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Amber Zimmerman had to learn to slow down to run fast

Amber Zimmerman wins the 2022 Philadelphia Marathon. (Photo by Clay Shaw, RunnersGazette.com)

By Alison Wade

A few miles into last week’s Philadelphia Marathon, Amber Zimmerman decided to tuck in behind some taller competitors, to help shield her in the cold and windy conditions. In doing so, she broke away from the lead women’s pack. Zimmerman went into the race wanting to take risks, and she did, going through halfway in 1:13:25, her second-fastest half marathon ever. And though she faded a bit when she hit headwinds in the second half, she held off a fast-closing Maegan Krifchin to win the race by six seconds, in 2:31:25.

The time was a five-minute personal best, and it was thrilling for Zimmerman, who lives in Philadelphia, to win at home. A couple of her friends had flown across the country to see her and run the accompanying half marathon. “I’ve had a ton of people reach out and say it’s great to see a Philadelphian win,” she said. “And having [friends] there at the finish was a big deal for me. I don’t win a lot of races, so just winning was a lot of fun.” Zimmerman earned $10,000 for the victory and an additional $1,000 for being the first local across the line.

She dedicated her race to her dog, Donut, whom she calls “the light of my life.” Donut is an Australian cattle dog, but he’s more of a recovery buddy than a training partner. “I was told by the shelter that he was going to be very high energy, but he is quite the opposite,” she said. “He actually is terrified of everything, so he will occasionally go a couple of miles, but most of the time, he just likes to lie inside by himself.”

In that regard, Donut is the opposite of his owner, who rarely slows down. Zimmerman, 30, is currently doing postdoctoral work in the Division of Sleep Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Division of Human Genetics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She studies the genetics underlying sleep and psychiatric disorders. Zimmerman works long hours, and until last week, she kept her running separate from her work.

Winning the Philadelphia Marathon and making the local news outed her to her colleagues. They knew she ran—they had seen her go running at conferences—but they didn’t know she raced, or how fast she was. In the past, she had professors who thought her running career would detract from her research. “I didn’t really tell anyone when I moved out here, because I didn’t want them to think I didn’t take my research seriously,” she said. But all of her colleagues in Philadelphia have been very supportive since learning about her double life.

Going all in

Zimmerman struggled when she moved to Philadelphia in June 2021 for work. Her father, who has some cognitive impairment and mental health challenges, had been scammed out of his retirement and savings and was experiencing homelessness. She took him in and tried to help him find housing and other essential resources, while she was finding her bearings as a postdoctoral fellow. It was a lot more difficult than she expected.

It was a very challenging time for the whole family, but Zimmerman’s sister ultimately stepped in to help, and he’s doing well now at a senior living facility in Utah. And he was thrilled to learn about Zimmerman’s marathon win. “He sent the articles to everybody in my family and I got a lot of support from them,” she said.

Zimmerman realized while going through that experience with her father that she needed to prioritize her own mental health. “Every morning, it just seemed like I needed to run more and more miles to quiet my mind,” she said. She decided to double down on her commitment to her running and her work. She runs between 80 and 110 miles per week, a huge jump from her early college years, when she often ran only 10 miles per week due to injury. 

In Philadelphia, Zimmerman trains almost entirely alone. She is self-coached and likes it that way. She does all of her running in the morning, before work, which usually means going out around 5:00 a.m. That’s part of the reason she runs alone. “It’s really hard to find people who will consistently run with you before 6:00 a.m.,” she said. “A lot of the more elite women here train in the evening.”

Fighting injury

Zimmerman started running at age 7 but began as a sprinter. She also did baseball, softball, volleyball, and basketball, but she found that her favorite part of most sports was the running. She also chose running because it was the most affordable. She was a good athlete and while at the Webb School, she won enough Tennessee state titles in cross country and track & field that she can’t remember the exact number. She experienced a growth spurt her junior year of high school, which led to a lot of injuries. A DEXA scan revealed that she had low bone density. (She hasn’t done a follow-up test, but she assumes her bone density has improved based on how she is handling high-volume training now.)

