This conversation started on January 24, 2018. AROOO!
Darla, could you please tell us how young you are?
Does 50 have any specific feelings attached to it for you?
50 was a hard milestone for me. I don’t like to voice my age out loud. I don’t feel 50.
You don’t feel 50, what does that means to you?
What I mean is that as long as my body allows, I will continue to train as I always have. Actually, I’m in better all-around condition now than I was 4 years ago when I only competed in regular races; 10K’s, 10 Milers, ½ marathons and marathons. My fitness is completely different now. I have upper body strength beyond what I have ever had. I love feeling strong and powerful. That being said, I try not to be consumed with the number.
I may be 50, but that doesn’t mean I have to act like I’m 50.
Why do you feel that way?
I guess it’s the social stigma with being over 50. We are looked at as being OLD by people in there 20’s and 30’s. I race against women younger than me, I see the way they look at me when I line up at a race, redemption comes when I beat them.
Have you ever considered they are looking at you with admiration? As a role model. Do you feel like a role model?
Sometimes I feel like a role model. I have lots of women say they admire me. That’s a good feeling. It’s pretty cool that people within the running community even know who I am. Sometimes women come up to me at the gym, or just when I’m out running errands and say I look amazing, super fit. That’s always nice to hear. Last night at basketball practice, one of my 8th grade girls, who towers over me (I’m 5’2”) looked down at me and said,
“Coach you’re just so cute and little but on the other hand, your muscles scare me. I wouldn’t want to mess with you.”
I love coaching those girls. I go to practice every night hoping I’m making a difference in their lives. If I can be a role model and inspiration to them, that’s a win in my book. Honestly though, the most important thing is that I’m a good role model for my children. I hope they see that I work hard to support our family and I’m committed to my sport and the dedication it takes to be a successful runner.
What do you think 50 is suppose to act and feel like?
Well, I look around at other people my age and I know that 50 feels different to me than to the average 50-year old. Like I stated above, I am stronger and more well-rounded in my fitness than I was when I was competing in cross-country in college. I decided 3 years ago to train for a marathon with Kirk, my running coach. I had run marathons before, but never trained properly for them. In the past I just started adding miles to my daily runs with no training program in place. Kirk trained me like I had never trained before. I got a PR at 46 years old, beating my best marathon time from my 20’s and 30’s. My time was 3:15:58. I‘m on a local Women’s Elite Racing team and every Spring we compete in a USTAF Mile Race. I’ve been consistently running a 5:45 the last few years. That is my hardest race, I am NOT a sprinter. 50 feels pretty damn amazing.
What do you say when someone asks you… Darla, what do you do?
If they are referring to my career, I tell them I work at Thomson Reuters in legal sales.
What if they are not referring to your career?
I start by saying I’m a single mom of 3 kids. They are number one. Also, that I’m a competitive runner. Those two things define who I am, they are what make me, Me.
You proudly said you are a single mom of three kids tell us about that.
I have raised my kids mostly on my own, even before my divorce 3 years ago. I’m proud of my kids. They bring my heart so much joy and happiness along with a little stress and heartache mixed in. My oldest son is on the autism spectrum which brings some added challenges. He is 19 and in his first year of community college. He works part-time at the YMCA in the child care center. He’s amazing with little kids, he loves them. He’s going to school to be an elementary school teacher. My oldest daughter is 16 and a junior in High School. She is an avid hockey player for her high school’s varsity team. Watching her play is a highlight in my life. My youngest daughter is 12 and plays youth basketball. I’m the coach for her team. It’s so awesome spending that time with her. She loves school and is a 4.0 student.
You referred to yourself as a competitive runner. Not a runner. What does the competitive part mean to you?
I run on a local women’s elite racing team for a local running store. We are sponsored by New Balance and compete in USATF sanctioned races. So, when I run races, I’m not only running for me, but for my team. That means giving my all at every race. For me individually, that means placing in the top 3 in my age group. That’s the expectation I put on myself before every race. I’ve been racing locally for 9 years against the same women, so I know who my competition is and where I should land at the end of the race. If I don’t, then I figure out why and work on it. As far as Spartan Racing and OCR, I run those races competitively too. I can’t step into a racing situation, no matter what, and not try to place in the top of my age group. It’s just in me to be competitive. I know the obstacles I need to work on and get more proficient at. That’s my focus right now.
