Kleppin, Pennel Take Different Paths To Half Marathon Worlds

Lauren Kleppin and Tyler Pennel two days before the 2014 IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships in Copenhagen. Photo: David Monti | Race Results Weekly

Lauren Kleppin and Tyler Pennel will compete in Saturday’s World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen.

(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — When Americans Lauren Kleppin and Tyler Pennel line up for Saturday’s IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, it will be the first time these athletes will wear the U.S. national uniform in competition. And, although they both qualified for their national team here by running well at the USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston in January, their paths to the Copenhagen starting line have been completely different.

Pennel, 26, came on strong last fall, taking third at the first-ever .US Road Running Championships in Alexandria, Va. Coached by Pete Rea of the Reebok-sponsored ZapFitness program in Blowing Rock, N.C., Pennel went to Houston two months later with the goal of contending, not simply riding along with the lead pack.

“It was a very good race; I ended up fourth,” Pennel told Race Results Weekly in an interview at his hotel here. “It was my debut, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I got to about halfway, I was feeling good and I took the lead and pushed a little bit.”

Pennel hit the finish in 1:01:44, locking up his place on the team here because two of the athletes who finished ahead of him, Meb Keflezighi and Aaron Braun, decided not to do these championships (the top-3 finishers got guaranteed team berths). Since Houston, Pennel has done (and won) one low-key race, the TD Bank Reedy River 10K in South Carolina, but has focused his efforts on training so he can be sharp for the race here.

“I’d like to get a PR (personal record),” he said.

Kleppin, 25, also had a good day in Houston, finishing second with a huge personal best. She was so excited after she crossed the finish line she was literally crying with joy.

“Obviously, I was pretty surprised but very excited and satisfied with my race,” she said here today. “I ran 1:12:12, putting in about a three-minute PR. I wanted to come in a top-10 position, but I didn’t expect second place. It just opened up the world to me, essentially.”

But Kleppin, who wears a delicate feather braided into her hair, didn’t have the World Half Marathon Championships on her radar at all. Instead, her ASICS Mammoth Track Club coach, Andrew Kastor, had been readying her for the Asics L.A. Marathon on March 9. She was completely committed to that race, but didn’t want to pass up the chance to race here. Her plans changed, but not radically.

“Andrew said we’ve got things to talk about; things have just changed,” Kleppin recounted before bursting into a short laugh. “I mean, we talked about it for five seconds, and he was like, ‘Do you still want to do L.A.?’ And I was like, ‘Yep.’ There wasn’t really a question.”

Not only did Kleppin complete her marathon training successfully, but she ran an unexpected 2:28:48 (third place) in just her second attempt at the distance, the fastest by an American woman so far this year, and the fourth-fastest since the beginning of last year. That mark qualified her for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and suddenly made her a credible Olympic team contender.

But to race well here, Kleppin had to take her recovery from her marathon very seriously with only 20 days between events. She said her quick turnaround has gone remarkably well.

“I focused a lot on recovery the last couple of weeks,” she said. “But I’m feeling great. I even got in some solid workouts before this race (including some mile repeats). I mean, come Saturday, I hope it all comes out as planned and I hit another PR.”

In addition to improving their career best times, Pennel and Kleppin think that a team medal is also a possibility here. Team results are determined by summing the best three marks for each squad. At the last edition of these championships in Kvarna, Bulgaria — which were held in hot and sunny conditions — the American men finished fourth and the women were fifth. Pennel thinks that the U.S. team could sneak in for a medal, considering that every man has run 62-flat or better during his career.

“We can get top three as a team,” asserted Pennel. “That would be a good performance.”

For Kleppin — who worked as a waitress in a sports bar, a ski lift operator and an office worker at a boat rental business to support herself last year — she’s just thankful for the opportunity to train full-time and compete in such a high level competition. She doesn’t intend to squander this opportunity.

“It’s not always a smooth path,” she said, turning serious. “You have to keep your dreams and your goals in mind, even when you’re so far away that it feels like your falling further and further away.”

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