Interview by: Dynise Balcavage (05/17/19)
Welcome Zandra! Can you tell us how/when did you start running?
Like many of us, I started off playing soccer but soon realized the only reason I was making the middle school soccer team was because I could easily hang with the lead pack during the tryout runs. I also realized I could run the mile in gym class faster than the cross country girls. Therefore, I began running middle school spring track in seventh grade. By freshman year of high school, I had been convinced to drop soccer in order to run all three seasons.
What do you love most about running?
Running has meant different things to me at different points over the 17 years that I’ve been doing it. For the last couple years, it’s simply been the counterbalance to my school/work life. It serves as time to clear my head, get outside, and connect with running friends. I also like racing!
What is your favorite workout? Your least favorite?
I feel somewhat strange answering this question because my “training” approach is admittedly quite odd. Essentially, I try to make running in no way a job. Since leaving college in 2009, I haven’t kept a running log and, since 2012, with exceedingly rare exception, I haven’t planned any workout. The only workouts I do are when I show up on Tuesdays and (try to) do what others are doing. It’s not that I think my low mileage and deemphasizing of a training plan make me faster. It just is what I currently find sustainable and what suits the purpose I want running to serve in my life right now. Nevertheless, I do enjoy the Tuesday (track) workouts. To be honest, although I’ve trained pretty exclusively for 9 marathons since leaving college, I was an 800m runner in high school and college and still think I’m naturally better at the shorter distance. So, even though I haven’t been in middle distance shape in a long time, it still feels best when there are some short quick intervals in Tuesday workouts and it always makes me remember how much I miss running fast!
You’re a medical/Ph.D. student so that means you’re very busy. How do you manage to balance it all while running competitively?
My strategy is to acknowledge that running takes a backseat to other priorities and demand little in regard to running achievement from myself. This keeps me from getting too frustrated and lets me feel like whatever I end up being able to fit in and achieve running-wise is a success. The last several years I’ve been in the Ph.D. portion of my MD-PhD training and have had the flexibility that could have allowed me to devote more time to running. But in actuality, I’ve run less and less every year even though I imagine I could have made some gains by devoting more time and miles to it. This has been my personal choice as I honestly love medicine and science and spending long hours in the lab. But I am cognizant of the fact that I often will run slower than I have previously or that I could have perhaps otherwise because of the way I choose to prioritize things. Because I nonetheless like racing, I deliberately try to not let my ego get in the way of me getting out there and participating no matter what kind of shape I am in.
What is your favorite distance to race and why?
It’s counterintuitive, but I’ve personally found the marathon to be the easiest to train for and race decently while being busy with medical school/graduate school/research because I’ve felt the weekly long run could get me most of the way there and it was more forgiving of me missing an interval workout (or not doing any quality for an entire season…) or missing other runs here or there (or multiple times per week…).
You ran an impressive race at the Boston Marathon this year, while many other runners wilted in the heat. What was your strategy? How did you manage to keep a cool head in the heat?
It was quite warm, but fortunately not quite as warm as the 90 degree temps at my other Boston in 2012! I didn’t have any special strategy. I tried to stay relaxed as long as I could. I knew I was undertrained (per usual) and still trying to bounce back from a strained hamstring and bursitis (both from an unwise 22-miler on snowy Wissahickon trails), so I think I did the best I could on that day. I lived in Boston for 2 years, so it’s a fun and familiar race for me and I enjoyed it! Oddly, the BAA is reporting the gun time as my chip and official time, so I’m hoping to convince them to remedy this and give me my 3 minutes back!
What is your proudest running accomplishment?
The 2012 Philly Marathon is my favorite race memory. I trained that year for the NYC Marathon that was canceled the day prior to the race because of Hurricane Sandy. Through PRTC, I, fortunately, was able to get into the Philly Marathon two weeks later. Since I had tapered for the NYC race that never happened, by the time the Philly Marathon came around I had been tapered for five weeks and was convinced I was simply now out of shape and going to race poorly. I went out way too fast and was running more than 20 seconds faster per mile than my PR pace; but, as I was convinced I was going to have a bad race on account of the five-week taper regardless, I didn’t worry about it and decided to just enjoy running quick while I still could. Much to my surprise, although I slowed down substantially the second half of the race, I never completely fell apart and ended up running a 7 minute PR of 2:57.
What advice would you give to a runner who was just starting out?
Define success on your own terms.
Can you share any funny/poignant stories about running?
Eleven years ago, long before I ever moved to Philly, I ran a 5k in Avalon (Jersey Shore) while on vacation with family. Somewhere I have a picture of me getting awarded third place while two girls in PRTC jerseys got first and second.
What are some of your other interests besides running and medicine?
I grew up on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, so I enjoy getting home to sail and enjoy the lake. I like traveling; in the last two years, I’ve been to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. I’m trying to learn Persian but am making extremely slow progress.