Once I get better at the obstacles, then I have a fighting chance at being on that podium for my age group at most races.
How do you balance a corporate job, being a competitive athlete, and keeping your children at the top of the pyramid?
It’s not easy, but nothing worth fighting for is, right? I get up at 4:45 am every day. I train from 5:15 until 7:00 am. If I don’t have time to do both cardio and weight training, usually when I have a longer run or a speed workout with lots of intervals, then I will do my run before work and do my weight training after work. I lift weights and do lots of circuit training specific to OCR. Lots of grip work and upper body strength exercises. Then I go to work from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. Once a week I work out with my running coach/trainer, Kirk, after work. He also writes my weekly training plan which includes my running training plan as well as my weight training/circuit training. Finally, I try to get to an obstacle gym at least once a month to work specifically on rigs and obstacles. It’s a balancing act, but my kids and their activities are also my priority. If I have to miss a workout after work for a hockey game, basketball game or school event, then so be it. They are super supportive of me and we work as a team.
How did you get involved in Spartan racing?
I was introduced to Spartan racing 2 years ago by my running coach. Kirk saw a Spartan Race on TV and the next time I trained with him he said I should try doing one. I had run one Spartan Race the year before that. That’s a long, actually funny story, but I had no idea what a Spartan Race was and hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t considered actually committing myself to training for one to compete at the elite level.
I committed that day with Kirk and the rest is history. Now, with my Spartan training, I’m stronger than I have ever been.
Please could you share with us your first Spartan Race story?
My oldest brother lives in Dallas and is very competitive. He was never a great athlete, although he could have been, but he didn’t play organized sports. He’s a successful business man. He’s the manager of a huge division of sales people. One of the men he works with has a wife who runs Spartan Races. In 2015 my nephew was getting married in Austin, TX. My brother calls and tells me he signed me up for a race that weekend because his co-worker has been bragging about how good his wife is in Spartan races. My brother, signed me up. He wanted me to kick her ass so he could rub it in his face (in a good-natured… guys giving each other a hard time… way). My brother said the race was outside of Austin, less than 10 miles from where my nephew was getting married, on the morning of his wedding. He also told me it was an obstacle race. My exposure to obstacle course racing involved crawling through tunnels, jumping through tires and running through mud. When he said “obstacle course race” that’s what I envisioned. Never one to turn down the opportunity to race, and not pay for it myself, I was all in. That morning my brother drives me out to the middle of nowhere in Texas, drops me off at the entrance, and said “have fun, text me when you’re done”. I walked up to the entrance, received my packet, opened it up and the timing chip was in there. No biggie, I have one of those at every race. There was also the band and the wrist band. I almost threw them away thinking “what are these? I’ll never wear these but then I noticed everyone around me had them on, so I put them on. My first thought was WTH have I gotten myself into? I wandered over to the start and saw a wall. I looked at the guy sitting by wall and asked, “what’s with the wall? Where’s the starting line?” He looked at me and chuckled and said, “you have to get over the wall to get to the start”. I knew then I was in over my head. I thankfully had enough upper body strength to get over the wall.
Then this guy comes on a mic and starts hyping up the crowd and everyone starts yelling “AROO! AROO!” I seriously thought “these people are NUTS”.
The race starts and I fail the first obstacle. It was the tire flip. I was like “are you kidding me? I can’t flip this Effing thing”. I couldn’t even get it off the ground. I started to run and the guy working that obstacle stopped me and said “30 burpees”. I asked “what’s a burpee?” He pointed to a gallery of people who didn’t complete the obstacle. My thought, “Are you Effing kidding me?” I just wanted to run because I knew there were women ahead of me and that’s never ok. I watched what everyone was doing, did 30, and took off running as hard as I could until the next obstacle. I had to ask at every obstacle what I was supposed to do. I surprisingly completed a lot of them, but also did a crap load of burpees that day and cursed my brother the whole way. Part of the race was a single track with cactus on both sides. I was picking cactus thorns out of my thighs for a few days after that race. That had never happened in any of my road races. I finished that race, won my heat, and blew my brother’s colleague’s wife out of the water, so I guess mission accomplished. I was exhausted and vowed I’d NEVER do another one of those stupid races again. Fast forward 2 years later when Kirk suggested we train for one. Like I said, I can’t back down from a challenge. And so began my career in obstacle racing.
