Wednesday, July 31, 2013

RunnerDude Chats with Meredith Dolhare

It never ceases to amaze me the amount of athletic talent found in North Carolina. When Given Brand Sports contacted me about interviewing ultra runner, multi-Ironman runner, and Timex Multisport team member, Meredith Dolhare, I just assumed she'd be out in Oregon or Colorado or some other running mecca of the US. But to my surprise, she lives just down the road a bit in Charlotte, NC.  

So close, in fact, that she offered to stop by RunnerDude's Fitness studio to do the interview. She was going to be in Greensboro anyway to get in some training runs with her ultra-running pal, Charlie Engle.

I had the best time finding out about Meredith's running, training, upcoming races (including the recent Badwater) and her nonprofit organization--RunningWorks.

Born and raised in Memphis, Meredith now calls Charlotte home along with her
Meredith, husband Walter, and
sons Noah and Watson
husband, two teenage sons, and a menagerie of animals-three dogs, a cat, and a lizard. Just about to turn 40-years-old, Meredith surprisingly has not been an ultra runner for all that long. She's definitely been athletic most of her life including having played NCAA Division I tennis at UCLA and Vanderbilt as well as having been number one in Tennessee in tennis, number one in the nine Southern states, and 9th in the country. 

Although a runner, ultra runs didn't come into her life until a little over 5 years ago. While moping around from foot surgery, Meredith's husband challenged her to set a goal--something to look forward to when she was better. "Maybe a race or something." 

It was only three weeks after surgery and Meredith was still hobbling around on crutches, so this challenge made her mad. Mad enough to come back with, "Fine. YOU know what? I'm going to do an Ironman. It has been on the bucket list forever, and that would fall under the 'goal' category." 

So, the life of Meredith the Ironman and ultra runner was born. Never mind prior to this Meredith had only done two triathlons and it had been 13 years since those races. 

Since 2008, Meredith has completed amazing ultra runs such as Ultraman UK (10K swim, 262-mile bike, 52.4-mile run), the Brazil 135-mile Ultramarathon, the Rouge-Orleans 126.2 Ultramarathon, not to mention 12 full Ironmans, and most recently the Badwater Ultramarathon Race. Badwater covers 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA. Badwater is the most demanding and extreme running race anywhere on earth.

Sitting down with Meredith, I got to know a little more about what makes this amazing woman tick. 

The Family and Running
RD: So you're turning 40 in September. How do you fee about the big 4-0?
Meredith: I'm actually excited. Age is just a state of mind. My husband is almost 8 years older than me, so I've been getting age jokes as long as I can remember. We've been together since I was 18. We started dating my last year of high school and continued through college so, I've been getting reverse age jokes a long time. Finally turning 40 is a nice thing.
RD: You mentioned the kids were running. Do you think they'll do ultras like mom?
Meredith: Well both have run half marathons, but I've cut both of their distances. I don't allow them to run anything long anymore, because they both want to be fast. Especially the youngest. He's really fast. He wants to run in college. There's no marathon in college. There's no half-marathon in college and he's only 13. He's pretty focused. He does have the "focused" gene and the "crazy" gene. He likes to hurt. He loves it. He's very disciplined. Very motivated. That kid would go for hours every day if I didn't cut him off. It's ironic, but I have to be the voice of reason and say, "Noah, you're done for the day." He wanted to run a marathon at 12, but I said, "No." 
RD: How about your husband? Does he run? 
Meredith: My husband played tennis like me in college, but at Notre Dame. He's an amazing athlete. He has some issues with his lower extremities, leg-wise. Still plays a lot of tennis and has run a marathon and several half marathons, but doesn't consider himself a runner. He's a tennis player. He's the biggest support system I have. He's awesome. There's no "let" in our marriage. He just shakes his head and laughs.
RD: Who sports-wise is an inspiration to you and your running?
Meredith: Definitely Charlie Engle. I can relate to him. There's nothing he thinks he can't do. He can talk himself into believing he can do anything. We've become such good friends because we think the same way. We have the same birthday too, which is interesting because it's the same day as Lance Armstrong's birthday. I don't know what it is about that day, but there are several endurance athletes born on that day with similar wills and determination. 

I credit my mom with my attitude of thinking I can do anything. When I was growing up, I'd have these crazy ideas and my mom would say, "Well, if you think you can do it, I'm all for it. You just got to believe it. If you set your mind to it, I believe it." She always instilled that in me. There's no "can't" in my house. I always tell my kids that word is completely outlawed. The same goes for running my nonprofit, RunningWorks, working with the homeless. You've got to believe it. You've got to believe anything you set your mind to. Now, I'm human. If I want to, I can let those demons in my head and talk myself out of anything. Anyone can. I've been there. Sometimes in a race, I can hear myself getting negative and I stop and say, "Now don't talk yourself out of this." So, I'll take control and turn it around to the positive.

