Faster at 50: A Chat with Team SFQ'er Lisa Kopp

Today we chat with Team SFQ marathoner and triathlete, Lisa Kopp. After spending much of 2019 recovering from a foot fracture exacerbated by a rare pain syndrome, Lisa is working to celebrate her 50th year with her first Boston Marathon qualification and ultramarathon finish. Besides being a dog mom, wife, and endurance athlete, Lisa works a big-time day job as a senior communications professional at the World Bank Group in Washington, DC. She works for their Board of Executive Directors helping to ensure that the Bank’s corporate governance is global best practice and their shareholder countries continue to have confidence in the work that the Bank does around the world to end poverty. Pretty cool stuff! We hope you enjoy our chat with her as much as we did!


In November 2018 you smashed a huge barrier in the world of marathon, breaking 4 hours at the Richmond Marathon. Can you share a bit about your journey to sub-4— how you got started in marathoning and what it took to get there?

 I got into marathoning through triathlon. A cycling and yoga enthusiast, I didn’t enjoy running when I was younger, and I found anything more than 3-4 miles difficult. I always admired marathoners from afar but thought I would never be able to do anything like THAT. It was unimaginable. Then after doing my first few sprint and Olympic triathlons and struggling with stamina on the run, I decided to focus on it—I ran more often, and slowly but surely added distance so that it became less challenging and more FUN. When I signed up for my first IM70.3, I figured I should do a stand-alone half marathon beforehand to confirm that I could run the distance. I remember that race like it was yesterday—the DC Rock n Roll Half, 2014. When I finished, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment and joy, and on the way home after the race I thought to myself for the first time ever, “maybe someday I could run a marathon….” Jump to 2015 when everything changed for my athletic career—I discovered Smashfest Queen and Hillary became my coach. I told her I wanted to go from simply ‘surviving’ races to setting goals, finishing strong, maybe even becoming competitive…and I wanted to run a marathon! Since I thought it would be a ‘one and done’ endeavor, of course I picked the New York City marathon- I mean go big or go home, right? Although I know now that there are arguably easier and less logistically challenging races to choose as your first marathon, looking back I wouldn’t change a thing—it was amazing! And despite struggling with a nagging IT band leading into and during New York, as soon as I crossed the finish line, I knew I was hooked. Within hours I was debating where to next and wondering: could I go faster?  That following year we started doing speedwork and began focusing on nutrition for both my 70.3 races and for the next marathon. I also started running with a group of incredible women I met in my neighborhood and training with fellow SFQ teammates whom I was getting to know in the area. At Philadelphia the following year and Marine Corps after that, I saw my finishing times go down and experience level go up but couldn’t fathom ever getting to sub 4—after all, I wasn’t getting any younger. But I knew breaking 4 hours was indeed an accomplishment in the marathon world and I wanted to know if it was possible. I asked coach Hillary what she thought, and little did I know that had been her plan for me all along: get me to sub 4. Her immediate reply to my question was “hell ya, #sub4orbust!”. So that became our motto in 2018, which also meant harder work on foot but also in the pool, on the bike, and in the gym. I had to strengthen my mental game too so we didn’t fade in the later miles of the race, and we did that by having me run on tired legs and push through on mornings when I all I wanted to do was get an extra hour of sleep or relax with an extra cup of coffee in bed. I also enlisted several of my running pals to join me on long runs and interval runs. By the time Richmond rolled around, everyone knew about my quest for #sub4orbust and they were ON BOARD to help me make it happen. With incredibly skilled pacing, patience, and good humor, fellow Smash sister Libby Schroeder and my friend and Boston veteran Kimberly Versak (with Hillary on speed dial all morning!), ran along with me and we nailed it: sub-4!  Truly one of the most memorable accomplishments of this formally non-runner’s life! 


Just about a month after this monumental accomplishment, you suffered a significant injury that sidelined your run training for many months. Can you tell us what happened and how it affected your training?


After Richmond, we had a few weeks of “free choice” where I could rest as I wished and take fun classes that I don’t normally get to do during heavy triathlon and marathon training. It’s hard to say exactly what caused it, but after one too many jumping jacks, burpees, or hot down dogs and not enough post-race recovery, I suffered a bad stress fracture in my foot.  So it was like going from 100 miles an hour straight into a brick wall. I suddenly went from working out 7 days a week to nothing—I couldn’t even swim initially, because I was told the foot had to be isolated/immobilized in a boot and kept still. That initial period lasted for about 2-3 weeks, until I was able to get in the pool and swim with a buoy. This might not sound so bad to the reader, but I should add that swimming had been my LEAST favorite discipline in the sport and I was kind of terrible at it. Historically I performed the minimal amount of swim training that my coach would let me get away with, and so there I was only able to swim, that’s it (the triathlon gods were trying to tell me something!)  We also soon added in a strength routine I could do in the gym that we called “Boot strength”. This at least got me out of the door and doing something for 30-40 minutes per day.


