How Triathlete Lia Belardo "Goes For It", Despite the Odds

On May 2, 2015, hundreds of runners lined up at Bear Mountain, NY to complete the NorthFace Endurance Challenge 50K. The race, which "winds along the western shores of the Hudson River and through the craggy foothills of the Catskill Mountains", attracts ultra runners of all ages and abilities. Amongst them was Lia Belardo, ultrarunner/triathlete and long time City Fit Girls Run Club member. A few miles after the gun went off, what happened to Lia could be considered any runner's worst nightmare. Read on to learn about Lia's training program, her "failures" and her advice for women who want to take on their first 5k walk or 50k run.  When did you start running and how did you get into it? Have you always been active?

Lia: Jokes aside, I was actually a competitive race walker in high school, and a competitive skier until I was 17. Time had passed and I found myself out of shape and very overweight 10 years later. I was living in New York City and working crazy hours in the financial services industry. I had managed to take a vacation to mainland China. When I was in China I felt like an alien; physically so much bigger than all the Chinese people, so out of breath walking up the steps of the Great Wall, and I felt so fat in my airplane seat on the long flights. I was at a Buddhist temple in Hong Kong when I had to sit down after walking up some steps, and I swore to myself I would make a big change when I got home to the city.

I had also seen live meat markets there, wherein people were buying dogs and cats (and snakes, turtles, chickens, other birds) for their dinner. Seeing the dogs being sold as food really impacted me. One month later I adopted a high energy pitbull/beagle mix that I named BaciBall. Baci was the reason I started running. We started by running a one mile loop down the west side highway bike path. That was what I first called “my longest mile” and little did I know that those short runs with Baci would be the catalyst for huge changes in my adult life.

What does your current training program look like? Is it structured? What does it consist of? 

Lia: Just like I needed an energetic little dog to physically drag me to run a mile, I need structure in my schedule otherwise I fall apart. In the winter I’ll swim 3 times a week, and spin classes 5 days a week and then I’ll do bikram yoga at least once a week. In the Spring I’m focusing on the bike so that means I will take 2 spin classes a day 3 times a week, and then swimming twice a week. Basically my schedule is light workout on Monday, Tempo Tuesdays, AM Bike on Wednesdays (& City Fit Girls group runs when I am free), swim and weights on Thursdays, double spin Friday Nights (just like going to the bar, you leave sweaty, dehydrated and craving pizza!) Saturday or Sunday is either a race or a brick workout at ETA  and then a rest day.

That sounds like a tough schedule. What's the hardest part of your training and how do you convince yourself to push through it?

Lia: The hardest part of creating the training plan is knowing what to do. I read a lot and I try to teach myself but I know that I need a good coach soon. I know I have to do more weights and boot camps, so you’ll be seeing me at more  of City Fit Girls boot camps this summer. The hardest part of actually DOING the training is staying positive when sometimes it’s just so hard. By the time I get to the run in a triathlon the sun is high in the sky and just beating down.

Last year I did the Quarterman Triathlon and even though it was September, it was so hot. Like impossibly hot. I was just running and crying, so deep in the pain cave. I tell myself that I’m doing this for me, and that I can do anything if I want it enough. In the end I remind myself that no one can take my accomplishments away from me, no matter how slow I ran that race, or how hard it was for me to finish. I’m just a regular, slowish runner who works at a bank and has tendencies to overeat, but I feel that by working hard, by doing my best, that I’m doing something special for myself.

What do you typically eat when you're training for a race? 

I’ve been vegan for 18 years, and until recently I had never put any thought into healthy eating. I never really paid attention to eating properly, and even now, passing on pizza is a struggle. As I started running I was reading books like Finding Ultra by Rich Roll, and Thrive by Brendan Brazier, and I thought, “ ok all these people are telling me it’s healthier to eat whole foods, I’m already halfway there I guess!” I think the reason I can do so much and recover so well is my diet. I’m also really into high vibrational foods - I believe what you consume directly affects your emotional well being. I am a huge supporter of whole, direct and fair trade in all my products and shopping at local markets.

Tell us about a time you "failed" or did not meet up to your own expectations. How do you overcome it? 

Lia: I’ve never not finished a race until this year. I signed up for the Northface Endurance Challenge almost 8 months in advance. I bought the trail shoes and got a friend to come with me. We show up and the course was crazy hard. The terrain was absolutely impossible. I fell into a creek, I tripped over rocks, I slid down a path, it was HARD and because I’m a little clumsy to begin with and not that agile it was actually dangerous. At one point I just said “you know what I’m going to kill myself trying to finish this”, and I just ran back to the start line without finishing. I haven’t overcome this yet but you’ll see me back there again. I will one day conquer Bear Mountain! I think I should start taking hip hop dance classes to get lighter on my feet.

When you're not training, you're leading group runs for Run For Animals. Can you tell us about your work? 

Lia: When I moved from NYC to Philadelphia I joined the Humane League “Team Vegan Philly” but I was so scared to go out with the runners because they seemed to all be very serious and very intimidating. I did the Rothman 8k with the team, and was amazed at the fact that I actually ran 5 miles. Eventually I was asked to lead the team. By this time I’d gone from barely running 5 miles to running marathons. And we had our name changed to Team Humane League. I wanted to have the team be more friendly for all people. We have grown from 10 members to having over 100 people on our email list. From beginners to professional/elite seeded athletes, not everyone is vegan but everyone is open minded and supportive. We run 3-5 miles every Monday night at 6:30 and then we go out to dinner at a local restaurant. We post our runs on Instagram @teamhumanephl every Monday. The team has turned out to be a terrific support system. The runners have turned into some of my best friends. I feel so lucky to have met such inspiring people. We have grown so much that we now have an advisory board now with nutritional information from Lighter and professional coaching resources that will be rolled out this fall.

Do you have any advice for other women who may be interested in taking on endurance sports like running, biking, swimming, etc? 

Lia: Not to sound all NIKE on you – but seriously “Just do it.” One day I was walking to work listening to a podcast and I was like – “oh hell I’ll just do a triathlon, why not.” And that’s it – I just did it. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, it doesn’t have to be all professional. I did my first 100 mile bike ride on a huffy from 1997. Don’t fall into the hype where you have to have the fanciest stuff, or you have to go to the best pool. It’s summer now, the city pools are open – some of those are free!

Where can people find you? 

Lia: If you're in the Philadelphia region, feel free to come out to the running group I lead on Monday nights. We are a quirky, and very supportive, fun group! You don’t have to be vegetarian,  you just have to hustle! (side note: beer is vegan, so come drink it!) I’m also a social media junkie – I really love scrolling through my feeds in the morning and seeing everyone post positive stuff. It gets me going. My twitter is @liabelardo my insta is @_letterbomb and the running team can be found at www.teamveganphilly.com.

BONUS:

Lia: I have teamed up with an apparel company, Pactimo, for cycling and tri apparel. If you go to www.pactimo.com and use the code BA15BEL you will get 30% off all regularly priced stuff. No strings attached. But remember, you don’t need fancy stuff to do anything. Just a decent pair of sneakers, and the heart to make it happen.

Please consult with your primary physician before starting a new fitness or diet regimen.