Julia Budniak - L.A. Lady Interviews

Julia Budniak, 2016 LA Marathon Bronze Medalist. Interviewed by Michele Carroll. Photography: Michael Hillman


For our readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do.

First of all, I see myself as a runner. I started running when I was about 13 and it’s just what I do. It’s more than a passion, it’s like a daily shower I need to function properly. It lead me where I am now – USC, grad school to study nutrition, coaching college runners and being a sports nutritionist. After I was done with my track career, I focused more on road races and marathons. This year’s LA Marathon was my third ever and I placed 3rd. 

You were born and raised in a small town called Gubin in Poland. What was your upbringing like? How do you think this shaped you/your interests today?

I consider my childhood very happy. For the first 8 years of my life Poland was communist, but as a child I only remember that everyone had time, nobody was ever stressed because there was no rich and poor, everyone was equally poor, but we always had everything. I played outside all day, there was nothing on the 2 TV channels I would like to watch or computer games to play. We developed great people skills and I’m very grateful I grew up that way. Whenever I was hungry I would always grab a fruit or vegetable from my mom’s big organic garden. Since you couldn’t buy anything in stores, we had to grow our own food. When I came to Los Angeles I had difficulties adjusting to the food here. I thought everything is ok to eat, but I paid for that with many food poisonings, my stomach wasn’t used to fast food either. That transition and running at a high level forced me to start learning about food and what it does to my body. After I graduated from USC, I decided that I wanted to study nutrition and help athletes like myself. I went on to get my master’s in nutritional sciences from Cal State LA, where I currently coach. I got most of my experience as an intern at USC, which already had a highly developed sports nutrition department. I never knew what I wanted to do, but my passion, curiosity and courage led me to it without me even realizing it.

Can you tell us about the training process that ultimately lead you to win national championships in Poland?

Being a successful athlete is very difficult and not everyone who is an athlete can be successful. This has nothing to do with the talent or amount of training, but with the right mindset; mindset of a fighter and winner. It took me a very long time to get where I am now and feel confident when I stand on a start line. I was always very nervous before my races. I would physically get sick, with my hands shaking and giving up to my competitors before the race even happened. I would always look at others and point out who I’m going to lose to on that day. I didn’t fully believe I could be a champion, but once my coach sent me to see a sports psychologist, who made me realize that I can win and others are not better than me if I don’t give up before the fight. It changed a lot how I raced. I was fighting with myself to get more confident and believe in working for the win, that I deserve it. As crazy as it sounds, you have to convince yourself first before you show your confidence to others. I’m not saying to be arrogant, nobody likes that; more like confident, but humble. If you look at real champions, they come, they win and they are very humble about it, so everyone respect them.

The University of Southern California recruited you in 2003. Did you have any fears or insecurities about moving to L.A. and jumping straight into your running career (where you became an All-American athlete and travelled the world competing)?

I have to admit I was very excited to move to the “City of Angeles” as I used to call it, maybe because I knew it from so many movies, and the one with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan City of Angels gave me a picture of the place I was coming to. Of course I had my fears of moving out to a strange place thousands of miles away from everything and everyone I knew. My English was very limited to a few sentences and it surely wasn’t enough for college. All I knew is that they wanted me and I could run and my adventurous nature won with any insecurity. I have to admit I wanted to go home every day for the first semester. The cultural difference was huge and the pace of life was very hard to handle, but I made friends and we supported each other (we still do today).

After a couple years of running professionally for the Santa Monica Track Club, you had to stop for a few years due to sciatica. What was it like to have to suddenly stop running after all those years?

It was almost impossible. I brought myself to a state that I couldn’t run, sit, or lie down without pain and discomfort. I was in denial for a long time, running with pain, but I knew I had to stop. I went through every possible treatment but nothing was helping. That was the summer I was introduced to kitesurfing and that was it for me. I fell in love with the crazy workout, fun and challenging at the same time. It was the only thing that could come close to the exertion of running. It beat me up every day so badly that I didn’t have time to think about running and it didn’t hurt my sciatica. It was like the perfect cross training that was still making me stronger as a runner, building muscles I didn’t have and keeping me sane.


What advice do you have for others who might find their passions suddenly derailed?

My advice is to find your sport/outlet every time you’re taken away from something you’re used to or you love. If you can’t do what you love, do something else that will get you better, make you stronger, more experienced and you never know when you come back a better person and more ready to be doing what you love. The worse thing you can do is to sit and do nothing. If you don’t progress, you regress.

Was it difficult to get yourself to try other other sports/interests?

