Q&A: Denise Mazzeo

Alumna Denise Mazzeo '10 in New York Law Journal, July 27, 2012

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Clocking in at 19:57, Denise Mazzeo, 27, placed first among the 13,465 women finishing in New York City's JPMorgan Corporate Challenge, a 3.5-mile race in June with about 30,000 runners. Mazzeo wakes up daily at 5:30 a.m. to train. Her running is on top of the dozens of hours she bills each week as a second-year associate at 160-lawyer Seward & Kissel in the mergers and acquisitions practice. Depending on her work hours, Mazzeo said she will spend one to four hours a day training.

After competing in some races in college and then taking an eight-year break from competitive running, Mazzeo only recently started racing again when she joined the Central Park Track Club New Balance team. Traveling around the region and the country for meets, she has won some cash awards and carried home trophies. She says her goal is to hit an Olympic trial standard within the next few years.

New Balance sponsors her team as well as a few individuals in the 350-athlete group, including Mazzeo. This means she wears the company's gear during runs while the company picks up some travel expenses. Her coach is Devon Martin, a former competitive runner who spent 10 years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, resigning in 2006 to become a full-time coach. Mazzeo, who grew up in Long Island, earned her J.D. at Fordham University School of Law in 2010. She works primarily on middle-market mergers and acquisitions and other transactions for a variety of clients, including hedge funds and other investment advisors.

Q: How did you get interested in competitive running?

A: When I was 8 I joined an after-school road runners club. For the life of me, I can't recall what initially possessed me to sign up; no one in my family runs and I inexplicably chose to pursue a sport that did not involve a cute uniform. But I found I preferred the challenge of running to other sports. I really liked pushing myself not only against others, but against myself and the clock. We would run 1-1.5 miles around the fields after school. My first race was a turkey trot and I won by out-kicking one of the boys. When I was old enough, I joined my school cross country and track teams.

Q: What do you enjoy about it?

A: I still love the challenge. The thing about running is that it meets different needs at different times in your life, and the sport grows with you. There are times when I find the competitive aspect of racing most satisfying and times when being part of a team is my biggest motivator. There are other times, particularly during the years when I trained alone, when running is more about personal development, an outlet and a way to stay healthy. Also, eating whatever I want is a nice bonus!

Q: You stopped competitive running and then joined Central Park Track Club New Balance in 2010. What made you stop and then decide it was time to race again?

A: I stopped racing after my first semester of college at Villanova. I left the team there in order to support myself financially and to focus on academics and going to law school. Even though I had retired from racing, I never stopped running. I was running more mileage than ever and occasionally doing speed workouts alone, but for the most part I had no real race plans on my radar until I graduated. The day after I took the New York bar exam I was recruited to join Central Park Track Club New Balance. Although I planned to run the marathon that year, I was hesitant to commit to racing regularly. But I also was getting the competitive itch, so I agreed to check out a team workout. After one workout back on the track, I was hooked.

Q: What has your return to racing been like after so much time away? What has changed?

A: It was difficult, especially at first. I tore my hamstring right away and I wasn't able to start racing for a year, until last July. I ran road races and cross country and then started racing on the track again this year. I still struggle with injuries and have had to make a lot of adjustments. My distances have changed slightly; now I focus on the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters on the track, cross country, and run up to half marathon on the roads. Mostly, I was surprised that the same things I used to love about racing were still there, like rekindling a relationship. Because I am more mature and confident than I was as a teen, the things I used to dread about racing, namely, the pressure and nerves, no longer hold me back. More life perspective and mental toughness has been an asset.

Q: Your coach has a background in law. Does that make a difference?

Q: Absolutely. My coach, Devon Martin, has had experience as both a practicing attorney and an elite runner, so she understands the rigors of a legal career and the unique challenges I face as a full-time corporate lawyer and competitive runner. I am lucky to have a coach who is supportive and so well suited to help me tailor my training and racing to fit my law career. I think she trusts that I am dedicated even when I miss practice or races for work.

Q: How do you balance the demands of running with being a full-time associate? Describe your schedule on a typical day.

A: I drink lots of coffee. Admittedly, I do not sleep much. But, like anything else, if your heart is in it you find a way to make it work. I generally try to schedule as much as possible in the morning because work can be unpredictable. I usually run early in the morning and then afterwards I often have regular physical therapy and doctor appointments to manage my injuries. I also have to build in time each morning and night for stretching, icing, foam rolling, strength training and yoga. Depending on how things are going at work, Tuesday and Thursday nights I try to make it up to Columbia's track for speed workouts with my team. It takes about 75 minutes to get there and sometimes I go back to work afterwards. In the winter, we are up at the Armory in Washington Heights. When I can't make it to practice, I do the workouts on my own at the East River track. In order to balance everything and avoid injury and burnout, I have to be flexible in my training schedule. I have learned when it is more important to modify or cancel a planned workout in order to catch up on sleep and life. Part of the balance is being a well-rounded person. I try to be efficient with time not spent working or running by spending it with family, friends and pursuing other interests.

