In Season Two: Running In A Woman's Body

I think my competitive mindset and my attitude, about just being, staying competitive helps me stay positive. You know, I don’t let myself get into that place of, I don’t belong here because I’m 57. Right. So I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet, and I don’t really want to get there.”

—Sophie Speidel

Episode summary

Ultrarunner Sophie Speidel shares her journey navigating menopause as a competitive athlete. She shares how she’s adjusted to her changing, aging body and kept her running ambitions alive.

Sophie Speidel is a lifelong athlete: being a competitor is motivating, rewarding, and fun. But there’s a simple fact that comes with aging: our ultimate potentials in speed and strength begin to fade. In a sport like running, where we generally measure getting better as getting faster, how can we adjust to a body that’s slowing down and still feel like we’re improving?

Sophie’s journey explores this very question as she takes us through her menopause experiences and how she continues to thrive and achieve as her body ages.

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Cherie Turner: Hello, listener. You’re listening to Strides Forward, where we share the stories of women marathon and ultramarathon runners. I’m Cherie Louise Turner, a runner and also the host and creator of Strides Forward.

This episode launches us into our second season. We’re exploring a new theme: “running in a woman’s body”: and we’re focusing on three experiences that are common to women, menopause, RED-s, and pregnancy. Each episode will feature one runner talking about her experiences around one of these topics.

For this episode, we’re talking about menopause; which means we’re also focusing on running as we get older.

I was particularly excited to start this series here for selfish reasons: I’ve been an athlete pretty much my entire life. I competed as a gymnast until I was 13 . . . I wasn’t very good, but I love the workouts. My seriously competitive days came in my late teens when I fell in love with racing my bike on the road and track. And I eventually earned a spot on a professional team in my early 20s. I left the full-time competition when I stopped bike racing, but my competitive spirit has remained ever since. Striving to be faster and stronger and perform the best that I can in events is what motivates me. I don’t think of running as exercising; I think of it as training. And training is about getting better; in the running world, better is generally always associated with faster.

But I’m 51 and I’m facing the reality of a body that’s changing.  Thankfully, now more than ever before, there are amazing resources available for menopausal women. I really love what the team at Coach Parry is doing, they have a great YouTube series called “The Female Athlete” and a coaching program called the “Running Through Menopause Masterplan”; I turn to the exceptional work of Dr. Stacy Sims as well as Selene Yeager, including the podcast Selene hosts called Hit Play, Not Pause. And I’m loving Barbara Hannah Grufferman’s newsletter the Menopause Cheat Sheet. And something to look forward to, Barbara will be featured in an upcoming episode in this series talking about her menopause journey. These are just some of the resources I really like. And I’ll provide information in the show notes so you can check them out for yourself.

But even with all of these resources, I’ve had an ongoing personal struggle: how can I feel like I’m improving as an athlete, like I’m staying competitive, when I’m actually just getting slower.

And then I talked to this runner.

Sophie Speidel: I’m Sophie Speidel and I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. I am the mom of three adult children and wife and a school counselor and an ultra runner. Not in that order all the time.

Cherie: Sophie, who is now 58, got into sports early in life.

Sophie: I’m the youngest of 4 girls and we were all pretty competitive growing up. And one of my sisters was really a great athlete, and I wanted to be just like her.

Cherie: The first sport that captured Sophie’s heart was lacrosse, which she played in high school all the way through college at the University of Virginia and then she went on to play on the US National Team. Looking for somewhere else to channel her competitive drive after lacrosse, Sophie did focus for a time on triathlon. And then one fateful day, she had a conversation with a friend.

Sophie: But it was really trail running that flipped a switch for me, short distance trail running around Charlottesville, in the mountains near here and I had done a road marathon and someone said to me, if you can run a marathon, you can run 5 more miles and do an ultra. And I’m like, Oh, OK, a 50k, alright. In 2002 I ran my first 50k, near here in Charlottesville on a pretty mellow two-loop trail loop called the Holiday Lake 50k. That started my long love affair with trail ultra running.

Cherie: Sophie has now been logging miles for years, which also means there’s a lot of data available about her past performances and training. GPS watches can track our every step and store the information forevermore. Races make times and placings available for all to see. And then there’s Strava, which is like Facebook but for athletes. You post your workouts, or they upload automatically from a GPS watch, so you can share your athletic adventures with your friends and followers.

