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Eleanor Fulton’s patience is paying off

Eleanor Fulton (Photo by D.V. Gregori)

By Alison Wade

In the past five weeks, Eleanor Fulton has run personal bests at four distances: 1500m (4:03.03), mile (4:23.65), 800m (2:01.27) and 5,000m (15:19.19). While most of the milers Fulton competes against are full-time professional runners, Fulton works full time for a software company and fits her training in around that.

The times she is running now are much faster than she ever could have imagined when she chose to pursue professional running. After a frustrating string of setbacks during college, Fulton finished her eligibility at the University of Washington in 2016, with a 4:19 1500m personal best. Agents and sponsors weren’t knocking down her door, but she decided to continue running post-collegiately anyway. And over time, she has steadily developed into one of the U.S.’s best middle-distance runners, despite being unsponsored.

Track wins out

Fulton, 29, who grew up in Lone Tree, Colorado, got an earlier start in the sport than many of her professional running peers, beginning track around age seven. She tried the standing long jump first and also did the high jump, but it didn’t take her long to figure out that she was a better distance runner. Fulton also played soccer and was pretty serious about lacrosse through middle school, but when she got to high school and had to choose one sport, track won out.

She appreciated that with running, she could see the results of her hard work. “What you put into distance running at a young age, you end up getting out of it,” she said. “There’s a pretty clear correlation of effort and result there. I was also super Type A, so I think from a young age, I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll run every day.’”

Fulton amassed a mile-long résumé in high school, representing the U.S. at the 2009 World Youth and 2010 World Junior Championships in the steeplechase. She became the first girl in Colorado history to win four consecutive state titles in the 1600m, had a high finish of third at Nike Cross Nationals as a sophomore, and was a Foot Locker All-American in cross country as a senior. By the time she graduated from Highlands Ranch High School, she was one of the fastest high school milers in the country, with a best of 4:42.90.

But shortly after Fulton arrived at Washington, her struggles began. She had a string of roughly five stress fractures—there were enough of them that she lost count—and she also began passing out in the middle of cross-country races, only making it to the finish line with the aid of a golf cart. The stress fractures led people around her to suspect she was dealing with the female athlete triad, but that wasn’t it. And her EKG looked normal. Finally a teammate suggested that she try eating gluten free, and out of desperation she did. Slowly, her problems disappeared. She suspects now that celiac disease was preventing her from absorbing the nutrients she needed to stay healthy. She has stuck with a gluten free diet and hasn’t had a bone injury in years.

Through years of setbacks, Fulton never considered giving up the sport. “I was committed to figuring it out,” she said. “You can call it perseverance, you can call it addiction. I have nothing else that makes me feel as passionate as track does.”

Fulton graduated from Washington as a four-time All American. Her highest individual finish at an NCAA championship was eighth in the indoor mile in 2016. In five years of collegiate running, she shaved five seconds off her mile personal best, running 4:37.26 her final year. Fulton never qualified for the NCAA championships outdoors.

But given all of the setbacks she encountered during college, she knew there was more there. Fulton signed a small contract with Skechers out of college and moved to Portland, Oregon, to train. “There weren’t a ton of opportunities for me, so I was excited to have anything that paid,” she said. 

When she moved to Portland, she learned that her contract would be smaller than she had previously been promised, so she picked up a part-time job to help pay the bills. Despite the fact that Fulton improved dramatically, shaving nine seconds off her college 1500m time in one year, the opportunity lasted for only two years. 

Having the contract gave her the validation she needed at the time to call herself a professional runner, but Fulton realized in those two years that she didn’t need a contract to continue running. Over time and out of necessity, she’s increased the number of hours she works, gradually moving to full-time.“The whole time I’ve been out of college, I’ve just been just trying to find a way to make it work,” she said.

Fulton (left) competes in an elite high school mile in 2010, as a junior.

Finding stability in Portland

In 2019, Fulton began working with coach Dena Evans, whom she had met while representing the U.S. in the mixed relay at the 2017 World Cross Country Championships. At the time, Fulton considered expanding her search for the right training setup and leaving Portland, but doing so would have meant leaving her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Scott Olberding, and their dog, Lettie, behind. “I felt like the stability there wasn’t something I wanted to leave,” she said. “I was kind of like, ‘Oh man, this is one thing that is working right now.’ I do understand that if I was more willing to leave this setup, I might have an easier time finding a contract.”

Olberding, a sub-elite marathoner, has helped Fulton out by doing her workouts with her during much of the track season, before going back to fall marathon training. She also gets a little training help from Lettie, who does some of her recovery runs with her—and now has too much energy when she doesn’t get out for a few miles. “She’s a beast now because she’s super fast and she’s super fit,” Fulton said. “It’s great on runs, but then on days when we don’t run we’re like, ‘What have we done?’”

Fulton’s relationship with Evans is also working well. “I love working with Dena, and I think the longer that we work together, the better things get,” she said. “I think she really understands me as an athlete, and I’m seeing a lot of progress there.” Evans lives in California, so the two work together remotely, something Fulton was concerned about first. “Once I kind of was able to just trust the process and we were seeing results, it was like, ‘Okay, this is fine.’” 

Fulton works as a marketing manager for a software developer, but during the pandemic, her job went permanently remote, which has made fitting in one or two runs per day easier. The job provides financial stability and health insurance, but it’s not always easy stretching her paid time off from work to fit her racing schedule. She tends to race on the West Coast when she can, to limit her travel time.

Fulton says if the right sponsorship situation came along, she would be thrilled, but Evans helps her refocus from time to time, reminding her, “The goal isn’t sponsored; the goal is good.”

The money in running doesn’t always go to the fastest athletes. With the rise of social media, another route to sponsorship is having a large following. Fulton has an entertaining Instagram account, but only about 3,000 followers. Every once in a while, she’ll ramp up her efforts on social media. “I go through phases of caring and not caring or being willing to do it or not willing to do it,” she said. “And I feel like every time I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m really going to try,’ I just don’t really see results.” It doesn’t help that she’s a private person, and she doesn’t want to come across as phony. “Every time I really think about it, I just think about my actual friends that follow me and I’m like, ‘God, this is so annoying. I don’t want them to see this.’”

Fulton (left) runs alongside Karissa Schweizer, Weini Kelati, and Elise Cranny in the 5,000m at the USATF Championships. (Photo by D.V. Gregori)

Times versus tactics

Fulton’s worst race of the season came at an inopportune time, as she made a tactical error trying to get out from the rail in the last 150m of her 1500m prelim at the USATF Outdoor Championships. She narrowly missed advancing to the final.

She points out it’s one thing to run fast times; it’s another to master the tactics that lead to success in championship races. The way the two or three rounds of the 1500 go at a championship, she points out, are vastly different from any regular-season 1500. 

Three days later, Fulton finished 10th in the 5,000m. It was her highest finish ever at USAs outdoors, but not representative of what she could do.

A couple days later, Fulton learned of an opportunity to pace Jessica Hull in her attempt to break the Australian record in the mile. Six days after her 5,000m race, Fulton followed the first pacer, newly minted USATF 1500m champion Sinclaire Johnson, through 1,000m before taking over the pace for the next 200m. Hull went on to break the record, running 4:19.89, and Fulton stuck close to Hull for the next 300m to hit a 1500m personal best (4:03.03) before jogging to the finish line and still managing to run a 4:31 mile. “That was kind of a fun way to get me out of my funk post-USAs,” Fulton said. 

Though Hull’s team, the Nike-sponsored Union Athletics Club, is also based in Portland, Fulton hadn’t interacted with the team much before. “They’re very inclusive and were super nice to me,” she said. “Everyone was invited to join their post-race workout. I was impressed with how welcoming they are for how good they are.”

