Saturday Spotlight- Karena Tsakiris

Running wasn’t my first choice. I was a gymnast as a young kid. I was petite and muscular. Compact. Solid. I was shy, but tough. A stubborn Greek, even as a child. I loved gymnastics. Being young, meant being fearless. Bars, beam, floor, vault…I loved them all! And I was good at them.

I remember visiting Jones Beach with my Yiayia and Papou. I would do back handsprings down the sand right to the water’s edge and people would gather around and watch. By the time I was 12, I was taking 3 lessons a week and my instructor invited me to join the competition team. My parents had news of their own…another Tsakiris baby! Joining team meant increased financial obligations that our family just couldn’t meet especially with a 4th child on the way and a house that suddenly needed another bedroom. Just like that my gymnastics career was over.

My dad was the one who sparked my interest in running. He took me to a local race. Track shorts and tube socks…I was ready! I remember him telling me not to pay attention to those kids sprinting out full speed. We would catch them later. And he was right. We caught up and passed them. I joined the track and cross country teams in junior high and high school, mostly for social reasons. I liked the coaches and a lot of my friends joined so, why not me too?

I remember one time when I was in 8th grade, a few of us girls and a boy I thought was incredibly cute, were sitting on the diving board of my friend’s pool. The other girls were flattening their legs on the board to see how narrow their thighs looked. They were all very slender girls and I was the muscular one. I was embarrassed by the bulkiness of my muscular thigh compared to their sleek ones. How naïve I was back then to be ashamed of strength! Now as an adult, I crave it.

I was a decent 400 m runner in high school but nothing noteworthy. I wasn’t fond of longer distances and I smile now wishing my my 10th grade self could have seen 41 yr old me…oh the distance I have gone!
After high school I didn’t run much. But I was always very active. I loved the gym and became involved in whatever the newest fitness buzz was…step aerobics, kick boxing, and I even trained for a fitness competition.

It wasn’t until after my first child was born, that I was reunited with running. Emily was a year old, it was early 2003, and I was holding on to 15 extra pounds of baby weight. A friend at the gym told me about a local 5k, The Joe Keany race. I was determined to run it. The race was in June. It was February and I could barely run one lap around the track. I ran intervals all spring, slowly increasing my running distance and decreasing my walking intervals. Until, finally I was running 3 and 4 miles at a clip. I ran the Joe Keany 5k and placed in my age group! That was all it took for me…I had entered the local racing circuit. I’ve been hooked ever since.

I kept running, racing, and training and meeting new friends. I ran longer races. Distances my 10th grade self would’ve fainted at the idea of. I had a few half marathons under my belt and was becoming a fairly strong runner. I was proud to often place in my age group. I joined GLIRC and met a sweet blondie runner-girl who often finished around my pace in the 5k races. That was our very own Maryann Harkins! She told me about the hills course and offered to run it with me since I couldn’t make the regular group run. That first trip on the hills during August of 2011, MaryAnn talked me through each climb “It’s not as bad as it looks, there’s a shelf halfway up” or “This part looks bad but it is a gradual incline” and “This last section is flat, oh except that one little hill.” I was proud to run on a course many people get nervous driving on! Over the next 2 ½ years, I met many wonderful friends on that course.

In 2012 I decided to finally try the marathon on for size. I had been accepted into NYC through the 3 year lottery and started training that July. Dean and I trained all summer, running in beautiful places, over hills I’d never knew existed, covering distances I never thought I could do. I ran strong but perhaps too much. Often doing many double run days…mileage in the morning and more miles at night. I didn’t see it then, but those months were going to catch up with me.

NYC was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. I was determined to run a marathon that fall, so I scrambled to sign up for Rehoboth Beach Marathon in Delaware. It was 4 weeks after NYC. I had already tapered, so I added in one last 20 miler and then tapered again. Dean and I traveled together to Delaware on a misty cool December weekend. I was incredibly nervous. 26.2 miles seemed really long. Dean ran the last few miles with me and I cried at the finish line. I finished in 3:55:12…and was thrilled. Thrilled and hungry! LOL

A day after Rehoboth, I had some really bad pain in my IT band. I took two days off after the marathon and went out for an easy run. It hurt. I tried again the next day. Still hurt. I went to see a doctor. He told me not to run. I interpreted that as “don’t run as much”. I was so afraid to take time off. Finally, the pain was so bad I had no choice. I took 10 days off (still probably not enough) and rode the bike trainer that Dean had set up in my living room for me. Personally, I think he was afraid I was going to totally lose it if I didn’t get to exercise very soon! I almost did lose it. Every attempt to run ended in tears.
My 2013 season was less than stellar. Plagued with nagging IT band and hips, I trained but I wasn’t smart. My times weren’t as fast and I wasn’t placing as much. I was still set on running Marine Corps in the fall. I had the mileage in, but wasn’t prepared mentally, and I was lacking overall strength. I won’t share THAT story again (it’s in the December issue of Footnotes and if anyone really wants to read it, I can always message you a copy). The DNF at Marine Corps changed me. And it hasn’t been pretty.

I’m still struggling to comeback. I’ve hit the reset button twice since then. I don’t like being slower and out of shape. I feel like I let my racing team down. My friends are tired of hearing me complain. I’m still trying to rebuild my strength. I’m training for the Buffalo Marathon this May. I can’t go back to Marine Corps. Not this year. The wound is too fresh. Dean will sometimes wake and share these awesome dreams he had while sleeping…always some wonderful running or cycling adventure. I’m ashamed to admit that my dreams since October have been more nightmarish. Flashbacks of Marine Corps, being trapped in medical tents, or rushing to a race and missing the start, things like that. It’s been a tough year for me running wise. Don’t misunderstand, I had a lot of fun and loved all of my running adventures (maybe not Marine Corps so much).

I’ve started seriously weight training again to rebuild strength. I’m back to weekly track workouts, and I’m dialing in on my nutrition. I’m hoping to toe the line at Buffalo stronger, healthy, and confident. No lofty goals for a speedy finish time. Just strong, fit, and happy.

Despite the rough year, I truly enjoy being a runner. It’s part of my soul. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. I love the adventure of the trails, the thrill of the barefoot beach runs right at the water’s edge, the beauty of the hilly north shore runs often looping through the marinas and beaches. And I love the people who run them with me. We are so fortunate to live in a place that offers so many spectacular outdoor adventures. I live for these rave runs and look forward to many more.

Being injured and then losing my mojo was a humbling and hard pill to swallow. But, stubborn Greek that I am…I REFUSE TO QUIT!!!

Thanks Hillbillies if you managed to read this whole ridiculous long-winded thing!


One thought on “Saturday Spotlight- Karena Tsakiris

  • April 13, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    You are a real inspiring person. We have much in common. Remember a Arrow must be pulled back in order to propel forward! Believe = Achieve. A pleasure to run with. Run! Because You Can!


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