Brett Ely: Consistently Spectacular
When preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime race like the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Women’s Marathon, every athlete puts enormous effort into getting to the line healthy and in peak form. Brett Ely is no exception and has logged thousands of miles and run several marathons in preparation for her third appearance in the U.S. Women’s Marathon Trials. Having competed in 2004 and again in 2008, Ely had a very specific objective for 2012: be better than in 2008 and get on the line with a sub 2:39 qualifying performance. Lofty goals indeed and ones that the 32 year-old scientist approached patiently and methodically until she had accomplished both. Along the way, she earned a spot on the U.S Marathon Team for the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Patience is a virtue that is not typically characteristic of an elite distance runner, but Ely has managed to hone her success off of an ability to be patient when it comes to training and recovering from injury. “Since I began running in high school, I’ve felt that the single most important factor in continued improvement is healthy, uninterrupted training. I’m quite injury prone and it is rare for me to put together even a year of training without some injury hiccups. But, after recovering from a navicular stress fracture and beginning to build up in August 2010, I was able to stay healthy for ~14 months and ran a string of personal bests (at distances from 3,000m up to the marathon). There is no magic formula for training, and I have very few workouts that would really impress anyone. It’s just a gradual process of chipping away, trying to be a little better than the week before, and learning to make decisions that allow that consistent unspectacular training rather than getting carried away with trying to make big, exciting leaps.”
And what does this ‘unspectacular’ training entail. Quite simply, hard work, dedication, and an ability to adjust based on how her body responds to the training. “During marathon training, a typical week is in the range of 80-100 miles and involves 2-3 moderately hard efforts. Between the hard or long efforts, I do as much running as I can to build up volume while still recovering for the next big day. There are times when that means 12-15 miles, and other times when I shuffle-stomp through 30 minutes and call it a day. There are also times when I feel great, but I can only manage one short run with my work schedule. I think having some flexibility, both in how your body is responding and in scheduling around other facets of your life, is an important component to staying healthy. I love numbers, but I’ve had to let go of worrying too much about mileage and instead I try to focus on making the hard days count and letting the other components ebb and flow. Terry is great about building this flexibility into my schedule, and the combination of knowing my body and trusting my coach has led to some very good training segments and races.”
Ely also has an added advantage of having professional knowledge that she can tap in her training and racing. “There is some overlap between my professional life and running career, in that some of the projects I work on involve thermoregulation, performance, fatigue, and hydration—all issues in the marathon. The one hot-weather marathon I’ve done (Miami 2010), I felt like my knowledge really prepared me for success and my race plan worked well for the conditions. However, there have also been a few times in my past where I knew the physiological rules but didn’t quite accept that they applied to me, which led to less than stellar outcomes (it turns out that I’m not the next step in human evolution). I do enjoy the crossover and I like having a thorough understanding of a training program and the specific benefits of it. At the same time, though, I try not to over-analyze everything, so sometimes I have to intentionally turn my ‘scientist’ brain off and just race hard and stupid.”
But her self-described ‘unspectacular’ training clearly leads to spectacular results. Case in point, at the 2008 US Olympic Team Trials Women’s Marathon in Boston, Ely had a terrific race: her 2:41:54 was a personal best by over 4 ½ minutes. Less than two years later, she was back on the line, looking to qualify for the 2012 Trials. She did just that in January 2010 when she won the Miami Marathon in 2:45:36 – slower than her personal best, but a qualifier nonetheless.
With her ticket to Houston assured, Ely set about bettering that time with her sights set on the 2:39 “A” standard. In December 2010, she raced at the California International Marathon where she successfully lowered her qualifying time – and her PB – running 2:40:46. She was getting closer, but not there yet. Still, the CIM race was a particularly satisfying one for Ely. As she puts it, “The main reason it stands out is that the race came after an injury over the summer that brought my future in running into question… Through the entire training segment, I was able to appreciate every minor victory, and felt so calm and well-prepared on the day of the race. It ended up being a great day—I had a bit of a rough patch from 10-20 miles, but a really strong finish in the last 10k, where I was continually passing people and feeding off that forward momentum. I was able to run a personal best and finish in the top 5 in a very deep field. I think the combination of the race outcome and being in a place where I could really appreciate it were what made that day so special.”
