On Dec. 4, Rachel M. Niehuus ’07, a member of the elite San Francisco-based Impala Racing Team, qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials with her 2:44:58 finish at the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento, Calif.
Niehuus was a member of the varsity cross country and track and field teams while at MIT, and joined the Impalas after graduation. She is now an MD/PhD candidate in medical anthropology, a joint program between UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley.
This was Niehuus’ third time running the CIM. Last year, she ran 2:51, but admits that she lost focus in the last six miles. After that race she asked her coach about her Olympic Trials prospects, and he encouraged her to go for it, even though he “admitted that it would be a long-shot,” Niehuus said in an email.
Just as Niehuus was preparing to resume training, her father passed away unexpectedly. “That put my whole life in a tailspin. For several months, I didn’t run at all. Then, I ran intermittently, whenever I could force myself to get out of bed.”
Niehuus spent May and June doing research on women’s empowerment programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area’s lack of security further postponed much of her training.
Once back in the U.S., Niehuus spent six weeks in Montana, her father’s home state. “There, under the shadows of 10,000-foot snow-capped wonders, I finally started to run pretty consistently. My mileage was still low, and I wasn’t running any workouts, but I was in a routine.”
She finally returned to practice with the Impalas at the end of August, but the significant time off was noticeable in her running. “Needless to say, the month of September was a discouraging one for me. The mileage was taking a lot out of me, I couldn’t keep up with Madeline [her training partner], and my hamstring was sore.”
But Niehuus would not give up. According to Summer L. Hutcheson, assistant cross country and track and field coach, this characterized Niehuus’ personality even during her time at MIT: “She had a focus when it came to workouts and races that many others didn’t have. She also seemed to love running just for the sake of running.”
Alisha R. Schor ’07, Niehuus’ teammate from MIT, had similar sentiments: “Her style in running, and in life, is to throw caution to the wind and just be 100 percent invested in the task at hand. She’s got an incredible internal strength and that definitely carries her distance running.”
Slowly but surely, NIehuus’ running began to change for the better. “In the first week of October, I hit 85 miles per week. On tired legs, I ran a low 1:20 [half marathon]. At that point, I knew that Trials were a possibility. Stuff just started to fall into place: Madeline and I were once again running step-for-step in workouts; diligent yoga sessions had helped heal my hamstring; and the 10 or so pounds that I had gained in the last year had finally started to fall off.“
Niehuus then set a big personal record at a Thanksgiving 5K, clocking 17:23. Still, the qualifying standard for the marathon trials is 2:46, and race calculators predicted a marathon time of 2:49 based on her 5K performance. The qualifying period ended on Dec. 11, so the CIM would be Niehuus’ only shot at the Olympic Trials.
“A week from the marathon, my legs were starting to feel good, but my confidence was low. My coach sent out an email: seven women from my team were going to be running for a Trials time at CIM, and he wanted us to run as a pack, 6:18–6:20 min/mile pace the whole way. Everyone was on board. With the pacing question off the table, all that was left was to convince myself that I could do it — that I could hold onto 6:18 pace for the last 10 [kilometers],” Niehuus said over email.
Niehuus meditates daily for a week before her big races, but this time she also reached out to her MIT running community for race advice and added confidence.
According to Schor, “I remembered some advice I got in high school, and suggested to her that she write down a list of the doubts she was having, and then next to it, writes down a positive ‘counterargument’ for each one. Then, throughout the week, any time she experienced a doubt, she should think of the counterargument immediately, instead. The point was that there really just is no place for negative thinking in racing — sometimes in life that kind of thing keeps you from doing something stupid, but in racing, you have to be all in.”
Hutcheson reminded Niehuus that the pace calculators expect runners to slow down in the second half of the race, but do not reflect an athlete’s running experience or race conditions. “Remember, you also have the benefit of a team with which to race and a pacer; that’s huge,” Hutcheson wrote to Niehuus in an email.
“You probably have the most mental strength of anyone in the race,” Hutcheson also said. She recommended that Niehuus “keep the focus on smaller portions of the race rather than the race as a whole since that can be overwhelming.”
On the day of the big race, Niehuus was “calm, focused, and positive.”
“I ran with the 2:46 pack the whole way. Talk about an inspiring race: we started with 50 women in the pack, and we finished with 24 qualifying times! Six of the seven Impalas trying for a Trials time made it. We were ecstatic,” Niehuus said.
“I had no doubt that she’d qualify,” Schor said.
Halston W. Taylor, MIT’s Cross Country and Track and Field head coach, said, “I think Rachel would be the first female track and field alum to run in the Olympic Trials.” He also said Niehuus improved significantly as a runner during her four years at MIT.
“I am very proud of the competitor she has become. She is determined and works hard. She deserves everything because it is all earned,” Taylor said.
About 200 women have already qualified for the Olympic trials, including a total of 12 other Impala runners, which will take place a day before the 40th annual Chevron Houston Marathon. Niehuus is currently ranked 147, according to the USA Track and Field Association.
This will be the eighth running of the Olympic trials for the women’s marathon, but for the first time in Olympic history, both the men’s and women’s marathon trials will be held on the same day at the same site. The top three finishers in each race will represent the USA at the 2012 London Olympics. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 181 women qualified for the trials, 146 showed up to the starting line, and 124 finished, according to the Boston Athletic Association.
Niehuus is excited for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: “I’m running the Trials for the pure glory of the experience. In theory, I’ve got a lot more room for improvement and time in which to do it, but I’m not planning too far ahead for the moment. We’ll see what January 14th brings.”
Editor’s Note: Maggie Lloyd is a member of the MIT Cross Country and Track teams.