As a professional middle-distance runner, Nia Akins has competed on many big stages, but no race has been anywhere near as nerve-wracking as when she went live on Instagram earlier this month to share her music. Even many of her friends were surprised to learn that she was a musician—and that’s because she wasn’t until recently.
Growing up, Akins, now 23, put a lot of energy into her athletic pursuits, and she didn’t take any type of music lessons. She became a track star and was a two-time NCAA runner-up in the 800m at the University of Pennsylvania. She hoped to vie for the indoor and outdoor 800m titles in 2020, her senior year, but her season was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic.
One month before her collegiate career abruptly ended, she had run 2:00.71 in an indoor 800m, 0.02 seconds away from the collegiate record at the time. Both the record and an NCAA title seemed within reach, so losing those opportunities felt like a devastating blow.
But the pandemic also led to the discovery of a new passion. Akins’ mother had given her a guitar during her sophomore year of college, and she had played around with it a bit, but when the pandemic began, she decided it was time to really learn how to play.
Akins expected to pursue a career in nursing when she graduated from Penn in May 2020, but nearly matching the collegiate record in February helped her realize that professional running was also an option. So in the early days of the pandemic, while she was exploring music, she was also exploring her pro running options. In June 2020, she announced that she was joining the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts.
During the team’s first altitude camp, Akins began taking online guitar lessons. She got an electric guitar and began learning scales and music theory. Her teacher would teach her a new concept and then have her write a song using it. Because Akins was living with her teammates at altitude camp, they got a front row seat as she developed her musical talent. Marta Pen Freitas, Akins’ teammate and training partner, encouraged her to put her music out there. By the spring of 2021, Akins decided she was ready to release her first song, but she wasn’t ready to put her name on it, so she released “Paper Boats” under the pseudonym Teddy Oliver.
Spencer Brown, Akins’ Brooks Beasts teammate at the time, has a popular YouTube channel, and he shared the song in one of his videos shortly after, outing Akins as Teddy Oliver. She got positive feedback from that, and was encouraged by it, but she was still reluctant to truly own that part of her identity. She admits that it was harder sharing her music having already made a name for herself on the track.
“I remember being kind of resentful, like why do I have to want to do this too? Couldn’t I have just picked one thing?” Akins told Fast Women. “There was a time where I thought I was going to keep secretly putting songs out under that name. But then I started to write a slew of songs kind of around [the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials] and just before Trials. They’re not about track, but I feel like they just relate to track so much. Because I wrote those songs, I felt like Nia wrote these, I felt like I should put Nia’s name on them.”
When Akins arrived at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials to compete for a spot on the Olympic team, she found that the Airbnb her team had rented had a grand piano. Though she had no experience with the instrument, Akins figured it out well enough that she was able to continue working on “Smoke” between her 800m rounds. Akins released the song earlier this week, under her own name this time.
The song is partially inspired by how Akins’ teammates and competitors conducted themselves at the Trials—delayed for a year by Covid, and then competition was delayed by the heat. “There was just so much faith. Sports in general, but especially track, we’re very privileged in the sense that everybody can talk about their faith openly. As a Christian, I resonate with that really well,” Akins said. “But I just felt like everyone honestly was like, ‘What’s happening now? Okay, it’s delayed? That’s fine. We’re still going to race, it’s still going to be great, and we’re going to get it done… It was really cool, especially since that was my first one, it was already delayed a year, and it was really hot. There was just so much going on, but everybody else just being so calm and collected about it for the most part made me feel like we were fine.”
On the track, the Trials got off to a good start for Akins. She advanced through the first two rounds and was pleased to earn a spot in the final. Due to record temperatures on the day of the 800m final, the race was delayed several hours. But on the evening of June 28th, Akins lined up against eight of the fastest 800m runners in the country, and the first three to cross the finish line would become Olympians. Akins wasn’t favored to make the team, but she felt ready to go and thought she could break 2:00 for the first time in her life.
Less than 200 meters into the race, while the runners were merging on the backstretch, Akins got tangled up with eventual winner Athing Mu and went down hard. Akins bounced back up quickly, but there was too much ground to make up. She finished ninth of nine finalists, well off her best time. But overall, Akins looks back on her Trials experience fondly. And because of the way her college career ended, Akins had already had experience dealing with disappointment. “I think that was more of a frustrating time for me, but I think it prepared me for Trials,” Akins said. “But then I signed with Brooks. And then I met all of these great people and so many great things happened. I’ve always felt like God has a plan and everything happens for a reason. It took me a while to realize that during Covid, but it made it a lot easier for me to get over Trials faster.”
Music helped, too. And eventually, she wrote a couple songs about falling at the Trials, though she doesn’t know if she’ll ever release them. “I feel like some of those were just for me,” she said.
Akins believes that a sub-2:00 800m will come. She ran five 2:00 800s in 2021, including a personal best of 2:00.24. “I know it’s there,” she said. “I know it’s been there for a while, but I think there’s a reason why it hasn’t happened yet. And I feel like when it does happen, I’ll know that this was when it was meant to happen.”
She had originally hoped to pursue nursing and professional running at the same time, but Akins learned that doing both is a tough combination. For now, all of that is on hold while she explores her potential in running.
Akins’ mother, Nicol Hodges, was a high-level 400m runner for the University of Missouri, and she did some professional running in the early 1990s. But there was far less structure and fewer group training opportunities back then, so she moved on. Akins said it’s particularly satisfying for Hodges to see her daughter have the opportunities that she does now. And Akins is still chasing her mother’s times. “I don’t think I’ve beaten her open 400m PR yet. I have some work to do to catch up to mom,” she said.
Akins is currently at altitude camp in Albuquerque and plans to run a couple indoor races before focusing on the outdoor season. She is scheduled to run the 800m at next weekend’s Millrose Games, but she said she’s going to see how she feels, because she’s still getting over a recent illness.
Adjusting to professional running has been a process. She struggled through her first altitude camp, but adjusts to altitude quickly now. “The workouts, across the board, are way harder than what I did in college, by a lot,” said Akins. “But I know that they’re working, and it’s not too much. [Coach Danny Mackey] is really good at adjusting that to make sure that I’m still benefiting from it but not overtraining.” After doing a lot of her training on her own last year, Akins is thrilled that former Clemson standout Laurie Barton, also an NCAA runner-up in the 800m, has joined the team, and Akins called her “the most perfect training partner.”
In her spare time, Akins plans to keep working on her music. She hopes to put out a short album by the end of the year. Her hobby complements her running well. It’s a great way to recover after a workout, and flexible enough that Akins can take days off when she’s exhausted from training. “[Songwriting] is very cathartic because I feel like I can process or work through anything in a song,” she said.
Over the past 13 months, Carrie Verdon’s running has taken off. She has rewritten her personal bests, become a fixture at the front of high-level races, and developed confidence that she belongs there. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in the 5,000m and the 10,000m, finished fifth at the USATF 10 Mile Championships, took seventh in her debut at the Chicago Marathon, and recently finished second at the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships.
Verdon’s breakthrough race came early in December 2020, when she ran 32:09.82 for 10,000m and finished a close second in the “B” heat at The Track Meet, held in Southern California. Despite having to do a lot of the pacesetting herself, Verdon took one minute, 41 seconds off her personal best, which had stood for more than six years, since her sophomore year of college. It was her first Olympic Trials qualifier and validation that her hard work was paying off after years of ups and downs.
“After that race, I was just like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this,’” Verdon told Fast Women last week. “I was having so much fun with it, I was fit, and I was just really excited about running. I think from then on, I had a mindset shift and a lot of good races followed that.”
Verdon, now 27, took up running as a ninth grader, and had success from the start, finishing 11th at the California state cross-country meet before going on to win state titles her junior and senior years. She finished 19th at the 2010 Foot Locker (now Eastbay) Cross Country Championships her junior year, one spot ahead of future Olympian Colleen Quigley.
Verdon went to the University of Colorado, where she initially had some strong performances, including qualifying to represent the U.S. at the World U20 Cross Country Championships in 2013 in Poland. She led the U.S. team with a 20th-place finish. But Verdon struggled off and on with injuries after her sophomore year. Though she still had some solid races, she didn’t progress in the way she had hoped. “I still had a great time at CU, and I loved running in the NCAA, but I would be lying if I said I achieved what I wanted to,” she said.
When she graduated from CU in 2017, Verdon felt like she was running for other people and wanted to find out who she was without the sport, so she decided to step away from it. For more than a year, she rarely ran. It took a while, but eventually she missed it.
