Runners of NYC: Leigh Anne Sharek of Brooklyn Track Club
“I run because of the way that it makes me feel and the way that it has positively influenced my entire life. It’s not even about running but work, relationships and self-awareness. All of those things wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have this thing in my life. I run for me and to share that with other people. That’s why I’m part of a team and that’s why I try to run with other people and talk to other people. Because, if it’s made me feel this good, I want everyone to have that same experience. It’s such a confidence booster and such a way to know yourself better.”
The second guest on the Runners of NYC Podcast is a forensic scientist by day and a running legend by night— or at least by early evening.
Leigh Anne Sharek was once was called “a minor celebrity in the New York City running scene” by the New York Times. She runs for the Brooklyn Track Club, which is one of the fastest-growing running groups and meets on Tuesday nights at the East River track in Manhattan. Leigh Anne has evolved into one of the top local women at distances ranging from the mile to the marathon. She is currently ramping up her mileage to chase an Olympic Trials Qualifier at the 2018 California International Marathon in December. We delve into Leigh Anne’s emergence as a leader for the Brooklyn Track Club, how she became a runner, and what keeps her running.
This is Runners of NYC. A new podcast from CITIUS MAG. Hosts Jeanne Mack and Chris Chavez look to bring you many of the untold stories behind luminaries and legends that make up New York City’s running culture.
Catch the first two episodes of the show now and be sure to subscribe on iTunes. For listeners who prefer a listening experience on Stitcher or Google Play, no worries. We will try to get the show on those platforms soon.
You can follow Leigh Anne on Instagram – @wicked.la | Follow Brooklyn Track Club on Instagram | For more information on the group, feel free to message the Instagram page or email coach Steve Finley at [email protected]
Music for the show is by Future Generations. Photos of Leigh Anne Sharek taken by R.J. McNichols and Jason Suarez. Podcast artwork by Kyle Klosinski.
The following interview transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Leigh Anne Sharek: I am training for the California International Marathon, which is on December 2. I’ve watched the Berlin Marathoners run. I’ve watched the Chicago Marathoners run. Now I’m going to watch New York run and I’m still waiting for the marathon. Patiently waiting so I kind of missed a lot of people’s training cycles so it’s a little harder to find my own training partners to run long with.
Jeanne Mack: Has it been hard for you to watch other people finish their buildups and actually race?
Leigh Anne: Yeah, it’s very hard. I didn’t think that it would be hard because I have more time and I didn’t have to train in July and August. It has been a lot harder because some people are further along and has done 20-milers. Meanwhile, I’m here like, ‘Nope. Not quite there yet.’
Chris Chavez: Why CIM?
Leigh Anne: I have a couple friends who did it last year and they were really positive about it – the course and overall organization with how it was great at being managed. It’s rolling in the beginning and net downhill at the end. I’m just trying to run fast.
Chris: The question that we led off with Joe was about how did he end up in New York City. He’s someone whose roots go back and deep to New York through his father and grandfather. The DiNotos have deep roots in New York City. You’re not originally from New York. How’d you get here?
Leigh Anne: I’m originally from New Hampshire so completely different from New York. It’s funny because I ran my whole life but never took it seriously. I didn’t come to New York to run or thought about running at all. I came to New York to go to school. I attended Pace University for forensic science. They had a very good program and I wanted to do something completely opposite from New Hampshire, where I had been 17 or 18 years. I’ve been here ever since. It’s been 11 years now and I think I’m a New Yorker.
Chris: What made you want to do forensic science?
Leigh Anne: When I was in high school, I took chemistry and we learned about DNA as a molecule, what it did, how it makes you who you are and how you function. I found that very interesting and I always wanted to do something very service-oriented where I’m giving back or helping somebody.
Jeanne: Did you immediately start working in a lab as soon as you started working after college?
Leigh Anne: I was really lucky because my school set me up with an internship at the place that I’m now working.
Chris: What’s that day-to-day look like?