And on Friday night, Fulton ran an aggressive race at Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, North Carolina, and finished second to Nikki Hiltz, 4:21.89 to 4:23.65. Fulton took 5.81 seconds off her personal best and became the 14th-fastest American miler of all time outdoors. Two days later, she won the Brooklyn Mile, a road mile, in a course record 4:28.

She recently learned that her 5,000m finish at USAs earned her the opportunity to represent the U.S. at the NACAC Championships in the Bahamas later this month. It will be her first time representing the U.S. internationally in an individual event at the senior level. “Any chance I get to run the USA uniform, I will be there,” she said. 

And she’s hoping this is just the start. During the World Championships, Fulton drove down to Eugene and watched some of the athletes, whom she races regularly, compete, and it reaffirmed her desire to be out there with them some day. “I would like to be able to compete at a world level,” she said. “I’ll be okay if that doesn’t come true, but that for me is the ultimate goal. And I would have never thought that that was possible, but I just keep thinking, ‘Okay, just one more jump. Can I make one more little jump in the 1500m?’”

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Lara Rogers to coach Baltimore-based professional team

Lara Rogers (Courtesy photo)

By Alison Wade

Last Wednesday, Under Armour announced that Lara Rogers (née Crofford) has been named the women’s head coach of UA Mission Run Baltimore Distance, the company’s newest professional running team. Rogers joins Cory Leslie, who was previously hired to serve as the men’s head coach, and becomes one of very few women to coach a professional distance group in the U.S. Being a head coach puts her in an even more exclusive club with—to the best of my knowledge—Amy Yoder Begley (Atlanta Track Club Elite), Joan Hunter (Tinman Elite), and Julia Lucas (Atalanta).

The significance is not lost on her. “It means a lot,” Rogers said in a phone call with Fast Women. “I think it’s important for women that want to get into coaching in the future to see that anything’s possible, no matter what the numbers and statistics say.”

Rogers spent nearly seven years coaching at the University of Cincinnati before taking over as the head women’s cross country coach and assistant track & field coach at Washington State University in April. A couple days after Rogers accepted the Washington State job, she got a call from Leslie, who had gotten her name from Furman coach Rita Gary. Leslie told Rogers about Under Armour’s vision, and it was an unusual enough opportunity that she couldn’t resist pursuing it.

“I have to give a big shout out to Rita, because she is the one that put my name in the hat and if it weren’t for her, this wouldn’t have even come up as an opportunity,” Rogers said. “And I’ve been lucky to have tons of mentors in the sport… A lot of my female role models have really helped me grow in this career and have been really great to bounce ideas off of.”

Rogers finished out the track season at Washington State before accepting her new role in June and got to work recruiting a team. Under Armour announced the first two women to join the team last week as well: Oregon graduate Susan Ejore, who had been running unsponsored and lowered her 1500m time to 4:03.98 last month, and recent Cincinnati graduate Ellie Leather, who finished third in the NCAA indoor mile in March and has a 1500m best of 4:11.33. (Fun fact: Leather’s great aunt, Diane Leather, was the first woman ever to break 5:00 in the mile, in 1954.)

Though Leather ran for Rogers at Cincinnati, it wasn’t a given that she’d follow Rogers to Baltimore. “As her coach, I really encouraged her throughout the whole process to look at all of her options,” Rogers said. “She did her due diligence…but at the end of the day, it was kind of a perfect match.”

The team will focus on events from 1500m to 10,000m and Rogers hopes they’ll have 3 or 4 athletes by the end of the summer, and that they’ll be able to fill out their 8- to 10-woman roster within a year. The team will be based in Baltimore, where they’ll have access to Under Armour’s state-of-the-art facility, which is in the works.

Rogers, 33, was a second-team All American in the 10,000m for the University of Nebraska and she finished her collegiate eligibility at Shippensburg University, where she became a Division II All American. She began her coaching career at Shippensburg before signing a two-year contract to run post-collegiately for NE Distance from 2013 to 2015. Rogers was coached by Kurt Benninger and did a fair amount of training with well known runners such as Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, Kim Smith, and Amy Cragg. When her contract was up, she began coaching at Cincinnati. Rogers still runs most days, but she no longer competes.

“If you asked me 10 years ago if I thought I would be coaching at the pro level, I would have said I would love to but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a reality,” Rogers said. 

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Gabi Rooker earns Olympic Trials qualifier with a 20-minute PR

Gabi Rooker finishes the 2022 Grandma’s Marathon. (Photo by Stephen Maturen)

By Alison Wade

At last month’s Grandma’s Marathon, Gabi Rooker ran a 20-minute personal best. That kind of improvement isn’t all that unusual in a second marathon, as one figures out how to train, pace, and fuel. What makes Rooker’s accomplishment remarkable is that she went from 2:54:57, which made her an excellent local runner, to 2:34:57 (2:34:59 gun time), which qualified her to compete at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. At the time, only 25 American women had run faster in 2022. 

Part of the reason Rooker, 34, is improving so dramatically is that she’s relatively new to the sport. She did some running off and on throughout her twenties, but Rooker, a Minneapolis resident, only started running consistently four or five years ago. When she ran 1:06:02 at the 2018 Twin Cities 10 Mile and placed well in her age group, she realized that she had some talent for the sport. Her husband, Alex Rooker, who was a college track & field athlete turned cyclist, began coaching her. By the fall of 2019, she lowered her 10-mile time to 1:02:06 and started to think about running her first marathon.

Athletic beginnings

This is hardly a couch-to-elite-runner story, though. Rooker was a very serious athlete growing up, but her sport of choice was gymnastics. She began in the sport when she was only three years old and eventually built up to 20 hours per week of training. “It was my whole life,” Rooker said. She aspired to be a Division I college gymnast, but a series of injuries as she was going through puberty, including breaking both of her arms, caused her to scale back her expectations and focus more on enjoying the sport. 

“I definitely learned a ton of focus and discipline and lessons about myself and perseverance,” Rooker said. “But I certainly think that there are some parts of the sport that needed to evolve and change. I’m not involved in it now, but I hope those things have changed. Not to even get into any of the abuse and toxicity, but even just letting kids participate in other sports and things like that. At the same time, I think I am dedicated and driven in all aspects of my life because of gymnastics.”

Rooker took her senior year of high school away from gymnastics and went out for the track team, where her events of choice were the 100m, 200m, and 400m—nearly as far as one can get from the marathon and still be in the same sport. She returned to gymnastics for her college years, and she won three Division III individual national titles and three team national titles competing for the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. And, as she had hoped, she had a lot of fun doing it.

Gabi Rooker wins the 2010 NCGA national title on floor.

“Our coach (Barbara Gibson) was fantastic,” she said. “We had a ton of success, but her focus was mostly on teaching young women to become self confident, strong, and leaders in whatever their life looks like after college.”

Gymnastics is a tough sport to continue with post-collegiately, so Rooker knew that she would be leaving it behind when she graduated in 2010, and it took awhile for her to figure out other ways she enjoyed staying active.

Becoming a marathoner

Rooker hoped to run her first marathon in 2020, but those plans were thwarted by the pandemic. She works as a physician assistant in internal medicine and ended up taking care of a lot of Covid patients. She was never aware of having contracted Covid, but in May 2020, her antibody test came back positive, so she spent the remainder of the year donating plasma to help others fight Covid.

Though her work was challenging and stressful at times during 2020, like many people, Rooker had more down time outside of work, and she used some of it to increase her mileage. By the time Grandma’s Marathon returned in June of 2021, she was ready. She thought breaking 3:00 would be a good goal for her first marathon, and it went even better than she expected. She went through halfway in 1:29:18 and ran the second half in 1:25:39. It was that race that got her thinking about going after the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time.

She knew the 2024 standard would likely be faster than the 2020 standard of 2:45:00, but she felt “a little bit gutted” when she learned last December that it had dropped eight minutes, to 2:37:00. An 18-minute personal best seemed like a tall order. She processed the news by going for a run with her Mill City Running teammate Kim Horner, who was also chasing the standard. “We were commiserating and it was kind of like, ‘Okay we knew we had to run faster than we have, and now we just have to run even faster than that.’”

Rooker’s buildup for Grandma’s in 2022 went about as smoothly as it could have. “I certainly had days that felt frustrating and tough—and exhausting—but the buildup itself, looking back, was really consistent,” she said. She does most of her training alone because her work schedule—seven days on followed by seven days off—often makes it hard to coordinate with other runners. And at times, that’s for the best, because she’s a strong believer in taking her easy days really easy. (Her easy pace has gotten progressively faster, though, and it’s currently around 8:00/mile.) Rooker saves her hardest training for the weeks she has off of work, and during this buildup, she hit her first 100-mile week.

Though Rooker and Horner run together less than one would expect, given their proximity and shared goals, they text each other often to discuss how training is going, fueling concerns, and other topics. ”We’re just both a big sounding board for each other,” Rooker said. “It’s a very mutually positive relationship both as teammates and then as good friends as well.” 

At the end of April, Rooker raced the Eugene Half Marathon, where she had the opportunity to run with Shalane Flanagan, who was pacing a group of runners. (Flanagan mentioned on a podcast that she is working on a project to help women qualify for the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials.) “I thought I might as well run with her because it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Rooker said. She hung with Flanagan’s pack until late in the race, then picked up the pace and finished in a personal best of 1:17:32. 

That time is unlikely to last for long, though, because at Grandma’s, Rooker went through halfway in 1:18:12 and ran a big negative split, with a 1:16:45 second half. And Horner hit the Trials qualifying time as well, running 2:36:41, which made it an extra special day.

Rooker is still taking it easy in her training as she recovers, and this summer, she’ll focus on shorter races. She’s hoping to improve her 16:55.24 5,000m personal best at the Tracksmith 5000 in August and bring some of her other personal bests down. Then she plans to run the California International Marathon in December. It’s too soon for her to think about goals for the 2024 Trials—the event’s host city and date haven’t even been announced yet—but at some point she would like to run under 2:29:30, the 2020 Olympic standard. Rooker is only just beginning to learn how much potential she has in the sport, and she’s relishing the challenge.

“In gymnastics, you do this thing thousands and thousands of times, as perfectly as you can and then the change is going from practice to the meet,” Rooker said. “But you’re still on a four-inch beam that’s four feet tall. Everything else is controlled, except you and your mindset. 

“And then with running, it’s the opposite. You do a huge amount of training but there might be wind on the day of the race, or rain, or you might have an upset stomach. You’re trying to do something you’ve never done before. I’m trying to run faster and stronger than I’ve ever run before and that is scary, but it’s such a cool challenge, because you have to let go of so many control factors and be okay with the race day that you get and just throw down what you have.”

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Teamwork yields big payday for Lauren Hurley and Molly Grabill

By Alison Wade

The Pittsburgh Track Club’s Night at the Island track meet on June 4 offered a one-of-a-kind prize money structure. Any U.S. citizen who could break the Pennsylvania soil records in the mile or 5,000m, provided that they had never run faster than the record before, would earn a $20,000 bonus.

This turned out to be the perfect opportunity for former triathlete Lauren Hurley, 34, who is very fast but has very little experience racing on the track, and her training partner Molly Grabill, 29, who ran her 5,000m personal best of 15:22.97 earlier this season. Grabill’s time was fast, but not as fast as the Pennsylvania soil record of 15:17.11, which kept her eligible for the bonus.

Hurley and Grabill, who are both coached by Ric Rojas, made a deal ahead of time, knowing that without a pacer in the race, teamwork was going to greatly increase their chances of breaking the record. They took turns leading each 800m for the first 3200m, and agreed that if one of them earned the bonus, they would split it.

Hurley turned out to have more in her legs, and she won her first-ever track 5,000m in 15:16.33, while Grabill finished second in 15:56.35. Though Hurley cut it pretty close, breaking the record by 0.78 seconds, she remained confident. “I wasn’t nervous,” Hurley wrote in a text to Fast Women. “We went out a little slower than I usually like to race but this was a new approach for me. This is just my fourth race ever on the track…so I am still learning how to race tactically. I knew I probably had it though the last 400m, and I tried to relax and think of my son Wilder and just smile.”

Hurley was feeling so good that she also decided to hop in the mile about 20 minutes later. She won that one too, running 4:45.43 in her first-ever mile race. Hurley earned $1,000 for each of her wins, for a total of $22,000. Given that most U.S. track races have little to no prize money, it was a big payday, even after sharing $10,000 of it with Grabill.

Prior to this meet, Hurley had raced only once this year. She ran 31:49.46, a 10,000m personal best, in winning the “B” heat at Sound Running’s TEN in March, but shortly after, she injured her calf. As a former triathlete, cross training is no problem for Hurley, but she had to take three weeks off from running and was disappointed to miss the USATF 10,000m championships. Grabill, on the other hand, was coming off a 10th-place finish at the 10,000m champs just over a week earlier.

Hurley’s time was just off the 15:13.00 qualifying standard for the upcoming USATF Outdoor Championships and will almost certainly get her into the meet, so she will consult with Rojas about whether to run. She is also starting to think about trying the marathon.

The son she thought about on the final lap of her race, Wilder, will turn two soon, and Hurley has her hands full as a single mother and business owner. “It’s really tough to toggle running, work, a kiddo, and try to compete on the elite stage,” Hurley said. “But I’m trying my best and seeing what I can do!”

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Brenna Detra forges her own path

Brenna Detra (Photo by @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

In April, 800 meter runner Brenna Detra hit a low point. Despite all the work she was putting in, she had just run 2:04.90 and finished second to last in her race at the Penn Relays. Her mother told her that if the sport wasn’t making her happy, maybe it was time to let it go. Detra, 26, half wondered if she should go back to her college specialty, the 400m hurdles. But deep down, she knew she needed to keep going.

On Friday, May 20, Detra’s breakthrough came. She finished a close third in the 800m at the Trials of Miles Track Night NYC, and became the 71st American woman to break 2:00 in the 800m, running 1:59.94. The time was a personal best by 1.53 seconds and validation that she’s on the right track after making some big changes in the past year, including getting a new coach, putting law school on hold, and leaving the Boston Athletic Association, the team she had run for since graduating from the University of Wisconsin. 

Breaking 2:00

One week before Detra’s breakthrough race, she did a 600m-400m-200m workout on the track and broke 1:30 for the 600m for the first time, running 1:28.7. She looked at her training partner and said, “I think I can break 2:00 now.”

But when she arrived at New York City’s Icahn Stadium on race day, doubts crept in. A thunderstorm delayed the start of the race. Detra’s socks were soaking wet and she was shivering, until someone let her borrow a rain jacket. And for a split second, she questioned whether she belonged in the race. Detra does not have an agent, so it falls on her to convince meet directors to put her in faster heats. At the New York City event, she was originally in the “B” heat, until a scratch bumped her into the top heat. Detra thought of her sports psychologist’s advice and told herself, “You belong here. You deserve this. You’re grateful to be here, and to be healthy.”

