Leslie Sexton is an outspoken cross-country runner from London, Ontario, whose marathon PB is 2:33. A contributor to iRun and a leading voice in running—here she is on gender differences in distances at track meets and on cheating at races, course-cutting and drugs—she is a sponsored Saucony athlete and one to watch at this weekend’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, running the marathon against our country’s best. iRun’s General Manager sent Leslie some questions that only she could answer.
1. A few days out from race day, how do you feel and what will you be doing, both from a physical and mental perspective?
I feel really good and I’m getting excited for race day! With every buildup I do I handle the taper better so I don’t mind it now. I’m using the extra time I have from running less to take care of the little things like stretching and foam rolling that I sometimes neglect when I’m running high mileage. The important thing to is take the extra time and do that stuff, but not obsess too much. As the race gets closer I will take more time to relax, put my feet up, and watch Netflix or play a video game to take my mind off of things.
2. Who are your heroes in the sport, and outside of the sport?
Des Linden for her toughness, work ethic, superb pacing, and no-excuses attitude. Outside of the sport, Rey and Leia from Star Wars. Carrie Fisher both for her portrayal of an incredible character and for being vocal on de-stigmatizing mental illness. I fully expect to get at least a little teary-eyed when I watch The Last Jedi in December. And Wonder Woman…I watched that movie before Eastside 10k last month and I think I’m going to make a tradition of watching it the night before a race.
3. What’s your race plan?
I want to run a personal best at STWM. The plan is to run my goal pace as evenly as possible, especially early on. I like to break the race into 5k segments and have about a ten second range that I want to stay within for each part. Each kilometer can vary a bit, but if I stay within a tight pace range for each 5k it keeps the pace and the effort pretty even. The other way I break it up is into thirds, sort of; be relaxed and comfortable for the first 16k, keep on pace and stay alert for the next 16k, then just run hard and stay tough through the final 10.2k.
4. Can you talk to us about the “negative split.” Is that something a) you do and b) you recommend?
Most of my personal bests have been slight negative splits. When making a game plan for a race I don’t like the idea of going out really hard to force a breakthrough. Most of the time it ends with a blowup and the longer the race, the fewer attempts you have to get it right. At the same time I don’t want to put limits on myself and I want to take advantage of a great race opportunity. Planning to even split with the possibility of a negative split on a great day strikes a balance between the two. My strategy is usually to set a realistic goal pace based on my recent workouts and plan to run evenly though the first two-thirds of the race. If I feel great and I’m having an awesome day, I can pick it up in the last third of the race and run fast off of a negative split. This is how I run most of my workouts, too, and I would recommend it to anyone racing 5k or longer.
5. Where do you think your toughness comes from?
My toughness comes from my confidence in my training and my belief in myself. When things get tough in a race I like to think back to some of my best workouts and visualize being back in Springbank Park in London, putting in the miles on my own. When that’s not enough, I think about my heroes in sport or in fiction who inspire me to be tough.
6. You’ve been outspoken in the sport, around track & field distances and more recently on Stephen Miller, who jumped into a girl’s track meet. How pervasive is sexism in running and for the iRun community, what can we do?
I have to acknowledge that compared to other sports, Athletics is doing very well on issues of gender equality. On the big things like equality of prize money and compensation or opportunities to compete we are way better off than women in team sports, for example. Yet that doesn’t mean we have full equality or that women should stop speaking up. One area that I frequently bring up is having equal opportunities for female distance runners to race the same distances as men and explore their potential at longer distances. For many years, men’s cross country distances have been longer than women’s, and this can have a negative impact on female athlete development, especially among women whose talents lie in distances longer than 5k. This is starting to change, but we need to continue to put pressure on organizations to have equal distances between men and women across all age groups, the way we do on the track or on the roads. The way we coach female distance runners goes hand in hand with this. While coaches need to assign all young athletes age-appropriate training, I think there has been a tendency to discourage young women from running the same longer distances as their male peers or assign young women less training in an effort to protect them, and this is based on outdated assumptions about female athlete development. Coaches need to assign training to young athletes based on principles of long term athlete development, individualized based on the runner’s capabilities, instead of generalizations based on the athlete’s gender.
The other issue I see often is media coverage of female athletes and the objectification of women in sport. I am sick of all of the coverage of women’s sport that focuses on what a woman is wearing, what her body looks like, or who she is married to instead of her athletic performance. We need to treat women in sport like athletes and talk about their performances in the way that we do for men’s sport.
Overall I think the road racing scene is very positive; women have lots of opportunities to participate or compete and most runners I have encountered are very positive and supportive. That being said…dudes, if you want to compliment a woman who is out on a run, say something like “great pace” instead of commenting on her legs or her ass. Stop talking about getting “chicked” (ie. when a woman runs faster than you) in a race. We are all runners, so treat each other with respect and, as Wil Wheaton would say, “don’t be a dick.”
