A few minutes with Morgan Uceny

Morgan Uceny, 25, runs the 1500 and 800 and trains with Terrence Mahon’s group in Mammoth Lakes, CA. A former basketball player (she’s pretty tall, even sitting down), she went on to place fourth in the 1500 and sixth in the 800 at the the 2008 Olympic Trials. This year she won the USA Indoor Championships with a 4:19.46, among other distinctions. Her personal bests are 4:02.10 and 1:58.67. If 2008 was the breakout year for American women in the 1500, then 2010 has been the year for American women to make big gains in the 800. Uceny has been among those leading the charge.

What do you think of the Caster Semenya controversy?
It’s obviously a tough question. I don’t think there’s a right answer for that. It’s just a really tough situation. I think there’s some unfairness in the playing field. I haven’t ever seen anyone make the progression that she has. So it just seems like something else is going on that’s unfair for the rest of the playing field. No one knows what’s going on. There’s no information, so that just makes it more frustrating for the everybody involved.

How do you deal with the stress of traveling to all those races on the European circuit — things like logistics, jet lag, nutrition — how do you keep all that from impacting your performance?
Some people are terrible with traveling. I happen to be lucky. I don’t get jetlagged; I can adapt to the new timezone overnight. It doesn’t really stress me out. Now I’m usually traveling with my coach or also with my teammates. That really helps alleviate the stress, because I’m with a group — if you don’t really know where you’re going, someone else does. So it’s really not that bad anymore.

Do you get a chance to enjoy the places that your visiting, or are you just flying through them and running and that’s it?
Switzerland’s one of my favorite countries. But when we were in Zurich we were near the airport and didn’t really have a way to get into town. So I didn’t really get to see anything, which was frustrating. But in other places I’ve had a couple days where I could take a day trip. I was in Italy two years ago and went to Venice for the day. So, it’s better in some places than others. But I think you do need to make an effort to get out of the hotel and see what’s around you. That just makes you enjoy the experience that much more.

In the past few years it seems like the paces set for the the Grand Prix races have been set up to be very fast. Was that the case again this year?
Yes, it’s still the case. I had maybe one unpaced race at Gateshead, the 1500. And, honestly, it’s great to get out there and know that you’re going to have a fast pace. So it’s a good opportunity to run fast. But I think our sport is relying too much on pacers these days. I think we need to have more races without pacers. It’s more exciting when you just have a race. It’s not just people lined up, trying to run a certain time.

Is European racing as rough and tumble as they say it is?
Yes and no. If you look at the American runners, people are aggressive. But it is different in Europe. People will be, like, pushing your hip. Or there’s all this jockeying going on.

Sometimes it looks like the American runners are just trying to stay out of the way, whereas the European and African runners seem to be, as you say, almost trying to guide people. I imagine it’s kind of a shock the first time you experience it.
Right. When you get into those races you can kind of tell who’s in control. It’s kind of distracting, though, meaning it takes your mind off the pain. You’re watching your space and making sure someone’s not trying to cut you off. It’s kind of like a game when you’re out there.

Do you think that to race middle distances you have to have an exceptionally high pain threshold? It’s an unusual level of pain compared to something like the marathon.
But, see, with the marathon — that’s pain for a long time. The 1500 is even different from running the 800. It’s painful, but you’re running the first couple laps and thinking, “Oh, this is okay.” Then it starts slowly creeping in, the lactic acid. By the end, it’s really painful. It’s a little different for each event. But our workouts are usually harder, so you’re callousing yourself to those pain levels. It’s always painful, but at the end of the day it’s worth it when you have a good performance.

What do you do for fun?
Living in Mammoth Lakes, CA — it’s one of these beautiful outdoor towns. We’ll go on little hikes, or fishing or paddleboating. Or maybe we’ll just all sit around and play board games or card games. It’s sort of like we’re all living senior citizen lifestyles sometimes. “We’re gonna play Uno tonight? I’m so excited!” Alistair Cragg and I got a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and we thought, “This is going to take us so long. It’ll be great to have something to distract us…” And it was done in four days.

What you do then is flip the puzzle over and do it upside down.
[Laughs and looks incredulous]

Have you ever tried snowshoe running?
I haven’t.

It’s really hard.
It’s like walking, right?

Yes. I respect snowshoe racers.
[Looks incredulous again] They race?

Yeah. It’s really big in New Hampshire.
I feel like your hip flexors would be so stressed. What distances to they do? All distances?

The national championships are usually 10K and 5K.
Have you done it?

