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Heather MacLean makes the best of an unusual season

Heather MacLean finishes second in Monaco. (Photo by Randy Miyazaki)

By Alison Wade

Heather MacLean is working on embracing the unexpected this season, and it has worked out well, because little about the past year of her life has gone to plan. There have been some high highs: winning her first national title in the indoor 1500m, finishing seventh at the World Indoor Championships, setting a world record in the distance medley relay, and, last Wednesday, becoming the 12th American woman to break 4:00 in the 1500m, when she ran 3:58.89 for second place at the Monaco Diamond League meet. But in between, she’s faced some significant challenges, including rebounding from the post-Olympic blues, having her gallbladder removed, and, most recently, bouncing back from a tough case of Covid that almost derailed her season.

Run down by Covid

MacLean, 26, noticed her first Covid symptoms in the second half of April. She had just learned that her teammate, Elle St. Pierre, had tested positive the day before, and she went down to her basement to do some laundry and had to stop to catch her breath on the way back up. MacLean’s symptoms accumulated quickly after that. She was dizzy, had a fever, and was experiencing the worst muscle soreness she has ever felt. Then came the brain fog and the headaches. Three days after her initial symptoms, MacLean tested positive for Covid.

She delayed an altitude training trip for a couple of weeks. She avoided running, because she’d had some tough bouts of pneumonia when she was a student at UMass, and she had learned that trying to come back too soon made things worse. When her congestion moved to her chest, MacLean was nervous, because she’s had asthma her whole life. At one point, things got bad enough that she went to the hospital, where she was told she was dealing with respiratory exacerbation, but fortunately the cough medicine she was prescribed provided some relief, and her cough was gone a week later.

MacLean decided to try running at that point, but even easy jogging was still a struggle. She went to altitude anyway, based on recovery timelines she’d heard other elite athletes describe. But she found that the entire time she was at altitude, she was unable to do hard workouts. “Every time I would try to do a threshold-pace anything, I felt like I was going to die,” MacLean said.

And it was tough being in Flagstaff, with such a high concentration of professional runners, because she found herself comparing her recovery to others’. “I’d be like, ‘This person got Covid and they’re back. Why can’t I get back?’” she said. “So then I would try to go do a workout and I’d get one minute into a three-minute pickup and have to stop because I felt like I couldn’t keep going or I’d start blacking out.” 

She switched her focus to making easy running feel better, and once it did, she added in small workouts. When she returned home to Boston from altitude at the end of May, she was finally able to complete a successful tempo run. At that point, racing at the USATF Championships a month later seemed unlikely, but she hopped in an 800m at an all-comers meet on June 4, thinking it was possible she’d run 2:05 or 2:10, and she managed a 2:00.90. That was when she knew she’d be okay for USAs. She didn’t have much time, but her workouts improved throughout June.

When MacLean arrived at the USA Championships, she was just happy to be there. “I told myself going in, ‘This is an accomplishment in itself and you’re going to make the most of this experience,’” she said.

MacLean had a solid race in the 1500m, which is one of the deepest events in the U.S. right now. But she finished fifth and missed making the World Championships team by 1.26 seconds. She told her New Balance Boston coach, Mark Coogan, that she wanted to keep racing, and she knew her finishing speed would come back with time. When her agent called to tell her about racing opportunities, she said yes to as many of them as possible. 

“I love going to races. I have a lot of race anxiety, but I was like, ‘This is a time for me to face my fears.’ I know once I get the momentum going with races, I’m one of those people that does better when I race a lot more.” MacLean decided she would just keep putting herself out there, no matter what the outcome was.

Nearly four months after getting Covid, she still feels the effects. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent recovered,” she said. “I definitely still have trouble with recovery after a really hard session or a race, but I’m getting to the point where I feel a lot more like myself.”

MacLean runs her first race post-Covid. (Photo by Alison Wade)

Embracing imperfection

When MacLean first arrived in Monaco last week, fresh off a 4:01.38 1500m in Poland, a small personal best, she was planning to run the 800m. She was pleased to learn that she was rooming with the Atlanta Track Club Elite’s Allie Wilson, who was scheduled to pace the first 800m of Faith Kipyegon’s world record attempt in the 1500m.

