Laura Thweatt admits she was ready to hang up her spikes, be done with competitive running and move on in life.
After a completing a good but not great college career at the University of Colorado in 2011—she never earned All-American status and never made it to the NCAA track championships like Olympians Kara Goucher, Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn, Shalaya Kipp and others did before her—she started applying for jobs and graduate school programs.
But, fast-forward four years later, and she’s now she’s among the very elite women distance runners in the U.S. and a serious contender to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000-meter run next summer.
In the meantime, the 26-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident is running Sunday’s New York City Marathon—her debut at 26.2 miles—and is ready to mix it up with some of the best runners in the world.
So what changed in those four years?
It started with an encouraging friend and a coach confident in her abilities, plus a whole bunch of high school runners who reminded her about the simple joys of running and, of course, her own natural talent and determination.
The friend was former CU teammate Matt Tebo, who was in a similar predicament after finishing his college career; the coach was Lee Troop, head coach of the Boulder Track Club; and the kids were the 120-strong high school runners at Monarch High School, where she has coached since 2011.
“I was applying for jobs, grad school, kind of thinking it was time to transition into the next phase in life,” Thweatt said recently. “When you get out of school and don’t have any sponsorship contracts or opportunities because you haven’t run fast times, you don’t really know how to get to that level.”
Consistent next-level training and Troop’s guidance have helped Thweatt improve every year. Although she didn’t make the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 5,000-meter run in 2012 (with a 15:44 PR), she’s since lowered her time to 15:04 (which ranked third in the U.S. in 2014) and appears poised to lower her 10,000 PR of 32:15 next spring.
She also won the 8K U.S. cross country championships in February, adding to her previous victories at the U.S. club cross country championships in 2013 and 2014. She also got picked up by Saucony with a sponsorship contract.
“I really owe a lot to Matt. He said, ‘you shouldn’t give it up yet. You have a lot to offer and you’ll never know unless you go for it.’ And then training with Lee has made all the difference in the world. It’s pretty cool to see how sticking with it and how little improvements and progressions can make a huge difference.”
But not to be overlooked is her gig as an assistant coach with the Monarch High School program just outside of Boulder. The program has become one of the best in Colorado in recent years under head coach Kent Rieder, with the girls team winning Class 5A state titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Although Thweatt will be in New York City, the team returns to the state meet this weekend.
“They know I’ll be there in spirit,” Thweatt said. “It’s amazing to be a part of that program. You can just feel their passion. That’s why they’re out there. They work so hard. They want it.
“I think coaching a high school team has made me a better runner. It gives you a completely different perspective being on the other side of the sport and really helping young kids and getting them going in the sport. I owe those kids a lot too. They definitely got me back into it after I graduated.”
Troop, 42, has transitioned from an elite runner to an elite-level coach after concluding his career that included a 2:09:49 marathon PR and three Olympic appearances for his native Australia. He’s built the Boulder Track Club’s high-performance team with blue-collar athletes who didn’t get sponsorship deals coming out of college but still have potential to improve.
He’s been growing the program from the ground up for about five years. In 2012, he took two athletes to the U.S. Olympic Trials, but next year he could have as many as 10. Other members of the team include former U.S. club cross country champion Jon Grey, who owns a 1:02:35 half-marathon PR, Sean Quigley, who ran 2:13:30 marathon PR last December in Japan and Alex Monroe, who has run 29:42 for 10,000 meters on the track and is hoping to qualify for the 2106 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon at Saturday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon.
Troop also recently bought the Fleet Feet running store in Boulder and hired Thweatt to be his footwear buyer. She works at the store about 20 hours a week, balancing her workouts and strength and recovery sessions.
“Laura is our kind of runner,” Troop said. “When Laura got out of college, she didn’t really have any opportunities and she didn’t know if she wanted to run any more. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of people saw a lot of potential or ability, but I did. I told her, ‘what have you got to lose?’ She’s worked hard to get to where she is now.”
Thweatt was poised to make a breakthrough this past spring and summer after winning the U.S. cross country championships, but a stress reaction in her foot and a banged up knee suffered from a minor car accident sidelined her for the entire track season.
When she got back to training in July, Troop figured the marathon could be a way to build her aerobic base in a fairly low-pressure way. Although she’s qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, she won’t be running that race on Feb. 13 no matter how Sunday turns out.
“I believe that she’ll be a marathoner eventually, but I don’t want her to do that for another couple of years,” he said. “I’m looking more for her to get the great training metrics and confidence and to have a great racing experience and to do something different and to challenge her. But she’s got plenty of years to run the marathon. The last thing I want to do is throw her into this event and have her burnt out and retire by 28.”
Although she’s potentially the best American in the field and might be capable to run 2:28 or faster in her debut marathon on Sunday, Thweatt said she won’t be wearing a watch. Instead will run by feel, try to race competitively and keep learning what it takes to be an elite runner.
“It takes a lot of patience, a lot of dedication and you have to want it and you have to love it at the same time,” she said. “You have to be willing to sacrifice and put in the hard work day after day regardless of the ups and downs. You have to be able to put your head down and work through it all.”
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