Sonja Friend-Uhl Masters The Running World

08/04/2015 - 08:36

By Carolyn Mather, RN, PhD

A1eCiyCGZKHqUvMH7BHcMUFUEDUCxB_nvaRvMolps6I.jpeg Usually at this time I am writing my annual report on my favorite marathon-Grandmas. But for the first time in 21 years I had to miss it and Peachtree (more than 21 years!!) to take care of my dear husband Steve. But I must admit that both events proceeded in style without me and Steve could not have done without me. During these trying months I have come to appreciate the love and support of my friends. One of my strongest supporters is my Atlanta Track Club Elite teammate Sonja Friend-Uhl. Sonja is one amazing woman and has been taking the world of masters ladies by storm. I caught up with her right before she dominated the invited masters field at the USATF Nationals. She won the 3000 by nearly a minute over 8 other super masters!!

Give me a little background on you-school, family,job,and interests besides running.

I graduated from The College of William & Mary (VA) in 1993. I was recruited for XC and Track by then Coach Pat Van Rossum and was on a full athletic scholarship all 4 years. I also met my husband Brad there. He was also a scholarship athlete for Football (Record setting Outside Linebacker)

I love music and I love to play piano. I play piano to this day and love it very much. It soothes me! I also am an avid reader...absolutely love to lose myself in a book!

My immediate family includes my husband, Brad and my daughters, Brianna (an aspiring Volleyball player turning 14 in August) and Alexa (6) who fears nothing and has boundless energy so I am thinking another track athlete maybe in the family!

My career from the start has revolved around the fitness industry. I received my first personal trainer / fitness instructor certification in 1996 and was hired as a General Manager of a small fitness center in Pittsburgh when I was 27 years old. We moved to South Florida for Brad's job in 1998 and I was really able to learn, grow and flourish in that environment as a fitness professional. This was great because a career in fitness was the perfect compliment to my goals as a competitive runner. For 10 years now I have been a Lead Master Trainer for one of the top fitness equipment manufacturers, Star Trac (owned by Core Health & Fitness) which allows me to travel the country providing consulting and training on our equipment. In December of 2014 I joined the team of Cool Springs MD here in Brentwood, TN to help launch their Physical Wellness Center which I now manage. I am certified by ACE, ACSM, and AFAA. My first love however is COACHING runners! I have not been able to do it full time yet due to my children and their schedules/needs but I hope to someday. I am certified through USATF and have been fortunate to have coached recreational, youth and competitive runners (track distances through the marathon) since 1999. I started a few community running clubs in Florida both adult and youth which I am proud to say are still going strong and had a great experience coaching high school during that time as well. I volunteer coached at Vanderbilt from 2011-2013 and still keep in touch with the team. I also have private running clients that I truly enjoy working with. Coaching gives me such joy...I absolutely love it!

When did you first start running?
My first competitive running experience was with the 50m dash for the ARCO Jesse Owens Games back in 1980. We lived in Washington State at the time. I joined the NW Washington Striders and competed in AAU youth meets during the summers..made it to nationals in the 400m (62 seconds) in 1984. We raced in the LA Coliseum the year of the Olympics...that inspired me! Middle School and High School Track followed. I was a 400m, 800m and 4 x 400, 4 x 800 runner throughout. I ran cross-country as well in HS (Cape Henlopen in Lewes, DE), but didn't "acquire" a love for it until college.

What appeals to you about our sport? Why do you run?
It is so pure to me. Meaning no matter who you are, where you came from or what else may be going on in your life, what you put into running you will get out of it. You don't NEED fancy equipment, a facility, a can just walk out of your door and run! I love the simplicity and honesty of that. I also am constantly motivated by the idea that I can measure my goals and progress and that the possibility of improvement always exists...mine for the taking if I am willing to be a committed student of my sport and work hard. This of course has been more of a challenge as I have aged but the lure is still there. It is also a tremendous THERAPY for me. Running not only is a physical release to me but it is a mental and emotional one as well. Getting into a calming rhythm during a long run or feeling empowered and on fire during a speed workout or a race is pure bliss in my book. Everyone has their personal trials and hardships...I am no different. I am a spiritual person and believe in a higher power but I also believe that God gave me running as a gift or a "tool" for my life and I intend to honor that for all of my days. It is also why I believe I am inspired to coach and share my love of running with others. I feel a pull/need to pay it forward.

