NEW YORK (03-Nov) -- Laura Thweatt's marathon debut in New York in 2015 was an unqualified success. In a year where most American athletes bypassed the race because the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon were only about three months later, Thweatt went all-in for New York under then coach Lee Troop and finished seventh in 2:28:23. Her focus would be on the track in 2016, she said, and a fall marathon build-up would help her develop the strength she would need for her spring track preparations. She was confident with her plans.
PHOTO: Laura Thweatt (left) leading the 2020 USA Olympic Trials Marathon (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"It was just a great opportunity to test the waters with the marathon," Thweatt told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview today. "I absolutely think that was the best choice for me." She continued: "We had prioritized the 10-K in 2016, and that was always going to be the goal; it wasn't going to be the marathon. We just felt like the opportunity in New York was the way to go."
Thweatt was 26 at the time and she had only run two half-marathons with a best of 1:11:02. Nonetheless, she went out hard with the lead pack in New York, splitting halfway in 1:12:57, faster than both Deena Kastor (1:13:12) and Kara Goucher (1:13:24) had run in their American record debuts in New York in 2001 and 2008, respectively. Thweatt didn't remember her halfway split, but recalled that she felt great and that she was just competing and not focused on her time.
"We went in with very little expectations," said Thweatt who lives in Superior, Colo., just outside of Boulder. "It was my first one, and not only it's my first one but it's in New York, a very tough, challenging marathon. We didn't necessarily go in with a time goal. It was more like, let's just race the race and see how competitive we can be."
Feeling more confident with every stride, Thweatt picked up her pace early in the second half, even taking the lead. From 25 to 30-K she ran a snappy 16:53, but her next two 5-kilometer splits got progressively slower: 17:39 from 30 to 35-K and 18:49 from 35 to 40-K. She didn't fall apart, but things quickly became painful.
"I got too excited very shortly after the halfway mark," Thweatt said with a laugh. "I think I was leading for maybe about a mile, which was a very bold move and one that I did end up regretting around mile 19 (31-K). Then it was a long seven miles home for me."
On Sunday, Thweatt will run the TCS New York City Marathon for just the second time. At 32, she's a completely different athlete than she was in 2015 and the road she took to get back here was a hard one. She's dealt with coaching changes, a very serious injury, the pandemic, and nagging of self-doubt.
Thweatt, who is sponsored by Saucony, finished fifth in the 10,000m at the 2016 Olympic Trials, a solid result which affirmed that her decision to focus on the track after her marathon debut was a good one. Besides, she said, the hot sunny Marathon Trials in Los Angeles were brutal and she doesn't think she would have run well.
"I remember watching the 2016 Trials in L.A.," Thweatt said. "I remember seeing how incredibly difficult that race was given the conditions. And then I remember watching Shalane finishing and they had to put her in a wheelchair. I was like, yeah, I definitely made the right decision. I didn't think that L.A was going to play to my strengths at that point."
During 2016 Thweatt was managing an injury called osteitis pubis, an inflammation of the pubic symphysis and surrounding muscle insertions. It's a painful condition which will only fully resolve with total rest, but Thweatt and her therapists worked to manage it so she could keep training.
When she lined up for her second marathon in London in April, 2017, Thweatt was very fit but the osteitis pubis was flaring up. Despite enduring tremendous pain during the second half of the race, she ran a still-standing personal best 2:25:38 and finished sixth. She could barely walk away from the finish line, forced to walk on her heels with her toes angled to the side.
"Honestly, sometimes I look back and don't know how I got through that race with the amount of pain I was in," Thweatt said. "I just remember crossing the line trying to take a step, and I know that something was seriously wrong." She continued: "That was my last race for almost a year."
Indeed, Thweatt had to stop running completely for six months to get control of the osteitis pubis. She was in the prime of her career, and the forced rest was hard to handle.
I didn't run a step," she said. "I had to slowly build back."
Thweatt got back into racing in March, 2018, and had a good road racing season in the spring and summer. She was hopeful for a solid fall marathon, but developed an Achilles problem and ended up dropping out of the Chicago Marathon after about ten miles.