In the race, Detra hit halfway in 58.05. She told herself to stay attached to the lead pack, and thought of what her coach, Anna Willard Grenier, would tell her: Run smooth and strong on the backstretch, conserve energy, and get ready for the last 200. “I was waiting for the hurt to come, because in the 800 there’s always a point where you’re like, ‘Here it goes,’  but it just never came,” Detra said. “I’ve never felt that good during a race. And then the last 110m, I was like, ‘You could win this.’ I’ve spent so much time being in the middle of the pack and towards the back of races but I didn’t truly believe that I could put myself in a race and almost win it. It was really the first race where it clicked.”

Detra finished 0.14 seconds behind race winner Juliette Whittaker, close enough that Detra, too, hit the finish line tape when she crossed the line. Her name was blurry on the scoreboard, but when she saw the first number next to her name was a one, she leapt into the air.

A blown out knee

Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, Detra was a great all around athlete. She played volleyball, softball, and basketball. And when a softball coach saw her running around the bases one day and remarked how good Detra would be at track and field, she added another sport.

She loved to win and would do whatever it took to get better, “It sounds so cliché, but I would get so mad when I would lose anything,” Detra said. “My mom has really helped me with that. She’s a single mom of three kids, one with a disability, and she never, ever showed me when she was struggling or anything. I was just so focused on my goals and wanting to be the best, because it also reflected what a good mom she is, too. I get emotional thinking about it, but she really instilled my drive and my determination.”

Detra’s father wasn’t in her life, but she says she gets her athletic ability from that side of the family, and her competitiveness from her mom. In high school, Detra continued to play volleyball and basketball, and was a two-time Illinois state champion in the 300m hurdles. 

She earned a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where she struggled at first, and put a lot of pressure on herself to perform. “I was scared to death to lose my scholarship and have to go back home and feel like I failed my mom and failed my family,” she said. But her performances gradually came around.

Detra bounced between running the 800m indoors and the 400m hurdles outdoors. Her fourth year of college, in 2017, she qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time. And on the third hurdle of her opening race, disaster struck. She landed badly and tore her ACL, MCL, LCL, and meniscus, and chipped a piece of bone off her kneecap. 

She underwent surgery two weeks later, and she was back in the training room the next day, working on getting her range of motion back. “I never once for a second thought that I wasn’t going to be back,” Detra said. She had to relearn how to walk, and took 16 weeks off from running. 

But when Detra could finally run again, all the cross training paid off and she was able to return quickly. By the following outdoor track season, she finished fourth in the 400m hurdles at the Big Ten Championships, ran a personal best of 57.42, and made it back to the NCAA Championships, where she finished 13th in the prelims.

Detra’s surgeon was so impressed with her recovery that he asked her to promise she would keep going until she made it to the Olympics. Her knee still bothers her sometimes, and she might need another surgery someday, but so far, it’s been manageable. 

“I don’t regret any of it for a second,” she said. “People go through much harder things than I did. I think it made me have a new appreciation for running, even though it was really hard. I think that everything happens for a reason and that was meant to show that you can overcome anything if you work hard enough.”

A coaching change

After finishing her eligibility at Wisconsin, Detra took a job at Oracle in Boston and her Wisconsin coaches connected her with Ricardo Santos, who was coaching the B.A.A. team at the time. At first, she was just hoping to keep running to stay in shape. “I started realizing, going to the meets my first year, this is a job, this is people’s career,” Detra said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want this.’” 

She was on her own financially, so she needed to keep her full-time job, but Detra decided to focus on the 800m post-collegiately because she thought her ceiling might be higher in that event, plus, she said, “You don’t need hurdles, sleds, wickets, or anything. It’s just kind of running.”

Detra was a member of the B.A.A.’s Racing Team, which came with coaching but less support than the members of the B.A.A. High Performance Team received. And it may have confused potential sponsors into thinking that she already had a sponsor. This year she decided to strike out on her own to see what else is out there. She pays her own way to races, and sees it as an investment in her future. (She took the bus to New York and public transportation to Icahn Stadium to keep her costs low.)

B.A.A. assistant Morgan Uceny had been writing Detra’s workouts for the past two years, but when she left the team, Uceny recommended that Detra reach out to her former training partner, Grenier, and they began working together in August. (Both Uceny and Grenier ran collegiately in the Ivy League before becoming Olympians.)

Detra said Grenier could see what she needed right away. “She saw a gap in my speed and that middle ground between the speed endurance and strength work,” Detra said. “I would really struggle with mile pace or [kilometer] workouts, and she was like, ‘I think we need to start on both ends and fill in the gaps between.’”

Right off the bat, Grenier had Detra doing fast speed, and Detra was initially doubtful. “I was like, ‘How is this going to help? I don’t understand,’” she said. “And she was like, ‘We need to get your speed back, we need to get your confidence back, because that’s your strength.’” Detra did three hard workouts per week and increased the intensity in her training. Over time, the workouts she had been struggling with became easier.

“I really didn’t think workouts between coaches would change that much, nobody had the magic wand, but Anna was just so speed oriented for the 800m and intense, and I think my body just adapts well to that.” Detra said.

Grenier also connected Detra with a training partner, Matt Baron, who is a few seconds faster than her in the 800m. “He kicks my butt, but it definitely helps so much having someone that can take your mind off a rep,” she said. Last year, she did her workouts on her own, but now Grenier, who also coaches at Boston College, oversees Detra’s biggest workout of the week, which makes a big difference.

Grenier is also working on building up Detra’s confidence, and getting her to believe she can win races.  “We work on that every practice,” Detra said. “She does not let me think for one second that I’m going to lose any rep with Matt.”

Shifting priorities

Since the pandemic began, Detra has worked remotely for Oracle, most recently as a deal desk analyst, which has made it easier for her to train. Last year, Detra also completed her first year of law school, taking classes remotely at Tulane. She hasn’t decided exactly what she would like to do with her degree, but her experience growing up in Peoria has influenced her. “Peoria is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. and seeing how African Americans are treated there, I think that’s kind of grounded me in a sense for the change I want to make moving forward,” she said.

But law school combined with full-time work and professional running took a toll. Detra knew that in order to maximize her performance on the track, she needed to give something up. She has put law school on hold for now, knowing that she has seven years to complete her degree, and professional running won’t be an option forever. 

Last summer, Detra spent five days in the hospital thanks to a perforated stomach ulcer. It looked like she would need emergency surgery, but it ended up healing on its own. The doctors’ best guess was that it was related to NSAID use, though stress could have been a contributing factor. She previously took ibuprofen sometimes around races or when she was sore, but now she can’t take it at all. “I’m okay now, but it was really scary,” she said.

Detra is hoping that being a sub-2:00 800m runner will open more doors, like getting her into the fast heat of the 800m at Sunday’s Music City Track Carnival in Nashville. It’s already earned her an invitation to race the USATF NYC Grand Prix on June 12. She’ll race the USATF Outdoor Championships beginning June 23, and then she would love to race in Europe, if the opportunity arises.

Detra hopes to race through at least 2024 or 2025, and then she’ll reevaluate. She would love to find a sponsor and she’s hoping that by focusing on her goals, like becoming a consistent racer, making the final at the USATF Championships, and contending for spots on world championships and Olympic teams, she can make that happen.

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Juliette Whittaker becomes the second American high schooler to break the 2:00 800m barrier

Juliette Whittaker competes at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. (Photo by @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

On Friday night at New York City’s Icahn Stadium, high school senior Juliette Whittaker held off a field of professional runners to win the 800m at the Trials of Miles Track Night NYC. Her winning time, 1:59.80, made her only the second American high school girl ever to break the 2:00 barrier. (Mary Cain, who ran 1:59.51 at the 2013 Prefontaine Classic, is the first.)

