A Racing Season in Review: Heather Kampf
Recently, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Team USA Minnesota athlete and Queen of the Road Mile, Heather Kampf. I wanted to talk to her about her 2016 season, to know what it was like training for the biggest stage in the world as she prepared for the Olympic Trials, and how one deals with training for an event with such magnitude.
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Heather is a former Golden Gopher of the University of Minnesota. She was the most decorated Gopher women’s track athlete and was a nine-time All American. Heather was also the only Gopher who competed in every NCAA Championship in cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track during the time she was at the U of M. In 2006, she was the NCAA Indoor Champion in the 800 meters.
In 2012, Heather placed 7th in the 800 meters at the Olympic Trials and was the USA One Mile Champion. Since 2012, Heather has placed first at a number of U.S. road miles, including the Ryan Shay Mile, the Liberty Mile, the Michigan Mile and the Minnesota Mile, earning her the nickname “Queen of the Road Mile”. In 2014, Heather was 3rd in the 1500 meters at the USA Indoor Championships. In the summer of 2016, she became the four time champion of the U.S Road Mile, held in Minneapolis at the Medtronic TC One Mile, hosted by Twin Cities in Motion.
Heather told me she felt like every season from the past few years was building towards 2016 and the Trials. Early on, she focused on strength and endurance to help get through the season strong, and despite dealing with a few bouts of bronchitis, her indoor season went well, taking third place in her first 3k at the Armory Track Invitational (8:58) and fourth in the 1500m at the USATF Indoor Championship (4:11.56).
Training for the Trials and Tribulations
Leading into the outdoor season, Heather felt on fire. “Everything was going great, my body did everything I asked it to.” She ran a 1500m personal best about a month out from the trials and came close to an 800m personal best in the 800m in Boston. “It felt easy to run two flat in Boston. It usually takes awhile to hurt right,” she told me with a laugh, “but I felt like I was in the best shape of my life.”
However, just two weeks from the first round of the 1500m at the Olympic Trials, her luck took a wrong turn. On a cooler than normal morning, she hit the track for a workout of 5 sets of 400m-200m, with 30 seconds between the reps and 3 min between sets. She felt a twinge in her calf, “the workout was going great, but I felt it on each rep,” Heather told me, “I didn’t think much of it because everything was clicking and I didn’t feel hindered by it.” When I asked why she didn’t end the workout, she told me she usually would, but this particular workout had very short recovery bouts, which gave her very little time to think about the calf, “and every time I touched a track in the months leading up to the Trials I visualized Hayward Field.” But in the cool down, she really noticed the issue, and quickly ended the run.
The next day, Heather was sore so she went for a slow, easy run then went for a massage. The following day, she cut her long run short as the calf felt tighter and tighter, leading her to take Sunday off completely (a rarity in the elite running world, especially during the peak of training). Rarely having to deal with injury, she wasn’t sure how she was going to maintain the fitness she had built. “I stayed faithful to the process,” she said, referring to her training journal for the details of her work. “I knew that that fitness doesn’t just disappear, but I had my doubts, writing ‘well, that attempt sucked…’ on more than one occasion.” Even now, months later, Heather had a lot of emotion in her voice, “I had started to come to terms that I might not go [to the Trials] at all.”
Heather recalled doing a lot of aqua jogging over the next couple of days, staying in the deep end of the pool to take any impact off her calf. Eventually, she was running from the deep end to the shallow end to gradually add the stress of impact back on the muscle. Combined with some lifting, and she was back to running about five days before the Olympic Trials, “I was barely able to hold nine minutes a mile, but I was running pain-free,” she said laughing slightly.
I didn’t want her to dwell on the experience, but I thought a lot of people could learn from her situation. This begged me to ask, “Hindsight being what it is, is there anything you would have done differently, or even could have done differently?” Living in the past with “what ifs” and “shoulda, coulda, woulda’s” is painful and not worth the energy, but how she responded was perfect.
