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

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

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

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

“Never again” to getting hooked

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting serious

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailing it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

A sudden injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipari shortly after her surgery (Courtesy photo)

Losing count

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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For Olivia Baker, medical school takes a back seat to track

Olivia Baker runs the 800m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. (Photo: @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

Seven months ago, Olivia Baker was strongly considering moving on from professional running. She was coming off a disappointing race at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, where she didn’t advance out of the first round in the 800m. And she had been accepted to the Howard University College of Medicine. Eventually, running won out.

“It was a really, really hard decision, but ultimately, looking at where I am now, I think I made the right one,” Baker said.

Baker, 25, joined Atlanta Track Club Elite in September, and the work she has put in is already paying off. She has raced the 800m four times in 2022, and she’s run her three fastest times ever indoors. At the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on February 6, Baker finished second to Natoya Goule in an indoor personal best of 2:00.33, and six days later, at the American Track League meet in Louisville, Kentucky, she used a big kick to win the 800m in 2:00.69. 

Since moving to Atlanta, Baker’s training under coaches Amy and Andrew Begley has been more 800/1500m focused, compared to the 400/800m training she was previously doing. Baker used to run about 15 to 20 miles per week, and that’s gone up by an average of 5 to 10 miles per week. “Learning how to run in a body that has more endurance and finally tapping that potential is really exciting,” Baker said. “That has given me confidence, which you can see is growing with each race.”

A few weeks after arriving in Atlanta, Baker’s coaches had her do a two-mile tempo run on the track, and it was so far outside her comfort zone that they might as well have asked her to run a marathon. But she managed to run around 10:30, which was very fast for her at the time. And she really started building confidence when the team did a mile time trial in November. Previously, Baker hadn’t broken 5:00 in the mile, but in the time trial, she ran 4:38.

In Baker’s previous training group, Training Ground Elite, based in Texas, she had excellent athletes to train with, like Natasha Hastings and Travia Jones, but Baker was the only 800m runner. Now she trains with sub–2:00 800m runners Allie Wilson and Sadi Henderson and a handful of other middle-distance runners. 

“I’m finding a lot more joy in the sport these days, getting to train alongside this middle-distance crew that’s really strong,” Baker said. “Everyone is here to work, everyone wants to win or run their best, and we all push each other and encourage each other to do that on the track and off the track. There’s a high level of accountability.”

As part of her arrangement with the Atlanta Track Club, Baker works about 12 hours per week in the organization’s marketing department, where she’s responsible for leading the ATC’s book club, Runners Who Read. Prior to her move to Atlanta, Baker hosted a book club on Instagram with long and triple jumper Keturah Orji. Baker works in the office two days per week, which conveniently coincides with her cross training days.

Olivia Baker (Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Track Club)

Baker’s one off race of the season came on January 29 at the Millrose Games, where she ran 2:06.11. She attributes her performance to a lack of balance in her life around that time. “In the days leading up to the meet, I was doing a lot of work, not getting a lot of rest and it showed on the track, unfortunately,” Baker said. “I’m still working on it. I’m still finding that sweet spot between work and volunteering in the community and running and all the other things in my life, but I think that I am doing a better job now.”

Competing at the New York Armory in upper Manhattan always feels like a homecoming to Baker, who grew up in nearby South Orange, New Jersey, and has been racing there since she was a teenager. Baker specialized in the 400m in high school and graduated never having lost a 400m race to anyone from New Jersey. She won a silver medal in the 400m at the 2013 World Youth Championships and a bronze medal in the 400m at the 2014 World Junior Championships. But her future as an 800m runner was also apparent, and she famously ran a 2:02.55 800m split to anchor Columbia High School to a Penn Relays 4x800m relay win her senior year. 

At Stanford, Baker built a mile-long resume on the track that included seven first-team All-America honors. Her highest finish at an NCAA championship was second place in the 800m at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Though she would have liked to win an NCAA title, Baker’s collegiate career was a success. She appreciated that her coaches, Gabe Sanders and Chris Miltenberg, left room for growth and improvement down the road, knowing she had a future in the sport.

Baker felt the weight of expectation at times, though. In 2020, she wrote a Dear Younger Me piece for MileSplit about the anxiety she often felt. Over time, she has learned to measure her success differently. “I won’t let my career be defined by the wins and losses or the expectations of what people think I should or shouldn’t have accomplished by now,” Baker said. “Rather, it will be defined by the process and the everyday work that’s put in towards achieving my goals. Of course we all want the results. I want to win, I want to be the best in the world, but I no longer will let the results alone be the thing that defines my career.”

When Baker graduated, in 2018, she had a lot of opportunities to run professionally, but most of the companies and teams that were recruiting her wanted her to choose between the 400m and the 800m. Baker turned them down, because she had her heart set on not only racing the 800m, but also being someone who could run a 4x400m leg at a World Championships or similar level. Baker chose to train with Training Ground Elite, where she was coached by Darryl Woodson, because Woodson believed in her potential to do both. Despite living in Texas, Baker was supported by the Garden State Track Club, which provided her with all the shoes she needed, a uniform, and gave her a small stipend to cover living expenses. 

With Baker’s move to Atlanta Track Club Elite, she accepts that she’s an 800m specialist now. As for medical school, Baker could only defer her acceptance for up to one year, so she ultimately declined her deferral, knowing that she wants to keep running through the next Olympic cycle and possibly beyond. Baker still plans to become a doctor someday, but in order to attend medical school, she will have to start over with the application process. 

In the meantime, she’ll focus on figuring out how far she can go in the sport. Baker will next race at the 2022 USATF Indoor Track & Field Championships February 26–27 in Spokane, Washington, where she hopes to finish in the top two and qualify to represent the U.S. at the World Championships in March. 

“I’m feeling great. I feel ready, I feel confident, and I think this is the best shot I’ve had in my professional career at making a team,” Baker said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of momentum going my way right now and I’m ready to take a real swing at this world team.”

Update: On February 27, Baker finished second in the 800m at the USATF Indoor Track & Field Championships and qualified for her first senior World Championship team. She’ll represent the U.S. in Belgrade, Serbia, in March.

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Working full-time, Jenn Randall cracks the elite ranks

Jenn Randall (red top) competes at the 2021 Stumptown Twilight meet. (Photo by Randy Miyazaki)

By Alison Wade

In May 2021, Jenn Randall lined up for the “B” heat of the 5,000m at Sound Running’s Track Meet, hoping to break her husband’s 5,000m personal best (16:04). She had to talk her way into the meet, because her 16:28 personal best didn’t put her on the same level as her competitors. But she knew she was fitter than that.

Randall attached herself near the back of a long train of women, paced by Karisa Nelson and Allie Buchalski, and hung on for as long as she could. She surpassed all of her expectations and crossed the finish line in 15:34.64. Qualifying for the Olympic Trials hadn’t been on Randall’s radar, but suddenly she was less than 15 seconds from the 15:20.00 standard.

With the Trials about a month away, she didn’t have long to chase the qualifying time, but she lowered her 5,000m best to 15:30.31, not far off the time needed to earn her a spot on the starting line. Instead of competing at the Trials, Randall, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, where the event was held, volunteered, helping escort athletes to drug testing after their races. She also spectated some of the meet from the stands, including the 5,000m final.

“I was way more invested in [the 5,000m final] because I was thinking, ‘I’m going to be there next time,’” Randall, 30, said.

One month after the Olympic Trials, in July, Randall hit another huge personal best. She lowered her 1500m PR from 4:20.69 to 4:10.82, which would have been only 0.62 seconds away from getting her into the Trials had she run the time earlier in the season.

Randall’s 1500m breakthrough was good news to her, because until then, she was thinking she might have to move up to the 10,000m, the half marathon, or even the marathon, as she saw many runners her age doing. With that one race, she realized she could be nationally competitive in the 1500m as well.

“I was like, ‘Yes! I don’t have to run the 10K!’” she said. “I was super excited because as a former middle distance runner, I love running shorter things.”

Small school background

Growing up in Cincinnatus, New York, population 1,000, Randall was an avid soccer player. She knew from the running she did for other sports that she was pretty fast, but Cincinnatus Central High School didn’t have a track team until her junior year. Randall joined the team, along with one other girl and a handful of boys. The school didn’t have a track, so they practiced on a grass field. Her longest training runs were about three miles.

Randall ran everything from the 100m to the 3,000m. During her senior year, she qualified to run the 1500m at the state meet, where she ran a big personal best of 4:37 and finished ninth behind strong runners like Emily Lipari and Aisling Cuffe.

Randall chose Ithaca College in part because she knew she wanted to study physical therapy, but she also thought Division III athletics sounded right for her. She planned to play soccer in college, but after Ithaca’s cross country coach showed interest, she decided to focus on running instead.

Ithaca’s coaches brought Randall along slowly, gradually increasing her mileage to 30–35 per week over time. She improved steadily, set a handful of school records, and earned three All-America honors by the end of her collegiate career, with a high finish of seventh in the mile at the 2013 NCAA Division III Indoor Track & Field Championships.

“I just had such a great experience in college,” she said. “I was so new to running, the team had a really positive atmosphere, and there was never a ton of pressure put on me to perform. Part of the reason why I still love running so much now, and I don’t feel burnout at all, is that it was just so low-key and fun when I was in college.”

Jenn Randall (#5, yellow Ithaca top) competes at the 2013 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championships. (Photo by Alison Wade)

Becoming elite

After college, Randall tried to continue running competitively for a while, but she ended up with a stress fracture. Physical therapy graduate school took up a lot of her time, and after she graduated in 2015, she accepted a job in Eugene, Oregon, where she knew no one. 

Randall began running local 5Ks for fun, as a way to meet other runners. A friend whom she met at a community track workout, Peter Stice, offered to help her write some workouts, to give her training more structure. Randall took Stice up on that offer, and he became her coach and eventually her husband.

When they began working together, Randall’s goal was to break 17:00 for 5,000m, which she did in 2019. In 2020, Randall planned to run the Eugene Half Marathon, but the pandemic hit and canceled the race. She was also laid off from her job as a physical therapist for a few months, which created a lot of stress.

“Really what motivated me to train was just like, ‘Okay, this is something I can do that’s in my control and something that makes me happy and makes me feel accomplished,’” she said.

Randall bumped into a high school runner she knew who was looking for some pacing help, which got her excited to work a little harder. She began lifting weights again and putting in much more consistent training. Randall was also motivated by Trials of Miles’ Beat the Heat virtual competition. “I am a super competitive person,” she said. “That tournament motivated me to start to train hard because I didn’t want to lose.” (She ended up winning the competition. And she got her former job back after a few months off.) 

Randall gradually worked her way up to the 50–60 miles per week she does most weeks now, and she credits several years of consistent and healthy training for her big jump in ability. She wouldn’t have been able to handle the training she’s doing now when she was in college, but thanks to a gradual progression, she can now. Randall says there’s some luck involved in remaining healthy, too, but her background as a physical therapist helps. “I make smart calls in terms of when to push through something and when to rehab,” she said. 

Randall recently joined Cascadia Elite, and though no one on the team is nearby enough to train with, the team offers community and moral support from athletes with similar goals. She squeezes her training into a busy schedule and does most of her workouts alone. Randall arrives at work at 6:45 a.m. and works until 3:00. She either runs right after work or she coaches the youth running club she and Stice founded, and then she gets in her run. Randall does her strength training at home, sometimes while cooking dinner. In some of her remaining time, she fits in classes and mentorship hours for her orthopedic residency program, which will add to her credentials and elevate her physical therapy practice.

In 2020 and early 2021, the lack of races made it difficult for Randall to find the right competitive opportunities. Now that most events are back, the bigger barrier is her work schedule. Because her patients are scheduled one month out, she needs to give at least one month’s notice to get time off from work to race.

Last weekend, Randall ran her first race of 2022, a 3,000m at the University of Washington Invitational in Seattle. She finished second to Eleanor Fulton in 9:02.86, taking 91 seconds off her personal best, set in 2009. In a couple weeks, she’ll go back to UW to race. She can’t run the 3,000m because it’s on a Friday and would conflict with her work, but she expects a big improvement on her 4:53 indoor mile personal best, from 2015. 

While Randall can likely run fast enough to get into the USATF Indoor Championships, she’s not likely to have the right racing opportunities before the qualifying window closes. Instead she’s targeting a qualifying mark for the USATF Outdoor Championships, which would give her a chance to race at the new Hayward Field for the first time. “I so badly want to be able to race on that track, and I didn’t get to last year,” she said. “That’s one of my big goals this year, I’m crossing my fingers that I get to race in that awesome stadium.”

At times, competing at this new level feels surreal to Randall. “At the [Stumptown Twilight meet], I was on the line with the Bowerman Babes,” she said. “Emily Infeld, Vanessa Fraser, and Marielle Hall were in my heat, and I think I just looked at my husband like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening.’”

But Randall quickly gets past that. “I just try to use that excitement to pull me along adrenaline-wise. I try not to overthink it too much and take it like any other race. I’m just out here to compete and do my best and try not to worry too much about the caliber of people around me. And because I’m kind of new to doing this well, I’m flying under the radar a bit, and I don’t have anything to lose.”

Because of her rapid improvement, Randall is hesitant to set specific time goals. “I think I’m really just getting started, especially with the 1500m, because I’ve barely run it,” she said. “I’d hate to put a number on it because I almost don’t want to limit myself by having a number target. But I really do think I’ve got a lot more potential to run up to in both the 5,000m and the 1500m.”

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After one year as a pro, a breakthrough for Fiona O’Keeffe

Fiona O’Keeffe (Photo courtesy of Puma)

By Alison Wade

In the early miles of the Houston Half Marathon on January 16, Fiona O’Keeffe glanced down at her watch and noticed a mile split that was just over five minutes. It was faster than she expected to be running. As the pack of women she was running with continued to click off quick splits, she stuck with them, because she was feeling pretty good. She decided not to overthink the numbers on her watch and just focus on racing the women around her.

“I didn’t want to sell myself short,” O’Keeffe told Fast Women. “I was okay with going out a little hard and potentially having to dial it back later. But I kept feeling okay longer than I expected, so it was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going with it.’”

O’Keeffe’s coaches, Amy and Alistair Cragg, were a bit nervous when they saw her 5K split (16:03) online, but as soon as they caught a glimpse of her on the TV broadcast, saw how strong and confident she looked, and they knew she was going to be fine. O’Keeffe’s training the past few months had been spectacular and indicated she was ready to run fast. While they would normally advise caution in a half marathon debut, especially because O’Keefe is only 23, they had told her to trust herself. “When you have an athlete who has trained that well, you don’t want to hold them back,”  said Amy Cragg. “You want to let them utilize that opportunity and see what they can do.”

O’Keeffe’s naivete may have helped. Because she hadn’t raced a half marathon before, she didn’t have a good sense of what any given pace meant. And she’s glad she didn’t see her 31:54 10K split until after the race, because it was 18 seconds faster than her personal best, and she still had more than half the race to go. But her training had given her confidence.

“Around mile nine or 10, I think it was Dom Scott’s coach that was yelling at us, because the two of us were running together at that point,” O’Keeffe said. “He was saying, ‘You guys are going to break 68 minutes for the half,’ and a little while later, someone said, ‘Sara [Hall] is on American record pace right now.’ Then I was like, ‘Okay, wow, we’re going to have a really good day today.’ That was really exciting.”

O’Keeffe could still see Hall up ahead when she got that feedback, and Hall did go on to break the American record by 10 seconds, finishing second in the race in 1:07:15. Race winner Vicoty Chepngeno of Kenya was in a league of her own, running 1:05:03, the fastest time ever on U.S. soil.

Scott, who represents South Africa and Team Boss, put some distance on O’Keeffe in the closing stages of the race, finishing third in 1:07:32, and O’Keeffe finished fourth, in 1:07:42 (5:10/mile). It was the fastest record-legal debut half marathon ever by a U.S. woman. And she became the fifth-fastest woman from the U.S. ever to run the distance. (Kara Goucher ran 1:06:57 in her half marathon debut at the Great North Run in 2007, but it’s not record-eligible because of the point-to-point downhill course.)

“I definitely was not expecting that performance,” O’Keeffe said. “You never know what might be there on race day and the flip side of not having any expectations is also not putting limits on yourself. You don’t want to decide before the race that you can’t do something; you never know what might happen.”

Joining Puma Elite

O’Keeffe was a three-time California state champion and part of a strong team at Davis High School. (Her coach there, Bill Gregg, has two children, Kaitlin Goodman and Brendan Gregg, who also went on to run professionally.) She attended Stanford, where she was a four-time All American in cross country, with a highest finish of 13th in 2017. She was a three-time first-team All American in track, with a highest finish of third in the 2019 indoor 5,000m. O’Keeffe’s senior year was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic, and she graduated, virtually, from Stanford late in the spring of 2020.

Because O’Keeffe still had collegiate eligibility remaining, she decided to use it at the University of New Mexico, where her younger sister Olivia was already part of the team. O’Keeffe moved to Albuquerque and began a graduate program in the fall of 2020. She had a good experience in Albuquerque, but she began to realize she felt more enthusiastic about training and racing than she did about graduate school.

In early December of that year, running unattached, O’Keeffe ran 32:12.28 for 10,000m, a big personal best, which qualified her to compete at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. She heard about the professional training group Puma was forming in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, coached by the Craggs. She knew former Arkansas standout Taylor Werner was joining the group, and the more she learned, the more she was sold.

O’Keeffe left graduate school and in January of 2021, she moved straight to the team’s altitude camp, with just one suitcase. Her transition to professional running was rocky. In February, she started having issues with her plantar fascia, and by March, she had developed a metatarsal stress fracture. O’Keeffe remembers talking to two of her former Stanford teammates, Elise Cranny and Vanessa Fraser, around that time. “They did a great job of reassuring me that it was normal for that transition to be a little bit bumpy. They [discussed] trusting yourself throughout that process as well, basically telling me that it all does work out, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment,” she said.

O’Keeffe cross-trained for six weeks and was able to start running on land (vs. an anti-gravity treadmill) by the end of May. But the Olympic Trials were fast approaching. She managed to get a couple weeks of solid track workouts in before the 10,000m final on June 26, so she decided to give it a shot. 

“I didn’t think I was going to go out and make the team or anything like that, but I wanted to get the experience and I was really glad that I was able to,” said O’Keeffe. “The 10K was probably the hardest race I’ve ever run, but I’m really glad that I was able to be there and test myself in that way.”

The start of the 10,000m was moved up two hours because of unusually hot and humid weather in Eugene, Oregon, but even with the earlier start, the conditions were oppressive. O’Keeffe finished 20th, in 33:03.09. O’Keeffe, who studied environmental science in college and is passionate about climate change, ended her Instagram post about the race with a postscript: “The frequency and severity of extreme weather events like the heat we experienced in Eugene is accelerating with climate change,” and added the hashtag #DontForgetToVote. “I think there’s going to be a lot more overlap in the future as we see climate change accelerating and affecting running events, unfortunately,” she said.

Gaining ground 

Since coming back from her injury, O’Keeffe has been making steady progress. She did a lot of road racing over the summer and into the fall, with a training break in August. She thinks the Falmouth Road Race, where she finished third behind Edna Kiplagat and Emily Durgin, was probably her strongest race until Houston. 

O’Keeffe has been a pro runner for roughly one year now. “I’ve just been learning so much this whole year,” she said. “There’s a lot you learn every time out there on the roads and I feel like it really helped me learn to be a little more adaptable and make those race decisions on the fly. I think that was also a big contributing factor to being able to do what I did in the half.”

She has been building her weekly mileage throughout her career, and it now tends to hover in the 80s and 90s. O’Keeffe’s workouts have also changed. “We’re a pretty strength-based program and the volume of work has definitely gone up,” she said. “That’s probably the biggest change.”

O’Keeffe is turning her attention back to the track now, with a focus on the 10,000m. She’s looking forward to seeing what she can do with the fitness she displayed in Houston. She hopes to run both the 10,000m and the 5,000m at the USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships. The former will be held May 20 at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California; the latter will be held June 23–26 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. 

And with a great half marathon performance, there will always be questions about moving up to the marathon. O’Keeffe says she will, but not yet.

“I really enjoyed the experience of having that big marathon feel and getting to be out on the roads for longer, so I think it made me more excited about doing [a marathon] in the future, but I’d imagine that’s still a couple years off,” she said. 

Cragg said O’Keeffe’s training has been geared toward the 10,000m, which will remain her focus. The half marathon was just a stop along the way. But O’Keeffe has adapted to the longer workouts easily. “With Fiona, it was just like you put her in these longer workouts and all of a sudden, she’s just found herself. She’s home,” Cragg said. “It’s really fun to watch that and it makes me very, very excited for her future in the marathon, and on the track, too. I think she’s going to surprise some people this year.”

But Cragg is in no rush for O’Keeffe to move up,  especially because she’s so young. “We’re not going to try to push her towards that too early and risk what she can do five or six years from now,” she said. “We’ll do it when she’s ready and when the training indicates that she’s ready, but we’re going to be really careful about it.”

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Nia Akins finds her groove with music and running

Nia Akins (Photo courtesy of Brooks)

By Alison Wade

As a professional middle-distance runner, Nia Akins has competed on many big stages, but no race has been anywhere near as nerve-wracking as when she went live on Instagram earlier this month to share her music. Even many of her friends were surprised to learn that she was a musician—and that’s because she wasn’t until recently.

Growing up, Akins, now 23, put a lot of energy into her athletic pursuits, and she didn’t take any type of music lessons. She became a track star and was a two-time NCAA runner-up in the 800m at the University of Pennsylvania. She hoped to vie for the indoor and outdoor 800m titles in 2020, her senior year, but her season was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic. 

One month before her collegiate career abruptly ended, she had run 2:00.71 in an indoor 800m, 0.02 seconds away from the collegiate record at the time. Both the record and an NCAA title seemed within reach, so losing those opportunities felt like a devastating blow.

But the pandemic also led to the discovery of a new passion. Akins’ mother had given her a guitar during her sophomore year of college, and she had played around with it a bit, but when the pandemic began, she decided it was time to really learn how to play.

Akins expected to pursue a career in nursing when she graduated from Penn in May 2020, but nearly matching the collegiate record in February helped her realize that professional running was also an option. So in the early days of the pandemic, while she was exploring music, she was also exploring her pro running options. In June 2020, she announced that she was joining the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts. 

During the team’s first altitude camp, Akins began taking online guitar lessons. She got an electric guitar and began learning scales and music theory. Her teacher would teach her a new concept and then have her write a song using it. Because Akins was living with her teammates at altitude camp, they got a front row seat as she developed her musical talent. Marta Pen Freitas, Akins’ teammate and training partner, encouraged her to put her music out there. By the spring of 2021, Akins decided she was ready to release her first song, but she wasn’t ready to put her name on it, so she released “Paper Boats” under the pseudonym Teddy Oliver.