She spent three years at the University of Tennessee, where she had a series of stress fractures. She wasn’t able to run much, but she tried to make up for that through cross training. “I had an issue with overdoing it,” she said. “Trying to train at an elite level when you’re constantly tired is a really good way to put yourself in a hole.”

She graduated from Tennessee in three years, and then went to the University of New Mexico for two years, to use her remaining eligibility. She was concerned about running for a school where the athletes ran higher mileage, but coach Joe Franklin convinced her to give it a try. She was eventually able to handle 60–65 miles per week, and she thinks running on soft surfaces helped. Zimmerman helped New Mexico finish third at the 2014 NCAA Cross Country Championships, but she describes her collegiate running as “sub-par.”

By the time she finished her eligibility in 2015, Zimmerman was ready for a break. “Collegiate running just really wore me down and I didn’t ever do well, so it was a little bit disappointing,” she said. “Because I cross trained so much throughout college, everyone was like, ‘You should be a triathlete.’ Ultimately I got talked into it.” Zimmerman found that at the local level, she could make up for her weaker swim and bike on the run. She quickly earned her pro card, but because she was competing in super sprint triathlon, which only had a 1500m run, it was impossible to make up enough time. “I realized I’m just a good runner and I’m not a great triathlete, so I should just let that go,” she said.

While getting her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from New Mexico, Zimmerman also tried mountain races, trail races, and snowshoe racing. She won her first ultra, the 2018 Silverton 55K, in a course-record time. She’s mainly focusing on the roads for now, partially because of her move to Philadelphia, but she’d love to return to trail and ultra running at some point. “It’s not the same kind of competitive environment as road racing,” she said. “But the people are so awesome in trail running, and the snacks are so much better.”

Having qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which will be held in February 2024, Zimmerman doesn’t think she’ll run any ultras before the Trials, but she’d love to work up to running a 100-miler eventually. “I can suffer, but suffering for 26 miles is very different than suffering for 100,” she said.

From 10 miles per week to 110

Zimmerman made her marathon debut at the California International Marathon in 2018, where she hoped to run 2:45:00 or faster and qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials. She hit a wall around 20 miles in, but she was still on pace until just over a mile to go. She struggled to the finish, running 2:46:07 (2:45:54 chip time). It was an excellent marathon debut, but not enough to get her to the Trials.

She thought she’d try again before the 2020 Trials, but she struggled with terrible headaches in 2019 and couldn’t race. Then racing stopped altogether during the pandemic. But Zimmerman began to feel better, and she discovered that she was a sucker for virtual challenges. She started with the Yeti Challenge, running five miles every four hours for 24 hours. Then she did one that involved running as many miles as possible in 10 days, then as many miles as she could run in five weeks. (She did more than 500.) In the process, she really began to enjoy running again, and she realized her body could handle a lot more mileage than she previously thought.

How did someone who could manage only 10 miles per week for parts of college adjust to running so much more? She thinks the biggest factor is that she slowed her easy runs way down. “My easy runs have gotten progressively slower, and I’ve gotten progressively faster,” she said. She does at least 80 percent of her mileage at an easy pace, usually around 8:30 per mile, when she used to shoot for 7:00 pace. 

Slowing down on her recovery days allowed her to run a lot faster on her workout days. Her coaches had been on her case to slow down for years, but understanding the science behind it helped convince her to listen. “I like to read a lot on glucose utilization and mitochondrial adaptation and nerdy things like that, to see how your body adapts at different paces and why those paces are important,” she said. “And I think understanding that at an actual cellular mechanistic level has helped me to validate what I’m doing.”

Zimmerman loves to listen to science podcasts on her recovery days, which also helps keep her pace in check. “I’d like to give a solid shout out to This Week in Virology, because they have gotten me this far,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I would not be the runner I am if it were not for their podcast.” Her other favorites? This Week in Neuroscience, Stuff You Should Know, and No Stupid Questions.

As someone who studies sleep, Zimmerman considers it to be an important element of her training. She shoots for 8.5–9 hours per night. She says having a consistent sleep schedule helps, as does trying to treat it as something that’s enjoyable. “I think a lot of people think of sleep as a chore, but it’s like the best gift ever,” she said. “It’s like a hobby of mine. I don’t understand how people don’t love just lying in their bed and going to sleep. I think people need to change their attitudes about sleep and not think of it as a time when they’re not doing anything, because it’s really important.”

Marathon breakthrough

It took nearly three years for Zimmerman to run her second marathon. She returned to the distance at the 2021 Boston Marathon, the October edition of the race that usually takes place in April. She was certain that after putting in so much training she would be a better marathoner. But the downhill start trashed her legs, and six miles in, she knew it was going to be a rough day. She was aiming for 2:40 but ran 2:46:10, slower than her first marathon.

Zimmerman knew her fitness was better than that, so three months later, she ran the Houston Marathon and for the first time, she felt like she executed a marathon well. She ran almost even half marathon splits (1:18:06, 1:18:20) and finished 17th in 2:36:26, which qualified her for the Olympic Trials. 

Philadelphia was only Zimmerman’s fourth marathon, and she feels like she’s just beginning to figure out the distance. She was shooting to go under 2:28, the Olympic standard, in Philadelphia, and she’ll likely try to do so again in 2023. She’d eventually like to get down to the mid-2:20s, and maybe even faster. “If I can figure out how to stop the cramping in the last five miles, I’ll probably be a lot better,” she said. “For the Olympic Trials, if I have a time that’s under 2:28, it’s anybody’s game if the conditions are harsh. It’s not always a speed game. I’m not going to count myself out. I’m sure a lot of people are like, ‘Who is this crazy girl? She’s barely a runner.’ But I’d like to give myself the best shot to make an Olympic team. Why not?”

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Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying becomes a realistic goal for Maria Langholz

Maria Langholz competes at the Speed Project. (Photo by Jordan Beckett)

(Content warning: This story discusses eating disorders. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1–800–931–2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.)

By Alison Wade

Until this year, the idea of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials was too far-fetched for Maria Langholz to even consider. Last December, when USA Track & Field lowered the qualifying time from 2:45:00 in 2020 to 2:37:00 in 2024, she wasn’t concerned, because both times seemed too far out there for someone like her. She was a 2:58 marathoner. Running 2:37? Forget it.

But at April’s Boston Marathon, Langholz, 30, had a remarkable breakthrough. She knocked 15 minutes off of her personal best, and ran 2:43:25 (2:43:55 gun time) despite starting in the race’s second wave. Because she had to pass so many people along the way, she knew she could run faster. And two months later, she did, taking another five minutes off her time and running 2:38:22 at Grandma’s Marathon.

On December 4, at the California International Marathon, Langholz hopes to accomplish the previously unimaginable and qualify for the 2024 Olympic Trials, which will be held February 3, 2024 in Orlando, Florida. At the rate she’s been improving, she figures, what’s 82 more seconds?

Langholz can’t pinpoint any one thing that has gone into her dramatic improvement. Encouragement from those around her, staying healthy, strength training, consistency in training, and listening to her body all factored in. And while no one could follow the exact path that Langholz has, her story shows that big jumps are possible, and that runners are often capable of much more than they think.

A rocky start

As many great runners do, Langholz started out as a soccer player. Though she was the goalkeeper, she did all of the running workouts with the team. Sometimes she would outrun the team’s midfielders, and her coach would take that as a sign that they weren’t working hard enough. 

Langholz began running her senior year of high school in Ashland, Wisconsin, but the relationship didn’t start off in a healthy manner. “It’s complicated for me that the way that I got into running was as a way to lose weight,” she told Fast Women. “I thought that I would be more attractive if I lost weight, and I would get more attention from people if I lost weight, and running with my method to do that.” 

She started running for an hour a day, in addition to attending soccer practices. Her weight loss was so dramatic that when she showed up for preseason college soccer practice at Macalester College, she didn’t have the strength or energy to play well. Instead of taking that as a warning sign, she quit the sport and started running on her own. During college, Langholz ran a few half marathons, hitting a personal best of 1:29. 

Langholz says a critical part of her eating disorder recovery was taking an anti-anxiety medication, which has helped her stop obsessing over food and exercise. She also credits therapy and the supportive partners she’s had over the years. But as she began to recover from her eating disorder and put on weight, she stopped racing, afraid that if she couldn’t hit the same times, it would spiral her into unhealthy habits again. 

