different from those in Florida at 89!

I am a better cold-weather runner in anything 10k and up, however so that has been helpful to my distance running, but it’s not so conducive to speedwork. I am finally getting some decent turnover work in now that the weather has turned warmer. I do miss my beautiful Florida sunsets and the opportunity to run on the beach and hear the waves.

Has it been hard not having regular training partners over the years? It’s one thing to do things like tempos and long runs alone, but sharpening for the 800/1,500 solo must be difficult.

I suppose it might have been easier and I might have raced faster if I’d had training partners, but from a psychological standpoint it never bothered me. I have always worked full-time and am a bit of a loner, so I liked being able to just do my own thing when I needed to do it. I set a high bar for myself, so the ability to push myself in workouts has never been a problem.

I know you have a coaching site, but a physical fitness studio isn’t as portable. What are you doing for work in Tennessee?

I am the executive director for a residential weight loss facility in Brentwood called FitRX. (Think The Biggest Loser on a local community scale.) We also have a functional training gym and a hot yoga studio for our more fit clientele.  I started out as the fitness director, and then when the previous executive director resigned they asked me to take on that position.  It has been a very challenging yet rewarding learning experience. These people are usually obese and have lost hope and direction. I have learned that it is as much about behavioral therapy and emotional issues as it is about food and exercise, sometimes more so.

There’s an irony in the similarities between the struggles of being an athlete and those of someone trying to lose 100 pounds or more. We all have self-doubt, we all face obstacles with other demands on our time, we all go through pain and discomfort to try to reach our goal, and in the end, those who “get their minds right” prevail.

You’ve obviously made some adjustments in becoming a mother, but that’s something you counted on from the start. What kind of adjustments have you made as you’ve gotten a little older and more involved in your work?

Having to just be more flexible with planned workouts and races. If my workload becomes excessive on a certain day and I have a track workout planned, I may need to bump it to the next day. Sometimes I have to pass on a race because we have a larger client intake than expected that weekend, my husband is out of town, and so on.

I also now have to be more patient with my body. I find that I now need at least two days between hard workouts, I need more recovery after a road race or a track meet, and I definitely need to make time to do the little things now — extra stretching, strengthening, physical therapy, massage, corrective form drills, etc.  Last year was a real wake-up call in terms of my body needing more care if I am going to work it this hard at this point in my life. I had both an iliotibial band issue and tendonitis in my foot last year that kept me out of training and racing steadily for about four or five months.

Once you were out of college and running professionally, did you envision yourself as mostly an 800/1,500 track racer or did you foresee moving to the roads eventually?

I definitely saw road racing in my future, but always knew the track would remain a constant for me. Although it is more intense and nerve-wracking, it is also the purest form of racing I know.

A lot of athletes like to divide their seasons or even their whole careers into track and road, with the latter usually coming after faster times in the former seem unlikely. Did you consciously shift your training when preparing more for one than the other — say, trying to make the Trials on the track vs. running 5K on the roads?

Yes.  In fact, I discovered a great system for myself in South Florida, where I would start training for half marathons in the late summer or early fall with mileage, tempos, long intervals, etc. and just get as strong as possibly aerobically, then race 10ks and half marathons over the winter months, and finally transfer that strength to the track in the spring with meets at the University of Miami and the University of Central Florida in March. I would continue sharpening with speedwork for faster meets in April and May like the Florida Relays, Miami’s Elite Invite, and — when possible — the USATF open track champs and out-of-state competitive meets in May and June.  This pattern allowed me to periodize my training, so not only did I benefit from a physiological standpoint, but mentally I really never felt burned out even though I raced year-round.  In early fall I usually focused on road 5ks as test efforts, which served as a great segue between the track and the upcoming distance work.

How often have you felt the pull of making some cash on the roads strongly enough to pull you toward races you might have discounted otherwise? For someone who obviously loves to race, period, and had little local competition for a long time, that had to be a challenging game to play.

Well, earning prize money from racing is always a great motivator and an added bonus!  It may have affected my racing decisions now and then from a logistic standpoint — travel costs, etc. However, if I had a choice between winning money and running a PR, I would always choose the PR!

How many races would you say you’ve won outright over the years? That is, ones in which you beat all of the men too.

Hmmm. Actually not that many, but I can think of two or three for sure, the most recent being the Wellington Community 5k Run in 2007 or 2008.

Have you fallen in with a training group now or is it still business as usual — mom and businesswoman and get in the running on your own?

It’s still business as usual!  Actually, more so now. I feel more secluded here in Nashville, as I started working full-time right away, and with Brianna having more activities of her own now and Alexa at two needing so much attention from me, it’s really tough to meet others for training runs, workouts, etc.  I either work out early in the morning or on my lunch break. That’s why the road races are so enjoyable for me — it’s my opportunity to socialize and just get to know the other runners in my community.

Every competitive runner, even those with no genuine regrets, wishes she could have run a little faster or put a little more into one event or race. In your case, what would that be?

Ah, yes! There are probably a few examples of this for me, but the one that is most prominent is always wondering after the Olympic Trials 1,500 in 2000 what I may have been able to accomplish that year or the next if I’d kept going with the training. I decided to get pregnant (I was 30) with our first child, Brianna, and she is the ultimate joy and achievement of my life, so in no way do I regret that decision. But I have never been quite that “fit” or fast again. I was just so fit in 2000, and I often wonder what I could have done.  For example, I feel that I was very capable of making an indoor or outdoor world team in the 1,500 during that time frame, but was just never able to see it through. I made a decision a long time ago, however, to have balance, meaning I wanted not just to train and race but also to have a family, build a career in the fitness industry, and coach people.  I am not saying this is right for everyone, but knowing my personality and goals in life it was best for me, so I’m at peace with the “what ifs.”

The other running involvements you mention are big ones for me as well, as my own best running occurred in concert with coaching kids and writing a lot about the sport. A lot of elites become advisers and coaches once their own competitive days are over, yet you have been involved on this side of things since your peak athletic days. How has this interaction affected your own racing?

It truly has enhanced it. It has prompted me to do more research — on training physiology, sports psychology, nutrition; it has inspired me to watch people with less physical talent than myself or my peers put in just as much work and effort [in training] and as much courage into a race performance; it has blessed me with a community of people who not only are clients but have become my friends and extended family and share my joy of running and self-achievement. I guess that in short I have learned from and been inspired by those I coach as much as I have, I hope, taught and inspired them. Sometimes when I am going through a tough patch in a race, I will recall a memory from a workout or race of someone I coached and how they responded in a positive way, and it helps me push forward.