She may seem shy at first, but Pace & Mind runner Hélène Desgagné never shies away from a challenge or hard work. In this interview, she explains how running brought her a sense of belonging in a new city, helped her in the difficult days of pursuing her PhD, and improved her mental strength.
Kim: Can you tell us about when you started running and racing?
I started running at age 17 while I was in CEGEP (1). One day in November, my Dad just shows up in my bedroom and asked me if I wanted to start jogging so we’d be fit for ski season. We went out once, but didn’t go very far. Then a couple of days later we went again, he ran a block with me and then he stopped…but I never stopped! From that point on, I started running regularly for about 10-15 minutes almost every day.
Then 5 or 6 years later a friend who had just ran his first half marathon challenged me to run the Quebec City half-marathon because he knew I was a runner. That was in May and the race was at the end of August. I accepted and I signed up the day after. I bought my first real pair of running shoes and I trained for the race. I didn’t have a program to follow for training, but intuitively I figured out that if I was doing a half-marathon I would need to run a little bit longer. I didn’t read anything about training but I moved from running almost every day to running only three times a week. In there, I had one run that was meant to be short but a bit faster, kind of like a tempo run, I had a run that was longer, like a long run and a run that was medium to easy pace. Surprisingly, that race actually went really well, I ran 1:56 and felt amazing!
“What’s odd is that during that race I remember thinking that I liked the process more than the end goal.”
I clearly remember seeing the finish line with all the people on the side cheering me on, and I really loved that! It got me hooked. The first thing I did when I got back home was to sign up for the Ottawa Army Half Marathon, which was only three weeks later.
Kim: After running solo for many years, why did you think it was important to join a running crew?
I had tried to qualify for Boston unsuccessfully on my own, so when BlackToe formed I started going to their group runs led by Réjean with my boyfriend. It was good because he’s much faster than me and instead of having to run super easy with me, he had people to run with, and we both had some personalized coaching. We thought is was expensive at first but given that I destroyed all my PB’s with a personalized coaching plan that season and qualified for Boston, it was well worth it as I ran Boston the next year!
Unfortunately, now I’m recovering from a major injury, so I’ve been running on my own. I actually enjoy running with the team a lot because of the social aspect. In fact, a friend at school was telling me just this week she noticed that my social circle had expanded since I started running with a group. And now that I’m moving to Ottawa I think it’s going to be a good way to meet other people. I’d love to keep running with a group.
Kim: You are moving to Ottawa because you are finishing your PhD and got a job there. How have you been able to balance your studies, work, and running?
I’m lucky that, as a grad student, I have a lot of flexibility over my own schedule, but it is sometimes hard to find the right balance between work and training. At some point I think it kind of became a way of procrastinating on my work. Sometimes I was running really hard because all the stress and struggle I was finding during the day was going away on my runs. I was finding some peace in training hard.
“I’ve had some dark periods during my PhD and I think running helped me keep my mental wellness.”
I’m working on getting a better balance and now I’ll need to figure out how I’m going to do it with a full time job.
Kim: Are there any lessons from running that you were able to apply in your life?
Yes, I’d say that everything I know about resilience I’ve learned through running. I realized at some point, during the first couple of years of my PhD that I’d never been used to failure. I was a good student throughout my life, but I hit the point where it was hard. Then came a point where I couldn’t achieve what I wanted and found it difficult to cope. I saw that through running as well. For example, the first couple of times I tried and failed to qualify for Boston, I took it really hard. I’ve learned that often when you do a race, it doesn’t always go like you planned, but it’s still a good mental exercise to push through and do it. In retrospect, I think it’s because it was so hard to get to that goal that I was so happy it eventually happened.
“…everything I know about resilience I’ve learned through running.”
I’m constantly learning about how training works, how to adapt my schedule, how other aspects like cross-training are important. I hope to be a more complete athlete than I was before this injury that sidelined me for so long. I was running every day and wasn’t thinking about it. My life was organized too much around training rather than organizing my training around my life. This stress fracture is the first major injury that I’ve had and it’s definitely given me some perspective!
“I think I’ll actually enjoy running more now that I’ve spent some time away from it.”
Kim: What has the running community in Toronto brought you?
It brings a sense of belonging here; more than before when I was simply going to school and in the academic bubble. I met a lot of people through running that I have a lot in common with,
“…I noticed that people who like running share similar characteristics and personality traits.”
Kim: What advice would you give to beginner runners?
I think I went too quickly to the marathon, I ran 2 half-marathons and then signed up for my first full because I wasn’t challenged enough. But I could have spent more time building my way up. At some point I eventually learned more about training and all the other aspects, but it’s really a miracle that my first marathon didn’t completely discourage me! I was running 35-40k a week, doing 3 runs a week, and I really knew nothing about training! I think I read about carb loading a week before my first marathon and just started eating an extra bagel a day which is not the same thing at all.
“A lot of people do a marathon for the challenge, then don’t train properly, have a terrible experience and never do one again.”
I think it would have been good to learn more about running and go into it more progressively. That’s how I plan to do it now that I’m coming back from injury. I’ll start with shorter distances and work my way up slowly back to the marathon over a whole year. If I was doing it all over again, I would do it smarter.
(1) Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel: Publicly funded pre‑university college in the province of Quebec’s education system.
About Kim Bergeron, Writer
Kim Bergeron – Kim started running during the harsh winters of Quebec City to clear her mind from complex law studies. Her hobby evolved to a passion when she started racing in Toronto in 2012; progressing from a half-marathon to marathon. She loves meeting runners and discovering their motivation and passion for the sport. She writes about all things running at: paceandmind.com. Follow her on Instagram at: @kiminphotos.
About Koray Salih, Photographer
Koray Salih – Koray’s passion of running and photography are a match made in heaven. He spends race day either running, or capturing the essence of elites driving hard, teammates and friends achieving goals and family and friends celebrating. You’ll find him in one of those places. You can follow Koray’s adventures on Instagram @coreofyoureye or koraysalih.com
Pace & Mind is an advanced ‘tough love’ coaching service for distance runners. We offer advanced and highly customized 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon coaching for runners to improve their performance both on and off the road. Our coaching is based on the principles founded by Head Coach and Co-founder Rejean Chiasson, a Canadian marathon champion, 4x half-marathon medalist and NIKE+ NRC Coach. He is supported by our Online Run Coach, Kate Van Buskirk, an internationally accomplished track and field athlete, bronze medalist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Brooks Elite Ambassador. Unlike traditional ‘cookie-cutter’ or ‘clinic’ approaches to coaching, our Coaches first assesses, then customizes each runner’s training program based on:
INDIVIDUALITY * PROGRESSION * RECOVERY * MOTIVATION * COMMITMENT * COMMUNITY
Coaching programs are powered by TrainingPeaks software to ensure data accuracy. No runner’s program is the same and it constantly changes season by season, cycle by cycle. Our Coaches review your plan in detail each week, then adjust based on your progression and listens to you in terms of changes in nutrition, mental state and cross training efforts. Each runner also receives a cross-training plan and a racing singlet as part of the program.
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