In 2000, a ginger-haired 12-year-old named Bria Wetsch won the women’s open division of the Hennepin Lake Classic 10K.
This past December at the Marathon Project, 32-year-old Bria Wetsch sheared over 7 minutes off her marathon best, placing tenth in 2:29:50.
The always-elfin fireball found what she wanted early in life, latched onto it, dreamed big, and worked hard. Now she’s living that dream.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Girls who jump from primary school to the podium, more so than other demographics, find themselves in a harsh spotlight: yes there’s wonder and applause, but also scrutiny and speculation. It’s a lot to heap on narrow shoulders. That weight, public opinion they innocently drew, uniquely shapes child stars’ paths.
Early Running Stardom
The oldest of three siblings in Chaska, Minnesota, Wetsch was, admittedly, a type-A character from the get-go, driven to perfection in school, sports, everything. When her dad took up running, 11-year-old Wetsch asked to go along. The two hit some local road races — 5Ks and 10Ks — and she placed well, not just in her age group, but in the open division.
“I liked the freedom of running. You just lace up your shoes and head out the door,” Wetsch says of her start in the sport. “It felt like meditation, even though I didn’t know what meditation was then. And it was fun! I wouldn’t say that after a few years, but early on it was. It was exciting to have this new thing that I was really good at, and to keep improving and finding out more about myself.”
She came into 7th grade a comparatively seasoned competitor and made the varsity cross country squad at Chaska High School. But already, perfectionism combined with a 12-year-old’s view on how to “do running right” was a recipe for disordered eating.
“I was stubborn,” Wetsch admits. “I thought I knew best, and that everyone else was out to get me.” How to improve? More mileage, more discipline — done and done — so she landed on another factor within her control — maintaining a tiny body. She started eating less, restricting calories, and cutting out fat and sugar.
Fortunately, Wetsch’s parents recognized what was going on and the health risks it posed. “They’d tell me I couldn’t run if I didn’t eat enough, but sometimes I snuck out anyway to go for a run. I was hospitalized — that scared some sense into me. My family and my coaches helped me through it. I had some injuries when I came back, but eventually I figured it out; that the better I fueled, the better I felt, and by senior year I could see that in my results.”
Game-faced, she embarked on a spectacular high school campaign that included a Minnesota state cross country championship accomplished in course record time, three state 3200-meter titles, a win at 1600 meters and two runner-up finishes, top-10 finishes at Foot Locker and USA Junior Cross Country, and as a senior, a Nike Outdoor National 2-Mile title in 10:10.50 — then the second fastest time in the country.
“I had huge goals — I thought I’d go to Oregon and be a pro runner and be in the Olympics,” says Wetsch. “I wanted to run a marathon. I told my brother and sister I was going to be the best in the world, and they were like, ‘Okay.’ I thought by now I’d have retired as a runner and be a partner at a CPA firm, that it was going to be a straight path.”
Excited about her future in running, Wetsch and her dad created a website where people could follow her progress. It was called something like Watch Bria Run, she can’t remember exactly.
“We got all this shit for it. Comments along the lines of, ‘someone needs to hold her back.’ That was sad. I don’t know what it is — I don’t necessarily think people want to see young girls fail,” notes Wetsch. “Maybe it’s exciting to see someone rise and fall. Young girls fading away is a story we keep writing. I heard all these things — this is what’s going to happen, be careful — and became focused on that. Any article written about me had that spin on it, and I didn’t like it. It’s a story we’ve created, invented really, that young girls have to face this obstacle of burning out. It’s ridiculous to me that we choose to focus on that.”
The public pessimism only strengthened her resolve. A little less innocent, a little more guarded, her stellar senior year was confirmation she was on the right track. She just had to work hard and stay tough. Despite being hampered by injuries at Oregon, she made the traveling team every year and was a top contributor at the distances in track and cross country, and in five years, graduated with a Masters in Accounting. Impressive by any metric, but her collegiate career fell short of the stratospheric trajectory she’d planned.
“When I first started running, there was no internet, I didn’t know what other people were doing, I just did what I thought was right,” says Wetsch. “In college, I compared myself to others, to what I’d done in the past, and what I thought I should be doing. The anxiety before races was so great, I’d hope that somehow the race wouldn’t happen. I set myself up to reach these goals and if I didn’t, I perceived myself as failing. Early on, I ran balls to the wall, no fear, but in college, I was scared of failing. I didn’t want to be the girl everyone said I would be. The goal was not to succeed any more, but to not fail. That’s not a good way to go about things. There were a lot of other things going on at that time — I struggled with depression — and that all got tied up together.”
But she kept her foot on the pedal. After all, being a top runner, an endurance runner, wasn’t supposed to be easy. You had to be tough. There were bright spots at Oregon — classes she enjoyed, and good times with friends and teammates. In 2011, Wetsch graduated, passed on two remaining seasons of eligibility, and took an accounting job in Portland. It felt like she was back on track, an independent woman, working, training, and focused on qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials.
