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The Running for Real Podcast

Feb 19, 2021

Who is Alison Staples?

Alison is a physical therapy assistant, Crew leader at Riot Squad Running, run ambassador at Under Armor, and coach at Formula Running Center.

What was it like starting running age 30, did any part of you feel behind?

I had no idea about anything running. I ran in what we're getting to how I started running, but I had no idea about the right community.

I didn't know the distance around a track. All I knew was that I just ran down the street and came back and it was, like, the most exhilarating fill in the world. I had no knowledge of anything else. The first time, I had to go for a run. It was awful, but I kind of just stuck with it because it was hard. And I was like, "Oh, this is hard. I think I like it." I was more of an elliptical person up until I started running.

What made you decide to want to try running after being an "elliptical person"?

I really wanted to run someday, but I didn't understand how people liked it. I went to the gym three days a week. I had my elliptical routine, the 25 or 35 minutes. And then I just did, like some squats and stuff and that was it. I was good. I worked at the time. Well, I still do. I work for a pediatric hospital, I work with kids and adults with spinal cord injuries. And in 2008, we decided to put together a team, a charity team for the Baltimore running festival. One of our co-workers had gone up to Boston and just fallen in love with the Boston Marathon, especially the hand cycle division and thought it would be a good idea to bring that back to Baltimore, especially to our patients who are paralyzed and can't walk.

We put together a team for the Baltimore running festival, and I had a girlfriend, a Black woman who I really admired, there aren't a lot of Black therapists, so I looked up to her in that regards, and then she loved running, and I didn't see a lot of black women running at the time, so she was just like this magical unicorn, and I teased her about it all the time. But I secretly admired her tenacity when it came to like running how dedicated she was. When this charity team came around, she was like, "You know what? I think this would be good for you to do. You can meet so many people like this. Who knows? Maybe you'll meet your husband." That's how I met my husband. I'm, like, sign me up, so I was like, yeah, you know, whatever I'm doing 5k. And she told me I could not do a 5k. She wasn't paying the race fee for 5k. We had to do a half and I was like, I don't know what a half is, but it's not full so fine, and that that is how I got coerced into my first race

It is really important to have people in our lives who believe in us a little bit more than we believe in ourselves, those role models, how could someone find a mentor like that?

I think it's doing the things that you're most scared of, all the things that take you out of your comfort zone, and then you'll find someone who continuously pushes you out of your comfort zone and continuously sets the bar higher for you than you will ever set the ball for yourself. So, you know I was content on the elliptical, and she's like No, no, no, you have to do a half marathon now.

Granted that's a huge job, and no one has to do that job, but that goes for anyone. So maybe you're like a solo runner and you really want to run with the group But you're really intimidated by your pace or just groups in general. So, maybe you find a group with less people, but, yeah, just stepping out of your comfort zone and finding things to do that you are scared off. We generally put you around people who will push you out of your comfort zone and really tap into potential that you have for sure. I don't know about you, but I've found with the mask situation that I find it easier to do things like that right now. I don't, I don't know why, maybe it's like I feel protected by the mask or something.

But I've done quite a few things lately on my own where I'm taking in groups because I don't know, I feel like that sounds weird. Comforted by the mask like it allows me to be braver and just go out there on my own. I don't know. The crazy thing about this pandemic is that it strips us all of what we thought was important before. So, like, who cares about what? Choose the clothes you have on, or, you know, the fact that we're all struggling. Maybe the same, maybe in different ways. But who we are, in essence is all that is needed to show up. And I think that's been one of the greatest lessons of this pandemic.

How has your relationship changed since? Do you ever encourage her to do something she hasn't?

It's so funny because you know, the funny thing about this situation is that she had me sign up for this race. And then she left the job, maybe, like a few weeks later. So she left me to train by myself and I tease her about it all the time. Like since then, she's moved to a different state, but we still keep in touch. She still goes out on her run. She still motivates me, even if she doesn't know. So she'll post like, wow, she really got up and ran at four o'clock in the morning. Let me get up. She still motivates me and she just thinks that it's so funny how my running journey has evolved when she had to literally push me out the door.