When she decided to return to competitive running, Verdon connected with TEAM Boulder coach Lee Troop. Since joining the team, she has been able to string together several years of healthy training, which she says is a big factor in her recent success. She attributes her streak to the training Troop prescribes, that she does a lot more of her training on soft surfaces now, and that she’s fueling her body better than she did in college.
“I don’t know if I have had anorexia, but I definitely had disordered eating in college,” Verdon said. Troop broached the topic in one of his initial conversations with Verdon, and that’s when it clicked for her that the most important thing was to be healthy, so she could train, compete, and continue to do everything she loves.
Verdon has also worked on building her confidence. When she began racing post-collegiately, she found herself intimidated by her competition and racing against some of her idols. “I would kind of tell myself, ‘Oh I don’t belong here. I’m not sponsored by anyone. All these women are sponsored. They’re so fast,’” she said. “You can go down a rabbit hole of not thinking you’re good enough. But in 2020, I just kind of pushed that mindset aside and I started to tell myself, ‘I belong.’ I would stand on the start lines and look at all the women next to me and think, ‘These women are really fast, and I am too. I belong right here.’ Since embracing that mindset, that has helped me to feel like I belong and to stick my nose in the front of races. The results just followed.”
During the school year, Verdon works full-time as a first-grade teacher. When the country shut down due to Covid in 2020, she taught online. It was helpful from a training perspective, because no one minded if she finished her runs just minutes before class began. But from a teaching perspective, it was a major challenge. Since returning to in-person teaching, she has managed to stay healthy, and she thinks that the current practice of wearing masks in the classroom due to Covid has also helped her fend off some of the other non-Covid types of illnesses young children tend to carry.
Verdon squeezes in her 85–105 miles per week around her work. Sometimes that means meeting her teammates and Troop for early morning workouts, but other times of year they’ll work out in the afternoon, depending on weather and daylight. She often does her workouts with the men on the team. And she has another secret weapon as far as training partners go: her dog, Scout, who does most of Verdon’s easy runs with her.
In addition to her 10,000m improvement, Verdon lowered her 5,000m best by 41 seconds in 2021, to 15:18.56, and she ran a 1:10:11 half marathon, a personal best by three minutes. At the Olympic Trials, she advanced to the 5,000m final and finished 10th in the final. Doubling back in hot conditions five days later, Verdon hoped to crack the top 10 again in the 10,000m, but she finished 27th. She was part of Tracksmith’s amateur support program through the Olympic Trials, but she remains unsponsored.
Verdon was eager to try out the marathon, and she loved both training for and racing the 2021 Chicago Marathon. “There were days when I was completely exhausted and there were days when I was only running when it was dark outside, once in the morning and once at night after work, but it was a great experience,” Verdon said. The hot temperatures on race day weren’t conducive to fast times, but she crossed the line seventh, in 2:31:51. “Even though that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it was so much fun, so I will definitely be doing another marathon next year,” she said.
Verdon’s students were impressed, too. She wrote on Instagram after the race, “I was brought to tears this morning when I walked into school and all the first graders were clapping and saying, ‘Miss Carrie, we are so proud of you! We can’t believe you got seventh!’”
Though Verdon loved the marathon, she plans to continue running shorter races as well, and hopes to further lower her personal bests at all distances. “I love cross country, I love track, I love road racing, and so I think I’m going to try to do it all if I can,” she said. Her next race will be Saturday’s USATF Cross Country Championships in San Diego.
Verdon also loves hiking, climbing, and camping, but she doesn’t plan to combine her passions and try mountain, ultra, or trail racing any time soon. She enjoys adventuring so much that she and Troop have had to come to a compromise about how it fits into her training. “He understands that being out in nature and going on hikes and going climbing and camping, or whatever I like to do, is really good for my mental health, and it just makes me an all-around happy person,” Verdon said. “And he knows that when I show up to training and I’m having a good time and I’m happy, I’m going to be the best runner I can be. So there’s a little bit of push and pull where I’m like, ‘Is it okay if I do this?’ And he’s like, ‘How about you do that next weekend when you don’t have a really big race?’ I think our relationship is really nice in the sense that he understands what I need as a human being.”
After we spoke last week, it became apparent just how destructive the Boulder County fires were, and that Verdon will be facing another major challenge as a teacher. Verdon shared the third photo in this post on Instagram the day after the fires began and wrote, “This is the neighborhood surrounding my school. Our building is intact but the fields are burned. Many of our students’ and teachers’ homes are gone. School is meant to resume on Wednesday…”
— To have content like this delivered to your inbox each Monday morning, subscribe to the Fast Women newsletter here.
Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance-running pioneers. This is the fourth 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 email@example.com. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.
Alisa Harvey’s impressive running career spans decades and distances. The first time she qualified for the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials was in 1988, in the 1500 meters, when she was still a student at the University of Tennessee. The last time she did so was in the 800 meters in 2008—at age 42.
In between, she won gold in the 1991 Pan American Games in the 1500 meters. She qualified for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials by running 2:49:28 in her debut at the distance. And, she’s notched countless victories in road races, including the Fifth Avenue Mile and the Army Ten-Miler.
At 56, she might no longer be able to match her personal best of 1:59.72 in the 800 meters, but Harvey still competes at a high level, chasing Master’s records on the track and the roads. And, she’s coaching athletes who range from ages 10 to 95, aiming to help them pursue the same long-term success she’s experienced.
“I’m still at it and enjoying it—slowing down but loving it and trying to stay healthy,” she said.
Harvey grew up in newly desegregated northern Virginia, and loved running from the time she began competing in the Hershey Hall of Fame summer track series at age 10. Growing up, she watched the summer Olympics and had two athletic idols: sprinter Wilma Rudolph and gymnast Nadia Comăneci.
She wanted to be both, and she had reason to hope. On the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, she was always the best girl in both the flexed-arm hang and the 600-yard dash (where she beat most of the boys, too). In between track meets, she’d teach herself gymnastics moves in the basement.
She made the gymnastics team at Jefferson High School, but soon realized running was her passion, and prioritized track. The sport gave the self-described “loner, a by-myself kind of girl” a sense of identity and purpose. “I wasn’t known for anything else but my running. That’s what I kind of latched onto,” she said. “I didn’t have many extras, like summer camps or lots of material goods, but I did have my running and my legs and a TV set and goals.”
She started out in sprints, 100 and 200 meters, and was good enough to place top three in most of her races. She also dabbled in the long jump and high jump (a feat, since she’s only 5’2”). At a meet in the middle of the season, the team’s star 800-meter runner was out of town. Harvey reluctantly stepped up in her place—and won.
“I was always very competitive,” she said, a trait likely passed down from her mother, and enhanced by growing up with two older brothers. “I enjoyed winning more than finishing top three, and I did it with such ease, the coach noticed.”
From then on, middle distance became her sweet spot. She also excelled at blazing new trails and breaking down barriers.
Her sophomore year, there weren’t enough women to form a cross-country team—but she and three other runners went to all the meets anyway. Though they couldn’t score points, Harvey made it to the state meet, and the coach gave her the school’s MVP award over all the boys. The next year, enough girls signed up to make a full team. “It just takes pioneers, sometimes, to get things going,” Harvey said.
She also noticed how few Black students there were in many spaces, including the homecoming court and the cheerleading squad. She went out for cheerleading, knowing that as a former gymnast and current track star, she’d be difficult to pass over. “I made it, the varsity team. I only did it one season, but after that, there were other Black cheerleaders,” she said. “Things got better because people just said, you know what, Alisa can do it, why not? What’s the big deal?”
As her successes piled up, Harvey realized running might offer her yet another gift: a chance at a college education. She set her sights on the University of Tennessee early, and after a rough start—the coach who recruited her left, and her grades suffered—Harvey excelled.
She ran on a national champion 4×800 meter relay team in 1984 and won the 1986 NCAA Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship at 1500 meters. Her senior year, she clocked times of 2:01 in the 800 meters and 4:08 in the 1500 meters—good enough to qualify for the Trials.
When her NCAA eligibility was up, Nike offered her a $12,000 contract and a spot on the Athletics West Track Club to prepare for the chance to make the Olympic team. At the Trials, she made the finals, but fell short of the squad that would head to Seoul for the Games.
However, one of her career highlights would come just a few years later, at the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba. There, she won gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 800 meters. She lost only to the hometown hero Ana Quirot, with an audience that included Fidel Castro.
Despite several more attempts, Harvey never made an Olympic team. But as a pro-athlete, she continued forging new pathways, including having a baby. That was far from typical in 1994, when her oldest daughter, Virginia Hill, was born.
“The running community wasn’t quite ready,” Harvey said. Her contract with Nike had already expired, so that wasn’t an issue; still, her manager dropped her, and many others questioned her choice.
