Kim Conley probably isn’t the first elite runner to transition from 10,000 meters to 5,000 meters to 26.2 miles. On the other hand, she might be the first to do all of that in a span of four months.
Conley, a Santa Rosa native and two-time Olympian, will run her first marathon in New York City on Nov. 6. It’s a major change of pace for Conley, a Montgomery High graduate, but she has done this sort of thing before.
Conley qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in both the 5K and the 10K this year, but for months she targeted the longer distance. Then she was knocked out of the 10,000 at the trials in late July when a competitor inadvertently spiked her in the foot. Conley immediately refocused on the 5,000 and finished third in the final eight days later, earning her second Olympic appearance at that distance.
Conley didn’t make it out of the first round in Rio de Janeiro. Four years earlier, after running at the London Games, she had almost too much time for reflection. This time there was no time for self-pity.
“In 2012 I felt like I had a lot to prove still,” Conley said. “Because I was afraid a little bit that people thought that making the team had been a fluke, just because it was such a surprise to the entire world. So coming off of this Olympics, it’s helped a lot to have something to immediately transition to.”
That something is more than 26 miles long. As most of her Team USA peers took a little time off and caught their breath upon returning from Rio in August, Conley went right into marathon mode.
That was the plan all along, but it was devised only after a lot of soul searching by Conley and her coach Drew Wartenburg, who also happens to be her husband.
“Bridging the gap between track season and the marathon debut and track season, and even more so, extending what has been a long year probably constituted the biggest area of concern, in terms of the physical demands,” Wartenburg said.
He was also worried a bit about what he calls “the physical-emotional or the psycho-social blend” of training that intensively for that long.
But Conley sounded upbeat about her never-ending track season as she spoke by phone from Sacramento, where she lives and trains.
“I’m feeling really good,” she said. “I feel like I’ve taken really well to the training. And it’s different enough from what we do in a track season that I kind of felt like I’d turned a page on the track season and was starting something new, even though I didn’t physically take the break.”
Conley went straight from Brazil to Flagstaff, Arizona, for four weeks of running at high elevation, and returned to Sacramento at the end of September. Her marathon training has been a new level of effort, even for an Olympian. Conley said she has averaged about 105 miles per week, pretty much every week since she returned from Rio.
In adapting to the marathon, Conley has been forced to slow her pace by as much as 40 seconds per mile, while increasing the mileage.
She says the longer distance comes naturally.
“I’ve always really felt good about high-volume training,” she said. “I think the long run’s always been one of my favorite days of the week. I don’t know if that’s just a mental thing, or if maybe it means I’m better suited to this type of training. But I’ve certainly enjoyed the marathon buildup a lot.”
Despite her change of emphasis, Conley continues to train with her confederates at the NorCal Distance Project, which was started by Wartenburg and includes the likes of Kate Grace, who finished eighth in the 800 meters at the Rio Olympics, and Ukiah native Lauren Wallace.
“We meet for practice every day, and it’s nice to have the company,” Conley said. “I would say the biggest difference now is I’m just running for quite a bit longer. I’ll do an entire run with them and then continue running for maybe another 20 minutes or half-hour after they’re done.”
Conley isn’t the first elite runner to swap events. It’s especially common for athletes to slow the pace as they get older. Wartenburg even points to a few other runners, like Kara Goucher and Deena Kastor, who previously made a beeline from Olympics to the marathon cycle. But Conley seems uniquely suited for this kind of adaptation.
“Maybe unique in some ways, maybe like a lot of high-level athletes, Kim does a decent job of compartmentalizing,” Warternburg said. “At any point it would have been very easy to focus on losing a shoe and having to put it back on in the 10(K), and getting stuck there. Rather than doing that, we analyzed and moved on. … With full disclosure, we had decided long before the Olympic games to put New York on the schedule.”
Truth be told, Conley has been looking ahead to this moment for years. She watched the 2013 New York Marathon from the lead vehicle, gauging various strategies and paces. This year she started the transition to marathon even pre-Olympics, getting in her first long-distance workout before leaving for Rio. At the Summer Games, Conley took the opportunity to pick the brain of Amy Hastings, who represented the United States in the marathon.
Starting Nov. 7, Conley will finally get some well-earned rest. And when it’s time to start running again, then what? Is she primarily a marathoner now, or will Conley return to the rubber oval?
“The way the last four or five have gone, Kim’s earned the right to think about Olympic cycles,” Wartenburg said. “We’ve talked about what does this next cycle between Rio and Tokyo look like. We’ve certainly played the hypothetical what-if games. And I’d say probably what will follow is more of a straddling between the track and the road, track and marathon.”
Conley isn’t entirely clear on how her career will play out. But she knows she has further advances to make at the middle distances, and sentimental reasons for sticking with them for a while. The USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships are in Sacramento in 2017, and the IAAF World Championships are in London. Conley was born in England.
She also knows her first marathon will not be her last, and that when the Olympics roll into Tokyo in 2020, she may be trying to qualify at the longer distance. The challenge doesn’t scare her.
“I guess I just really love running,” Conley said. “I’m very happy to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning spending two or two and a half hours on a run.”
You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.