Before coming to the United States, Aagje Engel’s running friends in the Netherlands used to call her “the Diesel.” She earned this nickname because, while she couldn’t accelerate very fast, she could keep a steady pace for many miles. In the winter of 2009, her husband got stationed in the DC area, and the prospect of many sunny days gave her the final push to come with him and leave everything back home behind, at least for a few years.
Aagje loved running back home and wanted to continue that over here. So, on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in February (where was that warm promised Mediterranean climate???!), she ran her first practice with NOVA Running Club. There were many runners there despite the cold, so she jumped in and tried to run with pack leaders Martha Mertz and Dan Wallace. Her lap times surprised her, and she actually asked NOVA Coach Jerry Alexander if the track size in the US was in yards! She was happy with her speedy times, but wondered how it had happened in such a short time. Some runners say that you can be stuck at a plateau and then suddenly break through, but Aagje wasn’t sure if sure if this meant lowering your 800m pace by 10-20 seconds.
Aagje loved getting faster and being part of the NOVA team, but come fall, she was getting fatigued beyond reason. She had to stop on long runs because of stinging pain on her right side. While talking to other runners, they were as mystified as she, as pain normally appears on the left side from your spleen. Then, during a conversation with her mom on New Year’s 2009, Aagje learned more details of her extended family. Her mom mentioned that her aunt had an illness that could be due to a gluten allergy. Something clicked. Memories of how she ran her best half marathon on a breakfast of Twinkies, how she always gained weight during the summer while eating less, how she loved Asian food. Aagje decided to do a food trial. For two weeks she avoided all gluten. The outcome? Relief. A certain pain that she had never been aware of was now gone.
And she lived happily ever after, right?! No. As her body was changing from being anemic for over 10 years to finally becoming healthy, she had to learn how to interpret her body’s feedback. Remember, a Diesel is pretty simple: once you turn on the engine it will keep going, but a fast car like a Corvette needs maintenance. For the first time she had to learn to eat properly (no food= an empty machine), to warm up properly (don’t blow up the engine) and to stretch before and after a run. Aagje is still learning to interpret her body’s signals. What better way to learn than in races? This spring she did the 5k Crystal City series and an 800 on the track. She is working on bringing down her PRs, and already has a lot of knowledge gained. And, she has a new NOVA nickname, “The flying Dutchwoman.” She and her husband will fly back to the Netherlands in August 2013, but Aagje won’t forget her time with NOVA and all the lessons she has learned here.