On a dry summer day in August 2007, I joined Soka University of America’s Cross Country team three minutes before the first workout. That impromptu decision led to four wonderful years as a student-athlete. Since graduating, life has been turbulent and maintaining consistency in training has been a struggle. I want to share how Soka Athletics made me the runner I am today and how they prepared me for post-graduation life. 

[This alumni interview with Soka Athletics about life and running after graduation never made it to their official blog but I wanted to share it here. I also had an opportunity to share my post-collegiate experiences with my current team, the Dashing Whippets Running Team. The blog post is here.]

When did you graduate?
May 27, 2011 – I was part of the 7th graduating class!

What sports teams did you compete during undergrad?
I was part of the Women’s Cross Country and Track & Field teams. During track season, I raced the 100 meters and 200 meters with occasional 4×4 relay appearances.

How did Soka Athletics prepare you for life after college?
I joined Soka Athletics when the program was still growing – lucky for me, because I didn’t need a time qualifier to be part of the team (otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to run). Instead, the coaches asked for us to show up, stay committed, and display exceptional sportsmanship. This experience was truly a privilege and everything I learned in the process prepared me for life after college. It taught me the importance of prioritization and making sacrifices. It empowered me to set big goals and chase after them (literally and metaphorically!). It taught me how to be proactive and take leadership.

To give you an idea of how young SUA is, I’m part of the 7th graduating class. Our university is brand new! The university’s mission statement is, “To foster a steady stream of global citizens, committed to living a contributive life.” As a team, we reminded ourselves every single day that we wake up with throbbing shins to represent this institution and its noble mission with integrity. Building an exceptional team from scratch gave me the courage I need to accomplish anything I set my mind to after Soka.

What is your favorite memory from Track & Field/Cross Country?
During freshman year, I opened up to a teammate about my biggest insecurities of being slow and under-qualified to be on the team. He assured that as long as I commit to the training, I’ll be respected as an athlete and be pushed to work harder. That piece of encouragement (which candidly happened during a block starts training session) was the reason why I was able to confidently continue to be part of the team for all four years and that person still remains a good friend.

Other iconic moments include:

– We got new shoes for the season and Akachan (real name is Kiyoshi Akasu, but nicknamed Akachan) got a special pair of extra-wide spikes with crimson red flames printed on the side. Someone said his spikes were ugly so as a comeback, he said, “Say that to my face again when I beat you!” accompanied by a very sassy z-snap.

– After competing in an out-of-state meet, we were waiting in the airport to board our flight back to California. Mickey, notorious for his high-pitch voice, busts out his “Masatoshi” voice and we all flipped out. Also, Mickey wears a lot of baggy clothes so the first time we saw him in the team uniform, we were shocked at how enormous his muscles were. (We all thought he was the typical skinny and scrawny Japanese guy.)

– Yoshiyuki buying all the day-after-Valentines-day sale candy at Wal-Mart and giving it to everyone on the team for a sugar boost during an indoor meet.

– Nicky Starz forgetting to bring spare clothing to an out-of-state meet. He wore the same items in rotation. Also, Nick got me to like The Eagles!

– Brought the SUA birthday tradition to Arizona when we surprised Wandile for his birthday at his hotel room while on a trip for an out-of-state meet. What does that mean? Funny performances, heartfelt speeches, and cake!

& much much much more! I miss my team.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give the current student-athletes?
– Don’t eat too much for lunch on Mondays. Monday lunches are the best, I know. But there’s nothing like being traumatized from vomiting up spicy tuna and retraining yourself to not associate that with miserable 800 meter repeats in scorching hot weather.

– Take care of injuries early on. Don’t wait until it’s a massive hindrance to your training to address it.

– Be strict to your teammates and hold each other accountable. But don’t forget to be kind to them, too. Also, don’t wait until they reach out to you to help them. You have to really take care of each other. Be generous with how much you thank them. We put up with a lot for each other. Showing gratitude goes a really long way.

– Every tough workout is one that you’ll reminisce about later on so give it your best, no matter how brutal it is. Seven years later, my teammates and I still talk about those iconic “El Yama” workouts.

– Recovery workouts should never be raced!

– Lift weights and lift each other up. Treasure the moments you have together.

