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Starting Line 1928: Marilyn Bevans

Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the second episode of the podcast. We hope you’ll listen, and hit the “subscribe” button on your preferred podcasting app so you never miss an interview. And if you have suggestions for pioneers to profile, or want to join this effort, email us at In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.

Marilyn Bevans, born in 1949 in Baltimore Maryland, was the first African-American woman marathoner. Her career highlights include winning two Baltimore Marathons and being a top finisher in several Boston Marathons, including second female overall in 1977. Bevans,  a retired teacher, still lives in Baltimore and is a girls’ high school track coach.

Bevans was fortunate to come from a family that loved track and field. Her uncle would take her to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia where she fell in love with the sprinters, who were mostly African-American. Black women dominated the sport then and she already knew of Wilma Rudolph who won three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics. 

Her first race, a 100-yard dash, was as a 12-year-old. She was the only Black girl in the race. She had this made, she thought, her confidence getting the better of her. But she quickly realized she was sorely out of her league. “All I saw was everyone’s backside as they flew past me,” she recalled. She had no clue about pacing, timing, nothing.  She realized she wasn’t cut out to be a sprinter.

As a kid, Bevans spent all her free time on the move, whether that was playing basketball, running through the parks, chasing her friends, she was an outdoors kid. In school, though, there was no outlet for her running. No track team or cross-country for girls. So on her own, she walked to a reservoir and started to run loops. After a few loops she realized she was cut out for distance. But there was an unwritten rule that no female was allowed to run distance, only sprints. Bevans decided she was going to break that rule. 

After finishing Morgan State University in 1967, she attended Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, for a master’s degree in physical education. But still no track for females. So like time and time again, she ran on her own. But this time someone was watching.

The men’s track coach, Vern Cox, noticed her and invited her to run with the men. She was elated to finally have some company, even if she could only keep up with the back-of-the-packers. The men were friendly, considerate, and encouraged her. Soon she was entering local races but often she was the only Black female in the race. It didn’t bother her, as she never wanted to make that her personal statement. She just kept her head down, concentrated on the task at hand – the race – and went back to the dorms to study. Upon graduating she returned to Baltimore and a teaching job. She joined a running group and started running longer distances. When a small running club organized the first Maryland Marathon in 1973, she decided to try it. Kathrine Switzer took first place and Bevans took second in 3:31:45. Bevans found her distance.

Encouraged by her good time, three months later she ran the Beltsville Marathon, taking five minutes off her time. Two months later she was at the starting line for her first Boston, finishing in 3:17:42.  Bevans was making a name for herself. She started training more seriously, putting in 100-mile weeks on top of her full-time job as a physical education teacher. Despite her elite times, no one was reaching out to her for coaching or sponsorship or interviews. If she was mentioned at all in the media, it was usually something along the lines of the Black female who won the marathon last year but all eyes will be on the – fill in the blank – white girl. “Sure there was racism and discrimination, but I chose not to let it get to me. I was always a solo runner on my own and that was fine with me,” said Bevans. She was also too polite back then to make a scene when called the N-word.  Now, she states, it would be a whole new ballgame, saying, “I’d get real mad.” 

“Sure there was racism and discrimination, but I chose not to let it get to me. I was always a solo runner on my own and that was fine with me”

— Marilyn Bevans

Bevans personal best was 2:49:56 at the 1979 Boston Marathon. After more than 25 marathons, she developed exercise-induced asthma and had to stop competing.  She had qualified for the first qualifying standards for the women’s marathon in the Olympics, but realized she was done. “I would have loved to run in the Olympic trials that one time, just for the experience. I don’t know if I would’ve made the team, but that would have been great,” she adds.

Bevans has no regrets. She did what she loved to do and did it on her own terms. In her own quiet way, she became a trailblazer for African-American women and set a standard for grace and decency. In 1977 Track & Field News ranked her the 10th fastest female marathoner in the world. She ran her PR of 2:49:56 at the 1979 Boston Marathon.  In November 2013, she was inducted into the National Black Marathoners Association’s Distance Runner Hall of Fame.

Note about the author: Gail Waesche Kislevitz is an award-winning journalist and the author of six books on running and sports. She was a columnist for Runner’s World for fifteen years and her freelance work has appeared in Shape, Marathon and Beyond, and New York Runner.

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Starting Line 1928: Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the first episode of the podcast. We hope you’ll listen, and hit the “subscribe” button on your preferred podcasting app so you never miss an interview. And if you have suggestions for pioneers to profile, or want to join this effort, email us at In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.

