Generally speaking, middle- and long-distance runners peak in their mid to late 20s, sometimes in their early 30s. After putting in thousands of hours of training and competing in countless races, they become expertly attuned to their own physiology, enabling them to get the most of out their bodies to maximize result.
St. John’s native Julia Howard, one of the most promising track athletes the province has produced, turns 27 in November. And though she’s near or at that “peak” age, the former Simon Fraser University Clan track star and 10-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA) All-American insists she hasn’t yet reached her full potential.
“It’s what keeps me going,” Howard explains from Burnaby, the British Columbia city she has called home for nearly a decade.
“I feel like there’s different aspects of my training I’d like to work on. That’s the appeal of sticking to middle to long distance running, I feel there’s always improvements to be made.”
Howard was once primarily an 800-metre competitor, but in recent years, has raced in just as many, if not more, 1,500m events — basically the metric equivalent of a mile.
Changing her training comes as a result of a disappointing finish at the Canadian track and field championships in Toronto last month. After a “really strong” semifinal, she settled for sixth in the 1,500 final in a time of 4:18.61, far off her personal best of 4:11.71 set in 2009.
“I was hoping for a top-three performance, but it was a very tactical race and unfortunately, it was a kicker’s race in the last 100-metres.
“I fell short and ended up sixth.”
Just a week after nationals at a meet in Belgium, Howard rubbed some salt in her own wounds by running the 1,500 in 4:10.61, about a third of a second off Athletics Canada’s 2010 time standard for the event, which is 4:10.24. Getting under that time, along with a top-three finish, is a requirement for making the Canadian national team.
“I really felt like this was my year to do it,” says Howard, who is determined to “figure out why it didn’t happen when it needed to.”
Howard has always planned to run until 2012, when the next summer Olympics come around. And earning a spot on the Canadian team for the London Games remains her biggest goal.
So this fall, Howard and former Canadian Olympian Brit Towshend, who was her track coach at Simon Fraser, will develop a new regimen intended to build up her aerobic base, and, as Howard says, “toughen me up a little more.
“I’ve spent a lot of years doing speed work and realized that I’ve tapped out in that area,” says Howard, a former SFU and St. John’s athlete of the year.
“I want to add in more mileage and more things to tap into the aerobic side of the 1,500-metre. I’m going to do some more races which are a little longer in distance.”
Same coach, new challenges
Howard is still attending SFU, putting the finishing touches on a masters degree in public health she hopes to complete in the spring, but her collegiate eligibility expired at the same time she finished her undergraduate psychology degree in 2006. She now runs out of the Valley Royals Track and Field Club.
“I’ve spent a lot of years doing speed work and realized that I’ve tapped out in that area,” - Julia Howard
Townshend, who is still at SFU, is also the Valley Royals coach. But despite that continuity, the adjustment from collegiate competition (Simon Fraser was part of the U.S.-based NAIA) wasn’t always smooth for Howard, who quickly learned that while the highs were very high, the lows were very low.
“When you’re in university and you’re competing within the NAIA, you get used to racing in a league and you gain a certain confidence at that level,” she said. “But when it’s time to get into the big leagues, so to speak, there’s a whole different mindset you have to take on.
“It’s a lot different when you’re not winning races all the time. It takes tenacity and an ability to bounce back quicker from more defeat.”
Running outside a team environment also creates more stresses for an individual athlete that would otherwise be dealt with by the school and coaches.
“When you’re an individual athlete, you have to rely on yourself a lot more, and become resilient to the different types of challenges that can come your way,” said Howard, who experienced such a challenge at that summer meet in Belgium, Howard’s transportation failed to show at the appointed time, leaving her stranded “at a train station in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s all part of the game of being an elite athlete on the individual level.”