Harvey wasn’t an athlete who could run during pregnancy. Instead, she did workout videos starring Kathy Smith, who at the time was pregnant with future Olympian Kate Grace. Still, she dedicated herself to returning to top form afterward—and she did, making the Trials again in 1996.
In recent years, she’s been heartened by watching runners like Alysia Montaño and Allyson Felix speak up about the challenges of having children and returning postpartum. “That was a go-girl moment for me, for sure,” Harvey said. Of course, she’s disappointed that companies still put barriers between athletes and motherhood. “But I’m glad they were vocal enough to come back at them. I think that’s why things continue that way for too long, because we don’t say anything or don’t do anything.”
A divorce, a move back to Virginia, and a job at a running store inspired Harvey’s move up to longer distances, including 10-mile races and marathons. She’s won the Army Ten-Miler four times, and in 1999, ran 2:49:28 in her first marathon in Richmond, a time that qualified her for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials at age 35. “I was very strong in my 30s—probably my prime days, I would say, even more than my 20s,” she said.
Harvey coached for a while at George Mason University, and now enjoys helping everyone from high-school athletes to older adults achieve their own running goals. Good sleep, proper nutrition, and listening to your body have allowed her to thrive for years, and she passes those messages along.
She’s always trained at lower volumes and higher intensities, and finds she needs a little more rest as she ages. Still, she’s clocked American and world Master’s records at the 800 meters and the mile, and finds the pursuit of more inspires her—up next, it’s the 55 and older categories.
Despite some difficult experiences along the way—including brushes with sexual misconduct, racism, and disordered eating that she discusses in this interview—Harvey remains grateful for all running has brought her, and proud of her accomplishments. Others have also taken note—in 2019, she was inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame.
What’s more, running has long given her the chance to serve as a role model for those who might come after her. When women see another successful woman, and especially a Black woman, that makes a big difference in what she can envision for herself.
“Because of my presence in sport, my success in sports, I got a lot of newspaper articles, I got a lot of visibility,” she said. And from early on, when she saw discrimination or injustice, she used that platform to do something about it. “Even in my high school days and in my later days, I’m still not gonna stand for it.”
Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the third 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.
For Judy Shapiro-Ikenberry, blazing a trail as an early female runner came naturally. Her parents were progressive “radicals,” in her words, and in California, where she spent most of her life, people were generally more open to women in sport than on the East Coast.
Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Judy Shapiro and her family moved to California when she was an infant in hopes the warm air would be better for her three brothers’ asthma.
It was there that 12-year-old Judy ran in her first track meet, where she and a friend from school were the only girls. She competed in every event on the track and in the field, coming in second to last in all of them. (She beat Karen, the friend who brought her along, because the girl had asthma.) Still, she thought the day was “really fun” and continued participating in track meets.
Shapiro’s mother supported her daughter’s new hobby and eventually decided she needed a coach. A friend suggested Dennis Ikenberry, a runner and student at Occidental College, who might like to help out on weekends. He started coaching the young runner — mostly urging her not to run the first lap of her 800-meter races so fast — and never stopped
In 1960, Shapiro, Ikenberry and her family piled in the car and drove to Corpus Christi, Texas, for the national track championships. While they were there, Shapiro’s mother noticed the poor conditions in the housing provided for Black athletes — former military barracks with no screens on the windows and no hot running water — and was “horrified,” the runner remembers. Her mother wrote a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union explaining her concerns, and a number of athletes and coaches signed it.
The following weekend, at the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field in Abilene, Texas, Shapiro said the officials put everyone who had signed the letter in the same heat, to eliminate some of the critics early.
“So the next weekend, when we got to the Olympic Trials, anybody who’d signed that letter … was put into the same heats for whatever it was they were running, so they [could] eliminate all those difficult people [who were] making a mess. So the heat I was in, we had eight people, and I think five of us broke the national record,” she said.
Still, she made the final and finished fifth in 2:19.5. At age 17, she was the youngest runner in the women’s race.
In 1961, Shapiro competed in Israel at the Maccabiah Games, an international competition for Jewish athletes. She participated in five events — 800 meters, 200 meters, high jump, broad (long) jump, and javelin — and remembers it as one of the highlights of her career. But running wasn’t the only thing on her mind: “That was really fun because I was 17, and there were all these gorgeous young men athletes. … Of course, Dennis wasn’t happy with that,” she recalled.
Shapiro was injured at the time of the 1964 Olympic Trials. Instead of traveling to the meet, she married her coach, Dennis Ikenberry. Together they raised three kids, Richie, Shelly, and Becky, while staying involved in the running world throughout their lives.
She continued to train and took on longer distances while working as a teacher. She won her first marathon, the 1967 Las Vegas Marathon, in 3:40:51, just six months after Kathrine Switzer’s famous scuffle with officials at the Boston marathon. She went on to run a few more marathons and in 1974 she won the first U.S. marathon championship for women in 2:55:18. She later moved to ultrarunning and won the national 50-mile track championship in 1977.
When Judy’s athletic career started to slow in the late 1970s, the Ikenberrys started Race Central, a race timing company that helped put on some of the biggest races in the U.S. and around the world.
“I really loved yelling at volunteers,” she recalls. “That was my thing.”
The couple also ran a running store in Rialto, California, for a few years, and Dennis coached runners throughout his life.
When she talks about the barriers she faced as a female runner, Shapiro-Ikenberry mostly shrugs.
“What you could register for, you registered for and ran. And if you couldn’t register, you just sat on the sidewalk till the gun went off and then ran,” she said.
Other people worried about athletics would make women infertile or tried to stop them from competing, but the busy runner didn’t have much time to get involved in politics.
“I was raising kids. I was teaching. I was active in the local community,” she said. “I didn’t worry about other concerns so much.”
Besides, it was always officials who gave women a hard time, not the male competitors.
“They didn’t like it when we beat them, but they were very accepting and very encouraging,” she remembered. “It was always the officials that were the problem, you know, and it’s just two different classes of people. And they get their kicks from enforcing the rules. We got our kicks from being in shape.”
Note about the author: Laura Fay is a journalist and runner.
Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the second episode of the podcast. We hope you’ll listen, and hit the “subscribe” button on your preferred podcasting app so you never miss an interview. And if you have suggestions for pioneers to profile, or want to join this effort, email us at email@example.com. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.
Marilyn Bevans, born in 1949 in Baltimore Maryland, was the first African-American woman marathoner. Her career highlights include winning two Baltimore Marathons and being a top finisher in several Boston Marathons, including second female overall in 1977. Bevans, a retired teacher, still lives in Baltimore and is a girls’ high school track coach.
Bevans was fortunate to come from a family that loved track and field. Her uncle would take her to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia where she fell in love with the sprinters, who were mostly African-American. Black women dominated the sport then and she already knew of Wilma Rudolph who won three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Her first race, a 100-yard dash, was as a 12-year-old. She was the only Black girl in the race. She had this made, she thought, her confidence getting the better of her. But she quickly realized she was sorely out of her league. “All I saw was everyone’s backside as they flew past me,” she recalled. She had no clue about pacing, timing, nothing. She realized she wasn’t cut out to be a sprinter.
As a kid, Bevans spent all her free time on the move, whether that was playing basketball, running through the parks, chasing her friends, she was an outdoors kid. In school, though, there was no outlet for her running. No track team or cross-country for girls. So on her own, she walked to a reservoir and started to run loops. After a few loops she realized she was cut out for distance. But there was an unwritten rule that no female was allowed to run distance, only sprints. Bevans decided she was going to break that rule.
After finishing Morgan State University in 1967, she attended Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, for a master’s degree in physical education. But still no track for females. So like time and time again, she ran on her own. But this time someone was watching.
The men’s track coach, Vern Cox, noticed her and invited her to run with the men. She was elated to finally have some company, even if she could only keep up with the back-of-the-packers. The men were friendly, considerate, and encouraged her. Soon she was entering local races but often she was the only Black female in the race. It didn’t bother her, as she never wanted to make that her personal statement. She just kept her head down, concentrated on the task at hand – the race – and went back to the dorms to study. Upon graduating she returned to Baltimore and a teaching job. She joined a running group and started running longer distances. When a small running club organized the first Maryland Marathon in 1973, she decided to try it. Kathrine Switzer took first place and Bevans took second in 3:31:45. Bevans found her distance.
