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With few track racing opportunities available in 2020, many athletes in search of Olympic and Olympic Trials qualifying times gathered in San Juan Capistrano, California, on December 4 and 5 to see how their pandemic training stacked up. For Rachel Schneider, it was also a chance to test herself at a new distance in the 10,000 meters—and she came away with satisfying results.
Schneider, 29, won the 10K in 31:09.79, not only nabbing the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials qualifying time (32:25.00), but also beating the Olympic standard of 31:25. Now she has plenty of options to choose from heading into the postponed Olympic year, also owning Olympic standards for the 1500 (her PR is 4:02.26) and 5,000 meters (15:06.71; an event in which she competed at the 2019 world championships).
In all, the race on Saturday at the Sound Running Track Meet saw eight women hit that Olympic 10,000-meter mark—a preview of the incredible depth of American women distance runners, even in a year dominated by the COVID-19 crisis, which canceled all but a few races for pro runners. In order to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Games, athletes must have obtained the standard and place in the top three in their event at the Olympic Trials, scheduled to take place in June, in Eugene, Oregon.
A week after her 10K debut, Schneider, 29, answered questions from Women’s Running via email. A former NCAA All-American in the 1500 meters competing for Georgetown University who now runs for Under Armour, covered why she’s focused on longer distances these days, how she’s been coping during the pandemic, and what a typical day is like in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she trains and lives with her coach and partner Mike Smith, director of cross country and track and field at Northern Arizona University, and their three dogs.
Women’s Running: Now that you’ve had time to process your exciting win at the Track Meet and hitting the Olympic standard, how are you feeling physically and mentally?
Rachel Schneider: I still feel like I’m riding a bit of a mental high. It had been over 10 months since my last race and 14 months since my last outdoor track race, so to say it lightly, I was feeling so excited and grateful to have the opportunity to just race again. Those sentiments were carried throughout the race and are still being felt a few days after being back home. It felt great to take home the win and the Olympic standard.
Physically, I came out of the race way better than I anticipated. I was a little stiff, sore for the first two days, but by day three, I felt fully recovered and ready to get going again. Overall, (I’m) feeling extremely fired up and even more focused on the upcoming months leading into the Trials.
WR: What was going through your mind throughout the race? You are out there on the track much longer than what you are used to.
RS: Throughout the race my mind was calm but engaged in what was going on. I stayed as mentally and physically relaxed as possible, for as long as possible, something I regularly practice in long, hard workouts. When it came to [one] mile to go, I let myself get excited.
WR: What were you thinking at bell lap when you really stepped on the gas and out-kicked the field?
RS: When the bell rang signifying the final lap, I thought, “This is the fun part!” The whole lead pack started stepping on the gas, but I held myself back a bit until the final 100 meters. I wanted to practice positioning and patience—covering the moves, but waiting to make my final move till the homestretch.
WR: You suffered an Achilles injury over the summer. Can you tell me about that?
RS: For the better part of three months, I was predominantly cross-training, spending lots of time with physios, doing extra rehab, and lightly running. It felt extra tough because there was no clear timeline on how long it might take to heal and each week felt like a rollercoaster. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by an amazing support system and felt a lot of love, hope, and gratitude even on the toughest days. Being injured is far from fun, but I believe the experience was a big growing opportunity for me and a platform to become a stronger, better version of myself.
WR: Can you describe a typical day for you in recent months? I know you have said sticking to your normal routines has been important.
RS: Wake up, drink some coffee and eat while reading the news, stretch, morning workout, big breakfast/lunch, some form of physio/recovery, read, meditate, afternoon training session, sometimes a walk with my partner and our three dogs, cook dinner, and relax until bed. Sometimes a coffee or walk with my sister or some friends thrown in there, and sometimes writing training or checking training logs for a handful of athletes I’ve recently started coaching.
WR: Over the years as a pro, you have gradually stepped up in distance, a long way from the 800/1500-meter runner you were in college. Was moving up to the 10,000 meters always part of your plan?
