Making the team: record-setting runner creates community of women
In a matter of days, she will represent the United States in an international ultramarathon competition. She earned a Guinness World Record in a running event this summer. But Elizabeth Northern thinks the greatest gift God has given her — and the gift that has pushed her out of her comfort zone — is being a mentor to other female competitive runners.
Almost three years ago, Northern launched Fort Worth Distance Project, a community of women that pushes the pace while supporting each other.
The mother of two admitted being the founder and coordinator of the group was a stretch, because she’s usually a “behind-the-scenes worker.” However, she said, “Realizing that a gift is there, you’ve just got to go with it and trust God has put it there for you and for others for a reason.”
The 15 or so women composing the Fort Worth Distance Project all have their reasons. Many hope to make the qualifying time to compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2020. Others have different races and distances in their sights. Although racing brought the women together, it’s the personal, and sometimes spiritual, support that sets the community apart.
Northern, who was “born and raised at Holy Family” Parish in Fort Worth, explained, “Sometimes we pray out loud on the run. If there’s something we’re working through personally, or [we’re] in a tough spot in a race or in a workout, we pray about it. It’s a special bond. That spiritual element takes it up a level.”
St. Andrew parishioner Stephanie Thompson recently joined the Fort Worth Distance Project. She plans to return to competitive running after having a baby this spring. The new mother has found the community of women drives each other forward while lifting each other up, and that begins with Northern.
“Liz will sacrifice her own workout to circle back and make certain everyone gets back okay,” said Thompson.
While she attended Holy Family Catholic School and Nolan Catholic High School, Northern’s athletic accomplishments were on stage — she studied dance for 15 years. She didn’t realize she enjoyed running, or had a talent for it, until she joined the cross-country team as a walk-on at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Oh yes, about that talent.
Northern has won every event of Fort Worth’s premier running competition, the Cowtown, which is held each year at the end of February. In various years, she’s broken the finish line ribbon of the 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, and ultramarathon. She has set course records in four of those events, and her records for the 5K and ultramarathon still stand.
Northern rises at 4:30 a.m. to run so that during daylight hours she can focus on her family and work as a research analyst for Tarrant County College. The pre-dawn workouts with her running group help her recharge and be a better wife and mother, she said.
The effort is Northern’s, but the glory is God’s. “My ability to run is nothing I’ve been able to do on my own. It’s definitely been something that God has given me,” she said.
When Northern became pregnant with her daughter in 2016, she was concerned that her ability to run competitively would be diminished afterwards.
The elite runner remembered, “Faith helped me during pregnancy. I have had to learn a lot about the word ‘grace,’ and giving and receiving grace, especially self-grace.
“The human body is incredible. I encourage other women, especially postpartum women, ‘be gentle with yourself.’ It may not come back when you want it, but it may. You have done something incredible. Cherish that time, because it will go by so fast,” she continued.
Having picked up the pace again, Northern pushed her daughter and son, now 2½ and 1½, to earn a Guinness World Record on June 1. Literally. Equipped with water and snacks, the toddlers enjoyed a comfortable ride while their mother set the world record for running a 10K while pushing a double stroller. Even with a wheel adjustment at the first mile, she crossed the finish line in 41:20, a pace of 6:39 per mile.
Her family will also be present when Northern represents the United States in the 2019 International Association of Ultrarunners 50K World Championship in Brasov, Romania on Sept. 1.
Qualifying for the American team was a walk — well, a run — in the park. After dropping out of the Cowtown 50K the weekend before, Northern registered for the USA Track and Field National 50K Championship two days before the March 3 race, flew to New York the day before, and won the event.
Representing the United States in an international competition “is a dream come true. It seemed like such a long shot, especially after kids, and it’s more special now that I get to share it with my family. Sometimes it feels like a dream still,” said the 32-year-old.
With the international competition nearing, the driven runner has trained with extra intensity this summer. Sometimes during a hard workout, she prays the Rosary, she said.
Running often makes Northern feel closer to God and the community she mentors. She recalled, “There are some moments where I honestly get into such a meditative state, that I may not even realize an entire mile has gone by. In those moments, I think life’s incredible. It’s made me really appreciate these women in my life, who have helped me through postpartum, helped me with two kids, and helped me achieve my goals.”
Update: Elizabeth Northern competed in the IAU World Championship 50K in Brasov, Romania on September 1, where she finished sixth overall with a personal record of 3:19:24. She was the second U.S. woman to finish and helped propel the USA women's team to a silver medal.