Iowa native & Northern Iowa assistant coach eyes top finish at Grand Blue Mile: USA 1 Mile Road Championship & BBTM Grand Prix #Tour2018 opener; shares post-collegiate experiences & support system
By David Monico, Bring Back the Mile
The USATF 1 Mile Road Championship returns to Des Moines for the second consecutive year at the Grand Blue Mile Street Run. Held on Tuesday, April 24, the Bring Back the Mile Grand Prix Tour 2018 opener boasts a prize purse of $30,000 and with more than 3,000 participants toeing the line is the third largest competitive Mile in the country.
The Tuesday evening Mile once again welcomes one of the strongest fields of the year headlined on the women’s side by returning champion Katie Mackey, Brenda Martinez and Shannon Osika. There is also a local, up-and-coming Iowan, Alexina Wilson, assistant coach at Northern Iowa and we sat down with her ahead of Tuesday’s race to discuss racing in the snow, her athletic rise and what she’s looking forward to.
BBTM: You're a coach for the University of Northern Iowa. What are you thinking about right now on a day-to-day basis?
Alex: We had a couple of meets get cancelled due to the beautiful Midwest weather and finally opened up our season at Indiana State. Although the 5K women actually had to run in the snow on Friday night! It literally started snowing 10 minutes before the race. That was an interesting and brutal event. The following day though it was a little bit nicer with temperatures ranging from 36 to 40 degress, but no snow (laughs).
We'll be attending the Drake Relays here in a couple of weeks and looking for some good weather. We're trying to get geared up for that right now, because that's a highly competitive meet for us and it's kind of fun to go up against some of the other Iowa schools in some relays.
What event groups do you work with at UNI?
I mainly work with the distance and help with the middle-distance athletes at UNI. I ran middle distance in college and I'm pretty passionate about it. Our head coach, Dave Paulsen, was my event coach and is in charge of the 400, 800, 1500 group. We work pretty closely together and I like to train our distance athletes so that they can still run a good Mile.
Does training, racing and living in a harsher climate give you a leg up on competitors from say, California?
Definitely. We in the past, have had some people from a little fairer climates. We had sprinter Brandon Carnes from Florida, but he's gotten a lot tougher over the last five years of being in the Midwest. Whenever he goes to the Drake Relays we always know there's people coming from all over the place, including the SEC and the Big Ten. Brandon has an edge there. Just two weekends ago it snowed and we were hoping that the snow on the track was melted by the time practice rolled around.
As a post-collegiate athlete how do you find balancing coaching duties with your own training?
I would say, for the most part I do a lot of my training separately from the team, but then on easy run days I'll jump in with them quite a bit. Then we actually have an athlete on our team, Brette Correy, she's about a 2:04, 800 runner, that I've been racing against since we were in high school. I'm able to do some workouts with her, which is really nice. She definitely comes from more of a speed background and it's nice to match up and see different workouts.
It's also nice that my boss is also my coach. A lot of people say it's hard to stick with your college coach when you transition to being a professional, but I think that the reason that it works for me is because I am with him in the office every day. He can't really forget about me. His main focus is the collegiate season and our team here at UNI, but I think it helps that I'm around him every day in the office, so he can't forget to plan my workouts as well.
One of your first memories and why you love track & field, was the Mile day at school. I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you got started in track and why the Mile was so much fun for you.
I'm from a really small town in Iowa. We didn't have junior high cross country or anything, but we had junior high track. I can remember that's when I kind of first really started being involved in competitive running. My mom was always super into fitness, running all the time when I was a kid and she convinced me to go run the Sauerkraut Days 5K, which is our hometown 5K.
Do you get sauerkraut at the finish line?
Yes. They have free sauerkraut all weekend long! (laughs)
I can remember having to recruit a new friend every year, because no one would want to do it again with me the next year. I think that's the first race I did, but then once we got to junior high and high school, I loved doing the Mile in PE. It was the one thing that I was better at than everyone else. I also played basketball, softball and others, but the only thing that I was good at in those sports was the running part. I definitely got way too excited on the day when we got to run the Mile in PE while everyone else was dogging it and asking if they could walk.
Our Mile was run three laps around the city block. We didn't even have a track at my high school. We kind of just went out there and ran. I'm pretty sure I have the record there but it's definitely not an accurate Mile.
You don’t think it’s a USATF certified course?
Definitely not! Everyone was just cutting the corners every single time (laughs). Just in the past couple of months the city finally approved building a track. I'm really excited about that; it's been a long time coming.
I grew up on a dirt track at our high school as well. It wasn't until I left for college that they then turned it into an all-weather track. Part of me was like, "Oh man. That's the one piece of the California toughness we had.” Now that's gone too.
