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Brenna Detra forges her own path

Brenna Detra (Photo by @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

In April, 800 meter runner Brenna Detra hit a low point. Despite all the work she was putting in, she had just run 2:04.90 and finished second to last in her race at the Penn Relays. Her mother told her that if the sport wasn’t making her happy, maybe it was time to let it go. Detra, 26, half wondered if she should go back to her college specialty, the 400m hurdles. But deep down, she knew she needed to keep going.

On Friday, May 20, Detra’s breakthrough came. She finished a close third in the 800m at the Trials of Miles Track Night NYC, and became the 71st American woman to break 2:00 in the 800m, running 1:59.94. The time was a personal best by 1.53 seconds and validation that she’s on the right track after making some big changes in the past year, including getting a new coach, putting law school on hold, and leaving the Boston Athletic Association, the team she had run for since graduating from the University of Wisconsin. 

Breaking 2:00

One week before Detra’s breakthrough race, she did a 600m-400m-200m workout on the track and broke 1:30 for the 600m for the first time, running 1:28.7. She looked at her training partner and said, “I think I can break 2:00 now.”

But when she arrived at New York City’s Icahn Stadium on race day, doubts crept in. A thunderstorm delayed the start of the race. Detra’s socks were soaking wet and she was shivering, until someone let her borrow a rain jacket. And for a split second, she questioned whether she belonged in the race. Detra does not have an agent, so it falls on her to convince meet directors to put her in faster heats. At the New York City event, she was originally in the “B” heat, until a scratch bumped her into the top heat. Detra thought of her sports psychologist’s advice and told herself, “You belong here. You deserve this. You’re grateful to be here, and to be healthy.”

In the race, Detra hit halfway in 58.05. She told herself to stay attached to the lead pack, and thought of what her coach, Anna Willard Grenier, would tell her: Run smooth and strong on the backstretch, conserve energy, and get ready for the last 200. “I was waiting for the hurt to come, because in the 800 there’s always a point where you’re like, ‘Here it goes,’  but it just never came,” Detra said. “I’ve never felt that good during a race. And then the last 110m, I was like, ‘You could win this.’ I’ve spent so much time being in the middle of the pack and towards the back of races but I didn’t truly believe that I could put myself in a race and almost win it. It was really the first race where it clicked.”

Detra finished 0.14 seconds behind race winner Juliette Whittaker, close enough that Detra, too, hit the finish line tape when she crossed the line. Her name was blurry on the scoreboard, but when she saw the first number next to her name was a one, she leapt into the air.

A blown out knee

Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, Detra was a great all around athlete. She played volleyball, softball, and basketball. And when a softball coach saw her running around the bases one day and remarked how good Detra would be at track and field, she added another sport.

She loved to win and would do whatever it took to get better, “It sounds so cliché, but I would get so mad when I would lose anything,” Detra said. “My mom has really helped me with that. She’s a single mom of three kids, one with a disability, and she never, ever showed me when she was struggling or anything. I was just so focused on my goals and wanting to be the best, because it also reflected what a good mom she is, too. I get emotional thinking about it, but she really instilled my drive and my determination.”

Detra’s father wasn’t in her life, but she says she gets her athletic ability from that side of the family, and her competitiveness from her mom. In high school, Detra continued to play volleyball and basketball, and was a two-time Illinois state champion in the 300m hurdles. 

She earned a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where she struggled at first, and put a lot of pressure on herself to perform. “I was scared to death to lose my scholarship and have to go back home and feel like I failed my mom and failed my family,” she said. But her performances gradually came around.

Detra bounced between running the 800m indoors and the 400m hurdles outdoors. Her fourth year of college, in 2017, she qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time. And on the third hurdle of her opening race, disaster struck. She landed badly and tore her ACL, MCL, LCL, and meniscus, and chipped a piece of bone off her kneecap. 

