Middle-distance ace has become a world-beater this summer.
Interview by: Duncan Larkin
American middle-distance runner Morgan Uceny’s race results from two years ago look nothing like the numbers she’s posted this season. In 2009, Uceny managed a sixth-place showing in the 800 meters at the USA Outdoor Championships. Later that summer, she ran a handful of races on the European track circuit, and posted season’s best times of 2:00.06 and 4:09.95 for the 800 meters and 1,500 meters, respectively.
What a difference two years has made.
Uceny, a member of the Mammoth Track Club who is coached by Terrence Mahon, has been lighting the track on fire this summer. She isn’t just beating other Americans (she won the 1,500m at the USA Outdoor Championships); she’s beating the rest of the world, too. In the weeks following her come-from-behind victory in Eugene at the end of June, Uceny has impressive victories at the Athletissima (Lausanne) and Aviva Grand Prix (Birmingham) Diamond League meets in the 1,500 meters. And then, on July 19 in Lignano, Italy, Uceny showed her versatility as a middle-distance specialist, winning the 800m with a career best 1:58.37.
All told, out of 12 appearances on the track in 2011, the 26-year-old Cornell University graduate has been victorious four times (including heats) and found herself on the podium 10 times.
What is the secret of her success? We caught up with Uceny from her European training base in Lucca, Italy, where she is preparing for next month’s World Championships, to find out the answer to this question.
Competitor.com: You’ve been having a phenomenal season. Are you surprised at all by how well you’ve been racing?
Morgan Uceny: Kind of. I’m not surprised so much about my performance as I’ve been surprised about my placing in races. It’s not that I’ve been running fast. I’ve just been winning races, which gets you more recognition. I think it’s kind of an odd year. There are a lot of people who have been injured or haven’t been performing as well. I’ve been positioned to take advantage of that. Obviously, I’m only in control of myself. I’m doing the best I can with what’s out there.
[InlineVideoPlayer float=”right” videoid=”1023864261001″ caption=”Post-race interview with Morgan Uceny at the 2011 USA Track & Field Championships. “]Other than the fact that key runners aren’t in some races or aren’t performing as well and you attribute some of that to your success, is there anything else in your training or your racing strategy that has paid off and led to your victories?
My training has changed a little bit. Every year since college I’ve been adding mileage and getting stronger. I think it’s an accumulation of things. More specifically in practice, Terrence and I have been focusing on closing well. So actually in practice, I’ll do a repeat. We vary what it is—whether it’s the last 200 [meters], 250, 100, or 150, I’ll make a quick push for the finish. We’ve been working on surging at different points to mimic a race and how it could go there.
Your coach, Terrence Mahon, is known for coaching marathoners. You had mentioned that your mileage has been increasing. Is there anything that Terrence is doing with you, like really long runs or high mileage that seems strange to you?
I don’t think so. I believe 800m people are either sprinter 800 [runners] or distance 800 [runners]. I think I’m probably more on the distance side, but my longest run has only been 13 miles, which I don’t think is that crazy. It’s more doing afternoon runs and the intensity that comes along with the training. Terrence and I were actually joking the other day. He was saying, “Why does everyone think I’m just a marathon coach?” He’s trained Anna [Pierce] two years ago and she had an outstanding season. So I’m going to give him credit for being a good middle-distance coach. He also actually helps a lot with our sprints. He’s really knowledgeable there, too.
You had mentioned the 13-mile long run. What kind of weekly mileage are you logging?
In the fall, a high week would be 75 [miles] and a low week would be 65. I’d have a day off every two weeks. But now that it’s racing season, like the week that I ran two races, I only ran like 35 miles. Racing a lot changes things.
You’ve been racing a lot this season. Do you feel like these races have been making you stronger? Are they building on one another?
Yes—especially since a lot of the races I had been doing hadn’t been that fast. It definitely doesn’t take that much out of you. I’ve always been the type of person where the more I race; the better I do—especially when I can mix 800s and 1500s. Obviously, running my 800 in Italy was a PR, so I felt a little more tired than normal going into Monaco just because they were a lot faster than I had run previously. I like to race a lot; it breaks up training. It’s just more fun.
Between the 800 and 1500, which distance are you most comfortable racing right now?
I honestly can’t choose between the two. I haven’t done many 800s this year. I do miss that a lot. Racing the 800 in Italy was like a little treat. It was a lot of fun and I came to realize how much I miss running them. For the 800, you have to be on your game the whole race. There is no time for mistakes. For the 1500m, you can kind of relax a little more. They are very different and I enjoy doing both.
You’ve been winning your races lately with the same strategy, which is dropping the hammer with about 150 meters to go. You had previously mentioned you’d been working with Terrence on surging in training. So is this a deliberate strategy?
Yeah, because in the 1500m, in previous years, I had made the mistake of making a kind of half move with 200-250 [meters] to go and then having my wheels fall off in the last 100. This year, it’s been all about hitting the gear, but still having something for the last 50 meters so that if someone came up on me, I’d be able to respond. That’s definitely been something we’ve been working on a lot this year.
As a middle-distance runner, you have a muscular build. How much training time are you dedicating to lifting weights?
Every day. Actually, our whole group is all on the same lifting program. Even the 10K runners are lifting every day. Intensity and weights vary, but we are all in the gym at least six days a week.
Do you have a strength coach?
We do some consulting. We have a few people that we can consult with when we need to.
When you race, you tend to wear a colorful necklace. Is that a good luck charm? What is the symbolism behind it?
[She laughs.] I don’t have a good story for that. I’ve always worn something. When I was in junior high, I would wear Mardi Gras beads to school every day. This is the one necklace that wasn’t too over the top and yet still brightened things up. It makes you relax a little more. It makes you not take yourself too seriously. I’m definitely not a superstitious person. I had forgotten to wear it a few times and raced fine. I just like to wear it; it makes my outfit look nice, too. When I first started running, I was more noticed as the girl with the plastic necklace. People didn’t really know my name. So it worked for that, too.
Since you’ve been so successful this season, do you feel any extra pressure to medal in next month’s world championships?
The only pressure is coming from myself. I don’t feel pressure from other people or anything like that. I’ve had a goal to earn a medal at Worlds and at the Olympics and that’s stayed constant throughout the season. As far as Worlds, yeah I’ve been winning these races and running well, but World’s is a totally different arena, because it will be three rounds. Getting to the final is half the battle. You have to make sure you are running smart and doing the things you have to do to make it there. Once I make the final, I’ll have to really sit down and come up with a game plan. Right now, it’s all about making the final and executing once I get there. You just never know what can happen, how you feel after all the rounds, and who’s going to show up. It’s just all these factors that I’m going to take one step at a time and not get overwhelmed by them.
As you go into the Olympic cycle for next year is there anything you learned from this year’s racing season that you will plan on applying for the Olympics?
Yeah. Terrence and I have talked briefly about it. For next year it’s all about keeping things the same. Some people tend to do things differently. It’s like, “Why?” I’ll still probably race indoors, because it’s something that I’ve always done and I actually did pretty well this year, so I plan on racing an indoor season and taking a week or so off and then gearing back up again. I think Terrence, more than me, since he’s writing my programs and my weights, is probably connecting the dots about what kind of workouts he’s seen me doing that have yielded the best results. I’m sure we will tweak some things, too. There are always gains to be made as well. I kind of will let him worry about that. I trust him completely and know he will do what’s best for me.
How much interaction do you have with him? Is he supervising your workouts? Or is he writing out your training and then showing up every now and then?
We pretty much have face time every day. Our team meets every morning, whether it’s to run or to work out. He’s actually worked out with me before. He’s gotten himself into pretty good shape this year. He jumps in some of our intervals to help us out. He comes on our runs and if not, he’ll be handing out water bottles if it’s a longer run that day. It’s pretty much every day—on the track and in the gym that he’s there, which is nice.
A lot of people look up to you for inspiration. Because of your recent victories, there is a lot of excitement about you within the running community. How does it feel to have the spotlight on you right now and what kind of advice can you give to your running fans who want to follow in your footsteps and find their own way to break through, performance-wise?
I just think there is no magic answer. There isn’t one workout, or one coach, or one training group that is going to get you your success. I think as long as you are training as hard and as smart as you can and you believe in your abilities, then I think that can take you as far as you think you can go. Don’t limit yourself. Work hard every day. Be patient. At the end of the day, as long as you are doing all the right things, I really think that it will pay off. It’s all about being patient and doing the little things that will keep you going.