Encouraged by her good time, three months later she ran the Beltsville Marathon, taking five minutes off her time. Two months later she was at the starting line for her first Boston, finishing in 3:17:42. Bevans was making a name for herself. She started training more seriously, putting in 100-mile weeks on top of her full-time job as a physical education teacher. Despite her elite times, no one was reaching out to her for coaching or sponsorship or interviews. If she was mentioned at all in the media, it was usually something along the lines of the Black female who won the marathon last year but all eyes will be on the – fill in the blank – white girl. “Sure there was racism and discrimination, but I chose not to let it get to me. I was always a solo runner on my own and that was fine with me,” said Bevans. She was also too polite back then to make a scene when called the N-word. Now, she states, it would be a whole new ballgame, saying, “I’d get real mad.”
“Sure there was racism and discrimination, but I chose not to let it get to me. I was always a solo runner on my own and that was fine with me”
— Marilyn Bevans
Bevans personal best was 2:49:56 at the 1979 Boston Marathon. After more than 25 marathons, she developed exercise-induced asthma and had to stop competing. She had qualified for the first qualifying standards for the women’s marathon in the Olympics, but realized she was done. “I would have loved to run in the Olympic trials that one time, just for the experience. I don’t know if I would’ve made the team, but that would have been great,” she adds.
Bevans has no regrets. She did what she loved to do and did it on her own terms. In her own quiet way, she became a trailblazer for African-American women and set a standard for grace and decency. In 1977 Track & Field News ranked her the 10th fastest female marathoner in the world. She ran her PR of 2:49:56 at the 1979 Boston Marathon. In November 2013, she was inducted into the National Black Marathoners Association’s Distance Runner Hall of Fame.
Note about the author: Gail Waesche Kislevitz is an award-winning journalist and the author of six books on running and sports. She was a columnist for Runner’s World for fifteen years and her freelance work has appeared in Shape, Marathon and Beyond, and New York Runner.
Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the first episode of the podcast. We hope you’ll listen, and hit the “subscribe” button on your preferred podcasting app so you never miss an interview. And if you have suggestions for pioneers to profile, or want to join this effort, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.
Author’s note: The following is just a snippet of the conversation I had with Bjorg Austrheim-Smith. I urge you to listen to the full conversation; we delve deeper into training and the ultrarunning scene of the time.
Bjorg Austrheim-Smith, multiple Western States winner (1981, 1982, 1983), will tell you upfront that her story does not fit the typical narrative, “I was just a stay-at-home mom with three small children who one day stuck the kids in a baby buggy with groceries underneath it and started running the streets. I needed to get out of the house,” she said.
She started racing a local three-mile race and she will readily admit that she is not a middle-distance runner. So, when there was a marathon on the streets she ran, she signed up.
“And, and as a matter of fact that first marathon I ran I came to the start line with my husband and two kids. And two men came up to my husband and said, ‘she’s not running’ and my husband said, ‘yes, yes,’ and they said, ‘no she’s not.’” “And they tried to pull me off,” she said. Her husband used a bicycle to keep the men away while Austraheim-Smith hid in the bushes until the race began. She ran a 3:45.
Austrheim-Smith has always had a sense of adventure. After serving as a tour guide to a group of Americans, she decided to immigrate to the US. “So they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and so, when we were done, they said, ‘we would like you to come to the US. We will be your sponsors’ and I said, if you have the guts to offer that to me, I have the guts to take you up on it, so I can go to America,” she said.
She continued to run with a group that was running the three-mile races and was convinced to do a 50 miler. “I started training every day and I did my first 50 and there were the absolute worst conditions ever. It was windy, it was February; it was pouring. The rain came in sideways and we were running on the levee,” she said “That was the first 50 ultra. I was never doing that again and, of course, that group said, ‘let’s go there’s a 100 miler.’ I said, “over my dead body. I’m not doing a 100 ultra.”
But with some prodding, she made it to the start line and finished two minutes and eleven seconds out of first. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I put one foot in front of the other. My family didn’t know what they were doing either and then the following three years I won Western States and then took second and then fourth the next year” she said.
During a race, she met training partner Bruce Labelle. They would push each other on longer runs on the weekend doing double 50s. “I said, how can we go out and kill ourselves in training, because I don’t want to be dead during a race, so I might as well, kill myself training.”
She was doing about 200-mile training weeks. “What I did with my children, we had an agreement we’ll take the baby buggy. And we’ll go to the bakery and you can get whatever you want and it doesn’t matter what. One donut was 15 miles. So I would never put my shoes on anything under 15 miles,” she said, “So my son would ask if it was one-donut day or a two-donut day. Two donuts is 30 miles so that’s how we measured.”
After winning Western States, she garnered a sponsorship from Nike but gear at the time was just a smaller version of men’s gear. “I am built like a woman, I have curves, and so they did not make clothes for women.” She said, “It was a great problem, both shoes and clothes didn’t do it for women.”
She still runs every day, “It keeps you healthy. I don’t believe in sitting in a rocking chair and waiting to die,” she said. She also continues to mentor and coach runners, “I like to help. I’m a problem solver. I like problems to solve.”
Looking back, she didn’t realize she was making history, “I was doing it for my own survival, because I was a stay-at-home mom. And I felt that I needed to do something for me, because I felt like my brain was dying. I needed something for me. It just turned out that way, I just didn’t know. I was pleased when people would come out and maybe I encouraged somebody else to do that,” she said.
Note about the author: Cara Hawkins-Jedlicka is a longtime supporter of women’s running and is part of the leadership team for Starting Line 1928. She is currently an assistant scholarly professor at Washington State University in the Murrow College of Communication. She enjoys running all distances and has taken Austraheim-Smith’s advice to just run with the toddler in a jogging stroller.
Last Monday, led by a 1–3 finish from Mercy Chelangat and Amaris Tyynismaa, the University of Alabama finished eighth at the pandemic-delayed 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma. It was the first time the Alabama women had made a team appearance at the event since 1994. They hadn’t had an All-American in cross country since Jessica Fry in 1995. This year they had three: Chelangat, Tyynismaa, and Esther Gitahi, who finished 36th.
It was quite the turnaround for a team that hadn’t qualified a single runner the last time the meet was held, 16 months earlier. (Chelangat missed qualifying by one spot.) A variety of factors have gone into the team’s rise, but it would be easy to overlook the contributions of the team’s volunteer assistant coach, professional runner Samantha Palmer.
Palmer, 29, moved to Alabama when her husband, Will Palmer, was hired to coach the distance runners in the summer of 2018. Now she balances professional running with high-level coaching, things that don’t always go hand-in-hand.
A two-coach family Until the summer of 2018, when they got married, Samantha and Will Palmer had lived separately for the entirety of their relationship. That’s how things sometimes work out when there are two cross country and track & field coaches in the family. Before going to Alabama, Samantha was coaching at the University of Toledo, and Will was coaching at Georgetown. When they got engaged in 2017, they agreed that they would look for jobs that would allow them to live in the same city after getting married. They considered options that would allow them to both be paid coaches as well as the scenario they ended up with, where Will is the paid coach, and Samantha volunteers for the team, while having more time and energy to put into her professional running career.
“Honestly, I love my role,” Palmer said. “I love being kind of behind the scenes and not in the spotlight. Where I am in my running, it suits me well and it’s exactly what I need. Sometimes people ask if I’m upset I’m not getting any recognition for how well the women are doing. Will knows that I’m a big piece of it, and the girls know, and that’s really all that matters. I don’t need to broadcast it to the world.”
Palmer knows at some point the pendulum will shift and she’ll want to take on a larger coaching role, but for now, she’s content to also focus on giving running her best shot.
A culture shift When the Palmers arrived in Tuscaloosa in the summer of 2018, they inherited a talented team with untapped potential. They agreed that they’d work on establishing a positive team culture first and make performance secondary. Sometimes that meant skipping an afternoon practice and doing a team bonding activity instead. From a performance standpoint, it might not have seemed like the most logical choice, but they were addressing a sometimes overlooked but important element of creating a successful team. “They needed to find their own identity as a group,” Palmer said.
Palmer also makes sure to speak openly and honestly with the women she coaches about physical and mental health. “I had teammates in college who really struggled with fueling, and I felt like it was ignored a lot of the time, especially if they were running really well,” she said. “And for me personally, I never want to be known as that coach.”
She emphasizes balance and takes a long-term view. “At the end of the day, it’s not just my job to help these women run fast,” she said. “They’re student-athletes. They need to eventually go out and get a job in the professional world one day. I need to help them also become the best version of themselves. I want them to run fast because I know they have big goals, but I also want them to be healthy people, and I want them to enjoy running 10 years down the road, when they don’t have to do it anymore.”
In the Palmers’ first season at Alabama, the team finished ninth out of 14 teams at the 2018 SEC Cross Country Championships. From there, the program saw steady progress, with athletes setting many personal bests on the track later that academic year, and Gitahi finishing third in the 5,000m at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. “It became this domino effect of feeding off of the positive energy the group was creating,” Palmer said.