Those dirt tracks are awesome. I think it would be really fun to train on one.
You then go to the University of Northern Iowa... when did you begin focusing on the steeple? Did you even know about steeple in high school?
Actually, no. I didn't even in college really. I was an 800 runner. My goal was to be an All-American in the 800. It wasn't until I think, my junior year that I started running the Mile indoors, and that was my first time really running that event. And I saw a lot of success in that, indoors. And then, outdoors, I obviously transitioned from the 800 to the 800 / 1500. In my senior, we thought, you know, the steeple might be fun to try, but the 1500 was going so well throughout my senior season, that we just never got an opportunity to do it. I actually entered in the steeplechase at the Drake Relays my senior year, but I ended up running the 1500 there instead.
Then I had a bit of a sad ending to my college career at UNI. At the regional meet, I ran a 1500 PR in the final, 4:18, and was 9th overall. I was technically the first one out. Honestly, that was probably one of the saddest moments of my career. But, I didn't really want to be done with running, so we decided to go run a steeple finally at IUPU University. It was the week of NCAAs and I was really sad to not be running there.
In that steeple, two of them ended up being at the men's height and it was pouring rain; just a crazy scenario. But whatever, it was really fun. I ran 10:20 and I thought, "Huh, maybe I should have tried to do the steeple!"
In the following year I lowered by my time to 9:50. I probably could have had a little more success in college in the steeple than I did in the 1500. Everything happens for the right reasons.
You end up qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials and last year you made the finals at the USA Championships. What did it mean to you when you had Oiselle approach you?
After I finished my college career I knew I wasn't going to have any interest from any sponsors. I was telling them, "Hey, I'm going to try and run the steeple next year, and I plan on qualifying for the Olympic Trials." The problem is I had never really done one. So, trying to convince a brand that you're actually going to go do that, I knew was going to be super difficult, and I was going to have to do a lot of it on my own my first year.
I reached out to a couple of training groups initially, because I wasn't sure what my plans were. So I visited Team USA Minnesota and looked at the Greenville Track Club in South Carolina. I ended up deciding to just stick around UNI the following year because I had my coach and things were going so well. I ended up being able to be a volunteer assistant and then get hired on part-time during that first year.
That was a hard first year; I had to fund most of my trips to go to track meets. I went out to the HOKA Middle Distance Classic at Occidental College and was put in the slow heat of the steeple. I ended up winning and running 9:50. And there was a ton of Oiselle athletes running there that day. After the race they came to me and said they'd love to sponsor me through the rest of the season and help pay for the Olympic Trials. It was the best day ever!
I realize how lucky and how fortunate I am to have a resource like that. There are other people out there who are either at the same level as me, or very close, and they don't have that kind of support. I was lucky; timing is really everything with it being an Olympic year. Oiselle signed me the following year and I ended up running 10 seconds faster in the steeple and I was able to sign again with them this fall, so I'm hoping to run another 10 seconds faster this spring!
It makes a huge difference having that support, to help pay for travel in addition to having a full time job that is flexible. Many have to nanny or have some sort of part-time job to be able to train at this level. It can be pretty taxing, you know, when you have to go to all the college meets; you're flying and driving in a bus and all that stuff. But I've actually run my fastest steeples the week after being at a college track meet for three days! It's just about being smart. I go to bed super early and I eat as good as I can. I take care of the things I can take care of and not worry too much about the stuff I can't control.
You have a 4:35 road Mile PR. Blake Boldon is really excited to have you as a fellow Iowan at the Grand Blue Mile. How are you feeling heading into the race?
I'm thinking I can run a little bit faster than that this time around; even a sub-4:30.
Given that you are focused on the steeple for championships and major qualifying events what does it mean to you to be able to jump into a Mile?
You know, the 1500 and the Mile, it's my race that I love the most. I'd love to be able to in the future come back to that event. I was kind of hoping for that this year just because it is an off year from the World Championships. Unfortunately, in the fall I had my first ever stress fracture. I've been lucky I've never hard to deal with that in the past, but it changed how my season was set up. I wasn't able to run a Mile indoors, but I haven't had any hang-ups in coming back from the stress fracture. Since I ran the qualifying mark for this year's USA Champs in the prelims, I'm able to run a couple more 1500s and Miles. I'm really excited to be able to do that a little more often this season.
I ran the Grand Blue Mile last year and it was so much fun. It was actually the first-ever road Mile that I had run and against great competition. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to race at the Grand Blue Mile again this year and hopefully run a PR on that course. I'm pretty pumped about it!
Thank you, Alex, and good luck!