Inspirational Runners 017 : Rachel Smalley

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Rachel in her happy place. Photo by Paul Petch.

Renowned kiwi broadcaster and mum Rachel Smalley never considered herself a marathon runner, but in 2015 it all changed at the Beirut Marathon of all places.

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I’ve seen a fair bit of Rachel online over the past year or so, sharing her running adventures and using her positive profile for campaigns for helping others or good causes. I’ve been intrigued, so after a few months of waiting for the right time and place we met on an iconic Auckland Beach at Piha for a good natter and photos. What was instantly obvious is how super down to earth Rachel is – with such a genuine approach about her every gesture. After the shoot I was invited back to her home to warm up and spent the evening with her wonderful family talking more late into the night.

Making a busy and full life as a presenter, mum and ‘go-getter’ look easy- is a given with Rachel- but behind this is a strong belief in how running makes ‘this life better’. There is a positive energy that simply pulls you into her world where Rachel is a strong independent role model for females as both runners and being fearless- that is both refreshing and inspiring. This is where we met in conversation mostly- both the similarities between running and the paths we take in life, being fearless, facing challenges head on, and being genuine. Let’s not forget what holds it all together though – having a good laugh!

So it’s clear Rachel likes a challenge and also making a difference. It’s a part of the life Rachel knows well, thanks to her work with World Vision and the Forgotten Millions campaign, raising awareness of the millions displaced by the war-torn Syria crisis. But where does her running life fit in to all of this? We talk about life in a war zone, her busy schedule and training for a marathon in her 40s. Let’s talk with Rachel on her unique running journey and what it means to her.

Rachel, when did you first take up running and why? 

I started running about four years ago. I’d like to tell you it was just something I decided to do, but the truth is I began running as a form of escapism. I was exhausted, unfit and in the throws of leaving TV3. It wasn’t a planned decision to run. I just knew I had to get myself in a better space. And so I came home one day, rustled around in my wardrobe and found an old pair of trainers. I think I ran 200 metres that day and then I stopped and dry-wretched. And that was it. It wasn’t pretty, but that was the first time I ran.

When did you discover that you loved running? 

It was early one Sunday morning in Piha. I’d been running for quite a few months but I still couldn’t run five kilometres without stopping. My lungs or my legs would give out, or a combination of both.

And then one day I made it to the four-kilometre mark and I thought to myself, “is this it, is this the day I make it”? It hurt like hell but I ran the final kilometre and I was hit by a flood of endorphins. I’d made it. I’d made the magical five kilometre mark and from that moment on I was hooked.

Rachel and her son. Image supplied.

What were the first months like for you physically once you fell in love with the sport? 

The best way to describe those early months is ‘transformational’. I ran early in the morning and always on my own. The Piha coastline at dawn is beautiful and it fed my soul, and I could feel my mind getting sharper and my body growing physically stronger. It was truly the best of times.

What was your goal?

It’s always been about mental and physical strength for me. It was never about weight loss or body image. I ran for my mind, and I ran because I loved the endorphin rush and I wanted to feel energised and physically strong again. The goal now is still the same as it was then. It’s about fitness – not thinness.

What aspects of running were the most challenging for you?

If I look back on that first year of running, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. My friend, Niva Retimanu is a marathoner and she told me to get in touch with her running group, GetRunning. I was hesitant. I’m a solo runner, and I really love running on my own. I didn’t want to join a group and I didn’t want to run as part of a team, but my running had begun to plateau again. In the end, I bit the bullet and I picked up the phone and called the GetRunning coach, Gaz Brown. That was the turning point for me. Gaz taught me the importance of slowing down, building a base and running to my heart-rate. I met a heap of fantastic people through GetRunning and I could feel my confidence and my endurance really beginning to grow. Six months later I ran my first half marathon.

If you could visualise a ‘perfect running day’ where and what would it entail?

Oh, that’s easy. It would be out in the hills on the West Coast with my running buddy, Aaron Jackson. I met him because I had a sore toe. He’s a podiatrist at Sportslab but he also just happens to be an incredibly fast and technically brilliant runner, and he’s an expert in bio-mechanics and running gait. To be honest, we’re a bit of an odd couple. He’s much younger than me and a lot faster, but somehow we made it work and he’s taught me a lot about the science of running. I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent running with Aaron in the Waitakeres – often racing downhill at break-neck speed or skipping across the top of a ridge and looking out at the ocean. And somehow, in the midst of it all, I fell in love with trail running.

