New U.S. champion Esther Erb has run the best two marathons of her life in 2014.

Esther Erb won the women’s race at the U.S. marathon championship on Oct. 5 held in conjunction with the Twin Cities Marathon. Her time, 2:34:01, was the second-fastest time of her career—not too far off her PR of 2:33:15, set while finishing 20th at the 2014 Boston Marathon, but ahead of the 2:34:32 she ran while finishing third at the 2013 U.S. championships on the same course in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Erb, 28, is an assistant cross country coach at Rider University in New Jersey and runs for the New York Athletic Club. We caught up with former NCAA Division III All-American runner and Fulbright Scholar at Case Western Reserve University and learned a few interesting facts about her training and her race.

A week before the race, Erb turned pre-race anxiety into positive energy.

I had a “freak-out sesh” about a week before the race while I was at work. I couldn’t focus on anything so I just sat down and kind of “verbal-vomited” on a Word document and laid out a lot of what I really wanted to do. It was very helpful to me. It was something I just wrote out for myself, but I also shared with a lot of practical strangers that I wanted to win the U.S. championship. I wasn’t ready to share it with the world, but, knowing where my PR compared to other runners in the race, it would seem kind of insecure of me not to want to go for the win.

That “freak-out sesh” helped her fine-tune her strategy for the race.

I shared what I wrote with my coach, Terry Shea, and he gave me his input about it, which was really helpful. It also forced me to sit down and look at my splits from Boston and the Twin Cities Marathon from last year and assess how I could make some differences. As it turns out, I really executed exactly what I wanted to change. I wanted to go out a little bit slower in the first half. I knew Mile 15 would be a faster mile, but last year I overcompensated and ran 5:40 for Mile 15 and something like 6:01 for Mile 16. I figured the two runners who got out to a big lead (Brianne Nelson and Heather Lieberg) would do the same thing, so I knew at Mile 15 I had to start to put down the hammer and close the gap and that’s exactly what happened. I think my knowledge of the course was absolutely crucial to the win. Instead of just sitting around worrying about the race and being nervous, it was so helpful to do the research and figure out how to control a situation that otherwise would be so uncontrollable.

Erb was in third place when she took a pee break near Mile 20!

It was a very necessary break. I felt a lot better afterward. I came through the 20-mile mark and saw my split and got in and out of the porta-john as soon as I could. I think I actually hurt myself in the process because the door slammed because I was in such a hurry.

After her pit stop, she overtook three runners in the final 6 miles and won the race by 8 seconds.

I knew Ariana Hilborn was running well, but I passed her near Mile 21 and then realized the other two runners (Nelson and Lieberg) weren’t too far ahead. Honestly, I didn’t feel that great for any part of the race. I felt a lot better at Boston in April and Twin Cities last year, but I had a lot of heart out there. I didn’t lead a single step of the race until Mile 25, but I felt strong at the end because of my training.

PHOTOS: 2014 U.S. Marathon Championships

Although she had been averaging a 5:54-per-mile pace for most of the race, Erb closed with a 5:31 mile to secure the win.

That was kind of my idea. I told Terry I wanted to run a 5:35 mile to prove to him that I could. It was something I was practicing in all of my workouts, to run a killer mile at the end. In one of my workouts, I ran a 5:18 mile at the end. I was definitely preparing myself for that, so I was totally “game on” at Mile 25.

Her boyfriend met her at the finish line, just as she had hoped.

My boyfriend, Cole, was running the race and I had told him after I wrote all that stuff out a week before the race that I needed him to be at the finish line waiting for me. I envisioned coming to the finish, breaking the tape and carrying the finish line tape all the way to him and hugging him. And that’s the way it worked out. It was really great.

Erb earned a spot on the U.S. team that will be competing in the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China.

The race is next Aug. 30 at 7:30 a.m. in Beijing and I’m excited about that. In the meantime, I’ll run the USATF Club Cross Country Championships on Dec. 13 in Bethlehem, Pa., on the New York Athletic Club team. We should have a great team with runners like Nicole Schappert and Delilah DiCrescenzo. After that, I plan to work on my speed and run a 10K on the track next spring before focusing on the marathon in Beijing. I know that’s going to be a tough race and it will take a lot out of me, especially because of the conditions there with the smog, so after that I’ll really just focus on the Olympic Trials in 2016.

She discovered she had an iron deficiency and made big changes this year.

When you have a low-iron situation, you have to be really aggressive with your iron intake and also pay more attention to your recovery. Diet was a big part of it and I definitely prioritized red meat again. For example, I made some organic chili recently and had been eating that quite a bit. I also prioritize getting more sleep and cut out coffee entirely, except for workout days and that was a huge sacrifice for me. I love coffee! It wasn’t something that I wanted to do early on in my career, but I recognized that I needed to do it to keep improving. When you drink coffee, you tend not to absorb the nutrients from everything you eat and drink. But also I realized I needed more recovery and sleep is so crucial to recovery. I knew that—even drinking a cup of coffee up until 10 a.m. that morning—so I totally cut it out.

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She averaged fewer miles during her recent marathon training build-up than in previous training cycles.

When I was training at ZAP Fitness (in Blowing Rock, N.C.), I was running about 115 miles per week during the peak training cycles. But during this cycle, because of my low-iron situation, Terry was really cautious with me and kept me at about the low to mid-90s. But I really don’t think it’s about any specific number. I think it has a lot to do with the other stimuli in my life.

Erb opted to run the U.S. championships at the Twin Cities Marathon instead of running for a faster time at the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 28.

After I ran well in Boston in April, I really wanted to run Berlin and wanted to run a fast time. I knew after how I ran Boston that breaking 2:30 was within striking distance for me. I ran 2:33:15 in Boston, but I know I was a lot more fit than that. Thanks to David Monti, I got in touch with the Berlin Marathon people and they were willing to have me there and the New York Athletic Club was willing to pay for my way there. But I was also interested in running in the U.S. championship and trying to make the world championship team in 2015. In the end, I made winning a U.S. championship and making the world championship team my top priority.

She has a new outlook for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles. 

Terry always gives me extremely realistic goals and advice. It gives me extreme confidence knowing whatever he tells me I should be able to do that I can do. If people give me a limit or some kind of target, I will do everything in my power to hit it if it’s something within reach. If you tell me to go make the Olympic team, that’s kind of ridiculous. (She placed 27th at the 2012 Trials in Houston in 2:37:21.) It’s becoming less ridiculous now, but when I ran the last Trials with a 2:39 qualifying time it was kind of ridiculous because it wasn’t achievable from there. I need to make step-by-step progress as part of my motivation. I still hesitate to think about being in the top five overall at the Trials, but I certainly hope to be in the top 10. That was a goal I had after the 2012 Olympic Trials. As we get closer to the Trials, if I have another jump with my progress I will start thinking about that but I have a lot of work yet to do.

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