Maria Langholz discusses eating disorder recovery.

So for years, she ran, but she didn’t race. When she finally did decide to race again, she decided to try something different, so she wouldn’t have anything to compare her performance to. She went with the marathon, and ran a 3:23:25 at the 2019 Banff Marathon.

“It’s been very helpful mental-health-wise for me that I’ve had, by far, my best performances in running when I’ve weighed significantly more,” Langholz said. At five feet, 10 inches, Langholz often towers over her competition. “It’s sometimes hard, especially when lining up for a race, to see a lot of women around me who are so much smaller. But it’s reassuring and affirming to me to then perform very well and be like, ‘I’m strong and I’m fast and this is the body I have and it’s doing well.’”

A turning point

Maria Langholz's marathon progressionLangholz has run seven marathons since 2019, getting progressively faster at each one. At first her progression looked relatively typical, as she went from 3:23 to 3:16 to 3:11 to 3:04 to 2:58. But her 2:43 and 2:38 this year have vaulted her to a new level.

Langholz says that one of the biggest changes she made in the last year was doing strength classes at her gym two or three times per week. While she’s mostly a solo runner, she enjoys doing her strength training with people, because of the great community at her gym in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, she wasn’t doing any strength work, and she feels the benefits at the end of her races, when she’s able to push through and hang onto a pace. 

She got another boost in March when she was chosen to be a part of a record-setting On-sponsored team for the Speed Project, a 340-mile relay race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. They were looking for women who had broken 3:00 in the marathon, but the team lucked out, because Langholz was a 2:58 marathoner who was ready to run much faster. She averaged just over 6:00 pace for the 40 miles or so that she did over the course of the 29-hour race. 

Her teammates told her she was capable of running a much faster marathon and planted the seed that she might be fast enough to go after an Olympic Trials qualifying time. At first she laughed it off, but over time, the idea began to sink in. “I think it has helped just having people along the way who are like, ‘Lady, if you work at this, you’re going to be able to do it. You are fast, you are strong, you’re consistent.’ Having those people has been good,” Langholz said.

She was surprised by how well her Speed Project experience went in general. “It’s kind of wild that our team got along extremely well,” she said. “There are very few people that I think I could be in a van with while sleep deprived in the desert and not want to get in a fight with them. But there was no arguing or drama, which shocked me, given that we didn’t know each other.”

And one of her Speed Project teammates, Colton Gale, whom she didn’t know prior to the relay, even joined her when she ran her 2:38:22 in June at Grandma’s. “He made me laugh along the way, and I think that made that time possible,” she said.

Hiring a coach

Langholz had been self-coached throughout her running career, but in May, she decided to hire Calum Neff to coach her, about a month before she ran Grandma’s. (Neff might be best known, at least in the U.S., for pacing Keira D’Amato to the American marathon record in January.) The change was close enough to the race that it didn’t really impact her Grandma’s buildup, but she’s looking forward to seeing how she runs at CIM, after working with him for an entire training block.

She used to run more by feel—if she felt good, she’d go faster or farther—and now she’s doing more structured workouts, like interval work and tempo runs, neither of which she was doing before. She’s also doing more long runs. In all of her previous marathon buildups, she has only done one training run of 20 miles or longer. This time she’s doing multiples. Her mileage has remained the same, at about 70–80 miles per week right now. 

In her initial conversations with Neff, she told him that was roughly the mileage that she knew worked for her. “I know my body, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been able to get fast and not hurt myself,” Langholz said. “I’m pretty good at responding to how my body is feeling, and making sure I’m doing enough yoga and going to PT, both proactively and for anything that’s feeling weird. And not trying to push through things that don’t feel good in terms of injuries.”

Langholz finds that running on her own is great for her mental health. “It’s a very good way to slow down my brain and process things that are going on and I’ve always come back feeling really refreshed and refocused,” she said. She does a lot of her training in Rock Creek Park, but when it comes to speedwork, she prefers the treadmill, partially because she enjoys not having to think about pacing.