In the fall of 2019, the Alabama women moved up to fifth place at the SEC Cross Country Championships, and Palmer really began to see a shift during the 2020 indoor track season, before Covid shut it down.
By the time they got to last Monday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, they knew they had a solid shot at having three All-Americans. But first up were the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
A DQ and a rebound Though Chelangat and Tyynismaa ran fast enough to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships as individuals, they opted to forgo their individual events to focus on team goals. Due to the pandemic, for the first time ever, the indoor meet and cross country championships would be held just days apart. Chelangat decided to solely focus on cross country, and Tyynismaa anchored the team’s distance medley relay and had two days to rest before competing in Monday’s cross country championship.
The distance medley relay squad knew they had a good shot at a strong showing because two weeks earlier, the quartet of Jami Reed, Christal Mosely, Lauren Turner, and Tyynismaa set a SEC championship and school record of 10:59.21. At the NCAA meet, they ran only 0.2 seconds slower and crossed the line fourth, with Tyynismaa running the fastest anchor leg of the night (4:31.11). They went out to cool down, pleased that they’d earned All-America honors, only to find out upon their return that they’d been disqualified for interfering with another team on one of the exchanges.
Will was in Fayetteville with the indoor runners, and Samantha flew to Stillwater with the cross country-only group. When Will and the runners who competed in Arkansas arrived in Oklahoma Saturday morning—both Reed and Tyynismaa would be doubling back from the DMR—Samantha could tell that they were a little down. “We told two of our girls it was their sole purpose to make sure the vibes were good, and honestly, they just had a ton of fun all weekend.”
The pandemic meant that there was no pre-meet banquet, one of the traditions of the NCAA Cross Country Championships, so the athletes dressed up and held their own. “They made sure that they made the most of their experience,” Palmer said. “I think that helped a ton because it took some of that disappointment away and they moved on to a new focus. They knew they were in Stillwater to accomplish something, and they had to have short-term memory.”
Heading into Monday’s race, the Palmers thought that Gitahi was fit enough to be an All-American (top 40), even if she didn’t quite have her very best day, and that’s Samantha’s assessment of how things ultimately played out, as Gitahi was 36th. Palmer figured that Chelangat could be in the top five, and that anyone in the top five had a shot at winning.
And they knew Tyynismaa had good track fitness, but it was harder to say how that would play out on a cross country course. At the SEC Cross Country Championships in the fall, Tyynismaa finished 26th, and was Alabama’s fifth runner to finish, but since the start of the indoor season, she had been running on a completely different level.
Chelangat was coming off a disappointing SEC Indoor meet two weeks earlier, where she was hoping for a win but finished third in the 5,000m and fourth in the 3,000m. But she knew there was nothing she could do to change the outcome, so she focused her attention on goals ahead. “She actually told one of her teammates after, ‘I’m just going to go win cross country,’” Palmer said.
But in their conversations with Chelangat heading into Monday’s race, the Alabama coaches didn’t talk about winning. They only talked about running her best race possible. In the end, both Chelangat and Tyynismaa surpassed any expectations Palmer had going in. “If you had told me a week ago that we’d go 1–3, I would have fallen out of my chair, but it was super fun to watch,” she said.
Balancing roles When Palmer arrived at Alabama in 2018, she was coached remotely by Tony Houchin and while she did some of her recovery runs with the Alabama team, she did her hard training solo.
With the onset of the pandemic, things changed. Palmer was coming off a disappointing Olympic Marathon Trials race (she finished 33rd) and didn’t give herself enough down time after the race, which ultimately led to burnout. “I wanted this setup where I could put as much emphasis into my own running as I wanted to,” said Palmer. “Then all of the sudden, it was the first time where I just didn’t want to run. It kind of scared me a bit.” She took time off, which helped her regain her love of running and her desire to race.
She also decided to switch over to having Will coach her, because she missed in-person interactions with a coach and having someone who could adjust her training on the fly. During lockdown, she also missed being around people, so when she and Will were allowed to start working with the Alabama runners in person again in August, she started doing most of her training with the team.
Palmer finds that training with her team offers all kinds of insights she might not otherwise have. “You go on a run and it’s so much easier to talk about things,” she said. “You find that so and so broke up with her boyfriend or she had three midterms this week. That doesn’t come out in post-run chatter; that comes out while you’re running and you’re venting and you’re just talking to your friends.”
And though Palmer is a professional runner, training with the team’s top runners is no walk in the park. Any time she trains with Chelangat, Tyynismaa, or Gitahi, Palmer knows she’ll be challenged. “Mercy’s taken me to the hurt locker a few times,” Palmer said. “A few weeks ago, we negative split an 800 during a tough workout… It was probably one of the hardest workouts I’ve done with them, but it was way easier doing it with them rather than doing it by myself.”
Training with the team also gives Palmer the chance to show her team that she has bad days too, sometimes. “They’ve watched me have some pretty terrible days,” she said. “I’ve had a breakdown in the middle of the workout. It’s not that I want my athletes seeing me do that, but it kind of gives them permission to be vulnerable and really be honest with us about how they’re feeling.”
And experiencing the training for herself also helps Palmer write the training. The Palmers jointly plan the workouts, and while Samantha understands that every athlete reacts differently, she can offer additional insights because she’s experienced it for herself.
Balancing pro running and coaching isn’t always easy, especially when the racing schedules conflict. Palmer opted not to travel with the team indoors this winter, which allowed her to race a half marathon in Atlanta the weekend of the SEC Indoor Track & Field Championships. She had planned to race the USATF 15K Championships in Florida five days after the NCAA Cross Country Championships, but coming off an emotional weekend, she realized she needed rest more than a race, so she scratched from the event. “I made a promise to myself that I’d go to Stillwater and be 100 percent into coaching and what [the team] needed,” Palmer said. “I made my training an afterthought and just got it in when I could. Those things are super necessary if I’m going to try to wear a double hat sometimes.”
Instead she plans to run a half marathon next month in Omaha, Nebraska, where she hopes to break 70 minutes for the first time. Palmer is qualified for the Olympic Track & Field Trials in the 10,000m, and she plans to run it, but she’s most excited to run a to-be-determined fall marathon, even though those are particularly difficult to schedule around the cross country season. “At some points, I have to get a little selfish and make a race choice for myself, even if that means I’m going to miss something important with the team, but I try not to do that very often,” Palmer said.
Though she’s run a 2:29 marathon and 1:11 half marathon, she is unsponsored. “I can’t get a sponsorship and that’s totally fine,” she said. “That’s just the way the pro running world is right now. I’m not at the level of Molly Huddle and Molly Seidel and those women, but I still love it, and I have this burning passion.”
The Palmers see any income Samantha might make through prize money as a bonus, but they don’t rely on it. So not being able to earn income when races were canceled in 2020 was more of an emotional hit than a financial one. “I struggled with the idea that I’m taking all this time to run but I’m also not contributing anything to our family in any way. I know it’s not true, but it’s one of those demons you battle in your head,” Palmer said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m so tired at the end of every day, but I’m not actually getting anything financially.”
Despite her lack of financial compensation, Palmer is working hard and positively affecting many lives through her coaching and her running. In January, she started a women’s running group for all ages and abilities in Tuscaloosa, partly so she could meet more people in the local community. She coached the group through a 12-week training program, and this weekend, members of the group will race a local 5K or half marathon. The participants range in age from college students to women in their 60s, and Palmer has particularly enjoyed seeing the mentorship that has naturally occurred within the group. “They started doing little things outside of meeting as a running group, and that’s why I created it,” said Palmer. “We have a lot of women that are kind of in transition periods of their lives, and it’s been a lot of fun with them being able to talk to each other and learn from each other.”
Like a lot of us, Molly Huddle logged on to YouTube on Saturday night to watch live as Elise Cranny won a fast women’s 10,000-meter race in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Huddle’s takeaway: she has her work cut out for her if she’s going to make her third Olympic team this summer. The 36-year-old, who set the American 10,000 record of 30:13.17 in placing sixth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, also holds the U.S. record in the half marathon (1:07:25 from 2018). She phoned us on Sunday evening from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Fast Women: So you watched last night? Molly Huddle: I did watch last night, yes. I knew a lot of my competitors were going to be in it, so it was definitely important to watch and just see how it unfolded.
FW: Did you feel a pang of wishing you were in there mixing it up, running 74s and 75s? MH: I really did. I wish I was about three weeks ahead of schedule and I would have felt comfortable enough doing [the meet]. I’m doing a 5K that I think is on the same track, on the 6th of March. I’m barely ready for that. But I really wish I could have been in [Saturday’s] race because they ran so even and so great for four miles, and it’s the same women you’re going to see at the Trials, so it would have been really good just to get that in. We just didn’t have our timing down because the meet popped up kind of late. And you don’t want to go if you’re not ready, because that’s worse for your confidence. But watching it I was like, ahhhh, I wish this was three weeks later, maybe a month later.
