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An Interview With Melody Fairchild

Melody Fairchild is arguably the best American high school female distance runner of all time. She was born September 10, 1973 in Boulder and began running in the city’s foothills at age nine. Melody won eight Colorado track and cross country state championship titles for Boulder High School and still holds the state records for cross country (16:45.1 in 1989), 1,600 meters (4:49.86 in 1991), and 3,200 meters (10:34.09 in 1990). As a high school sophomore she placed second in her first appearance at the 1989 Kinney (now Foot Locker) National High School Cross Country Championships. The next year she returned to win the event. As a high school senior in 1991 Melody successfully defended her title, this time breaking the course record by 59 seconds. She is one of only six two-time Foot Locker National Champions and still holds the course record (16:39) in San Diego’s Balboa Park. During her senior year she also made U.S. running history by becoming the first high school girl to break 10 minutes for two miles by winning the Scholastic National Indoor Championship (9:55.92). She also set the indoor 3,000 meter record at the same time (9:17.7).
Melody won the Bolder Boulder 10k citizens race in 1989, 1990, and 1991. Her winning time as a high school senior would have placed her second in the women’s elite race that year. She was a bronze medalist at the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Antwerp, Belgium in 1991. The Denver Athletic Club named her Colorado Athlete of the Year the same year.

Heavily recruited by colleges, Melody chose to go to the University of Oregon in Eugene. Despite widely held high expectations, a hip injury kept her from running her freshman year. She took the next year off and returned for her sophomore year in 1993. Melody regained her form and won the 10,000 meter Pac-10 Conference title and the NCAA 3,000 meter title in 1996. She also earned All-American honors in cross country while at Oregon.

She graduated from Oregon in 1996 and qualified for the 1997 World Championships in the 5,000 meters, representing the U.S. in Athens, Greece. She was twice an Olympic Trials qualifier, once in the 10,000 meters and once in the marathon.

In 2005 Boulder Daily Camera readers voted her the best high school athlete in the history of Boulder County. More recently, she has coached high school and college runners as well as youth in her running club, the Fairchild Flyers. She also founded and directs the Melody Fairchild Running Camp For Girls (melodyfairchild.com), an all-girl summer training camp at the YMCA of the Rockies. Melody was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame in 2008 and currently lives in Nederland, Colorado.

You’ve had quite a remarkable running career. What were the highlights for you?
My greatest highlight was winning the 1991 Footlocker National High School Cross Country Championship in record setting time. Another highlight was winning the Pac-10 team title with my team of University of Oregon Ducks during my senior year of college, defeating Stanford by just 1 point. Running alongside Joanie Benoit and the best women runners in the country at the 2000 Olympic Marathon trials was also a significant highlight. Finally, winning and setting a new course record at the 2000 Breckenridge Crest Mountain Marathon (24.5 miles) was memorable for me.

Tell us more about your experience at the 2000 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Columbia, South Carolina.
I had run a 1:11:34 half marathon in the previous six months, which was faster than anyone else there, so I came in as one of the favorites to make the marathon team. I was feeling good. My training had paid off and I felt really legitimate to enter that quality of a race and tow the line with the likes of Joanie Benoit Samuelson, Ann Marie Lauck, and Christine Clark, who eventually won. I was so excited I might have burned up some of my energy, a lesson all runners have to learn.

