Running is Jen French’s escape.
The 34-year-old mother of two, and a runner for the past 11 years, treats the activity as “me” time — time to be alone, and time to think.
French is currently training for two of the biggest runs of her life: a 70-kilometre ultra marathon in Manning Park on Aug. 10 and, the icing on any runner’s cake, the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4. She’s also running a 35-kilometre Survival of the Fittest Trail Run May 26 in Squamish with two of her best friends, BJ Bruder and Melissa Lambert.
“It’s kind of funny because I wasn’t going to do any races this year,” French said. “BJ phoned me one day and asked if I wanted to do an ultra marathon and I said ‘absolutely, no,’ but after about a week of convincing I ended up saying yes.”
Her decision to register for the New York City Marathon was another gamble. For the race, ever year a lottery is held, where just 4- to 5,000 out of more than 120,000 are accepted to join another 50,000 who compete at the famous event.
“It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s the biggest marathon in the world and the hardest one to get in to. When I applied they setup an interview process, not personally, but through e-mail and through some paperwork. They ask you some questions like why you like running, how many marathons you’ve done, your times and what your goals are for this year. You kind of just send it off and you hope for the best.”
This year the New York City Marathon saw a record number of applicants. On Feb. 28, French got an e-mail notifying her she’d been accepted.
“So, now, I’m doing an ultra marathon training plan, and getting ready for that,” she said. “Just the atmosphere, alone, will be great. I’ve been getting more into trail running and I didn’t want to do any more road races, but I’m pretty excited about the New York one. It’s a big tick off any runner’s bucket list.”
In preparation, French runs four to five times a week.
“For an ultra, they say you have to do two back-to-back long runs, so I do a long run on Saturday, then a long run on Sunday. With the Sunday run you’re learning to run on tired legs.”
She also strength trains twice a week, and cross trains either by swimming or by finding other activities to do.
“I’m really busy,” she said. “There’s not much time for anything else, but I like it.”
For the 70-kilometre ultra marathon, French said it will be her first and a gruelling test to see whether her body — physically and mentally — can handle it.
“The longest race I’ve done is a full marathon, so 42.2 kilometres,” she said. “I’ve only done that once and it was in 2014. I’ve done 13 half marathons, but nothing as crazy as thinking of doing an ultra.”
Her inspiration and biggest motivator, she said, is American marathon runner Katherine Switzer who, in 1967, became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant.
“She’s a huge role model for me,” French said. “For 70 years the Boston Marathon was male dominant — no women were allowed to run. She had signed up with just her initials, ‘KV Switzer,’ and was running along with her boyfriend and her coach when the race director realized there was a girl in the race. They pushed her, body checked her, and the race director tried to take her bib.”
Switzer finished the race and, five years later in 1972, women were officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon.
“She pioneered it,” she said. “If it wasn’t for her, women wouldn’t be running marathons. I’ve loved her since I started running.”
Her family and friends are also in her corner providing much-needed support.
“I went for a run [Monday] and came home greeted by my family asking how it went,” she said. “I have a huge support system and if anything, it is nice that they are the ones who hold me accountable on days when I don’t run: ‘Hey, mom. Why aren’t you going for a run today?’ They see me wanting to stick to a goal and achieve it as I hope they do with the things they set out to do, as well.”
French’s passion for running began after she had her first child 11 years ago. She started off with short distances just as a way to get out of the house for some time to herself.
That’s when she got hooked.
“When I start to run harder and deeper into the loneliness, further away from the world and busyness, structure and routine of life I being to feel strangely elated, detached and, at the same time, connected,” she described. “More connected to my body — it helps me realize the simplicity of life and gain perspective. Everything that seems overwhelming in a day is more manageable after a good run.”
She added she treats running a lot like parenting.
“When my kids are having a bad day I tell them to breathe, relax and put one foot in front of the other,” she said.
“I tell myself that on a long, hard run. Running makes me feel free, happy and alive.”