FW: So watching them click off those 5-minute 1600s… kind of a rough assignment for pacesetter Courtney Frerichs, no? She had to run that pace for 6K and then drop out! MH: Yeah, definitely (laughs). She did good.
FW: Were you surprised to see Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer run those fast times? And how did it make you feel about your own prospects this summer? MH: I wasn’t surprised. I mean obviously I knew that Karissa would run a good 10K after running such a good 5K last summer. [Note: Schweizer ran 14:26 in July to make her the second-fastest American ever at that distance.] Once I heard it was 5-minute pace, I figured they would cut down the last half to try to get under 31, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. And I’ve heard Elise is really good at the strength work, so I was kind of expecting a big one.
So yeah, the 10K is going to be a really deep event [at the Trials], because you have the marathoners coming back, and you have some 5K runners stepping up because I think the 10K is first on the schedule. I think we’re going to have some new American citizens, too, in the 10. So it’s suddenly become probably one of the harder distance events for the [Olympic] team. So I know I have my work cut out for me. It’s just a matter of getting my body cooperating and doing what it usually does.
FW: So is your body cooperating? You didn’t race much last year except for a couple very low-key meets on the East Coast, but now that we’re in the Olympic year, do you feel like you’re rounding into form, and the workouts that you used to do are still there for you? MH: We’re hoping it gets there. We’ve only been working out hard workouts all of January, basically. And then coming into February. So my normal year, when we’re focusing on the track, we do a longer effort in March. I usually don’t race before that. So we’re actually kind of dropping down to something faster and shorter earlier than normal. Normally I don’t try a 5K until like May or so. The year is different. It feels like I’ve had good workouts, but then I’ve had workouts when I’m like, oh man, I really can tell I did a marathon buildup this year. It’s kind of just working all that out and you just gotta get on the track at the end of the day. You can’t really tell until you get into a race how things are going.
You gotta be ready. I have to be as fast as I ever was, which, is a tall order when you’re 37 and you’ve done marathon buildups. But it’s funny, it’s also my natural sweet spot, the 5K and the 10K on the track, so we’re hoping that helps.
FW: So in the Trials 10K, are you thinking that unlike in the past, where you could run 76s and then close with a 63 and win by a lot, you’re going to have to run 74s and 75s and still have company very late in the race and still need that big kick you’re known for? MH: Oh, definitely. It’s definitely not going to be like the last two years where it’s kind of biding my time. So it’ll be interesting. Like I wish I were five years younger, because it would be pretty fun to mix it up and have that kind of depth up front. This will just be a really big challenge.
FW: Do you think that being 36 or 37 is the challenge? Or is it that you have several marathon buildups in your legs? MH: I don’t think it’s being 37, I think it’s just my own running imbalances that have built up over the years. Because I’d say Sara Hall and Steph Bruce are running better than they’ve ever been, and they’re older than me. So it’s not age, it’s more the mileage that has beaten me up.
FW: Is the hope to make the team in the 10,000m and then not have to run the 5,000m at Trials? MH: That’s the hope, I’m imagining I probably will have to do both, but the 10K is first, so that’s good, you get your best chance first.
FW: So is the Olympics your sole focus at this point? Or are you thinking about the marathon, and finally showing what you’re capable of at that distance based on what you’ve shown at the half? MH: Yeah, I’m definitely picking my spots. Definitely the main focus is 100 percent to make the Olympic team in the 10K, but I totally could do a marathon in the fall after that, so that’s kind of what we’re looking towards. And the marathon will be there whether the Olympics are or not.
FW: Is it brutal to get back in track-speed shape, or do you enjoy the workouts? MH: I do, I like the track workouts. I wish that’s all I had to do (laughs). Just not run mileage and just only run workouts. I like the workouts, they’re just more engaging, and it’s fun to go faster and focus like that.
FW: Does Kurt [Benninger, her husband] pace you for most workouts? MH: I did quite a few by myself in January, when I was back in Providence. And then Emily [Sisson] and I lined up for one workout and then I did kind of tag Kurt in. And he hardly ran at all last year (laughs). So he’s really stepping up to dive back into workouts. He does a lap on, lap off for however long I need him to go, and somehow he can magically do it, as long as he gets a little bit of a break. He’s sore the next day, but he’s been doing it.
FW: Does your 30:13 seem even more incredible to you now with four and a half years of perspective? I mean, Karissa Schweizer ran 14:26 for 5,000, and the 10K time she ran last night was more than 30 seconds off what you did in Rio. MH: It’s weird, because I thought Shalane’s [30:22] was so fast and that I could never run that fast. And then once I did it, I was like, actually, I think we just don’t run the 10K enough. We really just have Stanford, and then sometimes USAs or Worlds is tactical, so if it was a Diamond League event, the depth chart of the women’s 10K and men’s 10K would be a lot deeper. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that record goes down, to be honest, although when I’m doing workouts now I’m like, how did I ever do that? I do think, especially as some of the 1500m women are stepping up to the 10, for sure we’re going to see a lot more depth at the sub-31 level.
FW: Do you think you still have a low 30:00 in you at this point? MH: I think so. I mean, in our buildup to the 2019 London Marathon, at Stanford, I ran 30:57 with Emily Sisson, and that was definitely not an ideal buildup, because I had a little bit of a niggle coming into that. And even in Doha, I kind of led my pack at 31-flat for the whole race, so I see how I can lop off 20 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, and get back into that shape.
FW: I heard you did a 4K time trial this weekend. Who was your pacer, and how did it go? MH: My pacer was Henry Sterling, who my husband coaches. It was kind of part of his workout. And it was not good. But I can count on two fingers how many good time trials I’ve had in my entire life. We put the time out there to target, but the point is more to hurt, and I almost never actually hit the time. The point was just to get that out of the way before the race. So in that way, it was definitely mission accomplished, but it was not as fast as we wanted to go.
FW: Did you start out at the projected pace and fall off? Or from the beginning was it like, that pace is not happening? MH: We were supposed to wind it up and I just never really did, because it just felt rough. But I hate time trials, I’m someone who would rather race.
FW: I saw that you scratched from the 5,000m at the Trials of Miles Texas Qualifier meet next weekend. Is that because you’re a little behind where you wanted to be? MH: No, it was just as we got more information, we realized the pace was going to be 15-flat or under, and I wanted more of a 15:10 kind of race. We originally thought it would be more like Olympic standard times (note: the Olympic standard for the women’s 5,000 meters is 15:10.00). And the meet was getting kind of big, which was a little bit of a Covid concern. Once we heard about the other meet, we decided maybe that would be a better fit.
As part of our partnership with InsideTracker this month, we’re taking a look at how a handful of athlete use InsideTracker to improve their health and performance. Fast Women readers interested in trying it out can get 25% off the Essentials plan by using this link.
Amanda Ghent: Ghent decided to try InsideTracker in an effort to cover all her bases as she focuses on goals like breaking 20:00 for 5K and 1:30 in the half marathon in 2021. Though she strongly dislikes needles, she said the blood draw was easy to schedule and the whole process was very efficient. Ghent’s recent testing indicated that she has elevated levels of B12, which she believes to be the cause of her poor sleep, and poor sleep in turn led to difficulty recovering from training. She has been able to clear up some skin issues she was experiencing by eliminating supplements that turned out to be unnecessary. Because her testing also revealed that her white blood cell count is very low, she’s working with her general practitioner to find the root cause.
Cali Schweikhart: Schweikhart, an obstacle course racer, trail runner, and member of the Spartan Pro Team, struggled with an eating disorder when she was young, which led to a long stretch of amenorrhea. She decided to try InsideTracker when she started experiencing unexplained weight gain and with the hope of learning more about the underlying cause of her amenorrhea. She was surprised to learn, among other things, that her ferritin was low. Though that’s common among runners, hemochromatosis (aka “iron overload”) runs in her family. But the biggest surprise was her cortisol level, which indicated that her body was under an extreme amount of stress.
Schweikhart tried to make some of the recommended adjustments on her own, but her biggest breakthroughs came after she began working with a registered dietitian that specializes in eating disorders, who she connected with thanks to a recommendation from an InsideTracker employee. They focused on healing her relationship with food and within a couple months, Schweikhart got her first period in more than eight years. The testing she has done with InsideTracker confirmed that the work she was doing was paying off. “Having tangible measurements that tell you where your body and your health stand is pretty much invaluable,” Schweikhart said.
