Posted by: Susan Loken | August 21, 2013

A 50th Birthday For the Record Books

Motivated by Passion

Thinking about the rapid approach of my 50th birthday scared me. I didn’t want to feel old and watch my athletic abilities slip away. However, I soon forced myself to snap out of my funk. I decided that I was going to tackle my fifth decade with more fervor and passion than ever before. I was going to WIN a marathon ON my 50th Birthday!

I found two marathons on July 28, 2013–my big day. My options were the Nova Scotia Marathon and the Madison Marathon. I wanted to push my limits and prove to myself that age is just a number. I signed up for the highest road marathon in America (and possibly the world!) and began preparing for my run through the hilly dirt roads of Ennis, Montana. With its high elevations (8,550-9,578 feet) and spectacular views along Gravelly Range of Southwestern Montana, I KNEW this was my race.

2013-07-27 16.14.29

Find Your Happy Pace.

My heart was filled with passion and energy as I read about the challenges and began believing that I was going to WIN. As I looked over the winning times, a competitive drive coursed through my body. Victory seemed very possible. I had never run a hilly track at such a high altitude, but I was up for the challenge and excited to train for such an incredible new feat.

Along with the geographic challenges, I also read about the grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, wolves, bald eagles, deer, mountain goats, and dozens of other wild animals, all of which had offered some added excitement in past years. On top of wild creatures, runners were also warned by the US Forest Service to watch out for the Great Pyrenees Sheep Dogs that might show up and begin chasing us. If that happened, we were told to STOP, let them sniff us, and then tell them “Go to the sheep!” My mind was made up. I had to go.

Find a goal that brings you to life and excites you from the inside out. Once you’ve set your heart on a personal challenge, pursue it with all that you are!

My marathon training didn’t go exactly as planned. My hamstring acted up from time to time, I came down with pneumonia, and life continued to throw small daily obstacles in my way. I overcame them all, cross-training when I couldn’t run and resting when I was sick. I kept my hopes high and my eyes on the prize.

There are a dozen ways to move from Point A to Point B, so don’t despair if your original plan doesn’t fall into place. Just move forward and OWN your challenges, because they are stepping stones toward your future success.  

Focused Energy

A few years ago, I sat on the panel of experts at the PF Chang’s Marathon. There, I explained to the audience the importance of setting three goals–a dream goal, a realistic goal, and a suck it up and finish goal–so that they will be prepared for anything. The premise is to train and race for your realistic goal, but to be prepared to exceed your own expectations and also respect the marathon for what it is: a grueling endurance event.

Since I always request 3 goals from the runners I coach before a “key” race, I decided to share my own goals with them in my weekly newsletter.

  1. Dream Goal: Break the women’s course record of 3:53:33 as the first female finisher! (This was a very lofty goal, but I BELIEVE that dreams come true!)
  2. Realistic Goal: Measure my success by effort, not time, and finish feeling strong, healthy, happy, and blessed to have run 26.2 beautiful miles in such a heavenly place on my 50th birthday. (Since I had no prior experience running 26.2 hilly miles at high altitude alongside wild animals, finishing strong sounded like an awesome and realistic goal to me!)
  3. Suck It Up and Finish Goal: Need I say more? Run, walk, or crawl, I will finish this marathon and enjoy the journey! (Regardless of where I place, I will gain “hilly marathon at altitude” experience and be able to apply what I learn to my coaching. It’s a win-win!)

On our way to the airport, my husband and I spotted a few of my runners standing on the street corner with inspiring birthday and encouragement signs! The support made my day and brought me to tears. I felt so loved and humbled in that moment. I love coaching and I love watching these runners believe in themselves and succeed. After seeing them, I was even more determined to win this marathon, not only for myself, but to inspire others to chase their wildest dreams.

When my husband and I arrived in Bozeman, Montana, we were picked up and driven to an adorable world-class fishing town, Ennis. We stayed at the charming family-owned Rainbow Valley Lodge, a lodge with a wonderfully memorable western atmosphere. Our good friends, Joann and David, joined us and I was so happy that simply couldn’t stop smiling. We enjoyed a lovely outdoor dining experience behind the lodge with a Chef straight from the TV reality show, Top Chef. The vibe was just right and I knew my 50th birthday weekend would be one for the records.

Whatever your passion is, whether running a race or running a lodge in Montana, focus your energy into that passionate pursuit. Your focused and joyful efforts will help you build a meaningful life and inspire those around you. Whatever your passion: find it, chase it, live it, breathe it, and radiate that positive energy.  

On Saturday, we went to “packet pick-up” in a local park and had the pleasure of meeting Sam, the charming race director, as well as a very diverse crowd of runners from all over the  country. There was a group from the 50 States Marathon Club and runners from the Marathon Maniacs club. Everyone was bubbling with enthusiasm and passion. I learned why people ran, I picked up tips from other runners, and I met a man who was running his 268th marathon! I was fully inspired before I even had a chance to lace up my sneakers.

getting tips at packet pick-up from last years marathoner

Picking up some tips at the Madison Marathon Packet Pick-Up

My Birthday Race

The morning of 50th birthday, I did not wake up and sulk about getting old. Instead, I watched the sunrise with my husband and best friends as we drove up up to 9,500 feet elevation on a narrow mountain road. When we reached the top, we took a bus with the other runners from the finish to the start line. I would be running the full marathon, my husband and best friend would be running the half, and David would be our ever-so-important support team.

All runners (half and full) start the race at the same place, at the same time. For the half marathon, runners follow a straight 13.1 mile path from the Black Butte Mountain to Clover Meadows, ending there. The full marathons then continue past Clover Meadows, running 6.5 miles out and then running back 6.5 to meet the half-marathoners back at Clover Meadows. I LOVED this because I always break up the marathon into smaller segments anyways! That way, I don’t have to think of it as a full 26.2 miles. Yikes!

Break your marathons into smaller, more manageable segments. If you stand at the start line and think about all 26.2 miles, you WILL get overwhelmed. Plan in advance how you will run each segment, and focus only on the segment at hand as you go.

When the bus dropped us off, everyone hit the bushes to pee. There are no porta potties in the middle of nowhere. It was hysterical, and I wish I’d taken pictures. After a few pre-race pictures, I parted ways with my husband and Joann. I had my game face on and needed to focus.

As I stood at the starting line, I chatted with a very fit looking runner who had done a few training runs on the course. There I was, a veteran marathon runner, asking this woman whether she would be running or walking up the first steep hill! I wasn’t sure how to attack the race, so my plan was to give it my best effort and pay attention to how my body responded to the altitude and pace. Sam, our wonderful race director, stood in the bed of his pickup truck, said a few words, and sent us on our way. 3-2-1-GO!

Race Start Madison Marathon

Getting ready to start running.

Segment One

I divided the race into three segments. Segment one was the first half of the race, from mile 1 to 13.1. The marathon began with a steep uphill climb at an elevation of 9,190 feet. Within minutes, I was panting like a fat dog, and I’m sure that even if I had walked up that hill, my breathing would have still been labored. When we reached the top, we were running straight towards Black Butte Mountain (elevation 10,546), with its the peaks and ridges dominating the skyline.

The female that was running alongside me seemed to be breathing just as hard. I slowed and let her pass. My pace was 9:07, but it felt more taxing than my normal marathon pace. I knew that I had to get my breathing under control. Thankfully, Mile 2 was slightly downhill, so I was able to catch my breath and turnover on my legs. Though I wasn’t racing that early in the race, my marathon pace effort allowed me to pass the only female in front of me.

By the time I reached the next steep hill, I felt in control. I was running at marathon effort with controlled breathing. By Mile 3, I had found my groove. My breaths were measured, I felt calm, and I had hit my perfect stride.

Next, we hit a long uphill portion to Monument Ridge. Expending a lot of energy on steep hills can be detrimental to you race, so it is important to run smart. Knowing this, I focused on driving my arms to quicken my tempo. If you increase the turnover rate of the arms, the turnover rate of the legs will naturally follow, in turn shortening your uphill stride.

When running uphill, relax and focus on strong arm drive with high cadence. The arm drive will help to propel your body forward; the quicker cadence will speed up your stride.

By Mile 4, I was focused and feeling great. The steep and daunting climb wasn’t an issue anymore because I was running by effort. It didn’t hurt to see the breathtaking Monument Ridge (the highest point in the course, at 9.600 ft)–it felt like running in heaven. Well, heaven with a lot of hills.

Soon, a young male half-marathoner began running with me and offering tips for running uphill. He had participated last year, running too fast and exhausting himself by the end of the marathon. I was grateful for his insights and camaraderie, but when the pace started getting too easy I had to say goodbye and press on. By this time, I was feeling marvelous and reflective. I felt so fortunate to be running in a stunning natural landscape.

