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Chasing The Light: Heather Mrzlack

I was standing in line for the porta-potty yet again. Nerves have always been a theme in my life. Knowing myself well enough at age 47, I arrived to my first 50k early to accommodate my anxious tendencies. Something was different about today though. Even though I was nervous, it was a manageable feeling- it almost felt normal. What I’m sure most people around me were feeling. It wasn’t over the top; I wasn’t shaking or infested with angry butterflies that made me want to throw up. This was OK. Maybe it was because I felt ready; I knew that I trained as much as I could with Michele’s 50K training plan and followed her advice as much as possible. I overcame injuries over the past 6 months and continued on with the training program. I focused on mobility, adequate sleep, nutrition…. Could I have worked harder? Probably, but I’m also a single mom holding down a full-time job, so I did the best I could with the time I had. Standing in line at the start of the race, I was happy to notice that my mind wasn’t filled with dread, but with a sense of excitement and wonder- what would this race be like? Maybe that’s the feeling I’ve always wanted.

Sports have always been a part of my life. In 4th grade, my best friend, Kathleen, and I wanted to play basketball but there was only a boys’ team. Because of Title IX, schools were required to offer male and female nondiscriminatory opportunities to play sports and treat both male and female students fairly, so we were permitted to play. At the end of the season, Kathleen and I were 2 of 3 kids chosen for the area-wide all-star team. I continued to play basketball and in 8th grade made it onto the varsity team as a point guard. My son is in 8th grade now and I can’t imagine him playing varsity basketball. I was so nervous before every game it was almost debilitating. I was nervous about screwing up, losing the game… looking back it’s amazing I continued to play throughout high school even though I felt that way. I also played volleyball and softball, but those sports did not elicit the same level of anxiety, so I really enjoyed them. Track, however, provoked great fear every practice and every meet. With this sport, however, the fear was based on the anticipation of pain. I was a sprinter, I ran the worst sprinting races (in my opinion)- the 400 meters (at full speed all the way around the track), 1600 meter relay (same thing but with three other girls), the 100 meter dash, and 200 meter dash. Practice was grueling; I still remember Ms. Grady yelling at girls who walked on the track- you NEVER walked on the track. My senior year I injured my foot and was out for the rest of the track season. Part of me was OK with it. I joined the golf team and learned how to play golf and I loved it. I played in a golf tournament and beat somebody- I was pretty proud of myself. It was the summer of my senior year that my first knee injury occurred. We were playing a softball game against our rival school, Lowell, and this girl also named Heather slid into second base as I was covering it. Except she didn’t exactly slide; she hit me like a football player, knocking my left knee out. I was examined and put in a cast. One year later as a freshman at Purdue, I was going up for a rebound playing intermural basketball when a 6-foot tall guy who was also going up for the rebound came down on top of me. I tore my ACL and had to have surgery. I believe the injury playing softball set me up for a lifetime of issues. I’ve had two ACL surgeries now, meniscus tears, bone grafts… I guess knee issues are my misfortune in life, but there are worse things!

My senior year at Purdue, friends and I took our bikes out in the woods and rode on barely visible trails. I couldn’t figure out why we were riding in the woods, but there were some awesome jumps and I had a blast. When I moved to Colorado after college, I understood that we were actually “mountain biking”. I got into that, at one point started racing BMX. At the State Championship in Longmont, I almost didn’t race because I was way too nervous. But I finally got up the nerve at the last minute and finished in 3rd place for my gender and age group.

My parents supported me throughout my life. Friends were jealous (I was embarrassed) because they went to every game and meet. They supported everything I did. But their lifestyle choices caught up with them. I was the youngest of 5 kids so when I was in high school they were already in their 50s. They ate a standard American diet and exercised very little, and my dad had his first heart attack at age 50. I announced I was a vegetarian when I was 15. This was unheard of in Indiana in the late 1980s/ early 90s and I nearly starved to death and was pretty unhealthy. Moving to Colorado helped; I found more people, restaurants and stores that supported my dietary choices.

My mom started to act strange, and we didn’t realize until years later that she was suffering from dementia. My dad had several heart surgeries and although they did things they loved, such as traveling and fishing, they both seemed like they were in pain much of the time. And on loads of medications. My dad eventually died and my mom had to be placed in a Alzheimer’s facility. She survived for 2 more years before succumbing to her dementia and other health issues. Seeing them suffer, I vowed that I would take care of myself the best I could so I could enjoy my life without pain and medications. I continue to be a vegetarian (now over 4 years vegan), drink very little alcohol, and make it a point to exercise every day if I can. I’m a blast to be around! But aside from occasional knee issues, I feel very healthy and continue to do things I want to do.

Over the years I raced in 5 and 10K races, I was a volunteer firefighter, I had two kids, was married and divorced…. One day I was in a hurry dropping something off at the elementary school when I first met Michele. We chatted and she told me about Rugged Running and encouraged me to look into it. I did, and I was immediately drawn to her training philosophy and all-encompassing training strategies. I remember telling her my initial goal- to always be in shape to run a 5k. I wasn’t interested in long-distance at the time. I didn’t even think I was capable of it, with my history as a sprinter and my natural tendency to run on my toes. But I knew I was obsessed with ultrarunners. I read every book and listened to every podcast- Born to Run (Christopher McDougall), Finding Ultra (Rich Roll), Eat & Run (Scott Jurek), Thrive (Brendan Brazier)… But I thought they were crazy and never saw myself doing it. However, after training with Michele, my endurance improved, and knowing I needed something to help me get through a Covid winter, I signed up for the North Fork 50K near my hometown, which was to occur June 5th, 2021. I thoroughly loved the training; I got out onto the local trails as much as possible. If I found myself in other places like New Mexico or Florida, I challenged myself to find fun and beautiful runs to do. My absolute favorite was running 13 miles from my sister’s house in Fort Pierce, Florida to the ocean and jumping in! I guess it was all about the journey, as they say.

Back to the porta-potty, I finished the race, didn’t quite achieve my goal time but didn’t really care. It was very hot that day; having trained throughout the winter I wasn’t acclimated to the heat. But I accomplished something with hard work and determination and I have Michele to thank for helping me get there. I see myself running a 50K again; there are things I would definitely do differently. And now that I know what to expect, I believe I could reach my time goals.

Right now I’m helping out as a coach for the Conifer High School Mountain Bike Team. My son Ben is lucky enough to be a part of the team, even though he can’t race yet as an 8th grader. My goals are to continue to stay healthy in my life so I can continue to do fun things. I can be in competitions, but I don’t have to get sick over them. Once I took the pressure off myself, I realized it’s all just for fun anyways. Maybe that’s a benefit of getting older. Another benefit is no one expects you to be great but sometimes you can surprise them!

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