On February 29, Tierney Wolfgram lined up with 450 other women as the youngest competitor in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at 16 years old. She finished in the top 25 percent of the field in a time of 2:42.
Fast forward to April and Wolfgram was doing what most high school kids her age were doing—finishing up her junior year with online classes, running with a quarantine buddy, and wondering what her senior year would look like.
It didn’t take long for that vision to become clear: On April 30, Wolfgram decided to graduate this spring, one year early, and join the University of Nevada Wolfpack women’s cross-country team in the fall; a low-profile choice for a high-profile runner.
A recognizable talent from an early age, Wolfgram won the 2017 Minnesota state cross country title as a freshman, and tacked on another win at the Nike Cross Heartland Regional meet a few weeks later. She attended Math and Science Academy, a charter school in Woodbury, Minnesota, which was set up to allow students to complete their high school core curriculum by the end of sophomore year, and take courses through nearby Century College junior and senior years. It’s a serious-minded, college prep environment popular with motivated, self-directed kids. Wolfgram fit right in. She liked long runs, and logged 55 miles a week the summer between freshman and sophomore years.
“I started becoming unusual when I finished Twin Cities Marathon with the B standard,” Wolfgram said, laughing at the literal use of unusual, as in, not usual for a 15-year-old in the middle of her high school cross-country season. “After [Twin Cities Marathon], I didn’t think I could go back to a traditional high school routine. I looked at the pros and none of them did a marathon at 15. There really wasn’t anyone on a path like me, so I started paving my own way.”
Her sophomore year track season was derailed by stress fractures in two metatarsals, but academics were right on target. She completed the high school core curriculum by the end of the year and took the ACT. She also transferred to Woodbury High School for her junior year, and spent the first two weeks of summer emailing a number of college coaches. “Coach Elias wrote back in 15 minutes,” Wolfgram said.
“She recruited me,” Kirk Elias laughed. Elias has been the head men’s and women’s cross-country coach at University of Nevada for 14 years. “On June 23, 2019, I got an email from her introducing herself, asking about the program. I knew who she was, of course. It’s kind of a long story but Tierney had talked to John Vodacek, the assistant cross-country coach at Woodbury. I coached John’s mom from 1991 to 1993, and was instrumental in John competing in college, so he had good thoughts about me. I didn’t think anything of this email exchange, but we kept in touch.”
Wolfgram started her junior year at Woodbury High School, though most of her classes were through Century College. Early in the cross-country season, she suffered a fractured tibia. Because she was neither attending high school classes or running with the team, she was often doing her own thing compared to her high school peers, and that was fine with Wolfgram. Though only 16, she was confident, independent, and focused on recovering in time to train for the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon. No other high schoolers were doing that kind of training.
With cross-country season over and all of her classes online, Wolfgram made the somewhat radical decision to head to Albuquerque, New Mexico for two months of training before the Trials. From December 19 to mid-March, she lived with either her mom, dad, or grandma in a rented house, continuing her online classes and racking up 100-mile weeks at altitude.
Plucking most any teenager from their high school environment—friends, school, team, hometown—to live and train rigorously 1,200 miles away where they knew no one would be traumatic. Not for Wolfgram. She loved the trails, loved the freedom of her daily schedule, loved running with the boys on the Albuquerque Academy team for at least one of her daily runs.
The hard work paid off. Her 2:42 in Atlanta made her the 76th female finisher at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. “I didn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Wolfgram said. “That I’d be able to run another Olympic Trials sometime later—I wasn’t going to take that for granted.” It was overall “a great experience,” though one she doesn’t intend to repeat until she’s at least 22 and out of college.
When it came to her college, there wasn’t a lot going on. Outside of Elias, most coaches Wolfgram heard back from in 2019 told her they didn’t want to start the recruiting process so early. “When I fractured my tibia last fall, that doesn’t look good to a lot of college coaches,” Wolfgram said. “I think a lot of them were holding their breath through the Olympic Trials to see whether I fractured my leg again. I wasn’t getting heavily recruited. Coach Elias was really the only one I was talking to. He stuck with me.”
While Elias acknowledged her exceptionalism, it was Wolfgram’s average healthy attitude that most impressed him. “When I talked to her, she seemed like a 16-year-old who’s having fun,” he said. “And that’s a big deal to me. Tierney has not run high school track for two years. She’s a cut above most high schoolers in terms of athletics, but she was eager to have a team experience. She’s been taking college courses and is very academically oriented, so she’s different from most high schoolers. College didn’t seem like much of a departure for her.”
The Trials left Wolfgram neither injured nor suffering from post-marathon blues. Quite the contrary, she’s been running somewhere around 60 miles a week (she’s not keeping track) since she came back to Minnesota in mid-March, cranking out some impressive time trials in early April—a 4:54 mile, and 16:34 5K on the road. Training partner Harris Anderson, a friend from Math and Science Academy, is headed for St. Thomas University this fall.
“After the [Olympic] Trials is the best mental head space I’ve ever been in, in terms of my relationship with running,” Wolfgram said. “I’ve set PRs in every time trial I’ve run. But looking ahead, Harris will be gone next year. Having training partners is key and I wouldn’t have that for my senior year. I didn’t know how that was going to go.”
Though she’d been taking college courses for a year, Wolfgram never intended to graduate early. That changed with one text. “Two weeks ago Coach Elias gave me and my mom a virtual tour of campus,” Wolfgram said. “A day later, he texted and asked if I was on track to graduate [this year]. He set up another Zoom meeting and brought up the idea of coming to Nevada a year early. I didn’t know you could do that, but I was super excited. I was on board right away. My gut reaction was that it felt right. My mom got a little teary because it would mean she lost a year with me—my mom and I are really close—but we both knew it was the right thing to do.”
Elias had never recruited a junior before. “I’ve never had that conversation with anybody,” he said, “but there were a number of things. Tierney hasn’t run on the high school scene for the last year-and-a-half. She’s not as connected to high school as other kids. She likes altitude, she’s used to being away from home. I thought I’d give it a shot.” Elias confirmed, Wolfgram will be a scholarship athlete at Nevada.
University of Nevada, located in Reno at about 4,600-feet altitude, has been overshadowed by other Mountain Region powerhouses like New Mexico and Boise State, but Elias sees the altitude, the plethora of trails, and the strong conference competition as big pluses for his program. “And I’d like to think I have a reputation for taking care of athletes, for development over the long term.”
What was it that sold Wolfgram? Was it the coach? Location? Academics? “It was all of those things,” she said. “Coach Elias knows how to develop athletes for a long career—that’s important to me. Nevada is at 5,000 feet, there are a ton of soft surface trails, and you can run on them all year because the winters are milder. And their psychology program is really good. A world renowned sport psychologist is a professor there—that sold it for me.”
Wolfgram turned 17 on May 10, and will graduate on May 15. While her path has veered suddenly, Wolfgram truly has considered all the options. Missing prom will be “slightly sad,” she said, but the excitement of being part of a team, of helping the Wolfpack, and getting on with her studies far outweighed anything a traditional senior year could offer. “I’m pretty good at adapting to my surroundings. It’ll be tough being far away from my family but I’ll figure it out. Going into cross country is like having a built-in family—that’s pretty easy to get used to.”
From Elias’ perspective, the plan is to lower Wolfgrams’ volume, which for her means about 70 miles per week, and work on speed development. He’s banking on the lower mileage and trail surfaces to keep her healthy. “My biggest concern is that she has fun her freshman year,” he said. “If we make sure she enjoys what she’s doing, everything else will take of itself.”