We are super excited to share this unique Chaski Athlete Spotlight with you this week! Amy Pelletier and Emily Strenk, both coached by Izzy Ray are both accomplished marathon and ultra runners aspiring to hit the Olympic Trials Qualifier in the marathon and keep pushing the distance in the ultras. As training partners, they have taken advantage of the lack of organized races by participating in the virtual Boston Marathon and some longer self-supported trail efforts. This interview ranges from their background in running, setbacks they have faced and overcome, and future goals and dreams. We hope you enjoy it!
Who has inspired your running journey the most and why?
My parents were my number one fans in high school; it didn’t matter if I was in the chase pack or the last place runner, the video camera was out and they were cheering for me. When they can, my parents travel to see me run by them a couple times on a marathon course. They would have been in Boston with me this past April screaming at the finish line! I would not be the runner I am without them.
I can say the same thing about Amy - when we first met in 2017, she made me believe in myself in a way I hadn’t in years. Her friendship and willingness to help me start over was what started me on this journey of marathons and ultras that I’m on now and I couldn’t be more happy or more grateful!
My first and biggest inspiration is my Dad. Growing up, I remember he ran so many miles on the treadmill and I always wanted to run that much. My parents are my biggest supporters and never pass up the opportunity to cheer me on in a race if they are able to.
I always look forward to running past my Mom & Dad in a marathon because my Dad makes sure to have snacks ready while he runs alongside me so that I don’t have to slow down. Additionally, Emily always inspires me to think bigger and better. Her love for this sport is so infectious and she makes me believe that we can achieve anything. I’m so thankful to have found the best running partner and friend.
Have you ever been on the cusp of quitting this sport? Why, and what brought you back?
A few years ago, I got into a bad habit of ramping up my training very quickly which would result in burnout and bad overuse injuries. I would reluctantly take time off and try to jump straight back into where I was before, which would eventually result in another injury. I had a solid 2-3 years where something always hurt but I forced myself to try to run until I couldn’t. This drove me away from what I loved about this sport and made it feel like a punishment/chore instead of relaxing and motivating.
I moved back to Seattle and was able to run more with Emily which taught me to take my time ramping up and take time off before the injury gets bad. I learned how to be patient with my body and not punish myself for not being where I thought I should be. It took patience but learning how to train smart has helped me fall back in love with running.
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How long have you been running, and why did you first fall in love with the sport?
I’ve always been interested in being a “runner.” In high school, I used it to get in shape and keep my cardio up. I was very involved in dance, specifically ballet, so running was supplemental to my training. I fell in love with running in college. I originally started running to keep off the “freshman 15”, but it quickly became my relaxation. Living in the dorms was always hectic so I would wake up early to get in solo miles around the lake or on the beach. Running became my favorite thing to do and it still is the best way for me to relax, de-stress, and really feel in tune with myself.
Growing up, my mom used to make my brother and I bike with her while she did her long runs. She was a marathoner, and while I never thought I would want to do that distance, she was definitely an early running inspiration. Similar to Amy, I’ve been a runner for a long time. I ran on the cross country and track and field distance teams all four years in high school, though in my last few seasons I was only able to race a couple times due to injury.
However much I did or didn’t get to run, I fell in love with the sport in high school. The team was my family, and I looked forward to practicing with them every day after school. Running was never a chore or a punishment because of my team. That’s why Amy has been so pivotal to my running journey as an adult. We, along with other friends at times, form a mini team that encourage each other and always support in sometimes fantastical running goals and ideas. Is there something about Chaski that you’re especially drawn to? Emily
I love how personal the experience has been. My coach, Izzy, does an amazing job of checking in and making sure my schedule works with my running goals and my personal life. He is also great at crafting creative solutions for different challenges I am facing. Whether it’s physical injury or a mental roadblock, Isaiah is always ready to talk truth with me and help me brainstorm creative solutions. I love that we now have this bigger community to work with, too! Amy
I’ve been wanting to get a running coach for a while, so when I learned that Isaiah was offering coaching, I immediately jumped at the chance. It has been a huge learning experience and has made me a much better runner. I was so excited when he joined Chaski and I was able to get connected with this running community. It’s been so special to see what other athletes are accomplishing.