What records do you currently hold?
World Masters Female (40-44) Indoor Mile: 4:44.84
American Masters Female (40-44) Outdoor Mile: 4:45.68
American Masters Female (40-44) Indoor 3000m (9:50.37)
American Masters Female (40-44) 1500m in 4:16>99
World Non-Club 4 x 800m Relay (40-44) with Grace Padilla, Jennifer Mark-Burke & Lisa Ryan

How did you feel when you recently set the US Master's mile record?
Elated, Relieved, GRATEFUL. Each year it gets a little harder to believe that amazing (by my own standard) race TIMES are still possible for me.That race was a huge validation of a lot of hard work and faith..not only from myself but my support system including my family, team (ATC) and coaches (Andrew & Amy).

What is your typical training?
I am NOT a high mileage runner. I average 40-45 miles per week during indoor/outdoor (February - July) which includes a 9-10 mile long run on the weekends. During the Fall and Winter I may go as high as the low 50's. Unless I am on a true break between seasons, I keep some form of speed (efficiency) work in my weekly regimen. During XC season this may be hill repeats or a fartlek session, during track it will usually be more technical like 150m accelerations + Plyo and short full sprints (30-60m) with complete rest between. I also try to always get in some form of lactate threshold work once every 10 days or so. This comes in many different forms (everything from 5 x 5:00 tempo paced intervals to a 30:00 steady state to a 60:00 progression run but I try to keep that a staple. I am a speed/strength based runner so I need to always stay close to that kind of body just feels better and moves better when I do. But if I neglect the LT my fitness is not on par. The race paced intervals are reserved for different prep segments each season and they vary. The hardest ones for me are repeat 1000's or 1200's at 3k pace. Concentration and patience are still things I work on! But now I have Andrew to figure all of that out for me!

Do you do cross training? What type and how often?
I love to strength train! I do either a circuit of calesthenics specific for runners or a heavy lift (dead lifts, bench, squats, rows, etc.) and core work 2-3 times each week pre season and during the season. I back off to 2 x week during the championship season and I do not do a heavy lift 4-7 days before a big race. I also use the elliptical or the spin bike when I feel my legs need a break from the pounding or just to get in some extra cardio work. I will probably do more of the cardio cross training once my race distances increase in the Fall.

I know Andrew and Amy Begley are now coaching you. Do you feel this has helped your running?
Absolutely! I feel so blessed to have them as coaches! Andrew is very quiet and humble about it but he is extremely knowledgeable and talented when it comes to the science behind running and how to program workouts, strategies for everything from the competition to the weather, course, etc. My biggest challenge in coaching myself has always been how to peak optimally more than once in a 4-6 month period. Andrew has done an outstanding job of this with me. I am very grateful to him! As for Amy, I have admired her tenacity and mental toughness as a runner/racer for years. I remember watching her Olympic Trials 10k when she made the U.S. Team...that last lap she ran will always stay with me. The mental strength and will it took for her to master her mind over her body during that race was so inspiring! She is the real deal. Even though I don't get much direct contact with her I feel her presence and her influence over the team and myself. They are a very selfless couple and give so much back to our sport...I am excited to see what the future holds for the ATC under their guidance as coaches! Rich Kenah as the ATC executive director also has been a great mentor and blessing to the ATC. It makes a huge difference when the people coaching and leading your team/club understand what it is to truly love the sport of running, and to be able to directly relate to the work, sacrifice, and passion it takes to succeed. We have at least 3 Olympians leading us...I get fired up just thinking about it!

What goals do you have for future races? What are you planning to run at nationals in July?
I am leaving for Eugene on Friday to race in the Masters Invitational 3k (Saturday) at USA Nationals. So my first goal is to win that race for the ATC and run a great time! My next goal is to place in the top 3 of the Masters Division at the Atlanta Peachtree 10k on July 4th. I am not sure who is showing up to race this year but I know Colleen De Reuck and Jen Rhines raced last year and are brilliant at that distance and beyond. 10k is a bit out of my comfort zone but it will be a welcome change from the track and I am ready to race hard and leave it all on the course! My final track meet will be US Masters Nationals in Jacksonville in late July. I am racing the 800m and the 5000m on Thursday, the 1500m on Friday and probably the 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 Relays (my favorite!) on Sunday. My goal for that meet is to win all of my events, be there to support my teammates during their races and score as many points for the ATC as possible!

What are your favorites foods? Are you on any special diet?
My favorite food is chocolate. No is.
Aside from that I try to eat for fuel/health 90% of the time. So my pre-run early morning meal is usually a small greek yogurt or a banana with a spoonful of almond butter and some form of caffeine (love that stuff!). I also supplement daily with: fish oil, a liquid multivitamin, liquid iron (at night before bed), a pro-biotic, and two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with a teaspoon of raw honey in 8 oz of water.