She underwent surgery two weeks later, and she was back in the training room the next day, working on getting her range of motion back. “I never once for a second thought that I wasn’t going to be back,” Detra said. She had to relearn how to walk, and took 16 weeks off from running. 

But when Detra could finally run again, all the cross training paid off and she was able to return quickly. By the following outdoor track season, she finished fourth in the 400m hurdles at the Big Ten Championships, ran a personal best of 57.42, and made it back to the NCAA Championships, where she finished 13th in the prelims.

Detra’s surgeon was so impressed with her recovery that he asked her to promise she would keep going until she made it to the Olympics. Her knee still bothers her sometimes, and she might need another surgery someday, but so far, it’s been manageable. 

“I don’t regret any of it for a second,” she said. “People go through much harder things than I did. I think it made me have a new appreciation for running, even though it was really hard. I think that everything happens for a reason and that was meant to show that you can overcome anything if you work hard enough.”

A coaching change

After finishing her eligibility at Wisconsin, Detra took a job at Oracle in Boston and her Wisconsin coaches connected her with Ricardo Santos, who was coaching the B.A.A. team at the time. At first, she was just hoping to keep running to stay in shape. “I started realizing, going to the meets my first year, this is a job, this is people’s career,” Detra said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want this.’” 

She was on her own financially, so she needed to keep her full-time job, but Detra decided to focus on the 800m post-collegiately because she thought her ceiling might be higher in that event, plus, she said, “You don’t need hurdles, sleds, wickets, or anything. It’s just kind of running.”

Detra was a member of the B.A.A.’s Racing Team, which came with coaching but less support than the members of the B.A.A. High Performance Team received. And it may have confused potential sponsors into thinking that she already had a sponsor. This year she decided to strike out on her own to see what else is out there. She pays her own way to races, and sees it as an investment in her future. (She took the bus to New York and public transportation to Icahn Stadium to keep her costs low.)

B.A.A. assistant Morgan Uceny had been writing Detra’s workouts for the past two years, but when she left the team, Uceny recommended that Detra reach out to her former training partner, Grenier, and they began working together in August. (Both Uceny and Grenier ran collegiately in the Ivy League before becoming Olympians.)

Detra said Grenier could see what she needed right away. “She saw a gap in my speed and that middle ground between the speed endurance and strength work,” Detra said. “I would really struggle with mile pace or [kilometer] workouts, and she was like, ‘I think we need to start on both ends and fill in the gaps between.’”

Right off the bat, Grenier had Detra doing fast speed, and Detra was initially doubtful. “I was like, ‘How is this going to help? I don’t understand,’” she said. “And she was like, ‘We need to get your speed back, we need to get your confidence back, because that’s your strength.’” Detra did three hard workouts per week and increased the intensity in her training. Over time, the workouts she had been struggling with became easier.

“I really didn’t think workouts between coaches would change that much, nobody had the magic wand, but Anna was just so speed oriented for the 800m and intense, and I think my body just adapts well to that.” Detra said.

Grenier also connected Detra with a training partner, Matt Baron, who is a few seconds faster than her in the 800m. “He kicks my butt, but it definitely helps so much having someone that can take your mind off a rep,” she said. Last year, she did her workouts on her own, but now Grenier, who also coaches at Boston College, oversees Detra’s biggest workout of the week, which makes a big difference.

Grenier is also working on building up Detra’s confidence, and getting her to believe she can win races.  “We work on that every practice,” Detra said. “She does not let me think for one second that I’m going to lose any rep with Matt.”

Shifting priorities

Since the pandemic began, Detra has worked remotely for Oracle, most recently as a deal desk analyst, which has made it easier for her to train. Last year, Detra also completed her first year of law school, taking classes remotely at Tulane. She hasn’t decided exactly what she would like to do with her degree, but her experience growing up in Peoria has influenced her. “Peoria is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. and seeing how African Americans are treated there, I think that’s kind of grounded me in a sense for the change I want to make moving forward,” she said.

