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Marathoner In The Making: Exclusive Interview With Lisa Koll

The Oregon Track Club’s latest addition thinks the marathon will be her best event--but not so fast.

Former Iowa State standout Lisa Koll thinks the marathon will be her best event, but she still has some unfinished business on the track. Photo:
Former Iowa State standout Lisa Koll thinks the marathon will be her best event, but she still has some unfinished business on the track. Photo:

The Oregon Track Club’s latest addition thinks the marathon will be her best event–but not so fast.

Interview by: Megan Whitney Kinney

Former Iowa State standout Lisa Koll is embracing change.  The 2010 NCAA champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters recently signed a contract with Nike and moved to Portland, Oregon to join the Oregon Track Club – arguably one of the most elite distance running groups in the country.  With a new coach in Jerry Schumacher, new training partners and new running routes, a lot has changed for Koll in the past few months, and she’s enjoying all of it. caught up with Koll a couple weeks after she took trip to Maui, where she vacationed with her Oregon Track Club teammates, including training partner Shalane Flanagan, the newly-minted marathoner who finished second at New York City in November. First, how was Maui?

Lisa Koll: Oh, it was a blast.  We got back from New York from the marathon on Monday evening and we left on Wednesday for Maui, so it was really quick turnaround.  But yeah, we had a blast.  Everyone brought their families, like Jerry’s [Schumacher] whole family was there, and everyone’s wives and husbands, so we all just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company and laid on the beach.  We still got some good training in, but it was a really good time.

What’s your training load like right now?

Training has been a lot of base.  I mean, right now, I’m running at least 100 miles a week, pretty much consistently every week.  So, high volume, lots of strength workouts like long tempos.  Pretty much all the efforts are more sustained efforts than anything too quick, too hard.  So, good volume and then that core, general strength stuff too.  I’ve been doing some more of that than I did in college.

How are you feeling so far with the high mileage?

I think it’s really manageable.  When I was in college, I was running between 90 and 100 miles a week anyway.  Since probably my fourth year at Iowa State, I was running at least 80 miles a week. I was already kind of high mileage runner anyway, and even though we’ve upped the volume, I think it’s just the right amount.  It’s enough that it’s hard, but I can handle it, and I can recover from it and I can still work out on it.  So I feel like it’s a really good balance for me.  Not having to deal school and stuff now, I can focus on recovering.  So I think I can afford to up that mileage and still get recovered from it enough that I don’t sacrifice my workouts or worry about getting hurt.

Do you ever take a day off?

When I was in college, I took a day off every four weeks.  Ever since I moved out here, I pretty much run every day unless I feel really worn down.  And then I’ll just take a day off.  Or if a little thing pops up, like for example my achilles popped up when I was in New York, just one day, it was kind of bugging me, so I took a day off.  I’d rather take one day off and let something kind of heal itself, so I’m not worrying about it or dealing with it for like the next month as a nagging thing.  I’d rather just resolve it in one day.  So I guess I don’t work days off into my schedule, I take them off as they come.

How is life different for you now that you’ve become a professional athlete?

Life is completely different now.  I mean, my number one priority is running, and it’s really my only priority right now.  So, I get up in the morning, go run, do a general strength session.  Go home around noon.  And then, take a nap, or just kind of relax in the afternoon or go get massage therapy or any kind of therapy I need.  And then around 3 or 4 p.m., I go for a second run.  And then come back, stretch, have a good dinner and go to bed early.  It’s a very simple lifestyle.

When I was in college, I’d get up at 6 a.m. and go run, and as soon as I got done, I’d go to class – all day.  And as soon as I’d get out, I’d go run again.  And then I’d go home and have to do homework.  It was very stressful.  I mean, I enjoyed what I was doing – it was just a lot.  And so now I feel like everything’s a lot more manageable.  I’m really able to dedicate myself 100% to running.  Where as before, I was splitting myself between school and running and trying to be successful at both.  And now I really just have this opportunity to make myself the best athlete I can be.

Your fiancée, Kiel Uhl, is getting his Masters in Architecture at the University of Oregon, two hours away.  Is it hard having a long-distance relationship on top of all your training?