“Right, nothing is worth doing unless you learn from it.” Heather told me that she had gotten too excited about the workout and caught up in the excitement of the Olympic Trials. Had that workout been any other workout, she would have stopped at the first sign of tightness. She further explained with a story about her trip to Rome in 2015 for the IAAF Diamond League meet. Heather was running a track workout with her husband, Ben, and after a hard repeat told him she felt something in her hamstring. “He nearly body checked me off the track!” They scrapped the workout and she went on to take 12th at the meet, running a personal outdoors best of 4:04.5. “If it happens again, I’ll listen to my own advice and repeat what we did in Rome, and just stop if it doesn’t go away during the rest.”
Continuing towards the Trials, Heather did one “workout” of 200 meter repeats before she left to prove to herself that she could still run close to pace. Her leg didn’t hurt, but she felt gassed and her breathing was awkward.
Once in Eugene, Heather didn’t want to talk about the calf ordeal, not wanting to expose a weakness. The first round went well, but she was very sore on the second day. She tried to shake it out with an easy run, but it was rough.
She had a race plan for the finals, with mental cues to help her focus on each lap, then to kick hard for a top spot, knowing if she was in the top three in the final lap, she could stick with anyone; however, going into the semifinals, she thought she would have to execute this plan just to make it to the final round. With about 300 meters to go the wheels fell off. “People were flying by me,” said Heather. “There was nothing left in the tank. You can’t fake that sharpness to go back-to-back.”
Always Moving Forward
The next day, Heather went for a long run to try and shake off the disappointment, but was quickly on a plane home. With a lot of time to think, she cashed in every Sky Mile reward, and even raised funds through FlipGive, to catch a flight to Europe for three races, two in Italy and one in Dublin. Heather wanted more out of her race performance, and she was going to get it. She raced three times while in Europe, all of which were podium finishes and within seconds of PRs:
- 800m at the XXVII Meeting Internazionale di Atletica Leggera in Lignano, Italy (2:01.26, 3rd — about a second off her PR right after an international flight!)
- 1500m at the XXX Meeting Citta’ Di Padova in Padova, Italy (4:05.31, 2nd – less than 1 second from a PR)
- Mile at the Morton Games in Dublin, Ireland (4:27.33, 2nd – new outdoors personal best)
The time away along with the great racing allowed the storm of the Trials to blow by and gave those around her something more positive to talk about.
Heather followed up her European tour with a few more successful races in the States at the Sir Walter Miler (4:27.23, 3rd place, new track PR), Liberty Mile (4:33, fourth 1st place finish!), 5th Ave Mile (4:19, 3rd place, new road PR), finally ending her season with a big first place finish at the Navy Mile (4:38).
The Off Season and Beyond
Heather usually takes two weeks off completely from running, but continues to try to follow a nutrition plan and keep up with core work. “This one was more of a shut down completely and live a normal life for a bit type of off season, “ she admitted.
With some time off to heal both physically and emotionally, Heather is back to running, starting over again with base training, “lots of easy mileage, longer aerobic workouts, and hills.” She also took some time to have fun at this years’ Turkey Day 5k, taking first in 16:40.
In 2017, Heather is looking forward to heading to London for the World Championships in August. She said she and Team USA Minnesota are leaving no stones unturned, looking at VO2Max, working with a sports psychologist, doing gait analysis – anything to help each athlete perform at their best.
While the Trials experience is definitely still a fresh wound, Heather’s positivity around it was clear. It was a learning experience, something that made her stronger. It reminded her how important it is to do the small things and realize how much it hurts to have it all taken away while knowing that “there is no final destination” for her career.
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Takeaways for the Amateur Runner
I think the most important things any athlete can take away from Heather’s story is that timing is everything, on both sides of the coin, good or bad. We have to understand that just because we don’t hit a stated goal doesn’t mean our training was in vain. That fitness doesn’t disappear over night and you will continue to build upon it month over month, year over year. We will all face setbacks in our training at some point. It is your choice how you react to the situation. Always choose positivity, choose to attack your rehab with the same dedication you put towards your normal training, and stay confident in your fitness and the base you have built. Staying positive and being smart will get you back on the road chasing your goals as fast as possible!