Getting Started As an Ultra Runner
RD: Looks like you came to endurance running fairly recently.
Meredith: Yes, 2010 was my first 50-miler. I had done several Ironmans the few years prior to that and I just decided I wanted to do a 50-miler. Charlie Engle inspired me to do a longer race. I've never been one for set parameters and following a set order in racing. I did an Ironman before I did my first half Ironman. I'm a big believer in setting a goal and going for it no matter what it is. So, I signed up for the JFK 50-miler. It looked like a lot of fun. There are a lot of people out there, I'll never be alone on the trail. So, Charlie gave me some guidance on running it and I went for it. I remember hitting that 26.2-mile mark and thinking, "OK[laughing], here we go!" I had hurt my foot a little bit getting out the water at Ironman Florida just prior to the JFK 50-miler so I was a little messed up coming into the 50-miler. It's the subtalus on my left foot. It kept dislocating during the race so I had some trouble unfortunately. I've had issues with that same foot since then. The first 17 miles of that race are very technical along the Appalachian Trail, so it kept dislocating.
RD: Did you just pop it back in? Did it hurt?
Meredith: Right before the race, my chiropractor, who is a very good friend, taught my friend how to snap it back in right before the race. I was running up a hill in the first half mile and I turned to my friend and said, "Is it bad that we have 49.5 miles left in the race and my foot already hurts?" We got it done, but it was not pretty. I was in a cast right after the race. The doc said, "You're going to end up collapsing your foot." My reply..."Nahhh." That was the beginning of the funny stories with this foot. I've had it in a cast 3 times. Same issue. I keep going back to that particular 50-miler (the JFK) because it's so much fun. It's always the weekend before Thanksgiving. There are something like 1000 runners. It's just something cool about 1000 runners doing a 50 miler.

Racing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
RD: What's your favorite race or type of event?
Meredith: A lot of people ask me that and I have to say the Ultraman. Doing the 3 Ironmans in consecutive weekends was pretty cool, especially since all three were in the Alps, but the Ultraman in Wales in the UK was the ultimate. The weather was brutal. It was really cold and there was a hurricane coming through. The water was 50 degrees. It was windy, raining. During the run portion, there was like a typhoon coming through. You couldn't even see your crew car. Everything about it was so off the charts hard. Just on the run alone there was something like 12,000 feet of climbing. It was brutal and gorgeous at the same time. I have pictures that you just wouldn't believe. It was an amazing experience as an athlete. 
RD: What was the toughest part of the Ultraman?
Meredith: There are very few things that scare me, but standing at the start of the swim scared me. There's that fear of the unknown and I don't do well at all with cold. The water was so cold, that I had booties and a head thing on. It was a black bottom lake and there were these huge swells. They weren't allowing any kayaks. Usually in an Ironman you follow a kayak. No Kayak. The buoys got loose, so there were renegade buoys and they went way out. I mean it was a total disaster. But I knew I had to do it if I wanted to get on my bike. For me as an athlete (I'm also in recovery) an athlete and an addict you're always chasing that high you had the first time, but as an athlete, I'm looking not so much for that high but that thing that's hard, that scares me. For me, there are very few things I think I can't do. But that swim, that 10K swim, in that water, in that cold...I was actually afraid for once. I prevailed and did really great the rest of the race. Had a great run. The thing is I rarely ever think I won't finish. But, I don't want to just finish. I want to finish strong. Fast. The goal is to see how well I can do.
RD: Do you compete against yourself or do you compete against the other participants? How do you approach that?
Meredith: I'm always an inward competitor. I compete against myself. My best for that day. If you try to pick people off, you'll get in trouble. In an ultra, if you're not running your race and you're looking for somebody else and you're chasing them down at mile 50 in a 135-mile race, you're gonna blow up. You better be looking from within not outside. I've definitely done it the wrong way. Don't do that. I found out the hard way. It has to come from within and that's where the real test is. Charlie Engle has helped me with this. He has real restraint in his running. He always says, "If feel like you're going too slow, slow down." [laughing] In a race that long you feel like you're crawling in the beginning, but you have too. It's a different type of run.

Back Surgery
RD: So, not too long ago in the middle of all this racing you had spinal surgery. Tell me about that. 
Meredith: I ruptured two discs in my cervical spine. That was in 2011. I actually think it happened in the summer of 2011. After I did the three Ironmans in three consecutive weekends and before heading to the UK Ultraman, I started having trouble with my wrists, both wrists. The doc gave me cortisone shots, but it didn't help. All during Ultraman, my wrists were killing me. All the runners in the race remember me because I was the one asking everyone, "Do your wrists hurt? Mine are killing me!" I just thought maybe it was due to the conditions of that race with the wind. I was holding on to my bike for dear life.  

