by Greg White
Lauren Fleshman is hard to pin down exactly. She’s a runner who writes, a writer who runs a business, and a coach who talks openly about disappointment. But above all, her honesty and directness are common threads in all she does. We recently traded emails about everything from running a thriving small business and her recent retirement from professional racing, as well as her writing and running camps and why every runner in this digital world should consider using an analog training journal.
Greg White: I’d like to start by saying, from one writer to another, that your blog is wonderful: funny, engaging, and moving with a specific and clear voice. Was writing always something you had a passion for? What does writing do for you in your life?
Lauren Fleshman: Thanks for that. My Aunt Kathy encouraged me to create stories before I could even write them myself, and always bought me journals as gifts. It was our thing. My mom taught me to read quite young as well, so the two went hand in hand, with plenty of positive associations. School papers kind of killed the fun of it for a while, and after my thesis, I didn’t write much for five years. Starting my blog in 2009 was the way I processed my disappointment of the one-two-punch of barely missing the Olympic Team and requiring surgery on my foot, leaving me benched for a year. I simply had to write, I was so isolated and unhappy. My future felt up in the air. The timing of those things lined up with a classic mid-20’s maturation process, and I literally wrote my way to the other side of it. That’s still my primary relationship with writing. My favorite pieces come from times when I caught a glimpse of the side of the cube that had been previously out-of-vision, and it looked different from what I had long assumed. I very much enjoy the way writing connects me with people, but focusing on that part of it at the outset is a great way to get stuck.
You also created WILDER, a series of Writing and Running workshops. What was the inspiration for this, and what do you see as the relationship between running and a creative life?
My own personal experience with writing and running from 2009-2012 made me think a lot about the relationship between the physical and the creative. I considered myself a runner who writes, primarily to feed her running. I read Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and it opened my eyes to a different way those two things I loved could relate. It’s hard to explain but when you work in a field with absolutes, with quantitative measures that sort people best to worst, a side-effect can be thinking that there is a best way to everything. A best way of thinking, of reacting, you name it. A right way two things can relate, and if you are experiencing success doing things one way, it is even easier to assume your way is superior. I was guilty of that when I was younger. Murakami cracked the dam. It felt so good, like such a relief, that I sought more and more books and people and experiences that dispelled the myth of absolutes, of rightness. Part of this growth was attending Muse Camp, my first camp that had nothing to do with running, in 2014. I met Marianne Elliott, a writer who runs, through her writing workshop there. We forged a friendship that resulted in creating Wilder to further explore the relationship between running and writing. the relationship is complex. Complimentary. There are things to learn from each discipline that can help advance the other, or help explain why you get stuck in one or the other. It’s something that I hope to uncover more and more with each Wilder Retreat.
What can a WILDER attendee expect to encounter during one of the retreats?
Very full days, carefully chosen running experiences, immersive writing time based on prompts, nourishing meals, conversations that light you up, opportunities for community and solitude, being a catalyst for someone else, settling into yourself, eliminating distractions.
You wear a great many hats (mom, small business owner, professional athlete, coach, podcaster, author, workshop host, etc., etc.)… When someone asks you “what do you do?” how do you answer?
I used to just say “professional athlete” and leave it at that unless we got to know one another, or the conversation drifted into the other areas we happen to have in common. But now that I’ve retired my pursuit of international podiums, it’s a harder question to answer. It depends who I’m talking to. Locally here in Bend, I generally say I’m the co-founder of Picky Bars, since we have a strong local presence. I’ll also say I coach a small group of elite athletes in town and try to keep up with them for fun. All my projects and businesses sprouted up in random ways when the time felt right, and I’m only now realizing the common thread. I enjoy removing barriers to people pursuing their potential and their passions. For Picky Bars, that was a tangible allergy friendly real food product easy on the gut that people could count on. For my blog, that was information and experience. For the Believe Journal Series, it was a motivational tool to turn goals into action. For Wilder Retreats, it was a catalyst for creative and physical courage. My target audience has always been people who already have drive, they just need a little help shoveling the snow out of the driveway so they can take off. I’m my own target audience. But because I was “fast” I’ve always had that support at the ready. I’ve had world class coaching, sports psychologists, nutritionists, training partners, physiologists. Fact is, everyone needs tools and encouragement. I enjoy thinking, “where do driven people get blocked?” and “how can I help?”
Your blog post about dealing with injury was one of the most apt descriptions I’ve read about the hard times that can come with pursuing dreams. You wrote:
“On the path of a running career, there are occasionally dark tunnels to find your way through. You need all your senses firing to get through it, your eyes focused on the tiny box of light ahead, your hand skimming the bumps on one wall to feel your way there.”
