We caught up with the newly minted national cross country champion.
Amy Van Alstine turned more than a few heads at the U.S. Cross Country Championships on Feb. 15 in Boulder, Colo., running away from a very good women’s field to claim her first national title. Van Alstine, who didn’t make it on to many radars as a pre-race favorite, won the 8K race in 27:34—22 seconds up on second-place finisher and two-time world championships 1,500m medalist Jenny Simpson.
“I expected someone to go, but nobody went,” Van Alstine said after the race. “I tried to pick it up a bit, and I could feel everyone breathing on me. I felt really good, and I was kind of surprised that I won, and that Jenny (Simpson) wasn’t in front of me. I’m really happy and amazed.”
We recently caught up with the 24-year-old University of Richmond graduate, an adidas-sponsored athlete who trains with the newly formed Northern Arizona Elite squad in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Take me through the last lap of the race. What was going through your mind? Were you ever worried that someone would come up on you before the finish line?
A lot was going on in my mind at that point! First off, at 6K I looked over and saw my teammate, Kellyn Johnson, and got very excited. I was not surprised to see her next to me, but I think this helped give me a little extra boost for the last bit of the race. I remember thinking “NAZ Elite, one-two! Who would’ve thought? Apparently no one, except us!” Unfortunately, the altitude got to her a little with 1K to go, but she was still a solid fourth. I’m a little ahead of her in training right now, since we took breaks at different times. Next time, hopefully we can pull off a one-two punch.
Our coach, Ben Rosario, seeing that we looked comfortable, told us to surge a little the third lap. I think that worked out perfectly for me, and I progressed well without really hitting that “red line” on the last lap with the altitude.
With 2K to go, I realized I was leading and felt I was pulling away from the other girls. I remember telling myself “everyone is feeling tired behind you, this is where you need to push just a little more and focus on staying confident and finishing hard!” One thing I never did was look back. I knew seeing how close they were would mess with the positive mentality I had going, and instead kept encouraging myself.
I passed the area where my college coach, Lori Taylor, was cheering for me and heard the familiar sound of excitement in her screaming, similar to when I would be winning in college. Then again with 600 to go, I heard the same excitement in Ben’s voice. I knew at that point I was close to winning.
I didn’t know I had the race until I saw the finish line. I went into the race thinking anything was possible, but yes, it was a little bit of a surprise when I finished. I think I expected Jenny to be on my shoulder at any minute to out-kick me. I know she had a very impressive last 1K, so I think it was important I created a good distance between us.
Your victory surprised a lot of people, perhaps even yourself. To what factor(s) do you attribute this breakout race in your young career?
I think Kellyn and I have both been on the cusp of doing great things. We’ve consistently been top-10 in U.S. championship races, but believed we should be doing better than that. Many times after finishing races we felt we had mediocre performances, compared to what we thought we were capable of. For me, believing that I should be at that top level has made all the difference. I’ve learned from Kellyn how to go into a race and not be afraid of who I’m racing against. Talking the day before the race, we were very optimistic and we talked about how we should just go one-two. Why not? We were there at one point and I’m sure there will be a time in the future when this does happen.
I recently switched coaches after the end of McMillan Elite in December. Discussing my training with Ben, I knew I wanted to change my training a bit, increase my mileage and have higher intensity work. For me, the change took some adjustment, but I am seeing the benefits now. I had some awful workouts in January and I would dwell on them for a day and then quickly move on. I’ve been getting better at not allowing bad workouts to affect my mentality. I think this is a very important factor in being a successful runner, but also something you constantly need to be working on to stay in a positive mindset.
Let’s discuss your training a bit. As you mentioned, you just began working with coach Ben Rosario and NAZ Elite in January. What are you guys working on right now and how does it fit into the plan for the rest of the year?
Ben has our training in segments, so it’s sent to us for a few weeks in preparation for a specific race. The training also includes long-term goals.
We are currently training for the Gate River 15K, which I am very excited about. It is a step up in distance for me, but our training has been preparing us well for this type of race. Two weeks after Gate River, I’ll be dropping back down in distance for the Carlsbad 5000, where I should feel more in my element and hopefully be ready for a big 5K PR with the fast course and top notch elite field.
One of the big workouts we have coming up is a 10 mile steady-state run at 6 minute pace. Steady states at altitude have helped me so much. Doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s at 7,000 feet, it becomes difficult, very quickly. These workouts are hard for me and challenge my mental toughness as well.
In the spring, I will be focusing on getting the A-standard for the 5K on the track and then doing a mixture of road races varying in distances. I’m excited to mix it up on the roads and hopefully just run once or twice on the track in preparation for USA’s.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your first couple years as a professional runner?
The money has always been a bit of an issue. In our sport, you need to be at the very top level to make good money and most [runners] definitely need to have a part-time job. I currently work part-time at a health food store, Natural Grocers. It is not ideal, since it requires lots of time on your feet, but I’m grateful to them for being so accommodating with my racing schedule, as I’ve rarely had problems requesting time off.
I’m also lucky to have the support of Adidas and great organizations like the Road Runners Club of America. Without their support, it would be a lot harder for me to pursue my running professionally.
Another challenge I’ve faced is knowing there is a dark side of our sport. I never knew this side existed, but quickly learned after I started running professional races, that there are doping problems in our sport. The worst feeling is when you go to a race and you don’t win and know you weren’t on a fair playing field. It’s hard to comprehend why any athlete would even consider doing this, and unfortunately, makes you start to question a lot of people. Although it is still a big problem that the average citizen doesn’t know about, I’m grateful that we have organizations like USADA and WADA to try and keep our sport clean.
Last question is a takeaway for our readers: What are three “little things” you do weekly that allow you to recover faster, get the most out of your workouts and race at a high level?
I recently started to take Epsom salt baths, instead of ice baths. I was having a lot of trouble doing second runs after standing on my feet all day. I had some awful workouts after working the previous day due to my legs feeling trashed. I’m not sure what the exact science is behind it, but my legs have been feeling a lot better since I started doing this and this has become part of my routine.
Nutrition-wise, I try to get food in quickly after I run or have a hard workout. Lately, I’ve been making recovery smoothies, so I’m able to get the nutrition I need right away to recover. This is something I was bad at before and I continue to get better at, as I’m realizing how important it is to the recovery process.
Whenever I’m not running or working my part-time job, I try to stay off my feet as much as possible. It doesn’t seem that important, but it has definitely helped keep my legs feeling fresh.