But law school combined with full-time work and professional running took a toll. Detra knew that in order to maximize her performance on the track, she needed to give something up. She has put law school on hold for now, knowing that she has seven years to complete her degree, and professional running won’t be an option forever. 

Last summer, Detra spent five days in the hospital thanks to a perforated stomach ulcer. It looked like she would need emergency surgery, but it ended up healing on its own. The doctors’ best guess was that it was related to NSAID use, though stress could have been a contributing factor. She previously took ibuprofen sometimes around races or when she was sore, but now she can’t take it at all. “I’m okay now, but it was really scary,” she said.

Detra is hoping that being a sub-2:00 800m runner will open more doors, like getting her into the fast heat of the 800m at Sunday’s Music City Track Carnival in Nashville. It’s already earned her an invitation to race the USATF NYC Grand Prix on June 12. She’ll race the USATF Outdoor Championships beginning June 23, and then she would love to race in Europe, if the opportunity arises.

Detra hopes to race through at least 2024 or 2025, and then she’ll reevaluate. She would love to find a sponsor and she’s hoping that by focusing on her goals, like becoming a consistent racer, making the final at the USATF Championships, and contending for spots on world championships and Olympic teams, she can make that happen.

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Juliette Whittaker becomes the second American high schooler to break the 2:00 800m barrier

Juliette Whittaker competes at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. (Photo by @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

On Friday night at New York City’s Icahn Stadium, high school senior Juliette Whittaker held off a field of professional runners to win the 800m at the Trials of Miles Track Night NYC. Her winning time, 1:59.80, made her only the second American high school girl ever to break the 2:00 barrier. (Mary Cain, who ran 1:59.51 at the 2013 Prefontaine Classic, is the first.)

For a while, it looked like the race might not happen at all, as a storm delayed the start of the event. That worked out well for Whittaker, because she and her father got caught in traffic driving up from their home in Laurel, Maryland, and didn’t arrive at the event until about 40 minutes before her race was originally scheduled to go off.

When the weather cleared, conditions were great for racing other than the wet track, and the field took full advantage. Whittaker’s original plan was to key off of Ajee’ Wilson early in the race, but she adjusted the plan when Wilson, along with U.S. leader Allie Wilson, didn’t show up on the starting line, both late scratches from the race.

Rabbit Rachael Walters hit 400m in 57.12, with Whittaker splitting 57.90, in fourth place. Through 600m, Whittaker ran a close third behind Olivia Baker and Great Britain’s Adelle Tracey. And in the homestretch, Whittaker first picked off Tracey, then Baker in the closing strides. Behind Whittaker, Baker (second, 1:59.90) and Brenna Detra (third, 1:59.94) also broke 2:00 for the first time. And high school junior Sophia Gorriaran, of Rhode Island, finished sixth in 2:00.65, which ties her for fourth on the all-time U.S. high school list outdoors. 

Heading into the race, winning wasn’t on Whittaker’s radar. And even as she sprinted down the homestretch, she was thinking more about her finishing time. “I saw the clock getting closer and closer to two minutes and I was like, ‘I want to get under so badly,’” she told Fast Women in a phone call yesterday.

For a while, Whittaker, 18, has had a large “Sub 2:00” written on her bathroom mirror, along with a smaller “and the national record.” But until she missed the record by just 0.29 seconds on Friday, Whittaker knew the high school record was 1:59-something, but she couldn’t have told you what that something was. “Now, after seeing how close I was, I would love to get it at some point before I’m done with high school, but I also won’t stress out about it,” she said.

Whittaker later wrote an Instagram post about some of the challenges she has faced this year, including losing her grandfather, a stress fracture, and getting Covid, which she said has made her more resilient and patient. “I am so incredibly proud of what got me here and even more excited to see where it can take me,” she wrote. “Here’s to breaking more barriers!”

After the race, Whittaker exchanged hugs and congratulations with her competitors, did a post-race interview, and then she was back to work, because she had agreed in advance to pace the high school mile without fully grasping that the events were only 40 minutes apart, thanks in part to the more condensed schedule, due to the storm delay.

Whittaker thought she might just run 600 or 800m of the mile, but she felt surprisingly good going through 800m in 2:16 that she stayed in the race through 1000m, splitting roughly 2:51 before dropping out. She later wondered what would have happened if she had stayed in the race, won by Pennsylvania’s Mia Cochran in 4:42.43. “I’m sure I would have started to feel it in the last 400m,” she said.

Whittaker has more racing to come this season, but first she has another big event on Saturday—her graduation from Mount de Sales Academy. Whittaker is headed to Stanford in the fall, where she’s part of a stellar recruiting class that also includes Roisin Willis, who broke the indoor 800m U.S. high school record in February, running 2:00.06.

Whittaker plans to race the mile at the Brooks PR Invitational on June 15, and the 800m at the USATF U20 Championships beginning June 24. She has qualified to run at the senior national meet, against the pros, but the two meets will take place simultaneously, so she had to make a choice. A top two finish at the U20 Championships will earn her a spot at the World U20 Championships, which take place in Cali, Colombia, in early August. Plus it didn’t hurt that she knew Willis was running the U20 Championships as well.

And now Whittaker says she can shift her focus a bit. “I think now, after finally breaking 2:00, I won’t be as focused on a time but kind of just being a good competitor and racing well. Hopefully that will also bring about fast times, but the fast times will maybe now just be a plus.”

In addition to hopefully extending her track season until August, Whittaker is looking forward to spending time with her family (she’s the youngest of four siblings) and hanging out with her friends before they all head off to college.

At Stanford, Whittaker will be coached by J.J. Clark, who famously coached his wife, Jearl Miles-Clark, and two sisters (Hazel Clark and Joetta Clark Diggs) to an 800m sweep at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. In addition to track, Whittaker, who was an Eastbay Cross Country finalist in December, plans to run cross country in college, but she’s not sure yet how much of a focus it will be.

Though Whittaker is running times comparable to those of other young athletes who turned pro right out of high school, she never seriously entertained the idea. Getting a good education is important to her, but so is the overall college experience. “I really wanted that experience with the team and in the NCAA,” she said. “Right now, I obviously have a high school team, but I go to a lot of the meets alone and I even practice at different times sometimes. Just having a team, and such a talented team, too, has excited me so much about college, and I really want to experience that.”

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Aliphine Tuliamuk is back, wins USATF 25K showdown

Aliphine Tuliamuk wins the 2022 USATF 25K title. (Photo: Mike Scott)

Saturday’s USATF 25K Championships marked the first time that Aliphine Tuliamuk left her 16-month-old daughter behind to go to a race, and she was feeling emotional about it. She told WOOD TV before the race, “I’m going to be gone for three days, and I want to make sure it counts.”

Tuliamuk did just that, winning her 11th national title, and her first since becoming a mom. She ran 1:23:19 (5:21/mile), only two seconds off Makena Morley’s women’s-only American record for the distance. Tuliamuk finished 45 seconds ahead of runner-up Keira D’Amato (1:24:04), after the two engaged in a close battle for the first 11 miles of the 15.53-mile race.

This wasn’t the first time Tuliamuk and D’Amato had raced. At the 2020 Houston Half Marathon, they finished 19th and 20th, respectively. And at the Olympic Marathon Trials the following month, Tuliamuk pulled off the win while D’Amato finished 15th. But it was the first time they had raced since D’Amato’s breakthrough in 2020.

The two runners have had very different paths over the past couple years, with D’Amato running her best times ever, including an American marathon record of 2:19:12 in January. Tuliamuk, on the other hand, gave birth in January 2021 and worked her way back to compete in the Olympic marathon, only to get injured during her final weeks of preparation. But as Tuliamuk showed on Saturday, after a long road, she’s back.