Leigh Anne: I am a criminalist at the offices of the chief medical examiner. My day is a lot of lab work, bench work – I have a hair net, goggles, lab coat and I do a lot of pipetting in the lab and writing reports. I also testify in court often. A lot of stuff.
Chris: What crime show most closely relates to what you’re doing? Is it Law and Order SVU? CSI?
Leigh Anne: I think CSI is pretty good. There are definitely differences. I never see the crime scene. I never see the body. I never see detectives. It’s just evidence where we get it, process it and get the DNA profile.
Jeanne: Are there any extremely noteworthy cases that you’ve been involved in?
Chris: Without getting yourself into trouble by telling us…
Leigh Anne: There’s a lot. In New York, you get a wide variety of stuff that happens. Of note, last year there was a woman in Queens who had been jogging and was murdered. We worked on that and wound up finding who did it. It was a whole big deal and newsworthy but we get stuff all the time.
Chris: I’m sure you’ve fielded this question a bunch when you tell people about your job. What is the weirdest thing you’ve had to deal with? You once told me a hamburger story.
Leigh Anne: Yeah, that was weird. You get a lot of evidence that you would expect like knives and swabs from guns or window sills from people breaking in. A couple times we’ve gotten food items like a hamburger or a chicken wing from a guy who broke into a house, was hungry, took a bite out of a hamburger, robbed the place and left. The homeowner was like, ‘No, I did not eat this hamburger.’ So we swabbed it and got a DNA profile from it.
Jeanne: That’s amazing. Did you refer to him as the hamburglar?
Leigh Anne: The hamburglar.
Chris: What was the turning point that made you want to get into running since you were so busy with school and lab work?
Leigh Anne: Like I said, I was running and had been running off and on for my whole life. My mom runs every day. It was always something that I knew I could do. I didn’t think I was very good at it but I thought it was the best way to stay in shape. When I came to New York, I would run over the Brooklyn Bridge at like 10 o’clock at night when no one was on it. It used to be the hardest thing ever where I’d think, ‘Oh my God. Three miles. I can’t believe I did that. I’m so excited.’
Jeanne: That’s funny because Joe was telling us that he initially started running in the middle of the night in New York and felt that he had a little bit more ownership of those streets in that area. It’s obviously a little easier to run when there aren’t any tourists clogging every corner up. Why did you get into it at night?
Leigh Anne: Well I was in college so I had classes during the day and it was kind a very social time. Running wasn’t my top priority but it was becoming important. I think I’ve mentioned this before but one of my friends beat me that she could beat me at a 5K. I was nervous. I didn’t know if I could beat her. I really hoped I could. I told myself, “I run. I think I can actually train for this.”
Jeanne: Did your friend also run?
Leigh Anne: She was athletic but not as much as runner. I think she played hockey. So we signed up for this 5K in Prospect Park on Valentine’s Day. I came in fourth overall and she dropped out at Mile 2 with a bloody nose. That got me into the fact that I should actually train and see what I could do. I ramped it up from 5K to 10K and half marathon before the marathon.
Jeanne: When was your first marathon? What year?
Leigh Anne: In 2012, I ran Philly because that was the year that Hurricane Sandy hit New York. I signed up to run New York but it had been cancelled last minute and the Philly registration opened up for people in New York that couldn’t run. I went to Philly and it was traumatizing. I was not prepared. I cried. I did it.
(We looked up the results and Leigh Anne ran 3:58:55 for her first marathon.)
Chris: How serious was the training before that?
Leigh Anne: I don’t think I was very serious at all. I would kind of go out and see what I felt like doing today. I don’t think I ran anything more than 16 miles before the marathon.
Jeanne: And then when did it switch to become intentional and that feeling of “I’m going to attack this. I want to hit X time. I have goals and a training plan.”
