Maria Elena Calle, now an Olympian, was only nine years old when she started running at her elementary school in Cuenca, Ecuador. Although she usually finished first or second, Maria insists that the races were just for fun and she wasn’t thinking about winning. “At that age, it was just an after school activity mainly to spend time with friends,” she says.
Maria always loved running, which came naturally to her. At 17 she was selected to represent Ecuador in both the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the Bolivian Games, which is like a mini-Olympics for South America, held every four years. Maria was one of the youngest competitors there and surprised everyone by finishing thid in both races (behind Janet Caizilitin who finished fourth in the 1992 World Cross Country Championships junior race and Martha Tenorio, a 2:27 marathoner). She recalls standing on the podium singing the Ecuadorian national anthem and realizing that, “maybe, just maybe, I could be good at running.”
Hops/SR: You grew up in Ecuador and moved to the US for college. How did you make that decision to move so far from home? Did you have to learn English before applying to universities here?
Maria: This is such a long story, but I am going try to make it short. I raced in the 1994 World Championships junior race in Hungary. Soon after that, I got a letter from Brigham Young University letting me know about their school and scholarship opportunities. Of course, I didn’t know English then. So, I put the letter in a drawer. My oldest sister eventually learned enough English to translate the letter for me.
Six months later, I received another letter from Boston University offering me a scholarship. I didn’t have a visa and I still didn’t know English, but I decided to move to New York City and live with my middle sister and her husband for a year. There was a small possibility, that I may be able to get an education for free while pursuing my passion as a runner. I didn’t think twice and, next thing I knew I was hugging my family and friends goodbye. Yes, there was a lot of crying too!
When I arrived in NYC, my sister and I spoke Spanish for two hours then she handed me a Spanish/English dictionary. I was not allowed to speak Spanish anymore! I didn’t speak much for the first three months and I basically taught myself English by going to the library everyday and watching Friends (to this day, this is one of my favorite shows!!)
I took the SAT and TOEFL tests and applied to BU six months later. However, I was not accepted because my test scores were too low for their standards. My sister’s brother-in-law helped me to write letters to coaches at other schools; I hoped they might have some interest. To my surprise, I got a lot of scholarship offers. At the end, my top two choices were Arkansas (1995 National Champions in Cross Country) and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Did you know I almost went to Arkansas?
At the last minute, I had a change of heart because I wanted to be closer to my sister. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted to be on the medical field. So, VCU ended up being the perfect fit! I enrolled myself in a six-week English class in New York, retook the SAT and TOEFL tests, and the rest is history.
SR: We competed against one another in college [Maria ran for VCU and Hops ran for James Madison University, both colleges in Virginia] although you were much faster than me, of course. You even had a top 10 finish at NCAA cross country in 1998 and 1999. There were quite a few talented women running in the NCAA at that time like Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan, Lauren Fleshman. What is one of your favorite memories from your time at VCU competing in the NCAA against these women?
Maria: I have so many good memories but one race will forever be in my heart. During the fall of 1997, I was hit by a car during training. I spent three days in the hospital, went home on crutches, and was unable to run for three months. Fast forward one year later to 1998 NCAA cross country championships. I worked very hard and was healthy. I talked to my coach before the race and we both knew I needed to have the perfect race to make it into the top 15. I ended up placing 8th and I was extremely happy after crossing that finish line. Part of me could not believe it. This was a big breakthrough for me. It meant to so much!
The following fall, I placed 8th again; 8 should be my lucky number! ha! This was the first time I raced alongside Lauren Fleshman. Of course, she kicked my butt and placed 4th as a freshman and I’ve been a fan since then! Carrie Tollefson was the queen of the 3,000 meters. Since we both were on the east coast, we went to the same meets. I loved racing with her! She always brought out the best in me. A pr for me was almost guaranteed; and lots of pain, too!
I had the honor to share the podium with Carrie and Kara at the NCAA outdoor meet in the 3,000 meters. They both were so friendly and always had smiles on their face. Shalane was a freshman my last year of college (my 5th year) so, we didn’t get a chance to race much. But early on, I think everybody knew she was special. When I think back, its been an honor to line up along these ladies. All of them have achieved so much and have changed the sport we love.
Maria took a break from running after college and returned to the racing scene in 2008, only to be plagued with difficulty; although her talent and hard work showed in her races, it never seemed to be long before she found herself sidelined by injury. In 2012, at the age of 37, she made a play for a spot on Ecuador’s Olympic team but didn’t make it. “I saw my dream slipping away.” Nonetheless, she kept working heard and didn’t give up hope.
SR: You competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics in the marathon. Tell us more about the qualifying process for Ecuador, and how you were selected. What was it like when you found out you had made the team? And what was it like to run in the Olympics and achieve your lifelong dream?