“Deep down I felt like I had unfinished business, untapped potential, and I wanted to delve into that. I ran the Twin Cities Marathon and had a blast, just like I’d dreamed of.” Wetsch ran 2:44 on little training and decided that the marathon was her “thing.” It got her to wondering how much better she could be if she really focused on it. The conventional pro runner path was to join a group, and train at altitude, two-a-days, all running, all the time. She quit her job and moved to Mammoth.
Some people thrive on a singular focus. Wetsch did not. Having only running — no work, no classes — served to emphasize what wasn’t going right. It was easy to pinpoint the physical pain in her heels, every step a jagged edge, but the mental torment of a broken way of thinking was harder to diagnose. She did what any Type A, driven person would: doubled down, worked harder, endured more. For four years.
“Running defined me and my happiness. I kept thinking if I ran 75 minutes in the half, that would make me happy. Then when it didn’t happen, I got more sad and frustrated. I thought maybe everyone feels like this, and I’m just not tough enough. I couldn’t admit I was in physical pain because if I admitted it, I would lose my threshold, my ability to endure. I wore it as a badge — Oh I’m tough. I have this high threshold of pain.”
She tried platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, she took breaks, but the pain was still there. Somewhere along the way, pain started to be a normal part of life as a competitive runner. That running could be pleasant and fun, well, that was a silly idea left behind along with trapper keepers and sleepovers.
“I didn’t know how to trust my own body. It’s hard to think about how long I spent, it makes me very sad. I was running to prove everyone wrong, to prove I was going to be successful. At first it was gradual, and then in my face — something needed to change. It was such a low point, there really could be no wrong decision.”
She left Mammoth in 2016, moved to Colorado with her then-boyfriend (now, fiance), and in 2017, had double achilles surgery.
From Child Star to Adult Runner
And that was the inflection point. When child star Bria Wetsch became adult runner Bria Wetsch, when she started owning running instead of the other way around. She rediscovered the freedom and joy that had first ignited her sixth grade self.
“It’s only been in the past four years, since I left Mammoth, that I’ve been able to turn my mental health around. I got a job in accounting, 30 hours a week, so I have more balance in my life. And I was running just to run, so grateful to be pain-free. That’s when things turned around.”
And turn around they did. Just 13 months after surgery, Wetsch ran CIM in a new PR of 2:37:16. The remarkable aspect of that performance was not the miraculously quick return from injury, nor the pro-level pace. It was the pain-free part. Free from achilles pain, and free from equally debilitating fear and anxiety.
Working with Matt Hensley of Boulder Underground, she focused on enjoying the day-to-day-training and staying healthy. “I like the Yoda line — ‘You must unlearn what you have learned,’” Hensley says. “Running is so quantitative, it’s easy for your times and places to become your identity. We tried to rewire, to be mindful of thoughts and feelings when we assessed training, and focus on process.”
Free of the weight of expectation, her own and others’, Wetsch soared. Tenth American at 2019 Boston Marathon, then 2:37:58 — scaring her PR — on the hilly 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon, and in December, the eye-opening 2:29:50.
That massive seven-plus-minute PR was accomplished with what was in her experience astoundingly low mileage — just two weeks over 90 miles, most at 75.
“If you had asked Bria of even five years ago if I could do that, I would have said, ‘No way! I need to do more mileage,’” Wetsch said. “I thought I had to outwork everybody. But my views on life, and on mental health have changed. I need to be happy and believe in myself, and enjoy the journey and things will come together. In my 20s, I was so caught up in what others were doing without regard to what I wanted or needed to do. Now I do trail runs in the mountains. I would never have done that in my 20s — too slow! I’m not so caught up in mileage and paces.”
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She credits meditation — even ten minutes of stillness, shutting out the noise from outside — with being able to trust that what she’s doing and feeling is right. Like her audacious, high-flying, 12-year-old self.
“That’s not to say I’m not training hard, that I don’t have goals, but there’s so much more to life than fast times. I run in gorgeous places, not always on a flat, safe road. I try to draw more out of running than just a performance.”
Advice to the Next Phenoms: “Anything is Possible”
There’s a girl out there somewhere, maybe 11-and-a-half years old, discovering that she’s really good at running. Looking back at her own long road, Wetsch would tell the next phenom that there will be peaks and valleys, that the road won’t always be straight. She’d counsel her to practice mental health with as much dedication as physical. But mostly she’d encourage big, big dreams — sky’s the limit.
“I want the message to be: anything is possible,” said the grown up child star. “You might want something different when you’re 20 than you did at 12. Or you might still be running and loving it. Anything’s possible.”