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By David Monti, Race Results Weekly
EUGENE, Ore. (21-Jun) — Julia Lucas only lives about a mile from historic Hayward Field, site of the USA Olympic Trials which open here on Friday. But, her journey to the starting line started thousands of miles away in North Carolina last September when the battered and then dejected athlete tried to reconnect to what she truly loved about running.
“I said after U.S. Nationals last year that this is the last year I’ve got to make it work,” the 28 year-old athlete told Race Results Weekly in an interview here today.
Lucas had finished ninth in the second heat of the 1500m, and would not run another track race for the rest of the summer. Her body, plagued over a 15-year running career with seven different stress fractures to her feet and legs, wasn’t cooperating, and her spirits were low. She needed to reconnect with the roots of her success: her time competing at North Carolina State University, where she won the Atlantic Coast Conference 5000m title in 2005 and 2006, and finished fourth in the NCAA 5000m in 2007. She contacted her old coaches, Rollie Geiger and Laurie Henes, and asked if she could essentially rejoin her old team.
“I felt like it could work,” Lucas remembered. She continued: “Also, just being around my college teammates that are truly supportive. I went back to North Carolina, and left beating my chest in warrior mode. It was an emotional rebirth.”
Staying in Henes’s attic, she worked out with the N.C. State team for six weeks last fall, living apart from her husband, Olympian Ian Dobson, for the longest period of their marriage. She loved the feeling of being surrounded by a team of young women.
“The team environment to me is extremely important,” Lucas said. ”When I left the team in college and went out to be a professional runner, that was impossible. I’m still not making any money. I’ve got to do it for some other reason. If I don’t have that reason, it’s impossible. Having teammates, it’s not that they are my reason but they remind me of my reasons that I do this.”
Feeling the healthiest she had in years, Lucas did two races last fall –a road mile in England and the USA 10-K Road Running Championships in Boston– and put up satisfying results. She finished fourth in the 10-K, getting a road personal best of 33:39.
Returning here to Eugene to train with the Oregon Track Club Elite, a Nike-sponsored track and field team here, Lucas said she finally had learned to train in a way which would keep her from breaking down. Working with her coach Mark Rowland, she said she got the support she needed from him and the group, but was able to train in her own style. She said she was prone to injuries because of her running style.
“You’ve seen the way I run,” Lucas said, looking embarrassed. ”I’m just goofy. I’m just not the physical specimen, I’m not a thoroughbred.”
Describing her running style as “gawky,” Lucas said that grinding hard until it hurt was a recipe for disaster for her, and only led to the boom and bust cycles of getting fit only to get hurt again.
“At first I thought the best way to do that was to put my head down and do what my body didn’t want to do,” she said. ”In the last two years, I’ve learned in small ways to let my body be its fastest self. That involves a good amount of strength work, a lot of time in the pool, and to be sensitive to when my body needs time. I do my slow runs really slow. Learning how to run well at any speed helps you run at all speeds.”
Lucas opened her 2012 season with a solid 9:01.16 personal best at 3000m indoors, but really drew some attention when she ran a world-leading 25:36 for 8 kilometers at the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle. She then clocked a personal best 4:10.75 for 1500m at the Oregon Relays –a distance she said she’s terrible at– which set her up for her breakthrough 5000m at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford University on April 29. There, she finished second only to Oregon Track Club Elite teammate Sally Kipyego, the reigning world championships silver medalist at 10,000m, in a personal best 15:08.52, still the fastest time by an American this year.
“Right after that I went back to my hotel room and did not sleep,” Lucas recalled. ”I got really excited.” She added: “I’m running behind Sally everyday in practice; that’s what I was expecting.”
Lucas got a scare last month when pain returned to one of her feet. It turned out to be an inflamed sesamoid bone, which forced her to take a week off and miss the Prefontaine Classic here on June 2.
“The whole season had been perfect,” she lamented. ”Pretty much every practice went well. I kind of forgot what it was like to have problems.”
Lucas turned to pool running, training twice a day at the University of Oregon with a flotation device. When she went back to running after a week, the foot was still a little sore, but she could tell the worst was over.
“This doesn’t even count as an injury,” she joked.
Lucas will line up for the preliminary round of the 5000m on Monday, hoping to advance to the final next Thursday. She’s one of seven American women expected to compete who have the Olympic Games “A” standard, and she’s looking forward to the first round as a way to work out her nervousness about the meet.
“I’m really happy for the prelim because I haven’t raced the last month,” she reasoned. ”For me, a prelim is able to get some of the bugs out.” She continued: “I’m really confident I’ll get through. It’s just this tool to get out the bad.”
Lucas tries not to think too much yet about the final, the race which will select the Olympic squad. That time will come.
“I think it’s too big of a thing to fit in my mind, to digest that it all comes down to now,” she said. ”You can’t think that. That’s not the most productive thing to do. The idea of funneling all that energy for the last decade plus into this race is unreal. That’s not how it works.”
She then paused over her cup of black coffee and added: “To be in the moment and run as well as you can on that day, to run with wild animalistic instinct and not attach all that emotional weight to it is how you run fast. You can’t put them together and perform optimally.”
(c) 2012 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission