Darien elite runner says ‘keep practicing’ throughout pandemic
While many have said that the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed competitive sports, elite Darien runner and coach Heather Pech says practice must go on, regardless.
This past spring season had been “an incredibly stressful time for everybody. Many athletes thought they had a pass,” she said.
However, Pech told her high school juniors they still need to be racing and recording their times if they want to run on a college team.
“You need to have time trials and video to submit,” said Pech, 58, who over the last year has PR’d [achieved a personal record] in every distance she has raced — from the 400 meters to the full marathon.
Pech ran the second fastest marathon time in the U.S. for her age in the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, in November 2019 — a 3:00:44. She was second only to marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Her best time in a half marathon distance was a 1:29:03 in March, in Atlanta. Her best mile is 5:50, which she ran in the McKirdy Mile several weeks ago.
She also set personal records in the 3 mile, 10K and 200 meter.
One of her upcoming goals is to break 3 hours in the marathon. She has an elite start for the California International Marathon on Dec. 6 if it’s not canceled due to COVID-19.
Pech said she has always been very driven — both mentally and physically.
“I’m Type A. I expect the best from myself,” she said. “I work hard. I’m always studying and looking for the half of one percent.”
Pech, who grew up in New Canaan and moved to Darien in 1992, is a retired CEO of Polo Jeans Company and 9 West Retail. She has three grown daughters with her husband Colin, a local dentist.
She runs seven days a week for a weekly total of 80 miles.
Pech, whose coaching is based on the coaching model of James McKirdy in Arizona, currently coaches about 30 adults of varying ages and abilities.
She also coaches high school and collegiate runners in their off-season — currently, about 25 to 35 kids.
“My role is to work with them and have them fitter, faster and stronger in the summer and the off-season,” she said.
During the pandemic, she has worked in groups of 1 to 5. All her students run in a separate lane and keep socially distant.
“We are chipping away,” she said. “I’m trying to have all the kids and adults talk to me about their process and outcome goals.”
Runners shouldn’t always do training runs at their fastest pace, according to Pech.
“Most people run the same pace,” Pech said. “Your body doesn’t recover when you do that. You will never get faster because your body adjusts and stays there, so you’re not absorbing and adapting to what you’re doing. You have to be able to run slow to run fast.”
Additionally, she said recovery periods are a very important part of training plans.
“Take a couple days of recovery in between faster workouts,” she said.
Pech also spoke of the benefits of training with others. While virtual races are a great way to stay in shape during quarantine, she said it’s important for competitive runners to hold time trails in the company of other runners.
When runners run alongside other runners, they end up running faster than they would alone, according to Pech, since they push each other.
She spoke about failure, and said it’s essential for everyone to experience.
“The most important thing that we can do is to fail,” she said. “It’s when we grow and learn.”
Confidence is yet another attribute Pech said all runners should have — no matter their circumstances or ability.
Kristin Partenza of Wilton, who Pech coaches, said after a health scare in the fall, she needed help coaching her confidence back into shape just as much as she needed to regain lost fitness — and Pech came through.
“With Heather’s care, friendship, and experience, I trusted her to help me rebuild. And in trusting her, I began to trust myself again. She has managed to get more out of me than I ever knew I had,” Partenza said. “She leads with grit, determination, and repeatedly dusts herself off when the going gets tough. She makes me want to be the best version of myself and make her proud. And in that journey to make her proud, one finds pride within themself.”
Darien resident Angela Stamnes said Pech helped her with confidence as well.
“She has taught me to believe in myself and the work, while always keeping in mind success is not linear,” Stamnes said. “She knows the work it takes to chase our dreams because she’s right there with us, grinding it out.”
Pech also trains Andrea Myers, a Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist and marathon runner in Bethel, who said Pech has the “perfect combination of coaching and racing experience. It is incredibly motivating to be coached by such an accomplished athlete.”
One of Pech’s personal running challenges has been the mile. “It scares me,” she said. “I’m not a fast twitch sprinter.”
Yet, she said, she knows that if she’s good at the mile, it will help her performance in the marathon.
Prior to the pandemic, Pech had been training for the Boston Marathon, which was canceled. While in quarantine this spring, Pech was able to work on her mile, and succeeded at beating it.
The quarantine “gave me the opportunity to work on something I had not had the time for,” she said. “I had spent all my time marathon training.”
Pech said it’s important to prioritize goals, since “we can’t be good at everything.”
Prioritizing is a life skill, according to Pech.
“I’m so driven by the entire process of what I do,” she said. “I take nutrition, hydration, strength, and sleep really seriously.”
However, there are some areas that have been sacrificed as a result, she said. She gave up cooking regular meals for her family and having a social life.
“Dinner is a very ad hoc experience in my house,” she said. “It doesn’t get on the table every night. We are more grab and go, and the girls make their own dinner.”
Additionally, she said she’s not as crazed about getting every errand done on time, such as laundry.
She said making sacrifices especially applies to working mothers. “Women need to know that and give ourselves some grace,” she said.
“Running must go on”
While most races around the world have been canceled or postponed, Pech said to keep in top shape.
“The reality is running is cumulative and we don’t want to waste this moment,” she said. “We need to become stronger and better athletes and human beings.”
“Running must go on,” she added.
She said patience and intelligence are needed in planning out the balance of the year.
“We need to keep working, keep all the big dreams and goals alive,” she said. “A breakthrough will not happen if we are not chipping every day and doing the work.”
In this way, “we are going to be ready when races open,” she added.
Lessons from COVID-19
Despite the sadness and frustration everyone has felt as a result of the pandemic, Pech said to look for the positive that has come out of it.
“While I know that it’s been really hard, I think COVID is what we needed. It’s taught us to appreciate what we have, to slow down, to worry and care for our health and each other,” she said. “It has taught us the importance of saving money, that we need to learn about racism and the power of action, that we need to vote in all elections. It has opened the door to long and meaningful conversations with our family, children, and friends.”
“We have to believe that our best is in front of us,” Pech said. “My goal is to be the best I can be and to be better tomorrow than I am today.”