Andie Cozzarelli: Cozzarelli, a semi pro runner, first started using InsideTracker after a nutritionist recommended it. The personalized nature of the testing appealed to her, and though some of her results have been more predictable (iron issues), others have not, like magnesium and folate deficiencies. “I was also completely unaware of all of the different markers that show us that we can push ourselves too far like cortisol, liver enzymes, and creatine kinase, among others,” Cozzarelli said. Though she’s taking a break from running right now, she continues to test with InsideTracker four times a year, to make sure that the supplements she’s taking are working and to stay on top of any other issues that might pop up.
“From all of the years of testing with them I have learned that my body is not invincible and stress, whether it be physical or mental, has a profound effect on the body,” she said. “In my most recent test (more on that here), I expected that my stress hormone, cortisol, would be way down without running, but I also recently had to put my dog down unexpectedly. We then adopted two new rescue pups… When I got my results back, my cortisol was still on the high side. I took from it that just because I am not training doesn’t mean I’m keeping my stress levels in check, so I need to practice mindfulness much more often.”
Tianna Bartoletta: Bartoletta, who has earned three Olympic gold medals, has long paid attention to her blood work because she has a family history of high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer, and she wanted to know as much as possible about what was going on in her body. Her most recent round of testing with InsideTracker revealed that her cholesterol and cortisol levels are high and, after a blood transfusion and several iron infusions, she is still anemic. But armed with this information, she can make informed adjustments. “Most athletes guess at their deficiencies, or choose supplements because they ‘think’ they need them,” Bartoletta said. “With so many variables on any given day that can determine whether you make the team or not, or leave with a medal or not, I’d rather take the guesswork out of all the things that I can absolutely know for sure.”
Sally Kipyego was born in Kenya but came to the U.S. to attend South Plains College, where she won seven NJCAA titles, before moving on to Texas Tech, where she added a record-tying nine NCAA titles. Kipyego earned silver medals in the 10,000m at the 2011 world championships and the 2012 Olympic Games for Kenya. She became a U.S. citizen in 2017, and became a mother later that year (after infamously finishing second at the 2016 New York City Marathon while she was unknowingly pregnant).
Kipyego, 34, has been open about her challenging return to fitness after giving birth, but in February, she proved herself to be one of the best marathoners in the U.S., finishing third at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, where she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
We caught up with Kipyego by phone last week, from her farm on the outskirts of Eldoret, Kenya. Kipyego had recently returned from a two-month trip to the U.S., to train with her Oregon Track Club teammates. She traveled without her husband, Kevin Chelimo, and 3-year-old daughter, Emma, and cut her stay about a week short, fearing that the lockdown in the U.K. and travel restrictions in Europe might prevent her from returning to Kenya. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Fast Women: Up until your early departure, how were things going in Oregon? Sally Kipyego: Everything was going fantastic. I like to go back to Oregon for training in the winter and to get my base going and hit the gym a little bit more. Just to have my coaching staff be able to observe and see things to work through for the next season. I traveled by myself. I left my family behind with my three-year-old.
Is it hard being away from your family for such a long stretch of time? It’s so difficult. My husband and I have had our own ways of being away from each other, but now that we have a little one, it’s different, and I hadn’t been away from Emma for that long before. I think the longest I’d been away from her was two weeks, so this was a long stretch. It was difficult emotionally. But it kind of just makes you want to work a little bit harder to make it worth it. It was definitely hard. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again any time soon.
Is the plan to stay in Kenya for a while? Is it hard to make plans right now? We always have a tentative plan, so the plan is to go back to the U.S. around February, March, and April, but it depends what is happening with Covid. You can’t really plan anything right now. You plan and be flexible about it. If we can travel and races are not canceled, I think we’ll be able to travel back to the U.S. as a family maybe late February, unless I can race before that.
What kind of races would you ideally be running? Initially I was going to train for the Boston Marathon, but then that was canceled. I also thought I was going to run the Houston Marathon, but that was canceled, too. At this point, I’m just kind of getting ready for whatever is available. I don’t think I’ll do a spring marathon, I think we’ll stick with half marathons, 10Ks, just to kind of get some speed going and get a little bit quicker on my feet before we build up for the Olympics. I haven’t really been training for a marathon. I’ve been training [for] 10Ks and half marathons. I have tried to stay away from the grind of marathon training, just to make sure that when I get going again to get ready for the Olympics, I will be fresh and ready.
How is the Covid situation in Kenya? How does it compare to what you were seeing in the U.S.? It’s better than the U.S. for sure. The cases are not as terrible, the cases are not as high. It is still rising, so we haven’t gotten to a point where it has stabilized yet, but compared to other places in the world, it’s much better. We live in the outskirts of Eldoret, and we try to stay away from the cities. We feel pretty safe out here, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. Things are pretty laid back and we avoid going to the city as much as possible.
Do you have any training partners there at all? At the moment, I’m just training by myself. My husband and I sometimes run together, but mostly by myself. I might run into one or two neighbors and we go for a run, but not necessarily as a training group.
When you’re in Oregon, do you have people to train with much? Or are you doing different things because of your varying events? I work out with the boys, I work out with Hanna Green a lot, and some of the 800m and 1500m guys. I really didn’t train by myself in Oregon, I always had company, so that’s something I’m missing a bit. Even though they run the 800m, I still help them with the strength stuff and they help me with the speed.
Have you had any trouble staying motivated this year, without races? It has been difficult. I really shouldn’t even say “difficult,” because too many people are having such a difficult year. The uncertainty, I would say, is the difficult thing, because we’re not able to plan for anything. I think most of us elite athletes tend to be very plan-oriented. We plan for things way in advance and when the calendar is blank, it’s kind of difficult.
I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to train for nothing, basically. I always plug races into my schedule one or two years out, and just to look in my calendar right now and have nothing in there, it’s kind of difficult on your psyche. At the same time, I know I have a race coming up, when the Olympics happen, so that gets me up. I’ve found ways to stay motivated and push myself a little bit more.
How different is your daily schedule when you’re in Kenya compared to Oregon? It’s very similar. My coach and I speak every weekend or so to catch up and see how the workouts are going and plan for the next week’s sessions. My schedule is the same, it’s just different here because I live on a farm. I do things other than run. I find myself quite busy on this other end of the world. In Oregon, I can relax, watch Netflix, and kind of just chill. Especially during the winter. While here, it’s warm and sunny and bright and all day long, I find myself on my feet more than I should. I find myself doing things that I normally wouldn’t do in Oregon because of my settings, my settings are completely different. I’m keeping chickens and I have a garden…you know.
How much of the farm work are you doing yourself? We have a lot of people helping, but you find yourself doing things here and there. My husband is really into it, he’s really the farmer, but I find it difficult to stay still and recover the proper way. I have to force myself to actually recover and sit still.
I saw your post about voting, was it exciting to vote in your first presidential election? Oh yes, absolutely. I figured I was going to be in Oregon, that was something I had to do and I had to get a photo. It was just a drop-off, but I felt like that was a huge moment. It’s good to vote in a presidential election for the first time.
When you talked toRunner’s World in April, you sounded disappointed about your Olympic Trials race, is that an accurate assessment? Did you feel like you underperformed there? Yes, I did. And I mentioned in that interview that I know it’s difficult to say I’m disappointed, because I made the Olympic team. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. The point was that I was disappointed because I felt that I was fitter than that and I felt like I was ready. I came into the Trials basically to win. More than anything, I was surprised that I didn’t perform as well as I thought I would because I felt really ready, I felt really fit. Was it a case of me having a rough day or was the course harder? But I looked at the competitors and a lot of people struggled, so maybe it was the course, maybe it was me. I made the team, and that’s huge, but I also wanted to win, and I felt that I was ready.
You mentioned on Lindsey Hein’s podcast that you’d like to win a world marathon major title and an Olympic gold medal. Is that what you’re focusing on now? Before I retire, I would like to win Olympic gold and a world marathon major. I have an Olympic silver medal and I’ve finished second at a world marathon major, so it would be nice to just top those two.
The women’s field [for the Olympic marathon] is just ridiculous. There are athletes that are running incredible times right now. So it can be daunting and almost intimidating when you’re training to race against those women, but you have to approach it from that mindset. For example, I’m probably going to be running against someone who has run 10 minutes faster than I have. That’s just scary even to think about it, but at the same time, this is a championship and anything can happen. Wild things happen. All you need to do is be competitive on the day. I’m trying to be in the best position to be competitive and when the opportunity presents itself, you might surprise yourself. You’ve talked about your pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum struggles before and I really appreciate that, because we don’t always hear as many of those stories. When did you really start to feel like things were clicking for you again? It took maybe 14 or 15 months. It felt like I struggled for so long. I always write everything down, and looking at that, I was making progress, I just didn’t feel like I was making progress, because it was difficult. I didn’t have one of those stories that you have a child, a few months later you come back and by the time your child is one year old, you’re running really well. That wasn’t my story. It was a difficult one because my body kind of resisted, to be honest. It basically was fighting in every possible way. I raced when she was nine months and I ran a 10K in Boston, I think it was 34:09 or 34:10. It was an okay showing, but I felt nothing like myself.