This is remarkable writing, and I wanted to ask you where this healthy attitude to adversity came from. Many athletes turn to despair and frustration, but you seem to pull wisdom from hard times.
I have despair and frustration like anyone. Writing is how I pull wisdom through, eventually. The writing IS the way through. But I suppose I am able to write through it vs feel paralyzed because of a few key childhood experiences. I am the child of an alcoholic, and there was a cyclical nature to that struggle in our home. I also grew up around bipolar disorder in my extended family. These are not massive traumas compared to what many go through, but they presented significant challenges for my family. I feel fortunate to have had digestible amounts of struggle on a regular basis. I learned that bad times come and go, and you have to keep your feet on the ground and weather it. When I started running in high school, Coach DeLong’s mantra was “Keep your eyes on the big picture.” He taught me how to simultaneously care passionately about something, and be able to zoom out for perspective on how it fits into the rest of your life, and recognize that this is one moment of many moments. Also, get injured enough times, and you know it will get better because it has gotten better before. It just will. And when you’re on top, you will fall again. The tide always turns. Both directions. Best not to invest too much in either extreme.
Building on this, it can be difficult to separate running from that sense of “who I am,” and sometimes when an athlete is physically unable to run for a period of time, there can be mental challenges to sort through. What advice do you have for injured runners out there?
I learned this the hard way like anyone else. Running is not who I am. It is something I do. It is something I love. It is an activity. One day it will be off the menu, whether it is now or 30 years from now. Any activity is simply something we’ve created to express and experience certain characteristics. Racing a 10k or 1500 or whatever is a highly specific made up thing. What makes sense to me is to tie our identity to the underlying characteristics of the activity you love. For me, competitiveness, creative expression, moving my body in nature, effort…those are all parts of my running that will outlive as well as live without running. They are all things that can be redirected during injury, or beyond.
What was your initial introduction to running? What was the evolution like from amateur to professional?
I was a rugrat in a neighborhood of kids always running around. After that I was the fastest, scrappiest base-stealer in the softball league. In 8th grade I excelled at the weekly mile run we did, and was punished for my chronic lateness to PE class by being required to do 4 events at the annual Junior High Track Meet. I picked up some ribbons and the coach talked me into joining the cross country team the following year. We were good in high school. I turned out to be good at it too. I had incredible success at Stanford. I approached professional running like I would have any other career at that time: with 100% of myself, absolutely determined to be the best. With running, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. At least it wasn’t for me. At it’s core, running is simple. It’s best not to overthink it. I crossed just about every line into non-productive territory, and unsurprisingly found myself overtrained, injured, lonely, miserable, and rudderless. I am a person who needs to feel I am contributing meaningfully in some way to something bigger, to my community. This is very difficult to do as a professional athlete without sacrificing performance. I was at war with that for a few years.
I think amateur runners have a certain idea of what it’s like to be a professional runner, but I imagine the truth might not quite line up with that. In broad terms, what does the life of a professional runner look like?
There are a lot of ways it can look. The kind of pro I tried to be at first was a gold medalist and world record holder. My aim was at the absolute top. To do that you have to have the genetics (which you have no way of really knowing at first, so you just act as if and see what happens), and then you have to live your life 100% dedicated to the pursuit of that goal. You are competing against the world more so than most sports. It isn’t like swimming or triathlon or other sports where participation is dependent on access to world class swim facilities or the infrastructure of paved roads for riding, essentially ensuring dominance by a handful of wealthy nations. The poorest of nations can produce the world’s best in running, because we are all made to run, and there are fewer barriers to entry outside of talent. Most of our most talented pro runners start out trying to do what I tried to do. Most get eaten up. Eventually you learn to try to be the best you can be in a sustainable way.
Now that I’m retired, I have a better perspective of what the lifestyle was like. Your body is your tool, and you must hone and protect and preserve it at all times. There are no days off, even when you don’t run. When you are resting you are “doing resting.” You never stop thinking about your objectives. Family life revolves around it. People stop expecting you to be normal. You avoid fun activities that carry any kind of risk, or things that tire you out for your primary goals. You aren’t very much fun most of the time. It’s easiest to spend time with others who do the same thing because you feel less lame. But you love it. You feel purposeful when you’re in season. You have a very specifically laid out plan for your days, your weeks, your months, your years. You feel invincible when you are fit. You play a constant head game of analysis as you try to optimize the 1%. You are aware of the tiniest change to your biorhythms. Racing on the biggest stages is incredible. You feel like a finely tuned physical specimen. Winning is euphoric. Your body does unimaginable things. Travel is non-glamourous, and plentiful. You travel the world but your world is incredibly narrow.