Sophie: In the age of Strava, and GPS watches . . . I kind of wish we could go back. I did get on Strava a few years ago, and it’s like, Oh, boy, talk about going down a rabbit hole, because then you start comparing all of that stuff. And that I think for me has been a big cha llenge. You’re not going to run the same route that you ran in 2013 at the same speed, just accept that. getting to those basics of acceptance was hard, but it’s getting easier.

Cherie: We all know it’s coming: with age, we slow down. Our days of reaching our greatest physical potentials of strength and speed and agility recede as we get older. In the realms of racing and training.

Sophie: If there are any challenges there, my, of my own doing right, it’s no longer do I feel like I CA I met, I’m always bringing up the caboose when I’m running with the fast people. Um, and I always feel kind of bad about that. Like, and I always tell them upfront, you know, do not wait for me. You guys go do your thing. Um, so there is the reality of that. Um, I think, you know, age-ism is a little bit real in our sport to be with the younger folks coming in, because I remember looking at some of the older women ahead of me when I was in my early forties and women who are in their fifties and sixties at the time, and being a little dismissive of the, of them as, you know, Tom, like their times at races and that kind of stuff. And I look back now and I go, Oh, I should not have done that because I definitely feel that there’s a little bit of dismissiveness of, of your elders, right. And, and the ex experience, um, uh, that we can share and help each other with. So I think that is a bummer, but that’s, that’s something that we see across, um, you know, our, our culture is age-ism right.
Cherie: Sophie was at a crossroads: she still had a strong competitive drive, but she couldn’t measure success or even improvement the same way she had before.

Sophie: So I’m really grateful that i can do what i’m doing, whenever i find myself playing those games, those head games about being slower, I immediately try to go to gratitude. It’s all about gratitude. It’s all about being able to do what we’re doing and to stop worrying about the data. So that has been a challenge for me.

Cherie: And of course, in tandem with navigating this new reality of becoming less fast, Sophie was approaching menopause. And her knowledge about what that journey was all about was a bit, well . . .

Sophie: Yeah, nothing. I knew nothing. Nobody really talked to us about menopause. And my mom was a different generation, so we didn’t necessarily have those talks as much as I think I would have liked to. I didn’t really know what was happening, you know, in my late forties, until I had really, really strong and heavy periods.
Cherie: Necessity is the mother of . . . er, in this case, learning about menopause. Sophie started that journey by turning to her long-time gynecologist, who confirmed that what she was experiencing was quite normal.
Sophie: So then that began kind of the classic conversation between me and my doctor ongoing for the next couple of years about, um, what perimenopause looks like. And I, I kind of checked the normal boxes. I think my doctor would agree that I checked kind of the normal boxes of perimenopause or menopausal experience. So super heavy at times. I was pretty, I never missed a period growing up or in my adult life, even with my endurance running. I’m very aware of, you know, the importance of bone healthy bone health, and bone density and eating well. So I fortunately never skipped a period, even though I was putting in long distance, a lot of miles. So I had a pretty healthy base to begin with there.
So yeah. To answer your question, nothing, I did not know a whole lot until I started having, you know, kind of the typical first bleed LA big period bleeds that people get.
Cherie: The specifics of every menopause journey are different: symptoms vary, as do their intensity and duration. For some women menopause has a huge impact on their day to day and for others, it doesn’t.

Sophie: Yeah, I think I probably had night sweats. Um, but again, nothing that was debilitating. So I found myself reading up on it and wondering, gosh, you know, I have night sweats, but I’m not drenched in the morning. You know, I was reading about what other women were experiencing or hearing about other women are experiencing. And I felt lucky. I was like, okay, you know, this is just my body doing its thing, but it’s not as bad as someone else’s that I’m hearing about. So again, I really feel fortunate and I don’t know if my endurance running was healthy, helping, right. If, if, because I was, um, re relieving stress in a healthy way because, um, I was eating well and getting a lot of good sleep, you know, the rest of my lifestyle was in a good place. And I think that probably have a lot to do with the fact that my symptoms of menopause were pretty minimal.
Cherie: Sophie’s symptoms were minimal, but they weren’t predictable or controllable.
Sophie: Um, no, the only thing it did was make me super, um, cautious about, you know, in, in trail running we’re, we’re running single file on these trails. And I do have a distinct memory of running with some women. I did not know very well. And I was having my period and I had come prepared with like five super tampons in a, in a baggie. And I kept ducking into the woods because I had to change them. I mean, this is kind of during a run. I would, I would probably have a heavier flow than maybe not. And then I realized I was, I was out of tampons and I had to get in the back of the line and I confided to this woman, who’s now a really good friend. I said, look, I’m having my period. This is really gross. I’m just going to get in the back because you do not want to see what’s going on. And, and, but that’s, that’s so funny too, because that’s what ultra that’s, that’s our, our, our community we’re we, you know, we go to the bathroom in the woods and we talked very candidly about our bodies. Um, and so I had no problem kind of confiding that with her, but yeah, that was probably the thing that would scare me the most is not being able to deal with these heavy flows in the middle of the nowhere.
Cherie: Sophie found understanding in the running community and some wisdom.

