Olympic Trials Spotlight: Emma Kertesz

It has been a long and winding road for Emma Kertesz over the last four years. After finishing 39th in the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles in punishing conditions in 2:44:56, she will once again be lining up with the best American marathoners on Saturday.

The 10,000 meter All-American, who was recently inducted into University of Toledo Hall of Fame, has struggled with injury and almost didn’t make it to the Trials. Going into the 2018 California International Marathon, Kertesz had lingering hamstring pain. Still, she ran a qualifying time of 2:44:21. That would be her last marathon for more than a year. The hamstring pain turned out to be a torn hamstring, which led to three months off and even a short-lived retirement.

But in the meantime, it’s not like Kertesz wasn’t keeping busy. She lives in Colorado with her boyfriend, elite marathoner Noah Droddy, and their two dogs, Sarah and Chandler. In the time between the Trials races, she went back to school to earn her Master’s in Early Childhood Education, graduating in December 2019. Kertesz — who is one of five Emmas in the race — is currently waiting to hear back from PhD programs.

Besides running and school, Kertesz has been staying busy with a side project of writing a blog, The Boy Behind The Door, about her dad, who is an adopted Native American who didn’t know either that he was adopted or that he was Native American until he was 18. The blog covers his story as it unfolded, the impact on his life, and hers.

You may remember her from our 2016 profile, or when she was the Saltine known as Paprika.

I recently heard you on I’ll Have Another, where you described yourself as an elite runner, but not a pro runner, despite having finished so well in the last Olympic Trials. How has your relationship with running changed in the last four years? 

Running has now become more of an outlet for me rather than a means of income. It’s taken a lot of pressure off of me and my performances from being in the “trying to become a professional runner” space and going into “I’m doing this for myself and to improve my PBs” space. I love to run, and I want to continue to be competitive and PB, but I also have other career aspirations: early childhood education, writing my blog about my Dad’s life, and spending quality time with my friends and family. I’m in a place in my life where the emphasis is on those latter aspects.

Last year, you nearly retired. What advice would you give to runners who are overcoming an injury?

I think it’s important to take stock of why/how the injury happened, and then adjust your cross training goals and “coming back to running” goals accordingly. If it was because of overuse, maybe jumping right onto the bike and doing big cross training sessions isn’t the best option. Being kind to yourself and being patient is also vital – I wanted to jump back into big workouts but knew that my body wouldn’t handle it, so I had to give myself a little grace about my impatience and be more understanding of my own body.

You are balancing a lot of things, having just graduated with your Masters, writing essays about your dad’s life, teaching, running, and having recently adopted an older dog who is blind. What is the key to achieving big goals while balancing these other priorities?

I know that I have a finite amount of willpower, so I use it to the best of my abilities.  I do a lot of prioritizing, and recognize that there will be some days where there aren’t enough hours in the day.  So, it’s not really a balancing act but more of a “I can focus on this right now, and this other priority may have to go on the back burner” which is what I did with running when I was in grad school.  I couldn’t fully devote myself to my graduate program and other life responsibilities *and* train for a marathon, it just wasn’t sustainable.  So I think it’s more important to know that some things may have to be tabled for a bit to devote your full attention to other aspects of your life.

How often do you cross train, and what does that look like for you?

This segment I’ve cross trained about 1 day/week every other week, so to be honest not a lot.  But that one day has been good for me, because I think it’s allowed me an extra day of recovery, and has kept my legs fresh.  I go on the cycling bike for 50 minutes: 10 minute warm up, and 35 minutes of 2 minutes hard 1 minute easy while adjusting the resistance but keeping the RPMs between 90 and 100 the entire time.  I’m not a cyclist so this is pretty hard for me, and obviously can be adjusted to suit my needs for recovery.  It’s the same bike workout I’ve been doing since college – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

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

My college assistant coach Sara Vergote. (Who is now the cross country coach at Ohio State).  She was instrumental in showing me that I can dig deeper, and was the first person who told me they thought I’d be good at the marathon someday.  She was training to try to qualify for the 2012 Trials in the marathon, so she’d run a lot of long runs with us.  I remember we did one together, and she turned to me and said someday I’d make a good marathoner.  She is someone I look up to, so I took this to heart.  She can fire people up to give everything of themselves in a race, and I think it takes a special person and coach to have that ability.

How would you compare your mindset going into Atlanta compared to the 2016 Trials?

Somewhat similar. I’m aware I don’t have a (real) shot of making the Olympic Team, and that’s okay.  But there’s a lot of competition between 4th place and whenever I end up. So I’d like to try to get the best out of myself on the day, and compete hard and run a smart race.

What’s your big dream running goal?

A few: I’d like to return to the 5k and try to lower my PR of 15:58.  I think it’d be a fun goal and a chance to work on some speed.  I set that in 2016 so it’s been a while.  I also would love to race the Berlin marathon – I went to Berlin this summer and had that moment of, “oh my god I’m walking the streets I’ve watched on the marathon stream for years now” and it fired me up.

Your blog tracing your dad’s story is fascinating. Has writing it changed your perspective in any way?

I definitely see my parents more as people rather than just Mom and Dad.  It’s given me a greater sense of empathy for why my Dad has made some of the choices he did, and how that has affected his life and ultimately mine.  It’s also been very cathartic for both of us, and has given me an opportunity to talk to him about things I haven’t before.

I know you are waiting to hear back from PhD programs. Besides that, what’s next for you?

Trials, and then a break!  I’m looking forward to that.

Thank you to Emma for chatting with us! Best of luck on Saturday!


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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