Like a lot of us, Molly Huddle logged on to YouTube on Saturday night to watch live as Elise Cranny won a fast women’s 10,000-meter race in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Huddle’s takeaway: she has her work cut out for her if she’s going to make her third Olympic team this summer. The 36-year-old, who set the American 10,000 record of 30:13.17 in placing sixth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, also holds the U.S. record in the half marathon (1:07:25 from 2018). She phoned us on Sunday evening from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Fast Women: So you watched last night? Molly Huddle: I did watch last night, yes. I knew a lot of my competitors were going to be in it, so it was definitely important to watch and just see how it unfolded.
FW: Did you feel a pang of wishing you were in there mixing it up, running 74s and 75s? MH: I really did. I wish I was about three weeks ahead of schedule and I would have felt comfortable enough doing [the meet]. I’m doing a 5K that I think is on the same track, on the 6th of March. I’m barely ready for that. But I really wish I could have been in [Saturday’s] race because they ran so even and so great for four miles, and it’s the same women you’re going to see at the Trials, so it would have been really good just to get that in. We just didn’t have our timing down because the meet popped up kind of late. And you don’t want to go if you’re not ready, because that’s worse for your confidence. But watching it I was like, ahhhh, I wish this was three weeks later, maybe a month later.
FW: So watching them click off those 5-minute 1600s… kind of a rough assignment for pacesetter Courtney Frerichs, no? She had to run that pace for 6K and then drop out! MH: Yeah, definitely (laughs). She did good.
FW: Were you surprised to see Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer run those fast times? And how did it make you feel about your own prospects this summer? MH: I wasn’t surprised. I mean obviously I knew that Karissa would run a good 10K after running such a good 5K last summer. [Note: Schweizer ran 14:26 in July to make her the second-fastest American ever at that distance.] Once I heard it was 5-minute pace, I figured they would cut down the last half to try to get under 31, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. And I’ve heard Elise is really good at the strength work, so I was kind of expecting a big one.
So yeah, the 10K is going to be a really deep event [at the Trials], because you have the marathoners coming back, and you have some 5K runners stepping up because I think the 10K is first on the schedule. I think we’re going to have some new American citizens, too, in the 10. So it’s suddenly become probably one of the harder distance events for the [Olympic] team. So I know I have my work cut out for me. It’s just a matter of getting my body cooperating and doing what it usually does.
FW: So is your body cooperating? You didn’t race much last year except for a couple very low-key meets on the East Coast, but now that we’re in the Olympic year, do you feel like you’re rounding into form, and the workouts that you used to do are still there for you? MH: We’re hoping it gets there. We’ve only been working out hard workouts all of January, basically. And then coming into February. So my normal year, when we’re focusing on the track, we do a longer effort in March. I usually don’t race before that. So we’re actually kind of dropping down to something faster and shorter earlier than normal. Normally I don’t try a 5K until like May or so. The year is different. It feels like I’ve had good workouts, but then I’ve had workouts when I’m like, oh man, I really can tell I did a marathon buildup this year. It’s kind of just working all that out and you just gotta get on the track at the end of the day. You can’t really tell until you get into a race how things are going.
You gotta be ready. I have to be as fast as I ever was, which, is a tall order when you’re 37 and you’ve done marathon buildups. But it’s funny, it’s also my natural sweet spot, the 5K and the 10K on the track, so we’re hoping that helps.
FW: So in the Trials 10K, are you thinking that unlike in the past, where you could run 76s and then close with a 63 and win by a lot, you’re going to have to run 74s and 75s and still have company very late in the race and still need that big kick you’re known for? MH: Oh, definitely. It’s definitely not going to be like the last two years where it’s kind of biding my time. So it’ll be interesting. Like I wish I were five years younger, because it would be pretty fun to mix it up and have that kind of depth up front. This will just be a really big challenge.
FW: Do you think that being 36 or 37 is the challenge? Or is it that you have several marathon buildups in your legs? MH: I don’t think it’s being 37, I think it’s just my own running imbalances that have built up over the years. Because I’d say Sara Hall and Steph Bruce are running better than they’ve ever been, and they’re older than me. So it’s not age, it’s more the mileage that has beaten me up.
FW: Is the hope to make the team in the 10,000m and then not have to run the 5,000m at Trials? MH: That’s the hope, I’m imagining I probably will have to do both, but the 10K is first, so that’s good, you get your best chance first.
FW: So is the Olympics your sole focus at this point? Or are you thinking about the marathon, and finally showing what you’re capable of at that distance based on what you’ve shown at the half? MH: Yeah, I’m definitely picking my spots. Definitely the main focus is 100 percent to make the Olympic team in the 10K, but I totally could do a marathon in the fall after that, so that’s kind of what we’re looking towards. And the marathon will be there whether the Olympics are or not.
FW: Is it brutal to get back in track-speed shape, or do you enjoy the workouts? MH: I do, I like the track workouts. I wish that’s all I had to do (laughs). Just not run mileage and just only run workouts. I like the workouts, they’re just more engaging, and it’s fun to go faster and focus like that.
FW: Does Kurt [Benninger, her husband] pace you for most workouts? MH: I did quite a few by myself in January, when I was back in Providence. And then Emily [Sisson] and I lined up for one workout and then I did kind of tag Kurt in. And he hardly ran at all last year (laughs). So he’s really stepping up to dive back into workouts. He does a lap on, lap off for however long I need him to go, and somehow he can magically do it, as long as he gets a little bit of a break. He’s sore the next day, but he’s been doing it.
FW: Does your 30:13 seem even more incredible to you now with four and a half years of perspective? I mean, Karissa Schweizer ran 14:26 for 5,000, and the 10K time she ran last night was more than 30 seconds off what you did in Rio. MH: It’s weird, because I thought Shalane’s [30:22] was so fast and that I could never run that fast. And then once I did it, I was like, actually, I think we just don’t run the 10K enough. We really just have Stanford, and then sometimes USAs or Worlds is tactical, so if it was a Diamond League event, the depth chart of the women’s 10K and men’s 10K would be a lot deeper. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that record goes down, to be honest, although when I’m doing workouts now I’m like, how did I ever do that? I do think, especially as some of the 1500m women are stepping up to the 10, for sure we’re going to see a lot more depth at the sub-31 level.
FW: Do you think you still have a low 30:00 in you at this point? MH: I think so. I mean, in our buildup to the 2019 London Marathon, at Stanford, I ran 30:57 with Emily Sisson, and that was definitely not an ideal buildup, because I had a little bit of a niggle coming into that. And even in Doha, I kind of led my pack at 31-flat for the whole race, so I see how I can lop off 20 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, and get back into that shape.
FW: I heard you did a 4K time trial this weekend. Who was your pacer, and how did it go? MH: My pacer was Henry Sterling, who my husband coaches. It was kind of part of his workout. And it was not good. But I can count on two fingers how many good time trials I’ve had in my entire life. We put the time out there to target, but the point is more to hurt, and I almost never actually hit the time. The point was just to get that out of the way before the race. So in that way, it was definitely mission accomplished, but it was not as fast as we wanted to go.
FW: Did you start out at the projected pace and fall off? Or from the beginning was it like, that pace is not happening? MH: We were supposed to wind it up and I just never really did, because it just felt rough. But I hate time trials, I’m someone who would rather race.
FW: I saw that you scratched from the 5,000m at the Trials of Miles Texas Qualifier meet next weekend. Is that because you’re a little behind where you wanted to be? MH: No, it was just as we got more information, we realized the pace was going to be 15-flat or under, and I wanted more of a 15:10 kind of race. We originally thought it would be more like Olympic standard times (note: the Olympic standard for the women’s 5,000 meters is 15:10.00). And the meet was getting kind of big, which was a little bit of a Covid concern. Once we heard about the other meet, we decided maybe that would be a better fit.
As part of our partnership with InsideTracker this month, we’re taking a look at how a handful of athlete use InsideTracker to improve their health and performance. Fast Women readers interested in trying it out can get 25% off the Essentials plan by using this link.
Amanda Ghent: Ghent decided to try InsideTracker in an effort to cover all her bases as she focuses on goals like breaking 20:00 for 5K and 1:30 in the half marathon in 2021. Though she strongly dislikes needles, she said the blood draw was easy to schedule and the whole process was very efficient. Ghent’s recent testing indicated that she has elevated levels of B12, which she believes to be the cause of her poor sleep, and poor sleep in turn led to difficulty recovering from training. She has been able to clear up some skin issues she was experiencing by eliminating supplements that turned out to be unnecessary. Because her testing also revealed that her white blood cell count is very low, she’s working with her general practitioner to find the root cause.