And she's like, you know, this is not about me anymore. This is about you tapping into something that we didn't even know that you could have the potential to tap into, so I think it's both inspiring on both our parts just to watch each other grow in the space.

What would be your advice to someone listening, who has a friend in their life that they want to encourage to do something outside of the home?

Yeah, I think you should always know how to push the people around you. So I need my friends to curse me out all the time, and I'm fine with it because that's what's going through my mind. But I think you really have to find a circle and trust people, too, you have to welcome people into your space.

There's a certain amount of vulnerability that you have to have in order to let people, and you have to trust people with that space that you give them. So the first step is just to find someone that you really trust someone that you respect and someone that has your best intentions at heart.

What about the friend who wants to be encouraged?

One of the beautiful things about coaching is that you get to see people in their weakest moments. You get to pull people out of whatever headspace they are in, help them hang in there. You really get to tap into that person and figure out like, and so isn't very vocal about what it is that spot on her. But I can see like she's fighting really hard. So maybe I just saw her like she needs to relax. And it's really about observation and figuring out how you can best serve someone versus you putting yourself on somebody else.

What happened after that first race?

Well, before the race, I did nothing, right. I went and bought a brand new pair of shoes the day before that matched the shirt because, you know, if anything else, I was gonna look good in this picture. Well, the shoes were right out the box. And when I got to the race, I just looked around. I was like, Wow, this is You know, I thought running looked a certain way and I got there I was like, Wow, there are small people. There are big people. They're tall people, you know. There are White people. There are Black people, there are men, there are women. That's just kind of amazing that there are all these different types of people, and I thought our running was just for thin white females or white males. Even just being at the start line was just amazing.

And then having the support of my co-workers there is, well, it was just a really good feeling. So everything you know, I think I had trained up to eight miles when I say, trained, loosely trained, loosely trained up the eight miles I did seven. And then the pain set in. Well, one of the things I love was just like, you know, you always find those run angels on the course and they come and go in different ways. Maybe it's somebody at about 8.5 miles who's just telling you you could do it, keep going. And that to me, it was like the most exhilarating and refreshing And like most memorable part of the race, was just all these people just supporting you throughout the entire time that you're out there on the course.

Did you pay attention to see if others were struggling around you too?

I was looking around trying to see if anybody noticed that I was dying. Instead I saw other people who needed to be saved as well. I was always true. Yeah, but it was great. So I found myself also encouraging other people. So I'm like, Great, This is great. Like, you know, this is our first run together.

I ran the first few miles with the co-worker. So I'm like let's just zone out to the song and we'll make it up this hill. So I was surprised that as a new runner this is my first race, I found myself encouraging other people, and that gave me the motivation. Though I did receive encouragement and to keep going along in a race, that's really cool.

My finish line picture is of two of my co-workers. It was like the most ridiculous thing ever. I'm being held up by two of my co-workers helping me through the finish line. But it was so funny because like, this is like, my first race. It's amazing. I made it. Yeah, And then when I went out just, like, loosen up my legs a few days later, I'm like, wow, that's crazy. I really did it. I really I'm not gonna say ran because I didn't run out 13 miles but I'm like, well, I really participated in a half marathon, I did it and even though I was still in pain, I'm like, wow, you know, I could do anything so I think after that feeling came I loved that.

Were you hooked from there?

You know I was still at the point where I had to still let my friends drag me into things. So the same friend was like, hey, let's go do it another half in Philly. So it was still at the point where my friends were dragging me, I'm gonna say, dragged me, but more pushing me. And granted, it doesn't take a lot to convince me to do something.

When did you start pushing yourself?

I think after my first full marathon, I completely bonded with it, and I really wanted to figure out why, and I really wanted to get better at being a runner after my first marathon.

So I took a RRCA certification class just to get better for myself as a runner, not to coach anybody else, which it's funny how this kind of spiraled into what it is now. But it wasn't till after my first marathon and I thought like, this is really about me now in my journey and running and not about anybody having to drag me along.

