Two weeks ago, Erin Ward, ran 2:48:18 at the Houston Marathon. While the 32-year old St. Paul resident narrowly missed the Olympic Trials “B” standard of 2:47, her time was nearly a 5-minute PR. Erin was also recently awarded a MEADP Grant to help assist in her development.
Subconsciously, I think Erin is somewhat responsible for the creation of this site. I few years ago we were both struggling to break the 3-hour barrier. Then all the sudden, Erin had a huge breakthrough. Though I only met her once, briefly, I emailed her to find out her “secrets.” She sent me a very long, detailed response of all the things she thought helped her. I still have that email in my in-box today. Anyway, I probably figured if Erin was willing to share that information with me, other runners probably would be too. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Kruduba)
Congratulations on your performance at the Houston Marathon. The good news is you PRd by 4:41. The bad news is you missed the Olympic Trials “B” standard (sub-2:47) by 1:19. How do you feel about that?
Thanks, Chad! I was thrilled with my race. I consider my result to be 99% good news and only 1% bad news. I had quite a few minor setbacks during my preparation for Houston: a mild hip injury, low-grade anemia, and some over-training/fatigue issues. My confidence was pretty low, and I even considered withdrawing from the race about a month before.
I talked with Dennis Barker, my coach, and he managed to convince me that my training from the Chicago Marathon had given me a strong base, and also that many athletes have great performances after injuries or illnesses. So I decided to proceed with an “anything can happen” attitude, and I was so glad that I did. I had a wonderful experience in Houston. Now I hope to run the standard at Grandma’s in June, and achieving this significant PR was a big step toward that ultimate goal.
Since you were so close to qualifying, were you “doing the math” during the final miles? When did you realize you weren’t quite going to get the standard?
There wasn’t really any point during the race that I thought that I had the standard wrapped up. I think that was a good thing, because that way when I fell off the pace a little during the final miles I didn’t panic or have a moment of crushing disappointment. I was doing my best to stay with the 2:47 pace group—I knew that if I dropped behind, it would be too easy to slow down, so I just forced myself to keep up for as long as I could. The race volunteers at the mile markers were calling out what pace we were on rather than the overall elapsed time, which was unbelievably helpful. I would encourage all races to do the same, because unless you’ve memorized 26 split times, pace means more than time. I was hearing a lot of “6:22s and 6:23s” through mile 20, and then when I heard a “6:24” I knew that I was slowing a bit.
What can you tell us about Greg McMillan’s program of helping Americans qualify for the trials? Were you happy with the pace setters, the pack of women trying to qualify, etc.?
Greg’s program is one of the two factors (my coach being the other) that allowed me to run such a significant PR. Our lodging, food and race fees were paid for, which left me responsible for only my travel expenses. I probably would have skipped a winter marathon if I had to pay for everything myself. There were two men who were responsible for pacing the group to a 2:47 (6:22 pace), and they were great. I was told, our fastest mile was around 6:13 and our slowest around 6:29 (I don’t calculate mile splits myself). The pacers dropped out at 16 miles, and our group pretty much broke apart after that, which exemplifies how important pacers can be.
Two of the other women in the program, Jenna Boren and Melissa Gacek, are friends of mine, and we all ran together through the first half. It was so helpful to have friends there. I’ve run with Melissa before at Chicago, and she kindly told me in the first miles of the race at Houston to shut my mouth and stop chatting so much so I wouldn’t waste energy. Jenna was so comfortable with the pace that I liked watching her run because then I could delude myself into thinking we were running at a comfortable pace (if only for her). Greg’s program had every detail ironed out for the runners, so all we had to do was run fast. The volunteers in that program were tremendous. The best part, though, was that we had a big group of runners from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and we all had a great time together.
While most people would consider a (nearly) 5-minute PR a breakthrough, you’ve run 2:53 for 3 of your last 4 marathons – a span of over 2 year. Do you consider it a breakthrough or is it something you’ve been expecting for a while now?
My initial 2:53 was the breakthrough, because that was an 11-minute PR for me! I ran that race with exactly even splits, and it’s the best that I’ve ever felt in a marathon. The subsequent 2:53s were disappointments, because I was eyeing the standard in each of those races, went out hard, and then faded for one reason or another. I’ve felt capable of a sub-2:50 for some time now, but it was still a great feeling to finally do it.
Prior to your string of 2:53s you were stuck in the 3:04-3:13 range. What changes did you make to account for such a leap?
I was running the 3:13s on low mileage: weeks in the 50-mile range and long runs of 16 miles, with very little (if any) organized speed work. I decided to get serious and try to break three hours, I hired Dennis, increased my mileage into the 70s and 80s per week, ramped my long runs up to 20-plus miles, and added tempo runs and intervals.
It still took me awhile to get there. I remember declaring before Grandma’s one year that if I didn’t run a sub-three I was going to retire. I ran a 3:05, but I’m still running!
One of the neat things that happened before my 2:53 was that I was awarded elite status for the first time by the Twin Cities Marathon. My PR at that time was 3:04, and as I looked down the list of PRs for the elite women I saw that mine was the only one over three hours, and most were way faster than mine. I wonder if merely thinking of myself as belonging in that elite class had a big impact on me so well that day. I’m sure the 30 extra miles per week didn’t hurt, either.