7. Is there a Harvey Weinstein in running? As an athlete, does that story come as a shock to you?
Personally I haven’t experienced anything like that but I’m not naive enough to say it doesn’t happen in the running world. One example that sticks out in my head was a few years ago when the coach at the University of Toledo was fired for sexually harassing women on the team. I made the mistake of reading a thread on Letsrun about it and saw the same victim-blaming and excuses from some male posters that we see now when a story like this breaks. When stories like these come out, the shocking thing to me is when women had spoken out about it previously or made complaints, only to have them swept under the rug. We can’t know how pervasive sexual harassment and sexual assault are, particularly when it involves someone in a position of power, because all too often the perpetrator is protected and the victims aren’t believed.
8. Do you think athletes, a la Colin Kaepernick, should use their platform? Have you felt any backlash?
Absolutely, yes. Athletes can be role models and agents of change, and they can do that by using their platform to bring issues or injustices to the public’s attention. Especially now, in the US, with Trump’s presidency threatening the livelihood and well-being of anyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender male. I haven’t experienced much backlash, probably because I’m not a big name or public figure. The backlash against Kaepernick’s protests shows a lot of willful ignorance of why he is protesting and demonstrates that racism in the US is still a huge problem.
9. Back to the task at hand: what will you eat the night before your marathon and what will you have that morning for breakfast?
I will have pasta the night before, usually something like spaghetti and meatballs if I am out at a restaurant. In the morning I start with tea and a bagel with butter or honey on it and then a Rockstar a bit later. I like the extra caffeine boost and I am used to having it before my workouts.
10. What sort of shoes do you wear for the marathon, and how are they different then shoes you use for shorter distances? Let’s say you had to recommend sneakers to your 50-year-old mother, what would you recommend for someone, say, training for the half?
I like a pretty light shoe for racing, so I tend to use the same flats for a 5 or 10k on the roads that I would for a marathon. Right now it’s the Saucony Type A8 for my races and workouts but I do my mileage in something more cushioned like the Saucony Ride or Freedom. I tend to have 4-5 pairs on the go at any one time. For someone looking for a pair of shoes, the first thing I would do is send them to their friendly neighbourhood run specialty store to get fitted. Generally I would recommend something with good cushioning for half-marathon training rather than something lightweight. I work at a run specialty store and the shoes I sell the most of are the Saucony Guide or the Ride, depending on if the customer needs stability or not.
11. Do you have a mantra?
My current one is a bit silly, but here goes. Having spent the first half of the year coming back from injury, I feel that Han Solo’s statement about the Millennium Falcon is appropriate to my running: “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
12. What is it about Star Wars that you so like? The story? The sci-fi? Leia?
I loved the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid. It (and the Harry Potter book series) were what got me into science fiction and fantasy, because they were both so accessible. I loved the sci-fi elements of Star Wars but what really captured my imagination was the story and the characters. It’s a story about family, about hope, and about redemption. When Disney bought Star Wars and announced that they were going to do new films I was worried at first, but I ended up loving The Force Awakens and Rogue One. I think both movies captured what was so great about the original trilogy by returning to those themes of hope and redemption. Plus, I love the new characters. Rey, Finn, and Poe are awesome and I got very attached to the Rogue One crew. Needless to say, I am very excited to see The Last Jedi this December.
13. What do you plan on doing after your race?
I definitely plan on having a beer and burger as my post-race meal. I really like the Granville Island Lions Winter Ale so I hope we get that in Ontario at the end of the month so I can enjoy a few in the week after my race. My other plans for my rest week include working on my Halloween costume for the Halloween Haunting road races in London on October 28th (I run the 10k in costume every year) and binge-watching Stranger Things Season 2.
14. You’ve been in sports long enough to, ideally, not get so high or so low, dependent upon race results. What’s a good way to maintain equilibrium and maintain your character, despite finishing times?
What it comes down to for me is that I love running and I love the process of training and getting fitter. I love racing and to run a personal best or win a race is a great feeling, but it’s not the only thing I love about the sport. Like anyone else I get disappointed with a bad race and it can suck for a few days. But I love distance running, I love training hard and competing, and a bad result will never change that.
15. If you could run alongside anyone in history, who would it be, where would you be, and why?
Meb Keflezighi in Central Park. I admire his positive attitude, his longevity in the sport, and his ability to get the most out of himself and perform well despite facing setbacks in his training or on race day. I think everybody could learn so much from him and he probably has some great stories from running at a high level for so long.