Olympic Trade-off

Margreet Dietz homecoming stride at Rotterdam Marathon

Would you put your quest for a sub-3-hour marathon on hold in exchange for a chance to work as a reporter at the Olympics? Read the Good4Sports Q+A with marathoner Margreet Dietz, and leave your comment.

One of the benefits of working at the Ski Jumping venue  at the Vancouver Olympics was that I met a remarkable number of interesting people, many of them journalists. One of them is Margreet Dietz, a Squamish, B.C. writer and editor who worked the “mix zone” interviewing athletes.

What Margreet, 39,  didn’t tell us at the time is that she is runner, and she was getting ready to complete her 12-th marathon (her PR is 3:07) – in Rotterdam in April. Turns out she’s also competed in Ironman races. Between the triathlons and the road races, she has more than a 100 competitions under her belt.

Margreet was born in the Netherlands, but didn’t start running until she was 25, while doing post-graduate studies in Brussels. She began to run at the same time as realizing that she wanted to become a journalist. She recalls her first run was barely 2 kilometres long, and she couldn’t finish. She also remembers the first time she was able to run for an hour: “it gave me such an intense feeling of happiness and accomplishment. I don’t know how many weeks or perhaps months it took me to improve from a 5-minute jog to a comfortable 60+ minutes but I do very vividly remember this moment and how good it made me feel.”

Running Shows Are a Girl's Best Friend is the first book from Dietz

When Margreet was hired by Bloomberg News, she started to travel the world – never leaving her running shoes behind. She lived briefly in Canada, before moving to Australia. By 2007, she and her partner Tim (triathlete) returned to Canada,  settling in Squamish. Margreet has worked as a freelance writer, and now book author (see below).

She trains an average of 60 kms a week, under the online supervision of Pat Carroll, one of Australia’s best all-time distance runners. He believes in smaller volumes, and has helped bring her times down significantly. He believes she can run under 3 hours, but that wasn’t to be the case in Rotterdam – which was a homecoming race for her.

The G4S Q+A begins with a few questions about working the Olympics, before focusing on the Rotterdam race..

The Olympic Effect

G4S:

In February 2010, you were part of a media corps covering the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Ski jumping, Nordic Combined, and Cross-country racing were among the events you covered. In what way did your status as a “marathoner” impact your confidence level in being around the athletes?

MD:

My level of confidence around the athletes came from my more than 13 years of experience as a reporter and knowing that I am good at what I do as a journalist. My experience as a competitive runner and triathlete helped me appreciate better how much these athletes have accomplished, even by simply having made it to these Games. Knowing how big a role the mind plays in your performance when it counts made me admire Gold medal winners even more, such as Switzerland’s Simon Ammann who executed brilliantly when expectations and pressure were so high: he became double Olympic champion for the second time (he did so too in 2002 and then sank into a performance slump that included the 2006 Games).

Nearly every person can be a pretty decent athlete with focus and determination. Getting to competing at an elite level such as at the Games takes truly hard work and persistence (and talent). In short, I believe my experience as a marathoner helped me better understand their level of dedication, the weight of expectations (their own or that of others), and the mental strength it takes to remain confident and focused when the big moment has come.

G4S:

How did watching the best athletes in the world compete impact your own motivation to train and compete?

MD:

It confirmed that if you want to reach a goal you have to apply yourself and do everything in your power to give yourself the best chance of reaching it. It’s not so much about reaching that goal; it’s about knowing that you did everything you could have possibly done to be the best you can be. It’s also about finding confidence and maintaining the sense of joy and love that first drew you to the sport—or whatever passion or path you choose to pursue. And it’s about trying without applying limits to your potential capabilities.

G4S:

The Olympics were rather close to the Rotterdam marathon date. Your work days were extremely long during the Games. How was your training schedule affected?

MD:

I missed training sessions – more than I would like to count – including speed sessions. During the month of February I worked every day except three. Those three days I used to do three-hour runs because those are the most important preparation for a marathon. I had decided to do the Rotterdam Marathon in October last year. When I was offered the Olympic contract I knew it would hurt my training during the month with the biggest volume. I decided the opportunity to work as a reporter at the Games was worth it and that I would just do the best I could in terms of training and on race day. So I am pretty happy with the result.

