Olympic Trials Spotlight: Erica Kirkwood

“Confidence” is the word that comes to mind when thinking about Erica Kirkwood. The 33 year old San Antonio-based occupational therapist competed on the collegiate level for Texas A&M-Kingsville. After a six-year hiatus, Kirkwood came back, full-steam ahead, hitting everything from the marathon to the 5K.

Kirkwood won her first marathon outright, posting a time of 3:02:27. Just nine months later, in June 2019, Kirkwood ran the “B” standard for the Olympic Trials Grandmas Marathon with a time of 2:44:48.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you start running?

I started running while attending Falfurrias High School. I was on the basketball team and I remember we got in trouble for something we did during a game and as a result needed to run as “punishment.” It was here when the cross country and track coach, Gil Salazar, spotted me keeping up with his athletes. He approached me asking me if I had considered being a long distance runner. I refused. The entire year he tried to get me to join his team, but I was not having it. He went as far as reaching out to my parent who also tried to convince me to try it out. I was stubborn. Finally, I agreed to participate in the final race of the season at the district cross country meet because it meant I could miss school for the day! I was given a uniform and a pair of shoes on race day, showed up and ran! I ended up placing in the top 10 and earned a team medal. My coach pulled me to the side and told me that I had potential to do great things and that I really should be serious about this sport so that I can earn a scholarship to college. The idea of going to college was the fuel I needed to commit to this as no one else in my family ever did. I continued training and excelling in my high school running career. I did earn that collegiate scholarship for Texas A&M-Kingsville to run for the Javelinas.

Is there anyone in particular who has inspired you during your running career?

I honestly think this goes back to my roots of how I began running. My high school coach, Gil Salazar, was the first person to spark my interest thanks to his belief in me to accomplish big things. My parents were always supportive and did what they could to help me train. My dad would follow me in the car along the back country roads of our small town where we had a special opportunity to bond. When running slowly slipped away, my husband made sure I did not let that small fire within me die by pushing me to return to the running scene. Specific to the marathon, my inspiration comes from my running community. I am encouraged by my training partners who demonstrate dedication, perseverance and grit to reach their own individual goals. Each of them has their own WHY and their passion is contagious. They have truly fueled my running fire to chase big goals and see myself as an elite runner.

You have talked about how your husband encouraged you to get back into running after a six year break. What was your return to running like?

After I completed my undergraduate degree where I ran at the collegiate level, I took a break from the running world to pursue a masters degree in Occupational Therapy in Loma Linda, California where I met my husband, Jonathan. During this time, I ran very casually. I got married and had two children and had almost completely given up on running when we moved to the northwest. I was not myself and those that knew me noticed. Jon encouraged me to lace up my shoes and get out the door again but it was daunting.  Being a full time working mom left little room to care for myself. I was initially very reluctant to pick it back up, often feeling guilty for any extra time spent away from my family. My youngest was only a few months old, but Jon made it clear that he could handle the early mornings with the little ones. I, very slowly, eased back into a 5 a.m. routine with the hope that I could return from my runs before anyone woke up or even noticed I was ever gone. Once I got into the groove of physically getting out the door (still sometimes very tough to do until this day), the running came back very naturally. I eased into my training, I didn’t just jump right into the marathon right away. At first, running was simply an outlet for me to do something for myself. It wasn’t until several months later where I decided to pursue the marathon.

You have a lot of things in play with being an occupational therapist, wife, and mother of two. What is the key to achieving big goals while balancing these other priorities?

Balancing the priorities was probably the most difficult component of marathon training. The running part was actually relatively easy for me! I think the key for me is to be intentional about how I am spending my time. Another major factor was having my family and community on the same page with my goals and priorities. It sometimes takes a village to conquer big goals and that certainly seems to ring true in this situation. The people in my life understood what it would take to achieve these goals and kept me focused and grounded with my priorities.

When did you decide to go for the Marathon Trials standard?

