(15-Jan) -- Reigning USA 10,000m champion Kim Conley opened her 2014 season with a quick indoor 800m race, setting a personal best 2:05.92. But to open her 2015 campaign --during which she hopes to become the first American woman in five years to retain a national 10,000m title-- the 28 year-old from West Sacramento, Calif., will run a race 26 times as long, the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon on Sunday. The event is hosting the USA Half-Marathon Championships for both men and women.
"Both winters for me were about trying to become a more well-rounded athlete," Conley told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview yesterday. "Our eyes are still very much set on the 5000m and 10,000m outdoors. That's what we're shooting for. I'm hoping to make myself stronger in this process."
Conley, who is sponsored by New Balance, had a memorable indoor season last year. After that 800m opener, she ran a facility record and career best 4:24.54 for the mile at the New Balance Games at The Armory in New York City. That time was the second-fastest in the world last year, just slightly behind Mary Cain's 4:24.11. She also dominated the 2000m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston in a personal best 5:41.10, and won the 3000m at the NYRR Millrose Games, setting a personal best and meet record (8:48.35). Her time in the mile, she said, was particularly satisfying and boosted her confidence for the rest of the season.
"That's kind of a nice card to have in my back pocket," she said of the fast mile. "Also, winning the (10,000m) championships did a lot. I'm very excited about the year ahead."
But why run a half-marathon if running indoors worked so well last year? Conley's coach, Drew Wartenburg of the NorCal Distance Project, felt that his star athlete could benefit from more endurance to go with her well-developed speed.
"This is all about trying to be a little stronger on the track for the 5000 and 10,000," Conley continued. "I like road races, but this is definitely the longest race I'll try."
To prepare for Sunday's race in Houston --where Conley will face strong competitors like Olympian Janet Bawcom, 2013 USA Marathon champion Annie Bersagel, 2012 USA Cross Country champion Sara Hall, and 2:28 marathoner Lauren Kleppin-- Wartenburg upped Conley's weekly workload to as much as 100 miles during some weeks, and focused on long tempo runs. Last October in Healdsburg, Calif., Conley ran her first half-marathon at the low-key Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon there. Finishing second behind Sara Hall, Conley clocked 1:15:41 in what she called a "steady state" effort.
"That was very different," she said, comparing the Healdsburg race to Sunday's national championships in Houston. "We actually did that as the beginning of this build-up. We definitely approached that as a 12-mile steady state (after an easy opening mile). It was definitely more like a workout. It was a target pace of 5:40 to 5:45 (per mile) that we were trying to hit."
Conley said that she found the distance challenging.
"The hardest part was the course," she said. "It was a hilly course. Coming off of it, I was sore."
To really build strength for Houston, Conley ran as a pacemaker in the California International Marathon last December 7th. Surrounded by a group of women hoping to qualify for the 2016 USA Olympic Trials Marathon, she ran at a 2:43 finish pace, the Trials "B" standard, averaging about 6:13 per mile through 20 miles. Twenty American woman made the standard that day (12 ran between 2:40:33 and 2:42:22, presumably with Conley for at least some of the way), and Conley said the experience was extremely satisfying.
"I really enjoyed it a lot," Conley said. "I run a lot of my long runs at a fast pace. I think we averaged 6:13 pace in a group of 20 people. It was one of the best long runs I've done."
Although Conley said a marathon was a long way in her future, she prepared her own bottles for the marathon like a veteran, brightly decorating them so she could spot them easily on the fluid tables. She chose baby bottles, complete with nipples she had snipped with scissors to allow for greater flow.
"They were really easy to pick up," she said.
For Sunday's race in Houston, Conley said she won't focus on her pace or running any specific time. It's a national championships, she said, and the goal is to win or place as high as possible. The winner will receive $12,000 in prize money.
"For this race, I'm going to to try to race the field," she intoned. "I'm all in for this." She continued: "I'm going to stick my nose in it. I'm not going to wear a watch (although) I don't want it to be slow. I just want to focus on placing in the field."
PHOTO: Kim Conley with coach Drew Wartenburg after winning the 2014 USA 10,000m title (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)