Hokie Half champ credits hill training and positive thoughts for strong finish

The Hokie Half Marathon finish line is in sight for women’s champion Lizzie Buckley.

Virginia Tech senior Lizzie Buckley went into the 2019 Hokie Half Marathon with a simple race plan: Don’t go out too fast – a mistake she made when she ran the race as a freshman and finished as the third overall woman – and save strength for late in the race.

“I was trying to be honest with myself in the first half of the race,” said Lizzie, who had just gotten over a cold the week before the race. “I didn’t want to strain myself with a partially compromised immune system. I know the Christiansburg side of the Huckleberry Trail is an easy place to drop quicker miles compared to the Blacksburg side, so I kept telling myself that I’d conserve the energy for those hills.”

Her strategy worked. Around mile 8 she moved into second place but had no idea if she could catch the leader.

“It was certainly a confidence boost,” said Lizzie, who competes with the Virginia Tech Running Club. “But I still had the two most difficult hills … What I wanted to avoid was overconfidence, because I still had a significant way to go.”

At mile 10 a spectator told her the leader was only 30 seconds ahead of her.

“I didn’t want to blast it if I couldn’t even see her yet,” Lizzie said. “I saw her ahead of me once we were on South Main Street heading towards the dreaded 12thmile hill, and I realized how possible it was to reel her in, and thought Wow, it’d be so cool if I won this thing.’

Win – she did, surging ahead to finish in 1:26:36, gapping her closest competitors by more than a minute.

“That hill isn’t comfortable, but I’ve run it so often that it was really just another run up it, except I was moving up to 1stplace so it was more exciting. I knew I kept my pace consistent throughout the race for a reason and it was that hill … I knew the relief that would come once I got up there to bring this race home.”

It was a satisfying victory for the 21-year-old accounting major from Basking Ridge, N.J, a year-around swimmer growing up who didn’t start running competitively until her senior year of high school. Lizzie had a brief walk-on experience with the Virginia Tech varsity team as a sophomore but most of her college running has been as a member of the Virginia Tech Running Club.

Several of her running club friends volunteering near mile 12 of the Hokie Half were able to scatter along the course leading to the finish line.

“They cheered me on and gave me the remaining energy I needed,” said Lizzie.

DA88D631-A8BA-4F4C-A5BC-23997BB506DELizzie Buckley | HometownBasking Ridge, NJ | Age: 21

What led you to Virginia Tech? I entered Virginia Tech as an interior design major (I’m very right and left brained so the idea of that career made sense then) and I knew an art school wasn’t enough of a full college experience for me. I visited Tech as a junior in high school knowing the architecture school was highly ranked, and the campus immediately felt like home. I was able to imagine myself here regardless of studies or sports. At the time, I was still a year-round swimmer, and running wasn’t even in the picture yet. To fully answer the question, Virginia Tech offered the full college experience for me and it was outside of New Jersey, which was an important box to check.

What did you learn from your experience in the VT varsity running program as a sophomore? Unfortunately, I had to heal a stress fracture in my hip first, so I missed out on XC season that year, but the team doctors and trainers helped me return to running safely and I got to build mileage until I trained that winter into Spring semester. I was placed in a 10K focused group and it was my first time training with other people in well over a year, so it felt strange, and I had to learn to be comfortable with taking turns leading a rep and trusting that the leader would hit our desired splits. In my time training with them, it was amazing to see my progress so quickly and I learned how much the mind plays a role in training. The human body can really do anything you tell it to and I was able to step back and realize the importance of a good mindset going into practice and during the workouts. I stepped down from my spot on the team for personal reasons, but the experience overall taught me how rewarding it is to become more comfortable with the discomfort of pushing myself.

When did you join the VT Running Club?I started with Running Club my freshman year, and as previously mentioned, had a great year of racing in both XC and track seasons, and then walked onto the varisty team for most of sophomore year before returning to them in the spring semester of 2018. We’re a very close group of friends, so I’m happy that I went back.

Can you share more about your Hokie Half victory? My splits didn’t vary that much really except for mile 12. I mentally prepared for that mile and mile 9. I run those hills quite frequently in practice so in some of my last workouts, I made sure to hit those hills with a racing mindset. I also recently read a memoir by marathoner Deena Kastor, and she wrote about how early in her career, she started to replace negative thoughts in practice with the positive version of them. For example, if there was a nasty hill that she was going to approach, she’d instead think “Look at what I’m going to climb” or something like that. I used that to approach the hills on the course leading up to race day. I actually did a fartlek on a 7-mile loop where the hill of mile 12 was about the halfway point, and instead of thinking “ Alright this hill is going to be the worst part of the race”, I thought “This is good, you have a chance to practice this hill before race day”, and it became more bearable. It still hurt, that day and during the race, but I wasn’t mentally defeated at all, which helped me finish strong.

Was the Hokie Half a half marathon PR? My time was actually 3 minutes off my PR of 1:23. That PR is from a significantly flatter course in D.C.

When did you start running? I was a swimmer for 10 years, starting when I was 7 years old and I quit in June 2015, at the end of my junior year of high school. During that year, my swim coach at my club team noticed I didn’t really have the passion to compete anymore, despite the hard work I was putting in at practice, so he assured me that it was okay if I wanted to be done, but wherever I chose to go or pursue next, to have it be some type of challenge with time involved.