I ran in snowshoes a couple of times and it wasn’t for me.
Just enough to earn their respect. Anyone who does that…

I already feel slow enough. I didn’t need that.
[Laughs]

Houston Hopefuls go all Hollywood on us

Okay, not really. No battles for movie rights yet. But I will be appearing with some of these amazing runners on Wednesday, October 20th on The Runners Round Table podcast. The tentative list includes: Julie Wankowski, Tammy Lifka, Jaymee Marty, Jen Hitchings and Lori Kingsley. To listen in, register at TalkShoe.com ahead of time. The show number is: 34812

More info here: RRT 103: Houston Hopefuls

Congratulations, Jaymee.

For those who may have missed it, inaugural Houston Hopeful Jaymee Marty just qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials this morning in Chicago.

Many of us among her virtual fan base sat glued to our monitors this morning, frantically hitting “Refresh” every 19-20 minutes to get her 5K splits. She faked us out with some slight slowing in the last few miles. What a drama queen. Final time: 2:45:09.

Having followed Jaymee’s blog for a couple of years, and been the beneficiary of more than one helpful and encouraging comment and email, I am over the moon today with her accomplishment. I hope she savored the moment at the finish line, as this was an achievement both hard won and well deserved.

Joe has posted the anxiety-ridden blow by blow from the Facebook peanut gallery who were tracking Jaymee’s splits.

New Houston Hopeful Interview: Julie Wankowski

“Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on your goals; take it day by day; and never doubt that you can do it.”

If these aren’t words fit to live by, then I give up.

Houston Hopefuls > Julie Wankowski

Posts I wish I’d written

From my friend TK over at Pigtails Flying: An Open Letter to a Fall Marathoner

New Houston Hopeful interview: Tamara Karrh

Tamara embodies a kind of runner that I was just talking about yesterday with Coach Sandra: she is a runner who has moved her status from recreational to elite without losing her love of running in the process. Once you step up training and start having to work it around other life commitments — of which Tamara has many, including four young kids — it’s easy to start to experience training as a grind, a burden. As Tamara says, “A lot of it is just the love of it. I love the training…it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to each and every day.”

I should note that Tamara is no longer technically a “hopeful”: she qualified for the Trials with a 2:40:22 last fall. This weekend she’s going for the A standard, a 2:39:00 or better.

For the full interview: Houston Hopefuls > Tamara Karrh

New elite masters blog: Susan Loken’s Running Journey

Susan Loken (who I believe is 46) is a three-time winner of the USA Masters Marathon Championships and a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. She was one of the first fast amateurs who I became aware of, because she passed me during my first marathon, the 2007 More race in Central Park. She didn’t just pass me — she practically singed the hair on my arms off, she was going so fast. I did some reading about her after that race and was inspired to find that, like me, she’d taken up running late in life. Unlike me, she’s gotten a lot faster (and at a much faster rate).

On a lark, I got in touch with her to see if she was trying for a third Trials qualifier and if she’d be willing to be interviewed for the Houston Hopefuls project. The good news: Yes and Yes. The better news: Susan started a blog earlier this summer to document her own progress of building up for this goal after two-odd years of taking something of a hiatus from competing at her usual high level.

Read on: Keep Believing: Susan Loken’s Running Journey

New Houston Hopeful interview: Heather May

This one’s with a twist: Heather has qualified for and raced in the Olympic marathon Trials twice already, making her our first “Trials veteran” in the series. Yet her experience has not dampened her enthusiasm for going after a threepeat. Having become a marathoner as much out of ignorance (“I’ve run 10 miles. Now what do I do?”) as out of a desire to qualify for the Trials, Heather’s path as a Trials-calibre runner has been both fraught with peril and filled with opportunities for self discovery.

For the full interview: Houston Hopefuls > Heather May

A few minutes with Lornah Kiplagat

Lornah Kiplagat, 36, has been absent from the racing scene for awhile, but she’s back. She has excelled at distances from the 5K to the marathon, and has continued to race competitively across that distance spectrum throughout her career. She holds four world records for road racing: 5K, 10M, 20K and half marathon. Originally from Kenya, she has been a Dutch citizen since 2003. The Mini 10K was one in a series of post-surgery “comeback” races for Kiplagat. A four-time winner of that event, she’d hoped for a fifth title and was leading for the first half of the race before being overtaken by the eventual winner, Linet Masai. Kiplagat would finish fourth.

You’ve been running fast forever. How have you managed to have such a consistent career?
I think it’s just good planning. Good support, the right people around you. And a lot of running. So if I can also do that as a career, then you like to do that extra.

After setting the world record for the half in Udine, Italy, 2007.

What’s it like to have a tulip named after you?
It’s nice. How did you know about that?

I went to one of your sites and there was a story about that. I thought that was pretty neat.
Yes, it was nice of the Dutch that they did that for me. They mentioned this to me about seven years ago, even more. They thought it was a good idea, and they started preparation for it. Because it takes a long time. But it finally came out. It’s a very funny flower because it’s very strong. We have tulips and home and normally tulips don’t last long. They were lasting like for three weeks!

