The Comeback Kick

After Olympic Trials disappointment, Thorvilson wins12 straight
Nike/Susan Goldman

One-time Olympic marathon hopeful Leah Thorvilson wins the 2010 Nike Women's Marathon. She is currently on the longest winning streak in the world of distance running.

Leah Thorvilson’s year began with high hopes, which were quickly dashed.

Coming off of what she said was the best training of her life, the 33 year-old from Little Rock, AR, knew within the first few kilometers of the USA Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston that January 14 wasn’t going to be a good day. She finished 55th in 2:42:09, some four minutes slower than her then personal best. She was crushed.

“After the Trials, it just wasn’t a good day,” Thorvilson said via cell phone. “I knew a few miles in that it would be a long, slow day for me. It wasn’t going to be my day. I got really, really down, not on how the race panned out, but how you put so much stock into something and now it’s over.”

After returning home, Thorvilson met with her coach, 3:57-miler Gary Taylor. It was time to regroup, and the former University of Arkansas/Little Rock athlete had a list of races she wanted to do. A long list.

“He said, ‘let’s kind of get through the Trials, then give me your dream list of the races you want to do,’” Thorvilson recalled. She continued: “I just kept adding to the list. Here’s the race and here’s the argument. It’s kind of a go nuts year.”

Out of the limelight of America’s marquis road running events, Thorvilson has built the longest current winning streak of any distance runner in the world this year, according to statistics compiled by Race Results Weekly and the Association of Road Racing Statisticians. Since February, she’s won twelve races in a row, from five kilometers to 50 miles. Her victories included five standard marathons and she set nine course records. In two of the races—the Hogeye Marathon in Fayetteville, AR, and the Frisco Railroad Run 50 Miler in Willard, MO—Thorvilson was the overall winner, beating all of the men.

The streak began at the Tallahassee Marathon in Tallahassee, FL, on February 5. Thorvilson clocked 2:40:06, a course record. A week later, she won a local 5-K, then went to Apache Junction, AZ, and won the Lost Dutchman Arizona Marathon in a course record 2:47:16. After that race, she dialed back her racing and focused on her 100- to 120-mile weeks for her favorite event, the Little Rock Marathon, a race she had won the three previous years. Thorvilson said that the local running community really got behind her.

“People would come into the shop all week before the marathon and ask me how I’m doing,” Thorvilson said, referring to the local running store where she works, Go! Running. “I felt so good, I didn’t want to jinx it.”

In the Little Rock race on March 4, Thorvilson had her best day of the year. She ran a course record and personal best 2:37:26, notching her fourth consecutive victory there, and her fourth in the current streak.

“I have a hard time talking about it, because I’m so emotional about it,” Thorvilson said. She added: “On that day, on that course, I didn’t expect to set a personal best. I waited three years for this. You start to wonder if you’re ever going to run a personal best again.”

Wearing her white singlet for each race, Thorvilson then won a two-mile, a half-marathon, a 5-K and a 10-K before winning the Hogeye Marathon on April 15. A week after Hogeye, she drove to Carmel, IN, and set a 2:42:13 course record at the Carmel Marathon, picking up $1,750 in prize money and bonuses along the way.

But her biggest challenge was yet to come. She had run a 40-mile race last year, and thought that running a 50-miler would help build her strength and endurance. She also liked the idea of a road trip.

“All I needed was a vanload of friends,” she joked. “I know I’m not ready to shift the training (to ultrarunning), but I kind of wanted to taste the distance and see.”

The Frisco Railroad Run 50 Miler is run on an old rail bed on an out-and-back course. The event also has a marathon, and Thorvilson was able to run with the men’s marathon leader until he turned around to head back at the 13 mile mark. After that, Thorvilson ran completely alone for 37 miles, just one week after running the marathon in Indiana.

“That 50 miler wasn’t a fun experience for me at all,” she lamented. “I was alone from mile 13 to 50. It’s an old railroad line, so you can see forever. Sometimes, I couldn’t see a human being for ten miles. I just had to tell myself multiple times: relentless forward motion.”

She said the last eight miles were excruciating, both mentally and physically. She was only jogging, but it was hard to put one foot in front of the other.

“Why did I think this was smart?” she asked. “That might as well be from here to China as fast as I was moving.”

She clocked 6:00:31, averaging 7:13 per mile, the fourth-fastest 50-mile time ever by an American.

Thorvilson said that being a second-tier elite is uniquely challenging. While she is the big fish in Little Rock, she has detractors who say she races too much. Some, she thinks, would like to see her fail.

“It’s a strange place to be in,” she said. “I’ve got great support in the local running community. When you’re a ‘B’ level elite, you’ve got some people… they’re waiting for you to fall apart. It’s an interesting place to be in.” She also said: “Even if I ran 2:35, it’s not like Nike was going to show up at my door with a great contract.”

The final race in the streak was last Sunday’s Cellcom Green Bay Marathon in Wisconsin, a race which was stopped by organizers because it was too hot. Only 11 athletes were given official finish times, including Thorvilson who ran 2:45:23. She said that after that race, she’s going to focus on recovery, then do a more traditional build-up for a big fall marathon.

“I’m actually pretty worn out right now,” she admitted. “Let’s put it this way, I won’t be doing any marathons in June.”

Leah Thorvilson’s 2012 Race Record

January 14—2:42:09 (55) USA Olympic Trials Marathon, Houston, TX
January 15—17:52 (3) EP 5-K, Houston, TX
February 5—2:40:06 CR (1) Tallahassee Marathon, Tallahassee, FL
February 11—17:03 CR (1) Valentine’s Day 5-K, Russellville, AR
February 19—2:47:16 CR (1) Lost Dutchman Arizona Marathon, Apache Junction, AZ
March 4—2:37:26 CR (1) Little Rock Marathon, Little Rock, AR
March 10—10:43 CR (1) Chase Race 2 Mile, Conway, AR
March 18—1:16:37 (1) Germantown Half-Marathon, Germantown, TN
March 24—17:27 (1) Spring Fling 5-K, Cabot, AR
April 7—34:59 CR (1) Capitol City Classic 10k, Little Rock, AR
April 15—2:52:03 CR (1)* Hogeye Marathon, Fayetteville, AR
April 21—2:42:13 CR (1) Carmel Marathon, Carmel, IN
April 28—6:00:31 CR (1)* Frisco Railroad Run 50 Miler, Willard, MO
May 20—2:45:23 (1) Cellcom Green Bay Marathon, Green Bay, WI

*Also first overall, male or female

(c) 2012 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission