MY STORY OF THE TIME I TRAINED WITH THE McMILLAN ELITE TEAM
My first venture to Flagstaff was the 1993 Big Sky Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships. I ran for Montana State, and the cautionary slogan taunting out of town teams still hangs above the track in the Walkup Sky Dome, “Welcome to 7,000 feet. Catch your breath!” Flagstaff certainly captured my breath racing 5,000 meters, but also my imagination that first trip. Flagstaff is running Mecca with its 56 miles of “FUTS,” Flagstaff Urban Trail System, 266 days of sunshine, and the persistent vibration of running energy that literally hums in town.
My plan was to finish my collegiate eligibility and move to Flagstaff to be a running bum. In 1996, there were few developmental opportunities for post-collegiate athletes who wanted to continue to train. I chickened out on the plan of running 100 miles a week while living in a camper trailer in the West Flagstaff Wal-Mart parking lot. My alternate plan was to attend grad school at NAU and earn a Masters in English. Upon completion of my degree, I really wanted to stay in Flagstaff, but so did every other person in the English Department with a degree in hand. After two and a half glorious years, I moved back to Minnesota and began my career as an English teacher in a community college.
Although my physical body wasn’t in Flagstaff, I always felt my spirit was there meditating. Often from my frozen home on the shores of Lake Superior, I imagined a ghostly figure of myself sitting cross-legged in the sunshine by the little pond near Aspen Corners. Some advice for post-collegiate runners. If you have a career, a family, a scholarship, a fellowship, a girlfriend in medical school, DON’T VISIT FLAGSTAFF! Or at least read Keats’s poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” before you do. I spent the better part of my adult life, “alone and palely loitering,” longing to be back in the “honey wild and manna dew” of the San Francisco Peaks. My story is unique in ways but also pretty common. I’ve seen many runners come to Flagstaff to pursue their running goals. Many do actualize them yet many more don’t. It’s difficult to take your leave of Flagstaff because there isn’t a more perfect place to train or concentration of people “taking a shot” at going pro too. Yet, it’s nearly impossible to stay after a few years if you’re not seeing the hard evidence you’ve got the ability to make your living running. A friend of mine from MN who tried the Flagstaff life for awhile said, “Too many perfect weather days, too much Macy’s coffee, I ran myself silly!”
In 2011, I had a sabbatical from my vocation, which left me a short window to pursue my life-long avocation. The qualifying window for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon was open. I had qualified in ’00, ’04 but had failed to hit the standard in ’08. The miss in ’08 really stung. I’d run Trials in Columbia and St. Louis, and I was missing BOSTON! I didn’t win the genetic jackpot to make a living running, but making the Trials standard was my benchmark of a successful running career as a person who worked and had a family. Being on the starting line every four years with the top women in the country, three of whom who would make the Olympics, justified the 90 plus miles a week at the expense of other more lucrative pursuits or exciting hobbies. In my mid thirties, my marathon times had started creeping up from the low 2:40’s into the low 2:50s. At 39, I needed to make a change if I wanted to run another Trials. Flagstaff was calling…
I contacted some of my Flagstaff connections. My long-time friend and training partner from grad school, Trina Painter, who actually did hit the genetic jackpot and was a professional runner for many years, was coaching for Greg McMillan. Greg had formed McMillan Elite, a group of developmental and elite runners with Olympic aspirations. Trina encouraged me to come train with the group when I expressed interest in training in Flagstaff for a few months. Needless to say, I was excited but also terrified. These women were nearly half my age, and also much faster than I was, even when I was in my 20s! I would have done anything to have the opportunity to join a team like McMillan Elite after college. Trina’s invitation seemed like a second chance to live the life of an elite runner for a time and see what that lifestyle would bring. Hopefully, another run at the Trials.
