Laura Thweatt’s had a bit of bad luck. While charging toward the finish line of the 2014 USATF World Club Cross Country Championships, she caught her foot in a ditch, an injury that turned into a stress reaction after she ran in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in March. Then she was in a car accident, which flared up an injury on her knee.
So what’s a runner to do? In Thweatt’s case, run the New York City Marathon on Sunday. It’s her first attempt at 26.2 miles.
Thweatt’s not like the rest of us. She’s not a recreational runner. She’s a professional, and one who’s been having breakouts over the last three years. Thweatt ran for the University of Colorado where she had an OK collegiate career, but not one that had agents and sponsors lining up outside her door. She was pushed to try running as a pro by a college team-mate, and it’s paid off.
She’s won the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships three times (including the race where she hurt her foot), joined the Boulder Track Club, signed with Saucony, and kept dropping her times across race distances in 2014. In February, she finished second in the national 15k championship. Those injuries, though, had her missing the spring track season.
She didn’t start thinking about trying the marathon until July when Lee Troop, coach of the Boulder Track Club and an Australian three-time Olympic marathoner, suggested it.
Her initial answer was no. “It’s not something I saw myself doing until after 2016, but the more we talked about it, the more excited I got about it,” she said, referring to the 2016 Summer Olympics. “The strengths you can get from marathon training, and then the race itself, is huge, so it was going to be a good way to get the foundation and strength going again to really just get back on track.”
There is no magic formula that tells a runner when he or she is ready for the marathon. Thweatt is 26 years old. Long-held conventional running wisdom has said that professional runners should wait until their 30s to try the marathon, but Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and editor-at-large for Runner’s World, says that thinking is outdated, stretching back to when he was a pro. “Then, there was a clear path,” he said. “You run high school, you run college, you dabble in track for a while and when you’re not good at anything else you run a marathon,” he said. The top five marathon performances of 2014 – male and female – came from runners ranging from 25 to 35 years old, according to the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races.
Even wild success in other distances does not augur marathon greatness. Mo Farah, who won gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m in the 2012 Olympics, tried it for the first time in the 2014 London Marathon finished a disappointing 2hr 8min 21sec for eighth place, and hasn’t attempted the marathon since. Sara Hall, who has been a force in race from the mile to the half marathon, gave it her first go in March in the LA Marathon and finished as the 22nd-place female with a time of 2hr 48min 2sec, though she rebounded to run 17 minutes faster this year’s Chicago Marathon to finish 10th female and second American female.
And then there’s the potential reward. “Track events seem to become less and less interesting. Read: there’s less money in them,” Burfoot added.
At the 2015 USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships, first-place winners in each event won $7,000. Eighth place paid $500. By comparison, first-place prize money for the New York City Marathon is $100,000. Eighth place pays $6,500. Runners are also paid bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 if they beat set times – and that’s not including sponsor bonuses and appearance fees, which are confidential but potentially enormous, especially now that the New York City Marathon is televised on ESPN2.
Thweatt could place high in the race and has a shot at being the first female American finisher. She’s rebounded strongly from her injuries, winning the Virginia Beach Half Marathon in September (1hr 12min 59sec). Also working in her favor to be first American female: most of the US’s best marathoners are sitting out the fall marathons so they’re fresh for the US Olympic Marathon Trials in February.
Thweatt sees a future for herself on the roads, but not immediately. She says she trained for a marathon to bring herself back from those two injuries, and is running it to see how she fares at the distance. Troop hasn’t changed her training much either, just tacking on miles to her long run and to her mid-week distance run. Troop typically has his marathoners do a three-hour run six weeks before the marathon, and tempo runs within longer runs. “I haven’t had Laura do any of that because at the moment she’s not a marathoner and at the moment she’s certainly not going to be a marathoner,” he said.
For now. Thweatt says has no interest in trying to run the marathon in the 2016 Summer Olympics and instead will focus on making the team in either the 5,000m or 10,000m track distance.
“I think that’s ultimately want I’m going to be the best at,” she said of the marathon. “Ask me that on November 2. I may have a different answer for you.”