Is there anything you can take from the whole experience, or anything you would have done differently, in retrospect? I expected a lot of different things. I read a lot of things, I over-planned for things, and I expected things to be different. I was surprised and I was kind of caught off guard by what happened. First of all, I thought I was going to be able to run through my pregnancy, because I’d seen all these women run through their pregnancy and do really well. I thought, “Surely I’ll be fine, my body’s feeling okay, I’ll be able to do it.” It turns out I couldn’t. Every time I would try to run, I would have so many issues, so I had to stop around 18 weeks of my pregnancy. That was a surprise. I think in the future, I might go in with a more open-minded approach that maybe I might not even be able to train.
Another thing is that I wish I had a personal trainer after I gave birth, because I had so many weaknesses in so many areas, in my hips and pelvis, because so much movement happens during pregnancy and childbirth. You get a lot of changes. And I just wish that I had someone look at me, and I wish I had the specific strength training, because I was back to doing normal things that I did before having Emma, and looking back, maybe I should have done more specific things to get my body strong to be able to handle the training. At the same time, we are all different. You can’t read one story and think that’s normal. I want to make sure to ask you your thoughts on the racial reckoning that the U.S. has been experiencing since May. Were you in the U.S. while the protests were at their peak? I wasn’t, but everywhere in the world, we read about it. It was a difficult time, but a very necessary time. It’s time. It’s time for that, it needed to be addressed, and I hope that we get better as a country. I hope that we move forward and we just become better—better human beings to each other, more considerate, more inclusive. I just hope that all this is not in vain. I hope that real change will happen.
Did any of it cause you to reflect differently on the experiences you’ve had living in the U.S.? I remember you saying on Lindsey Hein’s podcast that you didn’t have a lot of shoe contract offers coming out of college. Is that something you would attribute to racism? No one ever made a judgment based on skin color when I lived in Africa. I didn’t even realize that there were conditions that came with that until I was in the U.S. and I realized, “Oh, there are some expectations, some connotations, that come with me being a Black woman.” And most of them were not positive, most of them were negative. You start learning these cues and you start realizing what society is always thinking about you.
Obviously I’ve experienced unfairness, even coming out of college, I didn’t have a lot of companies that wanted to sign me. I don’t know if that had to do with my color or whatever. But I feel like, just based on how I was performing, I was running really well. Probably if I was a different-looking kind of girl…but I don’t know, I can’t speak on that. But society [needs to] acknowledge that we are all equal and we all deserve whatever’s on the table.
I’m raising a Black child who is American. I hope that down the road, she doesn’t have to fight so hard to just be acknowledged and just to be like everyone else. I hope it gets better both for her and her children.
Are there ways in which you think the running industry can do better? I think the running industry can help. It’s huge what we tell young girls and young boys. When you print a poster or you print a magazine, and all of the images are of white women, it’s very difficult for a Black little girl, an Indian little girl, or an Asian little girl or boy to look at those images and recognize themselves. They’re not reflected in anything, so it’s really important that the running industry is inclusive of everyone else. That way the upcoming generation can see themselves.
I think shoe companies can try to be more diverse. If you have athletes who can compete, try to give out those opportunities to a more diverse group of people. That promotes the younger generation to see themselves in the older generations. Speaking of representation in magazines, there’s been some coverage of your story, but not a ton since you made the U.S. Olympic team. Are you avoiding the spotlight somewhat, or are people not reaching out? I don’t avoid it. I don’t think I turn down interviews, I talk to the people that want to talk to me and the people that are interested in having a chat. I’m always up for a chat. So no, I don’t turn anything down. But I also wouldn’t just want to be put somewhere just for the sake of saying, “Oh, we have a Black woman.” Different people, different companies, and different magazines, they have a following and they have their own objectives and goals.Whatever they want to promote, whatever they want to show, whatever they want to share, that’s their say. So if someone felt they wanted to talk to me about something, that’s fantastic. I think that I would be open to that, but that’s their call. But I’m perfectly fine, trust me. I live on a farm in Kenya (laughs). How do you feel about social media? I am terrible—that’s maybe another reason why I’m not being interviewed that much, because I am never present anywhere. As you can tell if you follow me on social media anywhere, I’m not good at it, it’s the last thing that ever occurs to me. After one month, I have to remind myself, “Oh, you might want to share something.” I don’t remember it, I don’t think about it. On the list of things on my plate, it just doesn’t occur to me. And I know it’s part of the job, you’re supposed to do these things, but oh God, I am terrible and it’s a real struggle.
That’s funny, I feel the same way. But at the same time, I also enjoy following some of the people who are more reluctant to post, because when they do post, it’s often refreshing and not the same as what everyone else is posting. I imagine the photos you could take in Kenya. Seeing your day-to-day life would be so interesting. It’s not. It’s me chasing chickens (laughs). The thing with social media, for me personally, I am really happy to sit in a corner and I hibernate. People that know me know this. Especially when I’m really getting ready for a big race, I tend to hibernate. I hide away and I don’t want anything to do with anyone. I do that for months at a time. That’s my life, that’s living for me, and any time I have to come out of that it’s like, “Ohhh, we have to do this again.” I like my hiding. I thrive in that. I thrive in getting away and not being bothered by anyone. So I actually feel like my life is quite boring. What am I going to tell you about? I have nothing to tell everyone all day long every day, twice a day, I really don’t.
Do you look at social media much? I look at social media, especially for my news. I mean you shouldn’t really be getting your news from social media, but I feel like if I want to catch up on what’s happening, I’ll scroll through social media for like 20 minutes so I know what’s happening in the world, and then I kind of throw my phone away. I always leave my phone in the house and I rarely look at it and I always have a ton of missed calls, because I’m never really close to it. That’s just habit, and it’s not like I don’t care about people, I just forget about it.
I shared an article about whereabouts failures in Kenya a while back and Aliphine Tuliamuk commented that her schedule is more predictable when she’s in the U.S., but there’s more spontaneity when she’s in Kenya. The article mentioned that some athletes in Kenya don’t have addresses. Having lived in both places, would you say it’s harder to stay on top of keeping drug testers informed of your whereabouts while in Kenya? Yes, I can see that. It’s more difficult here. Like you said, there’s no physical address, so you’re basically kind of suggesting where you live by either describing the home you’re living in or the neighborhood you’re living in. On top of that, there’s a lot of movement in Kenya. Kenya’s the size of Texas and you can just go between Iten and Eldoret without even thinking about it. That can sometimes be problematic for people, because you might go to the village, and that becomes even more difficult, trying to describe where you are. And in the remote areas, you might not have connections, your phone reception is bad.
In the U.S., that is almost a non-factor for me, because I have a specific address. If you’re training at a track, you know you’ll be at Hayward Field. That’s easy, it’s clear. But when I’m in Kenya, I don’t know. Sometimes it rains and if I go to a dirt track and it’s wet and muddy, I might have to go somewhere else. There are a lot of factors. I can see why it can be problematic, but you just have to be diligent. I just have to be on top of it, more than anything. I have weekly reminders to remind me where I’ll be for the week. You just have to do it, it’s your number one job. As an athlete, if you really care about your integrity, there’s no option about it. As much as it’s challenging, and I can sympathize and understand that, you have to be on top of it.
What is Emma up to all day? She keeps us on our toes. She’s very active. She runs around and she has a lot of space to do so, so she never sits still as well. The only time she’s indoors is for meals and sleep (laughs). Just to eat and sleep and nothing in-between. She’s loving it. And we have a lot of people around us, a lot of family and a lot of help. It’s just fun, and she’s at a really good age right now where she’s just exploring a lot of different things. This is a good environment for her for sure.
Is she bilingual? We have not actually spoken English to her at home. We are just starting now to introduce English at the house. Right now she communicates in Swahili. We wanted her to learn a first language before she speaks English.
Do you ultimately have plans to settle in one country or the other once Emma’s in school? I hope we get to go back and forth, we really like that. Now I feel like we spend more time in Kenya because it is more convenient for our family to do so, but I think when she gets a little older, we’ll probably spend more time in the U.S., and that’s a huge privilege for us. We would love to be able to go back and forth and just have both worlds for our children and our family; that would be fantastic.