The first day I attended official practice, it was a cold, January day and the girls were doing an 8-10 mile steady state run on Lake Mary Road. After a 20-minute warm-up and some drills and strides, we were ready to start. I stood on the line with a whisper of an S. The start many Flagstaff runners know well as the place of ultimate reckoning. I looked up and down at the line of women next to me, and thought, “Help! They’re all so young and fit. What am I doing here?!” Greg was chipper on the chilly morning but stern in his instructions. “Don’t go out too FAST. I want the first two miles to be 6:15-6:20.” Phew… I was relieved. Granted, 6:20s are a lot harder @ 7,000 feet, but I thought I could actually hang for a while. Hopefully I would make it 5-6, which would be a good tempo run for me. Greg said, “Go!” and we were off. I’d done many workouts with Trina, and she is rock solid at pacing. I could tell she was trying to hold the girls back, but you could feel the competitive tension and the pressure to be one step ahead. We went through the mile at 5:50. Greg was there. “SLOOOW DOOOWN…” his voice was ripped from his throat by the cold wind. I tucked in behind Trina. “Stick. Stick. Stick.” I told myself. I imagined a rubber band connecting the two of us, “Don’t let it break!” Mile 2 is mostly uphill. I managed to stay close even though I gasping like a wide-mouth bass out of water. Greg had gone on down the road, Mile 2 split, 5:48. My only saving grace was that Mile 3 was downhill, and I was drafting off Trina into a stiff headwind. Mile 3 split, 5:40! I felt like I was racing 400m! Approaching mile 4, there was another gradual uphill, I struggled to give some slack to the rubber band. Trina pulled ahead as the team pressed the pace anticipating the 4 mile split. SNAP! I reeled in their wake and sputtered to a stop. I put my hands on my knees and tried not to blackout. Greg had pulled over to read splits. “Not bad for just getting to altitude. Hop in the truck. They’re out too hard. We’ll be picking up some more.” Sure enough, some casualties at mile 5 and 6, and everyone was “DONE” by 8 miles. Lesson 1. Going out too fast makes for an unpleasant workout. Going out too fast at 7,000 feet, puts you in the hurt locker.
Over the course of the next several months, I attended practice every day. I think I won the best attendance award. The team and Greg were very welcoming. Nearly every practice would play out the same. I’d start with the pack and hang on for as long as I could. When I couldn’t hold pace, I cut the rep length. As the workout progressed, my repeats would get shorter and shorter and my recovery window longer and longer. The important thing though was my paces were much faster than I had run, probably since my college days. It was completely different training than I had done for many years. Instead of plodding hundreds of slow miles a month, I was running fast three times a week. Track on Tuesdays. Tempo on Thursdays. Run Lake Mary Road until-Greg-had-to-scrape-me-off-the-pavement Saturdays. I proved I could be a useful addition to the group. Instead of saying, go out at 6:15. Greg would say, “No one passes Katie until mile 2.” I would get a few seconds lead in a track interval, and the thundering herd could practice running me down. As a parting gift, the girls even gave me a pink sequined rabbit mask. I’ll admit it could be demoralizing training with women so much faster, but mostly I was having the time of my life. A touchstone of the experience that I still hold dear is a compliment Greg gave me on my last Sedona track workout with the group. He said, “ I wouldn’t even recognize you as the same runner I met 6 months ago. You…You…look FAST!”
Sadly, my days living as an elite runner came to an end, and I had to go back to my teaching position. Though the hard work did come to fruition. At the 2011 Twin Cities Marathon, I qualified for my 3rd Olympic Trials. I ran 2:42:53. My PR is 2:42:33 from Grandma’s Marathon in 2002. Nine years separate my two best marathon times. I learned many things from training with Greg and McMillan Elite, but most importantly—If you want different results, you better start doing things differently. For me, that meant finding my inner rabbit… I mean, track girl!!
Read more about the complicated emotion of confidence and how you can influence it: Considering Confidence
Katie McGee is a McMillan Running Coach. Learn more about our Personal Coaching where you can train with a coach like Katie by your side to plan your training and talk about race strategy, performance nutrition, injury prevention, stretching, and much more.
“I have achieved my goals for 5K, 10K, and now a Half Marathon – thanks McMillan Running!”