If you could change anything about your Soka Athletics experience, what would it be and why?
Not very much. I cared too much about non-athletes’ opinions of student-athletes and got unnecessarily frustrated over the fact that they didn’t get it. Unless they’re part of the team, they won’t ever understand why we train hard and never experience the gratification of shedding off seconds on a 5K time. I should have ignored those distractions and focused on my progress instead.

What do you miss most about Soka Athletics?
Everything! I miss interacting with teammates that understood me beneath the superficial. I miss the team camaraderie.

What motivated you to start racing again?
A few years ago, a close family member became temporarily paralyzed after a stroke. He went through weeks of physical therapy to recover and regain his everyday movements. Seeing him made me realize the fragility of the human body. If I didn’t take care of myself, I could experience something similar. Even as a healthy and able-bodied individual, I could be in a situation where my everyday movements that I take for granted are in jeopardy.

I started running again and training for the marathon because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I didn’t want to wait a second longer to pursue it. If something happens to me, I want to be able to say that I put in the work toward my lifelong goal of running a marathon. Running is how I let my body know that I’m in control, physically and mentally. I don’t ever want to feel like my body is failing me.

How many races have you run?
Too many to remember! New York City is never short of racing opportunities and there’s a race for everyone. New York Road Runners (NYRR) has the 9+1 program to qualify for the New York City Marathon: run nine races and do one volunteer shift for a guaranteed entry. I did that in 2016 and 2017. Since my first race back into running in 2016, I’ve done about 50 races! (Though, to be fair, I didn’t fully race a few of them due to pacing friends or changes in training plans).

What are your current PRs?
Mile is 6:36, 5K is 23:55 (better than my SUA Cross Country PR!), half marathon is 1:48:13 at the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and full marathon is 4:20:58…the only marathon I’ve done, actually.

How was being a member of the Soka Athletics program helped you to prepare for these races?
Running is a funny sport – Depending on the race (and workouts), I can experience both ends of the confidence spectrum. A great race boosts my confidence, while a stream of failed PR attempts crushes my ego. During my four years with Soka Athletics, I’ve failed a lot – more than I’d like to admit. Each time I failed, I had to pick myself up because no one else was going to do that for me.

Training for marathons and other road races present different challenges. I’ve accepted the reality that I’ll keep failing in my pursuit of faster marathon times, but Soka Athletics taught me that I am capable of picking myself up.

What is your ultimate marathon goal?
My initial goal was to finish the NYC Marathon before turning 30 (I’m 29 now). I also wanted to break my SUA 5K PR. But since I’ve done both, I’m training for a sub-4 marathon and will be running through New York City again this November.

My long term marathon goal is to qualify for and race the Boston Marathon! Eventually, I’d like to get a Six Star Finisher status by racing all the World Marathon Majors: New York City, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo, Berlin, and London.

What do you do for work?
Currently, I’m making a major career transition into user experience (UX) and am looking for a job as a UX researcher! (Shameless portfolio plug here.)

How do you find time to train for your races while holding a job?
The same way as I did when I was a student-athlete at SUA. I believe that if I commit to and prioritize something, there is no such thing as “I don’t have time.” I find time. There are days when I have to train alone because my schedule is packed and hectic, which can take a huge psychological toll. Racing balances that out, especially when I know that friends and teammates are out there doing the same thing.

What does your training consist of?
It depends on what race I’m training for but in any given week, I do a tempo run, a speed workout, and a weekend long run. In between, I do one or two easy, recovery paced runs. My weekly mileage can range anywhere from 30 to 50.

I also love incorporating cross training. Some of my favorites are barre, HIIT (high intensity interval training), kickboxing, spin, and yoga. I’d love to start doing calisthenics and building upper body strength. I definitely need that to sprint through the race finish!

What is your blog?
My website at ririnagao.com – I write about running, career transitions, travel, and everything in between. I talk about the process of qualifying and training for the NYC Marathon as much as I can to share the struggles I face behind the cheerful (and sometimes witty) Instagram post-race photos. Nothing has surfaced my biggest insecurities more than marathon training. I also treat my blog like a space to celebrate accomplishments and what it means to put in the work to get the results I want – both in running and in life.

Cheers,

Riri