It was at Grandma’s Marathon this past June where Ely finally attained her goal of sub-2:39, running 2:38:53. That time put her among the top U.S. Women Marathoners and resulted in an invitation to the Pan Am Games in October. While three marathons in a 7-month period isn’t an optimal training cycle, Ely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to represent the United States in international competition. She made adjustments in her training that would allow her to compete in Mexico in October and Houston in January. She was also able to take advantage of an excellent training opportunity when she was invited to stay and prepare for the Pan Am Games at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “Since the Pan Am Games were in Guadalajara, Mexico (elevation 5,180 ft), USATF provided an opportunity for the distance runners to live at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for 10 days prior to our race to adjust at a similar altitude, which was another exciting component of the experience. Since I’m usually balancing training with my job and other responsibilities, it was great to live the simple, Spartan life of the athlete for about 2 weeks before the race.”
As the trials approach, Ely has had to manage another injury that set her training back. A hip issue forced her to drop out of the Pan Am Marathon and take some time off, so her training leading to the Olympic Trials has not been what she had hoped. “The additional challenge that I’ve discovered with the Olympic trials marathon is that it’s the only fixed event on my racing calendar. Each trials race has come at a time when I’ve been recovering from injury or another recent marathon, and at any other time I’d simply find a marathon further down the road so that I felt I had adequate time to prepare. You have no such luxury with the Olympic Trials, but I’m certain I’m not the only person at that race that was hoping for another few weeks to get ready. It’s essentially the only time in a four year period when every top marathon runner in the country is gearing up for the same day.”
Still, she is working off of her fitness base and keeping her goal in perspective. “I’ve been trying to maintain the same attitude that brought me success in the past year—letting go of big expectations and just trying to better than the week before. There have been some humbling workouts and some moments of doubt, but at the same time I’m still excited by the challenge and the honor of being on that starting line on January 14th, and I’m committed to racing as best I can while avoiding comparison to where I thought I could be before this recent setback.”
In describing the Olympic Trials, Ely notes that “Competing in the Olympic Trials is simultaneously the most thrilling and terrifying running experience I’ve had. It is an incredible honor to be a part of a race featuring all of the top U.S. women, and to have constant camaraderie and competition from those women throughout the race. At the same time, even when you’re not a prime contender for an Olympic team, it’s a big stage and that can lead to feeling additional pressure to perform well. I think the primary challenge is finding a balance between elevating your game in order to compete well against the impressive field and trying to approach it like it’s just another race.” And while the results in Mexico where not what she had hoped, she still learned some things that she can apply to her race in Houston, “In addition to getting a glimpse into what it takes to be a national- or international-caliber athlete, it was also another challenge like the trials, where it was important to stay calm on a big stage and let the additional pressure of the race be a positive force and not a negative distraction.”
Many runners will follow a certain pre-race ritual or rely on a “lucky charm” to help them focus and calm their nerves. Not surprisingly, Ely takes a more scientific approach to reinforce her goals and mentally prepare herself for the grueling race; “There is one slightly quirky thing I’ve done during the build-up for the past few marathons: everything I put in the microwave goes in for my goal time. When I wanted to run sub-2:39, everything was heated for 2 minutes and 38 seconds. It was just a visual cue to reinforce those numbers in my mind (with the unfortunate side effect of some under- and over-cooked meals). Since I’m still unsure of what I’ll be ready to run at the trials, I’ve actually noticed I have this moment of confusion at the microwave—without a goal, I have no idea how long to heat my mug of soup for. Other than that, though, I don’t really have any specific pre-race rituals. I believe in myself, I believe in my coach, I believe in my training. What ritual could be luckier than that feeling?”
And she is singularly focused on the Trials race, “As much as I love running, I make a point to tell myself during every marathon ‘you never have to run again after this.’ It allows me to give everything I have in the race, which helps eliminate that pesky instinct for self preservation hard-wired in to our human brains”
Going in to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Women’s Marathon, she does not have any specific race strategy “other than dialing in the right effort early on and then hopefully working my way up as the race unfolds. I haven’t run on the trials course, but I’ve seen the map and heard some reviews. Houston is generally pretty flat, and I have run the Houston half marathon before, so I feel like I have a good idea of what to expect. Since the course is three 8-mile loops, I also know I can learn as the race progresses and there won’t be any surprises in the last 8 miles.”
She also likes the layout and sees some comparisons to the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon. “It looks pretty similar to the 2008 trials course in Boston, and I really enjoyed the loop course, u-turns and all. I felt like the layout helped me execute a strong race. The multi-loop format really helps with mentally tackling the course, allowing a different strategy or goal for each loop. Being able to think ‘one lap to go!’ rather than ‘8.2 more miles…’ at the end of the race is a nice feeling.”
Her advice to other marathoners is something that she has had great success with in her own racing and will be looking to put into play on January 14th. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my past few marathons is that you can endure more than you think in the last 10k. Commit to racing and just blindly trust you’ll be able to hold it together. It may not work every time, but when it does, it’s an incredible feeling.”