Who to Watch at the Olympic Trials: Brett Ely

FullSizeRender (34)It’s not often you meet a four-time Olympic Trials qualifier like Brett Ely. After a great marathoning career that featured an Olympic Trials “A” Standard, a place on the U.S. Pan American Games team, among many other highlights, Brett is stepping back from competitive marathoning after the Trials on February 13, 2016.

Brett is, thankfully, going into this race healthy after a strong training season and, knowing it will be her last competitive marathon, is putting everything into this one. At 36, Brett has a mental fortitude forged from years of striving for more, getting knocked down, and then getting right back up. Her jitters at the starting line will be tempered by that maturity and experience.

Perhaps what’s most impressive about Brett is that she’s one of those women who manages to achieve so much as an athlete while also achieving so much in her life outside of running and is still one of those women who you can’t help but want to grab a beer with and chat about this and that. If you’re like me, after learning more about her, you’ll be dying to cheer for her in LA as she goes for it. One. More. Time.

How did you get into running in the first place?

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First track meet as a high school sophomore. All photos courtesy of Brett Ely.

I was involved in many sports as a kid (among the list of things I dabbled in: swimming, dancing, skiing, tee-ball/softball, field hockey, tennis, golf), but I started running late. I’m the youngest of three children, so I pretty much tried anything my older brother and sister did. My mom told us from a very young age that we didn’t have to be great at any sport, but she was going to encourage us to play them because she wanted to give us all the gift of using and appreciating our bodies. To that end, she arranged family dinners at 4:30 PM and spent three hours shuttling us to various practices every weeknight. I am beyond grateful for the message she sent us and the work she put behind it, and I think a large part of the way I feel about running and the joy I feel when using my body comes from that incredibly empowering and positive message. I have always liked moving, but I didn’t really love a sport until I started running.

I wish I had an amazing story or funny anecdote about discovering running, but it was a gradual transition. I played field hockey as a freshman in high school, and my coach, who was also the track coach, suggested I go out for track because I hung on pretty well during our training runs (about 1.5 miles). I joined the track team that spring and was thoroughly mediocre for my first two years. My junior year, I think I finally figured out what it meant to train and race hard and found some modest success in the mile, and that created this positive reinforcement that made me want to work harder. I don’t know exactly why I started running, but I know why I kept going–I loved seeing hard work produce results. Running taught me to set big goals and work to achieve them, and also to enjoy the process of working toward a goal. This lesson ultimately carried over to successes outside of running as well.

Four OTQs?! Can you tell us about your journey from your first to your most recent? What is your ultimate goal?

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First OTQ; Austin Marathon 2004.

I qualified for my first Olympic Trials [2004] pretty much right out of college. I ran at James Madison University, and I think I put together four healthy seasons out of a possible 15 in the five years I spent in the NCAA (four years of undergrad + first year of my masters program). My last track season was cut short by a femoral neck fracture, and the desire to run a marathon after that was just so that I could check it off the list of things that make you a ‘real runner’ and be done. I was in such a long, frustrating injury cycle that the goal was simply to complete this one marathon and move on from competitive running.  

I trained very modestly (12 weeks of running topping out at 55 miles/wk), but surprised myself with a solid time (2:57) and an unexpected win. I had never considered qualifying for the Olympic Trials, but the standard at the time was 2:48, and 10 minutes felt like a reasonable gap to close with training. I ran my qualifier in my first serious attempt at the distance at the 2004 Austin marathon, which was less than seven weeks before the 2004 Olympic Trials Marathon. I wasn’t planning on running the trials, but my parents encouraged me to go, since it was a “once in a lifetime experience.”

I was completely awestruck in 2004. I was such a rube. I remember seeing Deena Kastor get on the bus to the start on race morning and quietly freaking out to myself, OMG she rides the bus! Like a normal person! I didn’t feel like I belonged there, and I probably didn’t. I was far from recovered from the marathon I had just run, and had been dealing with an IT band injury, so I wasn’t able to finish the race. Still, I’m still very glad I went and experienced it, because it meant that when I qualified again in 2008 I was able to come in more confident, mentally prepared, and excited to compete.

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2011 Pan American Games

The 2008 race was in Boston, and I was living, working, and training in Boston at the time, so that race was one of my life highlights. I came in ranked 137th and finished 34th, running a pretty sizeable PR. That day changed the trajectory of my running career and I had several years of good marathoning after that, highlighted by a couple of marathon wins, a string of PRs, a berth on the US team for the 2011 Pan American Games, and an A standard qualifier for the 2012 trials.

And then I got hurt again in my buildup to the 2012 trials, and again wasn’t able to finish the trials race. And again I found myself ready to give up on running. I came out to visit Eugene a month after the 2012 Trials race, fell in love with the PhD program and the Pacific Northwest, and moved out in August believing my competitive running days were behind me for good.

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Team Run Eugene runners headed to LA (from left): Dan Kremske, Brett, (coach Ian Dobson), Craig Leon.

And then I got to know the Eugene running community. I dabbled in a few workouts and long runs, and ran the Oregon Twilight meet in 2013 well before I had any business racing on a track. It was thrilling to race on Hayward Field. This positive running energy fed on itself and I found myself wanting to train and race again.