You found Spartan racing in a very unexpected and strange way to say the least. It could have been an experience that turned you off to the whole thing. Why do you love Spartan racing?
Well, I have been running regular road races since High School. It can get stale after a while. Spartan Racing has given me a new sport to try to conquer. I had never trained on trails, so that has opened up my running world. I didn’t think I would like trail running but I do. It’s quite peaceful and beautiful out there. The obstacles are a whole new challenge. When I started, I had zero grip strength and my palms were baby soft. I now have thick callused hands that I wear with pride. I have to say, one of my all-time favorite things about being a Spartan is the friendships. It’s such an amazing group of people. Every race I go to I meet new people.
The group of friends I have made right here at home through the North Star Spartans, they are friends for life now. They are like family.
You have been a very talented athlete your entire life. You have experienced much success. Success is great. We all love how it feels. Tell us about failures. Where have you failed as an athlete?
My biggest failures have been at Obstacle Course Races. My first year at Spartan World Championships, I had only run 3 obstacle course races in my life. I was still very green. I wasn’t prepared for the altitude or the cold temperatures. I hit the water, we had to swim across a lake, and I was only wearing a running bra, tank top and shorts. The water temp was in the 30’s and the air temp was maybe in the low 40’s. I don’t have any body fat to protect me from the cold. I was already cold and shivering from a few water obstacles before the lake. When I got out of the lake I was shivering uncontrollably. I got out and laid on the rocks on the side of the lake, they were warm from the sun.
That wasn’t working, so I got up and started running. I was shivering so hard my teeth were chattering and I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. I pulled off the trail and threw up.
There was a metal manhole cover and I laid on it. Again, it was warm from the sun. While I was laying there shaking like a leaf, a man came by, saw me and said I had hypothermia and needed medical attention. He had a silver blanket and gave it to me. He also told me I had a bloody nose. I was a mess. I didn’t want to give up though. I got up and started running again. I felt so sick and my body was literally shaking uncontrollably. I came up to a water station at around mile 11, out of a 15-mile race. I was so close. The guy working the water station saw me and ordered me to sit down. He gave me his jacket and told me he was calling medical. I begged him not to but he didn’t listen. Medical came and they cut my band and took me away. From there it’s a blur. They gave me warm broth and hot packs to put under my arm pits and groin. It wasn’t working. They asked me questions and I didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t even know my birth date. I just remember being so sleepy. They said I was critical and called an ambulance. I had to be taken down the mountain and hauled away. The ambulance attendant kept shaking me to stay awake. I got to the ER and they started warm IV’s and medications. I guess my blood pressure was dangerously low. Eventually I started warming up and the fog was lifting. I didn’t have a cell phone, money, nothing. I was 15 miles away from the race venue and my hotel. I was staying with my running coach, Kirk, but I didn’t even know his phone number. Then all of a sudden, there was Kirk, peaking around the curtain. He was like “What happened?” and I started to cry. He was worried about me when I didn’t come back to the room so he called the nearest hospital just to see if I had been hurt and he found me. That was such a low for me. All that work I had put in over the summer, just gone in an instant. I was having a great race too.
What have you learnt from those failures?
I may have failed at those two races, but I also gained the experience and a new understanding of the work I needed to do if I planned on being successful in obstacle course racing. I learned that just being a fast runner wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to work on my upper body strength, grip strength and to get my ass into the Obstacle Academy to start training on the obstacles.
What has it taught you about yourself?
It has taught me that if I put my mind to something, I can do it. It’s taught me to never give up.
Being an athlete you must have a healthy relationship with suffering. What is your relationship with suffering?
I have suffered a few times in life. The hardest thing I’ve gone through was the loss of my son. He was born with the umbilical cord around his throat. He was on life support at Stanford University for three weeks when I finally made the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. He was suffering and keeping him on life support was just prolonging that suffering.
I finally had to let him go. That was suffering.
I’m so sorry about your son. I can’t imagine what you went through as a mother, as a human in that moment. If you are open to sharing, and please feel free to decline, how did you ever get through those 3 weeks and all the weeks after making such a hard decision?
We had just recently moved to Santa Cruz, California and the only people I knew were my other son Jackson’s day care providers. They helped a lot with taking care of Jackson so I could be at the hospital. Jackson was only 15 months old, so the guilt of leaving him was also a burden. Once Connor was gone, I just smothered myself in Jackson and his love. He helped me get through it. I cried a lot on the phone with my friends back here in Minnesota they were my support system. During the three weeks Connor was in the hospital I was numb, it’s a fog. I got up early, took Jackson to day care, and went to the hospital and sat with Connor.
