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.

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