Sophie: You know, and I, uh, my friend, Martha, who had already been through it, she said, I said, Martha, tell me, you know, we were talking on the trail about the frustration of these big periods, for example. And she’s like, look, it, you’ll get this really, really bad one. And then it’ll stop. I promise you, no, that was her, her diagnosis or her PR her projection. And sure enough, for me, that was a similar thing, but it happened, gosh, I think I went through this whole process of, of, of the big bleeds and the anticipation and all that for about three years. So from like age 48 to 51, um, and then about 51 52, and my doctor confirmed that. She’s like, yeah, you’ll probably get nothing after you have one really big one. And that’s exactly what happened.
Cherie: While some perimenopause symptoms are pretty obvious, some are a bit more elusive.

Sophie: I didn’t have the irritability. Okay. You could ask my husband. I probably, I’m probably not the person to ask about that. I probably was incredibly irritable during that time, but, um, I, I will chalk it up to the fact that my children were in their teens and early adulthood and I was stressing about, you know, what they were doing probably. So life was just piling on in addition to all that.
Cherie: Life was just piling up on the outside, perimenopause was ushering in a new phase of life from the inside, and Sophie was adjusting and observing.
Sophie: It’s a big life change. Yes. Um, I think the relief of not having to worry obviously about the period took, you know, was great. Um, from a, from a racing standpoint, it was an interesting time, you know, I, I was able to run my fastest times on, I did a race for 10 years, the same race for 10 years. Um, and I’m actually hoping to go back and do it again soon. Um, but as a result of doing it for 10 years, you can, you know, it took me years to kind of crack the code of this race and hit a certain timeframe. And then once I did, I tried to break, this was a hundred K race and I was trying to break 15 hours. And once I broke 15 hours, it’s like the four minute mile. It’s like, once you can do it, then it, then all of a sudden you do it again. And again, and the sixth year and the seventh year, I was able to run my best times ever at this race. Um, and I was 50, I was 51. So I was really kind of in the middle of menopause if you will, um, or towards the end of it. But I was, you know, running PRS at the a hundred K distance, um, which was always really interesting to me. Um, that, and I, again, back to your original question from earlier, I think it was a common, I know it was a combination of, of experience and perspective and the mental health, mental toughness and that kind of stuff. So, but isn’t that cool that at age 51, you know, a woman or a man could PR at a, at an  endurance event, that’s kind of cool.
Cherie: This aging thing had some upsides.

Sophie: I think there’s a lot to be said for life experience. Being able to look back and get perspective on a situation. I think, especially at the 100-mile distance, you have to have a lot of emotional control to succeed, and what I mean by succeed is really what your own personal goal is. For me it was always just, try to finish this 100-mile race without a death march.

Cherie: Setting her sights on her personal goals, like how to finish strong at a 100-miler perhaps, Sophie took stock of other areas where age and experience were a plus, and where she could continue to improve.

Sophie: There are lots of things you can’t control; that’s the other appeal, right? You can’t control the weather. You can’t control the trail. You can’t control whether you turn your ankle on a rock at mile 10. But it’s how you address those uncontrollables that will dictate how things go, right? So that’s a big microcosm of life, in my mind.

Cherie: Experience also comes into play when it comes to good race strategy.

Sophie: The idea of being able to pace yourself in a smart way, and I think being older, right, and having had some failures, and some experience, saying, OK, last time you did this, this is what happened, so this time, let’s change it. And the older you get, the better you get at having that kind of perspective. So, yes, I think having perspective, being able to change things based on experience is a huge plus in our sport.

Cherie: Having perspective, yes. And emotionally maturity is a factor as well.