The Rotterdam Experience

G4S:

When you crossed the finish line in Rotterdam, what went through your mind?

MD:

At the 41km mark I decided to speed up as much as I could for the final 1.195km. When I passed a few guys I said to one of them, “are you coming (in Dutch of course)?” He accelerated and we ran side-by-side, drawing energy from each other. I wasn’t sure if he would last, and if he did, I expected him to try to out-sprint me in the final metres to the line. I was smiling that final 1.195km for many reasons, but most of all because I was about to finish another marathon, the first one in my home country.

I was trying to spot my dad, who had come to watch his first marathon. He was in the thick of a huge crowd that lined the final stretch towards the finish line. (Incidentally, spectators are along the entire course—just superb.) I didn’t see my dad here, though I had seen him at the start and at the 25km mark.

As we got closer to the finish I noticed the guy I was running with wasn’t fading nor accelerating. Just before the line he reached for my hand, so I grabbed his and we finished with our hands held in the air. My first thought at the line was that that was such a great way to finish this marathon, sharing that moment with another runner you have never met before and probably will never see again: it’s that shared sense of accomplishment.

I have no idea if he was happy with his time, whether he had raced marathons before or what his name is (though I could look that up from the finish photos and video footage). We high-fived and congratulated each other, and went our separate ways.

My next thought was that I hadn’t pressed my stopwatch so I wondered what time I had run (3:11:51).

G4S:

Every marathon has a turning point (for better or for worse) for each competitor. What was that point for you?

MD:

My start position was poor–it took me 77 seconds to reach the line (which is not of consequence in your net time). It shows how many runners started ahead of me and unfortunately they did not all move at a similar or faster pace. The first 3km took me 14:44 seconds, which was 74 seconds slower than my target pace of 4:30/km. While I reminded myself that it is better to start too slow than too fast, I did waste energy trying to find clear space to move ahead, with plenty of zigzagging around slower runners and being annoyed that I hadn’t applied for a position in the C-starting area.

In hindsight it’s probably not that big a deal but on race day it was for me: I train very hard to shave seconds off my time. However, there was nothing I could do about it at that point,  other than try to run as well as I could. I finally got some space to run my own pace after those first 3km and I kept passing runners.  If you have enough room to make those passes, it’s always a nicer feeling than being passed. As I slowly settled into my rhythm and cleared my mind I was able to focus on the race.

I felt fatigued around 17km and remember thinking it was a bit early to feel that way. However, I felt good at 30km and got a major mental, and therefore physical, boost from a DJ playing Aretha Franklin’s Freedom at about the 32km. I was excited to be as comfortable as I was at this point. At about 36km I felt the beginning of a cramp underneath my right foot and eased my pace slightly, knowing that a full-blown cramp would force me to stop to stretch it out which would cost me way more time than running a few seconds per km slower. Other than that, I felt relatively OK for this point of the race, which seemed to have gone by fast.

I know from experience that the final kilometres are the hardest. By 41km I sped up, as mentioned above, and was able to hold that pace until the finish.

Overall, it was one of my least dramatic marathons–I felt relatively good the whole way. My time splits show this too, as they are pretty even and my second half is faster than my first.

Speed 13,196 km/uur
Total time 3:13:08
Net time 3:11:51
Net splits (difference)
5 kilometer 23:34 (23:34)
10 kilometer 45:44 (22:10)
15 kilometer 1:08:11 (22:27)
20 kilometer 1:30:48 (22:37)
Half marathon 1:36:06
25 kilometer 1:53:59 (23:11)
30 kilometer 2:16:44 (22:45)
35 kilometer 2:39:14 (22:30)
40 kilometer 3:02:22 (23:08)

G4S:

Where did you suffer the most during the race?

MD:

This marathon was one of my most comfortable. And I think I mentally struggled most around in the first 3km thinking I wasted precious seconds and being annoyed with myself for not thinking about my starting position better. Overall, I was focused and `in the moment’ for most of the race.