Speaking of training, a couple of years ago you mentioned that Dennis Barker [Team USA Minnesota’s coach] was giving you advice. Are you still working together?
Yes, I credit Dennis for helping me to improve so much in the past couple of years. I got to know Dennis because I coached his two daughters in high school cross-country and track. When I decided that I wanted to get more serious about my training and racing, I approached Dennis and asked if he’d be willing to coach a “recreational” runner like me. Dennis has the perfect personality for me—he’s laid-back and funny, and always looks at the bright side. His coaching accomplishments aren’t too bad, either! It’s fun to know that I’m doing similar workouts as what Katie McGregor or Carrie Tollefson would be doing (just not as fast, of course!).
What kind of mileage and key workouts were you doing leading up to Houston?
I’ve been able to increase my highest weeks to around 100 miles. However, heading into Houston I was lucky to make it up the stairs to my third-floor apartment without stopping to catch my breath. I had a very difficult month or so with injuries and my health during the time in which I’m usually doing my most intense training. I do think that the preparation for Chicago must have stayed with me, because once I felt healthy again, it didn’t take long for my workouts to improve dramatically.
Dennis is a fan of taxing all systems at all times of the year; it’s the relative amount of aerobic to lactate threshold to VO2 to speed workouts that varies with the racing season, depending on the races that are the most important that year. My long runs are about three hours, and I’ll often try to throw in one-minute pick-ups during those to break things up a bit. I’ve also been doing a 5-6 x mile with 2 minute recovery workout the week before my marathons, and this workout usually gives me some confidence.
Can you point to differences in your training between your 2:53s and your 2:48?
I think the difference might have been the series of 100-mile weeks and intense workouts that I put in during the late summer, leading up to Chicago. I think I was actually fit enough to run the qualifying standard at Chicago, but the cold temperatures and the energy drink at the marathon conspired to make me throw up for the last 11 miles.
I think that the key for me at Houston was that I was very calm, ironically, because I didn’t put any pressure on myself due to my perceived lack of quality training. I just told myself to do the best I can, stay with the pace group as long as I can, and then hold on for a PR. I also tried to eat better, leading up to Houston. I’m notorious for my poor eating habits—plenty of junk food. I gained a few pounds, and I think I was stronger because of it.
Luckily the Trials aren’t until April 2008. What do you have planned between now and then?
TRAINING! I hope to put in a lot of mileage this winter and spring, do the little things that I need to do to stay healthy, run some fast spring races, have fun with the sport, and finally get this little matter of a sub-2:47 taken care of so that I can move onto other goals.
Did you run in college? If so, where?
My freshman year I ran at the University of St. Thomas, but I was injured for both the indoor and outdoor track seasons. I broke my foot and toddled around on crutches with my foot in a cast in January and February—cold toes! I transferred to Iowa State before my sophomore year, and I continued to struggle with a series of irritating injures that I couldn’t seem to shake. I just don’t think it was in the cards for me to be successful in my collegiate running career. I finally got so frustrated that I decided not to run my senior year. My coach at ISU told me once that he thought I would be one of those runners who excelled later in her career at longer distances. I guess he knew what he was talking about. I met some of my best lifelong friends on the Iowa State team, though, and I’ll always think of myself as a Cyclone.
What are your PRs?
10 Mile: 1:00:45
Do you have a favorite local and/or national race?
My favorite all-time race is the Living History Farms race in Urbandale, Iowa. It began with a hundred or so runners, and last November there were nearly 5,000 finishers. The course runs through cornfields, streams (one this year was thigh-deep) and up hills so steep and muddy that you have to pull yourself up with the aid of a rope. I try to do this race every year. I have only missed one or two years since I was a freshman in high school. I was almost as excited to win the race this year, for the first time in a dozen attempts, as I was with my 2:48 marathon! As far as marathons are concerned, I’ll always love the Minnesota races, Twin Cities and Grandma’s. They treat me well, and my friends and family can cheer me on and greet me at the finish line.
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
I’d like to run with Janice Ettle. She was a phenomenal runner, and she’s so modest you’d never even know that she ran, let alone how good she was. Carrie Tollefson lives about a block away from me, and I’ve run with her a couple of times. I typically treat those runs as races, and taper before them so that I don’t slow her down! I like to get together with the men and women of Run n Fun. I’d love to run with Jenna Boren more. I looked over at her during the Houston Marathon, during the first half of the race when she was takin’ it easy, and said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with you.” My favorite group ever, though, is the Baba Yaga Hood-to-Coast team. If you have to be in a small van with 6 women for over 20 hours straight on little to no sleep, those are the women you want with you (and one very patient male driver).
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?
I wish I’d had more perspective about the importance of running in my life during high school. It was so high-pressure for me that it wasn’t much fun sometimes. I started racing to not lose rather than racing to win, or racing for the pure love of racing. I lost so much joy for the sport because of it, and it took me years to find that joy again. Maybe if I’d known that I’d still be racing into my 30s I wouldn’t have taken every race so seriously! The best part of running has always been the friendships that I’ve formed as part of the running community, and that will always be true.