Going Long: An Interview with Liz Anjos
Liz Anjos is Portland-based musician and runner who is equally adept at performing on stages and roads around the world. Known musically as Pink Feathers, she tours with Grammy-winning artist RAC on keys and vocals, and has played at large festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza. When she’s not electrifying crowds, writing music or releasing albums, Anjos races with The Rose City Track Club, a grassroots running team she helped launch earlier this year, and she also moonlights as a coach. Anjos, who will compete in Sunday’s New York City Marathon, has a marathon personal best of 2:59:22 and dreams of one day qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials.
I caught up with the 32-year-old recently to talk about her progression as both a runner and a musician, how those two parts of her life parallel one another, where they intersect, and much more.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. In your own words, who is Liz Anjos? How would you describe yourself?
Oh Liz Anjos is…I’m a runner, I’m a musician. Yeah, I mean that just sums it up in a nutshell.
But you’re not just a runner and you’re not just a musician. You’re a sub-3 [hour] marathoner and have qualified for the Boston Marathon multiple times. I know you have ambitions to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials at some point. And as a musician, you’re not just playing on your own in your spare time — it’s your career! You travel around with a band, you sing, you put out albums. You just finished a tour a little while ago and you’re also training for the New York City Marathon, so let’s go a little further on both of those things. When did you start running? And how did you get into the competitive side of the sport?
Yeah, so I started running at the age of 14. I was going into my freshman year of high school. I had never done any kind of sport before, but I was starting a brand-new school, I had gone to public school, but I was starting at a new private high school. And my dad was a teacher there, and I think he just thought that it would be good for me to have that experience playing sports. So yeah, I had run like a mile time trial in middle school, and since I was pretty bad at anything that required hand-eye coordination, running seemed like a good way to go. So I joined my high school cross country team. I had a lot of fun with it — like it was really hard — but I remember I just really enjoyed the team aspect of running. And really I just had a lot of fun.
And beyond that, I went to college for music after high school and I kept running on my own, just in my own spare time. I had been interested in joining my school’s cross country team, but I was kind of worried about how I would manage juggling that and all of the hours practicing piano and all of that. So I just kind of did it on my spare time. But then I would be out on campus and see the cross country team out practicing or doing their strides out on the field, and I just always thought, “Man, I wish I was out there with them.” And there were even times that I’d be outside running by myself, but then see them, and I’d see if I could keep up with them like from a distance. But yeah, and I just really missed it. So at the end of my junior year, I was like, “OK, this is something I clearly really love and want to keep doing.” So I reached out to the coach, and I was like, “Hey, what would you think about me joining the team?” And I was going into my senior year, but I think he had seen me out running all the time, and was like, “I was wondering when you’d come around.”
Where did you go to school?
I went to a small school called Greenville College in Southern Illinois. It’s a small liberal arts college.
Tell me about that experience and flipping that switch from somebody who wasn’t on the team and wasn’t really competing all that much, to now being on a team, and you’ve got your first and last season of collegiate cross country ahead of you. How did you approach it?
Well since I had approached them about running in the spring, I had the summer to get myself ready. So there was like a team training schedule that they gave me, and there were these different levels, they broke them up into school colors so it was like you were white, or black, or orange, or I think there was a gray too. And I was like, “I’m gonna do the hardest training program and run all these miles.” So I was really ambitious going into it, but with my lack of experience and really only running by myself, I was putting in bigger miles, but I was also running quite slowly and not really knowing it compared to everyone else. So when I actually started running with the team, it was just a shock.
And pace is all relative, but it was a big shock to go from running 10-minute miles to 8-minute miles for an easy run. And that was really, really hard for me at the time. So it took some adjusting in the beginning, but I think because of that inexperience and running on a team for the first time, I had a lot of improvement in that season.
What were some of the biggest things that you learned in the collegiate cross country season that you took part in?
I think I found that competitive spark that I think was kind of there before, but it was neat to kind of really run away with that, like to hone in on that. And also just the kind of value of having that camaraderie and sharing that experience with other people, just from the daily runs together and chatting, and just to really know these other people. And then also just sharing in the pre-race nerves, and then the joy and the tears and everything that comes with racing and kind of putting yourself on the line.
Cool. Let’s hit pause on that right now and rewind a bit. I want to talk about your progression as a musician and the role that music plays in your life. It sounds to me like you’ve been playing music, or at least have been interested in it, as long if not longer than you’ve been running. When did music first enter your life, and when did that spark first turn into a little bit of a flame that has now grown into a full-blown fire, so to speak?
Yeah, music has always been a part of my life, and that is because I come from a very musical family. My dad is a choir director and singer. I would grow up just hearing music and singing in the house. And he taught at a high school, so he’d take me and my sister, and we would be just hanging out during practices, like choir rehearsals and music rehearsals and being there for that. And my mom is a piano teacher, so she would have students in and out of the house all day. So there was always piano music playing. My sister is also a singer, and she’s always been really involved in choirs and things like that. So I just grew up with music all the time, music in the house.