RS: I’m not sure if you told me in college that racing 10Ks was in my future, I would have believed you. Back in high school and college, I mentally put myself in a box of being just a 1500/800-meter runner. The thing about wanting to be the best 1500-meter/miler I could be and just being competitive at an elite level was that I had to develop my strength. My coach and I knew that this was a huge opportunity for growth for me, so we gradually worked away at becoming aerobically stronger and being competitive at longer distances.
When I started racing 5Ks a few years back, I was surprised at how much I loved the event. Then we incorporated some longer road races in, and even my first cross-country race in years back in early 2019. Now I’m way more open-minded about what type of runner or event specialist I am, and I’m looking forward to moving up and trying new things over time. In short, racing the 10K has been a part of the long-term plan, and my training in recent years indicated that I was capable of being competitive in the event.
WR: Let’s back up a little. Earlier this year, when the pandemic was just hitting, you and I had talked about still having hope for holding the Olympic Trials and the Olympics this year. How did you cope as it became clear life wasn’t getting back to “normal” anytime soon?
RS: It was definitely tough when the calls were made that the Olympics would be postponed and 2020 would have little or no racing opportunities. That being said, I believe I did a pretty good job keeping everything in perspective, focusing on silver linings, and practicing gratitude on a daily basis. The first four months of the pandemic I was running high mileage and training really well, so that also helped me cope. But the main thing that helped me through this tough time and kept me centered was having an amazing partner and three sweet dogs I was happy to be quarantined with every day.
WR: When did you learn about the Sound Running meet, and did you immediately know you wanted to run in it?
RS: I knew the Sound Running meet was hopefully going to happen for a while, and as soon as I heard about it, I was like, “Oh, heck yeah! No matter what shape I’m in, please sign me up!” I was really eager to just get on a start line again and compete.
WR: What kind of safety protocols did you have to follow before the meet in order to compete?
RS: Each athlete had to get two negative COVID-19 tests within the week of the race, and then fill out a questionnaire and get temperatures checked before entering the track. We didn’t know the location of the track until the day of the race and no fans were allowed in. The coaches and agents that attended also had to get negative COVID-19 tests the week of. Everyone had to wear masks, unless the person was on the track competing. While nothing’s flawless or guaranteed to be absolutely safe, the protocols in place were extremely well thought-out and stringently enforced by Sound Running and the [U.S.A. Track & Field] COVID Working Group.
WR: Some people have criticized pro runners for traveling and competing when COVID-19 cases are soaring all over the country. What’s your response to that?
RS: I hear the concerns that someone may have about athletes traveling for competitions when Covid cases are soaring over the country. I might share these feelings, too, if I were unaware of the elaborate framework that guides safety for these events.
WR: Of course everyone is really looking forward to 2021, but especially athletes who have Olympic goals. What are yours?
RS: My biggest goal for 2021 is to be the very best I can be. I really believe that the best place to put my focus—and the best way to define personal success—is on my process and not on a single outcome. I absolutely dream about, envision, believe, and am working to make it onto the Olympic team, and to be fiercely competitive at the Olympic Games. No matter what place I finish at Trials, my main goal is to walk away feeling proud that I prepared to the best of my abilities and competed to the best of my abilities.
WR: As you prepare for an Olympic year, who has inspired you along the way? Are there runners you have looked up to and continue to look to as role models?
RS: I’m incredibly lucky in that so many people have inspired and helped me along the way. In an effort to keep this succinct, the people that have recently had a big impact in terms of inspiring me are my coach/partner Mike Smith. Getting to both feel and witness the beauty of his work is one of the best gifts of my life. The Northern Arizona University women’s and men’s cross country and track teams. The genuine ways they care for, support, and push each other to be the best they can be. My two main training partners and close friends: Sara Hall and Diane Nukuri. They have many qualities I strive to emulate, and I’m inspired on a daily basis by their work ethic, long-term relationship with running, and who they are as humans. And last but not least, the collective Flagstaff running community, including Under Armour’s new and growing Dark Sky Distance team. [The Flagstaff community] ranges from elite athletes, to community programs, to people just starting out on their run journey. I’m constantly moved and inspired by all these people in little and big ways.