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While many cheered Shalane Flanagan’s historic New York City Marathon victory last November, another pro athlete was busy setting an entirely different kind of record—a 26-minute PR, to be exact. Allie Kieffer, the 30-year-old woman from Long Island, N.Y., who ran sans coach or sponsor, had Olympic aspirations as a high school and college student athlete until injuries got in her way. In the years that followed, Kieffer became a coach to stay involved in the running world but didn’t expect to seriously compete again herself until she won her very first marathon in early 2017. Ten months later, she was racing on one of the largest marathon stages in the world, finishing in 2:29:39 as the second American woman and placing fifth overall.
How did you expect the New York City Marathon to go?
I ran with the New York Athletic Club [before the race], and I remember asking one of my teammates, “How long is it going to take to catch the top group?” He was like, “The best people take the longest time to break. Wait until 35K to actually catch up.” I thought it would be really late; I had this idea that I could get into Central Park two minutes behind. In years prior, people had tanked at the end and ran a few slow miles. It went completely differently. I caught people sooner; even in Brooklyn I didn’t feel that far out of contention.
What changes did you make to your training, fueling and racing mindset?
The biggest change I made [last] year is that I started lifting. I joined a CrossFit gym in January [of 2017]. I’ve been doing Olympic lifts, which help me. For the marathon, I did a lot of tempo-specific long runs. In the past, I’ve done long runs, but not while shooting for a specific pace. I like the in-and-out runs, where you go at marathon pace, then a 10K or half-marathon pace.
Do you find that those paced runs really help your results?
I’ve done a decent amount of training alone, so it’s much more fun than saying, “I’m going to run 10 miles at x pace,” where you can disengage and go through a process instead of being engaged and enjoying the change of pace and that burn that you feel. I like that. I also think that, from a mental standpoint, the more I do at race pace, the more confidence I have. I try to make the training so it builds upon itself and I get to adjust. If I do 1K on, 1K off, then the next time I do that workout, it can be 2K on, 1K off. It’s very linear to get to where you want to go. For me physically, I definitely feel like it’s been working. Mentally, I can understand I’ve been going more and more at race pace, and I’m getting in better shape.
What does it mean to you to rejoin the professional racing circuit?
I had success in high school, and dreams were born. You think, “I need to enter the Olympics, that’s the next step, and then I’ll be All-ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference] my first year, be Freshman of the Year…” None of those things happened. I was angry about it. It took me leaving the sport to really find the love again. I feel like now I’m running because I want to run. I don’t have to go out and run every day—I want to, I get to. That new mentality has helped me run faster.
Are those dreams starting to crop up again after NYC?
They’re definitely coming up again. I don’t feel entitled to anything; I’m not necessarily going to run faster; I’m just going to do all the things I can control to get the best out of myself because I enjoy this process, instead of everything being tied to a result. I don’t need all of the shiny things to run well; I don’t think anyone does. It’s really easy to get caught up in all of that, but I don’t see a point in doing that, because it’s going well. I’m going to keep checking the boxes like I have been for the past three months.
It sounds like you’re still running for the love of the sport.
When I stopped doing that early in my career, that’s when I ran into problems, because my love for running was tied to results. When I first got into running, it was probably more therapeutic, and I felt a genuine love for it. When I got away from that, I lost the results, too. I think they go hand in hand.
How do you work through those physical or mental barriers that many athletes face while racing?
I’ve been lucky because I didn’t hit a wall in the [NYC] marathon. I’ve been steady in my pacing, so I don’t think I’ve dealt with a really negative patch. I’ve read a few books on mental training leading up to New York City. I just keep saying, “I can, I am,” all the positive mantras. I’ve read from Deena Kastor that your mind takes out the negatives; if you’re like, “Don’t get dropped,” your mind really hears “get dropped.”
In the [2017 USA Track and Field] 10 Mile Championships, I really wanted to compete for the win, and I ended up running in fourth place for a majority of the race. I was pretty much alone, and I felt like I was in much better shape than I showed that day. I was looking at my watch, and it was saying a time that was lower than I thought I could run. Instead of saying, “This sucks, I’m going to just run slow today,” I was like, “You are better than this. You can do this. You’re going to grind today.” I just don’t give myself an excuse, and I try to say as many positive things as possible.
What advice would you offer new runners?
A lot of times when I’ve been injured, I haven’t worked on the problems. I’ve been like, “I have a stress fracture, so I’m just going to take six weeks off.” There’s probably a reason why I got a stress fracture; maybe I’m landing on the wrong spot or something’s tight or weak, and so I’ve just waited for things to heal. Bones heal with rest, but the cause doesn’t heal. You need to continue to do all of the little things.
What races are you looking forward to in 2018?
I really want to make the world championships team for the half marathon. Then I’m going to move down in distance and focus on 10Ks and 5Ks for the track season.
I think that we write things down on paper and we want things to go exactly the way we’ve written them. My buildup to New York City didn’t go exactly the way I wanted it to; the race didn’t go exactly the way I thought it would go. You just have to be flexible; you can’t be tied to what’s written down, because way more things happen in life than we’re ever going to expect or consider. If you feel great, then sure–run another marathon in five weeks. If you feel like poop, then you’ve got to take some time off. Some people, especially when you hit the wall in a race, it’s hard to come back from that, so you just need more time, and you have to adjust. I ran two marathons in 2016, and I didn’t really go all out in any of them, and I didn’t take any time off; I just kept running throughout the season. You just have to listen to your body. I think that’s why it’s good to have a coach. If you come back after a break and you look bad, they can tell. It’s nice to have someone that can see you and be like, “Yeah, you’re not ready.”