Langholz fits her training into a full life. She works as the communications director for Demand Progress, a D.C.-based advocacy group. She was also working to get Keith Ellison reelected as attorney general in Minnesota (where she lived until she was 10, and then again during and after college). Now that she has successfully done so, she’ll have a little less on her plate for the time being.

During college, instead of participating in organized sports, Langholz devoted some of her free time to her activism. “I was a young person who got frustrated with how slowly things moved in institutions. We were talking about climate change and the school wanted to talk to us about changing out lightbulbs, and I knew we needed bigger change than that,” she said. “Over time, I’ve definitely moved toward the electing candidates who support policies I want and advocating for the policies that I want, but I definitely had an activist phase and multiple civil disobedience arrests in my early twenties.”

Langholz recently got engaged and plans to get married in May 2024. In the meantime, she’s planning to run more marathons. After CIM, she’s hoping to run Grandma’s again next year, as well as the Berlin Marathon. And, in February 2024, hopefully the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

When she thinks about such goals, she occasionally has to pinch herself. Her mind is still catching up to what her legs and lungs can now do. “I honestly still look at workouts that Cal writes and I’m like, ‘I don’t know who’s doing that, it looks awful,’” she said. “It truly has not processed in my head that these are times I can run. Especially when I get down to doing workouts that are under six-minute miles—that is nothing that I ever imagined myself doing.”

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With a fresh start, Marielle Hall regains her form

Marielle Hall (Photo by @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

About halfway through last month’s Falmouth Road Race, the leaders made a break. Marielle Hall, who had been running in the lead pack, temporarily dropped to seventh place, but then she regrouped and began working her way back up through the field. She finished third behind Keira D’Amato and Edna Kiplagat and covered the 7-mile course in 36:44—on a day more suited for going to the beach than running a road race. 

While Hall, 30, would like to get to a place where she can go with the break and contend for the win, the race was an encouraging sign that she’s on the right track after moving across the country and switching coaches a year ago.

Fast Women caught up with her last week, coming off an exciting couple of days in which she attended fellow pro runner Angel Piccirillo’s wedding and then watched Serena Williams win her opening-round match at the U.S. Open, before getting ready to go to altitude camp. Hall is a big tennis fan, thanks in part to the Williams sisters. Watching Serena on Monday night and seeing all the support she has now, after all she has been through, moved Hall to tears.

“It’s just cool to see how many people she brings together with something so simple that she started as a kid,” she said. “It becomes larger than life, which is crazy.”

New coach and a new home

Last September, Hall announced that she was leaving the Bowerman Track Club after four years. She moved from Portland, Oregon, to Providence, Rhode Island, to be coached by Kurt Benninger, who is married to pro runner Molly Huddle. Hall felt the change was necessary, but starting over in a new place wasn’t easy.

“Throughout their careers, Molly and Kurt have been really great mentors for a lot of people, not just on the professional circuit but also elite athletes and people who are in school, working, and trying to get the best out of themselves,” she said. “I feel reminded of that constantly. They’re good people to be around, people that I trust will help make an investment in [helping me get] better. But it doesn’t make it any easier to uproot yourself and change everything.”

There wasn’t one specific moment that led Hall to believe she needed a change, just a feeling that built over time. Her last race for the Bowerman Track Club was the 10,000m at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June 2021. Five years after finishing third at the 2016 Trials and making the Olympic team, she placed 36th out of 37 finishers, in 34:35.79. It was a performance that in no way reflected the work she put into performing well that day.

“I overcooked myself and I think there were just a lot of different circumstances, coming from the pandemic, where you felt like running was an outlet for so many things,” Hall said. “And it also felt like this opportunity where if you leveraged it right, you could really create an advantage for yourself competitively. I really felt pressure from that, to turn this really hard and terrible year into an opportunity.”

As hard as she tried, she could not. As it did for many, living through a pandemic and the country’s simultaneous racial reckoning took a major emotional toll. (Hall wrote two thought-provoking pieces for Runner’s World at the time.) Combine that with a heavy training load, and her body stopped working the way she expected it to.

