Determined, passionate and fierce are all qualities that come to mind when describing triathlete Leah West Sheriff. In this interview she opens up about how running was not love at first stride, her transition to the sport of triathlon and shares some lessons learned.
Kim: How did you get into running? How did it all start for you?
I was in the army and the Canadian army always made us run. To be honest I always hated it and was always terrible at it. I would always be the person at the back of the pack. One day, one of my course staff pulled me aside and told me that as an officer I couldn’t be falling behind, I had to lead from the front. So I started to make a conscious effort to run more.
I really didn’t fall in love with it until I went to Afghanistan because there was so little time to spend alone and outside of confined spaces. Running was the singular thing I could do for myself there, and I just started loving it. I would run really early in the morning in the middle of the dark around an airfield.
“It was me time.”
At 4:30 in the morning, not too many people wanted to run with me!
Kim: When did running become something that you did regularly?
One of the cool thing that they did [overseas in Afghanistan], is hold these little races on Sundays, organized by the different units. They would have their own flavour. Canada would run the Terry Fox or Army run simultaneously with the races back home. The Americans would have a memorial day run etc. They even had a 10 km race where every km you ran to a different country’s camp and they would make you do something stereotypical of that country. For example, the Canadians would have to shoot a hockey puck into a net and the Australians made you eat Marmite. I started doing these races and started doing better and better. I actually did my first marathon in Afghanistan.
In 2012, I got out of the military to go to law school at U of T as a civilian, and I started running in Toronto.
Kim: How was the running community in Toronto back then?
It was there but I didn’t know anything about anything. I was being coached remotely by Dylan Wykes, and he is friends with Réjean [Chiasson] who had just started coaching at Black Toe Running so he told me about this store that had just opened. I started running with them and that was my introduction to the Toronto running scene. Black Toe was really great to me, they helped me get into the scene, they supported me in my races and after a season, the Black Lungs approached me and I started with them. It was an opportunity to run with people who were ALL faster than me. I couldn’t say no to that.
Kim: Is it a more exclusive club?
I don’t think exclusive is the right word because there is a negative connotation to that, but one of the goals of the Lungs is to have a group of people can all do workouts together. You definitely notice the Black Lungs when you are out in Toronto because they are tightly grouped together both in training and racing. They operate as a pack which is part of why the team is so successful.
Kim: How much racing have you done so far?
I’ve only done 5 marathons, 4 of them in about 16 months when I first started racing in 2011-12…not something I would recommend. I was racing for about 2 years, but I suffered a stress fracture 2 years ago and that really set me back. I missed a whole cycle. It’s also been sporadic because I went back to playing Varsity Volleyball when I went to Law School. Volleyball is a power sport- it’s all about explosive speed. Running is about speed endurance so the two are counter productive. After some consistent training I raced Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth last June in 3:04.
Kim: How would you describe the running community in Toronto?
Ah! Crewlove! After moving to Ottawa, you definitely see the difference here. There is a crew, team, pack spirit here that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It’s awesome! It’s really grown over the last three years. There was a time where I would bounce around and run with everybody, so I’ve seen how these teams have grown. It’s very tribal. It’s such a solitary sport and this city is so interesting because it’s so diverse and the crews are interesting because a lot of them represent the different neighbourhoods, lifestyle or mentalities in Toronto.
“They each have their own personality and everybody recognizes what they are.”
I have this secret desire to start a community running group in Ottawa that is focused toward younger runners. There are so many college students and young professionals, and they are lots of up and coming neighborhoods, but the running scene is not catching up.
Kim: What is your most memorable race?
My first marathon in Afghanistan. We started at 4am, it was -12 degrees in December. It was a satellite race of Honolulu which was hilarious. They had these cardboard cut-out palm trees, and a bunch of the guys that were manning the water station were in full fatigues, but had coconut bras over their vests and grass skirts while also carrying their weapons. There were 40 of us doing the race. I ended up running with this women for three hours and we are still friends to this day. It was awesome. It was cold and then I had to be at work by 9am but it was incredible.
Kim: How did you transition from running to triathlon?
That was a complete fluke. I did Grandma’s marathon and after that I had ten days of nothing to do after moving to Ottawa. I had a friend who was doing the Muskoka 70.3, so I asked him if he thought I could do it. I found a place to crash the night before and showed up at registration with my bike the day of the race. I did the race and loved it! It happened to be the last race for the cycle of qualifying for the World championship which was 6 weeks away. Usually they take the top of each age group, but because it was so late in the season, people already had their qualifying times so the spot rolled down to me. I decided to go for it! I was on vacation and I was thinking I would never get the chance again. I went to Austria, had a terrible race, but loved the experience and I knew I had more to give. I came back home, did the Niagara Barrelman, beat a few elites and finished just under 5 hours. In running terms that’s like breaking the three hour marathon. That’s when I realised I actually had some real potential. I approached the provincial development coach who lives in Ottawa and asked him to coach me. I knew I needed to learn the basics and I was willing to join his team of 16-23 year olds. I didn’t care about their age because they’ve all been competing in this sport for way longer then me and are far more skilled than I am.
