The Joyful Anthology

Ana the Great

There are times in our lives where we get to meet extraordinary humans having prolific capability. People like Ana Johnson, who has the ability to inspire us with her remarkable fortitude and demonstration of compassion and positive attitude she moves through the world with. I have known Ana (Any) for 15 years, a fellow distance runner who continued to train on an elite level as well as practicing as a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, working 13 hour shifts and is the mother of two young boys. Ana’s stellar performance recently at the Ottawa Marathon qualified her for the Olympic Trials with an impressive time of 2hours and 43 minutes on her 3rd attempt to qualify after she was faced with challenges leading up to the race. In my interview with Ana, Ana shares the behind the scenes look into her life as an Oncology nurse, a mom and her training and inspiring attitude on why we should never give up.

Any, we are excited to share your story with the Joyful Approach. Can you give us a background, where are you from and what is your occupation? 

I’m from Torreón, Coahuila in Mexico. I’m an Oncology Nurse and I work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

 When did you first start running and when did you realize you had the talent to compete on an elite level? 

I started running when I was a little girl — about 7 years old — and I used to win the children races.  When I was 9 years old I ran my first half marathon, without stopping,  and then when I turned 18 years old I ran my first marathon in my hometown, Torreon:  “ Marathon Lala” (LaLa is a Mexican dairy company, a bit like Kraft Cheese).   I finished with a time of 3hrs and 30min. Then, I came to the United States to learn English as a second language and to work as a nanny.  However, once in the U.S.,  I took some time off from running, but when I started college in New York City I joined the track and field and cross country teams.   I started to run faster and improving on my race performances.  Afterwards, I ran the NYC marathon and I earned a personal record (PR) of 2hrs 53min and placed 5th NYC female.  I realized I had talent for marathons,  and  I changed my training routine to begin competing at this higher mileage level.

Can you give us an idea of what a day in your life looks like, training mama-hood and work? 

I work on my feet 13hrs to a shift so when I have work days,  I run (train)  easy. I wake up at 4:30 am and I go to the treadmill so I can be at work at 7am. When I’m not working, I wake up at 6 am when the kids get up and I get them ready for school and daily activities. I’ll drop off my oldest one, Willaran, to pre-k then I’ll go to Central Park to train.   I do strength training twice a week so after certain runs I’ll go to the gym. Then I’ll get back to my apartment to have my healthy protein shake and spend time with my youngest child, Tristan. By 2pm it is time to pick up my son Willaran  from school. Sometimes after school I take my kids to the park or to do activities like swimming class. Or if I have a double run I’ll leave my kids with my Mom (our primary caregiver) and go to the Park for my run. Then it’s time to get my kids ready for dinner and bedtime. Finally, I’ll have a big dinner with a glass of wine with my husband and watch Netflix.

What is it like to work with cancer patient’s? How does your role as a nurse caring for cancer patient’s keep things in perspective for you? 

Working with cancer patients can be very overwhelming, emotional and stressful. My patients and my work sometimes feels like a different world where it is very clear what is important in life:  love, family, and life and death.   My patients and their families are fighting for their life.  The doctors, the physician assistants, the nurse practitioners, the nurses, the patient aids,  the entire admin staff, and everyone at MSKCC  are helping them in the fight.   It is inspiring being part of a team at the front lines of keeping people alive.  It can be tough keeping the balance between a professional nurse and being emotionally attached.  I think my long distance training  helps me maintain that balance:  to keep the long distance focus and the critical, practical judgement on how to win the races in the fight against cancer.

When I come home after work, I realize how lucky I am to have a healthy family.  I appreciate life so much, that I always say, “Enjoy every moment of your life” because you never know what is going to happen tomorrow.  I keep that in mind, because if in the quality of my nursing care I can help make my a patients’ challenges a little easier, to make their and their families’ days better,  it carries me forward, so that when I go home at the end of shift, I am already ready to get up in the morning, and help them all again.

What I’m most curious about is how you manage to train on the level you do while managing your job as a mother of two and your job as a nurse caring  for cancer patient’s? (Are you really human?) 

I love running—I think I am addicted to it. I’m competitive so I always want to push my limits so I can become a better runner. My family is my biggest support throughout my training. I’m very lucky to have my Mom as our primary caregiver for the children.  And my husband, who  is not a competitive runner, is a long-distance champion when it comes to watching our two boys, freeing my time up so I can travel when needed, and to compete at the bigger races  Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to run at this level without my Mom’s and my husband’s support.