She later felt disappointed in herself that she didn’t have the self awareness or confidence to recognize that something wasn’t right and make a change sooner. “You want to do everything that you can to get the best out of yourself, but to ride that line too long [and] you’re just going to get injured or burn yourself out,” she said.

Hall’s struggles in 2020 carried over into 2021. And as many athletes do, she found herself pushing through things she normally wouldn’t, were it not an Olympic year. And, she said, part of the goal in being a member of the Bowerman Track Club was not only working to better herself, but also helping her teammates better themselves. “I just felt like I was fried in all types of ways,” she said. “It’s not just the training aspect. You live with everyone, too. I wasn’t in a place to contribute to the environment on a physical level or on an emotional level. It would have made my life a lot more simple if that’s what I could have done.”

In one of Hall’s last workouts before the Olympic Trials, she developed a high hamstring injury. Imaging indicated she hadn’t torn it completely, but there was some scar tissue buildup. And that led to some foot problems as well, which lasted into the winter of 2022. As Hall has returned to training, it’s been a process learning to trust that her body can handle the training again. “You become a little bit scared of the training, which is a weird place to be, because you’re used to being aggressive and attacking the work and enjoying it,” Hall said. “But when you get injured, when you overtrain, it is really kind of learning how to trust the work that you’re doing again, and trust that you can work hard and come back from it.”

Rebuilding

Benninger has been bringing Hall along slowly since her move to Rhode Island. For a while, he cut out her long run and had her run only once a day. As she has been feeling better, she has gradually added those elements back into her training. And she’s looking forward to doing a more traditional buildup as she prepares to race her first half marathon this fall. She isn’t yet sure where she’ll make her debut, but she’s considering the B.A.A. Half Marathon (November 13) and the Philadelphia Half Marathon (November 19). And the race will help her assess which direction she might go in the future.

While Hall plans to do more racing on the roads going forward, she’ll also continue racing on the track for at least the next year, partially because she thinks she needs that kind of speed and sharpness to run well on the roads.

Since moving to Providence, Hall has done a lot of her training alone. Benninger coaches a group of post-collegiate runners and sometimes Hall will overlap with some of the men during a workout. More recently, she’s been doing some of her easy running with Emily Sisson, who is in town for her Chicago Marathon buildup, and Huddle, as she returns to running after giving birth in April. 

More often than not, Hall runs alone, a big change from her Bowerman Track Club days. “Just being able to share a workload, there is a huge benefit to that,” she said. “But I also feel like it’s been beneficial to my development as an individual athlete to be able to find pace by myself and figure out how to sustain a rhythm. It’s different from just tucking in and absorbing the energy from other people.” She said she has always known she needed to work on setting her own pace, so although it’s tough, she doesn’t mind being in a place where she is forced to do it. 

And over time, she’s seeing progress. “It’s been a really slow build just in terms of everything—training, having people to run with—but it feels like it’s coming together,” she said.

Moving up

For now, she has her sights firmly fixed on her half marathon debut, and she’s trying not to think too far beyond that. But the marathon is in the back of her mind, even though she doesn’t yet have a sense of when she’ll make her debut. Hall knows that if she wants to try out the marathon during the current Olympic cycle, there’s not much time left. “I’m mostly just fixated on finishing off this year with some momentum and kind of seeing where that leads,” she said.

Hall has learned more about Marilyn Bevans, the first Black American woman to break 3:00 in the marathon, and Olympic marathoner Ted Corbitt, in recent years. And she’s aware of the list that Gary Corbitt, Ted Corbitt’s son, keeps of the fastest American-born Black female marathoners. Samia Akbar tops the list with a 2:34:14, a time Hall is likely to be capable of surpassing. She has been following Knox Robinson and the women he’s been coaching through Black Roses NYC.

Hall laments the fact that she didn’t learn more about Bevans and Corbitt growing up, but she’s glad to be learning about them now. And she’s looking forward to following the Black Roses and others through their fall marathon season. “I’m excited about that community and I want to be friends with them more than I want to go and crush the time lists,” Hall said. “I’m motivated not just by their results but by the community that they’ve built for themselves and standards that they’ve created for themselves.”

Regardless of when Hall makes the jump to the marathon, her running is back on the right track, and her story is far from complete.

