Tori Sager and her business partner Maryellen “Mel” Charbonneau are in the inspiration industry. Their company sells hairpins and t-shirts meant to motivate women on the run. Fellow Flowers goes beyond simply hawking accessories and workout apparel, it creates a space for women to find encouragement and share strength when they need it most—a space Tori tapped into on Sunday when she wasn’t sure if finishing the Chicago Marathon was in the cards for her. Even though she still couldn’t walk down stairs without grimacing, Tori graciously took my call shortly after the race to chat about Fellow Flowers, the meaning of commitment, and other awesomeness.
Thanks so much for speaking with me, Tori. How are you feeling post-marathon? “Of course—I love talking about running! I’m feeling ok, still walking a little funny and taking the stairs sideways. Ha!”
Was this your first time running the Chicago Marathon? “No, this was my third marathon, and I’ve only run Chicago, so I’ve done it three times now—in 2011, 2012, and now 2013. I wasn’t sure if I’d be running it this year because I’ve been battling an Achilles injury, but when I heard the date—October 13, 2013, I knew I had to do it. Thirteen is a lucky number for me, believe it or not. I was born on a Friday the 13th, and Fellow Flowers got its start when I invited friends to run a half marathon with me to celebrate my birthday one year. Thirteen of my girlfriends trained and ran thirteen miles with me! We put flowers in our hair to celebrate that run and our company was born!”
Wow! Really? How did running with your friends turn into a business? “The women who had signed up to run with me didn’t know each other—I was their connection to the group. But over the course of training for twelve weeks an email chain started. Initially my friends were simply introducing themselves and talking about their workouts, but over those weeks something really powerful happened. Suddenly, we were sharing our inspirations for running, motivating each other to keep at it, and honoring our commitment to the race and to each other. Those emails became a safe space for us to honor, share, and celebrate our stories. This was something bigger than me, bigger than simply running for my birthday, and when Mel and I talked about it later, after clipping flowers in our hair for the race, we realized we wanted to build a company that would allow every woman to have that experience—to create a united place to honor, share, and celebrate our reasons to run. Fellow Flowers is the embodiment of that space, and each flower offers its own reason and motivation for running.”
Which flower were you wearing on Sunday? “I wore a red flower and a red flower t-shirt with the message, ‘It takes strength to do what you love,’ on the back. I really needed that mantra for this marathon. I spent this past winter trying to heal Achilles tendinopathy, and it flared up again over the summer during marathon training, which made me reevaluate my race goal. I wanted to PR this year, and I was on track to do that, but with a recurring injury you sort of have to step back and rethink things. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I would even make it to the start line. My longest run leading up to the marathon was only 14 miles, and I knew I wasn’t going to hit my time goal, so I decided to just get there and do my best to push through and finish. I needed inner strength for that.”
In the end, were you happy with your time? “Yes, I’m thrilled that I finished and that I felt strong doing it. The first half was great for me—and if it had just been a half marathon I would have gotten a PR. But around mile 15 I started to struggle. I was experiencing some pain and I could feel a blister forming on my toe, so I made the decision to stop. I rehydrated, ate an energy bar, adjusted my sock, and then started running again. There was an aid station at mile 17, so I stopped again to put Vaseline on my foot. From that point on, I kept running, only slowing down to walk through the water stations. Considering all of that, I’m very happy with my time.”
That’s awesome! A lot of people would have thrown in the towel, but you didn’t. “Yeah, I’m really proud of myself for running smart, and for taking care of myself—I don’t think I would have made it to the finish if I hadn’t done that. I really leaned on that red flower statement: “It takes strength to do what you love.” The word “commitment” is also connected to the red flower. It’s a very powerful idea to stay loyal to what you said you were going to do, even when you’re no longer in the mood you were in when you set that goal. I was mentally ready to run a marathon, but I wasn’t physically able in that moment, which really put me in a hard place. But I wanted to be true to that commitment.”
You must have felt so relieved to see the finish line. “Yes, I felt relieved. But I was also really inspired. The last miles of a marathon are just rough. You get to mile 22 and you’re starting to doubt yourself, and then by mile 25 you’re thinking, “Just one mile to go. I can do this! I can finish this!” In those last few miles I came up on a wheel chair participant who was moving fairly slow. He was obviously the last wheelchair, and he seemed to be struggling, it was taking all he could to move those wheels around, and the crowd was going wild cheering for him. I took out my earphones to listen for a bit. His determination was infectious, and I think it gave me and the other runners out there a little extra oomph. It was probably the most emotional moment of the marathon for me, because I knew he would finish and I realized I could finish, too.”
From injured to inspired, you crossed the finish line! What’s next for you? “My goal now is to heal up again. And as soon as my body tells me it’s ready, I’m going to focus on shorter distances. Realizing that I could have gotten a PR at the half mark on Sunday has me thinking about getting faster. I’m planning to run some 10Ks and maybe a half marathon in the spring. Getting faster and stronger in shorter distance races is what I’m into now.”
She may not have mentioned it during our phone call, but it’s obvious to me that Tori embodies the black Fellow Flower message, “Why yes, I am a force to be reckoned with.” Check out the Fellow Flowers line up of colors to find the one you connect with—I’m a big fan of the purple, “No excuses!”
With marathon season in full swing, I want to know: What keeps you running when the chips seem down?