I can’t think of many professional athletes who write about their lives with such candor. Was this element of your blog important to you as you moved through your career and life? How do you view your relationship to the blog?
It was critically important to me to blog as truthfully as possible. To cover all sides of the experience. I wanted the finished product to more accurately reflect the journey than anything else I’d seen or read about elite sports. I didn’t write as often as I would have liked, but I am proud of the result. The truth is impactful. I am currently transitioning my blog to reflect the current storyline of my life, which is less clearly focused at the moment, but that’s an interesting thing to write about too. Whether or not it’s interesting to read is another story. And one I’m not all that concerned about that part to be honest.
You make your home in Oregon. To us here in Southern California, the Pacific Northwest gets discussed in almost mythical tones, as a magical place full of grey skies, green trees, and heavenly trails. How has living in the Northwest influenced your approach to health and wellness?
Central Oregon lacks the grey skies and overgrowth of most PNW lore. But it carries the spirit of individuality, of communing with nature, of healthy priorities. The PNW I know makes it easier to structure a balanced life without feeling like you’re swimming against the current.
Back in July you wrote about your decision to retire following Achilles surgery. How did that decision and its aftermath affect your sense of identity? What lessons do you take from the experience moving forward?
I felt mostly relief after retiring, not because I wanted to be free from elite racing, but I wanted to be free from the pursuit of it. It is a great privilege to walk around feeling like you have the capacity inside to be the among the best in the world at something, not many people get to have that feeling. When going through injuries, it is critical to remain connected to that belief if you are serious about getting there. But living with that disconnect is challenging. The longer that stretch of time gets without seeing evidence of improvement, the more strained that string connecting you to your dream gets. It frays, and stretches, and pretty soon you’re spending more time nursing the wounds on the string than enjoying the pull and glow of the goal. It becomes a burden. I began to realize that the rest of my life was passing me by. I began to see all the things I was saying no to when saying yes to commitment to my dream. I began to ask myself, “does this dream really serve me anymore? The me that stands here in this moment? Not the me that committed to this 20 years ago, but me now?” I weighed it all. I looked at my growing son. I allowed myself to hear what else might be calling and instead of writing things off as distractions to my goal, I considered them as alternatives to my goal. I allowed the role of running in my life to evolve.
What role did running play for you during your professional running career, and what role does it play for you now?
I love to run. I always have. I forgot that sometimes, when it got buried in the quantitative. But mostly, I remembered. Now, I run most days. My achilles is strong, my entire body healthier than it has been in 5 years. I run because I need to move and use my body and running is my preferred method. I’m still quite good at it, which helps. I run to get away from my family and find solitude sometimes. I run to process things. I run to stay in shape, to be fit for other adventures I might take. I run to feel capable. I run so I can keep up with the elite athletes I coach and have a front row seat on their hero journey. I am a recovering professional athlete finding my new way of being with the sport, in time. I’m not pushing it any direction right now. It feels very much mine in a way it never has before.
What does your training look like these days? Did retiring free you up to expand your athletic horizons?
I run 5-6 days a week, 3-10 miles. I am most accountable when I run with others. Alone I’m prone to cut a run shorter and get back to work or hanging with Jude [her son with husband pro triathlete Jesse Thomas]. When it’s not winter I ride my mountain bike 2-3 times a week, with a different set of friends. And I’m starting to learn how to nordic ski this winter. When I was a pro athlete, I didn’t “count” any of the exercise I did outside of running. Now I count any time I move my body in my training diary.
You’ve been showing off your new mountain bike skills on social media and on the blog. What’s it been like, becoming a two-sport athlete?
Before high school, I was a multi-sport athlete. I rode bikes all the time, built little crappy jumps out of plywood and bricks on the sidewalk. I played every sport, made-up or real. In my heart I’ve always been a multi-skill human. That’s why I loved being a student-athlete and struggled with the transition to all-running-all-the-time. Discovering my mountain bike again was kind of the first step towards being who I was as a kid.
You are also a coach for Oiselle’s Little Wing team. What’s it like going from athlete to coach?
