A quirky Q&A with the 2016 Olympian (and national champ miler!) on injuries, racing her friends, and the magic of french braids.
Colleen Quigley nailed the runner’s pain face, grimacing down the homestretch of her one-mile race on February 23, at the 2019 U.S. Indoor Championships.
Victory can look like agony sometimes—but holding off the woman with the fastest kick in the country didn’t need to look picture-perfect either.
It was Quigley’s first national title, winning in 4:29.47, less than half a second ahead of her training partner Shelby Houlihan, who was second in 4:29.92. The results ended Houlihan’s streak of eight consecutive U.S. championships across distances from the cross-country 10K to the 5,000 meters and the mile (and she went on to win the two mile on February 24).
The women are members of the Bowerman Track Club, based in Portland, Oregon, and coached by Jerry Schumacher. Quigley, 26, is a 2016 Olympian in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but earning her first U.S. title is one accolade she’s excited to add to her list.
Quigley talked to Women’s Running by phone on Thursday about what it’s like to compete against her teammates, how she’s coped with two injuries in the past seven months, and why her 13-week-old Bernese Mountain dog is named Pie.
At what point in that race did you think you were going to win?
Probably not until it was over, just because Shelby is so famous for her lethal kick. And actually last year at this same race in Albuquerque, I thought I was going to win coming down the homestretch, and then, here she comes out of nowhere. She ended up taking it at the line. I thought I had it in the bag—gosh, she’s just so good.
This year my strategy was to put as much space between me and her as possible because I have a good kick too, but if I have to kick from behind Shelby, the likelihood of me passing her would’ve been hard. Jerry and I talked about me needing to put space on her going into the last 400 meters and make her work for it. He said, “If she’s going to beat you, she’s going to have to go around you.” In that last 200 I thought she could go around me at any moment and told myself, “If she does, you can hold her off. Make her work for it.”
The last 50 meters, it’s embarrassing now to look at all the photos of my face just grimacing. I was working so hard. I wanted it so bad, I was gunning for the line as hard as I could.
What clicked this time? What was different about this experience?
I hurt my foot while we were training at altitude in Colorado Springs. I wasn’t able to work out in spikes for the rest of the trip. I had to wear flats and scale back the mileage.
The week of the Millrose Games I did some strides in my spikes and my foot didn’t hurt. I was able to race, but I raced more tentatively there. I was in the back and had to work my way up. I had a strong finish—the last 400 was really strong, but it was too late in the game. The German record holder was way out in front and I couldn’t chase her down. I was really disappointed in myself after that race because I hate losing and I didn’t stick to the race plan. Jerry said, “Get out and don’t let her get so far away that you can’t catch her.” I didn’t do that.
I left that race frustrated so I came back to New York for the U.S. Championships two weeks later determined to follow the race plan. I had been able to work out in spikes and had more confidence, too. It was a totally different feeling. I just bided my time until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I took over and felt really strong and in control. It feels good to feel good. You don’t get that feeling all the time.
You already have a lot of achievements—you’re an Olympian—so why is a national title important to you?
It’s another item for the résumé. For me, I think indoor track was something I didn’t really like in college. I always thought I was too tall and it was too hard on my body. I was trying to run the 3K indoors and I hated it. But since turning pro, Shelby and I have done the indoor circuit three years in a row now and I’ve really come to enjoy how tactical it is. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it and more mentally tough.
This showed that I’ve learned a lot and have come out on top. Like, I’m literally on top now. That’s pretty cool. Just to be able to say I’m a national champion. Just speaking those words is really nice. Dang, it feels good and it’s a good steppingstone to other goals.
You’ve done really well at the 1500 meters and mile. Do you have any thoughts of leaving the steeplechase for these events?
I won a 1500 meters in Poland last summer in 4:02. I love the 1500. If I’m going to do an “off” event, it’s going to be the 1500 or the mile. I just love how speedy it is. It’s a wild race. It’s tactical. I like the mental part of it. You can’t fall asleep in a 1500—you have to stay really sharp. I’ll do more of them this summer, as well as steeple.
But I see myself sticking with the steeple for a while now. I still have goals and untapped potential. But it’s fun to have other options. [Bowerman teammate] Shalane [Flanagan] said that at Millrose my 1500-meter split [during the mile] was a world championships standard time. She said it’s always good to have that in another event, just in case something were to happen, like I get injured and can’t hurdle going into the U.S. championships this summer. It’s always good to have a backup plan.