And I had always, maybe around the age of five or six, I started plunking around on the piano by myself, and my parents noticed that I had taken an interest. I think they wanted to wait for me to take that initiative and see that I was interested before encouraging me to move in that direction. So at the age of seven is when I started taking private piano lessons. And I started taking piano lessons, then all the way through high school, and then I studied classical piano performance in college. But backing up, I played a few other musical instruments, like the flute in school band, and then when I got to high school, I became very interested in guitar. I learned guitar and bass and mandolin and violin, and kind of started branching out from there.
And as your career has progressed as a musician and also as a runner, how have those two practices complemented one another? And how has that relationship evolved over the years?
I found in my experience with both over time that they are absolutely both performing arts. In the same way with the practice and preparation that I would put into learning a piece or preparing for a concert — I’m in the practice room or at the home studio every day for an hour or two — it’s the same way with running. You’re out there practicing and prepping every day, it’s not just the technical aspect, or the physical aspect, but just preparing yourself to perform your best on one specific day.
You just touched on it a little bit, but how does playing in front of people and putting all that practice to work in a musical performance compare to showing up to the start line on race day? Do they differ at all?
I mean I’ve found them to be really … I found a lot more similarities than not, I guess. I’m trying to think of a specific example, but I feel like with both things, I’ll prepare for them in a similar sense in that there are little rituals leading up to a race, in the same way that I have my ritual leading up to a performance. I was recently touring with my group, RAC, so it’s like, OK, I need to think about what time I’m going to eat before the performance, when I’m going to get into my special outfit and shoes, kind of the same way you would for a race. And then, here’s when I start my vocal warmup, and OK now I have to get my game face on and my confidence up. And just yeah, I’m kind of losing my train of thought a little bit.
No, there are definitely parallels between the two, just in terms of the routine, and the rituals, and the actual execution of it all, which I think are pretty fascinating. Going a little bit further, when you’re on tour now like you just were, how do you maintain your running practice? I’m interested in how you fit it all in when you’re going from city to city, and you’re playing every night, and you’ve got preparation that you’ve gotta do for all your shows, but then you’re training for the New York City Marathon and you want to run well there. How do you make [running] a part of your day, or do you just make it a part of your day and then you move onto the music stuff? How do those two things coexist?
Yeah, so on tour, my first priority is the music aspect. That’s why I’m there, that’s my role. But, I fit in running in the best that I can, and for the most part, it works out. For the most part, every day is pretty routine. So we’re traveling by bus, and most of the actual traveling part is done at night while we’re sleeping. We have little bunks on the bus. So I’ll wake up in a new city almost every day, and it’s usually first thing in the morning is when I’ll have time to go get my run in.
And I’ll usually just pull up a map, I kind of get the lay of the land, see where I’m at, and take it from there. I usually have one or two hours every morning to go running before we have to load up into the venue and start building our stage and sound checking and all of that. So yeah, it’s usually like run, soundcheck, then find a way to get ready at the venue, then we have our show, then we load up, and then we head out again.
How critical is it for you to get out and run every day — not even just from a training standpoint — but to break up the demands of being on the road when it seems like it’s a scramble from one day to the next to go from show to show?
It’s so helpful. Even if I weren’t training for NYC or if I didn’t have any upcoming race, yeah I do think the running really helps keep me balanced during a tour. You just spend so much of your time in this confined space on a bus, and even at night, you just kind of feel cramped all the time. So even just being able to get outside and be free and run around, I think it’s really healthy. It’s just good for my mind and my body.
And it’s also just a really nice way to get out of that setting, and also to explore the city that we’re in. Because for as much traveling as the group does, we don’t get to necessarily see a whole lot of where we are because we’re busy most of the day. And then we have to move on and get to the next place. So I feel like I get to really get a sense of where I am, and yeah, get out and see things that I wouldn’t normally see, and cover a lot of ground that I wouldn’t otherwise, because we’re on our own, and we’re on foot.
How much overlap is there amongst your fans and followers who know you as Pink Feathers the musician, and then those who know you as Liz Anjos the runner? And are most of them interested in both side of your personality?
Yeah, that’s a great question, because when I first kind of got into social media or when I started Pink Feathers the music side, I was like, “Well, do I start a new handle, or do I have my running thing and then separately a music thing?” I was almost a little insecure about it because I was worried about isolating the people that follow me for running and the music. But then I was like, “you know what, I’m just going to own it.” It might be kind of like a strange combination, but I’m just going to…
…say, “this is who I am.”
Yeah, this is who I am. So overall, I think that was a good decision because I think it’s just an interesting glimpse into someone’s life. It’s like, I don’t necessarily have a typical, like I don’t know a lot of other musicians that…
..are competitive runners.
Yeah, exactly. So that’s just something you don’t always find. And I feel like inevitably I end up posting a lot more about running in the end, ’cause I don’t know, I just love it so much. So I don’t know. The music part, I guess, is just a fun part for people that follow me for running too.
Going back to running, when you’re not touring, you live in Portland, which is, I would argue, one of the running meccas here in the U.S. It’s got a very vibrant scene. How does that environment influence your own training and racing and keep you excited to compete?