Cali Schweikhart: Schweikhart, an obstacle course racer, trail runner, and member of the Spartan Pro Team, struggled with an eating disorder when she was young, which led to a long stretch of amenorrhea. She decided to try InsideTracker when she started experiencing unexplained weight gain and with the hope of learning more about the underlying cause of her amenorrhea. She was surprised to learn, among other things, that her ferritin was low. Though that’s common among runners, hemochromatosis (aka “iron overload”) runs in her family. But the biggest surprise was her cortisol level, which indicated that her body was under an extreme amount of stress.
Schweikhart tried to make some of the recommended adjustments on her own, but her biggest breakthroughs came after she began working with a registered dietitian that specializes in eating disorders, who she connected with thanks to a recommendation from an InsideTracker employee. They focused on healing her relationship with food and within a couple months, Schweikhart got her first period in more than eight years. The testing she has done with InsideTracker confirmed that the work she was doing was paying off. “Having tangible measurements that tell you where your body and your health stand is pretty much invaluable,” Schweikhart said.
Andie Cozzarelli: Cozzarelli, a semi pro runner, first started using InsideTracker after a nutritionist recommended it. The personalized nature of the testing appealed to her, and though some of her results have been more predictable (iron issues), others have not, like magnesium and folate deficiencies. “I was also completely unaware of all of the different markers that show us that we can push ourselves too far like cortisol, liver enzymes, and creatine kinase, among others,” Cozzarelli said. Though she’s taking a break from running right now, she continues to test with InsideTracker four times a year, to make sure that the supplements she’s taking are working and to stay on top of any other issues that might pop up.
“From all of the years of testing with them I have learned that my body is not invincible and stress, whether it be physical or mental, has a profound effect on the body,” she said. “In my most recent test (more on that here), I expected that my stress hormone, cortisol, would be way down without running, but I also recently had to put my dog down unexpectedly. We then adopted two new rescue pups… When I got my results back, my cortisol was still on the high side. I took from it that just because I am not training doesn’t mean I’m keeping my stress levels in check, so I need to practice mindfulness much more often.”
Tianna Bartoletta: Bartoletta, who has earned three Olympic gold medals, has long paid attention to her blood work because she has a family history of high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer, and she wanted to know as much as possible about what was going on in her body. Her most recent round of testing with InsideTracker revealed that her cholesterol and cortisol levels are high and, after a blood transfusion and several iron infusions, she is still anemic. But armed with this information, she can make informed adjustments. “Most athletes guess at their deficiencies, or choose supplements because they ‘think’ they need them,” Bartoletta said. “With so many variables on any given day that can determine whether you make the team or not, or leave with a medal or not, I’d rather take the guesswork out of all the things that I can absolutely know for sure.”
Sally Kipyego was born in Kenya but came to the U.S. to attend South Plains College, where she won seven NJCAA titles, before moving on to Texas Tech, where she added a record-tying nine NCAA titles. Kipyego earned silver medals in the 10,000m at the 2011 world championships and the 2012 Olympic Games for Kenya. She became a U.S. citizen in 2017, and became a mother later that year (after infamously finishing second at the 2016 New York City Marathon while she was unknowingly pregnant).
Kipyego, 34, has been open about her challenging return to fitness after giving birth, but in February, she proved herself to be one of the best marathoners in the U.S., finishing third at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, where she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
We caught up with Kipyego by phone last week, from her farm on the outskirts of Eldoret, Kenya. Kipyego had recently returned from a two-month trip to the U.S., to train with her Oregon Track Club teammates. She traveled without her husband, Kevin Chelimo, and 3-year-old daughter, Emma, and cut her stay about a week short, fearing that the lockdown in the U.K. and travel restrictions in Europe might prevent her from returning to Kenya. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Fast Women: Up until your early departure, how were things going in Oregon? Sally Kipyego: Everything was going fantastic. I like to go back to Oregon for training in the winter and to get my base going and hit the gym a little bit more. Just to have my coaching staff be able to observe and see things to work through for the next season. I traveled by myself. I left my family behind with my three-year-old.
Is it hard being away from your family for such a long stretch of time? It’s so difficult. My husband and I have had our own ways of being away from each other, but now that we have a little one, it’s different, and I hadn’t been away from Emma for that long before. I think the longest I’d been away from her was two weeks, so this was a long stretch. It was difficult emotionally. But it kind of just makes you want to work a little bit harder to make it worth it. It was definitely hard. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again any time soon.
Is the plan to stay in Kenya for a while? Is it hard to make plans right now? We always have a tentative plan, so the plan is to go back to the U.S. around February, March, and April, but it depends what is happening with Covid. You can’t really plan anything right now. You plan and be flexible about it. If we can travel and races are not canceled, I think we’ll be able to travel back to the U.S. as a family maybe late February, unless I can race before that.
What kind of races would you ideally be running? Initially I was going to train for the Boston Marathon, but then that was canceled. I also thought I was going to run the Houston Marathon, but that was canceled, too. At this point, I’m just kind of getting ready for whatever is available. I don’t think I’ll do a spring marathon, I think we’ll stick with half marathons, 10Ks, just to kind of get some speed going and get a little bit quicker on my feet before we build up for the Olympics. I haven’t really been training for a marathon. I’ve been training [for] 10Ks and half marathons. I have tried to stay away from the grind of marathon training, just to make sure that when I get going again to get ready for the Olympics, I will be fresh and ready.
How is the Covid situation in Kenya? How does it compare to what you were seeing in the U.S.? It’s better than the U.S. for sure. The cases are not as terrible, the cases are not as high. It is still rising, so we haven’t gotten to a point where it has stabilized yet, but compared to other places in the world, it’s much better. We live in the outskirts of Eldoret, and we try to stay away from the cities. We feel pretty safe out here, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. Things are pretty laid back and we avoid going to the city as much as possible.
Do you have any training partners there at all? At the moment, I’m just training by myself. My husband and I sometimes run together, but mostly by myself. I might run into one or two neighbors and we go for a run, but not necessarily as a training group.
When you’re in Oregon, do you have people to train with much? Or are you doing different things because of your varying events? I work out with the boys, I work out with Hanna Green a lot, and some of the 800m and 1500m guys. I really didn’t train by myself in Oregon, I always had company, so that’s something I’m missing a bit. Even though they run the 800m, I still help them with the strength stuff and they help me with the speed.
Have you had any trouble staying motivated this year, without races? It has been difficult. I really shouldn’t even say “difficult,” because too many people are having such a difficult year. The uncertainty, I would say, is the difficult thing, because we’re not able to plan for anything. I think most of us elite athletes tend to be very plan-oriented. We plan for things way in advance and when the calendar is blank, it’s kind of difficult.
I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to train for nothing, basically. I always plug races into my schedule one or two years out, and just to look in my calendar right now and have nothing in there, it’s kind of difficult on your psyche. At the same time, I know I have a race coming up, when the Olympics happen, so that gets me up. I’ve found ways to stay motivated and push myself a little bit more.
How different is your daily schedule when you’re in Kenya compared to Oregon? It’s very similar. My coach and I speak every weekend or so to catch up and see how the workouts are going and plan for the next week’s sessions. My schedule is the same, it’s just different here because I live on a farm. I do things other than run. I find myself quite busy on this other end of the world. In Oregon, I can relax, watch Netflix, and kind of just chill. Especially during the winter. While here, it’s warm and sunny and bright and all day long, I find myself on my feet more than I should. I find myself doing things that I normally wouldn’t do in Oregon because of my settings, my settings are completely different. I’m keeping chickens and I have a garden…you know.
How much of the farm work are you doing yourself? We have a lot of people helping, but you find yourself doing things here and there. My husband is really into it, he’s really the farmer, but I find it difficult to stay still and recover the proper way. I have to force myself to actually recover and sit still.
I saw your post about voting, was it exciting to vote in your first presidential election? Oh yes, absolutely. I figured I was going to be in Oregon, that was something I had to do and I had to get a photo. It was just a drop-off, but I felt like that was a huge moment. It’s good to vote in a presidential election for the first time.
When you talked toRunner’s World in April, you sounded disappointed about your Olympic Trials race, is that an accurate assessment? Did you feel like you underperformed there? Yes, I did. And I mentioned in that interview that I know it’s difficult to say I’m disappointed, because I made the Olympic team. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. The point was that I was disappointed because I felt that I was fitter than that and I felt like I was ready. I came into the Trials basically to win. More than anything, I was surprised that I didn’t perform as well as I thought I would because I felt really ready, I felt really fit. Was it a case of me having a rough day or was the course harder? But I looked at the competitors and a lot of people struggled, so maybe it was the course, maybe it was me. I made the team, and that’s huge, but I also wanted to win, and I felt that I was ready.