What was most memorable was the feeling of camaraderie among the women as we ran along through the miles of the marathon. It was very hot and people were very concerned. Joanie Benoit Samuelson was talking to us and encouraging the lead pack. Susannah Beck, one of the front runners, tripped and fell. Everyone was concerned, but we had to keep running. Susannah then caught back up to the lead pack. When she got to us she said, “I’m here” and everyone said, “Cool.” It was like we were all on this mission. There were only five of us in the breakaway pack at mile 16. Then I started feeling something in my quads and within a mile my systems began shutting down. It was like someone was slowly dimming the lights until it was black. I had bonked and my sisters told me that I was in last place. Someone said, “Get in the car” and I wouldn’t. Now I would never do that, I would have listened to them. You feel devastated when you’ve had that focus for so long. It’s hard to let go.
The positive out of this was that I learned the effectiveness of visualization and mental preparation. I had gone to South Carolina for four days the year before to train on the course. I did workouts on the last four miles of the course to prepare myself for a finishing kick to make the Olympic team. I visualized it over and over. Despite how terrible I had felt, when I actually hit the 22 mile point in the race it was like an invisible hand just came and lifted me up. It wasn’t physical energy, but something else that clicked then. It was my perception I passed 50 people in the last 4 miles. So I didn’t finish in dead last.

I don’t believe I had a full supply of glycogen and also learned practical things about being nourished well enough for the race. I would take better care of my body now.

I felt so much gratitude for being a runner and being a part of history that day. Maybe some would say that I should have had more of a killer instinct then, but that was where I was and who I was. I think my response to that situation is emblematic of my life now because I have a passion for the whole sport and specifically bringing it back to young women runners and helping them have a healthy, long lasting career.

Immediately after winning the Kinney National Cross Country Championship your high school senior year you said, “I think that’s what running is all about, putting your heart and gut on the line.” What did you mean by that?
I meant that I believe that we select ourselves to be runners because we’re curious about what we believe lies beyond the known frontier in our self. The frontier to explore inside of ourselves is endless. I think that runners who really get to the top level have the down deep excitement every time they get on the line, maybe not every race, but at least for the big ones. They keep the flame alive for every time they toe the line and ask, “What new territory will I discover today?” It’s a very rarified place to be in our head and our hearts. If there is a very special state of mind that artists, athletes and anyone who finds that one thing they love and put everything they have into it, then it’s a complete abandoning of fear in themselves. We often get in our own way when trying to accomplish something, because fear of how our lives will change as a result of letting our gifts shine is greater than our faith in the gifts we are meant to express in the world.

I love that about the potential of running for people. I know that when I’m 100 years old I can go to a high school or any other kind of cross country meet and just stand there and get excited because I know there are all these people toeing the line who are wondering, “What am I going to do today? Will I stay within my limits or will I transcend them?” To do that means we let go of our fears of what will happen to us if we actually give it everything we have. That’s what my experience was numerous times in high school and definitely when I set the record that still stands at the Foot Locker National High School Cross Country Championship and the state records I set in Colorado.

So that’s what I meant. When I said that at the end of that race I was feeling a lot of gratitude for that experience running gave me to go through. Every time we go out and run we don’t improve, but probably at some point during every run in high school I brought that level of intensity to my running, which maybe I paid for later. It was just where I was at the time. I love to see that in the young people that I get to work with now. I think that if we can touch that place in ourselves at least a couple of times it lasts forever.

If you could re-live your running career, what would you have done differently?
I would have had more trust in myself and would have allowed myself to have more “down” and not expected to be “up” all the time. I think that was the cross-eyed bull I had to bear going into my college and professional careers having been the intense kid that I was. It wasn’t okay to have the down time and not be performing. Probably the only regret I have is that it troubled me so much when I was in college and not performing. In my eyes I wasn’t living up to my full ride scholarship. I didn’t trust in myself and chose to give up my scholarship for a year, which was crazy and really hurt. I didn’t just say, “It’s okay to screw up.” I don’t know how my Oregon coach did it, but to his credit he held the scholarship for me. So I think a lot of things go awry when we stop trusting in ourselves and don’t just give ourselves a little bit of a break.

Who would you consider to be your greatest running heroes?
Lynn Jennings was my high school running hero. Looking back now, I admired her professionalism in the sport. She represented how a woman could make her way in the world on her feet as a runner. Her intensity, focus, and determination was unparalleled by any other woman runner I had been around. She was also a healthy woman runner and always had a strong athletic body. I knew about her training and she ran a very solid amount, but didn’t overdo it. I thought she was a good role model for women runners.