It wasn't until June, 2019, that Thweatt felt healthy again, taking fifth in the USA 10-K Championships at the NYRR New York Mini 10-K. By that time, she was being coached by Joe Bosshard who helped her get ready for Chicago in October, 2019 where, on a short build-up, she ran 2:29:06 and finished eighth. Thweatt said she just needed to run a full marathon before the 2020 Trials to build her confidence; she hadn't finished a marathon in two and a half years.
"I hadn't done one since London," she said. "I just needed to know I could cover the distance before I go into the Trials."
The 2020 Marathon Trials in Atlanta --held on a hilly course on February 29, just before the global COVID shutdown-- were equal parts joy and heartbreak for Thweatt. She had never competed so well in a marathon before, doing a lot of the leading and controlling of the pace. She literally gave everything she had, and finished fifth in 2:29:08. She nearly got fourth but was passed by 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden with about 800 meters to go. She missed making the team by 16 seconds.
"I remember crossing the finish line and basically, immediately, you're just heartbroken because you knew you were that close," Thweatt said. "You could taste it. You were right there. Then, at the same time, I was so elated. That was probably one of the best races I've ever run, and I was finally able to come into a marathon healthy. I had the confidence that I could race that way and that I could really put myself back in the conversation."
Thweatt and Linden had to go to drug testing despite finishing off of the podium. Thweatt said that Linden is one of her idols in the sport and it was a weird thrill to sit with her in silence as they reflected on the race. Suddenly, Linden addressed her.
"Des and I were sitting next to each other and she turned to me and was like, 'can I as you a question?'" Thweatt recounted. "I was like, 'yeah.' And she was like, 'why did you do that today?' And I was like, 'do what?' And she was like, 'why did you lead so much of the race in those conditions?'"
It was a fair question, Thweatt admitted. She used a lot of energy running into the wind and pressing the pace when things slowed down.
"I just remember telling her, like, of course it's easy to look at it like that, and conserve more and hold back," Thweatt recalled. "I was like, 'Honestly Des, that was the only way for me to race this race, like put myself in it with everything I had. I felt I had to race that way and I had to risk it all if I was going to make that team. I was like, I don't have any regrets for what I did today.'"
To that Linden replied, "OK," and the conversation was over.
"I was like, oh my God Des thinks I'm an idiot," Thweatt said with a belly laugh. "I was so mortified that she was like, just 'OK.'"
Sunday's marathon here will be Thweatt's first since those Trials. She's no longer coached by Bosshard, whom she lavished with credit for challenging her and helping her to believe in herself, and giving her the support she really needed to make it to the Trials. Instead, she is now self-coached, but gets advice from the deep bench of running brains in Boulder, including former world record holder Steve Jones, a longtime friend, whom she speaks to frequently. It's been a good change for her.
"I guess I just got to a point where the last year and a half it's been really difficult, and I just stopped enjoying the process of training and just lost myself a little bit," Thweatt said. "So, this summer I was like, what do I need to do to find that joy again, and find myself again?"
Thweatt said she had learned enough from all of her previous coaches, including Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs at the University of Colorado, to create the 16-week training plan she used for New York. When asked, "Coach Thweatt" gave herself a B+ for how well her training went, citing some over exuberance in the final four weeks which led to a calf strain (since healed).
"I am one to go too hard sometimes," Thweatt admitted. She continued: "I think athlete Thweatt did really well, but athlete Thweatt did what she always does about three weeks out. I just seem to find that line and step over it. So, I had a little calf strain pop up about three weeks ago. I did a half-marathon (1:10:25 on October 3, in San Jose, Calif.), then two pretty big weeks of training, and my calf got really, really sore after a workout. I ended up having to take 10 days of really nothing."
But Thweatt isn't worried, and took it all in stride. She'll be ready for Sunday, she said.
"It's better now," Thweatt said. "I did a workout Friday, I did a long run Sunday, and I did a session yesterday. Everything feels great. So, I'm back in the game just in time."