Joanna Murphy: All In

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Interview by Victoria Barnaby

Editor’s Note: It takes a lot of guts to leave a secure job to pursue a dream, especially in this economic environment. Joanna Murphy did just that. The New Balance Boston harrier left the office behind to take a shot running pro. Well, that’s the simple way of putting it. Victoria Barnaby interviewed Joanna to find out more about what went into the big decision and what happens next.

You’ve left a secure career and office job to persue a professional running career, walk us through the process of recognizing that dream, reconciling the reality of it with the risks and the transition period?

Well, first I think “leaving a secure office job to pursue pro running” is a bit misleading. I left a job I wasn’t passionate about in order to give myself the opportunity and space to explore things that make me excited to get up in the morning. Part of that is running and having more time/energy to put into my running. But I’m not a one dimensional person and I don’t want a one dimensional life. I’ve always wanted to coach, especially young athletes and I’m also an avid writer (two things that make zero money…haha). This transition is more of a transition into the life I really want, which in the short term is a bit unstable, scary and risky, but (hopefully) will emerge as a more engaging and dynamic lifestyle that also fosters some really fast running :)

What are you doing to pay the bills?

Right now I am providing freelance Marketing & Sales support for small companies including Believe I Am (headed up by Olympian Roisin McGettigan) and Blue Trailer (company that provides locker service at road races). I am also coaching cross country at a local high school as well as coaching private clients on CoachUp.

What is it like being a coach and being coached as an athlete at the same time? Does this make you a better coach?

I think the benefit of still competing while also being a coach is that I can share my learnings along the way and can pull from the workouts/tips/successes that resonate with me. The challenge is also being objective enough to identify the need in each athlete outside of your own experience. Sometimes what works for me is not what will work for them. But I do try to share as much as I can the things that help me - at the high school level these things often have little to do with training and much more to do with mental preparedness, warm up & cool down routines, race strategy and confidence.

Does this extra time and schedule flexibility help you train better?

I think it’s easy to catch myself thinking, “well, I changed my lifestyle so I need to be doing more, or running faster, or doing things differently…”. I try to remind myself often that I got to where I was at by consistently building year after year, and that I will continue to improve by continuing to do what I’ve been doing. The main thing my more open schedule allows for is relaxation. I’m not super rushed with getting in all my runs. I’m not skipping stretching. I’m getting at least 9 hours of sleep every night. I’m cooking for myself and can focus on nutritious, quality meals. I’m not choosing between relationships and an extra 4 miles. I can fit in everything I need and really enjoy it. This is a huge blessing for me.

Would you recommend this move for other runners with a similar dream or circumstance?

I think it’s absolutely possible to achieve a high level of running success while working a full time job, but it will also come at the expense of time and relationships. I personally wanted more flexibility in my day to day schedule and wanted to go a different direction with my life. I would recommend for anyone, at any age, to find a way to build a lifestyle they truly enjoy. I believe life is too short to be stuck in a cubicle waiting until 5pm so your “real life” can finally start.

What makes you different from all the other professional runners out there, not looking at times?

Other than the fact that I’m not really pro and don’t have a contract? haha…I’m not different. All pro runners, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, etc have at one point in their life had to make a decision to pursue a life they were passionate about and take a risk to get it. I am simply in that transition. Hopefully I will come out the other side as a much faster & more accomplished runner. But I might also just come out with an MFA.

What’s your goal for this indoor season, you had quite a 3k performance last year, can you give us a preview of your upcoming races as well?

This fall and winter will be all about getting a really good base under me in preparation for outdoors. Coming up will be NE XC Champs & Club Nationals. Going into the winter I would like to keep progressing with aerobic strength, but would also like to snag a 3k PR and have a strong performance at USA Indoor Championships. But the focus will be on the 3k Steeple in outdoor track.

And long terms goals, what are they (right now)?

I really want to take a crack at breaking 9:50 in the steeple and placing in the top 10 at USA Outdoor Nationals this spring. Last spring felt a bit like a ‘shit show’ - I’d been injured in April and didn’t start racing until June 1, so my outdoor season was essentially 15 days of me racing every 5 days to qualify for USAs. Most of the races were in hot conditions and/or by myself, so I feel like I have a lot left. That’s the main thing I’m focusing on right now…I’m sure I’ll come up with something more lofty once I snag that :)

What do you do for fun?