Now it's not so much about the running. It's about the mental part and about the emotional aspect that comes with running. It's more about the life journey and the life lessons that running teaches you versus the physical aspect of running itself for sure.

What have you been doing to keep yourself and others motivated during this time?

Yeah. So for myself, I look at my outdoor runtime as my peaceful tranquility, like my me time just to get away from the phone, get away from the computer just like really zone out. And I think I've done a few virtual races, although I take them less seriously than I do training myself. I'm not a fan of virtual races, but I think they do serve that at that point for people right now. For me running right now, it's just about a release. It's about maintaining some form of normalcy. It's about just maintaining the fitness that I've had, and if I capitalize on, if I get faster, so be it.

Right now it's just about a release for me, and for the people I'm coaching. They really just love having accountability and consistency in just some sense of a normal life.

What has the pandemic taught you about running?

I love how it's gotten back to how simple it was before a training block. You know, you have this marathon, you have the 16 week training block day in, day out, it's unforgiving. It's time based. You have to hit these paces, and you know, you could certainly do that now. But for me, it's like I love going without a watch, leaving my watch at home. I love going on a run and not even worrying about what my paces are. I love going on a run and not even posting about it. I love waking up like okay, today I want to do eight miles tomorrow. 12. That's fine. This is what I feel like doing today. Maybe tomorrow It's like a track workout. So I love the flexibility of just, like, kind of going along with the flow and really just enjoying the simpleness of running that I think sometimes training takes away for sure.

You run with a metronome, why?

I used a metronome a lot in my clinic because a lot of my patients have gait deficit. So maybe one extremity is a little bit more effective than the other. And they just need timing as when to put that affected leg down. So for me my cadence has always been on the lower side, maybe like 164-166. And granted, I'm tall, but I'm not like, terribly tall. And it annoys me when I go out and run with my friends who take quicker steps, they always finish faster than me. It seems to be like less effort. So it's like, you know what? I really have to try to get in the habit of turning my feet over, and I can't do it on my own.

Like it just, it just never worked out for me. So a metronome, I use it a couple times a week, and it really helps me the run is just like it's just less effort. I really don't think about it. I've tried to listen to playlists of like 171-180. But then I get too caught up and singing and get too caught up in the words. Let me just put on some monotonous ping ping ping ping ping ping ping. So I know when I put my feet down and I'm sure the crazy run around the neighborhood with this loud pinging happening, but it's therapeutic, it's calming to me.

Why did you become a Physical therapist?

I was kind of floating around for about a year. I was bartending. And then I started volunteering at the hospital. Now I was volunteering in the kids department and then they had an opening in spinal cord injuries. And it was just amazing to me that no two injuries are the same. Everything is different, everybody presents differently and people who have spinal cord injuries, some of their injuries are traumatic, meaning like car accidents. Some of them have non traumatic meaning, maybe one day they just woke up feeling sick and then 12 hours later, they couldn't walk. These were people who needed a lot of help, not just physically but emotionally. And I think that that is something that really resonated with me and why I chose to stay in it.

How difficult has it been with all the emotions of the last year on top of working in a career like that?

Yeah, the first two weeks I worked there, I cried every single day. It's like, Oh my God, I can't believe this is awful. This five year old kid is now paralyzed because of this accident, or this person lost their whole family and all they have is movement below the neck. This is the saddest thing in the world. Then I had to look at it differently, like wow, this person had this thing happened and they still show up every day.

They are still hopeful for recovery in some type of way. And maybe, you know, maybe for them the highlight of their day is coming into therapy and seeing all these other people just being in this community and giving their all for maybe one or two hours. So, you know maybe the person isn't walking. Maybe the person is sitting up for 10 seconds or something that we take for granted. So much of my outlook on it really changed, and I think that is like the most incredible feeling I have when I leave work.

Do you think about your patients during your runs?