I then started running in March of that year, during the “off” season for swimming, before spring training would start with my club team. One day during that March break, after school, I went for a 5-mile run, and as soon as I finished I wanted to do it again. I felt so free and alive, and it was nice to breathe in air instead of chlorine. I kept running consistently after school while I could, and once I ran 3 miles sub-20 on my own, I realized I was holding something back if I didn’t pursue this further. I signed up for a sprint triathlon that following summer going into my senior year, so I was starting to train in all 3 areas for that, even though the swim area didn’t need much work at all. Then by June, I pretty much replaced all swim practices with runs and I realized how fast I was running just on my own, and that senior year would be my last chance to run XC, so I quit swimming officially, signed up for XC, and focused on that (and the triathlon), so I was more than ready.

What’s a typical training week for you now? On Monday/Wednesday/Fridays I’ll do a quick lift before 4 p.m running club practice. Nothing crazy or nothing heavy/straining, it’s mostly maintenance, and then my runs on those days are at a moderate, relaxed pace, anywhere 4-6 miles. Tuesday/Thursdays are workouts at 4 p.m. practice. Saturdays are long run days, and that hasn’t really changed since I started running back in senior year of high school. Sometimes I move the long run to Sunday instead. I rarely run twice a day. If I ever double, it would be a Monday/Wednesday/Friday swim in the morning to supplement some mileage, but I only do that if I’m trying to rebuild or increase my aerobic base. I have my final club XC season to focus on now so my race distance has cut down about 10 miles, which is nice. Luckily my 10 years of experience in the pool can work to my advantage too, so I can replace runs entirely with a swim if I really want or need to.

What’s your favorite distance to race? Half marathon, currently. It’s also the longest I’ve raced in my 4-year running career.

Favorite training run or workout? This sounds lame, but I love long runs. It’s my favorite day of the training week because I can just let myself, mentally, get lost. I feel like I get stronger with distance so I feel most fulfilled after long runs. If it’s not a long run, then fartleks have to be the next favorite since they can accomplish significant mileage but also keep my mind engaged, and you can do them anywhere.

Advice for new runners? Whatever your starting point, keep trying and be consistent, because the result will follow. An important part of that, however, is listening to your body, so proper rest is just as important as putting in hard work. Also, take care of your feet. By that, I mean to make sure the shoes you train in actually work for your foot structure, and to wear supportive shoes when you’re not running, because if you think about it, your feet go through a lot. It sounds like common sense, but sometimes runners tend to focus on taking care of their legs the most (ITB, calves, quads, hamstrings), which is smart of course, but I personally feel like feet are just as important.

Trails or roads? Ideally, I like trails for training and roads for racing.

Any running superstitions or rituals? I’m really specific about the socks I wear when I train depending on the day of the week, but I think it just turned into a weird habit and not a superstition. I also have socks that I reserve specifically for races, which I just have to keep separate from the others.

Fact many people don’t know about you? Well, I gave away my swim background, but I’m an avid painter!

Worst injury? My femoral neck (hip) stress fracture was without a doubt my worst injury. I didn’t realize how scary it was upon sustaining it, but since I’ve healed from it, I value the importance of recovery and listening to my body. It’s still a learning process, but my mindset around it has improved for sure.

Any funny racing stories to share? Every running season in my senior year of high school was a new season for me, and winter track that year was my first experience with any sort of track running. I had never even run on an indoor track before, so racing on it for the first time was strange. Anyway, since I’m from New Jersey, my team would travel to the New York Armory for a few regular season meets. In one of those meets, I ran the 1600 and I was clipped in my heel in the first 300, essentially on the bank of the track, and ultimately fell. I shot back up quickly, but my knees were disgusting from the fall. This isn’t funny on its own, so it gets better. We had Sectional Championships (our first round of state qualifiers) that Saturday, where I’d run the 3200, something more in my wheelhouse. I was 600 in, sitting in 6thor 7thplace to stay relaxed, and got clipped again, and fell again. I was angry now, and that anger really fueled me because I finished the race in 2ndplace and broke a school record. Getting clipped and falling as a result, twice in one week, actually earned me an award at our indoor track banquet a few weeks later, but that fall helped get me to Group Championships, and then ultimately, Meet of Champions, so as mad as I was, it certainly added fuel to my fire.

Who inspires and/or motivates you? I feel like my mom motivated me earlier before I realized I enjoyed running enough to pursue it, as she started running in her senior year of college, and did a few triathlons and half marathons and kept running until she needed knee surgery a few years ago. My best friend from home sort of opened my eyes to running too (instead of swimming, which is how we met), because she started running XC and track earlier in high school, and swimming turned into cross-training for her during those seasons. I was somewhat jealous of the variety of training she had year-round compared to someone like me, only in the pool. I’ve also worked with a sports trainer throughout high school and that exposed me to strength training, and I would run after those workouts and I really enjoyed it then, even though the mileage wasn’t really anything substantial. Lastly, my swim coach who had known me for so long left me with some good advice, which was to challenge myself with anything that involved time, but he also told me the importance of having an endgame with whatever I pursue. When he told me this, I was showing up to practice every day and working hard, but I was no longer racing, and knew I didn’t want to swim in college, so there was no endgame. Since I’ve switched over to running, every block of training or season has had some goal in mind.

Future training/racing goals? Marathon, hopefully in the next year, possibly when I’m studying for the CPA exam.

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