You mentioned on Lindsey Hein’s podcast that you’d like to win a world marathon major title and an Olympic gold medal. Is that what you’re focusing on now? Before I retire, I would like to win Olympic gold and a world marathon major. I have an Olympic silver medal and I’ve finished second at a world marathon major, so it would be nice to just top those two.
The women’s field [for the Olympic marathon] is just ridiculous. There are athletes that are running incredible times right now. So it can be daunting and almost intimidating when you’re training to race against those women, but you have to approach it from that mindset. For example, I’m probably going to be running against someone who has run 10 minutes faster than I have. That’s just scary even to think about it, but at the same time, this is a championship and anything can happen. Wild things happen. All you need to do is be competitive on the day. I’m trying to be in the best position to be competitive and when the opportunity presents itself, you might surprise yourself. You’ve talked about your pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum struggles before and I really appreciate that, because we don’t always hear as many of those stories. When did you really start to feel like things were clicking for you again? It took maybe 14 or 15 months. It felt like I struggled for so long. I always write everything down, and looking at that, I was making progress, I just didn’t feel like I was making progress, because it was difficult. I didn’t have one of those stories that you have a child, a few months later you come back and by the time your child is one year old, you’re running really well. That wasn’t my story. It was a difficult one because my body kind of resisted, to be honest. It basically was fighting in every possible way. I raced when she was nine months and I ran a 10K in Boston, I think it was 34:09 or 34:10. It was an okay showing, but I felt nothing like myself.
Is there anything you can take from the whole experience, or anything you would have done differently, in retrospect? I expected a lot of different things. I read a lot of things, I over-planned for things, and I expected things to be different. I was surprised and I was kind of caught off guard by what happened. First of all, I thought I was going to be able to run through my pregnancy, because I’d seen all these women run through their pregnancy and do really well. I thought, “Surely I’ll be fine, my body’s feeling okay, I’ll be able to do it.” It turns out I couldn’t. Every time I would try to run, I would have so many issues, so I had to stop around 18 weeks of my pregnancy. That was a surprise. I think in the future, I might go in with a more open-minded approach that maybe I might not even be able to train.
Another thing is that I wish I had a personal trainer after I gave birth, because I had so many weaknesses in so many areas, in my hips and pelvis, because so much movement happens during pregnancy and childbirth. You get a lot of changes. And I just wish that I had someone look at me, and I wish I had the specific strength training, because I was back to doing normal things that I did before having Emma, and looking back, maybe I should have done more specific things to get my body strong to be able to handle the training. At the same time, we are all different. You can’t read one story and think that’s normal. I want to make sure to ask you your thoughts on the racial reckoning that the U.S. has been experiencing since May. Were you in the U.S. while the protests were at their peak? I wasn’t, but everywhere in the world, we read about it. It was a difficult time, but a very necessary time. It’s time. It’s time for that, it needed to be addressed, and I hope that we get better as a country. I hope that we move forward and we just become better—better human beings to each other, more considerate, more inclusive. I just hope that all this is not in vain. I hope that real change will happen.
Did any of it cause you to reflect differently on the experiences you’ve had living in the U.S.? I remember you saying on Lindsey Hein’s podcast that you didn’t have a lot of shoe contract offers coming out of college. Is that something you would attribute to racism? No one ever made a judgment based on skin color when I lived in Africa. I didn’t even realize that there were conditions that came with that until I was in the U.S. and I realized, “Oh, there are some expectations, some connotations, that come with me being a Black woman.” And most of them were not positive, most of them were negative. You start learning these cues and you start realizing what society is always thinking about you.
Obviously I’ve experienced unfairness, even coming out of college, I didn’t have a lot of companies that wanted to sign me. I don’t know if that had to do with my color or whatever. But I feel like, just based on how I was performing, I was running really well. Probably if I was a different-looking kind of girl…but I don’t know, I can’t speak on that. But society [needs to] acknowledge that we are all equal and we all deserve whatever’s on the table.
I’m raising a Black child who is American. I hope that down the road, she doesn’t have to fight so hard to just be acknowledged and just to be like everyone else. I hope it gets better both for her and her children.
Are there ways in which you think the running industry can do better? I think the running industry can help. It’s huge what we tell young girls and young boys. When you print a poster or you print a magazine, and all of the images are of white women, it’s very difficult for a Black little girl, an Indian little girl, or an Asian little girl or boy to look at those images and recognize themselves. They’re not reflected in anything, so it’s really important that the running industry is inclusive of everyone else. That way the upcoming generation can see themselves.
I think shoe companies can try to be more diverse. If you have athletes who can compete, try to give out those opportunities to a more diverse group of people. That promotes the younger generation to see themselves in the older generations. Speaking of representation in magazines, there’s been some coverage of your story, but not a ton since you made the U.S. Olympic team. Are you avoiding the spotlight somewhat, or are people not reaching out? I don’t avoid it. I don’t think I turn down interviews, I talk to the people that want to talk to me and the people that are interested in having a chat. I’m always up for a chat. So no, I don’t turn anything down. But I also wouldn’t just want to be put somewhere just for the sake of saying, “Oh, we have a Black woman.” Different people, different companies, and different magazines, they have a following and they have their own objectives and goals.Whatever they want to promote, whatever they want to show, whatever they want to share, that’s their say. So if someone felt they wanted to talk to me about something, that’s fantastic. I think that I would be open to that, but that’s their call. But I’m perfectly fine, trust me. I live on a farm in Kenya (laughs). How do you feel about social media? I am terrible—that’s maybe another reason why I’m not being interviewed that much, because I am never present anywhere. As you can tell if you follow me on social media anywhere, I’m not good at it, it’s the last thing that ever occurs to me. After one month, I have to remind myself, “Oh, you might want to share something.” I don’t remember it, I don’t think about it. On the list of things on my plate, it just doesn’t occur to me. And I know it’s part of the job, you’re supposed to do these things, but oh God, I am terrible and it’s a real struggle.
That’s funny, I feel the same way. But at the same time, I also enjoy following some of the people who are more reluctant to post, because when they do post, it’s often refreshing and not the same as what everyone else is posting. I imagine the photos you could take in Kenya. Seeing your day-to-day life would be so interesting. It’s not. It’s me chasing chickens (laughs). The thing with social media, for me personally, I am really happy to sit in a corner and I hibernate. People that know me know this. Especially when I’m really getting ready for a big race, I tend to hibernate. I hide away and I don’t want anything to do with anyone. I do that for months at a time. That’s my life, that’s living for me, and any time I have to come out of that it’s like, “Ohhh, we have to do this again.” I like my hiding. I thrive in that. I thrive in getting away and not being bothered by anyone. So I actually feel like my life is quite boring. What am I going to tell you about? I have nothing to tell everyone all day long every day, twice a day, I really don’t.
Do you look at social media much? I look at social media, especially for my news. I mean you shouldn’t really be getting your news from social media, but I feel like if I want to catch up on what’s happening, I’ll scroll through social media for like 20 minutes so I know what’s happening in the world, and then I kind of throw my phone away. I always leave my phone in the house and I rarely look at it and I always have a ton of missed calls, because I’m never really close to it. That’s just habit, and it’s not like I don’t care about people, I just forget about it.
I shared an article about whereabouts failures in Kenya a while back and Aliphine Tuliamuk commented that her schedule is more predictable when she’s in the U.S., but there’s more spontaneity when she’s in Kenya. The article mentioned that some athletes in Kenya don’t have addresses. Having lived in both places, would you say it’s harder to stay on top of keeping drug testers informed of your whereabouts while in Kenya? Yes, I can see that. It’s more difficult here. Like you said, there’s no physical address, so you’re basically kind of suggesting where you live by either describing the home you’re living in or the neighborhood you’re living in. On top of that, there’s a lot of movement in Kenya. Kenya’s the size of Texas and you can just go between Iten and Eldoret without even thinking about it. That can sometimes be problematic for people, because you might go to the village, and that becomes even more difficult, trying to describe where you are. And in the remote areas, you might not have connections, your phone reception is bad.
In the U.S., that is almost a non-factor for me, because I have a specific address. If you’re training at a track, you know you’ll be at Hayward Field. That’s easy, it’s clear. But when I’m in Kenya, I don’t know. Sometimes it rains and if I go to a dirt track and it’s wet and muddy, I might have to go somewhere else. There are a lot of factors. I can see why it can be problematic, but you just have to be diligent. I just have to be on top of it, more than anything. I have weekly reminders to remind me where I’ll be for the week. You just have to do it, it’s your number one job. As an athlete, if you really care about your integrity, there’s no option about it. As much as it’s challenging, and I can sympathize and understand that, you have to be on top of it.