By the one-mile mark, which D’Amato and Tuliamuk hit in 5:17, they had already started to separate themselves from the rest of the field. D’Amato did much of the pacesetting during the first half of the race, with Tuliamuk tucked in right behind her. “It is terrifying to have her on your heels,” D’Amato told USATF TV after the race.

D’Amato said Tuliamuk’s breathing sounded kind of heavy early on, so she thought maybe if she set a quick pace, she could put Tuliamuk “in the pain cave” from the start. “It turns out that strategy did not work,” D’Amato said. “She’s such a strong runner that she kind of just hung with it.”

Around the halfway point, Tuliamuk started to do more of the leading, until she missed her bottle at the 15K and decided to go back to get it, because of the hot and humid conditions. (It was around 70 degrees at the start.) “I think if she had decided to make a move at that moment, she would have actually got it because it kind of got into my head a little bit,” Tuliamuk said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m running so hard to try to catch up to her,’ but she kept encouraging me.”

During the awards ceremony, D’Amato was credited with (1:55 mark) waiting for Tuliamuk to catch up, but D’Amato said in a message to Fast Women that she was being given too much credit.

“I hesitated for a moment and yelled, ‘Let’s go, Aliphine.’ But then I surged ahead knowing we were dangerously close to the American record. I turned around again and yelled, ‘You got this, catch back up,’ or something along those lines, but I honestly thought that might have been it for her so I surged ahead and tried to stay on pace. 

“Then she caught me! Holy s—, she caught me. I tried to stay on the pace and this woman caught back up. Then I thought, ‘Well, that was probably hard for her to catch back up—I’m going to try to pick it up and really wear out her legs.’ She covered that. Then a mile or two later, she went flying by me and decisively made the move. I saw it happening, I couldn’t cover it. In my head I kept saying, ‘This is the move. This is the f—ing move. If I want to win, I go with this move.’ But my legs couldn’t respond.”

Tuliamuk made the move, roughly 11 miles in, look easy, but she had her doubts. “When you’re running with the marathon American record holder, if you make a move, you have to be decisive,” Tuliamuk said. “I was actually freaking out, [thinking], ‘Did I do that too soon?’ I wasn’t so sure about it. But then I looked back and I was like, ‘I think I’ve got this.’ But you can never be too sure until you cross the finish line.”

Though they had exchanged messages, this race marked the first time Tuliamuk and D’Amato had met in person. “She’s hilarious and so sweet,” D’Amato told USATF TV. “It sucks losing, but it sucks a little less when you really admire the person.”

Tuliamuk, who was running only her second race back since recovering from her pre-Olympic injury, said she hopes this is the start of a new and even better chapter in her running. “A long-term goal for me would be to do my best to make the next Olympic team, but until then, I have short-term goals like, for example, do a fall marathon and kick ass in that,” Tuliamuk told USATF TV. 

Tuliamuk told WOOD TV that while her last five or six weeks of training have been great, and she’s running faster than she was pre-baby, she still hasn’t reached the point where workouts feel comfortable. According to this article, Tuliamuk will race the Bolder Boulder 10K on May 30 and the New York Mini 10K on June 11. 

D’Amato said she hasn’t done any long tempos since she set the American marathon record, so it doesn’t surprise her that she found her limit on Saturday. “It’s exactly where I should be at this time in the year,” she said. “I have work to do.” And she hopes that the next time she and Tuliamuk race, she can turn the tables. “Right now I think I am zero and three against her, but I hope that that doesn’t stay that way,” she told USATF TV. “I’d like to at least put a one on that tally.”