For a while, it looked like the race might not happen at all, as a storm delayed the start of the event. That worked out well for Whittaker, because she and her father got caught in traffic driving up from their home in Laurel, Maryland, and didn’t arrive at the event until about 40 minutes before her race was originally scheduled to go off.

When the weather cleared, conditions were great for racing other than the wet track, and the field took full advantage. Whittaker’s original plan was to key off of Ajee’ Wilson early in the race, but she adjusted the plan when Wilson, along with U.S. leader Allie Wilson, didn’t show up on the starting line, both late scratches from the race.

Rabbit Rachael Walters hit 400m in 57.12, with Whittaker splitting 57.90, in fourth place. Through 600m, Whittaker ran a close third behind Olivia Baker and Great Britain’s Adelle Tracey. And in the homestretch, Whittaker first picked off Tracey, then Baker in the closing strides. Behind Whittaker, Baker (second, 1:59.90) and Brenna Detra (third, 1:59.94) also broke 2:00 for the first time. And high school junior Sophia Gorriaran, of Rhode Island, finished sixth in 2:00.65, which ties her for fourth on the all-time U.S. high school list outdoors. 

Heading into the race, winning wasn’t on Whittaker’s radar. And even as she sprinted down the homestretch, she was thinking more about her finishing time. “I saw the clock getting closer and closer to two minutes and I was like, ‘I want to get under so badly,’” she told Fast Women in a phone call yesterday.

For a while, Whittaker, 18, has had a large “Sub 2:00” written on her bathroom mirror, along with a smaller “and the national record.” But until she missed the record by just 0.29 seconds on Friday, Whittaker knew the high school record was 1:59-something, but she couldn’t have told you what that something was. “Now, after seeing how close I was, I would love to get it at some point before I’m done with high school, but I also won’t stress out about it,” she said.

Whittaker later wrote an Instagram post about some of the challenges she has faced this year, including losing her grandfather, a stress fracture, and getting Covid, which she said has made her more resilient and patient. “I am so incredibly proud of what got me here and even more excited to see where it can take me,” she wrote. “Here’s to breaking more barriers!”

After the race, Whittaker exchanged hugs and congratulations with her competitors, did a post-race interview, and then she was back to work, because she had agreed in advance to pace the high school mile without fully grasping that the events were only 40 minutes apart, thanks in part to the more condensed schedule, due to the storm delay.

Whittaker thought she might just run 600 or 800m of the mile, but she felt surprisingly good going through 800m in 2:16 that she stayed in the race through 1000m, splitting roughly 2:51 before dropping out. She later wondered what would have happened if she had stayed in the race, won by Pennsylvania’s Mia Cochran in 4:42.43. “I’m sure I would have started to feel it in the last 400m,” she said.

Whittaker has more racing to come this season, but first she has another big event on Saturday—her graduation from Mount de Sales Academy. Whittaker is headed to Stanford in the fall, where she’s part of a stellar recruiting class that also includes Roisin Willis, who broke the indoor 800m U.S. high school record in February, running 2:00.06.

Whittaker plans to race the mile at the Brooks PR Invitational on June 15, and the 800m at the USATF U20 Championships beginning June 24. She has qualified to run at the senior national meet, against the pros, but the two meets will take place simultaneously, so she had to make a choice. A top two finish at the U20 Championships will earn her a spot at the World U20 Championships, which take place in Cali, Colombia, in early August. Plus it didn’t hurt that she knew Willis was running the U20 Championships as well.

And now Whittaker says she can shift her focus a bit. “I think now, after finally breaking 2:00, I won’t be as focused on a time but kind of just being a good competitor and racing well. Hopefully that will also bring about fast times, but the fast times will maybe now just be a plus.”

In addition to hopefully extending her track season until August, Whittaker is looking forward to spending time with her family (she’s the youngest of four siblings) and hanging out with her friends before they all head off to college.

At Stanford, Whittaker will be coached by J.J. Clark, who famously coached his wife, Jearl Miles-Clark, and two sisters (Hazel Clark and Joetta Clark Diggs) to an 800m sweep at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. In addition to track, Whittaker, who was an Eastbay Cross Country finalist in December, plans to run cross country in college, but she’s not sure yet how much of a focus it will be.

Though Whittaker is running times comparable to those of other young athletes who turned pro right out of high school, she never seriously entertained the idea. Getting a good education is important to her, but so is the overall college experience. “I really wanted that experience with the team and in the NCAA,” she said. “Right now, I obviously have a high school team, but I go to a lot of the meets alone and I even practice at different times sometimes. Just having a team, and such a talented team, too, has excited me so much about college, and I really want to experience that.”

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Aliphine Tuliamuk is back, wins USATF 25K showdown

Aliphine Tuliamuk wins the 2022 USATF 25K title. (Photo: Mike Scott)

Saturday’s USATF 25K Championships marked the first time that Aliphine Tuliamuk left her 16-month-old daughter behind to go to a race, and she was feeling emotional about it. She told WOOD TV before the race, “I’m going to be gone for three days, and I want to make sure it counts.”

Tuliamuk did just that, winning her 11th national title, and her first since becoming a mom. She ran 1:23:19 (5:21/mile), only two seconds off Makena Morley’s women’s-only American record for the distance. Tuliamuk finished 45 seconds ahead of runner-up Keira D’Amato (1:24:04), after the two engaged in a close battle for the first 11 miles of the 15.53-mile race.

This wasn’t the first time Tuliamuk and D’Amato had raced. At the 2020 Houston Half Marathon, they finished 19th and 20th, respectively. And at the Olympic Marathon Trials the following month, Tuliamuk pulled off the win while D’Amato finished 15th. But it was the first time they had raced since D’Amato’s breakthrough in 2020.

The two runners have had very different paths over the past couple years, with D’Amato running her best times ever, including an American marathon record of 2:19:12 in January. Tuliamuk, on the other hand, gave birth in January 2021 and worked her way back to compete in the Olympic marathon, only to get injured during her final weeks of preparation. But as Tuliamuk showed on Saturday, after a long road, she’s back.

By the one-mile mark, which D’Amato and Tuliamuk hit in 5:17, they had already started to separate themselves from the rest of the field. D’Amato did much of the pacesetting during the first half of the race, with Tuliamuk tucked in right behind her. “It is terrifying to have her on your heels,” D’Amato told USATF TV after the race.

D’Amato said Tuliamuk’s breathing sounded kind of heavy early on, so she thought maybe if she set a quick pace, she could put Tuliamuk “in the pain cave” from the start. “It turns out that strategy did not work,” D’Amato said. “She’s such a strong runner that she kind of just hung with it.”

Around the halfway point, Tuliamuk started to do more of the leading, until she missed her bottle at the 15K and decided to go back to get it, because of the hot and humid conditions. (It was around 70 degrees at the start.) “I think if she had decided to make a move at that moment, she would have actually got it because it kind of got into my head a little bit,” Tuliamuk said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m running so hard to try to catch up to her,’ but she kept encouraging me.”

During the awards ceremony, D’Amato was credited with (1:55 mark) waiting for Tuliamuk to catch up, but D’Amato said in a message to Fast Women that she was being given too much credit.

“I hesitated for a moment and yelled, ‘Let’s go, Aliphine.’ But then I surged ahead knowing we were dangerously close to the American record. I turned around again and yelled, ‘You got this, catch back up,’ or something along those lines, but I honestly thought that might have been it for her so I surged ahead and tried to stay on pace. 

“Then she caught me! Holy s—, she caught me. I tried to stay on the pace and this woman caught back up. Then I thought, ‘Well, that was probably hard for her to catch back up—I’m going to try to pick it up and really wear out her legs.’ She covered that. Then a mile or two later, she went flying by me and decisively made the move. I saw it happening, I couldn’t cover it. In my head I kept saying, ‘This is the move. This is the f—ing move. If I want to win, I go with this move.’ But my legs couldn’t respond.”