Spencer Brown, Akins’ Brooks Beasts teammate at the time, has a popular YouTube channel, and he shared the song in one of his videos shortly after, outing Akins as Teddy Oliver. She got positive feedback from that, and was encouraged by it, but she was still reluctant to truly own that part of her identity. She admits that it was harder sharing her music having already made a name for herself on the track.

“I remember being kind of resentful, like why do I have to want to do this too? Couldn’t I have just picked one thing?” Akins told Fast Women. “There was a time where I thought I was going to keep secretly putting songs out under that name. But then I started to write a slew of songs kind of around [the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials] and just before Trials. They’re not about track, but I feel like they just relate to track so much. Because I wrote those songs, I felt like Nia wrote these, I felt like I should put Nia’s name on them.”

When Akins arrived at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials to compete for a spot on the Olympic team, she found that the Airbnb her team had rented had a grand piano. Though she had no experience with the instrument, Akins figured it out well enough that she was able to continue working on “Smoke” between her 800m rounds. Akins released the song earlier this week, under her own name this time.

The song is partially inspired by how Akins’ teammates and competitors conducted themselves at the Trials—delayed for a year by Covid, and then competition was delayed by the heat. “There was just so much faith. Sports in general, but especially track, we’re very privileged in the sense that everybody can talk about their faith openly. As a Christian, I resonate with that really well,” Akins said. “But I just felt like everyone honestly was like, ‘What’s happening now? Okay, it’s delayed? That’s fine. We’re still going to race, it’s still going to be great, and we’re going to get it done… It was really cool, especially since that was my first one, it was already delayed a year, and it was really hot. There was just so much going on, but everybody else just being so calm and collected about it for the most part made me feel like we were fine.”

On the track, the Trials got off to a good start for Akins. She advanced through the first two rounds and was pleased to earn a spot in the final. Due to record temperatures on the day of the 800m final, the race was delayed several hours. But on the evening of June 28th, Akins lined up against eight of the fastest 800m runners in the country, and the first three to cross the finish line would become Olympians. Akins wasn’t favored to make the team, but she felt ready to go and thought she could break 2:00 for the first time in her life.

Less than 200 meters into the race, while the runners were merging on the backstretch, Akins got tangled up with eventual winner Athing Mu and went down hard. Akins bounced back up quickly, but there was too much ground to make up. She finished ninth of nine finalists, well off her best time. But overall, Akins looks back on her Trials experience fondly. And because of the way her college career ended, Akins had already had experience dealing with disappointment. “I think that was more of a frustrating time for me, but I think it prepared me for Trials,” Akins said. “But then I signed with Brooks. And then I met all of these great people and so many great things happened. I’ve always felt like God has a plan and everything happens for a reason. It took me a while to realize that during Covid, but it made it a lot easier for me to get over Trials faster.”

Music helped, too. And eventually, she wrote a couple songs about falling at the Trials, though she doesn’t know if she’ll ever release them. “I feel like some of those were just for me,” she said.

Akins believes that a sub-2:00 800m will come. She ran five 2:00 800s in 2021, including a personal best of 2:00.24. “I know it’s there,” she said. “I know it’s been there for a while, but I think there’s a reason why it hasn’t happened yet. And I feel like when it does happen, I’ll know that this was when it was meant to happen.”

She had originally hoped to pursue nursing and professional running at the same time, but Akins learned that doing both is a tough combination. For now, all of that is on hold while she explores her potential in running.

Akins’ mother, Nicol Hodges, was a high-level 400m runner for the University of Missouri, and she did some professional running in the early 1990s. But there was far less structure and fewer group training opportunities back then, so she moved on. Akins said it’s particularly satisfying for Hodges to see her daughter have the opportunities that she does now. And Akins is still chasing her mother’s times. “I don’t think I’ve beaten her open 400m PR yet. I have some work to do to catch up to mom,” she said.

Akins is currently at altitude camp in Albuquerque and plans to run a couple indoor races before focusing on the outdoor season. She is scheduled to run the 800m at next weekend’s Millrose Games, but she said she’s going to see how she feels, because she’s still getting over a recent illness. 

Adjusting to professional running has been a process. She struggled through her first altitude camp, but adjusts to altitude quickly now. “The workouts, across the board, are way harder than what I did in college, by a lot,” said Akins. “But I know that they’re working, and it’s not too much. [Coach Danny Mackey] is really good at adjusting that to make sure that I’m still benefiting from it but not overtraining.” After doing a lot of her training on her own last year, Akins is thrilled that former Clemson standout Laurie Barton, also an NCAA runner-up in the 800m, has joined the team, and Akins called her “the most perfect training partner.”

In her spare time, Akins plans to keep working on her music. She hopes to put out a short album by the end of the year. Her hobby complements her running well. It’s a great way to recover after a workout, and flexible enough that Akins can take days off when she’s exhausted from training. “[Songwriting] is very cathartic because I feel like I can process or work through anything in a song,” she said.

(More ways to listen to “Smoke” here.)

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Carrie Verdon learns she belongs

Carrie Verdon makes her marathon debut at the 2021 Chicago Marathon. (Photo © Mike Scott)

By Alison Wade

Over the past 13 months, Carrie Verdon’s running has taken off. She has rewritten her personal bests, become a fixture at the front of high-level races, and developed confidence that she belongs there. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in the 5,000m and the 10,000m, finished fifth at the USATF 10 Mile Championships, took seventh in her debut at the Chicago Marathon, and recently finished second at the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships.