Author’s note: The following is just a snippet of the conversation I had with Bjorg Austrheim-Smith. I urge you to listen to the full conversation; we delve deeper into training and the ultrarunning scene of the time.  

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith, multiple Western States winner (1981, 1982, 1983), will tell you upfront that her story does not fit the typical narrative, “I was just a stay-at-home mom with three small children who one day stuck the kids in a baby buggy with groceries underneath it and started running the streets. I needed to get out of the house,” she said. 

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith pushing her child in a stroller while listening to music.
Image courtesy of Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

She started racing a local three-mile race and she will readily admit that she is not a middle-distance runner. So, when there was a marathon on the streets she ran, she signed up.

“And, and as a matter of fact that first marathon I ran I came to the start line with my husband and two kids. And two men came up to my husband and said,  ‘she’s not running’ and my husband said, ‘yes, yes,’ and they said, ‘no she’s not.’” “And they tried to pull me off,” she said. Her husband used a bicycle to keep the men away while Austraheim-Smith hid in the bushes until the race began. She ran a 3:45. 

Austrheim-Smith has always had a sense of adventure. After serving as a tour guide to a group of Americans, she decided to immigrate to the US.  “So they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and so, when we were done, they said, ‘we would like you to come to the US. We will be your sponsors’ and I said, if you have the guts to offer that to me, I have the guts to take you up on it, so I can go to America,” she said. 

She continued to run with a group that was running the three-mile races and was convinced to do a 50 miler. “I started training every day and I did my first 50 and there were the absolute worst conditions ever. It was windy, it was February; it was pouring. The rain came in sideways and we were running on the levee,” she said “That was the first 50 ultra. I was never doing that again and, of course, that group said, ‘let’s go there’s a 100 miler.’  I said, “over my dead body. I’m not doing a 100 ultra.” 

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith holding Western States trophy.
Image courtesy of Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

But with some prodding, she made it to the start line and finished two minutes and eleven seconds out of first. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I put one foot in front of the other. My family didn’t know what they were doing either and then the following three years I won Western States and then took second and then fourth the next year” she said. 

During a race, she met training partner Bruce Labelle. They would push each other on longer runs on the weekend doing double 50s. “I said, how can we go out and kill ourselves in training, because I don’t want to be dead during a race, so I might as well, kill myself training.”

She was doing about 200-mile training weeks. “What I did with my children, we had an agreement we’ll take the baby buggy. And we’ll go to the bakery and you can get whatever you want and it doesn’t matter what.  One donut was 15 miles.  So I would never put my shoes on anything under 15 miles,” she said, “So my son would ask if it was one-donut day or a two-donut day. Two donuts is 30 miles so that’s how we measured.” 

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith runs on a trail
Image courtesy of Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

After winning Western States, she garnered a sponsorship from Nike but gear at the time was just a smaller version of men’s gear. “I am built like a woman, I have curves, and so they did not make clothes for women.” She said, “It was a great problem, both shoes and clothes didn’t do it for women.” 

She still runs every day, “It keeps you healthy. I don’t believe in sitting in a rocking chair and waiting to die,” she said. She also continues to mentor and coach runners, “I like to help. I’m a problem solver. I like problems to solve.” 

Looking back, she didn’t realize she was making history, “I was doing it for my own survival, because I was a stay-at-home mom. And I felt that I needed to do something for me, because I felt like my brain was dying. I needed something for me.  It just turned out that way, I just didn’t know. I was pleased when people would come out and maybe I encouraged somebody else to do that,” she said. 

Note about the author: Cara Hawkins-Jedlicka is a longtime supporter of women’s running and is part of the leadership team for Starting Line 1928. She is currently an assistant scholarly professor at Washington State University in the Murrow College of Communication. She enjoys running all distances and has taken Austraheim-Smith’s advice to just run with the toddler in a jogging stroller. 

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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.”

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A conversation with Sally Kipyego

Sally Kipyego spent much of her time in the NCAA out front. Here she leads the 2007 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

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 to Runner’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.

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Fast Women’s guide to the best women’s running books

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 list. Ten percent of purchases through 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, because quite a few of the books we wanted to recommend were not available through Purchases through these links will also support Fast Women, in some cases, but less so.