Sophie: It means not getting too excited when things are going well. I’ll use a 100-mile race as an example, especially the Old Dominion; the OD 100 is the second oldest 100 in the United States and it’s held near my home. The first 30 miles are on rolling gravel roads, so it’s really really easy to go fast and feel great. Oh, I feel so great. Of course you do. You’re tapered and you’re excited and everything. But it takes a lot of, as I call it, emotional control, to keep it slow. In fact, at the OD two years ago, I forced myself to walk twenty steps on downhills on purpose. Because I knew if I didn’t do that early, it would bite me later. And I was so glad that I did that because I had so much left at mile 95.

Cherie: So that’s one side of emotional control: reining yourself in from getting overly excited. There’s a flip side as well.

Sophie: Back to the question about experience; I had to learn that the hard way. All the way up to that in prior races where i blew it out. Being able to control those feelings when you’re feeling really good, and then, and this is where my counseling background plays a part, is, when you’re feeling really crappy, which always happens in these long things, and you, A, have to accept that fact, that you’re going to have what we call a bad patch, but B, how are you going to address it? Are you going to go down that negative rabbit hole of thinking? Or are you going to say to yourself, OK, name it and claim it. That’s what we talk about in mental health practices. So it’s like, this is a bad patch, how are you going to handle it?  And you step away from it, from an emotional perspective and get to your logical problem solving side. So that’s what I mean by emotional control is seeing the situation for what it is and not getting too wrapped up, either excited or negative.

Cherie: With so many factors to dial in, it takes some time to learn how to run these longer distances well.

Sophie: I’m almost 20 years into this sport and I will have to say that I’ve done 5 100-mile races but I think I have figured out the 100-mile distance with my 5th one, the Old Dominion 100, which I did in 2018. But up until then, I wasn’t so sure about that distance. That was a problem to be solved.

Cherie: In 2018, when she nailed it at the Old Dominion, Sophie was 55. So that’s awesome. But what makes this personal victory all the more meaningful is why Sophie chose to run it in the first place.

Sophie: The Old Dominion scared me because it was a scary thing. And I’m thinking, why are you scared of this race? And one of the things I think it was because of the heat and humidity of Virginia, I just knew really well and I just do not do well in heat and humidity. So I immediately wrote off, without even trying, that that race would be anything that I could be competitive in for myself. And for me, I wanted to break the 24-hour barrier at Old Dominion. That was the big goal, to go under 24. And I was afraid that I couldn’t.

Cherie: And right there Sophie discovered a prime motivation to tackle this challenge: fear.

Sophie: I had to admit, I was scared. I was scared, not of the race, but of not doing well. I think, we we get older and we’ve had success in something, a sport or an activity or whatever, it’s really hard to accept your older self and your older self speed . . . I had to own that.

Cherie: Now to be fair, the Old Dominion is tough. There’s the hot, sweaty, energy sapping weather just for starters. The course itself poses huge challenges as well. There are 14 noteworthy climbs and the total elevation gain is about 14,000 feet. To give some perspective, that’s like climbing 1,400 flights of stairs in a wet sauna, over the course of an entire day. Sophie had more than one reason to be afraid.

Sophie: I prepared for it. I accepted the heat and, yes, we had heat and we had humidity and we had rain and it was horrible, but it ended up great. I broked 24 and I thought, Yea, OK, I reached my goal of figuring out that distance, at least for that race.

Cherie: In among finding satisfaction from facing fears and working on all of the elements she can continue to improve in ultra racing, Sophie has found other ways to feed her competitive drive. Because let’s be honest, some healthy competition can inspire us to give more than we thought we could, and when you enjoy testing your limits, staying competitive is really just a lot of fun.

Sophie: Um, I love age group competition. So in our ultra community, a lot of the races around here take, um, note and publish age group records and even one race does age records. So like everyone, every woman who is 55 at this race has run this, the, this pace. So you can see how you stack up. Right. So I could go into a race at age 55 and say, okay, what’s the best time that a woman has run this race. And then that is what I try to go for. So it’s like a virtual race you’re racing against someone from 1992. I did that at the Highland sky 40, um, last, a year ago, June, there was an age record that I was shooting for the, um, 50 and over age record at that race. And I had not been there since I was in my forties. So that’s a good example of, of, you know, I went in there trying to break that record and I knew what I had to do and I prepared for it. And it was so much fun because it came down to the wire. It really did come down to the wire and I broke it by gosh, maybe five minutes, but you know, maybe 30 minutes before the finish line, it wasn’t not in the bag. Um, so I got a lot of satisfaction from racing, a woman who I’ve never met, um, who set that record 10 years ago. And I hope that somebody is going to go for me from my records. That’s that to me is like really fun is to be able to do that.
Cherie: That same competitive spirit is a driver in Sophie’s training as well.
Sophie: You know, I think I’m like, you know, bring it, you know, I go to the track every Wednesday morning with a group of men and fast women, younger women, younger men and younger women. And, um, it’s so great because I’m, you know, I’m, I’m not in the mix with them, but I’m doing the same workout and I don’t find myself apologizing for that or saying, Oh, you know, I don’t, I shouldn’t be on the track with you guys. I think my competitive mindset and my attitude, about just being, staying competitive helps me stay positive. You know, I don’t let myself get into that place of, I don’t belong here because I’m 57. Right. Um, so I don’t, I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet, and I don’t really want to get there.
Cherie: Now in the time of post-menopause, Sophie’s focused on what keeps her motivated and challenging herself.