I make it through the race and go back to my hand/wrist doc and he injects me in another location thinking it was something else causing the pain. This was just four weeks before Kona. My doc said, "Don't do anything. You're clearly fit. You don't need to do any training. Kona's not the A race, Ultraman was. You kicked ass, so just go to Kona and enjoy it."
"Dude, where's my bike?!"
Alone in the transition zone after the
swim at Kona

I get to Kona the week before the race and have a blast with my kids swimming and running and having fun. The water's so beautiful. My wrists were killing me, though. I thought it was from playing so hard. I think I actually ruptured my vertebra during this time. C4 to C6 in your neck control wrist function. I didn't know that. The wrists doc should have known that, obviously. Both wrists...he should have thought, "spine." Hello! 

Both my wrists hurt so bad, I couldn't even open a water bottle. Both my hands were going numb and there was pain all at the same time. I had horrible migraines and pain in my neck. My jaw was killing me.  

Meredith one day after spinal surgery
(not feeling so great).
I'd have the migraines for days. I had one while in Kona that lasted for about 3 days. I was miserable. So the day of the race in Kona, I had a migraine and all this pain in my wrists and neck. It hurt so bad I actually swam with one arm. I mean I was waving at fish, I was swimming so slowly. There's a funny picture of me in the transition area after the swim all by myself which is funny. It's Kona...everybody swims fast, so the rest of the field had already come an gone on to the bike. 

Before the bike, I hunted down an orthopedist who was there that gave me lidocane patches. So, I taped the patches on my wrists to try to make them numb. I made it through the swim, but the bike was worse. It was windy and I had to sit up instead of lean forward because of my wrists. Taking on all that wind was miserable. It was the worst triathlon experience of my life. I was so happy to get to the run. 
First "training" walk one
month after spinal surgery.

Upon returning from Kona, still no MRI. Hello! Spine. Spine. So the doc casts both my arms and injects me again, this time saying it was compartment syndrome. He said I had to take time off. My migraines got worse. Nothing got better. I ran the JFK 50-miler in a cast. Completely dumb.
RD: Did you have the same foot issues during the JFK this time?
Meredith: Yep, was ambulatory after the race. Really messed it up. I tweaked it badly at mile 14 and should have stopped. They thought I had broken it, but I kept going. Funny thing is I ran an hour faster because I was just trying to get it over with. I was running on the toe path with a cast on one arm and basically a broken foot. My husband says at this point, "I think this has ceased to be healthy." He was right. It was crazy.

After JFK, I took some time off. We went to Argentina to visit my husband's family. He's from there. When we got back, I was still suffering from the migraines and my husband said, "OK, you've ceased to be a functioning member of this family. Your migraines are never ending. You can't open a water bottle. Get a cervical MRI." So, I finally got one. I had the MRI at like 9PM and the doc is calling me the next morning at 8AM. That's never good. The doc said I had two ruptured discs in my cervical spine. He said it's no wonder I'd been have the symptoms I'd been experiencing. He was amazed I was even functioning. I had a neuroradiologist-runner friend of mine look at the scans who then sent them to his buddy who is the head of neurosurgery at Duke. He's the doc who did my surgery. Great doc. He consulted on Payton Manning's surgery. I told the doc that I didn't want him to patch me up and then say, "By the way, your running career is over. I'm going back out and these are the things I want to do. Don't tell me I can't run 135 miles at a time, because I haven't done it and I'm gonna do it."
First race post spine surgery (6 months prior)
after only running for a couple of weeks:
Bartram 100K, 2nd place female, 7th overall.

So, they fixed me. But I think it was a bit of a shock when they realized how quickly I wanted to get back to ultras after the surgery. Several months later (mid November) I went back for a checkup. They had cleared me to run, but had no idea that a few months earlier, while in my neck brace, I had applied for the Brazil 135-Ultramarathon and got in. I needed that concrete motivation to get better quick. The race was in January, surely I'd be ready by then. So I asked the docs if they could check to see if I had fused yet. They checked and the fusion was not yet complete. Still a few spaces between some spots. 
The start of the Rouge Orleans 126.2
Ultramarathon, 7.5 months post op and
three weeks post the Brazil 135 Ultramarathon.
Knowing I want to get back to running, the doc asks what race I want to run? A 10K? 

I said, "Well, it's 10 loops of a 10K." His response was, "MEREDITH! I don't approve! I'm not going to tell you no, but what are you thinking?" 

I asked, what's the worst thing that's going to happen. He said, I could end up with arthritis. I said, "I'm going to have arthritis anyway." So, I did the 100K that was a lead up to Brazil and did great. My husband didn't think I was going to do well, so that was even more motivation [laughs]. He said, "You've only been running for two weeks, how the hell are you going to run a 100K?" I said, "Say that to me again! Please, tell me that again." That was the best motivation I needed. I love it when people tell me I can't do something. I heard it on a loop in my head the entire race.
RD: Have you had any issues since the surgery?
Meredith: I haven't. I have a screw in my foot too, since JFK and I haven't had any issues with that either. Very lucky.