Leigh Anne: I don’t exactly remember but it must have been 2015. I found the Nike Run Club on Instagram and started going to their sessions. I was running with them and started getting better where I saw myself moving up. The pacers and the coaches would notice. They’d say, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at running.’ I signed up to run the Paris Marathon and I remember one of the guys was like ‘What are you trying to run?’ so I said, ‘I’m trying to run under 3:30.’ He’s like ‘If you go in there and run 3:30 then you’re wasting your time. Don’t go if you’re gonna run faster than that because I know you can.’ I ran 3:07. That was a turning point because if all these people think I can do it and I’m the only one who is thinking that I can’t then that’s not right. I should be the one thinking that I can do it before everyone else.
Chris: After you run that fast, what’s the next goal? Run under three hours?
Leigh Anne: Yeah. That was way harder than I thought it was going to be.
Chris: When you started off, you had the Nike Run Club but were there still a lot of women that you were running with. With the Brooklyn Track Club now, it’s growing to the point where there are more women to train with. A few months back and in the winter, you were working out with a lot of men. What was the training set up back then?
Leigh Anne: Definitely more men around than women. It’s gotten a lot better but back then it was a lot of guys. That’s fine and it is what it is. You use the people around you and they use you. That’s what training partners are. It doesn’t matter if they’re men or women. I think it’s great to run with women because you’re all rallied around each other and wanting to get better but I think that’s true about the running community as a whole. We’re all very supportive of each other.
Jeanne: You ran the Speed Project last year with an all-female team. What was that experience like?
Leigh Anne: It was really fun but i was nervous because there were seven of us running and then additionally there were about three people just crewing and driving. It was 10 women in a van for 40+ hours and i thought someone is going to lose it. There’s gonna be a fight. Someone is going to cry. Someone is going to yell and scream. I don’t know. This is going to be rough. But…it was the complete opposite of that. Everybody was great with each other, respectful and really supportive. Nobody cried. No one lost it. Everybody got a long and it was a powerful thing. We’re going to go back and try to beat the all-women’s record for the race.
Chris: What is the record?
Leigh Anne: I don’t know. I think we have to run like 7:15 pace for the whole thing.
Chris: That doesn’t sound too bad.
Leigh Anne: OK, Chris. I’ll put you in the middle of the desert. Good luck!
Chris: What was the hardest part? That’s a race where you don’t know how far that you’ll be running. You have an idea if you do some math ahead of time but it can all change with how people feel during the race. Things change.
Leigh Anne: The hardest part is that after each leg, it feels like you’re at depletion. You feel like you’re done but you have several hours to sit in recovery sleeves, eat, drink and then rest so that you can go out and do it again. The hard part is mental in that after each time, you start to think ‘I can’t possibly go out there again. I’m so tired.’ You do and you’re fine.
Chris: You like races like that because you’ve done Hood to Coast as well. What’s the coolest racing experience that you’ve had?
Leigh Anne: Speed Project is definitely one of them. Hood to Coast too. It’s just different when you’re part of a team and you’re actually all running in a relay. You share this common goal. When you’re with teammates or women who are supportive, it just makes the whole experience fun. I remember at Hood to Coast and at Speed Project, we just laughed the whole time. It’s so much fun. You realize that these people who you thought you knew are so much funnier. Those are really incredible races.
Chris: You didn’t run high school track so does a little part of you think back on what that would’ve been like, because you have these experiences as a team now?
Leigh Anne: All the time. I went to a small high school in Maine and they didn’t have track. They had cross country and I ran one year…
Chris: You have to tell us about that year.
Leigh Anne: Oh God. I was horrible. I was a senior in high school and we had a sports requirement so I felt forced to participate in a sport. I would cut the course all the time. I would walk up the hills. Our headmaster would take photos of the races.
Jeanne: Was it Hogwarts?
Leigh Anne: It’s called Berwick Academy. He would stand on this hill and would take photos of the races. I’d be walking. I thought, ‘Awww man. Let me go back so that you can take a photo of me running and it looks like I’m running.’ I didn’t care. My brother was a freshman and he was also on the team. I just tried to heckle him the whole time and make his life hell. I didn’t realize back then what the potential was or what I could have done with running. I think I was more concerned with a career or whatever I was going to study in college. I think about it all the time like ‘What if I had been serious about running?’ I have no doubt that I could’ve done both and found a school with a forensics program and running.