Verdon’s breakthrough race came early in December 2020, when she ran 32:09.82 for 10,000m and finished a close second in the “B” heat at The Track Meet, held in Southern California. Despite having to do a lot of the pacesetting herself, Verdon took one minute, 41 seconds off her personal best, which had stood for more than six years, since her sophomore year of college. It was her first Olympic Trials qualifier and validation that her hard work was paying off after years of ups and downs.

“After that race, I was just like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this,’” Verdon told Fast Women last week. “I was having so much fun with it, I was fit, and I was just really excited about running. I think from then on, I had a mindset shift and a lot of good races followed that.”

Verdon, now 27, took up running as a ninth grader, and had success from the start, finishing 11th at the California state cross-country meet before going on to win state titles her junior and senior years. She finished 19th at the 2010 Foot Locker (now Eastbay) Cross Country Championships her junior year, one spot ahead of future Olympian Colleen Quigley.

Verdon went to the University of Colorado, where she initially had some strong performances, including qualifying to represent the U.S. at the World U20 Cross Country Championships in 2013 in Poland. She led the U.S. team with a 20th-place finish. But Verdon struggled off and on with injuries after her sophomore year. Though she still had some solid races, she didn’t progress in the way she had hoped. “I still had a great time at CU, and I loved running in the NCAA, but I would be lying if I said I achieved what I wanted to,” she said.

When she graduated from CU in 2017, Verdon felt like she was running for other people and wanted to find out who she was without the sport, so she decided to step away from it. For more than a year, she rarely ran. It took a while, but eventually she missed it.

When she decided to return to competitive running, Verdon connected with TEAM Boulder coach Lee Troop. Since joining the team, she has been able to string together several years of healthy training, which she says is a big factor in her recent success. She attributes her streak to the training Troop prescribes, that she does a lot more of her training on soft surfaces now, and that she’s fueling her body better than she did in college.

“I don’t know if I have had anorexia, but I definitely had disordered eating in college,” Verdon said. Troop broached the topic in one of his initial conversations with Verdon, and that’s when it clicked for her that the most important thing was to be healthy, so she could train, compete, and continue to do everything she loves.

Verdon has also worked on building her confidence. When she began racing post-collegiately, she found herself intimidated by her competition and racing against some of her idols. “I would kind of tell myself, ‘Oh I don’t belong here. I’m not sponsored by anyone. All these women are sponsored. They’re so fast,’” she said. “You can go down a rabbit hole of not thinking you’re good enough. But in 2020, I just kind of pushed that mindset aside and I started to tell myself, ‘I belong.’ I would stand on the start lines and look at all the women next to me and think, ‘These women are really fast, and I am too. I belong right here.’ Since embracing that mindset, that has helped me to feel like I belong and to stick my nose in the front of races. The results just followed.”

During the school year, Verdon works full-time as a first-grade teacher. When the country shut down due to Covid in 2020, she taught online. It was helpful from a training perspective, because no one minded if she finished her runs just minutes before class began. But from a teaching perspective, it was a major challenge. Since returning to in-person teaching, she has managed to stay healthy, and she thinks that the current practice of wearing masks in the classroom due to Covid has also helped her fend off some of the other non-Covid types of illnesses young children tend to carry.

Verdon squeezes in her 85–105 miles per week around her work. Sometimes that means meeting her teammates and Troop for early morning workouts, but other times of year they’ll work out in the afternoon, depending on weather and daylight. She often does her workouts with the men on the team. And she has another secret weapon as far as training partners go: her dog, Scout, who does most of Verdon’s easy runs with her.

In addition to her 10,000m improvement, Verdon lowered her 5,000m best by 41 seconds in 2021, to 15:18.56, and she ran a 1:10:11 half marathon, a personal best by three minutes. At the Olympic Trials, she advanced to the 5,000m final and finished 10th in the final. Doubling back in hot conditions five days later, Verdon hoped to crack the top 10 again in the 10,000m, but she finished 27th. She was part of Tracksmith’s amateur support program through the Olympic Trials, but she remains unsponsored.

Verdon was eager to try out the marathon, and she loved both training for and racing the 2021 Chicago Marathon. “There were days when I was completely exhausted and there were days when I was only running when it was dark outside, once in the morning and once at night after work, but it was a great experience,” Verdon said. The hot temperatures on race day weren’t conducive to fast times, but she crossed the line seventh, in 2:31:51. “Even though that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it was so much fun, so I will definitely be doing another marathon next year,” she said.

Verdon’s students were impressed, too. She wrote on Instagram after the race, “I was brought to tears this morning when I walked into school and all the first graders were clapping and saying, ‘Miss Carrie, we are so proud of you! We can’t believe you got seventh!’”

Though Verdon loved the marathon, she plans to continue running shorter races as well, and hopes to further lower her personal bests at all distances. “I love cross country, I love track, I love road racing, and so I think I’m going to try to do it all if I can,” she said. Her next race will be Saturday’s USATF Cross Country Championships in San Diego.

Verdon also loves hiking, climbing, and camping, but she doesn’t plan to combine her passions and try mountain, ultra, or trail racing any time soon. She enjoys adventuring so much that she and Troop have had to come to a compromise about how it fits into her training. “He understands that being out in nature and going on hikes and going climbing and camping, or whatever I like to do, is really good for my mental health, and it just makes me an all-around happy person,” Verdon said. “And he knows that when I show up to training and I’m having a good time and I’m happy, I’m going to be the best runner I can be. So there’s a little bit of push and pull where I’m like, ‘Is it okay if I do this?’ And he’s like, ‘How about you do that next weekend when you don’t have a really big race?’ I think our relationship is really nice in the sense that he understands what I need as a human being.”

After we spoke last week, it became apparent just how destructive the Boulder County fires were, and that Verdon will be facing another major challenge as a teacher. Verdon shared the third photo in this post on Instagram the day after the fires began and wrote, “This is the neighborhood surrounding my school. Our building is intact but the fields are burned. Many of our students’ and teachers’ homes are gone. School is meant to resume on Wednesday…”

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How Samantha Palmer balances elite running and elite coaching

Samantha (left) and Will Palmer (right) with the University of Alabama women’s cross country team.