What is Emma up to all day? She keeps us on our toes. She’s very active. She runs around and she has a lot of space to do so, so she never sits still as well. The only time she’s indoors is for meals and sleep (laughs). Just to eat and sleep and nothing in-between. She’s loving it. And we have a lot of people around us, a lot of family and a lot of help. It’s just fun, and she’s at a really good age right now where she’s just exploring a lot of different things. This is a good environment for her for sure.
Is she bilingual? We have not actually spoken English to her at home. We are just starting now to introduce English at the house. Right now she communicates in Swahili. We wanted her to learn a first language before she speaks English.
Do you ultimately have plans to settle in one country or the other once Emma’s in school? I hope we get to go back and forth, we really like that. Now I feel like we spend more time in Kenya because it is more convenient for our family to do so, but I think when she gets a little older, we’ll probably spend more time in the U.S., and that’s a huge privilege for us. We would love to be able to go back and forth and just have both worlds for our children and our family; that would be fantastic.
For decades, running literature was dominated by books by and about men, and the quality of the books was hit or miss. That’s gradually changing, and there are more quality options for running books by and about women.
If you would like to support Fast Women and independent bookstores, please visit and shop from our bookshop.org list. Ten percent of purchases through Bookshop.org go to independent bookstores (you can select a specific one), and if you shop from our list, an additional 10% will help keep this website and the Fast Women newsletter and social media accounts going.
We also made a list (below) through amazon.com, because quite a few of the books we wanted to recommend were not available through bookshop.org. Purchases through these links will also support Fast Women, in some cases, but less so.
The Silence of Great Distance: Women Running Long, by Frank MurphyIncludes what is probably the best history of women’s long distance running, but also chronicles some tough stories involving mental health struggles.
Uncommon Heart, by Anne Audain and John L. Parker, Jr. The story of New Zealand’s Anne Audain, who overcame childhood challenges to become the first women’s professional runner, an Olympian, and a Commonwealth Games gold medalist.
To Boston With Love, by Bobbi GibbBobbi Gibb tells the story of becoming the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966. This 50th anniversary edition includes a new introduction from Gibb, as well as illustrations drawn by Gibb.
Wind in the Fire, by Bobbi GibbI’m not sure how this compares with the previous selection, but you can get a pretty long preview by using the “look inside” link, to get a sense of the content.
Tierney Wolfgram, 17, set a pending American junior record in the marathon on Saturday, running 2:31:49 at the Parkway Marathon in Sacramento, California. The record was previously held by Cathy (Schiro) O’Brien, who ran 2:34:32 in 1984 before going on to make the 1988 and 1992 Olympic teams in the event.
If you’ve never heard of the Parkway Marathon, that’s because it was created solely for the purpose of this record attempt. Danielle Domenichelli served as race director for the three-person USATF-sanctioned race, which was kept quiet in advance to avoid attracting spectators.
Wolfgram raced alongside Adam Sjolund and Carson Leavitt, two of her University of Nevada teammates, who were there to provide pacing assistance and to make it an official race. (USATF rules require three starters, but they don’t all have to finish. Only Sjolund and Wolfgram did.) They each had to have two negative Covid tests in the week leading up to the race, to comply with USATF rules.
The plan was for the trio to run 5:53 pace before picking up the pace the last 10K, but they were feeling good and ran ahead of pace from the start, ultimately averaging 5:47 per mile. Kirk Elias, Nevada’s head cross country coach, asked the pacers about the quicker pace post-race. “They said, ‘Coach, every time we tried to dial it back to 5:53, she’d push up in between us and start pushing the pace again,’” Elias told Fast Women on Saturday.
Wolfgram admitted to that, but she said learned a lot about proper pacing in this race. “In my other marathons, I’d always go out too fast and crash and burn. This time, Adam and Carson really helped make me successful,” she said.
They raced on the paved trail that runs along Sacramento’s American River, doing two out-and-backs on a 6.55-mile stretch. Conditions were near perfect, and traffic was low on the path when they began, at 6:15 a.m. But as more people headed out for their morning workout and noticed the fluid stations set up along the course, they began to ask the race volunteers (other Nevada team members) what was going on.
“Tierney started getting support from people along the path because they heard that there was somebody trying to set an American junior record in the marathon,” Elias said. “She got more support than we would have expected.”
The team set up aid stations every three miles, and got fueling advice from Nevada assistant coach EmKay Sullivan, an accomplished trail and ultra runner and an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. Wolfgram used a combination of Gatorade, water, Run Gum (for a late-race boost), and also went with the slightly less conventional choice of applesauce packets.
Wolfgram, a first year student at Nevada who won’t turn 18 until May 10, opted to graduate from high school a year early. Not only did she begin college amid a pandemic, Wolfgram and her teammates have also had to contend with unhealthy air quality in Reno due to wildfires this semester. Because of that, and rising Covid rates, Wolfgram spent a good portion of the fall semester at home in Minnesota and at her grandparents’ house in Wyoming, training solo and taking classes online. Joining Strava helped keep her motivated, as she followed her teammates’ training and tried to match their progress.
But when she returned to campus two weeks ago, she was reminded how much more fun running can be when done with friends. “The first run back with them, I was overcome with happiness and all these emotions,” she said. “I had forgotten what it felt like. When I was alone running, I felt kind of robotic because I was just doing the process instead of enjoying it. And then coming back and running with them, oh my gosh, it helped prepare me a lot for this and get excited for it.”
Sessions like 4 x 20 minutes averaging marathon pace or a little faster (with 5:00 rest) helped Wolfgram know she was on track to take a shot at the record. Her mileage peaked at 102 miles, which was more than she ran in preparation for February’s Olympic Marathon Trials, but significantly less than the 120 per week she ran leading up to her first marathon at the 2018 Twin Cities Marathon, where she ran 2:40:03 at age 15.
Heading into that first marathon, Wolfgram and her parents wrote her training. “There was no science. We didn’t know what we were doing,” Wolfgram said. “We didn’t know how much stress we were putting on me. We thought that if I could actually do it then what harm could it be doing to me? I ended up getting injured for a whole year after that.”
Because of injury, Wolfgram only had 10 weeks of running leading into February’s Olympic Marathon Trials, so she took a more cautious approach, and her mileage topped out closer to 85 miles. Wolfgram finished 76th in the race, running 2:42:47, and told Elizabeth Carey that she wouldn’t be running another marathon until she was 22 years old or so. But many things have changed since early March.
“A week or so after the marathon, I got pretty sad about not getting the record. I thought that the Trials was my last shot and it was pretty hard to get over. I was kind of mourning that,” Wolfgram said. When Nevada’s cross country season got postponed, Elias encouraged team members to think of a goal to shoot for during the fall, and Wolfgram immediately knew what hers was.
“I thought it was 50-50 that [Elias would] think it was a good idea, and I could see both sides,” Wolfgram said. “He was a little cautious at first, but he said his job as a coach is to help me reach my individual goals and if that was something I was serious about doing, he’d do anything in his power to get me to the starting line in shape to break the record, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Now Wolfgram thinks she really is done with the marathon for a while, and she’s turning her focus to helping out her new team. She’ll take it easy for a month before ramping things back up—but likely not quite so high mileage-wise—for the winter cross country season.
“After the marathon I was walking around saying, ‘I think I could give this up for a couple of years now because that hurt quite a bit,’” Wolfgram said. “It was this record that kept me itching to keep doing marathons. Now that I’ve done it, I still love running marathons, but I think it’s time to develop myself on the track.”
Two days before her breakthrough 1:08:57 half marathon performance last week, Keira D’Amato announced that she’ll go after the American 10-mile record for a women’s-only race on Monday, November 23. The current record is 52:12, set by Janet Cherobon-Bawcom in 2014. Coincidentally, D’Amato, pregnant with her first child, held the finish line tape as Cherobon-Bawcom broke the record.
After a long hiatus from competitive running, D’Amato has worked her way back to the elite level over the past several years. This year in particular has been a good one for her. In February, she finished 15th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:34:24. In June, D’Amato made headlines when she ran a 15:04 5,000m time trial on the track, which, if official, would have shaved 65 seconds off her personal best.
D’Amato, who turned 36 in October, works full time as a realtor in Midlothian, Virginia, and has two children: Tommy, 5, and Quin, 4. After her post-race cooldown on Wednesday, D’Amato had to rush back to her hotel to meet a work deadline before catching her flight home. She takes pride in her unconventional path to success, and she is currently unsponsored, though Tracksmith and CEP provide her with apparel, and Potomac River Running has helped her out with shoes in the past.