Jeanne: Does Pace have a team?
Leigh Anne: Uhhh. They must have one. They have a Westchester campus that I think has more sports so I would’ve had to go up there a couple times per week. That never entered my brain. I can’t say that I wish I had done something because I’m happy with where I am now. If my story were any different then I don’t think it would be as unique. This is the path that I chose and I’ve made the best of it.
Jeanne: Let’s discuss the team that you’re part of now. Brooklyn Track Club has the essence of a team and family because you guys hang out all the time. How did the club get started? What was your role in it and what’s your role going forward in it?
Leigh Anne: Brooklyn Track Club started about three years ago. It was three of us who just wanted to have more of a structure for our friends to run together. It was kind of a ‘Hey, let’s start this thing and see how many of us can get together to run. We can run under a team.’ It was me, Steve Finley and Agustin Lastra. We all lived in Brooklyn and now ironically live in the same building. We formed it and the Boston Marathon in 2016 was our first race as a team. I can’t believe how much it’s grown in that time. It’s become such an official thing. At the very least, the most shocking thing to me was the fact that the name Brooklyn Track Club didn’t exist already. There was North Brooklyn Runners, South Brooklyn Runners and then no plain Brooklyn Track Club. We now have so many people that want to run with us. We have such a consistent core group of people that come out. Steve will joke that he started Brooklyn Track Club for me so that I could have training partners, especially since we brought on women. Now the people that I train with are indispensable to me. I couldn’t do anything without them. I’m super thankful for them.
Jeanne: But really, you started it for Steve to give him something to do?
Leigh Anne: Exactly.
Chris: Do you feel like you’ve taken on the role of a captain on the team. Full disclosure: I am part of the team and I see you in that captain or leadership role.
Leigh Anne: I like to think of myself as, at the very least, a positive influence on the other people in the group. I don’t want to say especially the women but more so for the women. Just because, I want us to have a cohesive team and I want us all to rally around each other. I think there’s so much growth that can happen in the women’s running community. Recently, in New York, I’ve realized that there’s about five or six of us that are trying to qualify for the trials or have already. It’s incredible to think about. New York City is a hard place to train and it’s so cool to think that there’s these women on different teams who have this goal or have achieved it. Jeanne is one of them. There’s so much that we can do together and we don’t have to be on the same team. We’ve done a lot of that this year. I can’t wait for the next part of it. If I can get Brooklyn Track Club women to have big goals and come out to run with us, then my job is done.
Jeanne: This is a good time to bring up a question that Joe had for you. It’s simply, why do you run? It seems like it’s partially because of the people and other people you want to interact with. What is it that motivates you?
Leigh Anne: I run because of the way that it makes me feel and the way that it has positively influenced my entire life. It’s not even about running but work, relationships and self-awareness. All of those things wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have this thing in my life. I run for me and to share that with other people. That’s why I’m part of a team and that’s why I try to run with other people and talk to other people. Because, if it’s made me feel this good, I want everyone to have that same experience. It’s such a confidence booster and such a way to know yourself better.
Chris: That confidence that you’ve built up through what you just said, what’s that like on the starting line of bigger races? I’m thinking of when you’re at like the Brooklyn Half. You line up and look alongside you. There’s an Ethiopian woman or Deena Kastor next to you. How do you feed off that on the starting line while trying to hold your own? How do you know you belong on that starting line with these other women?
Leigh Anne: It’s definitely a work in progress. I’m still intimidated on the starting line often. I think I say it on the starting line before every race, ‘Please. Just don’t let me be last.’ I’m coming to the realization that I’m supposed to be at the front of the pack because I’m going to run that fast. I think the most intimidated that I’ve ever felt is at last year’s 5th Avenue Mile. I was in the local elite heat. There’s about 10 of us and we all line up. There’s not enough of us for two rows! I’m looking around and I see NYAC, Central Park and Kristin Andrews. I’m like ‘Oh my God. Ughhhhhh.’ I think that was the most imitating. Now it’s about believing in yourself and thinking, ‘Yeah I could have the worst race or I can have the best race but I’m here because I’ve earned it and I’ve run years and years to be here.’