Rachel in her happy place. Photo by Paul Petch.

We spoke about your first marathon in Beirut and how it was a catalyst in your life. Can you share that story with us?

Early in 2015, I travelled to the Middle East to report on the Syrian Conflict. I was based in Beirut in Lebanon for some of that time, but also in the Syrian border nations of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. I was fronting a fundraising campaign for World Vision called The Forgotten Millions and documenting the horrific situation that many Syrians had found themselves in. I’m use to working in conflict zones and dealing with the horrific fallout of war, but I found the situation in Syria deeply distressing – not least because of the impact it was having on children.

The New Zealand Herald published my stories every day for about a month and by the end of the campaign we’d raised over $400,000, but I wanted to do more. The question was, what? What else could I do?

I went for a run that day and that’s when the idea came to me. What if I took a team of runners into the Middle East to run a marathon and we could hold a Gala Dinner as a fundraiser? It would keep the focus on the humanitarian crisis and we could continue to raise money. I stopped running, pulled out my phone and Googled ‘Marathons in the Middle East’. And there it was. The Beirut Marathon. Perfect.

I met with Gaz that week and asked if he would take a tour to Lebanon. GetRunning mainly focuses on the glamour marathons like Berlin, Paris, Chicago and New York. Beirut didn’t really cut it. Gaz looked into it for me and told me I was crazy, but after some hefty lobbying on my part he finally agreed. And that’s how I found myself in Beirut, of all places, and running my first marathon. By the end of 2015, we’d raised close to four million dollars for the Syrian cause.

Jo Currie/World Vision.

Your World Vision work takes you to some incredibly dangerous places and what you see and hear can be incredibly distressing. Does running help you deal with that? 

The stories I heard in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey will haunt me forever. I sat with a mother whose 10 year old daughter had been snatched by ISIS as a sex slave. What could I say to her? Nothing. There was nothing I could do or say that could ease her distress. I met a little boy who’d been hit by shrapnel. His arm had healed but it was a twisted, mangled mess. I’ve met orphans, child labourers, child brides, people who’ve lost their entire families in a bomb blast, and children who’ve seen ISIS perform some of the worst atrocities known to man.

I could go on forever and tell you a hundred stories about the horrors of Syria, but the truth is no-one will ever grasp the true magnitude of the misery and suffering in the Middle East. It is unimaginable.

So you asked me how running helps me deal with that? Escapism. Each and every one of those stories are still with me and they will be forever, but running helps release some of the tension, and the trauma and suffering that I know I still carry around with me. It’s a form of therapy and I would be truly lost without it.

We spoke about your schedule as a Radio Host. It seems crazy to be fair, but you have managed to make it work. Can you share your schedule with us?

The truth is, I don’t make it work. My hours are crazy and that’s why I constantly struggle with niggles and injuries. I don’t get enough sleep and my body doesn’t get a chance to recover, restore and rebuild itself.

My alarm goes off at 2.30am, five days a week and I’m at my desk at NewstalkZB by 3.30am and on-air at 5am. I leave work at around 6.30am and that’s when I run or do strength training. I usually have a bunch of meetings through the course of the day, and then my son finishes school at 3pm. I’m back online in the evening for 2-3 hours to prep for the next day’s show and then I try to get to bed by 8pm – but that seldom happens. I average around five hours sleep a night and yes, I know. That’s not sustainable.

So how do I cope? I don’t really. The hours are life-limiting.

Rachel in her happy place. Photo by Paul Petch.

What was your personal lifestyle like prior to becoming a regular runner? 

My lifestyle was that of a classic, stereotypical woman in the Western world who’s trying to keep up with life. I used coffee to get me up in the morning, wine to bring me down at night and sugar to keep me going in between.

How has it changed since falling in love with running?

I still enjoy wine but I seldom drink alcohol during the week and I have the occasional coffee, just not every day. My diet is high carb and high protein and I don’t seem to crave sugar anymore. That said, I will never say no to a donut or a custard square. Or a pie.