After the November 10-mile race, which is at an undisclosed location, D’Amato is scheduled to run the Marathon Project on December 20, and she is considering doubling in the 5,000m and 10,000m at June’s Olympic Track & Field Trials. I caught up with her last week, two days after her win in Michigan. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Fast Women: What kind of time were you thinking you could run heading into Wednesday’s race? Did your performance surprise you at all? Keira D’Amato: We were kind of using the race as a good tempo/tuneup towards marathon training. When I was chatting with my coach (Scott Raczko), the time wasn’t really a focus, it was just the effort to make sure I was running smooth, locked in, strong, comfortable, and the goal was just to run the second loop faster than the first loop. So when Emma took it out, I was like, “Okay, we’re doing this!” I wasn’t surprised that I ran that time, but I wasn’t expecting that I’d run that time that day, because the time wasn’t even the goal of that race. Were there specific workouts you did that gave you the confidence you could run in that time range? I’ve done a lot of work under 4:40 per mile for shorter intervals, and I’m very comfortable running mile repeats under 5:00. I’ve also done a handful of longer tempos right around marathon pace or a little under. So I thought 5:20s would feel pretty comfortable. I was pleasantly surprised that running 5:15s felt pretty darn good, too.
When you run marathon pace in training, is that your past marathon pace, or a theoretical marathon pace that you think you can run in the future? It’s theoretical. After the Olympic Trials, I knew, in my head, that I was ready to break 2:30, it just didn’t happen that day. I moved past the Trials thinking, “Okay, now you’re a sub-2:30 marathoner, let’s work on improving that.” So even though the time wasn’t there, I knew I was in that kind of shape. Now I’m working on faster than that and aiming for around 5:30 per mile for the marathon (which would put her in the 2:24 range).
As I look at your official personal bests on the World Athletics website, it says 16:09 for 5,000m, even though you’ve run 15:04 in a time trial. Is there any one particular personal best you really think has to go, or do they just all have to go? I think I’ve had workouts where I’ve run faster than all of my PRs, including that time trial 5K, which was a glorified workout for me. I kind of look at all of it and know that I’m so much fitter than anything I’ve ever done in a race, so I think that all of my PRs need to be rewritten.
You have the 10 miler and the Marathon Project coming up. In the longer term, are you still thinking about running the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials as well? I’m definitely going for the track trials, but I feel really patient about that. I know I’m capable of hitting the Olympic standard for both the 5K and 10K, I feel very confident about that, so I’m not in a huge rush to shove it in where it doesn’t belong. Right now I’m in marathon base mode and I’ll be doing races that fit toward that end goal of running a really fast marathon in December.
I’m hoping that there will be a number of opportunities, come 2021, that will allow me to get into a race and hit those standards. I feel like when you’re trying to force things in, that’s when things can get a little crazy and you get stressed or tired and run your body down. I’m trying to focus on base training right now and then I’ll focus on that in the spring.
I appreciate your laid-back attitude that the opportunities will come as well as your confidence that you can do it. I feel very confident in what I’m capable of, but I’ve kind of fallen into this journey in a backwards way. I’ve had an untraditional path, so I don’t have any set way that’s worked for me in the past. I’m not on a team, I’m doing this by myself, kind of bushwhacking my own way here. I have really great direction from my coach. He’s been there and he’s done it before, but we’re also kind of in no-man’s land here, which has been really fun. I have a whole village of people who support me, so I’m not alone, but in a way, I feel like I’ve done it alone, and I’m pretty proud about that. It may be a little unconventional, but so far it’s working for me. Do you have training partners right now? Not really. I do the majority of my runs and workouts alone. The guy that I liked to work out with leading into the Olympic Marathon Trials moved about an hour away, to Charlottesville, so for hard efforts, I sometimes just drive there and beg him to work out with me. I’ll do that maybe a couple times a month, and then I have a girlfriend who I like to do my long runs with. But I do everything else on my own. I did get my husband a bike for Christmas, so now maybe once a week, he’ll bike with me.
I also really relish in that solo time. I’m kind of an introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert, so I really enjoy that time to recenter, refocus, and regather myself on those solo runs.
Once you dropped everyone in Wednesday’s race, did it feel like you were out on a training run with your husband, as you chased the lead bike? I thought about that, too. The lead biker was staying 10 meters ahead of me. I was thinking, “Okay, this is my husband trying to drop me on this run.”
Was it at all hard to push yourself in a race that didn’t feel very race-like, especially once you were alone? I’ve gotten really good at running solo. I’ve kind of considered myself the time trial queen this summer, because I’ve done so much on my own. But I will say that knowing that Emma Bates is right behind you is terrifying (laughs). I was thinking, “This girl is so tough and so strong, if I let off the gas pedal, she is just going to eat me up.” That created a whole ’nother fire for me that I do not experience in time trials and running by myself.
If the right sponsor approached you, would you accept an offer? I would. There have been some rumblings, so we’ll see if anything comes together. At the same time, I don’t think I’m what most brands are looking for. I think a lot of sponsors like sponsoring a team or that NCAA champion right out of college, with a lot of potential. I’m neither one, but I do think it is a little close-minded. I think I’m unique and relatable to a lot of people that have ambitions or dreams that they didn’t chase, or those who didn’t quite reach their goal and decide to give it a second chance. But I get why I’m not sponsored.
That’s precisely why I’d love to see you at least have sponsorship options. You have the ability to reach and inspire a different segment of the running population. It seems short-sighted of companies not to consider or value that. Yeah, and I think that I reach beyond running in a way. Virginia as a whole has been very, very supportive because they’ve seen my journey from being out there just trying to get back into running after becoming a parent to, “Wow, look, she’s competing in these local races,” to “Oh my gosh, we’re supporting someone who just qualified for the Olympic Trials.” Even outside of the running space, people have seen my journey and have been part of it. I hope it does inspire other people to say, “You know what? I have a goal, too, and I’m just going to go for it. What have I got to lose?” That’s what I’ve been saying this whole time. I have absolutely nothing to lose in this running space.
When you were holding the finish tape for Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, while pregnant, in 2014, were you ever imagining that that could be you someday? No, definitely not. But there was a part of me holding the tape—and I don’t want to take anything away from what she did, because she’s a phenomenal runner and I’ve always looked up to her—but there was always a part of me watching runners or holding the tape thinking, “Why wasn’t that me?” I had a lot of unfinished business that I didn’t quite know how to resolve within myself. When I was holding the tape, I never thought that I would come back at this level. I never thought I’d ever have an opportunity or be able to say with a straight face that I’m going to try to break that record in a month, so it’s pretty wild how far I’ve come.
You sometimes think, “If I would have known then what I know now.” And I have the luxury now of knowing what I know now and getting this second chance, so I feel like this time, I’m doing it right, which I’m really proud of.
What have you learned from your past experiences, and what are some of the things you’re doing differently? I think the biggest thing is patience, and knowing it’s not going to happen overnight. I understand the importance of consistency and the long game, and I didn’t then. I also think I’m much better at dealing with pressure now. There’s just a perspective change. It was my whole world then. Everything revolved around me being Keira the runner, and now I’m Keira the mom, the wife, the realtor who runs, and that’s really liberating and gives me a lot of room to take risks.
What did you go through 10 miles in during your half marathon on Wednesday? I think it was 52:37, so about 25 seconds slower than the record.
Did that give you confidence? Oh yeah, when I saw that I was that close, I was like, “Yeah, I got this.”
Do you expect to have other people in the 10-mile record attempt who can keep up with you at that pace? Bill Orr, who is the elite athlete coordinator for the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, has graciously taken the lead on inviting some other athletes that we feel like could potentially get the record, too. At first, I was thinking I would just time trial it and get the record, but seeing everything that goes into making this USATF-certified and a record-eligible course, it felt a little selfish to do it by myself. And also, it doesn’t feel like a true record attempt if I’m not racing people. I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to the running community if we didn’t open it up. There are going to be a handful of people who I think can also break the record, so it’s going to be a pretty exciting race. That’s another way in which my mentality has changed a little bit. On November 23rd, I hope somebody gets that record. I’m going to work my butt off to make sure it’s me, but I know that as a group, the women’s American distance running community, I feel confident that somebody is going to get it that day.
I know that you and Matthew Centrowitz go way back (his father was D’Amato’s college coach), but what’s the backstory of him trying to get you more Instagram followers? Probably at the beginning of Covid, I mentioned something to him—I don’t know if someone told me this or where I heard this—that I need at least 5,000 followers to even be considered for a sponsorship. I said something about it to him, and he offered to help. He posted maybe six months ago, saying he’d send out some swag to my followers, once I hit 5,000. Someone was following and noticed that I passed 5,000 followers after Wednesday’s race, so he’s following through.