How do you recover from training 13 hour shifts and being a mom to two young boy’s? 

I work roughly two to three shifts a week so when I work I do recovery runs and that will be my ‘easy’ days of training. When I do not work I train harder and it will require more hours of training.   When I have down time, I am always running around with my two boys, so I don’t have time to take naps, but I will get a massage once a week or see my chiropractic for a “tune-up”.   I use the normatec boots after my hard workouts or long runs.  But I love my sleep, and it is not unusual to find me in bed at 9:00 or 9:15 PM, especially I have to work in the morning.

Can you give us a sample of your nutrition in a day in your life?

My husband jokes that when I am training, I eat like a wolf – massive amounts at each meal throughout the day, and very quickly!    For breakfast, before my run, I have a banana and a granola bar. After my run, I have my green smoothie (brocoli, spinach, celery, chia, orange, apple, ginger,) and sometimes I add protein power. For lunch, I have pinto beans with a multigrain sandwich bun filled with cheese and sometimes I will add chicken, and  chips and cucumbers with lime. For dinner, I load up on portions, and usually I have a pound of salmon or chicken with brown rice, veggies, and sometimes I will add beans. Other faves include Pad Thai with shrimp and egg roll starters, cheeseburgers, and Chipotle burritos.  And once a week, pizza is a must-have:  my Husband is famous for his  home-made pizzas!   For  dessert, I am a sucker for apple pie, almond pie, or pecan pie,  plus with vanilla ice cream!   I eat big portions of meals so usually I do not eat snacks in between meals, other than whatever my boys don’t finish from their meals.

 What do you feel is your driving force that motivates you to train as hard as you do? 

My biggest motivation for the spring marathon was to qualify to the Olympic trials, which I did! I trained very hard for this. Hard work pays off!

I started training in December 2017, so it was a long, rough, and cold winter. I trained in Central Park in winter  conditions (snowy, windy and feeling like minus 15F!):   I remember when I ran on the coldest days, my eyebrows were filled with ice!    I could  have gone to run on the treadmill, but its hard to be motivated on a machine —  I get bored running in the gym.   Gradually, I started increasing my weekly miles from 60 to 90 miles a week.  When I wasn’t in the Park,  I did very good workouts on the indoor track.   On my Sunday long runs I made it a point to increase my mileage, and to do so at a faster pace.  As many runners know, the Olympic trials qualifying time is sub 2 hours and 45minutes for  the marathon.

The next trials will be Atlanta 2020. I still have a bit of my training to do to get ready:  gradually building my workouts and preparing for my marathon performance. Since Ottawa, I have  continued training over the summer with the goal to run a marathon in the fall 2018.    In the back of my mind, I think a target will be a sub 2 hours and 40 minutes —  that means I have a lot of work to do!

I am sure your boys are super proud of their mama, How do you role model for them?

They are still young so they don’t know much about me running on a competitive level. But, they see me everyday with my running outfit, coming back from my run all sweaty and sometimes they come to cheer me on in races. I feel so grateful that I can spend quality  time with them, work as a nurse, and still run at a competitive level. I think when they get a little older they will appreciate the balance I have achieved!

I think my long distance training  helps me maintain that balance:  to keep the long distance focus and the critical, practical judgement on how to win the races in the fight against cancer.


Who is your coach and how long have you been training with him? How does running with a team support your training?

My coach is John Henwood. I have been training with him for about 8 years. He is an excellent coach and has an amazing team of competitive runners so we get to train together and we support each other.

John Henwood  is a Kiwi — a New Zealander– who represented his country in the  2004 Olympics in the 10,000 meters.  Now a well-known New Yorker, John is a runner’s coach, working with a wide variety of runners:  beginners, intermediates, and select top-tier athletes.    I think he is able to coach such a wide variety of runners and to do so *so easily* is because he is a natural coach:   running passion, experienced insight, and this is all combined withing a genial spirit.  John easily recognizes an individual’s strengths and because he’s a natural as a coach, possesses a wonderful ability to tailor plans for each his runners.