I remember watching Joanie Benoit Samuelson in the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984. I admired her for her heart and what she represented to the whole world of women’s running. Bringing her running career all the way through to the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials made it come full circle for many of us who admired her, too. Getting to run with her in 2000 was incredible.

Another perennial favorite of mine is Steve Prefontaine. I didn’t know who he was in high school. When I finally learned about him in Eugene he became my inspiration to this day. I really believe that I felt his spirit when I was in Eugene. He really had a passion for giving back to the sport and he inspired me in that way too. I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with his sister. She sponsors my running camp with some of the mementoes she creates in the spirit of her brother.

What has your own training regimen been in recent years?
In recent years I run between fifteen minutes and three hours a day whenever I feel like it. I love running in the mountains and will hike or run up a trail to the top of a peak anytime. My training regimen has been enough to have a general level of fitness so I can go and enjoy road or cross country races. I’ve been mixing it up more with bicycling just to keep the balance in there. I enjoy working other muscle groups. My training regimen is really dictated by the need to keep up with the kids I coach, including those in my running camp, where we do a lot of running.

What do you believe is the most important training advice to share with competitive long distance runners for 5k to the marathon?
It’s important to do some nuts and bolts core and strength training of some kind. A ten minute warm up run before some core and strength training two days a week is worth more than that extra ten miler. I wish I had done this earlier and more often in my running career.

Perhaps more importantly, pay attention to recovery. Balance is really tough for distance runners — runners think that more is better and are afraid to stop and get out of shape. To get into that rarefied place it takes going to some extreme. If we go to those extremes too often it means eventual physical injury and psychological burnout.

With all of the moving forward and pounding of joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles it also really helps to have some kind of practice that is an antidote to all of that. I think this would extend people’s running careers. It’s unfortunate that more runners don’t do that and give back to themselves because runners are often the most open and ready to accept that kind of thing. As the antidote, I would suggest lengthening the body in some way and not stretching muscle, something that Cortical Field Re-Education offers.

Tell us more about Cortical Field Re-Education, the form of alternative healing you practice, how it relates to running and specifically how runners might benefit.
The Cortical Field Re-Education, or CFR, is a method of working with the body that improves the communication between your sensory motor cortex and your muscles. So it improves coordination, balance, and for runners in particular, it’s helpful in increasing the ease and sometimes the length of a stride. It allows runners to become aware of unconscious patterns of movement or holding patterns that restrict fluid movement. That’s what CFR is about.

Here’s an example of how CFR works. I worked with a woman who was training for the Bolder Boulder last spring. Once a week we worked out on the track and once a week we did a CFR floor lesson. When I watched her run she had a very common arm carriage where her wrists and arms were facing down more than anything and her upper body moved undifferentiated. With wrists and arms down the shoulder blades can hardly move at all. I asked her to try turning her hands and arms just a bit so they faced up more. This opens the clavicle and pectoral area and slides the shoulder blades subtly together and down. As soon as I saw her do this properly it was like, “Now there’s a functional moving human,” because now she had nice bilateral movement. Earlier she was just “one chunk” moving undifferentiated and there were a whole lot of joints and muscular tissues that weren’t moving at their capacity. CFR increases one’s capacity rather than helping a person know where their limits are. It gives a runner an awareness of how their whole body is connected in space so when you get up and go run the whole experience is a lot more joyful because you’re aware of more parts of your body.

I don’t believe my body would be as healthy as it is now if I had just continued on without the CFR. I learned how to get on the floor and do movements to lengthen my skeleton and increase my resting muscle length through communication between my brain and body. It is also a useful practice to calm the mind and the body – to promote a balance for the nervous system. I didn’t know how to let myself go to have a practice of some kind that was calming and created stillness in mind and body. I’ve found that this is really helpful now that I’m in my 30s. I feel saved that I found this work.