Q: Who was your competition in the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge and how did you expect to do in the race?

A: Many of the top finishers are former collegiate runners and local elite runners who still run competitively. I had a sense of what the competition would be like since I have raced against many of the top women before, some of whom are my teammates. Prior to the race, I did not expect to win, but I toed the line with confidence in my training and I mentally resolved to do what I had to do to win the race and left no room in my mind for debate. The first mile was uphill and I ended up taking it out faster than planned. I just gut-checked and went with it. I didn't realize at the time, but I dropped the other women after that.

Q: How does your running affect your law practice? What do you draw from either one that could impact the other?

A: Starting my day with a run allows me to clear my mind of everything that is going on so that when I get into the office I am ready to focus on work. When life is stressful, the best place to take out aggression is on the track. The skills involved in competitive running and practicing law are transferable. Middle distance and distance running train your endurance and mental toughness, which translates to an ability to focus intensely on an objective until it is complete. Both racing and law require a balance between preparation and the ability to think on your feet and quickly react to changing circumstances. I have found many runners and lawyers exhibit the hallmarks of perfectionism. Both tend to have strong work ethics and be goal oriented. Being on a team and working in practice groups both train you to be accountable for your work, committed to a common goal and to work well with others.

Q: Do you ever think about work while running and racing? What is on your mind during this time?

A: When work is busy I carry my BlackBerry around the track with me and check it after each rep. During races I am focused on competing; I think about pace, strategy and staying tough. Sometimes I'll try to hear a certain song in my head to keep myself pumped up. Long runs are more ideal for pondering about work, collecting my thoughts and letting the mind wander while taking in the scenery. I cherish my long runs because they are the best way to see different parts of the city or any place I visit.

Q: What are your long-term plans in competitive running?

A: I've learned to stop planning everything and to just enjoy the moment. I have a lot of running goals and I hope to compete for as long as I am able to balance it with work and life, but I approach each season and race as if it could be my last. I think over time the natural progression will be to shift gears from track and cross country to road racing. Even when I finally hang up my spikes, I will keep running until they put me down.

Q: Would you like to become a full-time runner some day?

A: No. I am a full-time lawyer and I have always put my education and career first. But running makes me who I am and it will always be an important part of my life.

Q: What is your law firm's reaction to taking off work to travel to races?

A: Although my firm has been very supportive of my running, I rarely take off from work for races. I intentionally build my race schedule around the more competitive New York-area and East Coast races that are on weekends to avoid missing work. Sometimes I will try to race on weeknights, but those are dicey. I generally only travel for highly competitive or national championship races.

Q: Have you encountered any other competitive runners who are also lawyers? Generally, why aren't there more?

A: Yes, I do know a few lawyers who used to run in college but have stopped competing. I also know some who picked up recreational running later in life and are starting to dabble in road races. Road racing, and even marathon training, is more ideal for those who work long hours because it is more conducive to training according to your own schedule and you race less frequently. Middle distance racing requires more speed work on a track, more frequent races, and training partners for track workouts are more critical to improvement. I suspect there are not more lawyers who are competitive runners because, well, runners require sleep.

Q: What do you enjoy about merger and acquisition work?

A: I had a natural gravitation toward M&A as early as 1L year in law school. I was initially attracted to it because I was interested in corporate law and had heard that M&A was the most challenging transactional practice. I like that there is always something new to learn and improve upon, which keeps things exciting. I like the strategical aspect of negotiating deals and how each transaction is unique and requires a different tactical approach and finesse. I also love writing and editing so I enjoy the process of crafting deals into an agreement that everyone can live with. I appreciate the challenge of simultaneously understanding the mechanics of each individual provision as well as how one change might affect the big picture. As a practical matter, because my job is deal-driven, my hours tend to be more up and down perhaps than other types of law, but I prefer it that way.

Q: Do you plan to watch the London Summer Olympics? Are there any runners you are rooting for?

A: I can't wait to watch the games. I am most looking forward to the 1,500 meters and five kilometers because those are my events. In the 1,500, I am rooting for Jenny Simpson. She runs with poise and she also represents New Balance (my sponsor). I also loved watching Julie Culley's determination unfold into a five-kilometer win at trials and I am excited to see her race in London.