A marathon is always a challenge but I felt pretty good throughout this race.

In the 2008 Vancouver Marathon I really suffered, mentally and physically. I still finished in 3:12, which was then my second-fastest time but it was 7 minutes slower than my goal. It was one of those days where the wheels already fell off halfway and I was in mental and physical survival mode for the remainder. I beat myself up over this result because my training had gone so well and I had just set big PBs for the 10km and half marathon. It took me several months to realize that being disappointed with my second-fastest time was just silly. I ran the Victoria Marathon five months later in a completely different frame of mind and finished in a PB.

While I always have a performance goal for each race, I also have a fundamental goal: to finish no matter what (barring health issues of course). You always learn from each race, especially those that are the most challenging. Even if I fall short of a certain time goal, I very much enjoy and appreciate the fact that I can finish—even in Vancouver 2008.

G4S:

What did you learn about yourself in running the Rotterdam race?

MD:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this marathon in terms of finish time, as my biggest training month was meant to be February. However, working as a (flash quote) reporter for VANOC every day but three in February, I missed more training sessions than I care to count. I knew that my endurance was where it should be because I had used those three days off in February to do my long runs. But with missing crucial speed work and lower volume than I was supposed to do (on a training program that was already light with only four days of training per week) I wasn’t so sure what time I could aim for. My coach agreed that I should try for sub-3:15, so I am pretty happy with 3:11. I think it taught me that I still am not confident enough in my own ability.

G4S:

It’s a long way from British Columbia to Rotterdam, but this race brought you closer to your roots. Once you got to Rotterdam and were running the race, in what way did your understanding of why you chose this race change?

MD:

Hmm. I had chosen this race because I was going to the Netherlands to visit my parents and to celebrate my grandmother’s 94th birthday. I always like to do a race while I am in the Netherlands and have done a few, both running races and triathlons.

The first running race I did in the Netherlands was a 15km in 2001–I was living in Australia at the time. Race day brought pouring rain and my parents, who would come to watch me run for the first time, thought that the poor weather surely meant I wouldn’t go. Of course I did and they came too and cheered me on. I ran a PB for the 15km and the photo my mum took of me right after I crossed the finish line captures my happiness, with the result and my parents’ presence. My mum’s photograph, of a runner’s sense of accomplishment, graces the cover of my first book Running Shoes Are a Girl’s Best Friend. (To read an excerpt, click here)

Unfortunately my mum has a knee injury so she couldn’t come, as planned, to Rotterdam. My dad did come to watch me race my first Dutch marathon and I think he enjoyed the experience. It was great to have him there. My parents have now watched me in almost every running and triathlon distance, including the Frankfurt Ironman in 2004, as has my sister who came to support me in my first Ironman, in Australia in 2001.

G4S:

I like to say that the pursuit of sport helps us reconnect with our inner child. In what way did your inner child reveal herself in this race?

MD:

As children we are not consumed by what we did yesterday or need to do tomorrow. There is a constant wonder and appreciation of the here and now. During this race I was able to stay in the moment, as I describe in my latest book A Work in Progress: Exercises in Writing. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 27, titled Surprising:

Distance running requires consistent training of body and mind, especially if you seek to improve. Since most runners love to run they generally also love to train. That said, the sessions that challenge one’s body to run fast or far can be demanding and how you approach these mentally will greatly affect your performance. When you race a marathon your frame of mind will largely determine the outcome, provided you have prepared your body as well as possible.

Striking the right balance between being relaxed and focused is crucial on race day: your mind needs to be free from strain to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. You have to be able to psyche yourself into running hard for those 42 kilometres to achieve your goal, yet avoid focusing on the outcome because you need to concentrate on the process to maximise your performance.

The key to marathon racing is one’s ability to stay in the moment, to focus on every step especially during the later stages in the race when your body is approaching exhaustion and your mind will convince you to stop if you let it. That’s when you experience the hardest and most enjoyable aspect of distance running: emptying your mind from any past and future to focus on making the present the best it can be.

