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Tenacious Amy: No Holding Down Hastings

Olympian Amy Hastings is a runner worth watching in 2013.

Olympian Amy Hastings is a runner worth watching in 2013. 

Like any great athlete, when Amy Hastings gets knocked down, she picks herself right back up. And once she’s back on her feet, it’s a safe bet that she’ll probably out-kick you, too.

Case in point: After finishing fourth at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston last January, missing a spot on the Olympic team by 71 seconds, Hastings shed some tears, then found strength through her disappointment and quickly put herself back on a fast track to success—a route which led her to a come-from-behind win in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in June, securing the tenacious 28-year-old a spot on her first Olympic team.

“It was really a hard pill to swallow,” Hastings says of failing to make the Olympic team in the marathon. “I was very upset about it. I cried about it for a really long time afterward, but it was one of those things where I just kept telling myself that it happens for a reason and I wasn’t ready to give up.”

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Growing up in Leavenworth, Kan., where she participated in a slew of sports but “wasn’t really that good at any of them,” Hastings learned from her parents that failure wasn’t an excuse to quit something—it was only a reason to reevaluate and try even harder. As a result, she developed a fierce competitiveness, one that has always belied her girl-next-door likability and vibrant smile.

After some initial running success early in her high school career, Hastings started to take the sport more seriously, and as a junior began working with a coach in Kansas City during the off-season and upping her training volume to 65 miles per week. She set a goal of running competitively in college, and by the time she graduated in 2002, Hastings had already started to show early signs of potential marathon prowess, logging nearly 80 miles a week in training.

“I realized very quickly that my best run of the week was always the long run,” Hastings admits. “That’s kind of what came easiest to me. And I loved it because I had a group of girls I ran with, and we would just go and talk the whole time. It was my favorite run of the week, too. I actually told college coaches I thought I would be a 10K runner and that I’d eventually do the marathon after college. I think they kind of laughed at the time, but I could handle the mileage, even in high school.”

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“This is what I want to do.”

After graduating from Leavenworth as a three-time state champion, she headed to Arizona State, where she became a teammate and roommate of Desiree Davila. In Tempe, Hastings flourished immediately, finishing as the top Sun Devil at the NCAA Cross Country Championship her freshman year, placing 69th overall. She made her first international team that winter, qualifying for the world cross country championships in Switzerland, where she placed 20th and led the U.S. team to a fourth-place finish. It was on that trip that Hastings thought she might be able to make a career out of running.

“I was like, ‘That’s it, that’s what I want to do when I get older, absolutely,’” Hastings recalls. “I was sold on it. I wanted to work as hard as I could so I could run after college and keep going on trips like that to compete against the best runners in the world.”

Over the course of the next three years, Hastings would garner three All-American certificates in cross country, placing as high as 13th at the NCAA championships in 2005, while leading her team to a fourth-place finish. She also shined on the track, winning a Pac-10 steeplechase championship as a sophomore in 2004, and placing fifth in the 5,000m at the NCAA indoor championships in 2005.

Success didn’t always come smoothly for Hastings, however, as she suffered a stress fracture in her foot training for the steeplechase in the spring of 2005—an injury which caused her season to end on a low note (Hastings dropped out of the 10,000m at the NCAA championships), but also one that gave her the chance to reevaluate her racing options and bounce back in a big way.

Hastings used the disappointment of DNFing at NCAAs to prove that there is opportunity in every difficulty, and nine months after suffering from her momentum-killing stress fracture, she won the NCAA indoor title at 5,000m. She graduated in 2007 with a personal best of 15:30.17 in the event, a collegiate indoor record at the time.

“[My stress fracture] was the main the reason I was able to improve on my career. I actually took time off when I broke my foot, really took care of my body, came back really slowly,” says Hastings, who won seven All-American awards in track. “Because of that I ended up switching to the 5K and I had so much more success in the 5K than I would have in the steeplechase. Stuff like that, as long as you trust that things happen for a reason and just put your head down, focus and just keep working hard, then things usually work out.”

Movin’ On Up

After graduating from college, Hastings moved a few hours north to the 7,000-foot environs of Flagstaff to try altitude training for the first time. For a while she was still coached by her college mentor, Louis Quintana, while also receiving guidance from legendary coach Jack Daniels. But Hastings missed the supportive team environment she thrived on in college.

“I had a hard time going out and doing it all on my own,” Hastings says of her brief stint in Flagstaff. “When your coach isn’t there with you the whole time it’s difficult. I realized pretty quickly I needed to make a change, and so I had actually been talking about how I wanted to train with Deena Kastor.”

Funny how things work out sometimes.

After an up-and-down first year as professional where she again qualified for the world cross country championships and placed 14th in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Hastings made the move to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and joined Kastor, the silver medalist in the 2004 Olympic marathon, as a member of coach Terrence Mahon’s Mammoth Track Club, a powerhouse of a training group which included Olympians Kastor and Jen Rhines, as well as other notable names such as Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi.

