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Heading into the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, Carrie Dimoff was on a roll at home, at work, and on the roads. The mother of two boys was about to toe the line in her fourth Olympic Trials after several years of progress. In 2017 she set a personal best of 2:30:54; in 2018 she finished the New York City Marathon in 2:31:12; and in 2019 she placed 13th at the world championship marathon in Doha, Qatar, in brutally hot conditions.
But at the time, Dimoff—who is racing at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, hoping to dip under 2:30—had a lot more going on than racing the Atlanta. She had just spent three weeks in East Africa running with the world’s best marathoners, part of her job as Nike’s program director in footwear innovation. As she helped put the finishing touches on the Nike AlphaFly—the paradigm-shifting “super shoe” that she had been developing with her team for year—Dimoff needed to solicit feedback from athletes about the new technology on their feet.
In order to find out exactly how the best distance runners on the plant intended to use the shoes, Dimoff trained alongside them on the dirt road of Kaptagat and in the Entoto mountains north of Addis Ababa. She trailed the likes of marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge and his training partners, then ran alongside Ethiopian stars like Roza Dereje, Mare Dibaba, and Ruti Aga.
“Even though the race culminates in the same location, their training is different,” Dimoff said. “The athletes are all doing most of their training on different surfaces, they might need protection from stones, all of these factors are very location-specific, so of course their preferences are going to be really specific.”
After arriving in Ethiopia, Dimoff joined a group training at 10,000 feet above sea level. Wearing an AlphaFly prototype, she navigated a trail run through root-filled, densely packed forests, trying not to sprain an ankle while hopping over eucalyptus branches. Watching the athletes run in the shoes on their own training ground and combining it with her own experience helped in making the shoes more protective on a variety of terrain.
While the intelligence she gathered was far more valuable than what she would have learned by merely meeting these runners in a conference room, the travel and work responsibilities were not an ideal taper period prior to racing the Olympic Trials Dimoff considered not lining up in Atlanta, knowing that she’d probably not perform to the best of her ability. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to pass up the country’s premiere marathon, so she headed to Georgia after a pitstop in New York for the official release of the AlphaFly.
“In 2019 I felt like I had reached this emotional and physical peak. Getting 13th [at the World Championships] exceeded my expectations. I actually got pretty sick and had to take a month off to feel better,” she said, adding that it was mostly chronic fatigue that she suffered. “I had made huge jumps forward in the marathon and was hitting emotional and physical high points. But it was really hard to follow that up with the Olympic trials.”
She finished 20th in 2:36:41 and a few weeks later, of course, the entire world changed. Her children’s school closed; work was put on pause; for a while everything stopped—and so did her running.
“Then it started—that year that everyone had, of uncertainty and nothingness. I didn’t want to train. I told my coach [Elliot Heath] not to write me a training logs or set concrete expectations,” Dimoff said. “I just needed to cope with everything.”.
Like a lot of parents, Dimoff was not sure she would be ready to begin a new training cycle any time soon. She and her husband, John Dimoff, awoke to ever-changing updates about school closures and how her team at work would operate. Prioritizing the physical and emotional well-being of her two sons, then ages 9 and 11, took center stage. Online meetings began, but concerns about the kids’ academic and social development lingered. In the early stages of the pandemic running could be an outlet at times, but certainly not a priority.
“I just had to train a different way. During that whole 2020 year nothing was horrible. Nothing terrible happened in our family,” she said. “But suddenly the kids were home and I was working from home and I felt like we had new things to focus on.”
By the fall, the Dimoffs had developed new routines. The kids settled in a semi-regular virtual school program and Nike had gone to a hybrid format, allowing Dimoff to feel like she had a bit more flexibility. In the spring of 2021 Dimoff’s itch to get back to marathon training returned as her Bowerman Track Club Elite group resumed practices. They met for workouts at 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday mornings and long runs on the weekends.
It’s the support of her team that has kept her running. And, in fact, her speed sessions for this training cycle have coincided with Shalane Flanagan’s, who has already raced the Berlin and London marathons and is scheduled to run Chicago, Boston, a virtual Tokyo race, and New York City before the fall is over.
“I draw on [the club’s] energy and enthusiasm at workouts and it motivates me to come to practice and work through the ups and downs,” Dimoff said.
Before getting into her more serious training in the lead up to Chicago, Dimoff made it a point to ease back in by just running regularly, with no expectations for mileage or pace. After a while, she reached a big milestone, running 500 consecutive days—and then told her coach she was ready to get competitive again. She’s put in some of her highest mileage months, running around 85 miles per week. She also ran some fast times on the track during the spring, dipping below a 60-second 400 meters. Since then, averaging 5:40 per mile pace on long runs has indicated she is in a good position to get under another elusive marathon mark—breaking 2:30.
She’ll have a couple of new fans cheering her on this time. Now that her sons are a little older, they understand the goals their mom is working toward in Chicago. Her older son, who is 12 and was not yet born when Dimoff ran her first Olympic Trials, has even developed his own love of running.
“It’s definitely nice to experience running in a new light, through him,” Dimoff said. “And I do think my kids are gaining more of an awareness of the larger role that training plays in my life and that when I go out for a run there is a broader purpose. They’ve started asking more questions.”
Though she technically joined track in middle school, Dimoff did not take sports seriously until late in high school, and as a 38-year-old still competing at an elite level, she sees levity as a key to longevity. “Sport is such a long road, and kids don’t need to be so serious early on. I think the longer you wait to take it very seriously, the better.”
And on Sunday in Chicago, Dimoff will at long-last enjoy a notoriously fast, flat course, after conquering that oppressive heat of Doha and the relentless hills and wind of Atlanta.
“I really trust in whatever training I’m given on the day. I trust that my coach has nailed it so all I need to do is show up and the race will take care of itself,” Dimoff said. “I’m just trying to approach it with this positive outlook and get out there and trust my strength.”