Coaching while being an elite the last few years of my career was great. I was always thinking about performance anyway, and it was awesome to direct that thinking towards others. I discovered how much I had picked up over the years, and how a combination of a human physiology degree, and a decade of pro racing under the best coaches in the world uniquely positioned me as a coach. When I retired from racing I wasn’t sure if I would want to keep coaching. I was concerned it might prevent me from evolving a fresh relationship with the sport. But it has been incredibly positive and rewarding. It is a huge privilege to be a coach, to be trusted with a role in the realization of someone’s aspirations. I’m so lucky to work with the Lawrence sisters, who are fantastic human beings.
Your BELIEVE training logs are a delight to use, somewhere between a training log and an inspirational guide for runners. What lead you to create these, and how did you go about deciding what they would comprise of?
The training diary was the first tool I ever wanted to create to help other runners accomplish their goals, and I started working on it at age 14. A journal was the first tool that really helped me progress as an athlete. I found the existing options uninspiring. I saw so much potential. It was my first “entrepreneurial experience” of looking for something I wanted, not finding it, and thinking I might be able to solve the problem. Over the course of years I collected ideas, quotes, images, scraps of paper into a folder and carried it with me home to home to home. In 2010, on a run with a dear friend, Irish Olympian Ro McGettigan Dumas, we discovered we both had the same desire growing up, and we were incredibly passionate about creating tools to help athletes achieve their goals. We self-published a training diary, the first Believe Training Journal, and then made a second edition the following year with some improvements. The success of the book resulted in a book deal with Velo Press, where we finally had the expertise and resources to make the book fully come to life as we dreamed it.
Essentially we wanted a training log layout that made sense and prompted the kinds of behaviors and habits you’ll find in pro athletes. Each month features content to help develop the expertise of the user, and opportunities to engage and personalize the themes for themselves. There are quotes and prompts throughout each week to continue engaging the user in the themes. The book has been very successful, and we’ve expanded the series to include more offerings that match the needs of different athletes. The Believe Journal series Ro and I have made together is probably the project I’m most proud of. It is very challenging to turn an intention into a finished product you can hold and still have it accurately resemble the intention.
Many runners may not have ever used a training journal before, preferring to just store their run data on something like Strava and maybe make a few quick notes, if at all. What do you see as the primary advantages of using a traditional, analog training journal?
I use Strava too. But it’s different. An analog training journal lives alone. Apps and software live within devices that contain everything under the sun. When you pick up a training journal, you only pick it up when you are engaging with your running narrative. Our athletic lives are complex and beautiful and deserving of their own space. Why wouldn’t you want a beautiful book full of your running adventures? Why not get more juice out of the oranges you are already picking?
From your blog, you seem to be a very introspective human. Do you have a personal philosophy in life?
I’ve heard it described that there’s the person you are inside, the person you present to others, and the actions you take in the world. I aim to live with all three of these in alignment.
Picky Bars–the whole food energy bar you created with your husband and Steph Bruce–can now be found in Trader Joe’s [note: this is kinda a big deal]. Did your background as a runner prepare you for running a business? Was running your own business part of the master plan, or did Picky Bars happen organically?
Every new account we get is exciting, and progress, and we fight hard for all of them. Getting in Trader Joe’s was unique in that it was the first REALLY BIG account, and the first that could fundamentally change our business by promising to quadruple annual sales with one account. They got a new buyer as soon as we launched there, and the decision was made to not move forward with us. It felt like getting an injury right after qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Unfulfilled potential, cut short.
Most of the time, gaining and losing an account of this size would bankrupt a company of our size, but we were in a good position to weather it. We have amazing loyal customers, we’ve broken into Whole Foods PNW, a couple other big regional grocery opportunities are opening up, REI is thriving, our specialty run and bike business is growing, and we didn’t make any stupid financial decisions in scaling, so we will come out the other side better off. Business and sports are incredible teachers.
One thing that seems apparent to an outsider, is that you are someone who is comfortable taking risks. What advice do you have for anyone contemplating a major life decision?
That stirring inside you won’t be ignored. You can smash it down, lock it in a box, it will continue to disrupt your ability to be present in your life until you have a conversation with it. You don’t always have to “follow your dreams.” Dreams are not always reliable, or realistic. But you should follow what’s true for you. Get closer to being who you are inside. Take a small step. A lot of times we are afraid that a change will require throwing away everything else. You could do that if you really want, but you don’t necessarily have to. Play with what’s calling you a little bit.
What are you proudest of in your life?
I’m proud of learning how to be wrong so I can be better.
Follow Lauren’s adventures and writing at AskLaurenFleshman
The Fast Life, Lauren’s Runner’s World column can be found here.