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Heather MacLean makes the best of an unusual season

Heather MacLean finishes second in Monaco. (Photo by Randy Miyazaki)

By Alison Wade

Heather MacLean is working on embracing the unexpected this season, and it has worked out well, because little about the past year of her life has gone to plan. There have been some high highs: winning her first national title in the indoor 1500m, finishing seventh at the World Indoor Championships, setting a world record in the distance medley relay, and, last Wednesday, becoming the 12th American woman to break 4:00 in the 1500m, when she ran 3:58.89 for second place at the Monaco Diamond League meet. But in between, she’s faced some significant challenges, including rebounding from the post-Olympic blues, having her gallbladder removed, and, most recently, bouncing back from a tough case of Covid that almost derailed her season.

Run down by Covid

MacLean, 26, noticed her first Covid symptoms in the second half of April. She had just learned that her teammate, Elle St. Pierre, had tested positive the day before, and she went down to her basement to do some laundry and had to stop to catch her breath on the way back up. MacLean’s symptoms accumulated quickly after that. She was dizzy, had a fever, and was experiencing the worst muscle soreness she has ever felt. Then came the brain fog and the headaches. Three days after her initial symptoms, MacLean tested positive for Covid.

She delayed an altitude training trip for a couple of weeks. She avoided running, because she’d had some tough bouts of pneumonia when she was a student at UMass, and she had learned that trying to come back too soon made things worse. When her congestion moved to her chest, MacLean was nervous, because she’s had asthma her whole life. At one point, things got bad enough that she went to the hospital, where she was told she was dealing with respiratory exacerbation, but fortunately the cough medicine she was prescribed provided some relief, and her cough was gone a week later.

MacLean decided to try running at that point, but even easy jogging was still a struggle. She went to altitude anyway, based on recovery timelines she’d heard other elite athletes describe. But she found that the entire time she was at altitude, she was unable to do hard workouts. “Every time I would try to do a threshold-pace anything, I felt like I was going to die,” MacLean said.

And it was tough being in Flagstaff, with such a high concentration of professional runners, because she found herself comparing her recovery to others’. “I’d be like, ‘This person got Covid and they’re back. Why can’t I get back?’” she said. “So then I would try to go do a workout and I’d get one minute into a three-minute pickup and have to stop because I felt like I couldn’t keep going or I’d start blacking out.” 

She switched her focus to making easy running feel better, and once it did, she added in small workouts. When she returned home to Boston from altitude at the end of May, she was finally able to complete a successful tempo run. At that point, racing at the USATF Championships a month later seemed unlikely, but she hopped in an 800m at an all-comers meet on June 4, thinking it was possible she’d run 2:05 or 2:10, and she managed a 2:00.90. That was when she knew she’d be okay for USAs. She didn’t have much time, but her workouts improved throughout June.

When MacLean arrived at the USA Championships, she was just happy to be there. “I told myself going in, ‘This is an accomplishment in itself and you’re going to make the most of this experience,’” she said.

MacLean had a solid race in the 1500m, which is one of the deepest events in the U.S. right now. But she finished fifth and missed making the World Championships team by 1.26 seconds. She told her New Balance Boston coach, Mark Coogan, that she wanted to keep racing, and she knew her finishing speed would come back with time. When her agent called to tell her about racing opportunities, she said yes to as many of them as possible. 

“I love going to races. I have a lot of race anxiety, but I was like, ‘This is a time for me to face my fears.’ I know once I get the momentum going with races, I’m one of those people that does better when I race a lot more.” MacLean decided she would just keep putting herself out there, no matter what the outcome was.

Nearly four months after getting Covid, she still feels the effects. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent recovered,” she said. “I definitely still have trouble with recovery after a really hard session or a race, but I’m getting to the point where I feel a lot more like myself.”

MacLean runs her first race post-Covid. (Photo by Alison Wade)

Embracing imperfection

When MacLean first arrived in Monaco last week, fresh off a 4:01.38 1500m in Poland, a small personal best, she was planning to run the 800m. She was pleased to learn that she was rooming with the Atlanta Track Club Elite’s Allie Wilson, who was scheduled to pace the first 800m of Faith Kipyegon’s world record attempt in the 1500m.