Jeanne: You just brought up the 5th Avenue Mile. I think it’s really interesting in that you’ve taken this approach to marathoning where you want to get faster at the shorter stuff before the longer stuff. You raced a ton of miles this summer. How’s that fit into your marathon training and those lofty goals that you may have?
Leigh Anne: I think it goes back to how I never got to run track when I was younger and not having raced in college at all. Up until maybe three years ago, I had not raced on an indoor track. I don’t know if I had ever been on an indoor track. I was like ‘Why is it elevated? Why are there curves on it? I don’t understand any of it.’ It’s part of having missed out on it. I like it. I like running on tracks. I like track workouts and track races. It feels very fast and it feels professional, authentic and badass. That’s part of it. Because I never had that in college, I never had the build up of the 800 or 1,500 or the mile. I had no idea what that was like so I wanted to explore that more. To me, it makes sense that in order to get better at the marathon then you should start at the beginning and get better at the mile. There’s such a difference of being able to go out there and being able to run at whatever pace as opposed to focused, specific workouts and runs that can really get you to the next step. Mile training has helped a lot with that.
Chris: This winter in particular, you set out with the goal of breaking five minutes for the mile. Take us through that process from the first indoor mile to eventually running 5:00.00.
Leigh Anne: Three times! I’m pretty sure that last time was the timer’s fault. I think I was under. It was a guy with a stopwatch. Like really? He couldn’t click it? How accurate is his thumb? I knew I wanted to run an indoor season. It could’ve just been that I didn’t want to be outside and in the cold.
Jeanne: When was your first race for the indoor season last year?
Leigh Anne: I think it was in early December at the Armory. We also lost both of our outdoor tracks so needed to go inside.
Jeanne: For those wondering, they were under construction. They didn’t just disappear.
Leigh Anne: Yeah! They hate running in New York! Kidding… From December to March, we raced almost every other Thursday night at the Armory and at Staten Island. I’d show up every week, run five-flat, try real hard, not quite get there and go back two weeks later. At the end, to all the timers and announcers in Staten Island, I’d be like, “Guys…” Nope…
Jeanne: Here’s Leigh Anne again!
Chris: She’ll keep coming back if we hand her five-flats.
Leigh Anne: Right!
Chris: This outdoor season was particularly interesting. You decided to do the Speed Project in late March and then Brooklyn Half.
Leigh Anne: Steve Finley, our coach, was pissed that I chose to do the Speed Project and just throw this massive wrench in his half marathon training schedule. Like, oh hey, I’m going to run 80 miles in one weekend. I did that. I ran Brooklyn Half and then went into mile training.
Jeanne: Did you take time off after Speed Project? How did you go from that to the half?
Leigh Anne: It was a lot of down weeks. My mileage went from 80 miles per week to 50 or 45 with several easy runs. I think my body was feeling better. I felt fine but my body takes longer to recover than I thought. The general rule is like two weeks after a marathon and then your body is back to where it was. I waited the two weeks and then went back into training. I was nervous because Brooklyn Half was eight weeks later – maybe less. It worked out.
Chris: We’ve referenced the Speed Project a few times now. Some context for those unfamiliar with it. It’s a 300-mile race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
Jeanne: It’s a relay with several people per team but there’s no set course and no set distance for how much people can or should run.
Leigh Anne: They say that the one rule of The Speed Project is that there are no rules.
Chris: When you crush these 80 miles and you get to Vegas…in theory, you’re thinking ahead of time like ‘Oh this race is so sick. We’re gonna go from LA to Vegas and then party it up.’ How tired are you when you get there?
Leigh Anne: Oh, we were dead. We got to Vegas at like 2 a.m. We had McDonald’s and passed out.
Jeanne: What was the order?
