Brenda Carawan is not your typical runner. But then again, most people who thrive in races that average 100 miles on the road, are not your every day runner. The Texas native, who has a 100-mile PR of 16:33, has had top finishes at the Spartathlon Ultra Race (153 miles) in Greece and California’s Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles). She’s been first overall female at North Carolina’s Graveyard 100-mile and Florida’s Keys 100 Ultramarathon, amongst other top finishes. And yet, the 38-year-old Carawan didn’t compete, or even run, in high school or college. Instead, she was an aerobics instructor who found her workout wasn’t cutting it anymore, so she started to run.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST RACE?
First, I did the Austin marathon in 1996. I was 19. It took me 6 hours. I came in third from last. In 1997, I did the same race in 4.5 hours. From there, I kept running and I never stopped.
WHEN DID YOU CHANGE FROM MARATHONS TO ULTRAS?
When I moved to Virginia in 2000, I needed a way to meet people. The big thing there was triathlons. I was like I can run and I have swum before and surely I can ride a bike. I did a couple of sprint triathlons. I always needed to finish so I could get to the finish line party.
In 2004, I signed up for an Ironman in North Carolina, even though it wasn’t trademarked that. My family flew in to see me do this race. The race day came and I missed the bike cut-off by over an hour maybe two hours. I got to the transition area and they said you’re disqualified. I said, my family has flown here, can I give you my timing chip and finish the run and they said ‘yes.’ It still took me 5 hours. But I caught enough people to not finish dead last in the whole race.
The next day I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be an Ironman and none of that happened. I went to REI and found this documentary called Running On the Sun about Badwater Ultramarathon. People were throwing up, crying and passing out. One guy had his toenails surgically removed, and I’m looking at this thinking this is what I’m meant to do. I will suffer but it looks like a lot of fun. This is the bucket list race.
THE ROAD TO BADWATER
In 2011, I got invited. You have to be invited and only 90 people get invited. To do Badwater, you have to have completed at least three 100-mile races within a calendar year and you have to submit a running resume. It’s not enough to have just finished three ultras. You have to have done well.
Preparing for and running Badwater, that just set the whole ultra scene for me. I fell in love with the adrenaline rush of getting ready for the races and pushing the limit physically and mentally. That will always be my dream race. The traditional Badwater is unique to any other race on the planet because of the climate, the temperatures and the solitude of not seeing anything for miles and miles.
WHAT’S YOUR AVERAGE WEEKLY MILEAGE?
I run up to 130 miles the week before races and do about 5-6 weeks of 100-plus miles. For the Spartathlon last September—a 153-mile race—I got up to 150 miles a week in training.
My coach is a huge proponent of Newton. She kept telling me about these shoes. Finally, leading up to my second 100-miler, I tried them and then I went and ran 20 miles. It was the most wonderful run I have ever had. I realized this is the fit that I need and I have never used another brand since. I stopped having injuries. My form got better. I attended the Newton coach training school so I could learn more about the science and the drills behind the product. It’s not just a shoe, there’s an actual science behind the shoe. That’s what is unique about Newton and that’s what I fell in love with, the science.
Going into 2012, I had my fourth 100-mile race. I was the first female and I won in 16 hours and 33 minutes. I went from running a 19:50 to a 16:33. I wholeheartedly believe it was because of what I learned from Newton and my coach. It’s those two variables that made a difference.
I decided to write Newton to be on the pro team. But every year the pro field was closed. Then the guy in charge of the pros said why don’t you contact Stephen Gartside who runs the elite team. Up until late 2012 the elite team had been closed to only people living in Boulder, Colorado [home of Newton headquarters]. 2013 is the first time Newton has let people outside of Boulder join the team. So Gartside and I ran together a few times, then in January 2014, he said “Welcome to the team!”
Before I switched to Newton’s exclusively, yes, I had injuries. I tore my soleus, I had a partial tear in my hamstring, and there were good chunks of time where the nerve endings in my metatarsal were inflamed so I had to water run because I couldn’t run on land. Between my Newtons and my coach making sure I don’t over train, I have had no injuries or blisters. One pair of shoes no blisters.
At Spartathlon in Greece, they plop you down in a wheelchair when you finish and take you to the medical tent to tend to your feet. They took pictures of my feet because there was nothing wrong with them. That’s the way it should be.
WHAT DO YOU EAT WHEN YOU RUN?
When I’m running I drink juice, Gatorade, shakes. I do no solid foods at all regardless of the distance. Occasionally, I might ask for 2 or 3 Pringle chips. But when I say that, I legitimately mean 3 chips, if you hand me 10, I will eat 3 and put the rest on the ground.
When the race is over the best food I have ever had was in Italy. No other place to eat on the planet than in Italy. To stuff my face with prosciutto, wine, and pasta, that is just the closest thing to heaven that could possibly be on this planet for me.
WHY THE ROAD?
I really just enjoy the open road. It puts me in a good place mentally when I’m out there by myself. There are days that I start crying when I’m out there because I ‘m just in love with that moment of the road and me, it’s an intense love affair with the road.
WHAT DO PEOPLE AT WORK THINK?
My coworkers generally think I’m crazy. My desk becomes a confession stand where people feel compelled to confess that they haven’t worked out or that they ate unhealthy. They know what I’ve done and it’s like they’re seeking forgiveness for not having done their workout when they know what I’m doing.
FAVORITE MUSIC TO RUN TO:
I like to listen to music. I have everything from Julio Iglesias in Spanish to classical piano to Eminem to Annie Lennox. I have the full spectrum and I just genuinely love music. Me and a pair of Newtons with my ipod is about the equivalent of someone handing me a winning lottery ticket.
I just finished my biggest goal for the year. It was a double ultra, two weekends back to back. I did the Nove Colli 125-mile race in Italy in the mountains. And then, 5 days later there was a 100K road race in Italy. I found out later that I’m the only female who has done the double. They keep records for how fast all the guys have gone and the times I ran it places me in 4th place overall ever.
I haven’t chosen a race for fall yet. I am looking for a PR. I would like to break 16 hours.