Using Goals for Balance

Like many athletes, Tony and Christina Marshall met doing what they love, running along the golden trails of Marin County, CA. They fell in love, got married, and soon started a family.

As their parenting and career responsibilities quickly multiplied, Tony and Christina were faced with increasing demands on their attention. Time was precious, as was the ability to go for a leisurely three-hour weekend run.

Like most married couples, Tony and Christina had to learn to respect each other’s needs while also advocating for their own. Rather than find reasons to not put on their running shoes, they chose to prioritize their fitness and set goals to strengthen it.

Today, that persistence and discipline has paid off. Rather than sitting out while the other one races, they are both training to compete in the Umstead 100-mile endurance race in Raleigh, NC, later this year.

It’s a lesson they hope to teach their two children, who sometimes prefer laying around the house to going on weekend family hikes and bike rides.

But as Christina is quick to remind them, “That’s not the Marshall way.”

Christina and Tony have always been active. And while they share running in common, they have each experienced different fitness journeys.

When Tony was younger, tennis was his entire life, that is until he ran a marathon in honor of his father.

Surprised that he could accomplish it with such ease, he trained for and completed his first 50-mile race in 2009. In 2012, he upgraded to 100-mile races, finishing his first Umstead in 20:30 followed three months later by a 28:29 finish at Western States Endurance Run.

“I’ve always been the one to chase the impossible,” says Tony, 47. “There was curiosity on how I could push myself.”

Then in 2014, something changed. He started to develop debilitating stomach issues any time he ran a 100-mile race and had to drop repeatedly. At first, he thought it was heat exhaustion. Then he had blood work done, an endoscopy, he worked with a nutritionist, twice. It’s been an unresolved search for answers ever since.

“Now we think it could be in my head,” he says.

How mental blocks affect performance is part of a growing discussion around athlete mental health. It’s also why Outlook is one of 11 health systems BellSant tracks. Regular mental health assessments are used to help identify issues that can be often overlooked.

While Tony struggled to solve his racing challenges, Christina’s running career was just getting started.

“I’ve always been into fitness,” says Christina, now 40. “But it was when I started running marathons and met Tony and started ultrarunning that I realized I was capable of more than I thought I was.”

After she had kids, some people warned that she’d never “get her body back.” But then there were the moms she saw out on the trails. The ones who had birthed multiple children and still ranked high in 100-mile races. She focused on that instead.

Christina’s biggest challenge to training was time. The owner and operator of a preschool, she would often bring her children with her for a full day of work, with weekends filled with activities. She learned quickly to capitalize on any free time she had.

“I had to set goals. I’m a better person when I have a goal and when I’m working towards that goal,” she says, adding, “I know that [exercise] needs to get done, and this is the time I have to get it done. Otherwise, it won’t get done.”

When the pandemic shuttered the preschool and races were canceled, both Tony and Christina found other ways to stay active.

While Christina focused on strength training, Tony signed up for the Cross Fit Murph Challenge, which consists of a one-mile run, followed by 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, 300 squats, and another one-mile run. He started in February 2020 and by October was able to do a full Murph in under 60 minutes while wearing a 20-pound vest.

“I like audacious goals,” he says, adding that he regularly participates in pull-up and sit-up challenges. “I’ll have side goals not related to running.”

A move across the country a couple of years ago flipped each partner’s schedules, calling for more training adjustments.

Tony, who had worked remotely for years, now has 8-5pm responsibilities that called him into the office. Christina, on the other hand, has more flexibility. She manages her business remotely while the kids are in school.

With plenty of shorter ultra races under her belt, Christina was able to train and complete her first 100-miler, the Ulmstead, in 2023 with a time of 22:24. Today, her motivation for staying strong continues to evolve.

“Health and fitness in my 20s was that I wanted to look a certain way,” she says. “Now, I don’t weigh myself. I want to feel strong. I want to feel good in my body. I don’t want to have a sore back.”

As Tony prepares for Umstead 2024, he’s planning a new strategy come race day. His goal is to run just four miles at the top of each hour and then rest until the next hour. This, he hopes, will give him more time off his feet, bring his heart rate down, and lend the race an entirely new format.

Both Tony and Christina have a lot of miles to cover in order to prepare for Umstead, which means getting the family calendars to align has been a juggling act.

“It’s easier when it was just me or just her training for a race,” says Tony, who says he often runs at 4 am on Saturdays so he can spend the rest of the day with family. “This is the first time when we’re both trying to get in long runs.

One thing is for sure. Come race day, Tony and Christina’s kids will be there to cheer them on at the finish line and learn from their example.

“We don’t expect them to do running. We just want them to be active,” says Christina. “And we’re going to give them lots of opportunities to figure it out.”

Story told by: Millicent Skiles

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