Fast Women’s Book List:

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton
Deena Kastor tells her story while sharing tips and tricks for running strong.
Dandelion Growing Wild: A triumphant journey over astounding odds by American marathon champion Kim Jones
Kim Jones writes about the hardship she endured on the way to becoming one of the top marathoners in the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big IdeasA memoir from Olympian and filmmaker Alexi Pappas. Life lessons that extend far beyond running.
Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis
A 2018 book about Wyomia Tyus, who was the first person to win back-to-back Olympic 100m gold medals, yet isn’t well known.
Running Tide by Joan Benoit and Sally Baker
This is Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson’s autobiography, published in 1987. It’s out of print but still available and still good.
Feel-Good Fitness: Fun Workout Challenges to Inspire Your Fitness Streak, by Alysia MontañoOlympian Alysia Montaño demonstrates strength exercises and shares fun workout challenges.
First Ladies of Running: 22 Inspiring Profiles of the Rebels, Rule Breakers, and Visionaries Who Changed the Sport Forever, by Amby BurfootEach chapter of this book features a different “first lady” of U.S. long distance running.
Girls Running: All You Need to Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best, by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth CareyThe book you wish you had to guide you as a young runner.
Passing the Baton: Black Women Track Stars and American Identity (Sport and Society), by Cat M. Ariail
Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of YouA guide and tool for building one’s running confidence, from Olympian Kara Goucher
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.
A Long Time Coming: Running through the women’s marathon revolution, by Jacqueline Hansen
The autobiography of women’s running pioneer Jacqueline Hansen, who helped fight for the opportunity to get women’s distance events into the Olympic Games.
Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe, by Becky WadeProfessional runner Becky Wade spent a year traveling the world as part of her Watson Fellowship, and learned about running (and eating) in different cultures around the world.
No Finish Line: My Life As I See It, by Marla RunyanThe autobiography of Paralympian and Olympian Marla Runyan, who has one of the more incredible stories in the sport.
Mental Training for Ultrarunning, by Addie Bracy
Available for pre-order, comes out June 30, 2021.
Out and Back: A Runner’s Story of Survival Against All Odds, by Hillary Allen
The story of world-class ultrarunner Hillary Allen’s comeback after a life-altering fall.
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.
Running Home: A Memoir, by Katie ArnoldA memoir by Katie Arnold, the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 champion
A Beautiful Work In Progress, by Mirna ValerioMirna Valerio writes about her journey from beginning runner to ultramarathoner.
Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s SportsAn autobiography of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon
Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness
Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton writes about her running journey, her battle with mental illness, and her experience working as an escort.
Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team, by Elise HooperA novel, published in 2020, about Betty Robinson, Louise Stokes, and Helen Stephens.
What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by Kate Fagan
The story of the mental health struggles and death of Penn cross country and track & field runner Madison Holleran.
Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It, by Rachael Steil
The Oval Office: A Four-Time Olympian’s Guide to Professional Track and Field, by Lauryn Williams
A guide to being a professional track & field athlete
The Fragile Champion: Doris Brown Who Always Ran the Extra Mile, by Ken ForemanThere are a lot of words other than fragile that I can think of to describe five-time World Cross Country champion Doris Brown Heritage, but this is the best source of Heritage information out there.
World Class: A Champion Runner Reveals What Makes Her Run, With Advice and Inspiration for All Athletes
Autobiography of nine-time New York City Marathon champion Grete Waitz. It’s out of print, but used copies are still available.
American Women’s Track and Field, 1895-1980: A History, 2 Volume Set, by Louise Mead Tricard
More of a reference book, and an excellent source for the nerdiest of track nerds.
The First Lady of Olympic Track: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson, by Joe Gergen
A biography of 1928 Olympic 100m champion Betty Robinson
Determined to Win: The Overcoming Spirit of Jean DriscollAutobiography of eight-time Boston Marathon wheelchair champion Jean Driscoll
Runner: A short story about a long run, by Lizzy HawkerWhen I previously made a list of books without this one on it, several people recommended it.
Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me about God and Life
Autobiography of Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross
Unwavering Perseverance: An Olympic Gold Medalist Finds Peace, by Mary Wineberg
Autobiography of Olympic gold medalist Mary Wineberg
Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and its Revolutionary Coach, by Marc Bloom
A look at the Fayetteville-Manlius high school running program
Robin Emery: Maine’s First Lady of Road Racing, by Ed Rice
