Olympic Trials Spotlight: Teal Burrell

South Jersey native Teal Burrell ran her first marathon in 2005 in 4:07. On Saturday, she’ll be lining up for her second Olympic Trials. If that sounds familiar, that may be because you remember her from her stint blogging on this site as Tea. To find out what Burrell has been up to and how she feels about her second Trials, we spoke with her from her home in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and two-year-old daughter.

Burrell took the long road to the marathon. She ran in high school, but lacked the confidence to try her hand at collegiate running. After that debut marathon as a college sophomore, she took a long break from the sport, coming back to the marathon after witnessing the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon in Boston. Inspired, Burrell took up running again and nailed her first BQ in her second marathon in the fall of 2008. This time around the marathon bug bit her hard. She has been chiseling away at her time ever since, running a 2:42:13 at the 2014 California International Marathon to earn an Olympic Qualifying Time and a spot on the line in Los Angeles. Despite sweltering conditions at the 2016 Olympic Trials, Burrell finished 72nd.

Burrell’s journey so far has been pretty prolific, and it’s far from over. In December 2018, she logged a new PR of 2:39:08. Burrell says finding the marathon was key to her running success. She loves figuring out how to get the marathon right, and hopes to keep running them forever.

Your overall marathon progression is really impressive. What do you think were the major factors that contributed to your breakthroughs when you were already running relatively fast?

I’ve been chiseling away at my time. You can definitely get quite a bit faster right at the start and then it’s time to start chiseling. I bumped up my mileage, focused on faster workouts, it was a series of gradual changes. After my initial improvement, I often set a goal of a five minute PR. That felt fast enough to be exciting without being overwhelming. Marathons are hard! So much matters on the day. Sometimes my training would progress, but it wouldn’t show up at the race. If you know you’re in 3:10 shape, but you end up running 3:20, you can still aim for 3:05 the next time around. It’s so hard when this happens –- you know you are getting better, but it doesn’t show up at the race. I try to tell people not to be too discouraged when that happens.

Has your relationship to running changed since becoming a mom?

Yes and no. No –- running has been a constant. I still wanted that separate part of myself that I had pre-baby. I still wanted to run fast. But, I have a greater appreciation for being a runner and more gratitude that I get to run. There’s also more motivation to work hard in order to show your kids what you’re doing, and that it’s important to work through challenges. I mean, my daughter will be three next month so she doesn’t understand this right now.

Who is coming to the Trials with you?

My daughter, husband, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles – a ton of family and friends! They are all so supportive and into it. I thought they might not want to go again after they came to the trials in Los Angeles, but they all wanted to!

Your supporters call themselves Team Teal and they wear matching t-shirts at races. I also know that having family and friends come cheer can be complicated when people have different needs. Do you have any insights for runners looking to build a support team like Team Teal?

We started the Team Teal matching shirts for the NYC marathon. My family asked how they were going to find me and I said I would need to find them so they should wear something bright. In L.A., the course was loops so there were so many t-shirts!

In terms of how to build family support, I don’t know that I have suggestions. My husband is a saint on race weekends. He does the majority of the baby wrangling. Sometimes I go off and do my own thing but sometimes having the family there is a welcome distraction. I can focus on them and play with my daughter instead of getting nervous about the race. In Pittsburgh, my daughter got sick the day before the race and it was horrible and stressful, but then the race went well. My family helps keep me sane and then they are there to celebrate afterwards. I think the important thing is to know yourself. Lots of people don’t take their kids. Know yourself and your family and which way will work for you.

Are there any insights from your background as a scientist that you find particularly applicable to your own running?

Our mind is actively telling us that we are done and trying to save us from pushing. But there is always more there. It’s like Alex Hutchinson writes in Endure –- the finishing sprint at the end, when we suddenly sprint, that’s the mind letting go of the brake. It’s not that our abilities are *all* in our minds –- we have to train too, obviously — but the mind is governing what we do. I think about that a lot in workouts or at end of marathon. For the last mile of Pittsburgh – I kept telling myself there’s more there.  You have more than you think.

