With the U.S. Olympic marathon trials just 10 weeks away, most of the nation's top runners chose not to race in Sunday's New York City Marathon. To Jen Houck, it seemed perfectly natural to follow one milestone with another.
Houck, of Bloomington, will join 45,000 others Sunday in New York for her debut in the world's largest marathon. On Jan. 14 in Houston, she will take another giant leap when she runs in the Olympic trials. Despite the tight time frame, Houck and her coach, Chad Salmela, thought New York would be the perfect preparation for the trials--and given her history, they have no concerns about the quick turnaround.
An unusually durable runner, Houck can't recall missing more than a couple of days of training because of injury, going all the way back to her days at Cromwell High School and the College of St. Scholastica. That has helped her drop 14 minutes, 41 seconds off her personal record in the past two years.
The New York City Marathon will be Houck's third race at the distance this season. She feels ready to run another personal record, with the rush of her first trip to New York helping to push her from Staten Island to Central Park.
"I've wanted to do this marathon ever since I started,'' said Houck, 27, who was fifth in the women's field at Grandma's Marathon in June in a career-best time of 2 hours, 33 minutes, 1 second. "I can't be more excited to be here.
"We chose this race because we felt it would be the best preparation to feel confident and ready for the trials, which was the main goal. It's a big step in my career. I can't wait for Sunday.''
A physical therapist, Houck is taking a three-month leave of absence from work to devote herself to training for the Olympic trials. She just completed three weeks of training at altitude in Colorado and ran the Philadelphia Half Marathon in September, finishing 28th among the women in 1:17:41.
Until the past few years, Houck's biggest achievement in the sport had been a 12th-place finish in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Division III outdoor championships in 2007. She began running half-marathons after college, with the goal of improving at that distance before tackling 26.2 miles. In 2009, Salmela suggested she try the Twin Cities Marathon just for fun, with little preparation and no time goals.
Houck finished in 2:47:42--and was hooked. She has run four more marathons since then, getting progressively faster in each. In 2010, Houck placed 17th at the Boston Marathon (2:39:02) and 19th at the Chicago Marathon (2:37:16); this year, she was 18th at Boston (2:34:28) before lowering her time again at Grandma's.
Her time at the 2010 Boston Marathon qualified her for the Olympic trials. This year, Houck also has finished fifth in the U.S. 25K championships and 11th in the U.S. half-marathon championships, which covered part of the course that will be used for the Olympic marathon trials.
"Since that first marathon, we've shifted our focus,'' she said. "In the last two years, I feel like I've learned how to race a marathon. I've learned to be disciplined, how I should feel, how to manage the ups and downs. It's amazing how far I've come.''
On Sunday, Houck will see few of the top runners who will join her at the Olympic trials. Shalane Flanagan, second in New York last year in her first race at the distance, is not running a fall marathon. Former Duluth resident Kara Goucher is recovering from a hip injury.
Meb Keflezighi will be there, and he said he will be running to win in his favorite race. Keflezighi finished second in New York in 2004 in a personal-best time, 70 days after winning the silver medal in the Olympic marathon in Athens. He said Wednesday he will take a few days off from running after Sunday's race, then resume his regular routine to prepare for the trials.
"I have nothing to lose,'' said Keflezighi, 36. "I'm in great shape. Things are going well, so I just have to maintain my fitness.''
Houck is approaching the two races in similar fashion. She could have run at the Pan Am Games last month, but she and Salmela thought the strong international field and the course made the New York City Marathon a better choice.
Since she began concentrating on the marathon, Houck said, she has continued to feel stronger and more fit for each race. Her goal Sunday is to remain on that same path while gaining valuable racing experience before the Olympic trials.
"I'm going to go in there and run confident and strong and see where it takes me,'' Houck said. "I don't know how fast I can get, but I'm very focused and motivated. I'm excited to find out what my potential is as a distance runner.''