Natali Villarruel is a distance swimmer, triathlete, and marathon runner based in Chicago. Here’s how she balances a busy job with her endurance goals.
TrainingPeaks: How did you get into endurance sports?
Natali Villarruel: If you would have asked me in the earlier years of my life, I would have told you that running is punishment, like when you mess up in other sports. But now here I am training for my sixth marathon!
It started when a friend of mine signed me up for a 5k some years ago. I was thinking, “hey I played sports in high school, I’m sure I can run a 5k!” And that was a lie. I got half a mile in and realized maybe I should focus on fitness a little bit more. I finished and made a promise to myself that I would do a 5k race every month.
I signed up for my first half marathon by mistake. I had meant to register for another 5k, but I felt too embarrassed to go back and say “just kidding, I’ve never run a half marathon, I don’t think I can do that.” So I didn’t tell anyone; I just showed up Sunday morning and started running. I didn’t think I was gonna get through it, but I did and I loved it.
I just got really hooked on how you feel when you do something that you didn’t think you could.
Then literally the very next day I’m at work telling everyone, “oh my gosh you won’t believe it, I ran a half-marathon!” and we get an email from our marketing team about a free entry to the Chicago triathlon for three employees. I didn’t own a bike, and I had never swam in open water, but finishing that half marathon made me feel like maybe I could do some other things too. I bought this hybrid bike and taught myself to swim (which was a big adventure), and I finished!
I tell people I’m like a backpacker; I’m slow but I’m very tenacious—I’m not gonna be on the podium but I’m not gonna give up either. I just got really hooked on how you feel when you do something that you didn’t think you could. Now every year I pick one big scary goal, and that’s my focus.
What’s your big scary goal this year?
I’m doing a 5k open water swim in August. It’s in Michigan, and they have a little swim-up bar on the course! That was my most important question for a race that long: how do you fuel? Like where do I put my snacks? Do I hide ‘em in my tri suit? In my swim cap? But I guess they have aid stations with stools in the water.
So are you focusing less on running and biking this year?
Well, I’m also doing the Chicago marathon in October. Most of my training will just be swimming and running. I’ll do enough biking to keep up my fitness, but nothing super crazy.
It seems like you accomplish whatever you want to do. Have you ever had a race go really wrong?
Actually a few weeks ago I DNF’d during the swim for the first time ever in a race. It was the ITU World Championships, and the water was about 55 degrees, so you know, perfect for swimming. It was like being in an ice bath, you jump in and your whole body just feels the shock, even through the wetsuit. We had to swim upstream against the current in a river, and I swam for an HOUR and I didn’t even make it halfway. There’s video and it looks like somebody’s just pushing my head down while I’m swimming in place.
So that was an epic failure, but I think like 20% of the field got pulled, which made me feel a little bit better.
That sounds so futile, how do you avoid just losing it out there?
One time, during the Grand Rapids Triathlon, I don’t know what happened, but I just started crying in the water. This guy on a kayak was like, “STOP CRYING, YOU’RE WASTING TOO MUCH ENERGY!” and I was like, “sorry, sir, I’ll keep going.” During this last race I thought about crying, because I was getting so frustrated, but in my head I was like, “you can’t cry, you’ll waste too much energy!” Some important life lessons you get out there.
So when you’re training, what sorts of metrics do you use most?
It’s not so much the metrics but more having a plan and being able to do drills. I only played softball growing up, so I don’t know anything about drills for swimming or even biking or running. That was a huge help for me on setting a baseline and having metrics for improvement.
I also like using different training plans. Right now in TrainingPeaks I have a 5k swim plan, my marathon training plan, and my aquathlon training through the team USA coaches. Sometimes I’ll even add in a strength training plan for a couple weeks when I feel like I need to do some cross training. Everything for my athletic world kinda lives in there.
What do you do when you’re not swimming or running ridiculous distances?
My job is nowhere near the endurance sports world. I do marketing for Pernod Ricard, which is the parent company for a bunch of brands. I handle the mainstream liquor clients like Jameson, Absolut, Malibu, Kahlua, Altos Avion Tequilas, and Beefeater gin. I work with restaurant owners and bar owners to help train their staff on the products and cocktail development etc. so that they’re selling it and not just sitting on cases of alcohol.
Is it hard to balance your job with training?
If we have a lot of stuff going on late at night, it definitely makes getting up early to train super difficult. Fortunately I work remotely so I can also make my own schedule. It’s easy to move things around and just work out maybe a little later in the morning, or push back meetings to later in the day to keep it flexible.
A lot of the limits you think you have are self-imposed. The hardest thing is to beat your own brain.
But it does get tough when you’re out all the time, because you’re constantly surrounded by bad food. When we’re at work events, it’s like nachos, pizza, bar food…it makes it really hard to make good food decisions when you’re a few drinks into an event and there’s just all this bad food around you. I can’t say that I always deny myself the bad foods, but at least I do have the fitness portion of it, which helps balance it out. I’m always a work in progress!
What sort of advice would you offer to a newer athlete trying to strike that balance?
I would definitely say that a lot of the limits you think you have are self-imposed. The hardest thing is to beat your own brain, so to speak—you always think you don’t have enough time for a workout or whatever your goal is, but that’s just an expectation you’ve just set for yourself. Start small with manageable things, like maybe a 15-minute walk on your lunch break, so you’re not just going from 0-100, because that can be overwhelming. Start small with little things and build up to figure out what that balance means to you.
What advice would you have for someone trying to understand TrainingPeaks?
Well, Google is your friend. When I first started using TrainingPeaks, sometimes I would get workouts and be like, “I don’t even know what that is,” so I’d just look it up. People, especially on fitness forums, are very friendly and offer a lot of help. Really though, once you get into it TP is so user-friendly. I really love that they send me daily emails with my workouts, because then it’s in your face, like “this is what you need to do, go get your workout done!”
Any parting wisdom?
Just to remember to always have fun with it. I know a lot of people have super big goals, and that’s awesome, but at the end of the day we do this because it makes our lives better. To me that’s the most important part. Endurance racing shouldn’t be another job, it should bring you joy, remember to always keep that part of it.