If you watched the Olympic Trials on February 29th, you probably caught a glimpse of 16 year-old Tierney Wolfgram running with the lead pack at the start of the race. Shoulder-to-shoulder with the top American women--many of them twice her age--Tierney ran a smart and controlled race, finishing in the top 100 of the largest women's Trials field ever. We caught up with Tierney to find out what it's been like to make the switch from high school cross country to training for the Olympic Trials, and where she's headed from here.
How did you get your start in competitive running? Did you play any other sports growing up?
I started running twice around a two-ish mile lake back home in Minnesota to get me in shape enough to play a soccer game when I was 10. My family went out to Gillete, Wyoming that summer for the 4th of July and signed me up for a Firecracker 4 Mile. I ended up doing well enough to get the top prize for my age group. More road races followed and I got better, although not in a very linear fashion. I was just starting out in the sport so my times were not consistent in the least. When I was thirteen, soccer began to show that it was less and less of something that I wanted to do, so my 7th grade year I joined cross country. From there I got a top 10 finish at that year's state meet and continued to put myself in more and more competitive fields.
What has your coaching been like? I’ve read that for your first marathon, you just supplemented your cross country training with an additional morning run. Did that evolve into a more specific program leading up to the Trials?
For the Trials build up, I reached out to Jay Stephonsen from RunFree Training to get some expert help. Coach Jay was my main coach but Ryan [Hall] helped out in the beginning. Coach Jay was a great addition to my training this time around. It was very structured but not confining. I really enjoyed my training. The biggest differences [in training] from the Twin Cities and the Trials build up were primarily running the majority of my mileage on soft surfaces, lower mileage, and marathon specific workouts. It was a blast and I loved every step.
What is your running community like? Do you train with cross country teammates, other runners, or solo?
I trained in Albuquerque, New Mexico from December 18 until March 15 so I got familiar with the running community there. It is amazing how many people you see just at the crack of dawn trying to hammer a run in before they have to get on with their day. It really is just a part of a ton of people’s lives down here. I think my time here has been very close to a retreat for me. Seeing that many people working just as hard as I was made me really change the way I thought about things, running specifically. It really sunk in that running is a choice. Someday it may become my profession, but right now it is my choice and realizing that was very freeing and brought back my love for running.
I have so much gratitude to the Albuquerque Academy School and their cross country and track program. My mom had reached out to about 18 schools within a 10 mile radius from where I was staying and Coach Adam Kedge was the first of three to respond. He was very welcoming to me and has allowed me to get to know his boy’s team. I run with Academy’s distance stars whenever our workouts line up. I really couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to train with, they kept me on my toes, entertained every single run, and pushed me pretty hard. I look forward to seeing where their running takes them because they definitely have what it takes!
Have your friends and social group been involved directly or indirectly in your training at all?
Besides the Academy distance guys and the occasional run with Duke’s Track Club, no one else has been involved directly with my training. Some girls from Woodbury High School (the school I compete for) sent me a care package and other’s texted their well wishes to me. It was amazing to feel so much support just here and feeling it all the way from home.
To what degree do you see yourself as a role model? Who are your role models?
I don’t see myself as a huge role model mostly due to the fact that the young girls or boys that look up to 16 year-olds such as myself have no interest in a marathon. I think that I can agree that I may be a motivation to some just because of my young age. I just try to express to people that my marathons were my choice to run and that I had the choice every day, on every run, to stop. I didn’t stop because it was what I wanted to do and what made me happy.
My role models really range from every level of runner. Everyone I cross paths with running around here any time of day motivates me and makes me respect them. In that case, there are way too many to list and way too many people’s names I don’t know. Out of the professional women, my top two would be Des Linden and Jordan Hasay. They are both gritty tough women while also being gracious in victory and loss.
What challenges have you experienced as you’ve progressed through your running and athletic career?
My biggest challenge has actually been against my own head. My mom has always told me that I have the strongest head but I never use it right. It was just finding a way to turn that around to make it a positive instead of a drawback to my running. I have gotten better about it but I am nowhere near perfect yet. I think that burnout is something almost every runner experiences no matter what level they are. Burnout to me is just falling out of love with the sport and growing resentful of it. I have struggled with it on and off over the last two years and I am very happy to say that I love running and have never loved every step more. This time it seems like a more permanent type of love and I have built a healthier relationship with it and it all has to do with these last three months. Leaving my home and the majority of my family gave me tons of time to figure out myself. I also had such a strong support system here that gave me a huge boost in finding my passion for the sport again.
At the Trials you went out with the lead pack and were running with the most elite female runners in the country. What was going through your mind? Were you aware of the women around you, or entirely focused on your own race?
I believe that this was the first Olympic Marathon Trials that was broadcasted and televised so I was really excited about that. Before the race, everyone knew that one of two things would happen; the race would either go out slow and controlled or it would go out blazing fast. I figured that if it went out controlled, why would I let the opportunity for my family back home and my second family here in Albuquerque to see me on TV? It did go out relatively controlled and I had a blast running up with those elite women. I really had to keep in check my excitement because I did not want to push the pace and risk messing up the race for the future Olympic qualifiers. It was tough but I remained cool, calm, and collected.
You’ve progressed to the marathon distance much earlier than the traditional trajectory for most runners. What do you see as your future path in the sport?
Yes, I am very aware that my trajectory to this point has been anything but traditional; however, I am now going to take that traditional route--my future will be with the University of Nevada, Reno for the next 4-5 years. I am super excited to have the opportunity to graduate early to come onto the team!!!
What are your goals in the marathon, or at other distances?
The Olympics anytime in the future is a goal for either the marathon or the 10k on the track. The biggest goal for me is to keep this love for running going and nourish it into something that is unbeatable.