Thanks to John I am a better runner.   Years ago, I meet him when I was a student nurse, more focused on my education than on making Olympic Trials. John recognized what I needed to make both  my nursing professional and my recreational running life, work, without  critical pressure, making it both fun and successful for me.    I am indebted, as he made me a stronger runner.    Now, as an established professional nurse,   John gradually engineered upward my training routine –  I am incorporating strength training routines, weights, recovery times, massage therapy, cross training, and making sure my body does not burn out.   It is rewarding to not only to know, but to understand the concept “listening to your body”, central to John’s training philosophy.

Within our running team, that appreciation is shared by all on the team. My running teammates and I get to enjoy team workouts,  which adds value to our individual experiences, helping and supporting each other in our individual training and performances.    And that cannot be understated:  having training exposure with teammates adds to our individual  performances, as we share the spirit of fellowship in pushing each other to exceed our goals—it is *invaluable*. And,  with John as our coach to keep us all together and individually competitive, just makes it both both rewarding and fun.

Can you give us a sample of what a training week looks like?

I run about 80-90 miles a week. I do workouts on Tuesday and Saturday, middle long runs on Thursday, and long runs (20 +/-  miles)  on Sunday. Also twice a week, I have ‘double runs.

Sunday – progression long run 18 to 23 miles at 6.40 – 6.45 average pace.
Monday – 50min easy recovery run
Tuesday- morning: 35min relaxed and  evening; track speed workout (1k x 8 at 5.20pace or 5 mile repeats at 5.30pace with 2.5min jog recovery)
Wednesday; medium long run 90min + strenght training
Thursday: 50min easy
Friday; strength workout (10 to 12miles tempo at marathon pace – 6.15) or ( 6 – 8 miles tempo at half marathon pace – 5.55 to 6.00) and strenght training in the afternoon
Saturday: morning 45min relaxed and evening 35min easy. I do not take days off but if my legs are tired or very tight I will do cross training (eliptical or bike)

 Leading up to this past marathon, you faced some hurdles. Can you share a bit on what that was like and how you managed to stay strong throughout?

I trained for the Rotterdam Marathon and I was ready for the race but unfortunately my older boy became sick so we had to spend a few weeks in the hospital. I had to cancel my trip to the Netherlands five days before the marathon. But, to have my son in the hospital was brutal. It seemed that my world was ending. It was one of the most overwhelming and stressful experiences in my life. However, I never stopped training. Running was my therapy to stay strong throughout my son’s recovery. I need to show my son that Mama was  strong for him!

Thanks to the amazing doctors and my prayers, my son Willaran is doing better and in recovery.  When he was released from the hospital,  I decided to give my marathon training a second chance and I got lucky and was admitted at the last minute to the Boston Marathon.   However, due to this year’s brutal weather.  I wasn’t able to finish it. I left the marathon at mile 20 with hypothermia.    And yes, it was my worst marathon experience!   Following that experience, I gave myself another opportunity and I chose run the Ottawa Marathon on May 27th. That’s when my dream goal came true of qualifying for the Olympic  time trials.   My son was doing progressively better, and I went to Canada feeling amazing because his ongoing recovery —  I felt stronger and ready for it. It was a great feeling!

A few words to describe the feeling of crossing the finish line with the realization that you’ve just qualified for the Olympic Trials? 

Wow, it was amazing!! I couldn’t even believe it. I felt pretty good the entire marathon and I felt even better towards the end so the last 7 miles,  I started running faster than I did at the start:  at mile 20 I started smiling at the people cheering  because I knew I was going to achieve my goal. When I crossed the finish line the tears came out and I thanked God for this unforgettable and amazing day.  And, I dedicated this particular marathon to my son Willaran to have a speedy and complete recovery.

We are so proud of and inspired by you Any.  Are there any tips you’d like to offer for those of us striving to reach  goals and sometimes feel less motivated? 

Believe in yourself, be consistent, and never give up even though you think the goal is almost impossible to achieve.

Earlier, I mentioned because of my professional job as an Oncology Nurse, I value the time we have in this world, and to make each moment count.   A few years ago, I read an article about marathon champion Paula Radcliffe, which mirrors my philosophy,

“Never set limits, go after your dreams, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. And laugh a lot – it’s good for you!”

Finally, what feels most Joyful for you in your life?  

I’m so thankful that I have the support in my life so I can keep doing what I most love – caring for patients, loving my family, and  running the world!



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