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Interview: Judi St. Hilaire

Judi St. Hilaire on her way to a 16:18 masters win at the 2001 Freihofer's Run for Women
(Photo: Victah@Photo Run)

"I love the feeling of floating along when you're competing and pushing yourself to your limit, and then finding you've still got a little bit more. That's the thing that keeps me going -- that, and I love to compete."
Judi St. Hilaire Links
Brief Chats with Judi St. Hilaire: February 1996 | June 1998 | August 2000
September 1999: Wild win for St. Hilaire
1995: Ladies First: St. Hilaire wins 10k
UVM School Records

By Gordon Bakoulis

Judi St. Hilaire, 41, became the 2001 National Masters 5k Champion on June 2 by winning the masters division of the Freihofer's Run for Women 5K in Albany, NY, in 16:18 (good for fifth place overall), just 12 off the American masters record. She had scratched from the race due to injury, then reconsidered, confirming her entry the day before. St. Hilaire, of Somerset, MA, placed eighth in the 1992 Olympic 10,000 meters in Barcelona, setting her lifetime PR of 31:38.04 for the distance. A graduate of the University of Vermont, she has a 3,000-meter PR of 8:44.02 and a road 5k PR of 15:15. In 2000 she was the top masters finisher at the Peachtree Road Race, the Beach to Beacon 10K, the Falmouth Road Race, and the Ro-Jack's 5-Mile. We spoke to her by phone from her home several days after Freihofer's.

Did you go into Freihofer's having realistic hopes of winning the masters division?
I definitely had realistic hopes. Last year was a close race. I tried to track down Carmen [Troncoso, the 2000 masters winner] in the last half mile and she beat me by three seconds, and that sort of stayed with me. When I finally decided that I was going to compete this spring, I was pointing toward this race, and hoping I could pull it off. The [masters] competition is getting tough. Mary Knisely is a master now, and from her past you know she has really good leg speed, and you just don't know what to expect. Carmen focuses on the track more than I do, and she's run 16:05 on the track as a master, if not faster. So you know she's capable of running fast. So [winning] was not a given, that's for sure.

What were the injuries you had going into the race?
It had been going on for two or three weeks before the race. A bone in my right foot, the talus [heel bone], tends to slip on me and when it does the ball of my foot gets really sore. I've had two surgeries on that in the past. I've also had plantar fasciitis and a neuroma, also in the right foot. So with all of that, it's always a bit of a hot spot for me, and it flares up at times. There'd been a lot of shifting going on, and even during the race I could feel it slipping, and causing pain down my ankle and into the ball of my foot. And then on top of that, at work the week before the race I had a pinched nerve in my neck, which was very painful. I work with my head down a lot, so I was having pain down into my shoulder, and pain and numbness down into my hand. This isn't your typical runner's injury [laughs], but you know, these kind of things just drain you. Pain drains you. I wasn't sleeping well, though it would calm down at night. It was worst when I was sitting with my head down. It was annoying, nagging, and with stuff like that you start losing your focus. I was asking myself, do I really want to stick my head in this caliber of field, feeling like I do?

Was it preventing you from training?
The last three weeks I hadn't done as much. I had done a 5k race in Providence [RI, Sergeant Steve Shaw 5K Memorial Road Race] two weeks before Freihofer's, and run 16:44, and I felt pretty good doing that. I did one workout on the treadmill between that and Freihofer's and had to just back off and be careful.

So all things considered, how did you feel about the time, the win, and the overall placing?
I was excited about all of it. The race was very competitive. The three of us -- Carmen, Mary, and I -- were together at the first mile, and I found that very exciting and stimulating. After that I tried to string things out on the downhill, and broke it up a little bit, but didn't know what was going on behind me, and didn't dare look back! My time -- that's equivalent to my best [as a master], to what I ran last year. With the weather [cool, rainy], I really didn't know what to expect in terms of time. It just seemed like my splits were so slow -- 5:20, 10:40-something at two miles -- I'd just thrown the time out the window, and figured I'd just go for the masters win and try to place well in the open competition. But when I saw the finishing time I was really happy about that. I think everyone picks it up in the last mile of that race, with the downhill.

