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Prepping for the Chicago Marathon, Amy Cragg Puts Trust in Her Team

In 2018 she wasn’t ready to compete, but the world championships bronze medalist is now happily back to the “marathon grind.”

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It was about a year ago that Amy Cragg took a misstep while training in Mammoth Lakes, California, and tweaked her hamstring. Although she recovered from the injury fairly quickly, it was just enough to put a crushing end to her goal to line up for the 2018 Chicago Marathon.

“It’s so incredibly hard when you work so hard for something and then you can’t do it,” Cragg said, during a recent phone interview with Women’s Running. “But I will say, surround yourself with people who are going to have your best interests at heart, who aren’t afraid to tell you when it’s not the right thing—and trust them. I wouldn’t have been the one to pull the plug. But they knew that long-term it would hurt me.”

Cragg, 35, is a member of the Bowerman Track Club, based in Portland, Oregon, under the direction of coach Jerry Schumacher. And now she’s back training for the 2019 Chicago Marathon on October 13, after 18 months away from racing 26.2-miles. The last time was the 2018 Tokyo Marathon, where she placed third in 2:21:41, a personal best by more than five minutes, making her the fifth-fastest U.S. woman at the distance.

In the past year, the overriding goal, Cragg said, was doing whatever was best to ultimately make the 2020 Olympic team. The Olympic Trials are set for February 29 in Atlanta, where the top three finishers who have the Olympic qualifying standard will be named to the team. Cragg still needs to achieve the Olympic standard within the specified window—either by time (2:29:30) or by placing in the top 10 in Chicago. Those are her primary goals for the October race, but as her training tells her more about her fitness in the months ahead, she’ll likely target a few more ambitious secondary goals.

“In training and everything we’re going to protect that goal of the qualifying standard for the Olympics—that’s what we’re going there to do,” she said. “But at the same time if things go well, we’ll narrow the focus of what I want to achieve on race day.”

The Chicago Marathon may serve as a good preview for the February Trials, too. Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. woman in the marathon, is also planning to compete—her personal best of 2:20:57 was set at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, when she placed third. Hasay has indicated she’d like to set the American record in October, currently held by Deena Kastor in 2:19:36.

Although she was upset to not compete last year, not all was lost for Cragg after she withdrew from the marathon. She started focusing on shorter distances and was thrown into workouts with her teammates, all of whom are Olympians specializing in middle-distance events—and are rather good at them, too. Like Shelby Houlihan, American record holder in the 5,000 meters (14:34.45) and Colleen Quigley, national indoor mile champion.

“It was really hard. It’s a different stimulus than I’m used to,” Cragg said. “They’re the best in the world at what they do. There were a lot of tough moments, putting my head down and hanging on in practice.”

As a result, though, Cragg took third in the national road 5K championships in November and fifth at the U.S. cross-country championships in January. And she believes the focus on quicker cadence will help her in the marathon, too.

“It’s so important to go back to that faster stuff because your legs can almost go kind of dead after all that marathon training—if you’re just running 130 or 140 miles a week, day-in and day-out, all of a sudden those regular runs just naturally start slowing down,” she said. “You need to throw in that extra speed to keep the quality high. There will be five-minute miles thrown into a marathon—it’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the faster turnover.”

The Bowerman women’s group has plenty of members to keep things moving. In the past year, the group has added to its roster, including Karissa Schweizer, a six-time NCAA champion from the University of Missouri; Vanessa Fraser, a nine-time All American at Stanford University; and Elise Cranny, an 12-time All American at Stanford.

The recruits keep Cragg on her toes. Sometimes literally.

“They are really, really hard workers and any time you can add that new, young blood who are just going to work their butts off, it’s always a good thing,” she said, adding with a laugh that, “it does make me feel younger when I’m running with them, but there are other moments when I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so old. I cannot deal with these people who can just jump out of bed and are ready to go.’ I need an hour to walk around and stretch.”

Cragg will join the group—young, “old,” and somewhere in the middle—at altitude camp during her Chicago buildup, which is a diversion she enjoys. She’ll also have more company on the easy runs. Currently she is relying on her husband, Alistair Cragg, for company and pacing because most of the group is in Park City, Utah, focused on preparing for the U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which begin on July 25, in Des Moines, Iowa, or recovering from injury, like 2016 training partner Shalane Flanagan, who had knee surgery in April.

“When I’m up there with them it’s just incredible—one fun run with the team can carry me through a week,” she said. “Those camps propel us forward. Altitude is great, but it’s the change in focus and the mountains just slow everything down. You run and rest and just get your job done. I love it.”

Cragg is equally eager to head to Chicago, a race that feels like home to the Kansas native.

“The course really fits me and I love going home to the Midwest,” she said. “It’s just a little more relaxed being in Chicago, but when you get out on the race course there’s just as much excitement as any other major marathon. That’s the perfect combo—I don’t like to get too hyped up before races. It’s just perfect.”