That’s very appropriate for a marathoner.
Yeah. Tulips normally just wither down.

Do you train in Holland?
Yes. But mostly in Kenya. Because of the altitude. It’s nice in Holland in the summer. I like it. But in the winter, it’s better in Kenya, for sure.

I was reading about your High Altitude Training Centre in Kenya. It seems like the focus has become less on athletics and more on academics.
The focus is really both. But we’re more into giving opportunities to top athletes all over the world. So they are able to train there.

Did you always have it in your head that you wanted to start something like this?
It was with a group of people. We have one guy in Kenya that’s selecting students. And they are staying in my place. They get coaching. They also get to study there. After that, they can come to America. We do it with four people. My part is to coach them — not so much to coach them, but to motivate them. So it works really good. They are boys and girls, top students from high school.

Is your foundation still focused on AIDS prevention and AIDS education?
Yeah. We are growing, actually. We’re starting up a high school for 300 girls. The training camp was so small. We could do only 12-15 girls.

How did you manage to grow it so quickly?
We’ve not yet gotten funding, but we have the plans for doing that.

How do you select who gets into the school?
They have to meet a certain academic level. And they all have to be doing something in sport. Football, hockey, running.

Do they have to maintain a certain level of academic consistency to remain in the school?
Yes. They have to. You know, they come there and they go down…we want them to come there and go even higher. Academically and in sport. This would be a boarding school. Before we didn’t have a school. They would only stay there during holidays. They could go to schools all over Kenya. They’d come to us in August and December, but it was not enough. It was too short to do something. Finally, I said, “I’m doing something, but it’s not enough.” So we needed to put [together] a better structure. We hope the first class will be 2013. It’s nearby the altitude training center. We’re trying to get the funding, but even if we don’t get it, it will still happen with our own money. I’ve got the ground to build the school already. It’s 18 hectares. That was the hardest part — getting the ground.

What made it so difficult? Finding the right place?
That and getting the right ground in such a place is almost impossible anymore. Getting a space that big. I had to move four families.

Was that difficult? Did they not want to leave?
No, it was an opportunity for them. If they give me one acre of land, then I have to buy them two and a half somewhere else. But in a nice place, where they can really farm. And still with some money on top of that. So they saw it as an opportunity to get more land. That was the most difficult part, and now that’s done. So the rest — putting up the buildings — is not a big deal for me. If we get funding, it will go quicker. If we don’t, it will go slower. But still, it will happen.

Do people know that you’re doing this project? Do people at these things ask you about it?
I don’t even talk about it. When I see that you’re interested, I talk about it. But normally I don’t even mention it.

No, I ask because I was surprised. I did some research on you yesterday. I know you as a runner but had no idea you were heading up all these other projects.
I don’t think most people are interested. They just want to see how the running will be. This is for my own good feeling. I don’t want to be just a runner and then pass by. I want to be a runner, but establish my roots. You want to know where you came from and where you end, what you brought to influence society. That’s what we [with husband/coach Pieter Langenhorst] do. Pieter supports me very well with this work. He’s the one making things happen. Sometimes you can be together, but if the other partner doesn’t have the same motivation, it doesn’t work. For us, it works very well.

I came across an interview with you a few years ago in which you were describing your experience of going to one of your first races in Kenya. You slept in a bathroom. There was basically no support. Have things improved in the last 18 years?
Yeah. It’s improved a lot. It’s like day and night.

Yes, it was really shocking.
It’s quite impossible now to have that kind of experience. There are so many athletes now, so many girls. Girls running now is a normal thing.

Is it still one of the biggest professional opportunities there?
Absolutely. In the last 10 years, it’s grown like crazy.

Can I ask you about your running, or are you tired of answering questions about that?
No, it’s okay.

You’ve been coming back with some shorter races. Are you planning on returning to the marathon?
I will build up slowly now, since I am coming back from injury. But end up at the marathon.

Do you have one in mind?
Not yet.

As you’ve moved into your thirties, have you found that you need more recovery between hard workouts?
Yes.

Are you doing two workouts a week now? Or three?
I run, of course, every day. I do speed work three times a week. But not very sharp, though.

What kind of mileage are you doing right now?
70-80 miles a week. Not a lot.

What do you get up to when you’re peaking in your training for the marathon?
If I’m going for the marathon, for sure over 100.

Do you think after you turn 40 that you’ll keep competing?
No, I think I will just go to easy running. But not competing. It depends.

Because a lot of women are running well into their forties.
I’m not far from 40…

That’s why I’m asking.
I will just see how it will go.

If you scale back the running, will you spend more time on these other projects?
Yeah. That’s like my baby.