MacLean and Wilson had known one another since their college days and the day before the meet, they decided to check out the fancy shops in Monaco. It was the kind of thing MacLean normally wouldn’t do, but she decided to live a little. Plus she considers the 800m to be her “comfort event” and she figured no matter what she did the day before, she’d still run her best. But after two and half hours of scaling some major hills, both runners’ legs were aching. They hightailed it back to the hotel and went into recovery mode, using recovery boots and chugging Pedialyte. “We were laughing about how our legs were throbbing from walking around just so that we could see the Gucci store, which we weren’t even going to buy anything from,” MacLean said.

They decided that hopping in the pool might make their legs feel better, so they splashed around for a bit, and when MacLean got out she had a series of missed calls from her agent, saying a spot had opened up in the 1500m, and it was hers if she wanted it.

“I think a former me would have been like, ‘No, I’m going to stick with the 800, because it’s what I had planned on doing.’ But she saw this as an opportunity to face her fears.

On race day, MacLean was experiencing terrible stomach pain, right up until the gun went off. She tried to convince herself all of her competitors felt the same way. “There were a ton of things that normally would throw me off, but I’ve been in this mindset this season [to] just go with the unexpected, work with what you have. On the starting line, I told myself, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just have to do your best.’”

Two laps into the race, MacLean realized she was feeling okay, so she decided to start moving up a bit. With one lap to go, she was at the tail end of the chase pack, still back in 11th place, but she was feeling good. She had been so far back that she didn’t really know what place she was in, but with 150m to go, she saw Elise Cranny ahead of her and found one more gear. MacLean caught Cranny shortly before the finish line and finished second to Kipyegon (who was in her own league out front) in 3:58.89, a 2.49-second personal best.

Following her success, MacLean decided to extend her trip to Europe by a day to celebrate a bit. Her 1500m competitor Sinclaire Johnson and some friends were renting a yacht, and MacLean joined them. “I feel like so often we go to these really cool places and don’t get to do much, or people are too scared to do it because they don’t want to be tired,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m out here and I need to take advantage of that.’”

Keeping perspective

Though the past year has been tough at times, MacLean says that her running has never been about where she finishes in her races or how much money she makes. It’s more about the day-to-day training, the people she meets, and the places she gets to go.

Though she didn’t have the race she wanted at the USATF Championships, she still thoroughly enjoyed her time in Eugene. “There were so many things about the week out there that made me super, super happy,” she said. “In a few years, I’m probably not going to remember what place I got at USAs, but I am going to remember the really good gluten free cinnamon buns that were right next to the hotel.”

When she was coming back from her gallbladder surgery in the fall, MacLean took photos of the “dinky little watch from Walmart” that she uses for training to track her progress. She was able to find joy in celebrating her first 45-minute run post-surgery. And when she was returning post-Covid, she celebrated the first 800m she was able to complete in a workout, even though it was a 2:35 and well off her best.

When she travels, she tries to find someone she can get to know better. In Monaco, in addition to Wilson, MacLean says she was so thankful to get to spend time with steeplechaser Courtney Wayment. “I like to make family wherever I go, so that just makes me feel a little bit more comfortable,” she said.

MacLean says she’s just been really happy this year, despite the setbacks she has faced. “I’ve gone through a lot of hardships in my life and I wouldn’t wish those things upon anyone, but I think they’ve really helped me put this year into perspective because I’m like, ‘Nothing is that bad,’” she said. “Obviously it sucks in the moment, but I know I can get through things.”

This weekend, MacLean will represent the U.S. in the 1500m at the North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships in the Bahamas. She is planning to return to Europe for the Brussels Diamond League meet on September 2, hopes to have enough points to run at the Diamond League in Zurich the following week, and plans to close out her season at the Fifth Avenue Mile September 11 in New York City.

“I’m kind of in this position right now where everyone’s kind of on the tail end of their season, but I feel like my season’s just getting started,” she said. “That’s just the way it’s worked out this year. I have all these really great race opportunities, so I’m just going to make the most out of all of them.”