These days, Emily Potter is first and foremost a mom. When Salty and I had lunch with her in Jacksonville, the talk was babies and strollers, nap time and preschool prep. If you met her at the grocery store, you would have no idea about the other lives she’s had.
Then again, if you met her at the grocery store near her house outside of Washington, D.C., you’d probably see her in spandex with her two daughters in a double wide running stroller, so you might get a glimpse. Even then though, you probably wouldn’t guess that Emily is the kind of woman who can casually, just happen to, qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon while on a family vacation, just 10 months after having her second child.
But that’s because you wouldn’t know her as Major Emily Potter of the United States Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
“I did public affairs,” Emily explained, strolling through the parking lot of our hotel.
Salty nodded. “Was it like you did a desk job for the Army, or…?”
“Well, when I was logistics I worked in a motor pool. I was deployed a couple of times.” Like many veterans, Emily is matter-of-fact about her service. “In 2003 and then in 2009, right after the [2008 Olympic Marathon] Trials.”
Emily ran collegiately for West Point, but, she says, “I think I wasn’t that focused. I mean, at West Point you have a lot going on.” It wasn’t until after her first deployment that Emily decided to get competitive. “My first five years out of college I didn’t really race or train, because with the Army I just didn’t have time and I just didn’t want to.” She applied to and was selected for the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), a program whose mission is to train elite athletic soldiers and afford them the opportunity to represent the United States in competition around the world, including at the Olympics.
I ran marathons and did cross country pretty much all over the world. Every year I got to spend one weekend competing with teammates from the Army against the other services and the top 5 from cross country got to go to the world military championships and I got to run in… let’s see, I went to Tunisa, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Serbia. Places I would probably never ever go to and I got to run there for the Army, which was just amazing.
In 2009 she was the Army’s female Athlete of the Year after being the only woman to compete for them in the 2008 Trials. She qualified just months after breaking her back while attempting to join Team USA for the Modern Pentathlon. She competed for the Army again in the 2012 Trials, where she ran a 6 minute PR, 2:39:55.
Although things are a little different now that she’s retired from military service, her tenacity persists. “It’s kind of random, no one’s ever qualified there before,” Emily laughs, talking about her win and course record at the 2015 Edmonton Marathon in Alberta, Canada while she was 10 months postpartum and still breastfeeding.
I was still getting back in shape after having my second daughter. I needed something on the calendar to keep me running through the summer and I couldn’t really find anything in the US and that was the closest. I originally thought I would run CIM in December to try to qualify, so I didn’t want to run Marine Corps or something in August because that was too close. Edmonton was basically the earliest marathon I could find.
Emily had no idea she would run just three minutes shy of her PR and 2012 Trials time. She can’t stop laughing thinking about how unexpected it was.
I ran a 2:42:56. So 4 seconds [to spare]! We went to Glacier [National Park] and camped after, so it was really good that I ran a marathon at the beginning of our family vacation. I didn’t go into the marathon thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to qualify for the Olympic Trials, I’m gonna try to run this pace,’ I just ran and I happened to get on pace from the beginning.
I didn’t even know I was on pace, I wasn’t checking my splits or anything, but I ended up running a mile or two with some guy around the 10k mark and he told me ‘Oh we’re on such-and-such pace,’ and I was like, ‘Oh! Well I feel great! Alright, I’m going to do this today!’ When I went through the half I was on pace and I thought, ‘Alright, I’m going to qualify for the Trials today. I’m just going to do it.’ And again I was like… I had a donut for breakfast the day before! And it was 9 hours to travel there with my screaming daughter on my lap [she laughs] it was not an ideal situation to get there! But I guess it worked out with no pressure.
No pressure is another common theme in Emily’s success. “No coach, no real workouts and I ran my second fastest time,” she says about Edmonton. “I think with no pressure and just… Just doing what I enjoy I’ve actually gotten more competitive.”
The joy she finds in running shines through when she talks about logging 90% of her mileage (70% now that she’s training for the Trials) with her daughters in her double BOB stroller. Her approach to a high mileage lifestyle is certainly unique in its flexibility and ease. She runs back and forth to the grocery stores nearby her house, runs to playgrounds and isn’t afraid to split up 8 and 10 mile days into several runs over the course of the day.
Once during a particularly cold day she bundled up the kids and ran from one grocery store two miles to the other grocery store, taking short breaks in each to warm-up before heading out for more. “People never see me in normal clothes,” she laughs. “They probably don’t think I own normal clothes because I just wear my running clothes all the time. If I think ‘Oh, if I can get in a couple miles now’ I just do it.”
When asked for some wisdom to share with the average competitive runner she says,
Do what you enjoy. I’ve found that actually improved and done better when I don’t have any pressure on myself and haven’t had set goals for myself. I know most people say to set goals, but I’ve found that when I just run and do races and pick workouts or don’t do workouts, just really do what I enjoy I end up doing even better. When there’s no pressure and you actually enjoy it you’re going to meet your own goals and make new goals along the way.
Thanks for taking the time to share with us, Emily! We’ll be sure to have a donut for you while we’re cheering for you at the Trials!