Last Monday, led by a 1–3 finish from Mercy Chelangat and Amaris Tyynismaa, the University of Alabama finished eighth at the pandemic-delayed 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma. It was the first time the Alabama women had made a team appearance at the event since 1994. They hadn’t had an All-American in cross country since Jessica Fry in 1995. This year they had three: Chelangat, Tyynismaa, and Esther Gitahi, who finished 36th.

It was quite the turnaround for a team that hadn’t qualified a single runner the last time the meet was held, 16 months earlier. (Chelangat missed qualifying by one spot.) A variety of factors have gone into the team’s rise, but it would be easy to overlook the contributions of the team’s volunteer assistant coach, professional runner Samantha Palmer.

Palmer, 29, moved to Alabama when her husband, Will Palmer, was hired to coach the distance runners in the summer of 2018. Now she balances professional running with high-level coaching, things that don’t always go hand-in-hand.

A two-coach family
Until the summer of 2018, when they got married, Samantha and Will Palmer had lived separately for the entirety of their relationship. That’s how things sometimes work out when there are two cross country and track & field coaches in the family. Before going to Alabama, Samantha was coaching at the University of Toledo, and Will was coaching at Georgetown. When they got engaged in 2017, they agreed that they would look for jobs that would allow them to live in the same city after getting married. They considered options that would allow them to both be paid coaches as well as the scenario they ended up with, where Will is the paid coach, and Samantha volunteers for the team, while having more time and energy to put into her professional running career.

“Honestly, I love my role,” Palmer said. “I love being kind of behind the scenes and not in the spotlight. Where I am in my running, it suits me well and it’s exactly what I need. Sometimes people ask if I’m upset I’m not getting any recognition for how well the women are doing. Will knows that I’m a big piece of it, and the girls know, and that’s really all that matters. I don’t need to broadcast it to the world.”

Palmer knows at some point the pendulum will shift and she’ll want to take on a larger coaching role, but for now, she’s content to also focus on giving running her best shot.

A culture shift
When the Palmers arrived in Tuscaloosa in the summer of 2018, they inherited a talented team with untapped potential. They agreed that they’d work on establishing a positive team culture first and make performance secondary. Sometimes that meant skipping an afternoon practice and doing a team bonding activity instead. From a performance standpoint, it might not have seemed like the most logical choice, but they were addressing a sometimes overlooked but important element of creating a successful team. “They needed to find their own identity as a group,” Palmer said. 

Palmer also makes sure to speak openly and honestly with the women she coaches about physical and mental health.  “I had teammates in college who really struggled with fueling, and I felt like it was ignored a lot of the time, especially if they were running really well,” she said. “And for me personally, I never want to be known as that coach.”

She emphasizes balance and takes a long-term view. “At the end of the day, it’s not just my job to help these women run fast,” she said. “They’re student-athletes. They need to eventually go out and get a job in the professional world one day. I need to help them also become the best version of themselves. I want them to run fast because I know they have big goals, but I also want them to be healthy people, and I want them to enjoy running 10 years down the road, when they don’t have to do it anymore.”

In the Palmers’ first season at Alabama, the team finished ninth out of 14 teams at the 2018 SEC Cross Country Championships. From there, the program saw steady progress, with athletes setting many personal bests on the track later that academic year, and Gitahi finishing third in the 5,000m at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. “It became this domino effect of feeding off of the positive energy the group was creating,” Palmer said.

In the fall of 2019, the Alabama women moved up to fifth place at the SEC Cross Country Championships, and Palmer really began to see a shift during the 2020 indoor track season, before Covid shut it down.

By the time they got to last Monday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, they knew they had a solid shot at having three All-Americans. But first up were the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.

A DQ and a rebound
Though Chelangat and Tyynismaa ran fast enough to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships as individuals, they opted to forgo their individual events to focus on team goals. Due to the pandemic, for the first time ever, the indoor meet and cross country championships would be held just days apart. Chelangat decided to solely focus on cross country, and Tyynismaa anchored the team’s distance medley relay and had two days to rest before competing in Monday’s cross country championship.

The distance medley relay squad knew they had a good shot at a strong showing because two weeks earlier, the quartet of Jami Reed, Christal Mosely, Lauren Turner, and Tyynismaa set a SEC championship and school record of 10:59.21. At the NCAA meet, they ran only 0.2 seconds slower and crossed the line fourth, with Tyynismaa running the fastest anchor leg of the night (4:31.11). They went out to cool down, pleased that they’d earned All-America honors, only to find out upon their return that they’d been disqualified for interfering with another team on one of the exchanges.

Will was in Fayetteville with the indoor runners, and Samantha flew to Stillwater with the cross country-only group. When Will and the runners who competed in Arkansas arrived in Oklahoma Saturday morning—both Reed and Tyynismaa would be doubling back from the DMR—Samantha could tell that they were a little down. “We told two of our girls it was their sole purpose to make sure the vibes were good, and honestly, they just had a ton of fun all weekend.”

The pandemic meant that there was no pre-meet banquet, one of the traditions of the NCAA Cross Country Championships, so the athletes dressed up and held their own. “They made sure that they made the most of their experience,” Palmer said. “I think that helped a ton because it took some of that disappointment away and they moved on to a new focus. They knew they were in Stillwater to accomplish something, and they had to have short-term memory.”

Heading into Monday’s race, the Palmers thought that Gitahi was fit enough to be an All-American (top 40), even if she didn’t quite have her very best day, and that’s Samantha’s assessment of how things ultimately played out, as Gitahi was 36th. Palmer figured that Chelangat could be in the top five, and that anyone in the top five had a shot at winning.