Besides the transition from not having to worry about school to just worrying about running, that’s the number two thing that’s been a big change in my life – is not being around him all the time. When we were at Iowa State, we never lived a mile apart from each other.  We pretty much saw each other all the time.  And now we just see each other on weekends, which is fine but it’s taken some adjusting for both of us.

Luckily, I’ve had kind of a support group with the team that I have people to hang out with and take my mind off it.  But, I guess we both just think of it as a workweek.  So, it’s like we work from Monday to Friday, and then we get to hangout on the weekends and that’s our free time to spend with each other.  So it’s not really that bad; he takes the train down from Eugene to Portland to come visit me and he’ll stay for the weekend and then go back.  Actually starting this next trimester, he only has class Tuesday through Thursday, so the majority of the time he’ll be in Portland.  And then he’s going to start taking classes at the U of O [University of Oregon] in Portland in March.  So, starting in the spring he’ll be in Portland full-time.  So we’re through the worst of it.

Last month you watched the New York City Marathon from the lead vehicle.  What was it like to see teammate Shalane Flanagan take second, especially because you had done some of the training with her?

It was really exciting.  I think the one thing that sticks out to me most about watching the marathon and riding in the lead car is that was the fastest two-and-a-half hours of my entire life.   I couldn’t believe how fast it went by. I was so involved in the race, it was just so much fun to watch.  And the women’s race was really cool because everyone was in it until like five miles to go.  So that was really exciting.

Shalane looked great the whole race.  I mean, I knew she was fit and ready to go coming into it, and so I knew she was going to run well.  But the way the race was run, and with how good she looked, and when that front pack just kind of dropped everyone and it was just those three, it was really fun, it was really exciting.  And to have watched her do a lot of her hard workouts and (see) how much hard work she put into that marathon, and see all that hard work come to fruition, it was such a cool thing to be a part of and celebrate that with her.

Lisa Koll (right) was unbeatable on the track during her senior season at Iowa State. Photo:
Lisa Koll (right) was unbeatable on the track during her senior season at Iowa State. Photo:

I’ve read that you think the marathon will be your best event.  Why do you think that, and your decision to wait to make your debut?

Every time I’ve moved up in event distance I’ve seen more success.  I’ve always been kind of high mileage; I’m pretty durable.  I can handle a lot of the work, so I’ve been able to build this big aerobic base over the past two years so I think that will benefit me in the marathon in the future.

I think I just kind of have a knack for the long tempo runs.  My workouts always seem to go well when it’s long, sustained efforts.  I really think that the marathon is going to eventually probably be my best event, but I don’t want to do the marathon until I’m really ready for it.  It’s a huge undertaking and I don’t want to underestimate the event.  I want to make sure that when I go to do it I’m very prepared and I’m expecting to run really well.

So, I think that there are a lot of things I can do on the track still.  I think I still have a lot of potential and I think I can improve my PRs quite a bit in those areas snd then turn my focus to the marathon.  So, it’s a two-pronged approach with training that Jerry’s taking with me where we’re doing stuff that benefits the track in the short term and marathon long term.

When do you think you’ll make your marathon debut?

I think it’s probably too early to be pinpointing a marathon, but any time after 2012 I’m going to start looking into it.  I think I have a big enough base where I’ll feel comfortable moving to the marathon after that Olympic year.  So, maybe 2013, 2014, somewhere in that region is where I see myself debuting.

How do you like Portland so far as a runner?

I love Portland. I feel like I’ve adjusted here really well.  We’ve been doing a lot of traveling the last couple months.  It’s funny how now when I fly into Portland I feel like I’m flying into home.  I love the city.  I love the trail system.  Wildwood is awesome – I did a long run there, I think it was like over two hours and it was all completely on dirt trails through the forest.  So that’s been great.

The people in Portland complain about all the rain and how it’s so dreary in the winter. To me, it’s nice to not have snow and ice on the ground for four months of the year, so I’m looking forward to that. It’s been cool to check out different places to run and there’s been some exploration the last few months of training.

Portland has really become a running Mecca with Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher coaching at the Nike campus. What’s it like to be a part of that?