Every once in awhile, I would think to myself: This is my 50th Birthday, and look what I get to do! I had a ridiculous case of runner’s high for the remainder of the the segment. My body, mind, and soul were in sync and every step felt effortless and invigorating. I felt on top of the world, both literally and figuratively.

The woman who ended up placing first in the half-marathon passed me around Mile 6. My initial reaction was to run with her, and I did for a little while, but I had to remind myself that she was stopping at 13.1 and I was not. By the time I reached the half marathon finish line, there was still a pep in my step and a song in my heart. I felt amazing, I was having tons of fun, and I knew that I still had a great chance of winning!

2013-07-28 09.10.59

Monument Ridge. Elevation 9,587.

Segment Two

The first 13 miles were challenging and involved several of uphill segments, but I felt great. I knew that I had to stick to my effort-based plan and focus on the next 6.55 miles. I mentally prepared for the long uphill stretch of the upcoming segment, because I thought the reward would be a final 6.55 miles of primarily downhill running.

The song in my heart began to taper off around Mile 15. The long uphill sections were feeling harder, but I realized that I was still maintaining the same pace as the first half. I knew that I had to dig deeper. I knew that I needed to focus on my DREAM goal. I wasn’t sure how close the next female runner was behind me, and at that point I didn’t care. I started doing the math in my head and decided that I was going to WIN the race and break the course record. It was time to put my game face on.

There is a time for singing in your head, reflecting on this amazing life, and expressing gratitude for an incredible body and an incredible challenge. This was not it. I was a runner on a mission, and I was going for gold, baby! Like I tell my runners: Plan for your realistic goals, but if everything else lines up perfectly, go for the Dream!

During this segment, I focused on my running form, my breathing, and my pace. Nothing was going to stop me! As I neared the turnaround point, several men approach and ran past me as they headed back towards the finish line. I passed the early-start runners that needed extra time and I offered them my encouragement and support. I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were working hard, and it felt great to cheer them on and make them smile.

At the top of a really steep hill, I ran into  the male winner from last year as he was on his way back down. He told me that the hardest part was yet to come. Really? Dang! I was expecting it to get easier once we turned around. I was initially discouraged, but the new knowledge allowed me to reframe the situation in my mind. Knowing that the next segment would be harder, I mentally prepared myself. The mind usually gives up before the body wears out, so it’s important to train your brain as much as you train your body. 90% of doing anything is simply believing you can.

Succeeding at a marathon involves just as much mental preparation as physical. It’s important to train your brain to keep your body moving when it’s begging you to slow down. You must train your brain to stay positive and steer away from negative thoughts. Thoughts and self-beliefs can often mean the difference between reaching your goals and missing the target.

There was a steep downhill to the turnaround checkpoint, so I grabbed a cup of water, thanked the volunteers as they wrote down my bib number, and then I set off on the final leg of the race.

Segment 3

As I turned around and face the last stretch of the marathon, I smiled, knowing that I had just one segment left. Only 6.55 miles to go. I was hoping that the final stretch would be easy, but I was immediately faced with a long, steep hill. In response to the challenge, I gave myself permission to walk uphill with purpose, but only if I swore to push extra hard on the downhill. I had NEVER walked during a marathon and as I walked up this enormous hill, it felt like I was giving up. My energy began to shift in a negative direction, so I started running again.

When I reached the top of that first steep hill after the turnaround point, I turned it up a notch. I passed other runners, walkers, and shufflers as they approached the turning point and we offered each other positive energy and word of encouragement. The woman that I had asked questions about the course was on her way to the turnaround point and yelled to me, “I knew you were in this to win it!” That made me chuckle. Was it that obvious? I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone that I wanted to win a marathon my my 50th birthday…except everyone in the state of AZ.

running towards the finish

Running to the song in my head.

I’m not sure what I looked like, but it felt like I was running fast. As I was running, I kept thinking that the easy parts were coming up, and then, out of nowhere, another hill would appear! I swear it felt like the race was all uphill going to the turnaround point and all uphill returning. Just when I needed an extra kick, I saw David on the side of the road at one of the aid stations. He handed me a water bottle and yelled motivating words, like “You’re in first place!” I threw him two big thumbs up and savored the extra motivation. That is, until I reached the next monster hill. Monster may be a slight exaggeration but, by that point, all of those hills felt like mountain–mountains upon mountains, even.

