(04-Apr) -- Success for reigning USA Olympic Trials Marathon champion Amy Cragg did not come easily or quickly. Indeed, the 35 year-old Nike Bowerman Track Club athlete nearly quit the sport before her true talent really showed through, eventually carrying her to Olympic Trials wins in both 2012 (at 10,000m) and 2016 (marathon), four USA titles, and a 2:21:42 marathon personal best. It's been a long, and sometimes bumpy, road.
"Definitely, I've made some mistakes along the way," Cragg told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview from Prague where she'll be running the Sportisimo Prague International Half-Marathon on Saturday. "I've learned from them and that's kind of led me to here. So, every once in a while I've looked back and I'm, like, I should have done this differently or this differently. But, the reality is that I might not have ended up here. I think I'm in a really good place."
Working with coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert and Bowerman teammate Shalane Flanagan since the end of 2015, Cragg has blossomed into one of America's best at 26.2 miles. After winning the February, 2016, Marathon Trials on a brutally hot day in Los Angeles, she went on to finish ninth in the Olympic Games Marathon in Rio. She backed up that performance a year later with a thrilling, late-race charge at the 2017 IAAF World Championships marathon in London, taking the bronze medal (the first medal for a USA woman at those championships in the marathon since 1983), and only missing the silver by a fraction of a second. She recovered from her London race well, then ran the Tokyo Marathon in February, 2018, finishing third in an excellent 2:21:42. That performance made her the fifth-fastest American of all time behind only Deena Kastor, Jordan Hasay, Flanagan and Joan Samuelson.
"I love where I'm at," Cragg continued. "I love my team and my coach. Just living in Oregon, that's been incredible. I think overall, those rough moments, those times when I considered stopping have made me a stronger athlete. I'm glad I went through that. It's hard to say that. Those times, I think I really learned a lot from them."
Cragg is at an unusual juncture in her career. She hasn't run a marathon in over a year. She built-up for Chicago last October, but ended up withdrawing from the race after she and her coaches felt that her training hadn't brought her to the fitness she would need to run her best. They had intense discussions, she said, about what to do next.
"When I pulled out of Chicago last year the big talk was, OK, what do we really want to get out of the next two years?" Cragg said. "I'll probably be in the sport two years and reassess. The big thing is making another Olympic team and trying to perform well in Tokyo. Everything we do from here on out, that's the goal to make that team and we've been working back from there."
Cragg decided not to do a spring marathon this year. Instead, she worked with her Bowerman teammates Shelby Houlihan, Marielle Hall, Courtney Frerichs, and Karissa Schweizer to get ready for the USATF Cross Country Championships last February where she finished fifth in her first national cross country championships in nine years. A month later she ran the special Road to Gold test event in Atlanta where she was able to run on the 2020 Olympic Trials course. Uncontested, she covered the 8-mile route in 43:23 and won by a minute. She told Race Results Weekly that the Atlanta race was essentially the kick-off of her Trials training.
"I felt pretty good," Cragg said. "I think I'm in a good position and I'm pretty excited to get into the bigger miles. For me, that makes a huge difference. I feel ready to start that, which is exciting for me."
Saturday's race in Prague is the next logical step on Cragg's long journey to Atlanta next February for the marathon trials and Tokyo for the Olympics next August. On Prague's flat, record-eligible course Cragg wants to race hard with the goal of improving herself as a marathoner.
"Really, it just fit in well with what we're kind of trying to accomplish this year," Cragg explained. "I had a bit of a rough year last year after Tokyo, trying to come back from that." She continued: "We made the decision that we're not going to try to rush it. Because of that, we decided not to do a spring marathon, but we wanted to do something that would make me a better marathoner. This seemed like just the perfect place to do that, to work on half-marathon speed. The second it was mentioned to me I got really excited about it."
Cragg was circumspect when asked about her race goals for Saturday. She said flatly that the 64 to 65-minute finish that the top contenders at Prague were seeking was outside of her grasp, but she did say that she planned to race hard and that her training had come up a notch in the last month.
"We've definitely gotten more intense in training," she said. "I'm handling it well, so I think this is going to be a big stepping stone for me to kind of propel me forward. It's something I think, especially, getting better at the half-marathon will make me an overall better marathoner."
Interestingly, Cragg said that she had not yet hung up her track spikes even though her last track race was nearly two years ago. The pull of the track was strong, she admitted.
"For a long time I've said, 'this will be my last track season, this will be my last track season,'" Cragg said with a laugh. "I'm done saying that because no matter what, it's not. It's going to pull me back. I love it too much. While I'm still a professional runner, I'll always be going back to the track a little bit."
For the next 24 hours, Cragg and her husband Alistair will plan to enjoy their time in Prague before the race. They already feel right at home, she said.
"I love it," she said of the Czech capital "It's one of my favorite cities I've been to so far." She added: "Everybody's been so incredibly friendly. When we're running along the river every single runner says "hi" and waves. It's just been really fun. I felt immediately that this is a very special place."