It was difficult because I’m stubborn. If I think something is not for me, I hardly enjoy it. During my 4 year break from running I discovered kitesurfing and I had a blast, but I tried surfing and I hated it. I had no patience to learn because I like to pick up things quickly. I learned snowboarding and skiing, which were great for leg strength but I also tried pure barre, which is a really fun but tough group workout. It got me stronger and I was never bored to do it. I also like reformer pilates, but not so much yoga. I guess I have a very distinguished taste in physical activities.

How did you feel coming back to running after 2 years off?

I didn’t have any expectations, I thought I cannot come back to my previous level again, but ever since I started running I wanted to try a marathon. I used to watch marathons on TV, amazed how these women can run that fast for that long!? I thought they’re born that fast and it’s impossible for a human being like me to ever get to that level. The reason I decided to run again is because I couldn’t finish my career without running a marathon! I came to my college coach and I told him my idea. It was December 2012 and LA marathon was in March. Not sure if he even believed I could do it, but he probably knew he couldn’t get me off of his back until I would do it. I also told him I wanted to break 3 hours because anything else seemed too slow for my ambition. I trained for less than 3 months and I never complained (which was very unusual for me), but it was my idea and it was different when I didn’t have anyone’s pressure to perform on me. I ran 2:49 and I shocked not only myself and my coach, but a lot of people who didn’t see me running anymore. It felt really good and I just couldn’t stop. That year I started coaching at Cal State LA and running became my daily routine because I was training with the team I coached.

Tell us about your experience training for and actually competing in the 2016 LA Marathon – where you came in 3rd place!

I ran my first marathon in 2013, then 2014, but not in 2015, so I felt like it’s time for another one. I wasn’t really training for it until I went to visit my parents in Poland for Christmas. I started running more, but it wasn’t until I came back after New Year’s that I did my first serious workouts. I wanted to see what shape I was in first, so I trained for another month and not feeling ready at all, I signed up for it. It was the first time I got a free entry to the LA marathon, which made me feel more pressure to perform well. I was stuck in traffic on race day, got there late, couldn’t find anyone, didn’t really warm up except of running around looking for my group. Once I got close to the start line, Karen- the Professional Athlete Coordinator, told me my race is about to start and I have to go with the elite women. I was terrified, I told her that this is a mistake and I was supposed to run with the whole marathon, not the elite group (elite women start 10 minutes before the whole marathon and it was 7 of them), but she was insisting. My worse nightmares were coming true: I will run a marathon all by myself! And that is exactly what happened; the Ethiopians and the Ukrainian ran away from me after the first mile and other 2 girls were running slower than me. It was more fun than I thought; imagine running on the empty streets of Los Angeles, in every major neighborhood with people cheering on you everywhere. The energy kept me going and it was unreal. I got help from a few of my athletes pacing me the last 8 miles and a lot of my friends, including my coach, stood all over San Vincente with cheer banners. Crossing the finish line was the best feeling in the world and to add to that, the organizers got me a polish flag that they put on my back. I was so amazed and for the next hour I kept asking them to check if I was really 3rd and it wasn’t a mistake. The flag had its story too; they went to borrow it from a polish restaurant in Santa Monica called Warszawa because they knew I’d be the one wearing it. I was truly touched by that gesture. Everything, including a press conference, was like a dream. My friends and my boss joined me inside the hospitality area and we ate together. It was probably the best running experience I’ve ever had and I would like to thank LA Marathon and Sketchers for putting up such great event.

What advice do you have for other athletes (and non-athletes) striving for gold in their pursuits?

Never give up. Go around, try different ways, do things that will get you closer to your goal, be patient and you can achieve and do whatever you want. People give up too early because of the struggle, social influence, lack of patience, or fear of stepping out of their comfort zone. If you want to be successful, you have to have a courage to do things you may not be comfortable with. You may not even have support in your pursuit, but that’s what defines the winners – they never quit. Remember that struggle and critique are the prerequisites for greatness. I follow the running saying: If you want to run what you’ve never run before, you have to do things you’ve never done before; that’s true for everything in life. There are no shortcuts to success.


Favorite area of L.A.? Santa Monica. I don’t know if I would still run if it wasn’t for Santa Monica.
Favorite eatery in L.A.? Outside of my own kitchen (I love to cook) I like exploring because I appreciate good food made with good ingredients. If I think about a good place to go out it would be Urth Caffé.
Menu item we must order there? Mediterranean Plate and all the coffees in the menu.
Favorite happy hour? Don’t really have one, too busy for that!
Favorite weekend activities in the city? Exploring new trails to run, places to eat, breakfast around my house or going to the beach kitesurfing (haven’t had time this year yet).
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? Radio, music makes the traffic somehow more bearable. 
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? I have lived here for 12 years and I’m still trying to go to Griffith Observatory.
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure? Porto’s Bakery. I love it, but I’m trying not to be in the area. 

-Julia Budniak, 2016 LA Marathon Bronze Medalist