As writers we also need to learn to relax so we write without giving in to the critic in our head and sustain our effort long enough to finish that first draft. We must concentrate on what is important now, writing word after word, sentence after sentence so we can fill page after page.

The other day I came across an online reference to a book titled Wabi Sabi for Writers by Richard Powell. Intrigued by the term Wabi Sabi which I thought was a play on wasabi, I found it described on the author’s website as: “An intuitive way of living that involves noticing the moments that make life rich and paying attention to the simple pleasures that can be over-shadowed by the bustle and excess of our consumer society.”

Noticing the moments that make life rich and paying attention to the simple pleasures are useful reminders for any writer.

I run, most of all, because that is what I love to do. Being a runner (and triathlete) has also increased my understanding of who I am and who I can be. Preparing for and racing marathons is an exercise in self-control, focus and determination. I approach them with a mixture of confidence, excitement and fear. I love the promise of possibility at the start line and the sense of accomplishment at the finish line for having tried and conquered. Anything is possible–if you try.

One day I may complete a marathon in less than 3 hours. One day I may be the first female across a marathon finish line. I may not accomplish these things but I certainly won’t if I decide beforehand that they are not going to happen and therefore I am not going to even try. [Within two months of writing this in the first draft I won the 2009 North Olympic Discovery Marathon in the US and set a female course record.]

By the same token, write if you enjoy expressing ideas and telling stories in language on paper. In the process, you may finish a book, or publish one or become a best-selling author. You won’t know until you try. (end excerpt)

G4S:

As a child growing up, what sports did you pursue?

MD:

As a little girl I did classical ballet for a few years, and then took horse riding lessons for three. In my teens I played competitive volleyball for several years (and later played beach volleyball in Toronto). I cycled often, as a kid with my parents, and later as a teen with one girlfriend—though never competitively until I did my first triathlon in 1999. I played squash for a year with a girlfriend in university. (I played flute for two years, as an introduction to choosing another musical instrument, and then had weekly electronic organ lessons for six years. I didn’t find those, or my teacher, particularly inspiring but didn’t think of complaining or switching teachers / instruments. I bought a couple of second-hand guitars, a classical and an electric one, when I was 18 and learnt some basic chords but didn’t play after finishing university. In 2006 I decided it was time to try again and bought an acoustic guitar, an Art & Lutherie model, and started practising again. Inspired by a friend who also plays and the lure of eBay I got a bit carried away and now own three acoustic guitars (including a travel-size Martin as I take a guitar with me on holiday including on a seven-day hiking trip along the stunning South Coast Track in Tasmania in 2007), an electric guitar plus small amp, a classical guitar I store with my parents in the Netherlands and a piano keyboard with weighted keys. Unfortunately my skills do not come anywhere near matching this collection. I have been joking for three years that I will start a band when I turn 40, which is in June this year. I began painting in early 2005 and have taken part in a couple of exhibitions in Sydney, Australia, and a dozen here in Squamish where I last year joined a local visual arts group VISUALS. I ended up coordinated two of the four VISUALS group shows last year and writing articles for local newspapers about some of our artists. However, as of September last year I decided that I need to focus on what matters to me most: writing.)

G4S:

You began to run in 1996, and explain why in your book “Running Shoes Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” How has your transformation to becoming a marathoner changed how you see yourself?

MD:

It’s still an ongoing exploration, particularly the conscious realization of how running (marathons) has changed how I see myself and how I live my life. It has made me realize that I have a lot more determination, patience and focus than I thought. While I did sports as a kid, I never saw myself (and I don’t think anyone else did) as a particularly athletic person. Being a (marathon) runner feels natural to me, I can’t imagine my life without running. Having said that, I do not identify myself purely as a runner—it is simply something that supports a life and lifestyle that makes me happy.

G4S:

What part of your personality is reflected in your pursuit of marathoning?

MD: I think all of it. Running has helped me understand my personality better and find a better balance between different aspects of it.

