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Born with an indistinguishable competitive fire, Amanda Phillips has always loved to race. No matter if it’s on the track, on the roads, or on a cross-country course, she’s always been eager to run as hard as possible at just about any distance, even if she’s only been running 20 miles a week and “not optimally fit.”
Like so many runners who work 9 to 5, the bigger challenge for Phillips has been finding time to train consistently. Quite often, life has gotten in the way for the 35-year-old middle school health teacher from Hood River, Oregon.
But then the coronavirus pandemic happened. And she hit reset.
When she graduated from college, Phillips didn’t have the opportunity to keep training with a high-level team, the consistent guidance of a coach, or the inspiration from teammates. She continued running on her own, but she started her career and never really had the time, support, or energy to train to achieve her best.
“I always knew that I had the ability,” she says. “It’s just that I was never doing all that I could to run up to what I thought my potential was.”
As the years went by, her busy daily schedule, work stress, tension from past trauma in her life, and a lack of consistent training kept adding up and dragging her down, prohibiting her from breakthrough race results.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Phillips took advantage of the brief calm that online teaching provided and took the necessary steps to find balance in her life. Working from home reduced her daily stress and fatigue, gave her more time to train, renewed her confidence—and gave her a new perspective about what is possible.
Last spring, Phillips was suddenly running faster than she did as a collegiate All-American. More than a dozen years from her last race for Lewis & Clark College, she improved almost all of her best times on the track, and then in the fall, she lowered her PRs for the half marathon and marathon, the latter coming in her 15th-place, 2:36:30 effort amid warm, humid conditions at the Chicago Marathon.
“It was just really great for me, because I was able to spend more time on my health and my self, and I got back into training hard,” she says. “I’m happy to have found a better balance. Running really is my passion, but I have never put it as number one before, and I’ve been trying to do that as much as I can now.”
Phillips has continued her surge in 2022 by winning the Austin Half Marathon (1:13:44) on February 20 and outrunning the field at the Shamrock Run 15K (54:57) in Portland, Oregon, on March 13. With the help of coach Travis Floeck and the new Cascadia Elite training group, Phillips is aiming for another marathon PR and a qualifying time for the 2024 Olympic Trials Marathon at the Los Angeles Marathon this weekend.
Inspired by Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall (who, in January, broke the American records in the marathon and half marathon, respectively, in their late 30s), Phillips believes her fastest running still might be years away. It’s not that she’s training more—80 miles a week is the most she can ever fit into her busy schedule—it’s that she’s training better.
“She’s very tenacious and very driven. She was in phenomenal shape before Chicago, but she’s even better now,” says Floeck, who is also the distance coach at the University of Idaho. “We know that Keira D’Amato is a good example of how, if someone sticks with it and trains well, they can reach levels they never even thought were possible, and I think Amanda is a really good example of that, too. She’s done some pretty remarkable things in training, so I’m just really excited for her to put out this next level of fitness out on the course in LA and see what happens.”
How Cascadia Elite Made All the Difference
The Cascadia Elite group formed organically last year (and organized more formally in January with some backing from Tracksmith) as a means to a create a community of sub-elite athletes who mostly live around the Pacific Northwest and were interested in supporting and empowering each other to pursue post-collegiate running goals. Of the initial 16 athletes on the Cascadia roster, 14 are women who are training for the 5K to the marathon.
They don’t have the resources and facilities of a larger group, but even the basic structure and camaraderie has been a big help. Some of the athletes meet up and train together when they can, and most get coaching guidance from Floeck, but just as essential are the connections made via Slack and Zoom that allow athletes to discuss workouts, ask questions, share race experiences, set up long runs, and just about anything else that would normally happen if they were all in one place.
“It’s been so nice to connect to this team because I feel like I’ve been on an island,” Phillips says. “For the longest time, I literally have had no one to train with. But even just the chance to be able to talk to someone else about your training, and, maybe more importantly, talk to someone about their goals and their training keeps your passion and your pulse alive. That’s part of the backbone of this group. It’s all about how we can bring people together who don’t have a training group in one place but still want to pursue high-level goals.”
Phillips’ high school career was marked by long stretches of not running, while her college experience was often interrupted by injuries. She got a glimpse of how good she could be when she became the first woman in Lewis & Clark history to qualify for nationals in cross-country and track in the same season and placed 19th at the 2007 NCAA Division III cross country championships.
But once out of school and the support system of her team gone, it was tough to keep going. At her first teaching job, she would get up at 2 a.m. to get her running in, often on a treadmill, before spending several hours every morning prepping class lessons. After a full day at school, she’d come home drained, eat dinner, and fall asleep by 7 p.m.
At her next teaching job, her time frame shifted a bit, partially because she found a fellow teacher who was willing to run with her at 4:30 a.m. But the pattern repeated itself. “After teaching all day and coaching cross-country or track, I’d get home at 7:30 p.m., eat dinner, and pass out,” she says.
She found some inspiration through coaching at her next two schools, but the long hours continued to cut into her running. On top of that, she was still feeling the impact of losing a close friend to suicide in 2011, enduring long-term grieving about drug abuse in her family, and dealing with the stress and sadness of her father and grandparents losing their homes in a massive wildfire in September of 2020.
The accumulation of all of that led to unsettling hormonal imbalances that impacted her physically, mentally, and emotionally for years. She was losing her hair. She suffered from adrenal gland disorders. Her menstrual cycle was highly irregular. Her immune system was depleted and she was constantly getting sick.
She had qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta, but, typical of her health situation at the time, she caught a bad cold the week before the race and felt rotten on race day. She’d hoped to have a breakthrough race, but wound up dropping out at the 18-mile mark.
“Stress does terrible things to the body,” she says. “Teaching is a high-stress job. The energy that it takes to teach in front of 30 kids for 7 hours is a lot. I have about 200 students per day and just remembering their names can be a challenge. The phrase ‘running around like a chicken with your head cut off’ is real. That’s what it feels like. I love it, but when you’re in it, you’re in it.”
Her reset while working from home during the COVID-19 shutdown allowed her to get more sleep, rectify her hormonal imbalances (with help from her doctor), and train more consistently. She was still giving her all to teaching, but she didn’t have to commute to and from school, and the stress of constant classroom management was gone.
When she returned to in-person teaching last spring, she benefitted from her school district implementing new protocols to focus on teacher and student health, including a shorter school day and more built-in time for teacher prep work. She also made the tough decision to stop coaching, at least temporarily, to focus more time and energy into her own running.
Phillips is getting married in the fall and, although her fiancé hadn’t been a runner, he’s provided added support to Phillips and showed his interest in her running by training and running his first race, an 8K in Portland on the same day she won the 15K.
Now that she has an improved life/work balance and a rejuvenated perspective, the sky’s the limit for Phillips, says Cascadia Elite teammate Marci Klimek, a former high school teammate who now lives in Talent, Oregon.
“Some people are very self-limiting and don’t give themselves a chance, but Amanda is not afraid,” says Klimek, a two-time Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier with a 2:30:48 PR. “Most people base their expectations on what they’ve done so far, but she’s able to see beyond that. She’s ran so well doing that by putting herself in a good situation. It makes it sweeter when you can show up at a race and be really competitive knowing you handled some extra challenges along the way with how much you had to sacrifice to make it work.”