Absolutely. It's one of the reasons why I started running in the first place. I ask my patients to do these hard things with limited mobility, and my body works perfectly. There's no reason why I can't go out here and push myself if I ask my patients to do, you know, hard things. So I think about them on every run. I think about them when everything gets hard. I'm like, You know what I ask people to do hard things, and there's no reason why I can't do the same hard things. They motivate me way more than they'll ever know.

What have you noticed about people going through spinal cord injuries in their approach?

I think you know it just depends on where they are in the injury. There are some people who haven't fully accepted, I'm not going to say more, except who are still struggling with the injury itself and everything that comes with the injury. So it's not just the physical, it's the "I can't", I haven't stood up with my parents in, like a long time. I haven't taken a picture with someone or I'm not gonna be able to walk my daughter down the aisle. So a lot of the emotional component. I think just seeing the transformation, oh, wow like we did it and we're gonna walk, we're gonna work on strength training so that I can walk my daughter down the aisle, or this was amazing that I was able to last, you know, 20 seconds sitting up. Whereas last week I could only do 10. I think that just being in this environment of seeing other people really work hard, is good for, like, mental psyche.

What would you like to remind able bodied runners?

There's no bad run. You've never had a bad run. And I can tell you this: I don't know your pace, I don't know your heart rate, your cadence, but you have never had a bad run. All runs are good when your body works the way it's supposed to.

It's just a blessing to be able to get up and leave the house and just have your body work the way it's supposed to. So I really look at this running thing and just physical movement as a blessing in itself. You know, I've had patients just cry, you know, in front of me like, “Will I ever walk again?” And some of those moments are really hard hitting because it's like, wow, like, you know, you really just don't even know what people are going through. And you really just don't appreciate how complex and how amazing it is that the body works the way it does. So you've never had a bad run to whoever thinks that they had one or it's about to have one. You've never had a bad run.

Do you ever find it hard to not say anything when runners do take their bodies for granted?

When I first started working, I felt bad for having a horrible day because I'm like Alison, you're not allowed to have a bad day because you work with people who have it 10 times harder. But then someone had to remind me that my problems aren't insignificant just because someone else's problems are significant. So, you know I went on the trail, ran like last year, tripped and strained my upper hamstring, and then it's been like a complete annoyance ever since.

You know, sometimes I get frustrated but it's like one of those things where, you know, I was out doing something that I loved, and it just happened, and it's a gentle reminder to take it easy. I think sometimes we look at injuries like my body is failing me. Knowing your body is telling you that you are doing too much and you need to rest or you need to strengthen. Something is off. Your body is not failing you with the injury. Your body is trying to tell you to take it easy I think. I think just changing the perspective on how we look at things really helps adjusting to how we deal with things.

What advice do you have for runners stuck in an injury cycle?

Listen to your PT. Do you do the home exercise program they set you for! I have a friend now who is working her way back out from injury, and her PT has given her an amazing run-walk schedule. She's like, “Oh you know, I'm just gonna add a few minutes.” No, don't. Because the plan works.

Runners have the most frustration when they're almost back to recovery. So maybe they're back to walking but they still have some foot drop, and that is the most frustrating part of the injury versus when they couldn't walk it all. I think in this great space I'm almost there, but I'm not there yet is the most frustrating thing. But you have to kind of remember that you're in this for the long haul, so don't rush the process. 

We are so divided right now, how can we heal from that?

I think the country has always been divided. I think it's been something that has been hidden before and I think that this needed to happen in order for us to start healing.

We can't heal in any regards until the problem is right in front of our face. It took a pandemic. It took us having to be home with nothing to pay attention to outside of this, for the healing to start to happen. And I love the direction that it's going. Yes, it's awful and it's heartbreaking and it's triggering and there's a lot of division, but it kind of has to happen in order for us to keep progressing and to keep moving forward.

There are more people now who are speaking out and more people now who are devoting time and energy and efforts and money into eradicating racism and, you know, unifying people than there were before. But I think that this had to happen and I think we had to identify and just call it out for what it is versus trying to hide behind, you know, everything is fine. You know, this has been a problem. Before we can get to the healing, we need to speak about it.