Sophie: And as I said, I do appreciate these races that make a point of keeping age records. So for example, um, David Horton, who is a race director here in Virginia, um, two of his races, the promised land, 50 K and the hell gate 100 K. He has age group records, 10 deep for, you know, 20 to 29, 30 to 39. And he posts them on the website and a lot of races do this, but it’s really fun. And you go and you just see, see where you stack up and where you can go for it. And as I said earlier, that’s really fun to be able to shoot for a time like that. So from a psychological perspective, I don’t really feel, I feel like I’m still racing. Like I was in my thirties. It’s just, I’m racing different, I’m shooting for different times. And I think that translates well to, you know, how I approach the rest of my life, you know, trying to just be, you know, a glass half full person and getting older has perks and we have great experience and perspective and it doesn’t have to be seen as a negative thing.
Cherie: The plain fact is this: with every day that passes, we’re all headed in the direction of getting older. It’s one certain truth of being alive. Another certain truth is that, however much slower your speed may become, there’s still great joy to be found in pushing your limits and getting out of your comfort zone.

Sophie: Exactly. I mean, I love, I get up so early to go to the track. I get up at four 30 or four 15, just so I can go to the pain cave with these people. And I feel so accomplished and I’m thinking, why do I like that so much?
Cherie: And wrapped up in liking to do the hard work and being motivated and driven to keep competing and facing fears is that deep gratitude of being able to move well as the years go by.
Sophie: So I just, um, I think I keep going, because there’s always something to kind of shoot for, whether it’s a race or a new adventure, you know, a new trail that I’ve never done or chance to spend the weekend with friends, I’m in a beautiful place. And by being in shape to do that on a whim, not on a whim, but being able to say, Hey, yeah. Do you want to go to North Carolina and do this really cool trail down there? And it’s 17 miles and you gotta be fit. You know, it’s great to be able to say, yes. I don’t have to get in shape for that. You know, just to be able to say yes to things. That’s what keeps me going.
Cherie: And with that, we come to the end of Sophie Speidel’s story. I am really thankful to Sophie for sharing her experiences. I knew her story would be great to feature on Strides Forward, but like I hinted at up top, Sophie’s journey also had a big impact on me personally. She’s helped me see a path forward through my own struggles with getting older as an athlete, and I am filled with a whole new enthusiasm for running. One that is way more about appreciation and way less about lamenting what I can’t do. I’m having fun on the trails like I haven’t for years, and I am truly overjoyed about it.
I first learned about Sophie when I read her article “Running Your Best After Menopause,” which she wrote for the Trail Sisters website. Sophie also wrote a fantastic 3 part series about preparing for and running the Old Dominion in 2018. Another runner who’s written candidly about her own experiences of running and aging is Sarah Lavendar-Smith. I really enjoy her blog, The Runners Trip, which you can find at therunnerstrip.com. I’ll put links to everything in the show notes.
As always, I’m very thankful to you for listening. We love making these stories, but they are  made to be hear, so you’re being here is a critical part  of the equation. And we’d love to hear from you. We have a survey that takes about 10 minutes to complete; you can find the link to that at the top of our homepage at stridesforwardpodcast.com.

The Strides Forward team includes me, Cheire momTurner, your host and producer. Cormac O’Regan creates and places all of the music you hear. And he does it from his studio in Cork, Ireland. April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative does all of the design work for the show, including the website, merch, and logo. She comes to you from Truckee, California. You can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com.

Strides Forward will be back in a couple of weeks with another episode about running in the women’s body.

Until then, this is Cherie wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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