What has it been like working with a sports psychologist?

I only started in the fall. I found it helpful even though I don’t have the results to back it up yet. I am just trusting that it’s working. I got a lot out of it, but I stopped because I want to use the techniques I’ve learned for awhile. It was a really good experience because it was personalized. We might read about mental training and think: we need this mantra or whatever. I kept telling myself: Get tougher. But the psychologist said, no, you need to relax more. She asked me how I felt at a particular mile when things fell apart, like, what was I saying to myself at that mile. She could tell I was stressing myself out. She pointed out that that was a lot of wasted energy and could leave to a negative spiral. It was helpful to find what would help for me, rather than just a magazine approach.

After a rough 2019, you had a solid day at Houston. How are you feeling with three weeks to go until the Trials? (Editor’s note: now less than one week to go!)

I’m in denial that it’s coming up so fast! Houston did go well but I thought I was doing better than I was. I thought I would have been about a minute faster. I still don’t know, maybe I was taking the splits wrong? I am still coming out of the slump. My expectations are tempered for the Trials. I am not thinking I will blow it out of the water. I hope to be coming out of the valley of terribleness. You could say I am hopeful, but not delusional.

Have you changed anything about your training this time around?

Yes! I got a coach last summer. Previously I had always been self-coached. I ran with the Georgetown Running Club and their coach wrote the track workout but I did everything else. This summer I started with a full-on coach who writes it all. We started together last fall; that was the first marathon cycle together. I told him what I like, what kinds of workouts help build my confidence.

But there are many differences too. The taper is different. I am running similar mileage, but many different workouts. I stayed at the highest weekly mileage for longer. My long runs have had workout elements more frequently, almost every week. Usually I also do one other hard workout per week. I’ve done more on the roads whereas before I often did a tempo workout and then shorter faster intervals on the track. I’ve only been on the track four times this cycle! Though sometimes I will move back and forth between the roads and the track. Overall pace has been a little slower.

What is different about the Trials this time around?

In 2016 in the warm-up area, there were about 20 women from Oiselle, all friends. I wanted to be on that team. It was wonderful they had such a group. I love being with Oiselle now. The company is so focused on empowering women, on creating a super supportive culture. The clothes are also cute and comfortable. I can’t say enough good things about them.

How do you feel about the looped course in Atlanta? I know you didn’t love the loops in L.A.

I don’t love loops. But I like that I can tick off the last time going by something. It’s only 3 loops, but the path of the loop is out and back. I think this is mentally harder than a big circle. I will have some sort of effort goal, to pick it up each loop a little bit.

Who do you most want to spot in the elevator in Atlanta?

No idea. Maybe Steph Bruce?

I read in your blog that you were disappointed about the lack of t-shirts in L.A. Have you checked the t-shirt situation for the race in Atlanta?

I haven’t checked. Hopefully! Atlanta is doing a phenomenal job. We are being treated so well. They are covering a lot of the costs: hotel and flight. No other trials have done this. And they have the largest field in history! We all get bottles on the course. They are telling us that food is covered for weekend. They are really treating the runners well. Even if they don’t end up having t-shirts!

What are your plans and goals post-Trials?

You know the joke about, “We are going to Disney”? We are going to Mexico! Straight from Atlanta! My husband and daughter and I are going. Beyond that, I have not thought about it. The Trials are at a weird time of year. What should I do with the rest of the spring? After a post-marathon break, it’s too late to do a lot in the spring. I’m looking to the fall. Or maybe a late spring race and then I’ll think about fall. With last year not going so well, I may take a longer break post-Trials and then see how I feel. Maybe I won’t do another marathon right away. I prefer to not think so far ahead. In the middle of a marathon, I always think I am not doing another one.

Thank you so much to Teal for taking the time to talk with us. We wish her success on the roads of Atlanta! Follow Teal on Instagram or on her personal blog for more on her journey.

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