(D’Amato is a great follow on Instagram, both for the running content and for her children’s amazing Halloween costumes.)
Jaci Smith did not plan to run under the Olympic Trials 10,000m qualifying time of 32:25 at the Big City Invitational – Presented by Trials of Miles x Bakline on Friday evening in New York. That’s not to say that the thought hadn’t crossed her mind. She had, after all, reached out to USA Track & Field to find out whether the Nike Alphafly shoes she planned to wear to protect her calves would be allowed for Olympic Trials qualifying performances. (Answer: they would). But after injuring her Achilles in July, needing a PRP injection, and doing pool and bike workouts for 6–8 weeks, Smith thought of this event as more of a rust-buster. She had done only five track workouts leading up to the race.
Smith knew Allie Kieffer would be going for a fast time, so she opted not to go with Kieffer and the rabbit and aimed for a 16:20 through 5K instead. Kieffer hit 5K in 16:07, already having backed off the pace she was running in the early laps, and Smith went through 14 seconds back, in 16:21. “Honestly, at the beginning of the race, I didn’t feel spectacular. I wasn’t sure I could even sustain that 16:20 pace,” Smith told Fast Women on Sunday night. “But as I kept going—I don’t know if it was the excitement of being back on the track—I just started feeling really strong.”
With about 10 laps remaining in the race, Smith realized her pace was creeping down into Olympic Trials qualifying territory. With eight laps to go, she started clicking off 75-second splits. With just under six laps to go, she moved into the lead. “I just found a rhythm and ended up closing hard and it was a super exciting result,” Smith said.
Not only did Smith run under the 32:25 Trials standard, she ran 32:10.31, the fastest time by a U.S. woman in a women’s-only race in 2020. (Kellyn Taylor, Stephanie Bruce, and Lauren Paquette ran faster, but with a male pacer.) Kieffer finished second in 32:52.89. Smith secured her spot in June’s Olympic Trials, and took 17 seconds off her personal best. After running the first 5K in 16:21, she ran the second one in 15:49.
Smith, 23, who is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2019 and joined the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). Unlike the Army’s WCAP, the Air Force’s program operates only for the two years leading up to an Olympic Games. The original plan was for her to be a part of the program for one year before taking on a full-time Air Force job as an astronautical engineer, but the pandemic extended that for an additional year. While in the WCAP, her full-time job is training, and she’s not permitted to have an agent or outside brand sponsorship.
Smith is still coached by her college coach, Ryan Cole, and trains with Hannah Everson, who has run times similar to hers. After the 2021 Games, Smith will be stationed elsewhere and working long hours, but she plans to continue training and racing to the best of her ability during that time, and will keep applying to the WCAP for as long as they’ll take her. “I know that I want to run for as long as my body lets me,” Smith said. “You see women running well in their mid to late 30s. That’s what I’m passionate about—the 10K for now and the marathon later. I know I always want to have that as part of my life.”
Smith made her half marathon debut when she was 11 years old (she ran a 2:23:55), following her father into the sport, and says she was not a natural. Ultimately she focused more on tennis in high school, where she won two individual and three team state titles. (For more on her collegiate success, thisis a good article from Runner’s World.)
Smith ran more than twice as fast when she returned to the distance, recording a 1:10:42 at the Houston Half Marathon in January, which convinced her to give the Olympic Marathon Trials a shot. Smith ran a solid race there, finishing 19th in 2:36:34. She says it was a valuable learning experience, but the distance was hard on her body and solidified her decision to stick with the shorter distances for now. “You go through so many mental ups and downs in a race that long that you have to learn to fight through those. It was just something I’d never experienced,” she said.
Smith plans to race a 10,000m again in early December in California, where she can race a little more aggressively with the Trials-qualifying pressure off. The next standard to shoot for is the 31:25.00 Olympic standard. She doesn’t expect that she’ll get there by December, that’s more of a spring goal right now, but hey, she’s surprised herself before.
I recently wrote about Samia Akbar being the fastest known U.S.-born Black marathoner with her 2:34:14 at the 2006 New York City Marathon. Last week, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with her, and I’m sharing some of the highlights here. Akbar was an All-American runner for American University, and she was inducted into their athletic hall of fame in 2017. She went on to run professionally for seven years and now works as a global marketing manager for New Balance.
When you ran your 2:34:14 at the 2006 New York City Marathon, were you aware of it being the fastest time by a U.S.-born Black woman? No. I was aware of it when Gary Corbitt mentioned it to me like two years ago. That’s definitely something I had thought of, because friends and family had asked me about it many times. I thought of it as a cool trivia question I should probably delve into some more, but I didn’t know who had held the fastest time before me.
To this day, why is 2:34 the PR for a Black woman born in the U.S.? I feel like the time should be faster and we should have progressed by now. I do feel like it’s only a matter of time [before that time comes down], but it bothers me. It’s not just Black runners, there’s not a lot of diversity across the board. The white women who occupy that space are awesome and deserving, but I definitely think it’s something to note and keep talking about, thinking about, and questioning, because it has not changed, which is problematic and sad.
Diversity is something that is important for everyone. What could we achieve if we were really firing with all pistons and including every part of our population to go forward and represent us?
Can you share some of your thoughts on getting more Black children running distances? Many people were accustomed to talking about how accessible running is, saying all you need is a pair of shoes and a safe place to run. But Ahmaud Arbery’s case has made it very clear how complicated the safety issue is, and how that’s a barrier to participation for some. Growing up in the suburbs with a couple other Black friends, we all have stories about the police being called on us in our own neighborhoods, police officers going up to us or our siblings and asking, “What are you doing here?” when the answer was, “I’m walking to my house. I live here.” Even in a place like Northern Virginia, which feels pretty safe and people are really educated, I didn’t feel like I was running around amongst a bunch of confederate flags or something, but people were still very suspicious that my Black self was in this space that was predominantly white. So I think it’s a very complicated thing and I don’t know what the solve is to get more Black people involved in distance running, but what I do know for sure is that it’s going to be many things.
Maybe you need to make sure that you have a coach that takes you to a green space from a city space…I don’t know that everybody has access to that and the time or money to rent a van or take a carpool. There are so many things that I think about that could be barriers for some people.
It’s also a cultural thing. People should feel encouraged to try the longer distances. I was encouraged to try it because I started track with a friend who was a sprinter. I kept trying really hard to run fast at 200s and 400s in practice, and it was not panning out. I was game to keep moving up until I found a space where I was more successful. If you have kids coming out for track, that’s a great place to start. Just say, “Hey, it probably sucks to come in last in every 200m repeat, but I think you might like running more if you tried the mile or you had a leg on the 4x800m team.”
Being able to see yourself doing these things and understand what it takes to be a professional distance runner is also part of the hurdle with distance running. It’s not something that you see a lot on TV. But now, with social media, there’s a way to make it really fun. You can get a peek into this professional athlete’s life, it’s them telling their own story, talking about the things that they like to do, posting pictures of themselves.
On the Citius Mag podcast, Russell Dinkins recently talked about why it’s harder for track & field athletes to speak out about their experiences, because they have less job security compared to other types of professional athletes. More athletes have been speaking out in the last few weeks, and I’m curious what you think about all of it. It’s been exciting to see Marielle Hall use her voice and write something, and seeing Alysia Montaño all over the place, having these conversations about women, being pregnant, and the sport. Hearing from Allyson Felix and Alysia, along with Kara Goucher, even if you don’t know running that well, you hear these people talking about a compelling and interesting topic that transcends sport in a way. That makes me really happy.
Seeing those athletes in Sports Illustratedtalking about their experiences with racism is important because one thing that a lot of marketing people can tell you is that social justice is important to young people. In basketball, the players are able to have a voice and wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to practice. In the NFL, they’re having an interesting time now, but for a long time, they really tried to suppress progress, I believe. They were not rewarding people who were speaking out about what was going on around them. I think what’s happening lately in our sport is so cool because this is another way to attract people.
It’s so crazy that we’re just getting to this point in time, but if you take race out of whatever you’re doing, any human being connects with another human being because of their authenticity. And young people, especially, can tell when they’re full of it versus not. I think it’s really healthy and to our advantage that we’re having this dialog about inclusivity and diversity in our sport.
These things that people are talking about have been going on forever. If you’re Black, you deal with this no matter where you work, whether you’re a professional athlete or not. You deal with the precariousness of wanting to make change in your workplace or in your career and also feeling like you have to make sure that whatever you’re doing, you can create something positive without getting fired or being shunned by your coworkers.