Let's talk some more about masters competition in general. How do you feel going into a race like this? Are you strictly going for the masters title, or are you also trying to place as well as you can in the open division, and run the best possible time on the day?
I think it's changing a bit for me now because the competition is getting tougher in the masters division. You don't want to go out there and run recklessly and sacrifice your placing as a master. So that's the priority: to win the masters. But at the same time, I'm always trying to be in the open hunt, especially with a big prize purse [laughs] -- I mean, I'll be honest with you, I'm not doing this just because it's fun, it's also for the money, and it makes it much more worth my while to place in the open division too! They had double-dipping in this race, which was nice [actually triple-dipping; St. Hilaire also was the top age-graded finisher].

So yeah, I'm trying for both. Although I have to admit, when push comes to shove -- well, Natalie [Nalepa, who finished one place ahead of St. Hilaire] was only a second in front of me at the finish, and I know I was gaining on her in the last half-mile, but I know I wasn't digging down deep, thinking, oh, I've got to go get her -- you know what I mean? I tend to be a little more content with things [laughs]. And honestly, I just find, with my workouts as I started coming back as a master, I tried to train like I did when I was younger, and found that I can only dip into that well so many times. To make yourself hurt at that level -- because you've been there so many times, and if you go there again, part of you is trying to protect yourself, and knowing that it's limited how many times you can take yourself to that level. This is just something I've become conscious of in this past year, and that's what I found in this race, that I didn't have to dig down hard if I didn't want to, and I'm not going to [laughs]. But you struggle with that, and there are some races where you don't mind hurting, and you let it go, this self-protection.

How does it feel to run 16:18 when your PR is 15:15?
I think I appreciate more now how fast I used to be able to run and what I had to do to run that fast. I'm not training nearly as hard as I used to. But at the same time I still think I can run faster -- I'm not convinced that I can't! Some days I have workouts where I think, Oh my God, there's just no way I can do this anymore. But then you have a race like Freihofer's, which definitely helped motivate me to continue on and try to run faster. I know I have the leg speed, it's just, do I have the ability to concentrate and focus for three miles, or 10k -- which seems so long to me now. I don't know if it's because I don't do the mileage that I used to or that I don't do the same volume of speedwork.

How is your training different now from when you were at your peak as an open runner?
I do about 50 miles a week now, whereas before I was probably doing anywhere from 70 to 80. As far as volume on the track or treadmill, if I do a speed workout I keep it to about three miles. Anything more than that, if I want to do it twice a week, I just get really rundown and don't recover, and have a hard time getting up for my workouts. I'm still playing with that -- I find once a week works out perfectly, but I'm going to sacrifice my fitness, and the tradeoff is being more tired, so I'm trying to find that line where I can get more quality out of my workouts without getting overtired. It's a constant struggle, and it changes so much. It's radically different from before.

Do you have a coach?
I'm self-coached. When I was getting ready for the Olympics I worked with John Doherty for about two or three years. Prior to that I had worked with Bob Sevene when I first moved to Boston back in the early 80s, and before that I'd worked with John Babington. Over the years I've learned from some really good coaches.

Are you competing on the track and cross-country, or just roads?
I'm just on the roads. I'd love to dabble with some track, but I don't want to make a fool of myself [laughs].

I don't think that would happen!
Well, you know what I mean.

What is your life like outside of running? You have a job?
I work in an ob-gyn office for three doctors, as a surgical coordinator. It's 35 hours a week, which I consider full-time. There're all sorts of office tasks involved. I've been doing it for three years.

Did you work outside of running when you were competing as an open runner?

So that's a big change.

What other activities and hobbies are you involved with?
I was coaching at the high school level a few years back, and then I worked once year one-on-one with Sheela Agrawal. She was with me at Freihofer's, though she didn't run it. She redshirted this season at Duke, and she's just trying to get healthy now. I love to garden, especially perennials.

