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Three Weeks to Go and Racing: 10 Olympic Hopefuls Dish on Life, Training, and Tokyo

They waited a whole year for a season like this: opportunities to race each other and prepare to contest for the 2021 Tokyo Games. This weekend many are planning to race at the Portland Track Festival and the Platinum PT Qualifier, giving fans another chance to see them in action.

The Portland Track Festival, taking place in Oregon, is providing a live stream for $5.99 at 7 p.m. Pacific on Friday and 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Platinum PT Qualifier, near Boston, will have a free livestream beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.

The Olympic Track & Field Trials, which begin on June 18 in Eugene, Oregon, are just weeks away, so we thought we’d check in by phone with a few of the contenders to ask how their training is going and what they still hope to accomplish in the remaining weeks before the big meet begins.

Related: How the U.S. Chooses Its Olympic Track & Field Team

Portland Track Festival

Shelby Houlihan, 2016 Olympian in the 5,000 meters, is scheduled to race the 1500 meters in her season debut. She’s the American record holder in the event (3:54.99) as well as the American record holder in the 5,000 meters (14:23.92). She hasn’t fully decided which events she’ll compete in at the Trials and even has considered putting the 10,000 meters on the table, though she still would need to qualify in that event before June 13.

“I have no idea which way I want to go,” Houlihan said. “I’m kind of out of time to do that—it’s down to the wire.”

Houlihan has spent the past seven weeks at an altitude training camp with her Bowerman Track Club teammates, where she spoke to Women’s Running while slamming some med balls at the gym. Although she’s dealt with a little problem with her plantar, she said she hasn’t missed any workouts or training because of it. She’s just been waiting for the greenlight from her coach Jerry Schumacher to race.

“I’m very fit,” Houlihan said. “And I’m really excited to start racing. We decided I didn’t really have to do much racing because I was getting in good training and getting more and more fit.”

Related: You Don’t Know Shelby Houlihan

As for the targets she’d like to hit before the Olympic Trials, she doesn’t have many.

“I know how to race and I am prepared to do that and I’m good enough to go do that,” Houlihan said. “I’m not stressing too much…I just want to be as prepared as possible and be in a good spot lining up at the Trials. We’re heading in that direction.”

Rachel Schneider is also scheduled to race the 1500 meters on Saturday. She arrives in Portland with notable performances leading up to the meet, including a PR two weeks ago in the 5,000 meters (14:52.04) and an Olympic standard in the 10,000 meters in December, at her debut in the event (31:09.79). She also has the Olympic qualifying time in the 1500 meters (4:02.26).

As for which events she’ll choose to race at the Trials? She’s not saying quite yet, though she’s fairly certain she’ll line up for the 10,000 meters because it’s the last event (“There’s nothing to lose and I do think that could end up being my strongest event”).

“I’m still deliberating whether or not to do the 1500 or the 5K before that,” Schneider said. “I think we kind of know what we’re going to do, but just keeping it close for the next two weeks to make sure it’s our best decision.”

Right now Schneider said she’s mostly grateful that she is healthy and her fitness is where she’d like it to be at this point.

“I’m just trying to sharpen up a little bit more and get whatever last bit of finishing speed I can practice right now,” she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Schneider, who is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, increased her mileage to an average of more than 100 miles per week for 16 consecutive weeks to work on her endurance. After suffering a summer achilles injury and recovering, the strategy still paid off.

“I’ve really, really been working on the strength aspect of my development for probably the last four years now, super intentionally building up mileage and threshold and aerobic capacity in general,” she said. “I finished that 5K still kind of feeling like there’s more in there and hoping to get into another fast one this year.”

Elise Cranny will also line up for the 1500 meters, with a PR of 4:05.83. She’s another multi-talented middle distance star with a 14:48.02 best in the 5,000 meters and 30:47.42 in the 10,000 meters.

Cranny has also been in Park City with the Bowerman Track Club, where she said “the bar has been raised.”

“Being continually pushed by my teammates, especially this year and this altitude camp, has challenged me to be able to do workouts that maybe I didn’t think I could do,” Cranny said.

Although she excelled at the 10,000 meters in February, she was hesitant to give the distance a try, but did it at the insistence of Schumacher.