And they knew Tyynismaa had good track fitness, but it was harder to say how that would play out on a cross country course. At the SEC Cross Country Championships in the fall, Tyynismaa finished 26th, and was Alabama’s fifth runner to finish, but since the start of the indoor season, she had been running on a completely different level.

Chelangat was coming off a disappointing SEC Indoor meet two weeks earlier, where she was hoping for a win but finished third in the 5,000m and fourth in the 3,000m. But she knew there was nothing she could do to change the outcome, so she focused her attention on goals ahead. “She actually told one of her teammates after, ‘I’m just going to go win cross country,’” Palmer said.

But in their conversations with Chelangat heading into Monday’s race, the Alabama coaches didn’t talk about winning. They only talked about running her best race possible. In the end, both Chelangat and Tyynismaa surpassed any expectations Palmer had going in. “If you had told me a week ago that we’d go 1–3, I would have fallen out of my chair, but it was super fun to watch,” she said.

Balancing roles
When Palmer arrived at Alabama in 2018, she was coached remotely by Tony Houchin and while she did some of her recovery runs with the Alabama team, she did her hard training solo.

With the onset of the pandemic, things changed. Palmer was coming off a disappointing Olympic Marathon Trials race (she finished 33rd) and didn’t give herself enough down time after the race, which ultimately led to burnout. “I wanted this setup where I could put as much emphasis into my own running as I wanted to,” said Palmer. “Then all of the sudden, it was the first time where I just didn’t want to run. It kind of scared me a bit.” She took time off, which helped her regain her love of running and her desire to race.

She also decided to switch over to having Will coach her, because she missed in-person interactions with a coach and having someone who could adjust her training on the fly. During lockdown, she also missed being around people, so when she and Will were allowed to start working with the Alabama runners in person again in August, she started doing most of her training with the team.

Palmer finds that training with her team offers all kinds of insights she might not otherwise have. “You go on a run and it’s so much easier to talk about things,” she said. “You find that so and so broke up with her boyfriend or she had three midterms this week. That doesn’t come out in post-run chatter; that comes out while you’re running and you’re venting and you’re just talking to your friends.”

And though Palmer is a professional runner, training with the team’s top runners is no walk in the park. Any time she trains with Chelangat, Tyynismaa, or Gitahi, Palmer knows she’ll be challenged. “Mercy’s taken me to the hurt locker a few times,” Palmer said. “A few weeks ago, we negative split an 800 during a tough workout… It was probably one of the hardest workouts I’ve done with them, but it was way easier doing it with them rather than doing it by myself.”

Training with the team also gives Palmer the chance to show her team that she has bad days too, sometimes. “They’ve watched me have some pretty terrible days,” she said. “I’ve had a breakdown in the middle of the workout. It’s not that I want my athletes seeing me do that, but it kind of gives them permission to be vulnerable and really be honest with us about how they’re feeling.”

And experiencing the training for herself also helps Palmer write the training. The Palmers jointly plan the workouts, and while Samantha understands that every athlete reacts differently, she can offer additional insights because she’s experienced it for herself.

Balancing pro running and coaching isn’t always easy, especially when the racing schedules conflict. Palmer opted not to travel with the team indoors this winter, which allowed her to race a half marathon in Atlanta the weekend of the SEC Indoor Track & Field Championships. She had planned to race the USATF 15K Championships in Florida five days after the NCAA Cross Country Championships, but coming off an emotional weekend, she realized she needed rest more than a race, so she scratched from the event. “I made a promise to myself that I’d go to Stillwater and be 100 percent into coaching and what [the team] needed,” Palmer said. “I made my training an afterthought and just got it in when I could. Those things are super necessary if I’m going to try to wear a double hat sometimes.”

Instead she plans to run a half marathon next month in Omaha, Nebraska, where she hopes to break 70 minutes for the first time. Palmer is qualified for the Olympic Track & Field Trials in the 10,000m, and she plans to run it, but she’s most excited to run a to-be-determined fall marathon, even though those are particularly difficult to schedule around the cross country season. “At some points, I have to get a little selfish and make a race choice for myself, even if that means I’m going to miss something important with the team, but I try not to do that very often,” Palmer said.

Though she’s run a 2:29 marathon and 1:11 half marathon, she is unsponsored. “I can’t get a sponsorship and that’s totally fine,” she said. “That’s just the way the pro running world is right now. I’m not at the level of Molly Huddle and Molly Seidel and those women, but I still love it, and I have this burning passion.”

The Palmers see any income Samantha might make through prize money as a bonus, but they don’t rely on it. So not being able to earn income when races were canceled in 2020 was more of an emotional hit than a financial one. “I struggled with the idea that I’m taking all this time to run but I’m also not contributing anything to our family in any way. I know it’s not true, but it’s one of those demons you battle in your head,” Palmer said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m so tired at the end of every day, but I’m not actually getting anything financially.”

Despite her lack of financial compensation, Palmer is working hard and positively affecting many lives through her coaching and her running. In January, she started a women’s running group for all ages and abilities in Tuscaloosa, partly so she could meet more people in the local community. She coached the group through a 12-week training program, and this weekend, members of the group will race a local 5K or half marathon. The participants range in age from college students to women in their 60s, and Palmer has particularly enjoyed seeing the mentorship that has naturally occurred within the group. “They started doing little things outside of meeting as a running group, and that’s why I created it,” said Palmer. “We have a lot of women that are kind of in transition periods of their lives, and it’s been a lot of fun with them being able to talk to each other and learn from each other.”

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Molly Huddle on making the Olympic 10,000 team: ‘This will be a really big challenge’

Molly Huddle leads a 5,000m race in September of 2020.

By Abigail Lorge

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.

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How four fast women use InsideTracker

Obstacle course racer and trail runner Cali Schweikhart

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.”