What’s the next event you’re training towards, and what does a typical training week look like? 

My next race is the New York Marathon on November 5th and I can’t wait. My training is a mix of long, slow runs, speed work on the track, intervals on the road, hill work and two to three weights sessions a week.

It depends where I’m at with my training programme but in a big ‘build’ week I can get up around the 90-100km mark. My coach works hard at managing those build weeks, though. It’s a balancing act trying to train me, but at the same time not tip me over the edge into a world of fatigue.

What advice do you have for working mums when it comes to fitting in running with everyday life?

It doesn’t matter how far or how fast you run, it only matters that you do. I treat running as an indulgence. It’s time away from the madness of everyday life and as long as I view it in that way, I know I will always find the time – even if it’s 20 minutes a day – to run.

There seems to have been somewhat of a renaissance of running, and in particular large numbers of women in their 30’s- 40’s are participating in running events. Why do you think that is? 

I think running is contagious. Many people start running because they’ve seen other women take up the sport, and they realise how utterly transformation it is. I remember thinking “if they can do it, I can too” and then you get bitten by the bug. I’ve met a lot of people through running and it’s an incredibly supportive sport. You celebrate each other’s successes and you support each other through the tough times as well. It’s a solo sport but at the same time it’s incredibly inclusive too, and I love that thousands of women are now lining up in events all over New Zealand.

Jo Currie/World Vision.

What facet of running do you enjoy most? 

This will probably sound odd, but I love seeing other people do well. At the moment, I’m pushing myself to see how strong I can get and how fast I can run, but I’ve never forgotten the moment I ran my first five kilometres or my first half-marathon in Queenstown. It was like conquering Everest. And now when I go to events, I get the same buzz when I see other people achieving a milestone too. I’m not the best person to stand next to at the finish line. I’m the one who’s blubbing behind my sunglasses.

Do you experience the often talked about Runner’s High? 

Yes, I do. It’s why I run! My most memorable ‘high’ was at the Boston Marathon this year. I really struggled in the lead up to that race. I had a huge Baker’s Cyst in my knee, I wasn’t in a great mental space to be running and just to compound matters, I was desperately homesick.

I decided on a really simple race strategy. I would go out easy and if I had any discomfort, I’d pull right back. If not, I’d wait until I got over Heartbreak Hill at the 35km mark, and then I’d put my foot down. I didn’t wait, though. The ‘high’ kicked in and I raced up Heartbreak Hill and flew the last seven kilometres to the finish line. I’ve never experienced a Runner’s High like it. The only way I can describe it is like a highly addictive narcotic and once you’ve experienced it, you just want it again and again and again.

What advice can you give to people who want to follow their dreams and to do what they love?

Jump in. Feet first. You might be nervous or crippled by self-doubt and fear, but just start where you are and with what you have. Honestly. Start now. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Photo by Paul Petch.

Your top three tips to achieving happiness or balance in life?

  1. Surround yourself with a small circle of great people who enrich your life – people who are honest, kind, emotionally connected, supportive, trustworthy and authentic.
  1. Tread carefully with social media. It can bring out the worst in us. It encourages people to act impulsively or to crave interaction and attention. Before you put anything online ask yourself this. Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind? And is it necessary? And when you see someone being targetted on social media, don’t feed it. Instead, be the brave person who raises their hand and says “Stop”.
  1. Gratitude. Be grateful to those who’ve enriched your life. The gesture may have been small, or perhaps it was the piece of advice that changed the course of your life forever. Either way, be grateful to people for the time they invest in you. And pay it forward. It’s important to give as much as you take.
  1. Life is busy, particularly for women who are often juggling a million different balls in the air. Take a load off. Go easy on yourself and remember this: You can do anything you want in life. You just can’t do everything.

Where can we find you online and find out more about you and your adventures, Rachel?

My favourite social media is Instagram. I love the Insta running community. It’s supportive, encouraging and inspirational all at once, and as long as I’m on Insta, I know I’m never truly running alone.

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Paul Petch
Director of Good People Run, pro photographer, tutor and a recovering 'runaholic'. Based in Auckland City, my work is at www.paulpetchphoto.com
Paul Petch

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