What are your long-term goals for yourself as a runner? Amy
I’d like to continue to push the limits and see how far I can go. Emily and I have plans to do a 50 miler and maybe a 100K next year. I’d love to continue to work on my speed and beat my marathon PR of 3:25:59. My long-term, daydreaming goal is to qualify for the Olympic Trials. I’m a long way off but it is something that I’d love to strive for.
For next year, I would like to better my marathon time (3:21:13) and get it as close to 3 hours as I can. I know I’ve got something faster in me, especially as I continue training with Isaiah. I would like to run my first 50 miler next year, hopefully in a race, but I would also be okay with a self-supported adventure to make that happen! In the next few years, my long term goals are a 100 miler and to hit the Olympic Qualifying Standard for the marathon.
What has been your most meaningful experience as a runner? Emily
It’s true what they say - after you finish a marathon, you either never want to run one again or you are already dreaming about your next attempt. After running the Jack and Jill Downhill Marathon in 2018 I was tired, and could already feel soreness setting in, but a fire had been lit.
In 2016, I chose to pack up my life in San Francisco and join a team of 20 other random strangers that were running across the country to raise money and awareness for young adults affected by cancer. It was called the 4K for Cancer, which is a program that was sponsored by the Ulman Cancer Fund. We started in San Francisco and ended in New York City 49 days later. We slept on church and school floors while asking local restaurants to donate food.
Our team raised about $800,000 that went directly back to the charity. This experience was truly one of a kind. We ran relay style across the entire country, averaging about 16-20 miles each day! I was at a crossroads in my life and this trip taught me that I really don’t need much to be happy; as long as I have people to support me and the motivation to get through the day then I can do anything.
Have you had any running setbacks (such as an injury or big change in life) and if so can you tell us about it? Emily
To make a long story short : When I was 16, I slipped while running uphill and that kick-started a string of injuries that culminated in a very severe diagnosis. My spine had sustained fractures to discs L3 and L5 and bulged out L4. For 3 years, I was in daily pain and had to give up running while I went to physical therapy and worked on strengthening my body. This was an incredibly hard transition; I went from running 40+ miles a week to barely being able to stand for an hour without crippling pain.
I had always loved running and it was a huge form of stress relief,. However, after healing, through a combination of unsupportive doctors and my own mental blocks, I was too scared to try running again. It wasn’t until I met Amy in 2017 that I actually felt like I could (and wanted to!) try again.
In 2016, I finished out the summer with a stress fracture in my foot. That was the injury that started my cycle of overtraining resulting in injury. Over the next 2 years, I went through a bad ankle sprain, a torn tendon, and another stress fracture. This was so frustrating and un-motivating that running almost didn’t seem worth it.
Emily was always there for me to vent to and constantly encouraged me to keep moving forward. I’ve now learned when I need to take a day off if something’s sore rather than push through and risk further injury.
How have you been training for your upcoming race? Emily
Working with Isaiah for the last 7 months has really changed my perspective on training. Before starting with him, I was writing training plans that had a traditional build you could find with a quick google search. I felt that these worked okay, but I was never sure how hard to push myself.
This summer, Isaiah had me focus more on heart-rate training and strength work and that has had a profound impact on how strong I feel both in everyday life and training. It was really helpful to put my trust in Isaiah and to know he was only going to give me what I was capable of, even though at times the workouts seemed intimidating. It was a new way to push myself and I’m excited to see what continuing with this training style will bring in the next year!
Isaiah has helped me understand the importance of heart rate training and dialing back my pace in order to get my heart rate down. While this was very frustrating when I started back in May, it has paid off immensely. I’ve been focusing mostly on training in my aerobic zone and now that I have that a bit more under control, I get to start working on speedwork and hills. This type of training was completely new and the opposite of how I’ve always trained, but I’m consistently running more miles with less injuries.
Favorite place to run?
Emily: The Chuckanuts in Bellingham, Washington
Amy: I’ve moved around a lot the last few years so I have many favorite places. I love running anywhere that has a beautiful view (especially of the ocean); currently that is near Fairhaven in Bellingham.
Favorite race of all time? Emily: Oregon Coast 50K. It was the first race I had ever traveled for and sparked the desire to keep looking for races outside our local offerings.
