Nicole Cueno earned last year’s distinguished “Minnesota Runner of the Year” award from USA Track and Field Minnesota, but she is much more than a runner. While she qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon both in 2008 and 2012 with a 2:42 personal best and was a four-time All-American in the 1,500-meter, 5-kilometer and 10K at Grinnell College in Iowa, it’s her work as a coach and race director that has enmeshed her in the local endurance sports community.
The race director of the Minneapolis YWCA Women’s Triathlon — the largest of its kind in the region — as well as the coordinator for the YWCA’s endurance sports, Cueno inspires countless local athletes to get out and get active. What’s more, she continues to be competitive in her own right, in road races to triathlons, to track cycling events at the Velodrome in Blaine.
In a recent interview, Cueno, 36, shared a bit about what continues to motivate her to train, as well as why she thinks the Twin Cities is the perfect place to be a runner and coach. Below are edited excerpts:
On the draw of the marathon
I did my first marathon my first year out of college when I was working as a teacher in St. Louis. I knew I needed something to help keep me sane and I figured a marathon was just the thing to do. When I ended up doing fairly well (3:11 at the 2003 Madison Marathon), I thought I could go faster, so I did three more marathons that year. Now I would never let a client do that! As I learned more about training, I figured if I wanted to do well I shouldn’t train for that many races every year. I love the structure and consistency of training. It’s time for myself, time to think through things, and quality time with fantastic training partners.
On running in Minneapolis
The level of competition and support here is amazing — the running stores and the people who put time and energy into the sport, and the government which puts money into the parks and trail systems. It’s so wonderful to go out your door and have great off-road trails and paved paths. Also, I love how people get out and about all year round, so there’s always someone to run with. I always run through winter. The treadmill in the winter can be a nice tool, but I also think that weather stuff can be kind of fun. You can encounter anything in a race, so it’s fun to go out regardless and deal with whatever the weather has to offer.
On favorite training spots
I’ve lived in so many different neighborhoods since I moved to the Twin Cities in 2004, and wherever you live you have access to great running trails. I loved the lakes for years, as well as running up and down along the river. I also enjoy trail running at Hyland (Park Reserve), which is very easy access. It’s the soft surface and running through the woods — it’s nice to engage different muscles and not think about pace. I just love being in the woods. As I’ve gotten more into biking, I also venture more out of the city along the Gateway Trail to Stillwater. Most recently I’ve been doing some track bike racing at the Velodrome in Blaine, so I have a really good route up there now.
On coaching other endurance athletes
Coaching is a pretty special thing. You have to get to know somebody so you can arrange training to work around the rest of their life. Finding out about what motivates people, why they are doing what they are doing, and the role training and racing plays in their life is important. It continues to inspire me.
On the satisfaction of putting on the women’s triathlon
I feel extremely lucky. A lot of people work really hard at their jobs and don’t get congratulations very often. The weeks leading up to the race and especially the day of, people are so wonderfully thankful and it’s really gratifying after all the work we put into it. We have a family-friendly finish where you can run in with your loved ones, and that’s what the race is really about.
All these women are being role models for their families and proving to themselves they can do it. We have about 40 percent first-timers, so we’re getting a lot of people to try a triathlon for the first time. In terms of age, we have 11-year-olds up to 80-year-olds of all different body sizes and athletic abilities and experience levels. Plus, because it’s a women-only race, women tend to talk to each other and encourage each other more. It’s like everyone is competing together, rather than competing against each other, and that’s something I really love about this event. (This year’s event is Aug. 14 at Lake Nokomis.)
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.