How do you know when you're approaching the top of your game as a runner? When you can toss off a 26-mile, chasing-the-world's-best, it's-a-victory-to-just-finish race.
"It's pretentious almost to tell people that the race wasn't that difficult," says Natalie Suite, 32, the first local, and overall third, woman to finish this year's Clico International Marathon. "How can you tell somebody that 26.2 miles is not difficult?"
Seated in the Express office, she flashes her toothpaste-ad smile before adding more seriously, "It's not that it wasn't challenging, it's just that I had a lot more training this year."
Suite credits the improvement in her not-too-shabby ninth place finish in last year's marathon (her first time running it) to her joining the Trinidad and Tobago Road Runners Club. The 21-year-old organisation is the repository for some of the best local long-distance talent, as well as race and training knowledge. Besides providing runners with common ground on which to exchange advice and receive support and solid training, TTRRC helps organise many of the major races in Trinidad and Tobago-the Unit Trust, Scotiabank and Flora 5Ks, to name a few-as well as private sport events put on by companies, schools and community groups. Suite, marketing and communications manager at Unit Trust, spearheads this aspect of the club's operation. She was recently elected TTRRC's vice-president of race management.
The vast majority of TTRRC's members and Clico marathoners are still men, but women are slowly and surely making inroads.
"Trinidad as a society is very health-conscious and sport-conscious," observes TTRRC secretary Anne de Freitas. "A lot of ladies are in the gym now. They're working out. Their bodies are looking good. So they're not intimidated to go on the road now."
De Freitas, a 52-year-old business manager, wife and mother of four, joked that prior to taking up running seriously 18 years ago, her major form of physical activity was "running after the kids".
A ten-time marathon finisher (including two New York City marathons), de Freitas holds herself up as proof that long-distance running-and the possible glories that go along with it-is open to anyone with the determination to train regularly.
"I started off just for exercise," says de Freitas. She was once where Suite now is-holding the title of local woman marathon champion. "I used to meet a group of neighbours-men. They used to run a three-mile loop every afternoon. One of the guys was a road runner and he said come and join the club. Once I started running competitively I enjoyed it. I was able to place in my age group and win prizes. (This) motivated me more. It was a talent I didn't know I had, and now that I knew I had it I was determined to develop it more.
"People might say, 'I could never run like you'," de Freitas continues, "and I say, 'You could, because I started just like everybody else'."
"Anybody could be a good runner once you put your mind to it and you're willing to sacrifice the time and the energy to train," says 37-year-old road runner and single mother of one Wendy Shallow.
Shallow's adult racing career (She ran as a child.) began at age 32. She joined TTRRC after a girlfriend sold her on its benefits. "She said running with people helps build up your speed," says Shallow.
After topping her age group in a few 5Ks, Shallow tackled the Clico marathon for the first time this year. She placed seventh among the women.
"That was good for my first time," says Shallow. "Next year I want to come in the first five. It will take a lot of training but I'm hoping to get there."
Natalie Suite started running at 13 around the Queen's Park Savannah, which was near her home. But she ran her first 5K only four years ago and her first 10K two years ago, achieving what she describes as "pretty decent" times in both.
After being a lone runner for years, Suite joined TTRRC in January this year "to see what the group run would be like".
"Even though I was a good runner," says Suite, who's qualified for the New York City Marathon later this year, "it was very intimidating at first to even set your mind around running with a club."
Members of the TTRRC meet to execute a varying training programme designed by coach Dexter Voisin. They might do a "short" run on Monday, "hill work" on Tuesday, "speed work" on Wednesday and a long run on Thursday. After a few days' rest, Sunday might involve a half-marathon.
In between, members cross train-swimming, weighting training or some other activity.
There's an aesthetic as well as fitness reason for cross training.
"As a woman runner," says Suite, "you don't want to start looking like a woman runner."
De Freitas, Shallow and Suite all have enviable bodies, but running, they say, yields rewards beyond a great physique: the opportunity to travel, the occasional cash prize and more.
"I don't just do it to lose weight," says de Freitas. "It's how good you feel when you exercise, the natural high you get. When you complete a hard exercise session you're dead-out but you feel good."
"I love running a hundred per cent," says Shallow. "It helps me to relax a lot. I could have a stressful day and when I go and run everything just goes away."
"I always say that I hate running but I love having ran," says Suite. "It's that feeling you get after. This weekend I did about a half-marathon. I started around the Savannah and I went down to the Macqueripe golf club. It's the accomplishment that you get when you finish run, especially a nice distance like that."
Suite says running has helped her become a better person-physically and otherwise.
"You know that every day is not going to be your best day out there," she says, "so it makes you a little bit more patient with yourself and more patient with others."