“It’s very humbling to go to the pool and regularly have your butt kicked by an 18 year-old…”
, or to do bike drills and watch these kids pick up their water bottle off the ground while riding and am just trying not to fall down!
Kim: How do you currently balance work and training for triathlons?
I don’t do much besides train and work. I work out early in the morning, after work and even at lunch sometimes. It’s a choice that, to be honest, I’ve gone back and forth on. I am about to start competing at the elite level and to do that you have to treat training like a job sometimes- I’m racing against pros who literally do this for a living. It’s hard because at the same time triathlon is also what I do for fun, so I’m working on figuring out how to balance it all without being completely overwhelmed. It’s a work in progress.
Kim: How do you keep motivated?
I really love the sport of triathlon. I’m so new to it and I’m completely addicted. I still love every minute of it.
“I know that every workout I’m getting more out of myself and I still have so much of myself to give.”
It’s like when you go to a track workout and you see your splits go down week by week, you’re so hungry for the next workout.
Kim: Do you find that you are getting less injured doing the tri?
Absolutely! I’ve been talking to Dylan about this because he’s seen me suffer through a lot of injuries. It doesn’t hurt my body as much as running 120km a week did and I’m finding I’m still running faster even tho I do less mileage. Tri training gives you the opportunity to push your VO2 max more throughout a week because you can do it in the pool, on the bike and on the run without as much impact and wear and tear.
Kim: Looking back, are there any mistakes that you wish you hadn’t made?
Yes, racing through injuries. Once I though a stress fracture was better and I tried to race Scotia half [waterfront marathon] too soon as a test of fitness and I rebroke it. That wiped my whole season. The thing I’m learning now from my coach is the mentality that your body is your livelihood. As a professional athlete, you can’t just push through training when you are injured. You have to take injuries seriously.
The advice I would give to beginners or people ramping up to become more serious athletes is that being tired is not a badge of honour, it’s a sign that your body is not recovering. Training through injury and through serious fatigue while working full time… a lot of us wear it as a badge of honour, but it’s dumb and it’s not gonna help you. There is tired because you’ve had a hard workout and the next day you’ll feel it, and sure your coach will have you train through fatigue from time to time. However, if you are constantly tired because you’re body is a little run down, a little injured and not recovering, choosing to take a few days off is not a sign of weakness- it’s smart.
I’m starting to learn what is best for my body. It’s not about my pride anymore, it’s not about telling people that I did my workout, it’s what’s best for me long-term. I would caution against the mentality of having a plan and just getting through it no matter what. It is hard because the guilt is definitely there. But what I’ve learned is that consistency and recovery are key for endurance sports. If you don’t recover, you are not reaping the benefit of all that you are doing and you can’t be consistent.
Kim: Where do you see yourself in 4-5 years?
I initially thought I would really focus on accomplishing my triathlon goals in the next 1 to 2 years and then I would focus on my career. But now I realize that I can have a long career in triathlon and running. So I’ll likely race less and focus on development and hitting keys goals from year to year. I don’t have the ability to train 6 hours a day, so it will have to be incremental gains, but I want to keep doing this at a high level for as long as I can.
Kim: How does it change for you on a personal level to be categorized as an elite?
I feel like an imposter because I’m not getting paid and this is not my livelihood. I still have a regular job and to race with people who’s job is triathlon is intimidating. I’ve met the standard, but I’m very aware that the best are head and shoulders above me. There are tiers in this sport, like any. There are the athletes who compete and win regularly at major events, and then the athletes like me who win the local races and are happy to win money at the bigger events when it rolls down to 7th or 8th place. I realise that that’s the athlete I am right now, but I’m striving to get to the next tier and maybe surprise a few people!
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 Nathan Monk, Photographer
Nathan Monk – Nathan is the Co-founder and Community Dude at Pace & Mind. He is a runner, amateur photographer, mentor and entrepreneur passionate about changing lives through running and innovation. You can follow Nathan on Instagram and twitter at: @natesgrams, @cowboytweets
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 a ‘tough love’ coaching service for distance runners. We offer 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, and 4x half-marathon medalist. 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:
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