How do you handle feeling like you are not doing enough to move the country forward, particularly with the racial reckoning of 2020?

This has been nothing new to us. It apparently was to a lot of other people. I think that there was this big shift of non Black and Brown people looking for things to do. I'm just gonna speak for myself as a Black person. I felt like I had to do something. Oh, I'm not doing enough. Maybe I need to educate or, you know, whatever. I need to do something. And for a long time, I had these feelings like I'm not doing enough and I had to have my girlfriends say to me. You just showing up is enough. So I think for me and for anyone else who is listening, who feels that maybe they're not done enough, I think you just showing up in the space as you are and being genuine about it is enough.

What does showing up mean to you?

Showing up for me means to keep trying to keep doing the things that I'm doing to keep being in the community. To keep having my run group run through the streets of Baltimore to keep showing up in spaces where I'm not normally seen just to keep being me unapologetic like that is what showing up is for me, it is not to change anything It's not to be anything different than I've been It's just to keep showing up.

What can listeners do to show up?

You have to do what feels right for you. So maybe protesting isn't your thing, don't go to a protest. Maybe your thing is a monetary donation where you can just donate and feel good about it and be anonymous about it. Maybe that is you. Maybe you wanna hold a book club? Maybe that's your thing. So you don't have to go outside of who you are in order to be a voice to someone around. You just find your people enough with your people. Just keep showing up, how you are, but don't have to be like this whole big bang.

I think sometimes we get really caught up in the big visual things that you could see and a lot of the work is behind the scenes. So, like a lot of the work done for protests is done behind the scenes. It's not just about the protests, it's about what are you going to do after the protest? And I think that, a lot of times we missed that point, you know? What are you doing behind the scenes? So just whatever it is that resonates to you, do that.

I have patients, I have Black patients and one thing that really grinds my gears is that, you know, sometimes therapists we like to call our patients lazy, as a way to motivate patients. And now, granted, it's not the best way to go about things, but it happens. But one thing that really makes me upset is when a White therapist calls a Black patient lazy, and I don't even think that it's intended, you know, to be anything more than a tool for motivation. But in my mind as a Black woman Black people have been called lazy for years. So please don't call this Black patient lazy because they are so it's just little things like that that I think that we all do you sometimes and aren't aware of.

How can we think about the bigger picture?

I'm speaking about a 17 year old kid here right? So the 17 year old kid who was a star football player got shot and is paralyzed. He's not lazy. He is depressed. So we have to stop looking at things for what they are and look at it for the bigger picture, right?

So whoever it is you thought this bias about, let's look at the bigger picture. Maybe they're probably not what you're thinking. That's probably something bigger systemically happening that you have to look at. And you have to educate yourself on and you have to be consciously aware of. So you have to look at the bigger picture of systemic issues around you versus what it is in front of your face.

I remember I went to one of my co-workers how she had like, a finger painting party and I couldn't get in she had the gate locks and, you know, eventually she came out and I made a joke with her, and I was like, I would have climbed your fence, but I'm pretty sure I would have gotten arrested for trespassing, and she didn't say anything about it until just recently. She was like, You know what else and that stuck with me for the past five years, I have to say that never would have occurred to me that I could be arrested for trespassing. And you looked that way when you were just trying to get in, I invited you to my place and the gate was locked if you like, I never would have looked at it like that.

So I think it's just being aware of how differently different cultures and different races view things and the experiences that we have gone through and being really empathetic to that.

One final, fun question: You have an unhealthy emotional attachment to your camelback, tell us about that.

I named my camelback and her name is Dora the Explorer. And I pack her with snacks and, you know, we go out and we have a good time. I never know what's gonna happen with Dora, but she is like my best run friend. When all else fails, I have Dora. So it's kind of ridiculous that I'll take her on, like, even like a full mile run. I put like a whole bladder full of water I put a whole bunch of snacks and it's just like it's kind of like my weighted blanket like it's just like a security. Like I'm fine. Whatever happens, I have my phone. I have my snacks. I have my water. All's right with the world.


Alison on Instagram

Implicit Bias Test 

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