The TIMEX Multisport Team
RD: You're a member of the TIMEX Multisport team. Tell me about that.

2013 TIMEX Multisport Team
Meredith: When I was at the 2011 Kona, TIMEX asked me to participate in a research study and I got to know some of the people involved with the team. So, I decided to apply for the team. I ended up being a good crossover for them. I'm the only member that does 100+ mile races and multiple ultras. Most of the members are triathletes. They've not had a Badwater runner on the team. So it ended up being a good mix for them.
RD: What's the best part about being a member of this elite team of athletes?
Meredith: It's a great group of people. Very impressive group. Not only are the others incredibly talented athletes, they're also incredibly smart, but also very few egos on the team. They're all really good at what they do, but they don't have to talk about it. There's no posturing. They're more willing to pump you up rather than talk about themselves. They're like, "Hey I heard what you did..." Really an amazing group of people. There are a couple of NASA scientists on the team. I mean literally like "rocket scientists" on the team, but they're pro athletes at the same time. Makes for great conversation. The first year was really amazing. I was expecting more jockeying for position, but I found the exact opposite. TIMEX has done an amazing job putting together the team.
RD: Does the group ever compete together as a team or does everyone do their own thing as a representative of the team?
Meredith: We have a camp every February at the TIMEX Performance Center which is at the Giants Training Center in New Jersey. There are a couple of team events. They're doing Nationals this year for USA Triathlon in Milwaukee. For other races/events, there may be just one of us or several, depends on the event and each member's schedule. It's a very close knit team, so if we do end up at common races we always get together. There's email that flies around between members. Everyone is very funny. It's a good group of people. Very supportive.

Favorite Gear
RD: Every runner has their must-have gear. Do you have must-haves?
Meredith: Absolutely. I love my TIMEX Run Trainer 2.0 GPS watch. It's so easy to use. I
TIMEX Run Trainer 2.0
GPS Watch
love how you can easily scroll between modes. I do run in Newtons. In Ultras I wear the Terra Momentum trail shoes. I also use the Nathan Sprint handheld water bottles for ultras. I usually stick it down my back. I like the little Nathan clip lights. Those are awesome. I also love Balega socks. I don't get blisters in them. They're a North Carolina company which is pretty cool. CEP compression socks are pretty awesome. I often run in the compression socks and for recovery, I love the CEP Clones that are made to your specific measurements. They're awesome. I also run 100% of my ultras in the CEP running shorts. They help reduce the vibration in the IT band. They're super tight and fit/wear amazingly well. They're perfect.

Badwater and the Death Valley Cup
RD: So tell me about Badwater. Its one of if not the toughest ultramarathons on the planet.
Meredith "chillin" in an ice cooler at mile 42-
Stovepipe Wells, where the temperature hit 129!

Meredith was "dunked" three times during the
race to lower her core temp.
Meredith: Badwater will be the first race in a long time that I'll come to really ready. I'm really focused on Badwater. Usually my head is all over the place with all the different races I'm doing. It's the first time in a while that I won't have other races to distract me. This year I have two races I'm focusing on, Badwater and the Furnace Creek 508 (a 508-mile bike race). They're very different races, but they kind of go hand-in-hand because it's the Death Valley Cup. The Death Valley Cup recognizes those athletes who complete both the Badwater Ultramarathon 135-Mile Running Race and the Furnace Creek 508-Mile Bicycle Race in the same calendar year. To earn this recognition is a very significant achievement in endurance sports. If I finish the Death Valley Cup, I'll be the 6th woman ever to finish those two races in a calendar year. I'd be honored to be among that group of women. 

A few weeks after this interview, Meredith ran Badwater. Not only did she run this amazingly difficult race, she killed it. Meredith was 20th overall out of a field of 96 runners (15 runners did not finish the course) and she was the 3rd place female finisher (out of 23 female runners). Only 4 of the 15 DNFs were women. Go ladies! 

Now Meredith is preparing for the next event in the Death Valley Cup--The Furnace Creek 508-Mile Bicycle Race which takes place in early October. This epic race traverses tremendous mountain climbs and crosses miles of desolate desert roads. The course has a total elevation of over 35,000 ft, crosses 10 mountain passes, and stretches north of Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert through Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve to the finish line at the Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms, CA.

Coming up the final stretch on The Portal Road
about mile 133ish

In addition to Meredith's amazing work as an athlete, she's also found the time to give back to the Charlotte community in the form of a nonprofit she founded called RunningWorks. Through RunningWorks, Meredith runs with homeless people as well as focuses on various life skills with the participants in the program. Check out the video clip below as Meredith tells you more about this great organization.

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