“He really approaches training from the strength side of things and that race gave me a lot of confidence in how far my strength has come since joining the team,” she said. “He said, ‘You know, you have to run a pretty good 10K to run a fast 5K.’”

She also credits a stretch of consistent, injury-free training for the fitness she’s enjoying now, which came with the growing maturity to know when it’s time to back off and recover.

“The workout intensity has increased since going from the collegiate scene to the professional scene,” Cranny said. “You just can’t underestimate the importance of naps and sleep and nutrition. Something I’ve learned from my older teammates is seeing how seriously they take recovery and learning the piece that more running isn’t always better.”

Dani Jones is taking another crack at her event, the 1500 meters, coming in with a personal best set earlier in May: 4:04.86.

Jones, who is a member of the Joe Bosshard-coached training group in Boulder, Colorado, just finished up a “super” altitude camp in Crested Butte, Colorado, which is at almost 9,000 feet. She’s raced several times already this season.

“I think normally I am really confident in myself tactically, but I’ve definitely made some mistakes that have cost me a couple of times,” she said. “It has been getting back into the groove of that a little bit and having to do a lot of visualizing and just kind of getting back in that racing world.”

Jones also took time to figure out a health issue that was causing extreme fatigue, discovering that she has hemochromatosis, which is when too much iron is building up in your body. She had been prone to anemia growing up, but as she grew older into adulthood her iron levels have shifted.

Related: Dani Jones in Going Pro During a Pandemic

“I just have to get more consistent blood tests and definitely get off the iron supplements,” she said. “I tweaked my diet a bit…but it’s a pretty easy adjustment after figuring out the problem.”

Karissa Schweizer is scheduled to race the 5,000 meters on Saturday. Her best is 14:26.34, set in July in the same race Bowerman teammate set the American record. Schweizer fastest in the 10,000 meters is 30:47.99.

At the Park City altitude camp, Schweizer said she took a little longer to adjust but that overall the training stint went according to plan.

“I feel like we’re all really strong right now and we’re just doing, like, crazy workouts,” Schweizer said. “I also feel like I’ve been held back so much from racing so I’m excited to do a little bit more. But we’re also confident in our process and know our workouts are very difficult so that we’re ready when the time matters.”

At the Trials, Schweizer is definitely racing the 5,000 meters, she said, and will wait to see how she’s feeling after that to decide whether she’ll compete in the 10,000 meters.

“The last year really helped my confidence, just being able to run a fast 5K with Shelby,” she said. “Now I just have that confidence that when the lead groups go [in international competition] I have done it before and can hang with that.”

Kim Conley, 2012 and 2016 Olympian in the 5,000 meters, will race the distance on Saturday as well. She ran her fastest in June 2019, finishing in 15:05.20.

Conley, who is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, has raced a lot as more opportunities to line up have popped up, starting in December when she ran 15:36.05.

“It’s helped me be very process-oriented because I went into that December race knowing I was going to be a long way from PR fitness,” she said. “But it was a starting point and getting that measure of fitness allowed us to guide the training and set paces for what was appropriate for me right then.”

She’s steadily made progress since then and in March she finished another 5,000 meters in 15:17.66.

“Now I’m just really looking to continue building on that progress and seeking improvement throughout the season,” Conley said.

She’s still not sure if she’s going for the 5,000 or 10,000 meters at the Trials, though she has not gotten the Olympic standard (31:25) in the 10,000 meters yet.

“I think with the depth of American talent right now, if you’re going to finish in the top three in either event, it’s going to take the Olympic standard, so I’m not super concerned about trying to chase standards,” she said. “My mindset is it’s about trying to get on a podium and as we creep closer to the Trials, I’m just going to hope to get a better idea of where I feel I have the most potential to do that.”

Courtney Frerichs, 2016 Olympian and 2017 world championships silver medalist is racing her second 3,000-meter steeplechase of the season. She’s the American record-holder in the event (9:00.85) and lined up for her season debut at the beginning of May, finishing in 9:27.70.

“Having taken 18 months off from the event, combined with my last one just being kind of a disappointment, I felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over me a little bit,” Frerich said. “Running that one a couple weeks ago was just about getting back out there and reminding myself I know how to do this event.”