When I first got here it was very surreal because I was at Nike world headquarters and training with Shalane Flanagan and Alan Webb doing workouts on the track.  And Chris Solinsky and Matt Tegenkamp and Simon Bairu — just like going on runs with them.  It’s just exciting, it’s people I’ve looked up to.  It’s almost like I was star struck, and that sounds stupid now because they’re my friends and we’re teammates.  But when I first got here, it was almost surreal.  Being in such a cool place, with such accomplished people who are so humble that you wouldn’t even expect that most of them are Olympians.  So, in that sense, it was kind of inspiring.

Were you intimidated at all when you first met Shalane Flanagan?

I don’t think intimidated would be the right word.  I mean, I have tons of respect for her.  She’s probably the female runner that I’ve looked up to the most ever since I got interested in professional running. She’s someone who I’ve admired — the way she races, the way she presents herself, and her fire, her competitive spirit.  So I have this admiration for her.  But she was so nice, so friendly, so supportive, like, “Oh, I’m so excited that you’re here, I’m so excited to have you as a training partner.”  So it wasn’t really intimidating as it was exciting.

Shalane seems very humble in interviews.  Before the New York City Marathon she said her goal was just to finish the marathon, which is humble coming from an American record holder.

That’s the great thing about Shalane.  She never underestimates what she wants to accomplish.  She’s never underestimating the task.   She’s always very aware of what’s in front of her.  And I think that really helped her in the marathon, too, because I think she was pretty nervous about it and kind of going into uncharted territory, but because she was so prepared for it I think that really helped her.

How are you enjoying working with your new coach, Jerry Schumacher, and how is he different from your coach at Iowa State  [Corey Ihmels]?

I love working with Jerry.  I think that when I was looking at my options at what I wanted to do post-collegiately, Jerry got in contact with my coach at Iowa State and said, “I think Lisa would be a good fit for our group, and I think it’d be good for us to have a conversation.”  So, after USA’s I talked to my coach a little bit and he said, “Yeah, Jerry Schumacher’s interested in meeting with you. And I think it would be a really good fit.”

My coach has known me for quite a few years and knows me as an athlete, and knew Jerry pretty well and Jerry’s training system, and I trusted his opinion.   I met with Jerry, and I was like, “Wow, this is the type of person I want to be around.”  He’s so excited about running.  He takes it very seriously, but he’s just so passionate about it.  His training system is actually very similar to what I was doing at Iowa State, a very strength-based program – it’s just amped up a couple notches.

You thrive off running high miles and yet you’ve also had your share of serious running injuries.  What was one of the worst injuries you’ve faced in your career?

I think one of the worst injuries I had was Piriformis syndrome.  I had a lot of sciatica, like nerve pain, down my leg.  I was out for probably two months, but it was just really bad timing.  It wasn’t so much a terrible injury, as it just kind ruined things for the whole year.  So I think it’s probably the one I’m most sour about.

What do you do now to stay ahead of injuries?

Like I said before, if something pops up and it’s not a championship point in the season it’s better to take a few days off now and take care of it so it’s not a nagging thing for the next couple months.   Also, I think there are things you can do along the way that can really prevent those things, like really being in touch with your body and being honest with yourself.  I’m a believer that if you just stretch a little after you run, sort of get things loose and kind of get your muscles cooled down, you can stop a lot of those little things from popping up.

But realistically, things are going to happen and you’re always toeing that line between pushing yourself to the limit and pushing yourself too far.  Everyone gets to that point that they push themselves a little too far.  You just have to deal with it and know that you can come back and just because you’re injured today, doesn’t mean that six months from now you’re not going to be PR-ing and doing well, so you just have to take it day by day.

What’s next for you on the racing scene?

I haven’t really mapped out 100% of what I plan on racing this spring and summer.  Probably kind of a rust buster sometime in January–probably somewhere in Washington–and then probably U.S. Cross [Country] in February.  U.S. Cross is my main focus now.  And then, after that, obviously U.S. Track Championships in June, focusing on the 10k.  So, those are my main goals right now and we’ll kind of fill in races along the way with what looks like a good race and would be a good fit.  Hopefully some good 5ks in there too this spring and summer.


Megan Whitney Kinney is a freelance journalist and runner based in New York City.  She spent the last five years producing for fast paced news shows, including the award-winning Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.  You can reach her at