The Runner/The Writer

G4S:

You’ve now published two books about the running (and triathlon) experience, in addition to many articles. How do you think the Olympic experience affected you as a writer?

MD:

It reminded me that anything is possible with passion, dedication and hard work. Success is relative. The most obvious measure is obviously winning a Gold medal, and for some winning Silver is a disappointment. For others simply having made it to the Games is a personal milestone and victory, perhaps a Personal Best that will never be matched again. It’s about pursuing what is important to you and being open to the opportunities you are given. I consider myself extremely fortunate in my career as a journalist and now author. I chose to self-publish my first three books (the third will be available next month). Regardless of whether they become bestsellers (which of course would be nice) or not, they are milestone accomplishments for which I have worked extremely hard to achieve. I know how completely impossible finishing even one book, let alone publishing it, felt a year ago: if you had told me then that I’d be awaiting the publication of my third book by May 2010 I would have laughed incredulously (and then probably cried). I feel I have made so much progress as a writer. I have worked as a professional journalist and (copy-) editor since 1996 in Europe, Canada and Australia, most of that time covering business and finance for Bloomberg News. The Olympics confirmed that I am on the right path as a writer and that if I keep honing my skills and working as hard as I am on developing my skills I will keep growing. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a career I am so passionate about. I wouldn’t choose any other if I could.

G4S:

How do you think your writing about running is shaped by the fact that you run?

MD:

All my writing is influenced by my running (and indeed also my writing about running). I began running in the same year that I started my career as a journalist. Running allows me thinking time that inspires, energizes and supports my writing, whether it is about running or not. One passion informs the other because they help me understand myself, and how I fit in this world, and hopefully do so too for the people who read my books. For me, both writing and running are explorations that help me learn and discover every day.

Since January 2008 I have applied many of the lessons I have learnt in running marathons and racing triathlons to the challenges of writing books, such as pacing yourself, taking it step by step (or word by word), and so on: a topic for another book for sure.

More specifically to your question, running has brought so much to my life in general and I know that is the case for most runners so that is what I try to convey as an underlying theme in my writing about running.

G4S:

In what way will this latest marathon impact your writing?

MD:

I have just started writing my first book in Dutch. Even though it is my mother tongue I have never used it as a professional journalist/writer. This trip home has also, perhaps partly because of the sunny weather, felt different to my previous visits here. I have really enjoyed the landscape more than I have previously. It feels like I am looking at it with different eyes which to me signals a change I hadn’t consciously been aware of: I am able to look at the beauty of this country as if I am a visitor. On previous trips I have at times realized I was only looking at things I didn’t like about my home country, this trip I seem to be focused on seeing the things I love. I am not sure yet why or how but I believe there is something there that might be explored in my writing.

The Future

G4S:

At 3:11 in Rotterdam (your fifth fastest time), you are running marathons that many people can only dream of, even if you are not among the world’s elite. What are your goals moving forward?

MD:

My key performance goal is breaking 3 hours for the marathon. In the meantime I’ll settle for improving my PB of 3:07:10. My primary goal is, always, to enjoy running and share that passion with others who are interested.

G4S:

What is your greatest strength?

MD:

Curiosity and determination.

G4S:

What is your greatest weakness?

MD:

I am prone to self-doubt and underestimating my ability.

G4S:

If money and free time weren’t an object, what race would you run before the end of this year?

MD:

Perhaps I would then return to Ironman and aim to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

There are so many marathons I’d still love to do (such as Boston for example).

Margreet Dietz is the Author of:

Running Shoes Are a Girl’s Best Friend

Powered From Within: Stories About Running & Triathlon

A Work in Progress: Exercises in Writing

Website: www.margreetdietz.com

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3 responses to “Olympic Trade-off

  1. as usual – you bring tears to my eyes…

  2. dessie suttle

    Really good interview ,gives me a insight into a writers head !

  3. Thanks Margareet for sharing your views on running and marathoning. I really liked what you wrote about the type of focus you need to have during the marathon and your point that once you are well trained for the day, so much of the outcome of the race depends on your mental frame of mind. This is one area that I will work. Good luck at reaching your goals!

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