Daughters of Distance: Stories of Women in Endurance Sports, by Vanessa Runs
Girl Runner: A Novel, by Carrie Snyder
High Performance in Midlife and Beyond: Champion Masters Women Runners and Other Experts, by Cathy UtzschneiderThis book came out the day I made this list and looks interesting.
Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries
Not specifically about women or running, but applicable to both, and much of the guidance comes from fast women
Running: A Love Story: 10 Years, 5 Marathons, and 1 Life-Changing Sport, by Jen A. Miller
A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York, by Liz Robbins
Liz Robbins’ book about the New York City Marathon
The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, by Sarah Lavender Smith
Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold, by Nancy and Elizabeth Jorgensen
Technically a triathlon book, Gwen Jorgensen’s mother and sister tell the story of Gwen’s road to the 2016 Olympic gold medal in triathlon.
Young Readers:
Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary, by Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox
The story of Maureen Wilton, who held the world record in the marathon at age 13. Aimed at middle schoolers, but I’m told it’s a great read for all ages.
The Running Dream (Schneider Family Book Award – Teen Book Winner), by Wendelin Van Draanen
Fiction, written for teens, but I’m told adults will love it, too.
Ya Sama! Moments from My Life, by Tatyana McFadden and Tom Walker
The story of Tatyana McFadden, aimed at middle schoolers.
The Heartbeats of Wing Jones, Katherine Webber
There aren’t many novels on this list, but every time I make a list of women’s running books, someone recommends this one.
Jason Reynolds’s Track Series Paperback Collection: Ghost; Patina; Sunny; Lu
Series for 5th/6th graders about an elite track team. Only one of the main characters, Patina, is a girl. You can get just her book here.
Right on Track: Run, Race, Believe, by Sanya Richards-Ross
A biography of Sanya Richards-Ross, aimed at teens.
Run with Me: The Story of a U.S. Olympic Champion, by Sanya Richards-RossA biography of Sanya Richards-Ross, aimed at 8–12 year olds.
Fearless Frosty: The Mighty Story of Mountain Runner Anna FrostA children’s book about New Zealand’s Anna Frost
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, by Pat Zietlow Miller
A children’s book about Wilma Rudolph
The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon, by Kristina Yee and Frances Poletti
A children’s book about Bobbi Gibb
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon, by Kim Chaffee
A children’s book about Kathrine Switzer
Girl Running, by Annette Bay Pimentel
Another children’s book about Bobbi Gibb
Wilma Rudolph (Little People, BIG DREAMS, 27), by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara
A book about Wilma Rudolph aimed at ages 4–7
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman, by Kathleen Krull
Another Rudolph book for the same age range.
Unbeatable Betty: Betty Robinson, the First Female Olympic Track & Field Gold MedalistA children’s book about Betty Robinson aimed at ages 4–8
I Didn’t Win, by Mary Wineberg
Olympian Mary Wineberg’s children’s book about goal setting and self belief.
Run Fast. Eat Slow.: Nourishing Recipes for Athletes: A CookbookShalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s first cookbook teaches readers how to say no to diet culture and focus on sustainable fueling.
Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.: Quick-Fix Recipes for Hangry Athletes: A Cookbook
Flanagan and Kopecky’s second cookbook, with a focus on recipes that are a bit quicker than those in the first book.
The Runner’s Kitchen: 100 Stamina-Building, Energy-Boosting Recipes, with Meal Plans to Maximize Your Training, by Emma Coburn
This is 2017 world steeplechase champion Emma Coburn’s cookbook, available for pre-order. Comes out on December 22.
Training Journals:
Believe Training Journal (Classic Red, Updated Edition), by Lauren Fleshman and Róisín McGettigan-Dumas
A place to record your training, with much wisdom interspersed. I’ve been using these logs for years, and they’re great.
Believe Training Journal (Electric Blue Edition)For those who like blue better. (There are more color choices on the Amazon website, and also on their website, if you want to support them directly.)
COMPETE Training Journal (Tangerine Edition) (Believe Training Journal)This is also a training log, but the wisdom focuses more on preparing for competition.

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Tierney Wolfgram breaks the American junior record in the marathon

Adam Sjolund and Carson Leavitt lead Tierney Wolfgram on the American River Trail. (Photo courtesy of Nevada Cross Country.)

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.”

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A conversation with Keira D’Amato

Keira D'Amato celebrates her finish at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials as spectators cheer her to the finish.
Keira D’Amato finishes 15th at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:34:24. (Photo courtesy of Credit Union Cherry Blossom Run.)

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.)

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Jaci Smith negative splits a Trials-qualifying 10,000m in New York City

Jaci Smith, shortly after taking the lead in the 10,000m at the Big City Invitational – Presented by Trials of Miles x Bakline. (Photo courtesy of @baklinerunning)

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.

Race results and video (the 10,000m starts around the 2:05 mark)