Well, pretty much the same as before - eating and sleeping are my two main sources of fun (haha), but I really enjoy everything I’m doing, so my entire day feels fun. As well, I told myself that with my new (free) schedule, I would let myself read more (which I previously didn’t have time for). I am a nerd at heart so this is pretty fun for me. I’ve read The Sports Gene (awesome book) and am now in the middle of Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

You’re now working with young athletes, do you have any success stories? Any lessons learned from your coaching experiences?

It’s been really great watching the Winsor girls progress through their season. We’ve had a lot of PRs this fall. And yes, they teach me daily the best part of running - that it’s supposed to be fun!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten through this whole experience?

It’s been so great to work with Roisin McGettigan (owner of Believe I Am). She is really open about sharing her athletic experience (she is an Olympian in the steeplechase) with me and I’m always learning from her. Her main advice is always to not worry about what everyone else is doing or what I feel like I should be doing, but to just stay really consistent and keep putting in the work. But the absolute best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten came from fellow teammate Sydney Fitzpatrick before the indoor 3k last year at USATF-NEs last year (where I had a huge breakthrough). As we finished warming up together she said, “Fuck it. Just go out there and kill it.” How can you top that?!

Who has helped support you this past year?

New Balance Boston and my coach (Dan Green) have been incredibly supportive, sending me all over the U.S. to try for a USA qualifier. And all my NBB teammates are really supportive. Ian Nurse at Active Recovery Boston and Amy Duverger at Restore Total Body continually put me back together. And all my friends and family who have heard me list all the ridiculous times (that to them are just random numbers) that I want to try for. I’m sure by now they’re ready for me to shut the hell up haha!

Thoughts on the parent feedback you got from your private clients - did it make you feel more confident about your coaching abilities?

Mainly I’m happy if the kids are happy! I’ve always gotten good feedback from parents regarding how their child is handling the coaching sessions. With running there is a lot more individual work, so it’s always nice when I get feedback that coaching has helped make a kid excited about going for a run!

Do you like connecting and working with an individual?

Yeah I do! I think running success is so individual and often has a lot to do with how someone perceives their own potential or ability. Working with an individual allows me to find out what makes them “tick” and tailor things that are fun for them or addressing specific individual needs.

What are your thoughts on one-on-one coaching in running, it’s not as common in middle/high/college runners as it is pros, can you comment/express your opinion on it? The balance?

For younger runners the team atmosphere of running is a lot different to the process of working with an individual coach. Especially for young athletes, I see my job as preparing them for what they will do with their team. A lot of this is working on specific imbalances or weaknesses - addressing form, coordination & stability. As well, this is an opportunity to get a feel with and “play with” different paces so they can feel confident at different intensities. I think one on one coaching is an excellent opportunity for young runners to explore their own athleticism and “work out the kinks” so to speak without the added pressure of having to perform in front of others or worrying about performing well for their team.

Can you share a little more about your private train/strength coach? How often did you see him/did it help? Would you recommend it to other runners?

I do a fairly rigorous weight session once per week, but had been a little shy of really getting aggressive with it without someone watching my form. So last spring I enlisted the help of a strength coach to help me dial in my form and work on things that would translate to running - more single leg explosiveness, a more open stride, a better arm drive. It wasn’t a very complicated routine, but it really helped to have someone watch me and correct the little inefficiencies that I had developed. And as a result, I felt like I had a better stride that didn’t break down as much as I fatigued. I think addressing these strength aspects are perhaps even more important for me since I race the steeplechase and have to jump over things…In general, regardless of level or event, I think it’s always beneficial to seek out opportunities to make you a better athlete. Even if you don’t apply ALL of it, it’s never hurts to have more information.

Joanna just recently competed at USATF XC Club Nationals, where she helped her New Balance Boston team finished 5th overall. Interested in being coached by Joanna? Check out her profile here. There’s also more info on the CoachUp homepage, and you can get directly to the sign up app here.

**Above pic is from club nats and is courtesy of Rod Hemingway.

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