D’Amato said she and Tuliamuk had their eyes on Jordan Hasay’s American record of 1:22:19, set en route at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, so she’d like to return to this race some time and get the record. The unseasonably warm weather on Saturday wasn’t conducive to record setting, but both women held off men’s champion Leonard Korir in the “equalizer” race that saw the women get a 10:30 head start. Tuliamuk earned $10,000 for the win, plus the $2,500 equalizer bonus, while D’Amato earned $5,000 for her runner-up finish. Dakotah Lindwurm took third in 1:26:37, Sarah Pagano was fourth in 1:27:52, and Andrea Pomaranski was fifth in 1:28:20, one week after her runner-up finish at the USATF Half Marathon Championships. (Video highlights, no subscription required | Results)

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Emily Sisson breaks the American half marathon record, finally

Emily Sisson wins the 2022 USATF Half Marathon Championships. (Photo by Mike Scott)

By Alison Wade

At the 2019 Houston Half Marathon Emily Sisson ran 1:07:30 and missed Molly Huddle’s American half marathon record by five seconds. The next time out, Sisson came even closer, running 1:07:26 at the 2020 Valencia Half Marathon, missing the record by one second. 

In January, the target moved when Sara Hall lowered the record to 1:07:15 at the Houston Half Marathon. And on Saturday in Indianapolis, Sisson finally took ownership of the record (pending ratification), running 1:07:11 to win the USATF Half Marathon Championships.

Sisson didn’t broadcast that this would be a record attempt in advance, because she wasn’t completely confident that she’d make it to the starting line, and she wasn’t sure how things would go after she contracted Covid at the end of March. After pulling out of two races last month, she didn’t want to announce and then back out of another one.

“When we picked this race, training had been going really well,” Sisson said. “We knew, because it was in the Midwest, that the weather would be hit or miss, but we didn’t need perfect conditions, we just needed decent ones, because we thought my fitness was there. And then with the last few weeks not going great, I was like, ‘I probably need closer to perfect, but I’m going to give it a shot.’” 

Saturday’s temperature was good, but it was windy out there. With the help of her agent, Sisson arranged in advance for pacers Brian Harvey and Eric Ashe, both Olympic Trials qualifiers in the marathon, neither of whom she knew previously, to help her out. Harvey went the full distance and Ashe dropped back just before six miles. “Having pacers made a world of difference today because I was hurting pretty bad,” she said. 

Sisson felt relatively relaxed until around six miles in, where the course enters the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a particularly windy section of the course. “I suddenly went from feeling really good to really not feeling great, and I didn’t feel great for the rest of the race, but I was able to just grind it out,” she said. “The last three miles, I was like, ‘Just keep moving, don’t slow down.’ I knew once I got close to the finish line I’d be able to pick it up a little bit.”

She needed to run about 5:07.8/mile, or just over 15:56 per 5K, to break the record, and she went out ahead of pace, splitting 15:54 for 5K. She hit 10K in 31:57 (a 16:03 5K split), slightly behind record pace, 15K in 47:54 (a 15:57), and 20K in 1:03:52 (a 15:58), still slightly behind pace. It was only between 20K in the finish that Sisson made up the ground necessary to break the record.

Although Sisson was thrilled to finally get the record, she’s already thinking about running faster, when she can get in a smoother buildup. “I feel like all the records are just being borrowed right now, because a lot of American distance runners are about to run a lot faster in the half and the full marathon,” she said. “I am really happy with my performance, and part of it is just that I’m happy that I’m back racing and I was able to still come out and do this today. But I was saying to my husband, ‘I want to run faster.’”

Sisson points out that there aren’t many high level opportunities to run a fast half marathon in the U.S.—she considered going to Portugal instead of Indianapolis—but if the top American runners find the opportunities and the timing is right, there’s a lot of untapped potential.

Before she contracted Covid, Sisson was planning to go out in mid-66 pace, and ideally pick it up at the end. When Sisson tested positive at the end of March, she wasn’t particularly sick, but getting back to high level training was difficult. Her heart rate was higher than usual, she was having trouble breathing, and she was feeling tightness in her chest, which would linger for a couple days after a workout. It wasn’t until she came down to sea level that she was able to complete her first workout, about two and a half weeks before the race. Because she felt so significantly better at sea level, she ended up spending the last two weeks of her buildup in Phoenix, rather than her home in Flagstaff. “I don’t know if it was just timing or if altitude did make it a bit harder to recover. But breathing up at 7,000 feet’s not easy anyway,” she said.

