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)