It’s so exciting that there’s so much change happening. It feels like the Twilight Zone when you wake up and they’re like, ‘We’re going to remove Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from these products,” And you’re like, ‘That is great,” but there’s also that sick feeling you get because people have been telling [these companies] that this is inappropriate for a long time and…if it’s that easy, why weren’t they doing the right thing from the beginning?
While it’s really cool that people are speaking out and we’re getting more information that’s less watered down…Black people are constantly feeling like we need to edit ourselves, from the way we look, to the way we speak to people, to the things we say. We have to make determinations all day long with different groups of friends or co-workers about if I say this, will people really understand, are they really listening, will they really hear me, will they care?
Do you have other thoughts on what else we can do to get more Black kids running? How important is representation? Representation matters so much…and it’s important to put people of color, Black women, men, on the cover [of magazines]. I definitely think that that’s like the first step. I’m sure this is the case in many Black families, but my parents were constantly telling us that we have to see it for ourselves, because if our expectation was to go out in the world and see Black men and women doing a full span of things in the world, that’s not reality, so you have to be able to see yourself doing it. But it would be really cool if we could see people doing this kind of stuff in film or in magazines or when people are making their ads and putting stuff together for social. Whatever that outward reflection is to your consumer, whatever industry you’re in, if you can show people being a part of the sport, that would be a really great start.
It’s going to take a lot. I don’t know that I have all the answers. I would love to be a part of some kind of conversation where people are thinking about how to get more kids involved. Also, it starts with talking to kids. Because I’m a marketer, doing your market research and thinking about what kids emotionally connect with.
I would hope that it doesn’t get reduced to some kids being able to get to an open green space to run for miles and miles in high school and then other kids can’t. I feel like we’ve got to be more creative than that.
Another part of it is making sure kids don’t feel like they’re not an other. When you do have kids trying the mile, the 5K, the 10K, racism and snide remarks [can’t be the] thing that makes this kid think, “I should just try the 400m or 500m again.” That’s probably just an ongoing conversation, making sure that people feel welcome and know that the events are for everybody. Anybody can run the 200m and anybody is welcome to try the two-mile in high school.
I spent a lot of time being the only Black person doing all kinds of things when I was growing up. I had a wide range of experiences with people being extremely welcoming, and having this warm running community full of people that are thoughtful and really smart and go on to do all kinds of cool things after running. And also people that said things to me that were really hurtful because I was Black and I didn’t fit in their box, and they didn’t understand why I was there or why I was trying to have a professional career after college.
It’s tough for anyone, other than the very top runners, to make it as a professional runner, but did you feel like there were additional barriers there, as a Black woman? It’s a hard career, because we’re in a sport that’s not football, baseball, and basketball, so there’s just a totally different setup for the sport itself, in the way that the governing bodies manage athletes. I didn’t have an enormous contract, but I had what I felt like, and still feel like, was a solid contract at the time. I was able to have a career running mostly and I wasn’t constantly stressed about money. I did live at home with my parents most of the time, but I was also traveling a lot…
One of the things I think about is Black people in America and their wealth. There are a lot of studies about people who earn college and graduate degrees not only making sure they can sustain themselves, but also helping family members. It’s like a web where everybody’s lifting up the next person. When you come from a family where they’re helping you put down for an apartment or a starter home, you find yourself in a different scenario as far as having a career and being able to financially move through life with a little bit more ease. I didn’t necessarily have that issue for myself, but it is something to think about if we’re talking about Black people and people of color.
If it’s Samia, the Black woman speaking, I definitely noticed the kinds of questions they asked women, and also the questions that they asked me, being a Black woman with the last name Akbar. There was definitely this weird undertone, sometimes, of being an other. Like, “Where are you really from?” And I can’t tell you how many times people have asked if English is my first language.
I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, near the middle to end of my career, if I was thinking of having a family or if I was married. And having male journalists tell me it would be an advantage if I had a kid. I remember [talking to] one guy straight one day and saying, “Have you ever talked to Marla Runyan about what it’s like to have kids? It sounds really hard.” [Meanwhile] some man who is a running nerd is thinking about and reading about a weird genetic boost. It doesn’t really have the same practical effect, if you actually talk to women. I think there were just a lot of people who hadn’t met somebody like me, because I was a first and only, so I feel like I got a lot of weird questions.
I definitely feel like people didn’t even think I spoke English some of the time, so people wouldn’t bother to talk to me about things. It bothered me a little bit, but I also feel like it created a safe space because the less crazy conversations you’re having, the more you can just focus on the things that are important, which was my running career, and the fulfillment that I was getting out of participating in a sport that I really loved. And doing all the cool things that come with it, like being able to travel, and make new friends, and push my body, and just having a lot of self-reliance, inner strength, and mental focus.
I feel like I’ve spent so much time not really talking about this kind of stuff until now with folks, because I don’t want it to take away from all of the things that I’m so grateful for. Running and my family have given me so much. But [how she was treated] because of who I am, that has also stuck with me. It’s made me tough, too… I didn’t necessarily think that it held me back, but I have to think, now that we’re chatting about this, how could it not? If people are constantly thinking that deep down, Samia Akbar is a Moroccan. I’m going to keep pressing her and she’s going to tell me that her mom is actually from [somewhere else]. It really wasn’t my problem, but for those people that really cared to ask and really just had to know, it was clearly a barrier for them in really connecting with me or seeing me as somebody who represented them in the United States of America.
It can be a hard question to answer because sometimes the microaggressions and white centering are so subtle that no one can prove it. My hope, as we’re having these conversations, is that some of these things are going to change. That’s definitely how it works, and I agree that things are so subtle. As we were saying earlier, things haven’t changed. The things that you would like and the conversations we should be having, that standard has never changed, just because all of a sudden, it’s occurred to a whole industry that they should care about a whole plethora of issues.
I really hope that that happens, and I think, depending on the industry, it will. In footwear, people are wanting to appeal to as many consumers as possible in business. If they’re smart, then this is not only the right thing to do, to think about diversity and to care, it’s also the smartest thing to do from a business sense. It’s pretty straightforward.
People had to get mad and companies had to feel like there was something at stake, something to lose, to actually do something. That’s pretty bad, but I’m with you, hopefully this sparks the change.
I think that leadership needs to change in the sport, because we need people to be thinking about this from a lot of different angles. You can’t have one kind of person making the decisions in any sport, or any endeavor, or any business and think that you’re going to get an authentic, correct, or fresh way to address an issue.
I think you need people who are willing to talk about these things and make them a priority and actively try to sign people and give them reasonable contracts where they can make a living and not feel like they have to hustle and do 15 other things. Give them a really good start so they can see if they can progress under the best circumstances, not under $10,000 a year and good luck with your life. And, “Oh, you didn’t perform? Well we gave you a few years of that and it’s over.”
I know money doesn’t grow on trees and it’s a whole business thing, but if you want to try and see if this could work, if people can do their best, you should probably really give them a fighting chance. You should probably not cut them if they’ve been an amazing athlete for you for years and years, they’ve made it to the Olympics, and they have a baby and want to continue to run. You should probably think about that.
Your former high school, college, and post-collegiate teammate Keira D’Amato just ran 15:04 for a 5,000m time trial at age 35. Did that make you want to dust off your spikes, get out there, and see what you can do? I definitely felt an extra zing and zip on my run that day. I’m so excited for Keira. We’ve known each other for such a long time that it’s pretty emotional for me to watch this journey that she’s on. Because she’s my sister, she’s my good friend, it just makes my heart soar.
There are so many things that women feel, and people feel, like they should do in a specific order. The running side of me is like that’s freaking incredible, you put yourself in the archives amongst this amazing list of women, at this age, that have done this thing. And then, on the life side, and the friend side, I’m so proud of her. This is what running is about, as far as being an individual sport. This is all Keira. All these things were inside of her all along. She had the right timing and the determination to really make so much of this happen
She’s living her life as a mom, a wife, a family member of a close family, she’s always there for people, and she’s just awesome. I’m so proud of her for thinking, “I care about doing this and I want to try this, so I’m gonna do it.” I feel like women get so many messages to not do that…
I believe that she’s going to break 15:00. I can’t wait until races start bumping back up, because I know that it’s going to happen. Keira is so fast and she always has been. I think she can do whatever she wants in the marathon, but I really think that this 5,000m/10,000m space for her is going to be the best, and she’s just getting started. I think that the strength that she gained from that marathon training is really showing up now.
I got emotional a little bit earlier thinking about some of the things that I kind of tried to not think about during my running career, being a Black woman, but I’m also getting choked up talking about Keira now because it’s just pretty incredible. I’m just really proud of her. I’m really happy for her. And she deserves to just have fun and continue to do whatever she wants to do. It’s so cool.