Portland has an amazing running community. I’ve lived here since 2009 and my first job in Portland was working at Portland Running Company, and I met a lot of runners through there. And also I kind of just jumped right into the racing scene. It’s just really awesome. I feel like the more racing you do, the more you start to see the same people at every race, and you get to know the other runners or maybe get other little rivalries going. But yeah, I feel like Portland has a ton to offer in terms of beautiful trails and a lot of different kinds of places to run.
And do you think that’s contributed to your development as an athlete and helped you improve to where you are now?
Yes, definitely. So after college, I stayed living in Southern Illinois while my husband André finished up school. And then we moved out to Portland after that. And yeah, I think [in Illinois], as far as road racing goes, I was like, “Oh yeah, another age group win.” I was always kind of coming out towards the top. But then when I moved to Portland, it suddenly got a lot harder to place well. There are a lot of really fast runners here. But that’s been a really good thing, because I think we all elevate each other in that process.
What are your ambitions as a runner? You’re training for the New York City Marathon right now, I know that you have dreams of the Olympic Trials. How do you hope to continue to progress as an athlete?
I mean, that [Olympic] Marathon Trials goal, that’s been a goal of mine for a long time, and I almost have like tunnel vision for it. So even though that’s one of my big goals, I feel like I’ve gotten some perspective this year. I’ve had to take quite a bit of time off for injury, and just going through a period of not running at all, that was just really tough. And as I’ve been getting back into it, I have just found that man, I really love racing. I really love competing. So I don’t know if there’s necessarily a big goal or end game. It’s just so much a part of who I am, it’s something I want to keep doing for a really long time, regardless of times or anything like that.
Does running allow you to express a different side of yourself than music does?
I think so. With music, it’s a little more subjective, a little more emotional, and it taps a lot more into the emotional side of me. And writing and singing, and then just being able to be creative too. And that’s also been kind of a struggle for me too, because a lot of it is just so subjective. Someone likes your music or they don’t, and that can just be tough to deal with. Where with running, I really like how it’s a little more cut and dry. It doesn’t matter whether someone likes you or not, it’s just either you’re fast or you’re not. Sorry, that might’ve come out wrong.
Well, it can be pretty black and white.
It’s black and white, yeah. And it’s a little more cut and dry, and it really does bring out that competitive side of me. It kind of took me a long time to tap into that, but once I did, I was like, “Oh, this is awesome, and this is a lot of fun, and it just kind of created this spark in me.” So yeah, they just bring out different sides of me.
Looking ahead, how do you see these paths as a musician and as an athlete kind of converging? And where would you like to go on both of those paths in the next few years?
I guess with music, it’s been interesting. I think in the beginning, I had these kind of big ambitions to be this solo artist, but then I think outside of just the creative side of writing and singing, I found that with my personality, I thought this was something I wanted. But the more I tried and the more I pursued it, I realized that as much as I love performing, I don’t love being the center of attention. And I found that as I’ve gotten more experience touring with RAC, the group I’ve been playing with, that I’ve really enjoyed that. And I almost love not necessarily being the front woman, but being part of more of a collaborative environment.
So I guess what I thought I wanted in the beginning ended up just not being quite for me. That’s been a pretty big learning experience. The tour that I was just on was the best experience I’ve had and I would feel really lucky to be able to keep doing that, I hope, for the next five years. And with music, it’s so fleeting — you never know where the tide is gonna turn. I hope people still buy tickets and want to come see us, but at the same time, I just have no idea. So I guess where I’m going with all this is that I feel pretty content with where I’ve been, and also still happy to be able to keep doing it as long as we can, but then after that, I’m OK with moving onto something else.
And as far as running, I just mentioned that I spent a lot of time being injured and not able to run, and it’s given me this new perspective. Yeah, I have a lot of ambitious goals and I’m still going for them, but it’s made me kind of think, “What do I want to give back to running and where do I want to go from here and what do I want to do?” Whether or not I reach that [Olympic] Trials goal, there’s so much more to running than that. So for me, it’s about. “What do I want to give back?”
This year my friends and I started a mini track club in the Portland area called The Rose City Track Club. When I first moved to Portland, leaving the college team I had just joined, I really wanted that sense of team again, and a small, supportive training group. So that’s something we set out to create. We’re just in our first year, but I would just love to be able to be that supportive group for the next people that are coming out of college and aren’t professional runners but want to keep pursuing this seriously for themselves.
I think that’s great. Last question, sort of going back to the first question that I asked you about how you would define yourself. Let’s wrap it all together. What mark would you like Liz Anjos the runner and Pink Feathers the musician to leave?
Oh, that’s a big question. I mean, through all of this and everything I’ve learned, I just try to be true to myself. And I would encourage everyone to do the same, and that can be a really hard thing to do. It is really hard to define yourself. I guess rather than trying to fit any kind of mold or being something that someone else or everyone else thinks you ought to be, if I have just followed my instincts to be true to myself, whether it’s just scary or seems a little different or weird, it has always been the right thing or it has always worked out.
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