Tuesday, February 07, 2012


Leading up to the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon, Michelle Lilienthal was considered a dark horse by many. Her three previous attempts at the marathon saw her times drop from 2:49 to 2:35. Unfortunately, plantar fasciitis slowed her down and she struggled just to finish the event. Fast forward four years to the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston. The 29-year-old Minneapolis resident, ran one of the best races of the day. Her strategy of running even to negative splits allowed her to move all the way up to 22nd place. And her time of 2:37:03 was only 1:12 away from her 5+ year old PR. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Kryduba)

First off, congratulations on your performance at the Trials. It looks like you ran even splits. Was that the game plan going into the race?
The plan was to go out at a reasonable pace for the first half, get into a rhythm and then slowly work my way up the second half. My goal was to go out between 6 flat and 6:05 per mile for the first half and try to negative split the second half.

In your pre-race video on C Tolle Run, you mentioned thinking you could run around 2:33. Yet in your post-race video, you seem very pleased with your 2:37. Are you pleased because you haven’t been able to crack 2:42 during your last few marathons?
Yes! Oh my Gosh, my last few marathons have been pure frustration, so to be back within striking distance is such a nice reward for years of hard work that didn’t pay off. Going into the Trials I knew my training had gone phenomenally, better than ever, and I knew I was fit to PR. However, I’ve had a string of sub-par marathons over the past few years and I knew I’d be satisfied to just be back in the 2:30s and under the A-standard.

Let’s back up a little bit. You saw rapid improvement during your first 3 marathons, dropping from 2:49 to 2:40 to 2:35. Then you joined Team USA Minnesota and things didn’t go quite as planned. I know you had some plantar fasciitis problems leading up to the 2008 Trials, but was there more to it than that? Any ideas why you never improved while with the team?
My plantar injury was definitely a major set back. I couldn’t run consistently for almost an entire year and spent most of the year leading up to the Olympic Trials in 2008 cross training and extremely frustrated.

After the plantar injury healed, I made the common injured runner mistake: too much too soon. I just couldn’t wait to get fit again, get back to running high mileage, and crank out some PRs. I had a couple other small injuries over the next couple years. But the bottom line is when I joined the team, the training was completely different than what I was doing when I ran 2:35 and 1:12. It works for some people, but didn’t click with me. I was doing a lot of short 200 meter interval workouts and not enough of what works for me, which is long tempo intervals, long tempo runs, and a very occasional sprinkling of fast intervals.

You’ve been working with Chris Lundstrom since January of last year. What did you guys do that took you from 2:42 to 2:37?
Lundo is such a rock star. He is a scientist of the sport and really understands how to train to run a good marathon. He also really understands how to structure the entire training cycle in order to peak at the right time. We got back to the basics. I took a long break from workouts and competing after leaving the team to figure out what I wanted out of my running. During those three months I did nothing but run easy mileage and was consistently logging 90-100 miles a week. Once I started working out he had me doing more threshold runs, tempo runs, and long interval workouts. For example; 3x2 miles, 4-3-2-1 miles, 3x3 miles, and 8x1 mile. My “bread and butter” workout is a long tempo run of 10-13 miles starting a little slower than marathon goal pace and progressively getting faster with the last three miles balls to the wall.

While it’s been over 5 years since you PR’d at the marathon, the good news is that you are only 29 years old, which means you’ll be 33 when the next Trials roll around. Looking at the results from this year, half of the women in the top-10 were 33 or older. Is that something that’s already on your mind or is it too far away to think about?
Ha. No I am not thinking about the next trials in that way. For me the end all be all is not the Olympics. It’s running PRs, having a blast meeting the girls to run and do workouts, and winning races like the City Of Lakes 25k or Get in Gear. I’m excited to run many more good marathons, and if that qualifies me for 2016 and I finish in the top 10 or 20, that’s fantastic. But I’m pretty realistic, I’m not going to spend the next 4 years thinking about what I need to do to make an Olympic team.

What is next for you?
I have a bunch of races on the schedule for the spring, Gate River 15k in Jacksonville, the More Fitness half marathon in New York City, Get in Gear 10k, Garry Bjorklund half marathon, possibly Cherry Blossom and another 10k. I’d like to do New York City Marathon in the fall.

Your husband, Jacob, is a former member of Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. It must be nice to have the support of a former professional runner in your corner?
Yeah, Jacob has been really supportive. If you’ve never trained and competed at an elite level you really can’t understand the ups and downs of the sport. While I was injured and struggling to come back, it would have been extremely difficult to be with someone who at some point hadn’t been a professional runner himself and didn’t understand the struggle I was going through.

Neither of you are from Minnesota, but with Jacob running for Senate recently, is it safe to say that you’ll be here for a while?

Yeah that’s a safe bet. We both really love it here. Jacob loves being involved in the local political scene here and is excited about continuing to do good things in Minnesota. We actually met at the Twin Cities Marathon in the elite athlete technical meeting while we were both living in Philadelphia, and we got engaged at the Twin Cities Marathon host hotel where we met, so the Twin Cities is a special place to us.

If you could run with any Minnesota, past or present, who would it be?
This is a hard one. I can’t narrow it down between all the girls I train with now.

What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses?
I can be a metronome in the marathon, I can pick a pace, get into a rhythm and stick with it for 26 miles.

Hills are my weakness. During a race I can handle them OK, but my hill workouts are usually extremely ugly.

What are your PRs?
5K - 16:33
10K - 35:05
10M - 56:57
Half - 1:12:42
25K - 1:29:53
Marathon - 2:35:51

How did you get first get involved with running?
I played every sport as a child and loved tennis, soccer and volleyball. I was short and skinny and wasn’t very good at any of them. In high school I wanted to play sports but my high school was good at everything and it was very competitive to make a team. My freshman volleyball campaign was a success and I made the team. But sophomore year the team got cut in half and I knew I wouldn’t make it. I was the scrawniest player on the team and couldn’t overhand serve. The cross country team didn’t make cuts and my dad talked me into trying it. By the second meet I was the second runner on varsity and the rest is history.

What is your fondest running memory?
The Olympic Trials this year. It wasn’t my fastest race, but it was the most rewarding after so many frustrating years.

What do you wish you’d know when you first started running?
Injuries will come and go and you’ll come out a stronger person and runner for going through those rough times.

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