During the run or workout I will drink Pro BCAA or Fast Fuel from Max Muscle (mostly branch chain amino acids, B vitamins, electrolytes). The Fast Fuel also has beta alanine, creatine and caffeine so I use that on my hard effort days or when I strength train. I also take in 200-300 LIQUID calories right after my hard efforts with a 1:4 of protein to carbs for optimal recovery. I like Max Muscle ARM (Active Recovery Matrix) and Recoverite from Hammer Nutrition, but chocolate milk also works in a pinch! About an hour after my workout (8-9am) I will usually have two eggs and Ezekiel bread toast with fresh fruit OR a green smoothie with raw protein powder. My lunch will typically be leftovers from dinner the night before or a healthy green salad with grilled chicken or fish. Sometimes I splurge and go to Chick Filet, Chipotle or Moes with the girls on the weekend or if I didn't pack my lunch for work! (Just keeping it real). Dinner with the family is often grilled/baked chicken or fish with steamed vegetables or a salad. Sometimes I will add rice or quinoa. On Friday nights it may very well be a Hawaiian pizza. I like to use the crock pot a lot for healthy stews or chili. Recently I have been experimenting with Tofu because I am trying to guide us towards more plant based far the only fan of this is Brianna however so I need to keep trying!

How do you fit your family into your busy schedule?
Late nights and early mornings! I don't always succeed at this but I try to never miss the big things (for a race or work) like important VB games for Brianna, school award or graduation ceremonies...the reason I am not going to the Masters World Championships in France in August is because it is the girls' first week back at school. Brianna is starting high school this year and I just cannot justify being absent and so far away during such a milestone for her. I'm her mom! I need to be here. I also try to be open with them and include them in my running/racing. They don't often travel with me or watch me race but I do think they understand why I do it. They see my highs and lows and they see me put in the work behind the achievements. I hope I am setting an example for them that they should never stop trying or reaching for their dreams and goals in life. While THEY as my children are my greatest legacy, I know I am a better mom, wife and person because of running/competing. On an intrinsic level I think they realize this...

What do you do to relax?
I love the beach! The ocean centers me. I love to visit my family (mom, dad, sister) in Florida and just spend time with them. I also love reading as I mentioned and going to watch a good movie at the theater; listening to music while I vacuum the house (true story!); sleeping isn't bad either! I probably need more of that...

As we are all getting older what would you say are the best ways to stay motivated as you get older?
I am still figuring this out...but I think the key is to stop comparing your race times or running capability to what you did when you were 20, 30, or even 40 and start basing your NOW on how well you manage the challenge (s) in front of you TODAY. I am learning the farthest I should really look back (if at all) is within a season. Beyond that it is out of my control. Even when I was very young (20's) my best races happened when I was purely being open, grateful, and PRESENT in my efforts without focusing on expectations. We are older but wiser...I have learned to use that experience to my benefit both in how I train and how I race. I also have learned from previous mistakes and am more willing to rest now or do the little things that add up to a big difference. Finally, I encourage anyone 40 and over to reach out to the wonderful community of Masters runners around the U.S. and the world. It is a very fun and supportive group and I am so proud to be a part of them!

Do you have any special tips for all of the lady runners out there?
1) Strength Train!! The stronger you are (connective tissue, your core, glutes, hips, back, etc.) the easier it will be to stay injury free, lean, and overall healthy! A strong runner is a healthy runner and this is even more important for women as we age than men.

2) Make time for YOU and your workout. Sometimes as women we put ourselves last. When I have done this and missed my run or didn't fuel properly because I did that one extra household chore, or said yes to one more family request when I could have/should have said no...I have never been a better mom or wife in that situation. I have always felt grumpy or guilty that I didn't get in the time or the work I had prioritized for myself. Sometimes this can't be helped of course, but usually it can...make yourself and your health (mental and physical) a priority.

3) Support each other. I think as women we are programmed to nurture and care for everyone else, there for each other because you may be the only person who offered support to her today!

Sonja met half of her July goals as she won the masters invitational at Heyward Field in Eugene ,OR in 9:48.16 She placed second master to Jen Rhines at Peachtree in 36:45. Sonja is a dedicated inspiring lady who sets her goals high then goes for it. I am so proud to be her teammate and think I can teach her a few lessons on aging with grace and style!!

Carolyn Mather, R.N., PhD lives and runs in north Georgia and is a member of the Atlanta Track Club Elite. She can be reached at

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