I started training with a running group in San Antonio, TX and most of them were preparing for the Boston Marathon. I was in awe of their mileage but always thought, that’s great for them… I was happy with sticking to the half marathon. However, it wasn’t long before I caught that marathon bug. I started doing more of their workouts and felt a tug at my heart that told me I should try to qualify for Boston 2019. As my friends set out for Boston in April, I decided to sign up for a September marathon with the sole purpose to shoot for a sub 3:30 which would earn me a BQ. As I continued training, my training partners urged me to reset my goals as my times kept getting faster and faster. By the end of the training cycle, I settled for a goal of sub 3:05 even though many of my teammates told me I should shoot for a sub 3. I still couldn’t mentally wrap my head around that at this point so I didn’t really want to do that. I ended up hitting a 3:02 and was ecstatic, but felt there was still so much more I could give and it was at this point I decided to go for the Olympic Marathon trials standard. I made the decision to hold off Boston with this new goal in mind and planned to do it at Grandma’s Marathon the following June. I followed a training plan. Before Grandma’s, I signed up for the Houston Marathon in January with the sole purpose of breaking 3 and just gain more marathon experience before my big race in June. I ended up smashing my goal and coming within 2 minutes from the OTQ with a time of 2:47. I was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t just went for it, but it was at this point I knew there was no reason I wouldn’t qualify in June. I was ready.

Was there a moment where you knew you had your qualifying time?

I knew I would qualify before I even stepped on the line at Grandma’s Marathon in June. The Houston Marathon I completed in January and then my training leading up to the race gave me all the confidence I needed to know I should qualify. I had the splits written on my arm and focused on being consistent. The race went exactly as I anticipated as I mentally played it out in my mind multiple times. The first miles up to the half marathon were smooth and almost felt effortless. There were so many ladies out there with the same goal, it was really an incredible feeling sharing the experience together. After the half, the pack started to thin out but I was still clicking off my paces up until mile 18-20. This is when I started to feel like I was working. I started doing mental math and, if you know me, this is not my strongest subject. It probably took out more energy thinking of where I needed to be, pace wise. I was thankful I had a teammate catch up to me who really took my mind off of the time and just focus on running. I had one mile to go and remember feeling numb with heavy legs but I worked through it. As I rounded a corner, there was a giant sign with 26 miles and the time of 2:43:xx on it. I knew right there I needed to really dig deep if I wanted to cross the line before 2:45. I turned on what I could, leaned in and really didn’t know that I had actually qualified until the seconds before I finished.

You qualified in your third marathon. Does the fact that you are relatively new to the distance inform your approach going into Atlanta?

I do realize I may not have the experience as many of the pros or other seasoned runners. However, I probably have just as much, if not more, passion and drive. I am going into the Trials with consistent and solid training over the last year, with little to no injury which is oftentimes half the battle with marathon training. I feel this puts me at an advantage over a lot of athletes.

Do you mind sharing what your expectations are for Atlanta?

My plan is to strive for a PR despite the difficulty of the course. I am not used to running marathons on hilly courses as I’ve only ever ran fast, flat races but I trust my current fitness will help me conquer the elevation gain.

Congrats on recently nailing a PR in the half marathon during this buildup! What is your favorite distance to race and why?

This is a tough question! I like all the distances for different reasons. I ran my very first 10K earlier this month and absolutely loved it but the half marathon will always have a special place in my heart. It is the distance I feel most comfortable with because I feel like I just know it so well. It also seems like it is one I will always want to do no matter where I find myself in my running career.

What advice would you give to runners returning to the sport after an extended life break?

Find motivation and what drives you so that you are consistent in training. Muscles have a lot of memory and you might be surprised how quickly you see progress and improve!

Thanks, Erica, for talking to us about your running journey! We can’t wait to see how the race plays out for you in Atlanta.

Southern transplant who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. Recovering running perfectionist.

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