In terms of your own lessons from experience, what would you tell serious runners about running their best race, including proper mental outlook and best racing strategies?
Visualization is a must as proper mental preparation for your best race. It simply allows for the mind-body connection to happen. So if we sit down a couple of days before a race and think about the course from start to finish, then consider what we’ll be doing to prepare for the race itself and adding in all the detail we want. It’s like creating your own canvas and painting your own picture. Visualization is unique to every individual because each of us gets inspired by different things. If we do this prior to the race then we’ve already run the race in our nervous system. So when we do race a good chunk of the work is done because the mind has already seen it. Of course, then we trust in our training and simply show up and get out there.

Negative splitting is important in terms of racing strategy. But it takes being very fit and having a lot of confidence in your training. Negative splitting is a really good strategy because it gives you an alternative to just saying, “I’m just going to run as hard as I can in the race and see how I end up.” Runners who are new or relatively new to racing are more likely to just go flat out. But frankly, that’s terrifying. People can do that when they’re really fit, really experienced, or ready to win a national title. But even then you need to have some strategy where you really pace yourself.
So for anyone wanting to add to their racing experience and have a strategy, I recommend they pick places in the race where they are going to surge or move up and then run a little faster…little faster…little faster, so they end up running the last mile faster than the first.

You have said that your mother’s death from cancer just weeks after your high school graduation “invited an awareness of life as an exploration of the unfamiliar.” Can you explain that statement?
That is a foundational statement of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the person who founded CFR. Another of his quotes that I love is “It’s difficult and tiring to try to do what you cannot yet do. It is not tiring to explore the unfamiliar.” When I coached at Wellesley College I put it up on the bulletin board for all the women to see when they came in from practice. I love that quote because so often as runners we think of a goal, like “I want to break 19 minutes for 5k” or whatever and we think, “Well, I can’t do that…I’m now running 21 minutes.” Some people get really devastated by that fact. It’s true that in this moment you can’t do that, but instead of focusing on what we can’t do if we see it as “Gee, this is an exploration of the unfamiliar, that frontier in myself that I haven’t discovered yet, the uncharted territory I haven’t claimed in myself yet.” Then it’s the process that’s fun, interesting, joyful, and satisfying.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was in high school I was really attached to how things were. In my little world as a runner I had created this mentally focused environment that frankly allowed a lot of those great performances that I turned in. After the death of my mother my immediate family separated to different corners of the country for a while. I felt like I was on a little raft out on the ocean and didn’t even have a sail. I said to myself then, “Okay, what am I going to do with this? Am I going to curl up and crawl in a little hole or what?” As an adult I now look back on this time and realize that my mother’s death was in a way a gift to me saying, “Hello, open up and expand yourself!” I found that life is a lot more interesting and fun when I embrace the unfamiliar.

You have said that “there are still attitudes ands beliefs related to the treatment and coaching of young women that limit and are even detrimental to their health.” Could you explain that statement?
What I’ve learned about the progression of the female distance runner is that a young girl runner going into ninth grade is most likely going to be very slight. If she’s been athletic, she’s probably going to be very lean. She comes into her high school program with the ability to run very fast off of relatively little training. At some point her body is going to have to develop into a women’s body. To allow that to happen, the hormones are running through her, her menses is initiated, and she puts on extra body fat, which are all very natural processes.

I am very concerned about girls that have dreams to be athletes their entire lives when these physiological changes occur. What happened is they’ve won races and they, their parents, aunts, uncles and everyone in their circle have become excited. They think, “Oh, full ride scholarships, Olympic dreams”…you name it. Then the girls go through this necessary period of bodily change where their performance declines. The girls feel that people aren’t that excited anymore. The worst case scenario is that their parents get upset because they think there is a problem and they want to fix it. Coaches turn to the next young runner coming up. I think that this is all detrimental to the girl’s mental health.