Like Joanie [Benoit Samuelson].
Yeah, she has like, hundreds of gardens all over her property. I'm not quite that into it. And I follow running. Sheela's gotten me interested in it at the collegiate level, so I pull up all the results on the internet, check things out, see who's doing what. I'll always have an interest in it. There are a lot of exciting young runners coming up, and that sparks my interest.

What do you think about the resurgence of talented young runners these days?
It's exciting. Everything goes in cycles. The girls now are running similar times to what we ran back when I was in college. I think back to runners like Joanie and Margaret Groos, times haven't really changed all that much. What I do like seeing is a lot of the collegiate runners -- their transition into post-collegiate running seems to be a little bit smoother. People like Amy Rudolph and Jen Rhines are doing really well. A lot of them tend to continue training where they went to college, which makes it an easier adjustment for them. And there are more opportunities for these kids these days for getting into group training situations.

Do you have advice for young runners during that transition period?
I went through some rough times after college. I moved to Boston and for a couple of years I wasn't running well. I wasn't used to being away from home and being a responsible, dedicated athlete on my own. It's a transition, and part of it is just growing up and you have to experience that. Some people have a better time adapting than others. It's who you surround yourself with, too -- the other athletes and your coaches. I think the fewer changes you have to make, the smoother that transition will be.

What lies ahead for you? Do you plan to continue to compete as a master?
I do, though it's something you reevaluate probably on a monthly basis -- is it worth it? As long as it's stimulating, as long as I keep improving, and as long as it's fun, I'll keep doing it. But if I get to the point like I was before, when I'm injured, and constantly battling things like that, I'm not going to do it. That's not enjoyable to me. It's nice to be able to have that choice, whereas before it was a full-time job and I felt sort of locked into it. And toward the end it got old. I was sick of it, and that's why I took those three years off in my late 30s.

What years were those?
From 1996 until I became a master in 1999.

What did you do during that time?
I would run three to five miles a day -- no pressure. And I developed other interests and had a much better balance in my life.

Do you think it was a good decision to take time away from the sport at that time?
It wasn't even a decision. I had no choice. There was no enjoyment in it at all, I had so many injuries. In '96 when I was trying to make the Olympic team and developed the neuroma problem, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. I just said to myself, there is no way -- I can't do this anymore. The struggle of trying to stay fit when I was dealing with injuries was just too much. I didn't have any intention of coming back when I was 40. I thought I was done. I thought -- and I'll probably regret saying what I'm about to say -- I saw a lot of people who had turned 40 and were trying to run like they were still living in the good old days. But if you truly love the sport, and you still have that passion for it, it's hard to quit. I love the feeling of floating along when you're competing and pushing yourself to your limit, and then finding you've still got a little bit more. That's the thing that keeps me going -- that, and I love to compete. As long as those two passions are still there I'll continue doing it.

So what motivated you to come back at 40?
Well, over those three years, like I said, I'd developed other interests, I had a full-time job -- my life was…normal! My job is fulfilling, but it's like anything, it didn't quite provide the challenge I was looking for. Running can always be challenging, and I just kind of slipped back into it. I really did wade into it. At first I gave myself a couple of months, saying, you don't have to do this if you don't want to -- you can start racing, but you don't have to. I really think the spark was when I was working with Sheela. I was coaching her and training with her on the track, running quarters with her, and actually laughing with her while I was doing the workout, and having fun. It was like play again, it wasn't something stressful to me -- it was free, not like a job, you know what I mean? And that's when I started getting the old feeling back.

Does your husband [Paul Coogan] run?
He runs recreationally. He used to run more seriously. He's run 2:35 for a marathon, but now he just runs about three miles a day. He's a golfer.

Is he any relation to Mark Coogan?
No. Actually, I shouldn't say that. They're probably third or fourth cousins -- related somehow.

How does he feel about your having gotten back into running?
He just says, do whatever you want. When I had pulled out of the race, he said, you can do what you want, don't worry. He's not involved in any decisions, but at the same time he supports me. He says to go out there, have some fun, make some money, do what you want.

Gordon Bakoulis is a senior writer and former editor-in-chief of Running Times Magazine. Also a masters runner, Bakoulis finished 18th (5th master) in 17:09 at this year's Freihofer's Run for Women.


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