I connected with Team Run Eugene through some social group runs, and I joined the team in the fall of 2013 with the goal of training for one last trials marathon. There were some injury setbacks and it was fairly challenging balancing school and training, but the day I qualified for my fourth trials was pretty special. I feel very different from the runner I was in 2004. I’m going into this 2016 race healthy, ready to compete, and hoping to run a personal best.  

I realize this is a long story, but the bottom line is this: it has been an exhilarating journey and I never believed, as a high school or college runner, that I would qualify for one Olympic Trials, let alone four. My entire post-collegiate career is a gift. With no expectations (on account of having no athletic accomplishments in college), I felt like I was gambling with house money and I couldn’t lose. My ultimate goal – the thing that has driven me above all else – is simple curiosity to find out how good I can be. I love the process of continually raising the bar and then working to clear it.

How have you prepared differently for the 2016 Marathon Trials than your previous races?

Running with Deena, Mammoth Lakes.

Every trials race preparation has been a little different, but the biggest thing that has changed this time around is that I decided in advance that this will be my final competitive effort in the marathon. Once I made that choice, I made a commitment to make the most of the time I had left. One big thing I have done differently is that I trained at high altitude over winter break. It was something I always wanted to do, but it never fit into my life. I spent 16 days in Mammoth Lakes, CA and was fortunate to fold in with the Mammoth Track Club throughout my time there. They were incredibly welcoming and I gained a tremendous amount of fitness, confidence, and knowledge by training with that group. Deena Kastor, the same woman I was completely starstruck by at the 2004 trials, was actually a training partner [during my time in Mammoth Lakes].

In addition to altitude training, the fact that I’m looking at this as the end of my marathon career has allowed me to loosen the reins and take more chances in training. I’m not bottling anything up for the future anymore. I want to cross the finish line in LA feeling like I used up all of the competitive fire I had, so I’m letting it burn a little hotter on a day to day basis. It has been thrilling to push the limits a little more, and I have thankfully been able to stay healthy with this slightly more aggressive approach.

How do you balance getting your PhD and your training?

Dissertation proposal approval
Dissertation proposal ACCEPTED!

Before coming back to school, I worked full-time while running, so I have years of experience trying to balance my career with running. That being said, working on my PhD brought it to a whole new level. In the most basic sense, the marathon and my dissertation research both require 100% commitment, so I have to be honest and say I could probably do either thing better if I gave it my full attention. The best I can do is try, in any moment, to focus on the task at hand and do it to the best of my ability, and then move on with my day.

If I’m running a workout, I try to believe for that one hour that the most important thing in the world is keeping up with the ponytail in front of me. And when that workout is over, I run home, make a smoothie and drink it while stretching in the shower (multitasking!), and then head to school with the goal of giving it the same level of focus and attention. The most important thing becomes helping a student work through a challenging problem, or holding an ultrasound probe steady, or pipetting blood samples accurately, or choosing an appropriate post-hoc test.

I love running and research, and even though the combination makes my days a little harried and challenging, I’m grateful to have these things I’m passionate about. I’m also grateful to have such supportive teammates on Team Run Eugene and lab-mates in the Minson Lab. They definitely help me keep balance and perspective.

What has been your proudest running moment? The biggest obstacle you’ve overcome? Your worst setback?

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CIM 2010

My proudest running moment came at the 2010 California International Marathon (CIM). I executed the race really well, ran a personal best, and moved up the ranks in the final 10k to finish 4th in a deep field. I have always listed this race as a running highlight, but the performance isn’t what makes the race stand out. The reason it stands out is something I have actually never shared publicly before. The race is my proudest running moment because of two people: Chuck and Tristan. Chuck was a man I had never met before, but I grouped up with him around five miles into the marathon and we ran stride for stride together for most of the next 15 miles. He had just lost his wife, Connie, and was running the race in her memory. I felt honored to be part of the day with him.

What I didn’t tell Chuck was that the small heart I had pinned on my chest with the initials TLKK was the reason I was running this marathon. One of my best friends from high school was pregnant with twins in the fall of 2010, and went into very early labor in September. She delivered two beautiful, tiny boys: Tristan and Harper. Harper is now an incredible 5-year old. Tristan fought valiantly and lived 26 days. The number 26 was not lost on my marathoner mind, and I wanted to run this race in his memory. I am extremely proud of the effort I put out that day, and the fact that I was able to donate my prize money in Tristan’s and Connie’s names to charities that helped support them. The reason that day was so special and the reason I’m so proud was because it just felt like I was in the right place to do good in the universe, and running took on a much deeper meaning.

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Aqua-running with a self-styled “cast condom.”

My biggest setback unfortunately happened at the same marathon three years later. I was on pace for a trials qualifier through 24 miles, but ended up breaking my navicular near 25 miles and could not bear weight to even walk to the finish line. I borrowed a pair of crutches from some unbelievably kind people who lived on the course near where the injury happened, and crutched the last 1.2 miles to the finish area and medical tent. I ended up needing surgical fixation of the bone (read: I now have a large stainless steel screw in my left foot) so it was a tough day and a challenging comeback from surgery.

