A blog for (semi) athletic middle-aged men (and women) holding on to (the last vestiges of) their youth
by training for and competing in running, cycling, swimming and triathlon events!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Barb Does Boston: One Woman's Journey Back to Good Health

“I’m a Type B. Not a real ‘driven’ kind of person,” explained Barb Downey, wife, mother, and recent Boston Marathon finisher. Not driven? This is a woman who, after reaching age 40 (once considered “over-the-hill”) lost 130 lbs. (over half her weight), ran a marathon (her first organized race) and one-year later qualified for the Boston Marathon (by running 26.2 miles in under four hours – a pace of under 9:00/mile – in the Eisenhower Marathon in Abilene, Kansas).

[Above: Barb and her husband Joe head out to Ruth's Chris for a celebratory steak after the race. "I had an obnoxiously huge and delicious bone-in ribeye," said Barb. "Yes I wore the medal and yes, every other runner in the place had their's on!"]

And oh, by the way, when she’s not raising her children or training for the Boston Marathon she can be found preg-checking heifers, calving or control-burning pasture.

Barb is a 4th generation Kansas rancher. Her family settled in Wyoming in the 1800s and raised cattle but Barb didn’t grow up ranching but went to Kansas State University got a degree in Animal Science and started Downey Ranch with her dad in 1986.

[Above: Barb and her family visit the BEEF booth at the John Hancock Sports and Fitness Expo the day before the marathon].

I caught up with Barb this week to get a first-hand account of the Boston Marathon experience. Boston is, after all, the world’s most prestigious marathon. Thousands of runners come from all over the world – and Wabaunsee, Kansas – to run 26.2 miles through the streets of Boston.

“The day didn’t start off great,” said Barb. “My cab driver made me pour out the cup of coffee I had made in my hotel room. But when we arrived at the Athletes’ Village, thankfully they had coffee!”

Runners were transported to the Athlete’s Village in a caravan of school buses from Boston Commons.

“It was a festival atmosphere. A DJ was playing music and announcing the start of each wave (group of runners). There was an F15 flyover. It was total pandemonium, very cool.”

I signed up to follow Barb’s race via text messages, as did many friends and family members. The AT&T Athlete Alert was supposed to text updates at the 10K, half marathon and 30K marks but malfunctioned and didn’t send any updates until after the runner’s crossed the finish line.

When I got Barb’s time I immediately noticed something peculiar. After 10K (6.2 miles) she was averaging 9:55/mile. At the halfway mark (13.1 miles) she had picked up the pace and was averaging 9:41/mile. At 30K (18.6 miles) she was at 9:48/mile. But by the time she crossed the finish line her average had dropped to an average of 10:10/mile!

I’ve never run a full marathon but have heard about the infamous “wall” that many runners hit around mile 18. I asked Barb if this is what hit her.

“Actually my first mile was around 10:30. Slower than I had planned on starting but I was very conscious of not going out too fast. But then I settled into a steady pace. I really wasn’t paying too much attention to my time.”

[At left: Barb has a smile on her face...must have been early in the race!]

“This was working fine until mile 18 when we came to a short, steep hill. Suddenly I felt both of my quads start to cramp up. At that point I said a prayer and called on my supporters to give me strength.”

Barb’s best friends Debbie and Mary Anne had signed the inside of her Team ZIP (Zinc, Iron and Protein) jersey before the race. “You’re my hero,” wrote Debbie, a fellow rancher in the Kansas Flint Hills.

“After I got to the top of the hill – which was much worse than Heartbreak Hill in my opinion – I tried a job and felt OK so I settled back into a steady, but slower, pace.”

Barb finished in 4:26:45 (10:10/mile) – a time many runners would be more than happy with, especially in their THIRD marathon! Heck, I’d be happy to finish a marathon, which is a goal I have yet to achieve.

I know Barb’s goal was to finish in under four hours. Was she disappointed? I asked.

[At left: Barb crosses the finish line!]

“I cried for the second time ever…well, for the second time in my running career. It was joy. It was pride. It was a sense of accomplishment. It was the culmination of a four-year journey. The first time I cried was the first time I ran 10 miles. That’s when I knew I had changed the rest of my life.”

Disappointed? Of course not.

“I did something I never thought I would do, even when I was in great shape in high school, as a 46-year-old woman.”

Driven? You decide.

“But now I have to do it again and do it BETTER! My qualifier was a sub-4 which would be a nice Boston time. That means two more marathons (at least). Another qualifier and another Boston! Man, I'm going to need A LOT of BEEF!”

I’m a lot like Barb. I’m a Type B. My older brother is the Type A. Major success in business. Senior Partner at Deloitte. Best big brother a guy could ever hope for. But that’s not me. I was the kid called “lazy.” Every parent-teacher conference ended with “if only Daren would apply himself, work harder, he could be a straight A student.”

So what drives me and Barb and other “Type B” weekend warriors to set goals like riding to the top of the highest paved road in North America, running marathons, and tackling triathlons? Where was this motivation when we were the “underachievers” in our younger days? What can we do to motivate you to join us on this journey?

These are the questions I will attempt to answer in hopes of motivating you to join us in living a healthy, active lifestyle fueled by a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low and non-fat dairy products and lean protein (like BEEF!).

Ride on!



  1. Awesome story! I am struggling with finding the motivation to do another big physical fitness challenge at age 42. My first big event was a few years ago when I did my first half marathon through Umsted Park in Raleigh, NC, on a 90degree day! I followed it up two months later with another half marathon in Wilmington, NC (Battleship Half-Marathon)....then I took a break for a while. I wish I hadn't stopped for so long. Two years after the Wilmington event, I finally got the motivation to try something new. I started training for the Komen 3-day in Cleveland, OH -- a 60-mile walk (20 miles per day). The 3-Day, I felt, was tougher than any the half marathons I had completed because the blisters were brutal, plus we had to camp out each night -- not the greatest way to get a good night sleep after long days of walking. But I didn't whine (even though I wanted to) and sucked it up...afterall, my bit of frustration and pain during the event was nothing compared to what a cancer patient faces. I was certainly pleased that I didn't require a sweep van to pick me at any point during the walking journey. Since the Komen 3-Day, I have completed numerous 5K events, but just need some motivation to do something bigger. Any suggestions on how to get back into the groove of training? Right now I am just not feeling it.

  2. Julie -- Set a big goal NOW (even you aren't "feeling it." Something you never thought you'd be able to do -- a full marathon, 100-mile ride, sprint triathlon. Setting the goal will motivate you to get out of bed in the morning. At least that's what works for me!


  3. Barb,

    You are an inspiration to many who feel they have gone too far one way to get back to the right side of healthy living. Keep striving forward!


  4. Dane, thanks. I have adopted your mantra of "I GET to run today!" Simple but so much more powerful than "I have to log an 8-mile tempo run." While I have a pretty good cynical streak, I make sure sometime during every physical activity, I thank God I can do what I'm doing. It makes a huge difference to see enjoying the ability to exercise as a privilege and not a chore.
    Julie, Daren's right (document that Daren). Pick an event, make a schedule with your training items(aka, each day's privilege) and hit it. I have my one continuous log from the day I mapped out my first marathon training schedule and I love to see the miles rack up. Remember, it's a privilege and appreciate something you'd not have experienced otherwise. Right now, it's the smells of blooming flowers for me, bird songs, kids playing along the way and my personal favorite; running down a hill with the wind howling in my face which is as close to the feeling of flying as I'm likely to get. I'm the oldest kid in the world running down that hill! Pretty syrupy for someone with a self-professed cynical side, but it's working, so hey.


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