On top of the fracture, you suffered from a rare and exceptionally painful side-effect called CRPS. Can you talk about this experience how you managed it and continue to this day?


About 4 weeks into my injury and while still wearing the boot, I started to notice that my toes were turning blue and my foot was numb and stiff. It felt like it was being held in a vice, if you imagine what that sensation is like (!). I first went to two different orthopedists who told me it was probably just cold and that I needed to wear warmer socks in the boot. But something didn’t seem right. A third told me about a condition called “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome”—highly rare but has been known to occur after trauma to a limb or extremity. It’s essentially a form of nerve malfunction that can happen when the limb is immobilized and for some reason the brain begins to send unnecessary pain signals to the area. In the meantime, surgeon and friend Libby Schroeder jumped into action and got me in to see specialists who could rule out other possibilities and providers who could help me quickly navigate the world of CRPS. I was scared but I was determined to learn more and not succumb to some of the bad prognoses I was reading about online.  The PT Libby sent me to worked with other CRPS patients in the past and she taught me several brain - to- nerve exercises along with traditional PT that would help rehab the healing fracture as well. My routine in the first months of 2019 consisted of swimming, strength work, lots of PT, and acupuncture for the nerve pain as well. Looking back on how I managed it, I have to be honest - it was up and down. I had days when I could tell myself this was a blip on the radar and injury was part of being an athlete and would feel hopeful that I could come back from it. But then I would have days where the pain was unbearable and I was more concerned about how I could live with chronic pain for the rest of my life, never mind whether I would ever run again. But gradually over time, the number of bad days decreased, and the good days increased and the village of caregivers and friends who supported me kept my attitude positive so that I was able to come out the other side. They say that half the battle with CRPS is the psychological one—NOT letting it take you down, staying active and mobile and managing it while living the best life you can live. And I think I did that successfully. I didn’t let it get the best of me in the end. Even today, the pain returns when I fly, when it’s cold….and sometimes just because.


Had you ever had a major injury or setback in your training before? What were your toughest moments during this time (last year) and how did you stay sane/ keep your head in the game? 


When I suffered the IT band injury before New York, I thought the world was going to end if I couldn’t run the race. I didn’t take it well. And while I won’t say that I was the picture of complete positivity last year during #fracturegate, I did try to keep things in perspective and remember to be thankful for the support and love I was receiving from friends and teammates throughout. One of the highlights during my recovery was a visit out to California to see coach and to have a mini comeback camp with her. Without debate or discussion, she took me up Mt. Woodson outside of Encinitas, got me back on the bike, introduced me to her masters swim class AND we even did a little walk/run treadmill action. And like that- BOOM- I was back! Even though we kept things fairly easy by Smash standards, it was the just the mental and emotional boost I needed.


Against all odds, you managed to not only complete a half ironman in 2019 but to once again better your marathon PR--just about a year after breaking your foot--running a 3:56 at the Rehoboth Beach Marathon in December. Tell us about this day!!


Oh, it was such a great day! Four of my dear running friends and Laurel from Team SFQ and HPB all made the 24- hour trip and we had so MUCH fun. Laurel and I were the only ones who ran while the others cheered from the sidelines.  On the race itself, coach and I agreed not to focus on my finishing time but, instead, to run strong, healthy, and happy to be back. With much thanks to Laurel, we stayed at roughly a 8:45- 8:55 pace for about 19 miles of the race.  At about mile 22 I slowed down significantly and, although I was disappointed that I struggled in those last miles, I was thrilled to have actually PR’d. I also learned that I still need to work on my endurance to be able to hold out late in a race, and that gives me further motivation to keep training and keep striving for improvement!


We are all sure that your BQ is just around the corner as it will require shaving just a few tiny more minutes off of your time this year--so tell us about what goals and adventures you have in store for


This *could* be the year that we make BQ happen! I just chose the Orange County (OC) Marathon in Newport Beach in May as my BQ attempt, so am very excited about that. Libby is going to join me for moral support (and perhaps some pacing too 😊 ) and I am hoping that we get to see some other Team SFQ and/or HPBers there as well. I am starting to get my butt in gear already NOW to be able to shave those critical minutes off my PR. Also, I have a big birthday coming up just around the corner, so we made 2020 the year I will become an “ultra” runner too, with my first 50k in October. I’m calling it #50kfor50! I feel so grateful and blessed to be able to run again and to share these adventures with good friends, teammates and coach Hillary. Here is to another decade of smashfests, whatever that may look like in the years ahead.


You can follow Lisa's quest for the BQ and becoming faster at 50 via her instagram @lisakopp00

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