Amy: Also the Oregon Coast 50K. It was my first time racing an ultra distance. The course was very challenging, but worth it for the gorgeous views and free pizza/beer at the finish line.
Bucket-list race you haven’t done yet? Emily: So many! But I would love to test myself on the Teanaway Country 100 course. Maybe 2022??
Amy: The race that’s always been at the top of my bucket list is the Boston Marathon. I would also love to travel and run the London Marathon.
Favorite workout you've done since starting to work with Chaski (or before)? Emily: Running-wise I’ve really enjoyed the long runs that have some fartlek sprinkled into the middle. The pickups keep my feeling fresh and help me avoid the marathon shuffle. Strength-wise I’m surprised to say that Muscular Endurance, while an ass-kicker, has been a great way to watch myself progress this year, too.
Amy: Long runs are my absolute favorite. I sometimes struggle with motivation to get started but I love the ups and downs that come with long runs. It’s always the best time for me to relax and reflect.
How has a failure or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Emily: I’m hoping our recent failure on the Loowit Trail - much longer and much more effort than we had hoped - is going to set us up for success in everything we have planned for next year. Having both of us hit the wall hard several times in the second half of our run definitely proved to me that we know how to work well together and how to pull each other out of dark moments.
Amy: I’ve had too many races where I hit the wall too early and paid for it later on. I’ve learned how to push through when I want to quit and that the moment will pass. Our day on the Loowit Trail was a tough day for both Emily and I but we now know we can help push each other through anything. We went into it feeling very confident but things quickly went south. Looking back, it was a great day in the mountains with the best running partner so I’m excited to go back and redeem ourselves next year.
Taking a closer look at your recent race efforts, can you tell us more about how those went?
Amy and I have done some awesome self-supported efforts this year, including the Timberline Trail in August and the Loowit Trail in October. We did do one virtual marathon in September; I was supposed to run Boston this year, but that, like everything else, became a virtual race. I knew I wanted to run a fast marathon but was nervous about having to run alone. When I mentioned it to Amy, she immediately said she would also race it with me if I wanted. I definitely have more motivation when I train with people, so of course, I said YES. Getting long miles in or a set of hill repeats becomes ‘easier’ when I know Amy is working just as hard!
We went into this race with big goals after a summer of slower running, just ready to challenge ourselves in a different way. Our course was the Jack and Jill course, from Hyak to North Bend. I chose this course because it’s where I ran my first marathon (that Amy convinced me I could do) and where I nabbed my qualifying time for Boston in 2019.
In lieu of wearing vests with all our aid station supplies, my parents and our other training partner Preston biked alongside us, handing us nutrition, refilling our handhelds, and offering encouragement the entire time. It was a lot of fun to have our support team with us the majority of the time, and I am so grateful to them for giving up a day to come help us.
Despite being training partners for three years now, Amy and I have only ever raced side-by-side one other time, at the 2019 Rock and Roll Half Marathon. Though we have spent hours running together on some of our training runs, it was new to spend 26.2 miles glued to someone else’s side and pushing each other the entire time. Our first goal was to run a sub-3:40, with a secondary goal of hitting Amy’s PR of 3:37, and a third goal of hitting sub-3:30.
From mile one to about halfway, I ran about a half step ahead of Amy, working to help us settle and hold a sustainable pace. We came through 13.1 in 1:44, and that’s when we started to get excited. We were feeling strong, had stayed on top of our nutrition, and were perfectly on pace for our biggest goal? Heck yea!
As we headed into the second half, my body was feeling the effort. Without us having to talk about it, we switched positions and Amy pulled us the entire second half. She knew when I was struggling and was able to offer encouragement and support as we worked our way to the “finish line”.
This was a popular course for others running virtual Boston, so at the end of the trail someone had left Boston colored balloons and a streamer “finishing tape”. My parents held the tape across the trail and Amy and I got to break it together, in 3:25:57. This day was everything I could have dreamt of and more.
After a weird year of training, we had surpassed all three of our goals. I honestly don’t think a ‘real’ race would have felt like such a sweet victory, because we probably wouldn’t have raced together the entire time. Recovery started with a cider and some carrot cake on the side of the trail and continued through the week with some gentle shake out runs, as prescribed by Izzy.