I stared up at the hill and began to calculate how fast I would need to run downhill if I walked up the hill. I hate walking, but since I had already done it once, my body remembered how good it felt. I forced myself to dig deep and say to myself, “Don’t let the pain lessen.” Once you get comfortable, it’s mentally harder to get back into “uncomfortable” mode, and walking was definitely more comfortable that running! It’s kind of like a potato chip, where once you have one you can’t help yourself but eat just one more, and another, and another. Walking was my bag of potato chips. Once I walked a bit up that last hill, I wanted to do it again. But I didn’t let myself. I had a course record to break!

Finally, I got back into my “Controlled Hard Zone” and BOOM, the song in my head began playing again. I was in the home stretch and back on top of the world. I was in first place and on track to set a course record on my 50th Birthday.

I kept running faster and faster. Well, that was until a herd of wild cows completely covered the road in front of me. I was NOT going to walk and I didn’t want to risk be trampled by cows. I yelled out, “I am safe,” and all of the sudden, a voice from behind me screamed “YA YA!” (I think it was David on his bike) and the cows stampeded off. Thankfully, I didn’t have to run between the cattle. Phew!

This must be the wildlife I was promised!

The last couple of miles were awesome! There was a song in my heart, a bounce in my step, and the amazing–almost magical– sense of “flow” that comes with challenging yourself to put a full effort toward accomplishing your goal. It’s a feeling we can all tap into. You don’t have to win a marathon to feel it; you just have to win YOUR personal race.

My final mile was my fastest, at a 6:58 pace. I let myself go for it! My breathing was labored, my legs were turning, and my lungs were burning, but I also felt incredibly alive, confident in myself, and excited to start my next decade with such a bang!

As I ran that final 400 meters, I could see my husband and best friend yelling and cheering, their faces lit up by smiles as big as the mountain. Conquering 26.2 miles in hilly altitude and winning with a course record was incredible, but nothing could beat seeing the joy on my loved ones’ faces. We all knew that my win could inspire other women, of all ages and backgrounds, to reach for their goals and do more than they ever dreamt possible. That was PRICELESS!


A reminder that this next decade is the new beginning of something even greater!

I’ve won other marathons and even participated in a few Olympic Trials, but this experience was especially significant to me. I view my crossing the finish line and winning the race as a symbol that tomorrow will be better than today. If you get started today, tomorrow you will be able to achieve great things, no matter your age!

A few months ago, I was terrified of getting older. I had to learn to accept the changes that come with aging and reframe my expectations. In order to get of out of my nasty funk, I had to run my heart out and prove to myself that I still could. Winning the marathon was a wonderful experience, but my most important takeaway was choosing to embrace my age and do all the I can to inspire by example.

You can live life to the fullest at any age, so never let age, old habits, or other obstacles block off the path towards your big goals. Detours are a part of life.

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, because one day you’ll look ahead and see your biggest fans cheering at the finish line with the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen. “You did it!,” they’ll shout, “You did it!” And you’ll smile because you know that they’re right. You did it!

Madison Marathon

Celebrating an incredible day with my loved ones and new friends!


  1. Awesome!! your mom told me about your journey Welcome to 50, we now have the clout that being 50 carries. Way – Truth – Life keep running…

  2. I’m so glad your race went so well! You are definitely an inspiration, and I’m so glad to have you as a coach and a friend :-). I nominated you for a Liebster award! Check out this post to see what it’s all about: love ya!

  3. awesome!!! 🙂 great to meet you!

  4. It was fantastic to meet you! I am totally inspired and completely flattered that you even asked me for advice at the race start. Best of luck in whatever your next goals are!

  5. Hi Susan, congrats again. I was one of your neighbors at the Rainbow. I’m a much slower runner and had run a marathon in Idaho the day before, but my time at Madison was +2 hours. Madison was a tough course, I had plantar fasciitis, and I also had trouble catching my breath. I also waited for the last segment of downhill that seemed never to come. But as slow as I was, I’m so glad I ran this race. It was beautiful, and such an accomplishment for any finisher, let alone the female champion!

    The focused, “head in the game” feeling you described is something I haven’t felt since my PR at 2012 Grandma’s Marathon. I’ve been running too many marathons this year to focus on getting faster (or even back to my own PR), but that’s a goal for next year. I’ve got some years before 50, and although my goal isn’t to win a marathon, it is to be faster at 50 than at 42.

    Great blog, keep up the good work, and continue to inspire others!

  6. […] woman ran, and WON a marathon on her 50th birthday. Such an inspiration! Makes me want to take up […]

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