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Alisha Williams Puts Corporate Career on Hold for Run as a Pro

Alisha Williams might have never pursued her running career in earnest if it hadn’t been for Jim Carrey.

“I never intended to become a professional runner,” says the 34-year-old former senior financial reporting analyst of an oil company who lives in Golden, Colo. “I always saw myself as a career woman.”

Williams had a stellar career at Western State Colorado University, winning six NCAA Division II titles by the time she graduated in 2005. Once out of school, she recorded national-class times from the 5K to the marathon and consistently placed high at U.S. championships on the track and on the road—even though she was typically training to squeeze in her training around the 9-to-5 schedule of her full-time job.

Among her career highlights is her fifth-place finish in the 10,000m at the U.S. Olympic Trials on the track in 32:08.51, even though she missed a chance to run in the London Olympics by just 5 seconds. Also in 2012, she finished 14th at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in 2:35:09 and lowered her PR later that year to  2:34:57.

She continued to run well in the years that followed, but it wasn’t until last year—when she realized the short shelf-life of being a professional runner was ticking away and another Olympic year was coming up—that she decided to put her corporate career on hold, thanks also in part to a few inspiring words from Carrey.

Last spring, Williams was listening to the radio when Carrey’s graduation speech at Iowa’s Maharishi University of Management came on the air. Carrey spoke of his father, a CPA like Williams, who always took the safe route. “That’s totally me!” she thought. What struck her was Carrey speaking to risk taking in life where there is no guarantee: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

“I got chills and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Jim Carrey is talking to me!’” It was then that Williams decided to chase her dreams as a professional runner and put her lucrative corporate career on the back-burner.

So far, so good. With more time to focus on training, Williams, who has a modest sponsorship deal with adidas as part of its Rocky Mountain Elite team, set new PRs in the mile (4:35.50), 10,000m (31:49.99) and the half marathon (1:10:32) last year, and she’s continued running well into this spring. She was the first American runner to cross the finish line at the Bolder Boulder 10K on May 30, placing eighth in 34:42.

She’ll be taking perhaps a few more risks than her CPA-self would like in order to pursue an U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying time in the 5,000-meter run on June 12 at the Portland Track Festival at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

Williams, however, has had to overcome several road blocks that would have sidetracked most athletes. In both April 2013 and April 2014 she faced metatarsal stress fractures that forced her to take six weeks completely off. After a couple years of intense training in Colorado Springs that broke her down, she decided to return to the man who had coached her at Western State, two-time New Zealand Olympian Michael Aish—a man who believes health has to trump hard training.

While Aish has run in 10 world championships, he says he’s always trained harder than he could recover. As a result he’s learned to coach his athletes to not only get to the championships but to also perform well. Williams’ fitness was there when Aish began coaching her less than two years ago he says, but “she had no gas in the tank.”

Williams says she was fatigued and hungry all the time and was experiencing more and more discomfort with digestion. “I’d eat a big dinner and then a couple hours later I was starving again,” she said.

Initially she tried to heal her body by paying extra close attention to eating all the right food. She eliminated gluten for a year after her doctor, who wrongly diagnosed her with celiac disease, suggested gluten was a sensitivity that wasn’t showing up in tests. The elimination and careful attention to her diet didn’t help.

A piece of the puzzle surfaced last fall, but it went unnoticed. When she went on antibiotics to treat a tooth infection, she began to feel better and her running times improved. (She slashed 2 minutes off her half-marathon PR while placing third against a stacked field at the 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon.) But then her symptoms returned and eventually worsened. She was experiencing chest pains (from acid reflux) and she was battling anemia.

Williams returned to the doctor this spring for more tests and this time was diagnosed with a bacterial infection called H. pylory—a naturally occurring bacteria in the gut that often causes ulcers. For years she had been living with a parasite that was preventing her body from absorbing the nutrients she needed. A massive deficiency in iron, for example, made it hard for her to get the oxygen she needed to train at altitude let alone fully benefit from the workouts.

Ten days before she ran the Bolder Boulder, she completed the prescribed two-week round of heavy duty antibiotics. Now on the mend, taking probiotics, iron pills and homemade sauerkraut, she has her sights set on the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., where she’s already qualified to run the 10,000m on July 2.

Considering she’s already run faster than the qualifying time of 15:25 (she ran 15:19 last year just a couple days outside the official USATF window), there’s a good chance she might be racing both events at the trials. A top-three finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials would net a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro in August. [Update: Williams placed fourth in 15:23.11 to qualify for that event at the Olympic Trials on July 7.]

“She’s always been a hidden talent with natural speed,” Aish says. He recalls her showing up her freshman year of cross country wearing baggy shorts and a cotton shirt. Williams, the youngest of four, moved to college in Gunnison from her rural hometown of Frederick, Colorado where she began running at the age of 12.

“She is a very calculated individual who doesn’t fly by the seat of her pants,” Aish says. “So, for her to quit her job was a huge commitment to running.”

She takes the time to do all the little things that give her the 1 percent edge, he says, like going to the pool post workout to ease recovery and being prepared post workout with a big lunchbox full of food.

“I told her if you can give it all and have no regrets, it doesn’t matter if you get last, you can walk away from the spot and say I gave it the best I had,” Aish says. “People who walk away with excuses can’t get better.”

Williams is leaving no room for excuses. “She’s one of the sweetest people I know,” says Aish, “but watch her with two laps to go in a race and you can see it on her face: She means business.”

It certainly sounds like Williams takes seriously to the business of pursuing what she loves.