Julia O’Rourke, a 2019 graduate of Bowdoin College, where she holds a 5,000m school record, recently created a women’s running crossword puzzle, downloadable here, for a friend who was sick. She then modified it for the Bowdoin track & field team’s weekly newsletter, which they began as a way to stay connected when their season abruptly ended and team members spread out all over the country.
O’Rourke thought it might help get more people interested in women’s running, and that they might look into Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s cookbooks or a new podcast after seeing clues for those things. “It could maybe spiral into them seeing other facets of the women’s running sphere that I really enjoy,” O’Rourke said.
The primary purpose of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials is to select the three women and three men who will represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games. But the women’s Trials have always included decent-sized fields, with the number of qualifiers ranging from a low of 118 in 1992 to a previous high of 267 in 1984. Though everyone lines up at the Trials technically having a shot at making the Olympic team, for many runners in the field, the race is their Olympic Games.
With 512 women and 260 men qualified for the 2020 race, it raises the question of how inclusive the Trials need to be. No one involved ever intended to have a field this large, so it seems inevitable that the women’s qualifying standard will get tougher in 2024 and beyond. This large Trials race, which has come about via a perfect storm of variables, wasn’t intentional, but it’s going to be wonderful.
Runners used teamwork, both in person and online, to make it to the Trials, and in the process, they created community around this event like we’ve never seen before. Each runner has a local army of supporters, plus an online following, who will be cheering them on in person or from afar. And most runners have local newspapers and/or TV stations eager to highlight their accomplishments, whether or not they understand the difference between qualifying for the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. There have never been so many eyes on a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Having a relatively easier standard keeps more women in the sport, or lures them back in, and that elevates the entire field. As the Atlanta Track Club’s Jay Holder told Chris Chavez in this episode of the Citius Mag podcast, “Your 2:42 marathoner of today could be your 2:24 marathoner of 2024. If there’s not someone there encouraging and supporting that, then that might not happen.”
Esther Atkins, who became a USA marathon champion and world championships team member, and Samantha (Bluske) Palmer, who is now a 2:29 marathoner, said recently that the goal of qualifying for the Trials helped keep them in the sport. And while the standard wasn’t what initially motivated Roberta Groner, it was one of her goals along the way, and now she, too, is a 2:29 marathoner, as well as the sixth-place finisher from last summer’s World Championships.
Some challenges and context
Many people agree that having a larger field and more attainable standard on the women’s side has done great things for the sport. That part is not particularly controversial. It’s easy for us to sit at our keyboards, however, and say that USATF should always have 500-person fields. But it’s more complicated than that.
I reached out to Mike Scott, who currently serves as the chairman of USA Track & Field’s Long Distance Running (LDR) Division, to help me further understand the factors that go into the USATF LDR committees’ decisions regarding the qualifying standards.
For one, we must consider the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which dictates, among other things, that the qualifying standard for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials can’t be more difficult than the Olympic qualifying standard. That’s how we ended up with a 2:45:00 qualifying time for women this time around. The 2016 Olympic standard was 2:45:00, and when the USATF LDR committee set the 2020 standards, they had no way of knowing the standard would drop to 2:29:30, because it wasn’t announced until March 2019, after the qualifying window had already opened.
Without going into too much detail, the value of a Trials race in future years depends heavily on what World Athletics decides regarding the Olympic qualifying procedures going forward. If they move to a model that depends heavily on world ranking or if our new, tough qualifying standards (2:11:30 men/2:29:30 women) get even tougher, or even if they stay the same, it could lead to a scenario where the first three runners across the finish line at a U.S. Trials race wouldn’t necessarily make the Olympic team. That was a real concern for the 2020 Trials, especially for the men, but after USATF expressed its concern, World Athletics granted our Trials one-time gold label status, which saves the race this time.
If for some reason, the first three runners across the finish line are not guaranteed spots on the Olympic team, that devalues the race for all involved—USATF, the local organizing committee (LOC), and the TV broadcasters, who don’t want to have to explain a convoluted qualifying process to would-be fans. This likely affects just about everything else about the Trials—who is willing to bid to host the race, how much money can be made from the race, who wants to watch it, and who wants to televise it. For that reason, USATF has worked hard to protect that aspect of the Trials, though the decision is ultimately up to World Athletics.
Putting on the Trials is expensive. This document outlines the associated costs, in general terms. We don’t know how much the Atlanta Track Club will pay to host the 2020 event, but according to the linked document, they needed to pay a $100,000 rights fee, spend at least $75,000 to market and publicize the Trials, provide the prize money ($480,000), and cover all the costs associated with putting on a race (security, medical, facilities, hospitality, and so on). USATF requires only that the LOC pay for “A” qualifiers’ travel and lodging, but expecting a much smaller field, the Atlanta Track Club committed to paying for all qualifiers, and that will end up costing them twice as much as they anticipated.
The potential income streams for the LOC, also outlined in the document, aren’t what you might expect, especially because any local sponsors can’t conflict with USATF’s or the USOC’s sponsors. The LOC generally has rights to ticket sales and on-premise food and beverage sales, but there aren’t many tickets to be sold at a marathon.
The bigger the field gets, the more expensive the race gets. Even if all of the B qualifiers cover their own hotel and travel, they still cost the LOC money. I’ve seen people saying things like, “If X can put on a 10,000 person race, surely the LOC and USATF can handle a 1,000-person race.” The major difference, Scott points out, is that the Trials is essentially a marathon with roughly 700 invited athletes. No race has 700 athletes in its professional field, and mass marathons have large fields who pay entry fees and can help offset some of the other costs.
Finally, the larger the field, the tougher the logistics. If anything goes poorly logistically in Atlanta—top athletes missing their bottles, falling, or traffic jams that interfere with the race—it’s going to be harder to make the case for a large field the next time around. Scott points out that not only is there going to be lapping on the Atlanta course, with the men’s and women’s races happening simultaneously, the various vehicles on the course (TV, media, etc.) might have a hard time getting through runner traffic on the narrower roads, especially with long fluid stations narrowing the road.
Potential solutions Despite the challenges and costs associated with hosting the Olympic Marathon Trials, the OTQ (Olympic Trials qualifying time) has become the BQ (Boston Marathon qualifying time) of our sport’s very elite. It has raised the level of U.S. distance running, especially on the women’s side, and it’s one of the best things the sport has going for it right now. Instead of automatically reverting to the old model of smaller fields, I think it’s worth looking at how USATF and the running community might be able to build on this, or at least keep it going.
I don’t have a fully-formed solution, but here are some thoughts:
Go back to holding the men’s and women’s Trials on different dates and in different locations. This means fewer runners total and a more affordable race for each LOC. Challenge: Believe it or not, 2016 was the first year that both the men’s and women’s Trials were on live TV, and I’m told that a big part of the appeal in televising the race was having both races on the same day. But at the same time, it was so much fun when all of the attention was focused on one race at a time.
Consider having different levels of tiered perks. Have a tough A standard, which earns athletes hotel, travel, and bottle service. Have a still-tough B standard, where athletes get a place on the starting line, but none of the above perks. And there could even be a C standard, if we want to make the race even more inclusive, where athletes have to pay their own way and pay an entry fee for the race, as they do for most marathons.
Offer some level of host family option to a limited number of athletes who can’t afford their own hotels, or offer a financial aid options to athletes who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make the trip.
Offer individual donors the opportunity to sponsor a runner’s travel, hotel, and expenses.
Hold the race on a course with fewer loops, to make lapping less of an issue. (Scott points out that closing down more miles of road will generally make both the race and the TV broadcast more expensive.)
I’m curious if there are other possible funding streams that haven’t yet been considered, like additional companies funding athletes’ Trials participation, and getting credit for it, without somehow conflicting with the USATF/USOC sponsors. It seems like there should be creative ways to involve sponsors in an adjacent manner, without stepping on toes.
Hold some type of mass destination race either the day of or the day after that helps cover some of the costs. (Atlanta is already doing this, as have others, but I wonder if there’s even more untapped opportunity there. And again, I wonder if there’s some way to make it feel more Trials adjacent, like calling it Atlanta 2020, or Road to Gold, so that the whole thing feels more brag-worthy and appealing to the masses.)
If you have any creative solutions for making a roughly 1,000 person race (500 men, 500 women) logistically possible and more affordable to the LOC, or other ideas, please let me know.
Scott said that nothing has been decided yet, and no formal discussions will begin until after the 2020 Trials. “The committees will have to examine the totality of whether it’s feasible to have a similar Trials next time—look at bidders, finances, and all those factors,” he said. In the meantime, let’s just appreciate the Atlanta Track Club for taking all of this on, and rolling with the punches when the field size ballooned beyond what anyone imagined.