Leigh Anne: A lot of chicken nuggets and fries. Probably a shake. A lot of food. We passed out and then there was a pool party for us. It was fun. Everyone seemed to have rallied pretty good. There were a lot of teams that were still out there when we were at the pool party. They’re finishing and I’m thinking, ‘At least we got to sleep.’
Jeanne: Incentive to run fast.
Chris: What was your goal for the Brooklyn Half this year?
Leigh Anne: I wanted to PR and I wanted to run as close to 1:15:59 as possible. That was A+ goal. I actually ran better than I expected to run and ran 1:16:38, which I was very happy with. It was kind of a rainy day. It was good. I usually hate the rain. We were lucky because we got to sit in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens beforehand. I’m looking at pictures of people with trash bags and my shoes were dry.
Chris: I was out there. It was miserable…Now that CIM is coming up, what do you want to fine tune and accomplish in the last few weeks?
Leigh Anne: I am going to run a half marathon next weekend and run conservatively by starting at marathon pace and then working down. I’d like to solidify what my goal marathon pace is going to be. I’m still not quite sure. I gotta figure that out. I also need to get some more long runs and tempos in. For me, it’s very important to feel very confident going into a race. As many miles that I can get on or below marathon pace will just be above and beyond and that’s what I need to do.
(Note: Leigh Anne ran 1:18:03 and was the top female finisher at the Runner’s World Half Marathon)
Chris: Is this the best that you’ve felt in a marathon build up?
Leigh Anne: I think this is the most structure that I’ve had and the most disciplined that I’ve been. I’m also at a higher starting point that I’ve been at before. My base is better and so it’s hard to say…Yeah I guess.
Jeanne: We never really finished up your story about the outdoor season with the mile. You did break five.
Leigh Anne: I ran 4:52 at the 5th Avenue Mile last year. But I wanted to officially do it on a track.
Chris: Everyone says that road miles don’t count for your PR, I disagree. I think you can count it.
Leigh Anne: This one is also downhill. I broke five at the Newburyport High Street Mile in July and then at the Long Island Mile and then at the 5th Avenue Mile again.
Jeanne: Long Island Mile is on a track so there you go. You did it!
Leigh Anne: Officially sub-five.
Chris: What do you want to check off next on the track? Now you’re marathon focused and training. Sub-five is a round goal. What do you want to accomplish next? It can be hard to think about when you’ve got a 26.2 mile race on your schedule first.
Leigh Anne: No. It’s not hard to think about because I can’t wait for this marathon to be over. I’m very excited to go back to the track indoors. I’d love to find a 5K to run on the track or maybe even a 10K outdoors. Mentally, that might be a lot. I’d like to go back to the track in whatever capacity. I don’t see myself going below the mile ever. Just not doing it.
Chris: One last thing from me, I ran with you for the first five miles of your long run. At one point, we were talking about Jeanne. I said that the thing that sticks out to me about the two of you is that you’re some of the most mentally strong women that I’ve ever seen in the New York running scene. Where do you get that strength?
Leigh Anne: I should’ve known. I’m never going to talk to you about serious things again. ‘How’s the weather, Chris.’ At least for me, I think it has to do with running in New York for so long and the monotony of it – especially if you want to get in a good training run. There’s really not too many places like you could run up and down the West Side Highway or you can do loops of Central Park. It’s such a mental thing where there’s nothing to look at. It’s just the same over and over again. You just know that you have to get it done.
Chris: We were without a track for months!
Leigh Anne: Exactly. It’s doing track workouts around a fence on cement is taxing. That has a lot to do with it. I think the other part is that we have a strong will to succeed. I don’t want to speak for Jeanne but running is a high priority in my life but there are others like a job and a significant other. There are these things that you have to take the time and effort for. So to make the time and effort into this specific thing makes it important. You have to want to do it…a lot for it to be successful. We want it to work so much that we put a lot into it.
If you enjoy this podcast, check out the other shows on the CITIUS MAG Podcast Network including the 1609 Podcast, Price of a Mile, Running Things Considered and more.