“We actually had a poster of Deena and Jen Rhines in my house in college so it was absolutely incredible,” Hastings says of her arrival in Mammoth. “When I first met them I was absolutely in awe of them and it took time to realize they were just normal people who work really hard but are very balanced. That was really cool to have that just to realize running didn’t have to be 100 percent of your life.”

Running took on a whole meaning for Hastings, however, and she began to train with renewed enthusiasm alongside her idol in the thin air of the Sierra Nevadas, some 8,000 feet above sea level. Improvement came gradually as she began to dabble in road racing, but the high-altitude training was paying off as evidenced by her first big breakthrough at the 2010 U.S. half- marathon championships in Houston, where she finished fourth in 1:11:19.

The following year, Hastings finally made the leap she knew she had been destined for since high school, finishing a strong second at the LA Marathon in 2:27:03 in her debut effort at 26.2 miles. It was the third-fastest debut time ever for an American runner, behind only Goucher (2:25:53) and Kastor (2:26:58).

“I fell in love with the marathon before the race,” reveals Hastings. “I really feel like I’m made for that kind of training. I had been struggling the couple years before that because I have a hard time recovering from really short, intense stuff. So once we switched to marathon training, I don’t know, I was just hooked. The race was just the icing on the cake.”

On the track later that summer, Hastings’ strength reaped her 5,000m personal best to 15:14.31 to finish second at the U.S. championships, qualifying her for the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, where she placed 15th in the final.

Never the first one in the room to raise her hand for leg-searing speed work, Hastings credits marathon training for her improvement on the track.

“My last two years I started switching to marathon training, which I think was really good,” Hastings explains. “My mileage bumped up a whole lot, and it was the same kind of workouts we did the first two years but the emphasis was more on the tempos and long runs. I kind of started doing more marathon-based training and it really helped my track times.”

“I wasn’t ready to give up.”

Heading into 2012, everything in Hastings’ world was centered around making the Olympic marathon team in Houston. Despite not having the marathon experience or the credentials of Davila (who was coming off a second-place finish at Boston the year before), Shalane Flanagan (the bronze medalist in the 10,000m in the 2008 Olympics and second place in her debut marathon at New York), Kara Goucher (three combined podium finishes in New York and Boston) or Kastor, Hastings headed to Houston confident that she had the tools to construct a performance worthy of earning a top-three finish and a ticket to London.

An aggressive competitor who’s never been afraid to take risks in races, Hastings did what she had to do to put herself in position to make the Olympic team. After a painfully slow start to the trials marathon—the first mile went by in a pedestrian 6:11—Hastings planted herself at the front of the lead pack, ready to respond to whatever moves might be made.

But with Flanagan, Goucher, Kastor and Janet Bawcom unwilling to push the pace early on, Hastings, along with Davila, surged and strung out the field. It was a bold move that showed Hastings’ feisty competitiveness, and a move that would set the tone for the rest of the race.

Hastings settled into a groove and ran with the lead pack through the halfway point before she, Bawcom and Kastor fell slightly off pace near mile 15. But Hastings wasn’t willing to let her Olympic dream walk away from her, so, with a bit of encouragement from Kastor, she surged again and was suddenly back in the lead at mile 16.

It was a bulldog effort, but her blazing 5:18 mile split would be costly, and she had fallen off the lead group again by mile 20. As Flanagan and Davila dueled for the lead for late in the race, Hastings tried desperately to stay in contact with a resurgent Goucher, hoping to somehow stay close enough to outkick her for the final Olympic team berth.

Goucher held on for third and later confessed that she ran “outside herself” to drop Hastings in the final miles.

“I knew I was digging a hole for myself in the later stages of the race,” Goucher said. “Because Amy was just not going away.”

Hastings would finish fourth in 2:27:17, just 14 seconds off her marathon PR. But, for the moment, she was physically, mentally and emotionally devastated, knowing she’d left everything out on the streets of Houston and came up 71 seconds short of her Olympic dream.

She bit her lip to hold off the tears as she crossed the finish line, where Goucher, Flanagan and Davila were celebrating with American flags. She didn’t make the Olympic team that day, but she certainly played a big role in making the race while also seasoning herself through the trials of those miles.

“It was tough, when they broke away and I just kind of faded,” Hastings recalls. “I fell about a minute off and then stayed pretty even. With about two miles to go it was really hard, I had to fight the tears at that point. It was an emotional last couple of miles but it was a great experience, too. I’m really proud of the way I competed and how I went for it.”

After a brief break from training, Hastings returned to Mammoth, and true to her never-give-in nature, fought through the disappointment of not making the Olympic marathon team and set her sights on qualifying for a place on the team on the track.

“I came to practice every single day and I was sad in between practices,” Hastings admits. “But when I was at practice I was doing everything I needed to be doing, when I was at home and I was upset I was still eating the right foods, trying to get enough sleep. I wasn’t ready to give up.”