Tuliamuk made the move, roughly 11 miles in, look easy, but she had her doubts. “When you’re running with the marathon American record holder, if you make a move, you have to be decisive,” Tuliamuk said. “I was actually freaking out, [thinking], ‘Did I do that too soon?’ I wasn’t so sure about it. But then I looked back and I was like, ‘I think I’ve got this.’ But you can never be too sure until you cross the finish line.”

Though they had exchanged messages, this race marked the first time Tuliamuk and D’Amato had met in person. “She’s hilarious and so sweet,” D’Amato told USATF TV. “It sucks losing, but it sucks a little less when you really admire the person.”

Tuliamuk, who was running only her second race back since recovering from her pre-Olympic injury, said she hopes this is the start of a new and even better chapter in her running. “A long-term goal for me would be to do my best to make the next Olympic team, but until then, I have short-term goals like, for example, do a fall marathon and kick ass in that,” Tuliamuk told USATF TV. 

Tuliamuk told WOOD TV that while her last five or six weeks of training have been great, and she’s running faster than she was pre-baby, she still hasn’t reached the point where workouts feel comfortable. According to this article, Tuliamuk will race the Bolder Boulder 10K on May 30 and the New York Mini 10K on June 11. 

D’Amato said she hasn’t done any long tempos since she set the American marathon record, so it doesn’t surprise her that she found her limit on Saturday. “It’s exactly where I should be at this time in the year,” she said. “I have work to do.” And she hopes that the next time she and Tuliamuk race, she can turn the tables. “Right now I think I am zero and three against her, but I hope that that doesn’t stay that way,” she told USATF TV. “I’d like to at least put a one on that tally.”

D’Amato said she and Tuliamuk had their eyes on Jordan Hasay’s American record of 1:22:19, set en route at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, so she’d like to return to this race some time and get the record. The unseasonably warm weather on Saturday wasn’t conducive to record setting, but both women held off men’s champion Leonard Korir in the “equalizer” race that saw the women get a 10:30 head start. Tuliamuk earned $10,000 for the win, plus the $2,500 equalizer bonus, while D’Amato earned $5,000 for her runner-up finish. Dakotah Lindwurm took third in 1:26:37, Sarah Pagano was fourth in 1:27:52, and Andrea Pomaranski was fifth in 1:28:20, one week after her runner-up finish at the USATF Half Marathon Championships. (Video highlights, no subscription required | Results)

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Emily Sisson breaks the American half marathon record, finally

Emily Sisson wins the 2022 USATF Half Marathon Championships. (Photo by Mike Scott)

By Alison Wade

At the 2019 Houston Half Marathon Emily Sisson ran 1:07:30 and missed Molly Huddle’s American half marathon record by five seconds. The next time out, Sisson came even closer, running 1:07:26 at the 2020 Valencia Half Marathon, missing the record by one second. 

In January, the target moved when Sara Hall lowered the record to 1:07:15 at the Houston Half Marathon. And on Saturday in Indianapolis, Sisson finally took ownership of the record (pending ratification), running 1:07:11 to win the USATF Half Marathon Championships.

Sisson didn’t broadcast that this would be a record attempt in advance, because she wasn’t completely confident that she’d make it to the starting line, and she wasn’t sure how things would go after she contracted Covid at the end of March. After pulling out of two races last month, she didn’t want to announce and then back out of another one.

“When we picked this race, training had been going really well,” Sisson said. “We knew, because it was in the Midwest, that the weather would be hit or miss, but we didn’t need perfect conditions, we just needed decent ones, because we thought my fitness was there. And then with the last few weeks not going great, I was like, ‘I probably need closer to perfect, but I’m going to give it a shot.’” 

Saturday’s temperature was good, but it was windy out there. With the help of her agent, Sisson arranged in advance for pacers Brian Harvey and Eric Ashe, both Olympic Trials qualifiers in the marathon, neither of whom she knew previously, to help her out. Harvey went the full distance and Ashe dropped back just before six miles. “Having pacers made a world of difference today because I was hurting pretty bad,” she said. 

Sisson felt relatively relaxed until around six miles in, where the course enters the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a particularly windy section of the course. “I suddenly went from feeling really good to really not feeling great, and I didn’t feel great for the rest of the race, but I was able to just grind it out,” she said. “The last three miles, I was like, ‘Just keep moving, don’t slow down.’ I knew once I got close to the finish line I’d be able to pick it up a little bit.”

She needed to run about 5:07.8/mile, or just over 15:56 per 5K, to break the record, and she went out ahead of pace, splitting 15:54 for 5K. She hit 10K in 31:57 (a 16:03 5K split), slightly behind record pace, 15K in 47:54 (a 15:57), and 20K in 1:03:52 (a 15:58), still slightly behind pace. It was only between 20K in the finish that Sisson made up the ground necessary to break the record.

Although Sisson was thrilled to finally get the record, she’s already thinking about running faster, when she can get in a smoother buildup. “I feel like all the records are just being borrowed right now, because a lot of American distance runners are about to run a lot faster in the half and the full marathon,” she said. “I am really happy with my performance, and part of it is just that I’m happy that I’m back racing and I was able to still come out and do this today. But I was saying to my husband, ‘I want to run faster.’”

Sisson points out that there aren’t many high level opportunities to run a fast half marathon in the U.S.—she considered going to Portugal instead of Indianapolis—but if the top American runners find the opportunities and the timing is right, there’s a lot of untapped potential.

Before she contracted Covid, Sisson was planning to go out in mid-66 pace, and ideally pick it up at the end. When Sisson tested positive at the end of March, she wasn’t particularly sick, but getting back to high level training was difficult. Her heart rate was higher than usual, she was having trouble breathing, and she was feeling tightness in her chest, which would linger for a couple days after a workout. It wasn’t until she came down to sea level that she was able to complete her first workout, about two and a half weeks before the race. Because she felt so significantly better at sea level, she ended up spending the last two weeks of her buildup in Phoenix, rather than her home in Flagstaff. “I don’t know if it was just timing or if altitude did make it a bit harder to recover. But breathing up at 7,000 feet’s not easy anyway,” she said.

The past year has been full of ups and downs for Sisson. She made her first Olympic team, winning the 10,000m at the Olympic Trials in spectacular fashion, but then she got injured in July. She finished 10th in the 10,000m at the Olympic Games, despite the injury, but it took three months before she was able to run more than five miles again. Sisson had to withdraw from the New York City Marathon, but by the beginning of March, she was fit enough to dominate her first race back, the USATF 15K Championships. Then she got Covid.

Now that things are on the upswing again, Sisson is looking forward to having more racing opportunities. “The last couple of years I haven’t raced as much as I’ve wanted to and I really just want that experience of throwing myself into a bunch of races—different distances, different types of races,” she said. She plans to run the New York Mini 10K on June 11, a fall marathon, and other events to be determined. She’s also looking forward to more head-to-head competition. She has dominated the two races she has run in 2022, including winning Saturday’s half marathon by just over six minutes. But she knows there’s plenty of competition out there.

“Distance running on the road, on the women’s side, is really is taking off,” Sisson said. “It’s exciting to see. I can think of like five people that could probably go for this record now. It’s just so deep.”

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Emilee Risteen goes from 4-hour marathoner to 2:42

Emilee Risteen celebrates her first Boston Marathon finish. (Courtesy photos)

By Alison Wade

Shortly after Emilee Risteen crossed the finish line last Monday at the Boston Marathon, she texted her coach, “Is this real life?” Her disbelief was understandable. Risteen, 26, ran her first marathon, two and a half years ago, in 4:03:59, and on Monday, she finished 33rd among more than 10,000 women in the race, running 2:42:25.

