No Shoes, No Sweat—Marathoner Wins in a Borrowed Pair

Here’s what you can learn from the way York Marathon champion Kara Phelps handled her gear gaffe.

kara phelps won the york marathon wearing shoes owned by patty stirk in may 2022
Randy Flaum, York Storyman

Like most runners, Kara Phelps is a planner.

Before she left her home in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, for May 15's York YMCA of the Roses Marathon—approximately an hour and a half drive—she made checklists for herself and her two kids, ages 10 months and 3 years.

She even called ahead to Grace Manor Bed & Breakfast to make sure she’d have access to a toaster for her pre-race meal. (Otherwise, she’d have lugged her own—she’s done it before.)

Everything appeared in order when she laid out her clothes and bib the night before. In the morning, she woke early, prepared her toast, and started sipping her coffee.

“That’s when it hit me—even before I got dressed,” Phelps, 32, told Runner’s World. She’d left one item off her carefully curated, checked-off list.

Her shoes—Brooks Glycerins—were back home in Lewisburg.

A few tears, phone calls, and entreaties to strangers later, she found her knight in shining armor—or, in this case, a kind race volunteer on an ElliptiGo.

Patti Stirk, 56, lives a half-mile from the race start. She pedaled there to retrieve a pair of Saucony Guides, size 8. Phelps put them on and booked it to her fairytale ending—she won the race in 3:04:15.

The saga highlights the generosity of the running community, the power of asking for help, and how resilience and adaptability can help athletes succeed despite obstacles, said Hillary Cauthen, Psy.D., a certified mental performance consultant and co-owner of Texas Optimal Performance & Psychological Services in Austin.

Here’s what you can learn from Phelps about managing unexpected snags on race day.

Breathe deeply.

When Phelps realized her omission, she started crying—quietly at first, to avoid waking her family in the next room. But she knew she needed help, so she roused her husband, Josh.

He calmed her, and together, they shifted into problem-solving mode. “He was the rock,” she said. “He’s like, ‘We can figure this out.”

In addition to Josh’s presence, Phelps’ medical background—she’s a nurse who trained at a level 1 trauma center in the ICU—helped her tap into effective coping techniques, including deep breathing.

A few slow inhales and exhales can reset your body’s stress response, allowing you to think more clearly, said Stephen Gonzalez, Ph.D., assistant athletics director for leadership and mental performance at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

“Taking a couple of breaths enables you to calm the nervous system,” he said, “to try to create space between what is happening to you, and what you’re going to do.” As Cauthen put it, this helps you to shift from a “what-if” to a “what-next” mindset.

Seek support.

Josh was already on her team, and Phelps didn’t hesitate to reach out to others. First, they called friends, including old neighbors who lived nearby. None wore the right size (8 to 8.5).

Phelps also called her mom, Kathy Stahl, who was dog-sitting at their home in Lewisburg. Stahl consoled her daughter and offered to drive the shoes to the start. “Moms are the best,” Phelps said.

But with an eye on the clock—the race began at 6 a.m., and it was about 5:30—Phelps decided to proceed to the York Branch YMCA, where the race started. Maybe there would be shoes in the lost and found, she thought, or another runner with an appropriately sized backup pair.

She began approaching strangers, and after about nine false starts, found Stirk. Not only did she wear the same size and live close by, but Stirk is also a member of a local running team sponsored by Flying Feet Sport —and thus, had a ton of trainers to choose from. “I’m like, ‘You’ve come to the right place,’” Stirk said.

High-performing athletes sometimes struggle to ask for help, but connection to a bigger community is vital for success, Gonzalez said. For one thing, others can provide tangible aid, such as extra footwear in this case.

In addition, feeling supported can ease the emotional burden of obstacles large and small. “Resilience is a team sport,” he said. “People around you can elevate you and get you back closer to where you were pre-stress or adversity.”

kara phelps won the york marathon wearing shoes owned by patty stirk in may 2022
Phelps putting on Stirk’s shoes before the race.
Randy Flaum, York Storyman

Channel confidence and gratitude.

To stay as calm as possible while she searched for shoes, Phelps reminded herself of all the hard work she’d put in during training, the way she’d dialed in her sleep and nutrition during taper. “I’m ready to go right now,” she thought. “I had that mindset of, it has to work out.”

Moments of stress that come so soon before a race can bring a spike of adrenaline, Cauthen said. Adaptable athletes can quickly channel the energy that brings into their race performance.

That’s exactly what Phelps did as she rushed to the line. Fortunately, the race had a rolling start; Phelps started only about five minutes after the gun went off.

This race was her first one back postpartum, and she wasn’t sure how fast she could run. Based on her training, she thought she could finish in 3:10—off her personal best of 2:53, but with plenty of cushion for next spring’s Boston Marathon (her qualifying time is 3:30).

She felt good enough to run a 6:49 per-mile pace for the first half. At mile 20, she hit the wall, and her feet started to hurt. But seeing Stirk out on the course—astride the ElliptiGo, she served as a bike marshal—gave Phelps an additional boost.

In moments that felt tough, she adopted a new mantra: “Do it for Patti.” That type of deeper motivation can act as a performance enhancer, Cauthen said: “She had something else to run for, which is awesome.”

Phelps expressed her growing gratitude to Stirk, both on the course (at one point, yelling, “your shoes are awesome!”) and afterward. She left the winning pair at the YMCA for Stirk, with a thank-you note and a gift card to a local restaurant.

kara phelps won the 2022 york marathon wearing a pair of shoes owned by patty stirk
The winning shoes, along with a thank you note and gift card to a local restaurant.
Cori Strathmeyer

Celebrate your resilience—and take notes for next time.

After guiding the men’s winner, Cem Aslan, to a 2:45 finish, Stirk turned her ElliptiGo back around to ride in with Phelps. Though she slowed, Phelps still beat her projection by more than five minutes, and the second-place finisher by more than six. When she crossed the line victorious, Josh and her two kids were there to greet her.

Hans Christian Andersen could have hardly written a better ending—and the story shows success is possible, even when conditions aren’t ideal, Cauthen said.

Of course, not every runner who faces a race-day setback will have the same happily-ever-after outcome. Some might have to adjust their goals and expectations, or hit a point where it’s wiser to drop out than continue and risk injury. Others may wind up missing the chance to compete altogether, despite their best efforts.

Even if things don’t go as well for you as they did for Phelps, don’t count your race a failure. Instead, applaud yourself for trying. And know that every setback comes with lessons that can enable you to perform better next time, whether that involves allowing extra time, packing more than you need, or knowing who to call on in a pinch, Gonzalez said.

Phelps, for her part, said she learned a lot about the value of rolling with the punches. “I think it’s definitely one of life’s greatest challenges, especially as runners,” she said. “We tend to be very controlling. So just have faith and know it’ll be fine.”

The other good thing about such mishaps? You’re unlikely to make the same mistake twice. “I will never forget my sneakers again, I can certainly attest to that,” Phelps said. “I’m hoping to do [the Philadelphia Marathon] this fall, and they will be triple checked.”

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