Canary in the Coal Mine: Lauren Kleppin and the Resurgence of Mammoth Track Club
by Jon Gugala
When Lauren Kleppin crossed the finish line in second place at the USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston on January 19, everything was different. "A lot has changed in the course of one hour and 12 minutes," she says.
Her coach, Mammoth Track Club rebuilder Andrew Kastor, says that while her time of 1:12:12 was close to what he expected, he was "pleasantly surprised" by her runner-up finish.
Kleppin, 25, fits the profile of an athlete poised for a breakthrough on the roads. At D-II Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, she was the 2012 NCAA champion and division record-holder in the 10,000m with a 32:49.92 best.
But after college, she contacted several post-collegiate groups and coaches, and was turned down by them all. "I think that [they] just thought I was a free spirit," she says. "I was, but I was looking for something else."
Altitude was an acquired taste after growing up in Milwaukee, Wisc., but Kleppin had seen its effects in her running, so without a coach or a club, she moved to Big Bear, Calif., a mountain town where she got mountain jobs, working at a marina and operating ski lifts during the snow season. She ran alone and wrote her own workouts, even trying CrossFit briefly "just to get some interaction," she says.
"Lauren was running some pretty decent times in the half marathon and marathon off of basically no structure to her training at all," Kastor says, citing her 1:15:18 half marathon and a 2:42:17 marathon debut.
"2013 was a hard year because I started overworking myself and spreading myself too thin," Kleppin says. "I knew there needed to be a change because what I was doing was not sustainable.
"I wasn't exactly slipping, but I knew I could be better."
Kleppin graduated from college in 2012, which could be described as rock bottom for the Mammoth Track Club, long circling the toilet. In 2010, Ryan Hall, who had helped establish the club as a distance running Olympus, departed on his self-coaching odyssey. In August 2012 Amy Hastings departed. In October longtime coach and MTC head Terrence Mahon packed his bags and his marquis athletes for a move to the U.K., where he'd been hired as the national coach for distance running. And then in November, Meb Keflezghi announced a move to San Diego.
These departures effectively gutted the club, leaving Kastor and his wife, American record-holder Deena Kastor (who, at 39, was in her career's twilight years), as the last members standing. And though the Kastors talked of rebuilding the club, even breaking ground on the town's only track facilities, where would the athletes come from? And who would pay for them?
Interest didn't wane, Kastor says, just because the club did. All he had to do was field emails from prospective athletes. True, no longer was Mammoth the Olympian training ground it once was. But maybe it could start as a prospective-Olympian training ground.
"[Jerry] Schumacher's group, they're the collegiate record-holders or the NCAA champions," he says. "We didn't have that type of clout to respect right off the bat. I need to prove myself that I'm an elite distance coach, so I need to take athletes like Lauren and like Gabe [Proctor], who are 28:53 and 32:49 10K runners and really develop them so I can show the rest of the U.S. that the plan does work."
This is the environment that Kleppin signed into in September of 2013. At that point, a core group of athletes had already been established, including Josphat Boit in April, who would win in the 2013 10K Championships and finish runner-up in the 25K and Marathon. He was third at the 2014 Half Marathon championships in a PR 61:41, and Proctor was 10th in a PR 62:22.
Still, Kleppin doesn't have a shoe contract, and she currently works part time at the Mammoth Tavern, a bar and restaurant.
"Everything's a risk, but sometimes you've just got to take those," she says. "I knew this was the place I had to be. There's no better place in my mind that I could train, and that belief has carried me through and helped me succeed."
Three spots for the U.S. World Half Marathon Championships national team come from the top 10 athletes at the Half Marathon Championships on January 19. While Kleppin can't confirm that she has received an invitation to Copenhagen for the race on March 29, she says that if she does, she will accept. In the meantime, it's back to training for her more immediate goal: running the LA Marathon on March 9 in Los Angeles.
"From the day I stepped on the track, people would look at my stride and go, 'Ooo, you're a marathoner,'" Kleppin says. "I want to hit a fast time, and I think LA is set up for me to do that."
The possibility of the LA Marathon hosting the 2016 Olympic team trials marathon hasn't escaped her, either: "There's definitely motivation after [the Half Marathon Championships] to pursue higher goals," she says. "Those are the things I'm following now."