There were intermediate steps along the way, and Risteen improved her marathon time to 3:04:16 last November in New York, but her time in Boston was still a personal best by nearly 22 minutes. Risteen’s qualifying time was only good enough to get her into wave two of the race. So she started 40 minutes after the pro women and 25 minutes after wave one. She saw very few people during the first eight miles—fitting for someone who trains alone—and it wasn’t until past halfway that she saw crowds of runners. 

“I was kind of hoping to have somebody I could pace with, but when I think back on the race, it was just such a fun experience overall that I really didn’t put much thought into it,” she said. “My coach kept saying, ‘Rhythm, rhythm, find a rhythm,’ and then once I found it, I just kind of hung on to see how long it could go for. And it just happened to go for the whole thing.”

Risteen was the first runner, male or female, with a wave two bib to cross the finish line. 

“Never again” to getting hooked

Growing up in Derry, New Hampshire, Risteen was a soccer player. During high school, at Concord Christian Academy, she was a big fish in a small pond, but Risteen says she was just average at the sport. She hoped to play soccer for a small Division III school, but when Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, which did not have a women’s soccer team, offered her free tuition, she went the “financially wise” route.

Though she played intramural sports at Moody, it was the first time in Risteen’s life that she wasn’t on a team, which was a tough adjustment. She began running to fill that void. “It was a time in my life where I was struggling in my faith so I used running as my way to connect with God,” she said. 

At the end of college, Risteen did some student teaching in Tanzania, and when she saw there was a half marathon taking place, she decided to enter, though her longest run ever was 7 or 8 miles. “It was a terrible experience,” she said. “It was so hot and I think I ran like 13-minute miles and I crossed that finish line and said, ‘I’m never going to run a half marathon again.’”

After graduating, Risteen moved home and started substitute teaching while she looked for a teaching job. “It was a season in my life where I worked through a lot of mental health challenges and I used running as a way to cope—and still do—with all of that,” she said.

During college, the Chicago Marathon ran by Risteen’s dorm every year, and she had always thought she’d like to try it someday. When she saw an opportunity to run the race while raising money for World Vision, she jumped at the chance but didn’t put a lot of thought into it. She followed a training plan she found online.

She had never practiced fueling before, but she took gels for the first time during the race, which resulted in some GI issues. But still, she had a blast, and ran 4:03:59. “It was wonderful. I loved every second of it,” she said. “That was when the fire for the marathon [began].”

Getting serious

Risteen signed up to return to Chicago and fundraise again the following year, but the pandemic canceled the race, so she ran it virtually, figuring that because she had already collected some donations, she should go through with it. Her gym was closed, so she put more of her energy into running. 

“The pandemic was so hard for everyone,” Risteen said. “You lose so much of what you’re used to doing. Running became a huge outlet for me, because I had more time on my hands. I needed a break from everything in the world.” 

She increased her training volume from roughly 40–50 miles per week to 50–75. Following her sister on a bike, Risteen ran 3:38, roughly one minute per mile faster than one year earlier. 

At the beginning of 2021, Risteen hired Abby Stanley to be her coach. She wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and she was tired of feeling like she didn’t know what she was doing. “From the moment I talked to her the first time, I just knew it was going to work out well,” Risteen said. “I owe so much of my success to her.”

Stanley said that it was clear that with some structure, Risteen could run much faster than she had. But there was a learning curve. “When I started with her—we were actually just laughing about this—she gave me strides to do and I had to google what that was. I had no understanding of running terminology at all,” said Risteen. And, Stanley said, Risteen also needed to learn to slow down on her easy days.

Risteen returned to the Chicago Marathon in 2021, hoping to break 3:00, but in the warm, humid conditions, she struggled, running 3:07:10. It was another huge personal best, more than a minute per mile faster than her virtual marathon, but Risteen knew she was capable of more. She had planned to run the New York City Marathon for fun four weeks later, but after her frustrating run in Chicago, she decided to run New York more seriously. She went through halfway in 1:23:49 and faded, running 3:04:16. She was disappointed, but it was yet another personal best.

Nailing it

During her Boston buildup, Risteen focused on running faster paces for longer periods of time “so that when it starts to hurt, I know how to stay in it,” she said. She consistently churned out 95–100 mile weeks, and the training went well. She and Stanley thought that 2:45 was a realistic goal, while recognizing that Boston’s course can be a tough one to conquer. 

Risteen won the Hampton Half Marathon in early March, running 1:20:06, and she won the Eastern States 20 Mile, running at 80 percent effort. Those races, plus a hilly 24-mile run where she averaged 6:30 pace, gave her confidence. (In Boston, she averaged 6:11/mile.)

When Risteen went into Boston to pick up her race number on Saturday, she could feel the energy and excitement surrounding the race. She stopped by Tracksmith’s Trackhouse (“I’m obsessed,” she says of their clothing) and learned that Molly Seidel would soon be making an appearance nearby. She got to see Seidel, who is one of her favorite runners. “Her openness and her willingness to let people into her story—which is a very relatable story for me, in terms of her mental health—has been huge for me,” Risteen said. She also went to the finish line to take it all in before heading back home to celebrate Easter.

Risteen spent Sunday night in Boston, and on race day, she had a strong cheering squad. Several of her five siblings, her parents, her nephew, and two close friends spread out to cheer her on along the course. Stanley followed Risteen’s splits on the race app, from California. “She followed the race plan we talked about so well, I was so proud of that,” Stanley said. “It would’ve been easy for her to get out way too fast on that course, especially starting back in corral two and feeling like she needed to go chase people down.”

Risteen didn’t realize how quickly she was running until she reached mile 25 and calculated that she only had to cover the last 1.2 miles in 10 minutes to reach her 2:45 goal time. Meanwhile, the tracker stopped updating her splits after 35K, so Stanley began to worry something had happened. But then she received a text from Risteen with her finishing time: 2:42:25. “Best text ever!” Stanley said.

Risteen hoped to go back to Tracksmith after the race to get a poster stamped with her finishing time, but being a Boston newbie, she ended up on the wrong side of the course and abandoned that plan. She wiped herself down with baby wipes, changed clothes, went home to New Hampshire, and ate pizza to refuel.

Risteen already has her next marathon in mind—she’d like to go after the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time of 2:37:00 at the California International Marathon in December, where she and Stanley hope to finally meet in person. But Stanley also wants to make sure Risteen appreciates what she just accomplished. “She’s still very new to everything and right now I want her to enjoy what happened at Boston and not be so rushed to get on to bigger things,” she said.

Risteen was back on another starting line five days after Boston, helping her friend complete her first 10K in 71 minutes. Risteen is currently coaching track & field at her former high school, helping rebuild the program. And having never competed in the sport, she said she’s learning a lot along the way. She also works 45–50 hours per week managing an ice cream shop from April to October. Risteen hopes to focus on some shorter races through the summer and then ramp up her CIM training as things slow down a bit at work.

“I want her training to be sustainable and something she enjoys; not that she must prove anything to anyone,” Stanley said. “There are going to be good days and bad days in the journey ahead, and I think it’s just a balance of knowing when to push and when to hold back. I’m so excited for her to keep going after her dreams and getting to be here to cheer her on.”

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After surgery, Emily Lipari returns to racing with a new outlook

Emily Lipari makes her 10,000m debut. (Photo by D.V. Gregori)

By Alison Wade

When Emily Lipari ran 31:24.82 for 10,000m at The TEN last month, to her, it was more than just a race result. After a tumultuous year that included some of her lowest lows in the sport, her performance offered hope. It was her first race back after she tore her meniscus, underwent surgery, and considered giving up professional running. And it was the first clear indication that her best running could still be ahead of her.

