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Elite Runners Seize a Chance to Race in Nebraska

After the first two editions were canceled, the world finally makes it to Valley O.NE, a small town race in Nebraska that drew a big-time field including HOKA NAZ Elite athletes Steph Bruce and Rory Linkletter.

I’ve been around runners of all levels for 35 years, from beginning runners to Olympic medalists and they have more in common than most people realize. Across the board, just going out for a run isn’t enough for most. Runners are driven to test themselves (and others). It’s what they do. Having that target race for a training goal is what gets most of them out the door every day. Until this year, of course.

Nearly every runner has suffered through sometimes long periods of injury and recovery — or known fellow runners who have. Days and weeks on end, wondering if they’ll ever lace up the racing shoes again. But to see the entire running world be shelved for the last year has been surreal.

Will Lindgren and Linda Kunasek of Omaha, Nebraska, have had to wait even longer. Over two years ago, they had a vision for a race that would draw fast runners to their hometown. The combination of their commitment to the running community of the greater Omaha area and years of working to provide development opportunities for post-collegiate athletes led to the Valley O.NE Marathon. But it wasn’t to be, not just yet.

First, devastating flooding forced them to cancel in 2019. Then the whole world of racing stopped for COVID-19 in 2020. But this past weekend finally saw the first edition of the Valley O.NE Marathon in Valley, Nebraska, a small town just outside of Omaha. And, not only did the race come off, but it drew a remarkably elite field. It’s a scenario few would have anticipated, but in the age of COVID-19, people are turning up in some new and unexpected places.

A 13.1-mile loop course with only 16 feet of elevation change drew a field of 25 world class athletes, including Caroline Rotich, the 2015 Boston Marathon champion, Callum Hawkins, Scottish Record holder at the half marathon, and Stephanie Bruce, a two-time U.S. road racing champion, setting up a showdown not seen often in the U.S. during the past year.

Though COVID-19 restrictions meant a limit of 500 runners total for the weekend, the race drew participants from 36 states and 7 countries. “We knew that drawing such high caliber athletes would set a high bar for the first year and we’re proud to have partnered with Valley, NE to do it,” said Executive Director of the Omaha Sports Commission, Josh Todd. “It was a great opportunity to show the world what we do best in Omaha, and we feel like it has given us a great foundation for the future of the race.”

Bruce and Linkletter Ran Like the Wind

So, Valley O.NE did their part — launching a race during a pandemic — and runners responded. The professional athletes fully appreciated the effort and the opportunity that it presented.

Two athletes that were laser-focused on capitalizing on this racing opportunity were Steph Bruce and Rory Linkletter of HOKA Northern Arizona Elite, both competing in the half marathon.

Linkletter, a U.S. based Canadian, had sized up the field and knew that Hawkins would be the man to set the pace. Taking advantage of an early tailwind, the tempo was quick. Turning back into the wind, the battle was on, but Linkletter ended up on his own after Hawkins stepped off the course just after 10 miles. With his only company being the Nebraska wind, Linkletter hit the line in 1:03:57.

The women’s race saw a group of several runners take advantage of pacing duties provided by Bruce’s husband Ben. Bruce made her move after 15K and went on to win in a personal best of 1:09:55, leading six of the top-10 women to new personal records.

Steph Bruce winning the Valley O.NE Half Marathon
Photo: Valley O.NE Marathon

Staying Race Ready

Asked about how she kept motivation to perform at such a high level with few races on her schedule, Bruce said she falls back on the advice her agent Josh Cox often relays to her: “There are two things that you can control, attitude and effort… Let’s keep training like it’s a normal block and when we get an opportunity to race, it will be great.”

Bruce and Linkletter, along with teammate Nick Hauger, who finished fifth in his half marathon debut, were largely training solo with the occasional socially distanced time trial or small “invite only” competitions. But the approach kept them feeling like they’re always only a few weeks away from being race ready, they credit the team’s philosophy and focus on the cumulative effects of their consistent training.

“It’s not about the training that you did in the last few weeks,” says Bruce. “It’s the last six months, 12 months and even 18 months. It brings a mental component, knowing that you can rely on the old training blocks and they can carry you through.”

Seizing the Day with Renewed Purpose

Carrie Verdon of T.E.A.M. Boulder ran a 3-minute personal best to finish behind Bruce in 1:10:10. Four other teammates also notched PRs.

Coach Lee Troop heard about the Valley O.NE event in late-January and after reviewing how they were managing the race — limiting the numbers, starting in waves, and following strict COVID-19 safety protocols — he proposed the race to the team, and by mid-February, had eight runners commit to the event (two in the marathon and six in the half marathon).

Troop admits 2020 was a tough year to keep runners motivated. With little to no racing, as a club, they implemented a number of time trials and virtual races. But the novelty of virtual and inter-squad competitions wore off towards the end of 2020, with most losing interest in time trials and virtual races. They approached 2021 with some hope that racing would resume, but like many others, wondered if they would be safe.

“In the nine weeks leading to the event, the excitement and ‘training with purpose‘ intensified and you could just tell that they were motivated again,” Troop said. “They all enjoyed the training, and absolutely loved the chance to race again — but more importantly, they valued the chance to spend the weekend together, and get to know each other better. Obviously, the race itself is important but the camaraderie is a major motivator for everyone when training for an in-person race.”

Running as O.NE

The Organizers of the Valley O.NE Marathon weekend adopted the tagline “Run As One” to maintain a connection to their vision and mission for this year’s event. “I knew that if we kept our focus on our mission to provide a sound technical event, that was safe for everyone, we’d accomplish our goal of putting our community on the international running map,” said Toussant.

It seems like the majority of the last year has been the epitome of the saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” But Valley O.NE proves that, whether you’re an event director or an athlete, if you do the work and respect the process, you might get the last laugh.