The Olympic Experience

A short, but successful spring racing season culminated at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., on June 23 in a 10,000m final that eerily resembled the race in Houston, with a slow start and yo-yo-ing pace keeping many women in contention until the final mile. And much like the race in Houston, the ever-tenacious Hastings found herself at the front of the field, forcing the pace until two laps to go when she fell behind pre-race favorite Shalane Flanagan and collegiate star Natosha Rogers. Not content to just hang on for third, however, Hastings slung herself off the final turn, going by Flanagan and Rogers in the final 100 meters as if they were standing still to win in 31:58.26.

“At first I really didn’t believe it,” Hastings says of her come-from-behind victory. “It was really an incredible feeling. “When I hit two laps to go it was still just trying to be top three and then I guess in the last 100 meters, I don’t know, I flipped the switch and went for the gold.”

Hastings returned to her sea-level training base in San Diego after the trials for a few weeks before heading to Europe for a pre-Olympics training camp. After finally realizing her dream of making the Olympic team, she was determined to enjoy the entire Olympic experience from start to finish, while also putting herself in the best position to be competitive in a loaded 10,000m field.

“I had made the decision ahead of time that I was absolutely going to go there and run as hard as I possibly could, put myself in the best position I can but I was also going to enjoy every second of it,” Hastings explains. “No matter what happened in the race I wasn’t going to let it ruin my Olympic experience.”

Not that the race itself went all that bad. Hastings stuck her nose into it from the start, shadowing the contenders through 5K. A two-lap surge just after halfway dropped Hastings from contention, but she kept fighting and shared the workload with fellow Americans Bawcom and Lisa Uhl for a few laps before pulling ahead to finish 11th in 31:10.69, a personal best.

Looking Beyond London

After London, Hastings took some down time from training to rest a nagging bone bruise in her foot and go on vacation with her family in Europe. She also decided to part ways with Mahon and the Mammoth Track Club, and returned home to Leavenworth at the end of August to contemplate her fall racing season—one which did not initially include plans for a marathon—when her phone rang. On the line was New York Road Runners elite athlete consultant David Monti. After some discussion about her situation, Monti suggested Hastings reach out to New Zealand Olympian Kim Smith, who Hastings didn’t know that well, to see about joining her in Providence, Rhode Island so they could train together for the New York City Marathon, a race Smith had finished fifth in two years in a row.

At the beginning of September, Hastings was on a plane to Providence to join Smith, who is coached by her college mentor Ray Treacy, the head cross country and track coach at Providence College. The impromptu pairing of these two top marathoners turned out to be a natural fit.

“It was one of the easiest transitions I’ve ever made. I moved into Kim’s spare bedroom and just started doing what she was doing,” Hastings says. “I just completely jumped into her training and at first I could only finish half of her work- outs, but it came around pretty fast. Workouts were consistent. It was really cool. I felt great.”

Hastings and Smith made the little over three-hour drive to New York together at the beginning of November, both feeling fit and confident. With a stacked women’s field that included reigning Olympic champion Tiki Galena of Ethiopia, among others, Hastings was optimistic about the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the best female marathoners in the world.

“I was really confident going into New York,” Hastings says. “In New York I don’t know if I could have run a PR, but I think I could have had my best race.”

That race never happened, as it was canceled just two days before due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. Not wanting to waste their hard-earned fitness, Hastings and Smith were granted entry into the Nov. 18 Yokohama Women’s Marathon in Japan two weeks later. Leading up to the race, Hastings came down with a head cold, which got bad enough that just a couple days prior she considered not starting. Her health eventually improved, but a few miles into the race an awkward achiness set into her body, and Hastings knew it was going to be rough. She dropped out just after the halfway mark. Smith went on to finish sixth in 2:27:35.

“I was struggling pretty bad,” Hastings recalls. “I hit the half at 73:30 or so and I was going down from there. It was not my day. You can get away with that in 5K/10K, but not in the marathon.”

Never one to dwell on disappointment, Hastings quickly picked herself up after Yokohama and started weighing her options for the year ahead. Her situation in Providence was only supposed to be an interim solution until she figured out a long-term plan, but Hastings quickly fell in love with the city—and fell in nicely with her new training partners, Smith and U.S. 5,000m record-holder Molly Huddle—and recently announced that she’ll be making a permanent move to the Ocean State.

Racing-wise, whether she seeks redemption on the roads — perhaps as soon as the March 17 NYC Half Marathon or the Boston Marathon on April 15 — or tries to improve her times on the track remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: when Hastings gets back up after being knocked down, her next move is to start running fast and kicking past.

“I’m extremely optimistic,” says Hastings, who turns 29 this month. “Failing doesn’t make me ever want to stop. It makes me want to push harder. Everyone has setbacks, but I’ve always had my best runs after disappointments.”

This piece first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.