MacLean and Wilson had known one another since their college days and the day before the meet, they decided to check out the fancy shops in Monaco. It was the kind of thing MacLean normally wouldn’t do, but she decided to live a little. Plus she considers the 800m to be her “comfort event” and she figured no matter what she did the day before, she’d still run her best. But after two and half hours of scaling some major hills, both runners’ legs were aching. They hightailed it back to the hotel and went into recovery mode, using recovery boots and chugging Pedialyte. “We were laughing about how our legs were throbbing from walking around just so that we could see the Gucci store, which we weren’t even going to buy anything from,” MacLean said.

They decided that hopping in the pool might make their legs feel better, so they splashed around for a bit, and when MacLean got out she had a series of missed calls from her agent, saying a spot had opened up in the 1500m, and it was hers if she wanted it.

“I think a former me would have been like, ‘No, I’m going to stick with the 800, because it’s what I had planned on doing.’ But she saw this as an opportunity to face her fears.

On race day, MacLean was experiencing terrible stomach pain, right up until the gun went off. She tried to convince herself all of her competitors felt the same way. “There were a ton of things that normally would throw me off, but I’ve been in this mindset this season [to] just go with the unexpected, work with what you have. On the starting line, I told myself, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just have to do your best.’”

Two laps into the race, MacLean realized she was feeling okay, so she decided to start moving up a bit. With one lap to go, she was at the tail end of the chase pack, still back in 11th place, but she was feeling good. She had been so far back that she didn’t really know what place she was in, but with 150m to go, she saw Elise Cranny ahead of her and found one more gear. MacLean caught Cranny shortly before the finish line and finished second to Kipyegon (who was in her own league out front) in 3:58.89, a 2.49-second personal best.

Following her success, MacLean decided to extend her trip to Europe by a day to celebrate a bit. Her 1500m competitor Sinclaire Johnson and some friends were renting a yacht, and MacLean joined them. “I feel like so often we go to these really cool places and don’t get to do much, or people are too scared to do it because they don’t want to be tired,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m out here and I need to take advantage of that.’”

Keeping perspective

Though the past year has been tough at times, MacLean says that her running has never been about where she finishes in her races or how much money she makes. It’s more about the day-to-day training, the people she meets, and the places she gets to go.

Though she didn’t have the race she wanted at the USATF Championships, she still thoroughly enjoyed her time in Eugene. “There were so many things about the week out there that made me super, super happy,” she said. “In a few years, I’m probably not going to remember what place I got at USAs, but I am going to remember the really good gluten free cinnamon buns that were right next to the hotel.”

When she was coming back from her gallbladder surgery in the fall, MacLean took photos of the “dinky little watch from Walmart” that she uses for training to track her progress. She was able to find joy in celebrating her first 45-minute run post-surgery. And when she was returning post-Covid, she celebrated the first 800m she was able to complete in a workout, even though it was a 2:35 and well off her best.

When she travels, she tries to find someone she can get to know better. In Monaco, in addition to Wilson, MacLean says she was so thankful to get to spend time with steeplechaser Courtney Wayment. “I like to make family wherever I go, so that just makes me feel a little bit more comfortable,” she said.

MacLean says she’s just been really happy this year, despite the setbacks she has faced. “I’ve gone through a lot of hardships in my life and I wouldn’t wish those things upon anyone, but I think they’ve really helped me put this year into perspective because I’m like, ‘Nothing is that bad,’” she said. “Obviously it sucks in the moment, but I know I can get through things.”

This weekend, MacLean will represent the U.S. in the 1500m at the North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships in the Bahamas. She is planning to return to Europe for the Brussels Diamond League meet on September 2, hopes to have enough points to run at the Diamond League in Zurich the following week, and plans to close out her season at the Fifth Avenue Mile September 11 in New York City.

“I’m kind of in this position right now where everyone’s kind of on the tail end of their season, but I feel like my season’s just getting started,” she said. “That’s just the way it’s worked out this year. I have all these really great race opportunities, so I’m just going to make the most out of all of them.”

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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.”