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It’s hard enough to move across the country to start your first job out of college at any time, much less in the middle of a pandemic. But when your new gig is professional running and the weight of making your first Olympic team is on your shoulders, well — let’s just say that last year was not a jog in the park for Sinclaire Johnson.
The 23-year-old is the youngest member of the Bowerman Track Club (BTC), a Nike-sponsored distance training group coached by Jerry Schumacher and based out of Portland, Oregon. Johnson signed a professional contract with Nike in 2019 after a breakout junior year at Oklahoma State that saw her win the NCAA 1500m title with the second-fastest time in collegiate history, 4:05.98, and place fourth in the event at the USATF Championships — just barely missing out on a spot at the World Championships.
She had one more year of eligibility at Oklahoma State, but her racing prowess indicated she was ready for the big leagues. Still, turning pro wasn’t exactly an easy decision.
“I definitely didn’t really feel ready, honestly, in the beginning,” she said from altitude camp with BTC in Park City, Utah.
With the support of her family — “they were huge proponents of me leaving [the NCAA system] and striking while the iron’s hot” — Johnson signed a contract with Nike, with the caveat that she would finish her degree in Stillwater and train with coach Dave Smith in the lead up to the Olympic Trials.
Of course, no one could have predicted the maelstrom that 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic brought to the world — including pushing the Olympic Games in Tokyo back one full calendar year. One extra year in Oklahoma started to look like two years, and eventually, Johnson and Smith agreed it was time for the young middle-distance talent to move on.
“My college coach [Dave Smith] and I got to a point where we realized that if I really want to make a crack at the [Olympic] team, I needed to immerse myself in an environment that was conducive to running faster and being surrounded by a bunch of people who have done things that I want to do, and I couldn’t recreate that in Oklahoma,” she says. “Ideally, I didn’t want to move, especially during a pandemic, but I don’t think there was going to be a better time to move.
“I thought, ‘let’s give it a go.’ Jerry’s a smart coach and he’s not gonna do anything that will ruin my chances of making the Olympic team by throwing me to the wolves. [I] decided to trust that and make a leap of faith.”
Once she signed with Nike, Johnson says “it was just a matter of time” before she joined BTC, because that’s where she could train with Shelby Houlihan — the current queen of middle-distance running in the United States, the national record holder in both the 1500m and 5000m.
“I wanted to train with the best person in my event group,” Johnson says. “Having the best of the best was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to surround myself with, so that’s why I came here.”
Adjusting to BTC Training
In her six months as a member of BTC, Johnson hasn’t actually spent all that much time in Portland. The training group spent the first seven weeks of the year in Flagstaff for altitude camp and recently traveled to Utah for another stint at altitude, and this time, they’ll stay until the Olympic Trials, with a few travel weekends built in for racing.
In Park City, she’s bunking with teammates Emily Infeld, Marielle Hall and Vanessa Fraser, none of whom are 1500m specialists — which takes a little bit of the heat off of pressure-cooker workouts with Houlihan and Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, the Canadian national record holder in the 1500m and 5000m.
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“It’s really beneficial to me to learn how they approach training,” Johnson says. “I don’t get so worked up about blowing up in a workout if Shelby tells me she did that for two years.
The Florida native was originally a lacrosse player, and first found her stride on the track as a 400m/800m runner in high school. She could run cross country well, but had true natural speed on the track with prep bests of 55 seconds in the 400m and 2:08 in the 800m. That innate leg speed is clear from her thrilling 2019 NCAA title-winning 1500m run.
Now, Johnson says she could probably split 51 high or 52 low for 400m, and predicts it would be a close race with Houlihan — although she’s seen the reigning U.S. champion do some wild workouts on the track.
Pure speed days — rare as they are under Schumacher — are Johnson’s favorite workouts with the crew. One day, they ran 4 x 300m at close to all-out effort with full recovery, and Johnson split 39-40 seconds per 300m.
Another time, the 1500m runners did four sets of 5 x 200m at 30 seconds with 100m, 30-second jog recovery.
“After two sets, Jerry had to modify it for me,” she says of one of the hardest workouts she’s done so far with BTC. “Shelby did that entire workout, and Gabriela and I just looked at each other, like, ‘that was insane.’”
Johnson’s overall mileage has remained fairly low in order to prevent injury, as the intensity of workout days has dramatically increased. She says that at 55 to 60 miles per week, she’s on the lowest end of the spectrum for BTC athletes.
“The biggest adjustment is workouts and intensity of workouts,” she says. “The workouts I’m doing now are ten times harder than what I was doing in college. The intensity skyrocketed. I think that’s why we’ve maintained my volume the same.”
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One key workout from the fall was four sets of 400m, 300m, 200m with a 100m jog recovery between reps and four minutes between sets. The first and third sets had a shorter rest and were done at Johnson’s 3K pace (67–68 seconds per 400m), and the second and fourth sets were faster (62–64 seconds per 400m), closer to 1500m or even 800m race pace.
“There are obviously some days where it shows if I’m running with Shelby or Gabby, there’s more experience or their legs have a little more strength,” she says. “There are workouts I can’t complete, but for the most part, it’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
It’s hard to feel ready to make the big jump into the professional world — no matter your profession. But Johnson is clearly on the right track, physically and mentally.
“I think I was a little intimidated [at first],” she says. “Coming here changed my perspective and made me feel like more of an equal. I had them on a pedestal and… [now], I get on the start line and I’m standing next to Jenny [Simpson] and Shelby having more of that mindset that maybe I can beat them. I definitely did not feel like that last year.”