I would read him books and sing to him. I couldn’t hold him, so I just held his hand, kissed his forehead and smelled him. I tried to drink his essence in. I knew his time with me would be fleeting and I wanted to remember his smell.
To this day, I haven’t washed the shirt I was wearing the day he died in my arms. I have a chest that I keep all his things in. That shirt is in a zip lock bag in that chest. Sometimes I just take it out and smell it. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s all I have. That and a lock of his hair. He was born with a head full of hair.
What has suffering taught you?
I’ve suffered other ways in life also. Loss of relationships, financial hardships with being a single mom. Recently the unexpected death of my father. Everyone goes through tough times in life. It would be easy to just give in to the suffering and fall into a depression, and I have been there, but thank God I had the strength to pick myself up, brush myself off, and forge ahead.
It’s made me stronger as a person and a better mom and human being.
You talked about having the strength to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and forge ahead. Where does that strength come from?
I honestly don’t know. It’s just me. Believe me I have had some pretty low times, but somehow, I have always been able to pull myself out of it. I lean heavily on my friends, they are my support system. Whenever I’m having a rough patch they’re always there for me. With their help, and an inner strength that I luckily possess, I usually land back on my feet and stronger for whatever hardship I had endured.
You were recently injured. Tell us about the injury.
I tore 2.5 cm of cartilage and tore my meniscus at the root horn in my left knee. The first surgeon told me my running career was over. I cried and explained to him that I was a competitive runner and that this isn’t just a hobby to me. He softened a little and went through some treatment options that could prolong my racing career. I wasn’t satisfied though and went and sought a second opinion.
The second surgeon looked at my MRI and said he had only seen 5 other patients in his whole career with injuries as severe as mine and referred me back to the initial surgeon.
He said he was the best in the Twin Cities. I went back to the first surgeon and we talked some more. We devised a plan to hopefully allow me to compete a couple more years. He didn’t do any repairs, that surgery would have me in rehab for a year. It’s a very complex surgery. He would have to break my femur, move it so my weight-bearing is on the lateral aspect of my knee, then use cadaver cartilage and transplant it into my knee. It takes about a year to recover and no guarantee I would be able to run at a competitive level ever again. Since I wasn’t willing to accept that, he just went in, cleaned up the debris and smoothed off the torn area of the meniscus. That gave me only a 3-month rehab and no running. I go in this week and they will give me a cortisone injection to alleviate some of the pain and swelling. Once I get that, I should be able to start training hard again. Then in a couple of months I go back in for another injection of Synvisc, which helps lubricate and cushion the joint. I am bone on bone, so this really helps. I had an injection last summer along with cortisone, that’s how I got through the season.
Did getting healthy again give you a new perspective on training and being an athlete?
Well, Like I said, it’s not repaired. I’m still in pain. If I was in my 20’s it would be a different story. I would have the major surgery to replace the missing cartilage, take a year off to recover and do rehab, but I don’t have time on my side. At my age, I can’t afford to take that much time off.
When he told me my running days were over, I was beyond crushed.
Now that he is working with me and we are treating the pain to allow me to train, it has given me a whole new appreciation for every day I can lace up my shoes and hit the trails. I’m grateful to be running and competing and will not take a single race for granted. It has given me a renewed burst of determination to train hard and see what I am capable of. It’s not ideal of course. My knee swells up pretty badly after a hard workout, but hopefully the injection this Thursday will help that.
What would you say to your fellow 50-year olds and up that are not using the gift of the human body?
I’d say be grateful for every pain-free step you take and if you are a talented, gifted runner, go after it with everything you have. My friend Rebecca DeCamp texted me the other morning and said she was wimping out on a run, but then she thought of me and she sucked it up and did it. She knows how much running means to me and she thought about how she takes it for granted that she can run pain free.
If you could go back in time and have a conversation with your 30-year old self what would 50-year young Darla tell her?
Wow. A LOT. Mostly I would tell her to believe in herself. To never allow people to tell her she isn’t capable of certain things or not “good enough”. I would tell her that she has a lot of life ahead of her and that she should dig deep, find her strength and never give up on herself.
Darla O’Connor Elite Mom, Runner and Spartan obstacle course racer