CIM is the only marathon I have run more than once, and I have gone back three times. Because of my first experience there, it holds a piece of my heart. It was the natural choice to come back to CIM in 2014 once I had recovered from navicular surgery, and ended up being the site of my 4th Olympic Trials qualifier.  (You can Brett’s 2014 CIM race report here).

What percentage of your running success do you attribute to talent and what percentage to hard work?   

This is a challenging question, because at a certain level of the sport, everyone is talented and everyone works hard. In addition, talent is so difficult to define. Most people read it as leg speed, mechanics, power, aerobic capacity, and maybe durability. I would rate myself as pretty average across the board, with the possible exception being aerobic capacity (thank you Mom for the stellar mitochondrial DNA!) But, I believe the motivation to work hard and embrace the grind of training is a talent in itself. I think with the marathon in particular, the two most important components are hard work and psychological talents that are more difficult to measure than the aforementioned physiological ones.

Things like patience, resilience, grit,  and emotion management (the ability to keep a level head in the face of inevitable adversity) are skills and temperaments that are prerequisites for success in the marathon, but are rarely included in a list of talents. I’m not sure they are innate talents, but they are definitely things I learned from watching people I look up to, most especially my parents, my husband Matt, and my siblings.

Beyond talent and work, there is also an element of luck. I have been incredibly lucky over my career to match up with coaches who knew how to train and enhance whatever talents I had, and I cannot emphasize enough the role they, along with my teammates, have had in my success.

What is the best piece of running advice you’ve ever received? If you could give one piece of running advice to our readers what would it be?

The best advice I ever received wasn’t actually meant to be advice. One of my teammates, Soh Rui Yong, was featured in a Singaporean sports documentary as he prepared for his first marathon. In the documentary, they asked our coach, Ian Dobson, “What is Rui’s best quality as a runner?” He said something along the lines of this: “He believes what he is doing is important.” At the time I listened to the interview, I was in the midst of a busy time at school and struggling to prioritize running. I couldn’t stop thinking about “more important” things I should be doing in the middle of workouts and races, and found myself wanting to stop and run home and work on a grant or analyze data or grade a set of lab reports. Those things felt more pressing and valuable than another mile repeat.

“Believe what you’re doing is important.”

But this line resonated with me, and it helped shift my mindset. I had always seen running as somewhat selfish or self-indulgent, but if I take a moment to look around at the community I am a part of because of running, the lessons I have learned through running, and the person I am because of running, I can absolutely believe that what I am doing is important.

So the best piece of advice I have ever received, and what I would most want to share with others is this: believe what you’re doing is important. Let that belief prevent you from giving yourself an out in workouts, in races, in the daily commitment you make to running for training or for health. You are connecting with and inspiring people through running. You are probably happier and more productive in other areas of your life because of running. Your daughters are learning from and modeling the choices that you make. This is not just true for elite athletes, it is true at every level of the sport.

Look out for Brett at the Trials in L.A. on February 13 and join us as we cheer our faces off for her! Go BRETT!!!!!

I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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  1. I have had the pleasure of joining her for my warm ups or “easy” jaunts at Team Run Eugene’s community track workout. She’s so nice and spent most of the run asking me about my goals and running plans. I love it when pro groups take the time to encourage the sport in the community. Good luck Brett!

  2. It was an honor to run with Brett that day at CIM, I was not aware of the heart as she said and never knew how much this race meant to her as well. All I could think of was how happy I was to find someone to run with. I haven’t seen her since, but do wish her the best in the upcoming trials. I will never forget that day and can only thank Brett for the wonderful memory. She is truly a remarkable woman.

  3. I love the part of “this is important.” This is a struggle I’ve maybe always had with running – why do this when there are so many more “important” things to do. But to frame it this way articulates what I’ve hoped or maybe even felt about running but couldn’t quite articulate myself. Love it!

  4. Great interview!! I also love the quote Barley mentioned: so, so true. And a fellow scientist, love it!! I once wrote a post about how getting a PhD is like running a marathon, it takes a lot of the same skills. (Namely stubborn determination in the face of adversity.) Her story adds to my argument, I think.

    1. It also works backwards. I started running after I finished my PhD because I realized that if I’m stubborn enough to finish a dissertation I’m stubborn enough to get through marathon training. I’m on track for my first half this spring and a full this fall, and the mental skill and discipline from grad school have been invaluable.

  5. There are so many gems in this interview. For me, movement is critical and something that began as a young child and having my father, a basketball, tennis and sometimes swimming coach, encourage me in my most basic efforts. His words, “Move, move, stay light on your feet,” even though during tennis lessons, resonate for me as a runner. Love Brett’s background and her grabbing opportunities. Let’s all get out and move!

  6. “My ultimate goal – the thing that has driven me above all else – is simple curiosity to find out how good I can be. I love the process of continually raising the bar and then working to clear it.”—-THIS.

    Inspired, amazed and….cannot wait to follow her in the trials coverage!