I made that statement because I’m very passionate about the dreams of young girls and them being whatever they want to be as athletes and runners. When that physiological process happens I believe we lose a lot of girls. Because of the family dynamic where the parents get disappointed gets so onerous the girls quit altogether and…gosh, who knows what can happen? They can start smoking, drinking, doing drugs. It can just go from one extreme to the other. Or they just slowly suffer through their high school career frustrated that they can’t get back to where they were when they were in ninth grade. Psychologically, that’s just so difficult and I don’t think it has to be like that.

In terms of detriments to their physical health, I see that through it all there’s a lot of pressure from their high school or college coaches, the media, and from society to make sure that the young woman stays thin. If she’s successful in not feeding her body enough or she stays thin enough so her menstrual cycles doesn’t happen then there is a whole string of negative things happening to this young person. When her body is trying to become healthy, strong and capable of childbirth she is starving herself. On a nuts and bolts level, osteoporosis is on the way because the hormones estrogen and progesterone aren’t flowing and its leaching calcium from the bones.

I’d love to see it mandatory for every female college freshman to take a year off and let herself adjust in all the ways that there needs to be. There needs to be a transition – to college life, to how you’re going to eat when mom and dad aren’t feeding you, and just let the body take break after it’s been pushing itself for four years to get that full ride scholarship. I get the chills thinking about the number of women I’ve met along my adult path since I was 22 who have horror stories about what they went through in high school and college. It stayed with them. Some of them are adults moving into middle age and they’re still struggling with it. It’s just very sad.

That’s why I have a camp for girls. It’s a place where we have positive female role models and teach them these things, like about how to trust their bodies and their intuitions. I have to make a disclaimer statement to them when I begin discussing these things, something like, “We’re teaching you this, but you need to be warned that the system doesn’t allow for you to take the breaks that you need.” I hope we have a bigger, more global perspective on the life of a distance runner instead of pushing the kids through a system. I was on that path myself and know it so well.

It’s tough because coaches get excited when they have this young little thing that can run like the wind. For a number of reasons I wasn’t happy my freshman year of college. I was also 95 pounds and I needed to grow. But I realized after my first year that I had to take a year off and get happy. I’m sure that was terrifying to my coach because he was probably thinking, “There goes another one. She’ll probably gain 25 pounds and I’ll never see her again. She won’t work out”. Then there’s resentment because the coach has just given a full ride scholarship to a woman who is growing just like she’s supposed to.

I needed to simply let this process happen, stay strong mentally, and know it was going to be a progression to get back, which it was. I also realized that I needed to stay strong through weight training during that year. I was determined to come back and see my college career through with success because I knew it meant a lot, not just to me, but to women’s running. I wanted it for myself the most, but it’s so inspiring for someone to follow through on what they have started.

What you’ve asked me about is a pretty serious issue and, thankfully, I’ve created a space in my life where I can welcome these girls in and try to give them some tools to work with these challenges.

What was it like being inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame in 2008?
It was such an honor. Knowing how many great runners there are in Colorado I was shocked when they telephoned me about being selected. It was also amazing timing because I had just moved from Oregon back to Colorado where my roots were. It was like this huge welcome home. It was wonderful to be up there with Steve Jones, Mark Plaatjes, Ellen Hart Pena, and the others.

I’m now 36 years old. For eighteen years I lived in Colorado off and on and now I’m back here to stay. But every time I came back somebody I didn’t know from Adam would say, “Hey, you’re that runner!” Then I would ask myself, “How is it possible that people remember me from eighteen years ago? I laugh about it now. Even being interviewed now by Colorado Runner, it’s like this gift that keeps on giving and keeps on growing. I felt that induction into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame was the official stamp that I could be in the role of giving back to the sport. It was like this mantle I was given to see if I could make my life and the lives of others grow through the sport. So being inducted was huge for me.

Bruce Kirschner has been active in the Colorado running community for many years. He has been involved in local race management since the early 1980s and founder of the Federal Cup 5K road race in 1984. Bruce currently serves as race director of the Coal Creek Cross Country Challenge, which he co-founded in 1999 and is held each October in Louisville. He also now serves on the board of the Colorado Masters Running Association.

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