Lipari, 29, has spent most of her professional career focusing on the mile, but she chose the 10,000m for her return because she had never raced one before and the stakes were low. She surpassed all expectations, despite a lap counting mishap, and finished 0.18 seconds under the World Championships qualifying standard. (The time makes her eligible to compete at the World Championships if she finishes in the top three at the U.S. trials in May.)

“When I actually got this done after such a rollercoaster of a year, I definitely welled up a little bit when I got home and really processed what happened,” Lipari said. “There haven’t been many points in my career where I’ve been like, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of [myself].’ But this time I was finally able to say out loud, ‘Wow, Emily, I’m really proud of you.’ It actually allowed me to believe again that I can get back to being even better than I was, which is really just an incredible feeling.”

A sudden injury

Lipari missed the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials because she didn’t run fast enough to qualify. But she was on a different level by 2021, and she entered the year in a good position, having already achieved the Olympic qualifying time in the 5,000m. She was looking forward to competing in her first Olympic Trials.

Eight weeks out from the Trials, at the end of April, Lipari was doing a routine threshold workout with her teammates in Sedona, Arizona, when she heard a pop in her right knee. She finished the rep but stopped the workout. An MRI revealed a parrot beak medial meniscus tear. For a while, Lipari thought she might be able to get to the Trials with aggressive rehabbing, cross training, and a little running here and there. But by the beginning of June, it became clear she wasn’t going to make it to the starting line.

Lipari was devastated. “All I wanted was the chance to either succeed or fail,” she said. “But I didn’t even get that chance.” She took two months off from running and cross training and focused on rehab. “I was just so mentally tapped and I needed to be away from it all,” she said. “I deleted my Instagram because it was just really hard to [look at]. I love good things happening to great people, but when you’re struggling, social media [can be] a hard place to be. It did really help me heal mentally and it made me be so present with my life and appreciate the things I had.”

After two months, it was apparent that Lipari’s injury wasn’t going to heal on its own, so she underwent surgery on July 28, the day before the Olympic track & field events began. During this time, Lipari contemplated her future in the sport. She began researching graduate schools and looking at job listings. “I was basically looking for my escape route,” she said. She told her husband, Tim Nangeroni, that she was done with professional running. “My heart just felt so broken from it and I didn’t know if I could dive back into it and put myself back in there,” she said.

Even with that uncertainty, Lipari worked hard in rehab, because she wanted to continue to be an active person. And after giving herself some space from the sport, she realized her heart was still in it. And with time, she began to see progress. “I started to get really excited and started to be able to dream a little bit again,” she said. By late October, Lipari was able to run for 30–40 minutes most days. By Thanksgiving she added fartleks, and in December she was able to start some speedwork. (And by January, Lipari was back on Instagram.)

Lipari’s fitness returned faster than she expected it to. “When I started running again I just felt so out of shape and so exhausted,” she said. “But after about five weeks of consistency all of a sudden, one day, it just came back and running felt easy again. It was like, with the snap of a finger, I just felt like I knew what I was doing out there again.”

Lipari is now back to what she calls her “new normal” in training. She used to run 80–85 miles per week, running twice a day four or five times per week. Now she has cut that down to 70–75 miles. She runs once a day and does her second session in the pool or on the bike. 

When she first got injured, Lipari racked her brain to figure out why this had happened. “I was just so hung up on ‘why me?’” she said. “Waiting around for an answer you’re never going to know is really exhausting. [I learned to] focus on what I could do presently. And if things were going really well in PT, it’s okay to pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you’re doing a good job. I’ve learned to be kind to myself.”

Lipari shortly after her surgery (Courtesy photo)

Losing count

The day before her 10,000m race, Lipari got a surge of confidence when her Golden Coast Track Club teammates, Emily Durgin and Sarah Pagano, finished second and fourth, respectively, at the USATF 15K Championships. “I was like, ‘These are the people I have been training with; maybe I can do something special in this 10K,’” Lipari said.

A couple of miles into the race, she found herself getting in a good rhythm following a line of runners. And with a mile to go, she stopped looking at the lap counter, started counting down in her head. She focused on chasing down the women in front of her. She kicked hard, caught Andrea Seccafien and Natosha Rogers, the eventual third- and fourth-place finishers, crossed the finish line, threw her arms in the air, and looked at the clock. It was just over 30 minutes. “I very quickly realized that I did not set the American record and I still had a lap to go,” she said.

Giving your all in a race, only to learn the race isn’t over, is rough, but Lipari’s mind quickly turned to the World Championships standard of 31:25. After standing still for a couple of seconds before she realized her error, Lipari jumped back in the race. “The real final lap, I was going back and forth with the pacing lights (which were set to 31:25),” Lipari said. “I was really fighting that mental battle thinking, ‘You’ve got one more lap in your legs. You’re so close. You’re not going to come 24 laps to miss it by doing something dumb.’”

It was a dramatic battle, but Lipari narrowly beat the pacing lights to the finish line and secured her World Championships standard. After spending most of the race running around 75 seconds per lap, she ran her penultimate lap in 69.24 seconds, and her final lap in 77.71, which includes a couple seconds of standing around—a strong recovery considering the circumstances. 

Lipari (left) with Megan Mansy after a meet in 2020. (Photo by Alison Wade)

Looking ahead

Lipari plans to focus on the 5,000m and 10,000m this year, but she’s not letting the mile go completely. In April, she’ll run two road miles: The B.A.A. Invitational Mile in Boston on April 16 and the USATF 1 Mile Road Championships in Des Moines, Iowa—an event she has won twice—on April 26. Lipari plans to run a 5,000m in early May, and then compete at the USATF 10,000m Championships in Eugene, Oregon, on May 27. 

Lipari has been coached by Terrence Mahon since she graduated from college. She started working with him while running for the B.A.A. from 2014 to 2017, then she stuck with him when he left to start the San Diego-based Golden Coast Track Club. Since leaving the B.A.A. at the end of 2017, Lipari has been based in a variety of places as she has moved where her husband’s career in the Navy has taken him. Lipari signed a sponsorship contract with Adidas in 2018, and she spends blocks of time throughout the year training with her teammates in San Diego or at altitude camps.

Because they’ve found that Lipari’s best races tend to come when she’s coming out of a training camp, she joins her team when she has a key race coming up. Lipari and Nangeroni spent the last two-plus years living in Washington, D.C., but at the start of 2021, they moved to Groton, Connecticut. And in July, they’ll make their biggest move yet, to Hawaii, because Nangeroni, who works as a nuclear engineer on a submarine, will be based in Pearl Harbor. Lipari will be in the middle of her track season, so she probably won’t make the move until September. 

Nangeroni is going to be away so much in the near future, including a 10-month stretch next year, that Lipari thinks she’ll probably get a small condo in San Diego and stay there while he is deployed. It’s tough for Lipari and Nangeroni to stay in touch while he’s away—they date their emails because sometimes it will take them three weeks to arrive. “Before he goes on his deployments, we write a whole slew of letters to each other and we’ll open them on certain days,” Lipari said. “We come up with creative ways to stay connected, because it’s obviously pretty challenging at times, but we make it work.”

Wherever Lipari is living, she has been able to recruit training partners, usually sub-elite men, to help her through her workouts. “That’s the beautiful thing about the running community,” she said. “Each place I’ve gone, I’ve really been able to establish a community in such a short time. I’m so grateful to those people because that’s a big thing that’s helped me stay at this level in the sport.”

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