You were injured over the summer, too. What kind of injuries have you suffered?
This summer we were training in Mammoth Lakes at altitude camp and I ended up with a stress reaction in my second metatarsal in my left foot and had to back off training for a while. I had to drop out of three huge races and not being able to race at the U.S. Championships for the first time was really frustrating. It just wasn’t healing.
I came back to Portland and the foot finally stopped hurting, so I got to race a few times at the end of the season. I was able to [set personal records] at the 1500 meters and the steeplechase. So things turned around.
Then I went to altitude camp in January and had the same issue—stress reaction in the second metatarsal, except this time in my right foot. I was like, really? Again? I’ve gotten scans and tests done and my nutrition and bone density are great, but my feet get really tight. If I get into a foot placement pattern where I’m not loading my foot properly and I do that for 80 miles a week, no matter how strong my bones are they’re going to start breaking down. I’m trying to figure out what works best for me as far as treatment and rehab. And maybe I just shouldn’t run as much as everybody else does, which is kind of annoying. But if I’m going to stay healthy, that might be a sacrifice I might have to make.
Let’s talk about team dynamics. What happens when you beat each other? Is there tension? Or do you walk off the track and you’re friends again?
It’s funny. I haven’t seen Shelby since the race because she went to Phoenix and I hung out for a few days in New York. I expect it will be normal. I mean, she has nine national titles—I think she’s going to be fine.
It was funny because the week before the race, we were at practice and somebody mentioned Shelby’s eight U.S. titles in a row. And Jerry said, “That’s how many you have?” And Shelby said, “Yeah. Eight in a row.” He said, “Oh. We gotta break that streak. It’s too much pressure.” I said, “I don’t mind taking one.”
We were all joking about it. Although, part of me was not joking!
You know, we train together every day and work together really well. We live together at altitude camp and cook together and all that kind of stuff. Shelby’s awesome. She knows that I work really hard and have speed, too. I’m sure it was hard because it did break her streak and she had a good thing going. I was upset last year—I remember walking off the track last year like, “damn it.” I got over it. And now she’s going to want it even more next time.
Although you all are teammates, it’s an individual sport.
Right. Before the race, me, Shelby, and [teammate] Kate [Grace] met with Jerry and [coach] Pascal [Dobert] together to talk about some general things that we all would want to know, but then we speak to them individually to talk about our strengths and how they could be used in a particular way to have our best possible performances. That’s how it goes. When Jerry’s coaching 12 of the best distance runners in the country, they’re going to compete against each other. I think he does a good job of treating us as individual athletes. He’s not a super emotional guy, so that helps.
We all take care of each other and we want the best for each other. We all have true respect and friendship for one another. On a daily basis, there’s not that competitive edge at practice that we each have in a race. We know we’re better when we work together.
Speaking of support, I know you’re in a long-distance relationship…with your new puppy, Pie, who came to New York to cheer you on.
Yes! Pie is Pie because it’s the name of the restaurant where my boyfriend, Kevin, and I had our first date back in 2010. It was a pizza place. We’ve been dating for nine years and have wanted a dog for eight of those years. We’ve always known that we were going to name our dog Pie. She’s only 13 weeks now.
Kevin is in San Francisco and Pie lives with him because I travel so much. We do a lot of Facetime. It’s really fun. When we’re at altitude camp, the girls always say they know when I’m talking to Pie because my voice goes up like four octaves. I can’t help it.
And we can’t let the conversation end without talking about French braids. I know you’ve been holding hair braiding events before some of your races. It seems like your #FastBraidFriday Instagram campaign has grown into a way to connect with more fans?
On Friday before the race in New York I did a braid bar at Bandier downtown and had about 150 girls there to get their hair braided with professional stylists. The girls were so excited to sit in a chair and get their hair done and feel like a princess for a little bit. They got their pictures taken, we did a lot of selfies, and I signed autographs. It was the day before my race, it was three hours long, and I was on my feet the whole time, so I’m sure Jerry wasn’t super psyched about all that. But honestly, it’s invigorating. It gave me a lot of energy. Everyone was so supportive and kind, wishing me good luck. That fed me and helped me get excited to race. If it’s something we can bond and connect over, something as simple as hair, that’s amazing.