Maria: We don’t have marathon trials like you do here in America. Ecuador selects athletes based on time; the top three fastest times make the team. The marathon team was announced in April. I had the fourth fastest time and I was named the alternate. In June, I learned that one the the girls had tested positive for doping (twice) and was under IAAF investigation and would not be allowed to race. Yay for clean sport!! Soon after that, I got my official letter letting me know I had made the team. I remember reading the letter. I was crying and laughing (basically insert a crazy lady emoji here). [Editor’s note: 😂] Initially, I was in total shock. Then my heart just filled with gratitude for every single person who had helped me over the 30 plus years. At the age of 41, I was going to the Olympics!!
Running the Olympic Marathon in Rio was a lifelong dream for me for sure. I didn’t do as well as I hoped, but at the same time that race was just perfect! The crowd was amazing. I smiled a lot during my race, I felt everyone’s love from near and far. I was so happy to have so many wonderful people in my corner.
SR: What is your training plan like these days? Do you take days off? Are you training for the marathon or another distance?
Maria: I train six days a week, Sunday is my day off, yay for Sundays!! I take a pilates reformer class every Monday and do pre-rehab exercises daily. I work with a PT twice a week, where I do my strength training exercises, manual therapy, and Graston. I also do Jasyoga every night, even if is only for 10 minutes.
In the next two weeks, Ecuador will announce their marathon team for the world championships. If selected, I will definitely take the spot. My first priority right now is to stay healthy. I had a L4-L5 and SI injury back in January, 2014 and last spring I start having SI issues affecting my left leg. Being an Olympic year, I couldn’t afford to take some time off. I never felt 100%, but I was able to manage it with therapy. Last December I had a left hamstring/ calf/ knee injury forcing me to take some time off.
Recently, we learned all my injuries have spiraled from my old L4-L5 and SI injury I had three years ago. Like I said, staying healthy is our number one priority. We will see how training goes for the next four weeks. I am crossing my fingers everything goes well so I can start planning my race schedule (aka party!). If I don’t get selected for the world championships I would like to do Berlin or CIM. It all depends on how well I progress.
SR: A lot of runners get burnt out after years of competing at a high level, but you seem to defy that stereotype. What motivates you to keep going after your goals, even after injury setbacks?
Maria: Maybe because I’ve taken so many breaks, ha! No, seriously I feel like my legs are still pretty fresh. I’ve always been a low mileage runner, averaging 40-50 miles per week. Since joining Coach Ben Rosario three years ago and training specifically for the marathon, my average mileage has gone up to 75-80, but we take days off and we take easy days very easy. After each marathon I take two weeks completely off, no running at all, not even one step! Your body needs that break to rebuild. Mentally, you feel so refreshed and so hungry for more when you come back.
Yes, I’ve had one too many injuries to count. Everybody that has been injured knows how hard it is. As I get older, I’ve been able to get back to a better place quicker and be more proactive. I believe I still have a little bit more in me. I still have some dreams and goals that I want to achieve and it is the small possibility that they may come true that keeps me pushing forward.
Having a well-rounded life has always helped me as well. I love running and I am hoping to run until I am 80! But running is not everything. You need balance in your life. I am an occupational therapist and I work three to four days a week. My husband is the most positive person I know. He is active, adventurous, and always on the go. Sometimes, it is hard to keep up with him!
It is all about balancing and enjoying life. When running doesn’t go well you have other things to focus on. It gives you perspective. When running is going well and everything else in your life is good, it makes you give a bit more even when you think you can’t.
SR: You’ve told me before that one of your training secrets involves peanut butter cups. Do you have any other training secrets to share with us?
Maria: Ha! Yes, everything with peanut butter please! Nutrition is so important. What you eat before, during, and after your workouts matter! Go back to the basics and make sure you are getting enough protein, vegetables, and fruit! Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Sleep as much as you can because it is the best recovery tool! Take easy days easy and hard days hard, but don’t leave your race in your workouts, and last but not least, have FUN!
SR: What do you love to do when you’re not running?
Maria: I love spending time with my dog, Eva. Taking her out for little hikes and car rides is a joy. She is so spoiled! Spending time with my hubby is the best! Our schedules are flexible. We do a lot of coffee and dinner dates. We love being outdoors and have done some pretty hard hikes. I am definitely the weakest link.
I love to travel and, after each marathon, we go on vacation. It is always so much fun, but I end up with cankles from fluid retention every single time! Post marathon soreness + being on your feet or plane for a long period of time is not a good combo! And, of course, I try to spend as much time as I can with my family and friends during my running breaks.
As far as hobbies go, I like gardening. I am not a green thumb, but love my flowers. We’ve been getting herbs and vegetables from the farmer’s market. I hope I don’t kill my plants ha! Lately, I’ve been learning how to cook and thanks, to Blue Apron and Run Fast. Eat Slow I feel like Julia Childs!