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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.”