Do you think doping is widespread in women’s distance running?
No, I don’t believe it. Because I know most of the women in distance running and most of them are really clean.

I know it was bad in the eighties. A lot of the Chinese times, people don’t even really count because it’s assumed they were all on something.
And it is possible [to excel without drugs]. It’s just a matter of training hard. Simple. No shortcuts. Knowing most of the girls in long distance, you can tell that they train hard. Even in competition, you can see somebody who you can say, “Hey, something is wrong.” So it happens, but it’s not common.

Do you train by heart rate?
No.

How do you know how hard to run?
I used a GPS watch. Every kilometer, I know what speed I’m running and I feel. So if I’m running under 4:00 per K, and I’m feeling good.

Do you race with a GPS?
Sometimes [Kiplagat wore her Garmin 310xt at the Mini 10K]. When I’m not sure, I race with a GPS.

A lot of people are funny about it. They think it’s cheating, that you have an advantage over other people in the race. Or they assume that elites never use them.
No. It’s no different with a watch. Every kilometer, you can see [the split]. What’s the difference? There’s no difference.

A few minutes with Adriana Pirtea

Adriana Pirtea, 29, was a surprise showing at the Mini 10K press event. She wasn’t on the roster, so I hadn’t researched her. But I knew three things about her: she’s originally from Romania, she lives and trains in Colorado (Fort Collins), and she was nipped in the last 50 meters by Berhane Adere at the 2007 Chicago Marathon, where Pirtea’s mistake was celebrating her win too early at what, up until that moment, had been a dream debut at the distance. Since dredging up a bad memory is a terrible way to get someone to open up to you, I decided to not mention Chicago (even though I was dying to). Instead, I decided try out some of the more oddball questions I had, to see what I’d get. One piece of exciting news: Pirtea is going to become a US citizen in November, so we’ll have another very fast import soon.

10th, London 2008, with a 2:28.

What do you think about when you’re racing?
Many things. When you’re in a race, you know how you’ve prepared and what kind of speed you want to go. If you’re thinking about the marathon, then it’s a long way. I actually have almost no time to think of anything else but just to keep myself in the rhythm.

So you’re in the moment when you’re running.
Yes. I just watch my competitors. If I struggle a little bit, I try to come back. If I go too fast, just go back in the rhythm so I don’t waste my energy too much. That’s kind of it. It’s almost like you think too much of the race over the moment. People say, “Do you think of everything you’ve done in your life in the marathon?” It’s not like that. It’s just keeping your body motivated and being able to keep the pace up to the end of the race.

Are you breaking the race up into different sections, or are you running mile by mile?
You know, it depends. A couple races were such a tactical race, very slow. Sometimes you feel very fit and trained. This might be a mistake, to stay at a slow pace. It happened to me a couple of times, and I blamed myself. Why didn’t I go faster, to make my own pace? But sometimes a race can be a fartlek, where people try to get rid of the other ones. Most of the time, it’s a good race if — like Magdalena [in Rotterdam] — you can be pretty steady all the time, if possible.

When did you start running in Romania?
I was 17 years old when I started running. I started improving very quickly and I got a chance to get a scholarship to run here [for University of Texas, El Paso] just a few years after I started running.

Did you specialize in a certain distance when you first started?
I kind of jumped from one to another one, because that’s the way the championships were going there. So I’d be running 1500 or 3000 indoor and then a half marathon and then 5000. So all over.

Do you have a favorite?
I have a favorite when I run well.

It’s funny how that happens.
Yes. Because I did my debut a couple years ago in the marathon. It was a great marathon for me. And so I liked it that day. A year later, when I didn’t do too well — don’t ask me, because I was like, “This is not for me.” But everybody’s saying, “This is for you. You have to go for the marathon.” I used to love being on the track sometimes, and right now [I'm] losing the speed. So I have to stick with the marathon and half marathon right now, because that’s probably where I can perform better.

If you couldn’t be a runner, do you have other things you’d like to do?
I think I just love running. Before I started running, I was a dancer. I was dancing for my school. That was a really cool thing. I started running because my teammate had to lose some weight. She was about to get kicked off the team. So I said, “I’m going with you. We’re going to go run, you’re going to lose weight, and you’re going to be back there.” When I took her there, she didn’t want to run. She was embarrassed.

So my dad talked to the coach and he’s like, “Okay, you have to run now.” And so I just glued to the group of guys and stayed with them and I was so relaxed. And they were saying, “Slow down…” and I was like, “No, I feel good.” At the second training session they said, “Uh, we have a cross country race in two weeks. Do you want to run it?” It was a short distance, only 1500 meters. And I was like, “Okay, I’m running.” And I won the race so easily. And they said, “You have to stay in this sport.” And I said, “Okay, I’m staying.”

I think that’s called “destiny.”
Yes, I think so too.

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