The past year has been full of ups and downs for Sisson. She made her first Olympic team, winning the 10,000m at the Olympic Trials in spectacular fashion, but then she got injured in July. She finished 10th in the 10,000m at the Olympic Games, despite the injury, but it took three months before she was able to run more than five miles again. Sisson had to withdraw from the New York City Marathon, but by the beginning of March, she was fit enough to dominate her first race back, the USATF 15K Championships. Then she got Covid.

Now that things are on the upswing again, Sisson is looking forward to having more racing opportunities. “The last couple of years I haven’t raced as much as I’ve wanted to and I really just want that experience of throwing myself into a bunch of races—different distances, different types of races,” she said. She plans to run the New York Mini 10K on June 11, a fall marathon, and other events to be determined. She’s also looking forward to more head-to-head competition. She has dominated the two races she has run in 2022, including winning Saturday’s half marathon by just over six minutes. But she knows there’s plenty of competition out there.

“Distance running on the road, on the women’s side, is really is taking off,” Sisson said. “It’s exciting to see. I can think of like five people that could probably go for this record now. It’s just so deep.”

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

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

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

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

“Never again” to getting hooked

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting serious

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailing it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

A sudden injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipari shortly after her surgery (Courtesy photo)

Losing count

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olivia Baker (Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Track Club)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting Line 1928: Freddi Carlip

Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance-running pioneers. This is the fifth 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.

Freddi Carlip started casually running in 1978 as an outlet from her daily life as a stay-at-home mom to two small children. Little did she know that the healthy activity would soon become her life’s work.

In addition to serving as a founding member of the Starting Line 1928 oral history project, Carlip has served multiple terms as the President of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), has been publisher and editor of Runner’s Gazette since 1981, and successfully helped lobby for the inclusion of women’s 5,000 meters and marathon distances in the Olympic Games.

Reporting for Runner’s Gazette took her to races all over the world — including in Jamaica and Israel — but her favorite running memory remains her very first 10K, a local race in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she raised her family. At the time, she had just started running with some other young mothers in the area and their husbands convinced them to give the distance a shot despite lack of running experience or proper clothing like sports bras, which didn’t exist yet. 

“We did a lot of walking, a lot of talking and we were last — and it was the happiest finish I’ve ever had,” Carlip says. “Here we were, finishing 6.2 miles without ever running more than two [miles]. Not that we ran the whole thing but we finished and we felt good. That started my running history, it really did.”

Carlip got involved with the local running community, encouraging other women to try the sport for the first time and organizing local races. The whole family got involved when she and her late ex-husband bought Runner’s Gazette and published the newspaper out of their own home.

“We called it a Mid-Atlantic grassroots running publication, although it did go all over the country and Canada,” she says. “We wanted to put in races that wouldn’t get coverage anywhere else. We kept it very homey and folksy, poetry, features, people’s personal running stories.”

She also got involved with RRCA, serving on the organization’s board as the Eastern Director for running clubs in the Mid-Atlantic, and as vice president before serving two terms as RRCA’s third-ever female president. Carlip was often recognized at local road races thanks to the long white gloves she wore with her running outfits as part of her Miss Road Manners persona; her popular advice column advised newbies on the basics of running etiquette (i.e. the inside lane of the track is reserved for faster runners, and if you hear “track!” then move into lane two).

“I look back now and I don’t think of myself as a trailblazer. We were setting the standard for other women and encouraging them.”

Note about the author: Johanna Gretschel is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster in Austin, Texas. She is the Managing Editor of The Striker Texas and a regular contributor to Outside, Runner’s World, SELF, Women’s Running, ESPN and more.

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Working full-time, Jenn Randall cracks the elite ranks

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

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small school background

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming elite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona O’Keeffe (Photo courtesy of Puma)

By Alison Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining Puma Elite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaining ground 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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