Frerichs also went to Park City with the Bowerman Track Club where she’s also found confidence in a stretch of consistent, healthy training.

“I’m not ever the one who’s knocking it out of the park, but I always show up and I’ve been able to stay really healthy and not have to miss any days,” she says.

After five years of U.S. steeplechase dominance among Frerichs, Emma Coburn, and Colleen Quigley, she’s seen how the trio has pushed the event to a new level.

“But competition is always going to bring the best out of you, so at the end of the day, I think having more people pushing us is always going to be better for the event,” Frerichs said. “You have to be prepared on the line, no matter who you are, what you run going into the Trials, with the steeple you never have it secured. Things happen—people fall and things like that. It’s going to be a fun race come June.”

Platinum PT Qualifier

Elle Purrier has had a few 2021 races that should leave her feeling good about her chances at the Trials. The New Balance Boston athlete, coached by Mark Coogan, will race the 800 meters this weekend, coming off the 1:59.99 personal best she set earlier this month. At the Golden Games on May 9, she set a 1500-meters PR of 3:58.34 and at the 2019 world championships she finished the 5,000 meters in 14:58.17.

“Breaking four [minutes] in the 1500 was definitely one of those big goals that I’ve had for a while,” Purrier said. “It probably would have happened last summer if I was given the opportunity. In training, the process has been progressing slowly every year—I knew that just bumping up my training a little bit more every year would give me a really good shot at making the [Olympic] team.”

She thinks that altitude training twice a year in Flagstaff has contributed to her progress, too.

Related: How Elle Purrier Trained to Run the 2-Mile American Record

“I know that I’m a responder to altitude and it’s been a huge part of my training and my success,” Purrier said. “But also, just trying not to overdo it. I do what my coach tells me to do and listen to my body.”

At the Trials, Purrier said she’ll likely focus on the 1500 meters, though leaves the option to change plans.

“We’re leaning towards the 1500, but [Coogan] hasn’t told me for sure,” she said.

Josette Norris has chosen the right season for a breakout and she’ll take a shot at the 1500 meters on Saturday. She trains with Reebok Team Boston (which is actually based in Charlottesville, Virginia) and clocked a huge PR in the 5,000 meters this month, finishing in 14:51.42 at the Track Meet in Southern California.

Having an extra year to transition to the pro athlete lifestyle after graduating from Georgetown University has helped, she said, giving her time to adjust coach Chris Fox’s training philosophy.

“I found myself being really tired last year and just kind of felt like I was holding on—I wasn’t able to perform in my races,” Norris said. “The first workout coming back this past fall, I nailed a tempo that I hadn’t been able to nail the entire year before, and I was like, ‘I got it. I did it. I am on track here.’ Confidence has been such a huge change in just one year’s time.”

The goal at that standout 5,000 meters earlier this month was 15:10, which she beat by a long shot.

“I felt pretty calm in the situation and that’s the biggest thing, if you can stay calm in a 5K that’s the difference in being able to close,” Norris said. “It was an amazing opportunity to test myself.”

Molly Huddle, two-time Olympian and American record holder in the 10,000 meters (30:13.17), is racing the 5,000 meters this weekend. She dropped out of a 5,000-meter race in March and finished another in 15:23.24 at the Golden Games earlier in May. She said she has been working on her form through physical therapy and chiropractic treatment.

“It’s not really an injury I had to take time off for, it’s more a leg-hip dysfunction going on—one of those things that limits your stride a little bit,” she said. “I definitely feel smoother than I did in February, but I think we have a few more hours to put in on that front. I feel like I’m ready for the Trials. We’re working on it.”

Related: Molly Huddle is ‘Keeping Track’ of Women in the Sport

Huddle will race the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Trials and says she hasn’t missed any training time in her buildup.

“That first 5K that I dropped out of, it just did not feel right, mostly it was the leg stuff,” she said. “It just really highlighted that I really needed to go back and tackle the physical therapy, get the motion back and the extension back in the hip.”

Since then, she trained at altitude in Flagstaff and is now back at her base in Providence, Rhode Island, for the last stretch of preparation. She’ll also race the Mini 10K on June 12, in New York.

“I have a feeling that 10K pace will feel a lot easier because it has in training,” Huddle said. “That will be a good confidence booster.”