2014 Bank of American Chicago Marathon Diary: A Journey For Balance - Lisa Uhl is Back
By: Cait Chock
In 2012, Lisa Uhl, a runner who never won a State title in high school, was poised at the starting line of the London Olympic 10,000 meter final. Quite a remarkable journey for the little girl who grew up in Iowa.
That's not to say Uhl, previously Koll, hadn't hit her stride and started collecting titles by college. By the time she was a senior at Iowa State University, Uhl was a hot prospect for any big name sponsor; ultimately she signed with Nike in 2010. The move took her to Portland, OR to train alongside Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher under coach Jerry Schumacher. A situation the media couldn't get enough of as, here was a collected trio of our Nation's best embarking on the journey to take London by storm. And there, Lisa stood poised at the starting line, representing her Country, living the epitome of every athlete's dream.
Or so it would only seem. While her career was on fire, Uhl felt something was missing. A lack of balance. She missed home, she felt things she couldn't quite put into words but she just knew she needed to find balance. "A lot has changed for me since the London Olympics. My husband, Kiel, and I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa to be closer to home and so I could work with Corey [Ihmels, Iowa State Coach] again."
The move back to Des Moines in late 2012 came as a bit of a shock to outsiders, but one most professional runners could better understand. Running your best is a formula unique to the individual and many factors come into play, balance being a particularly tricky one to figure out, yet critical. Leaving the two women she'd grown so close to, as well as Schumacher, was incredibly hard for Uhl but in her heart she knew for both the sake of her happiness and running, Iowa was where she needed to be.
"In 2013, both my husband and I were volunteer assistant coaches with Iowa State University. I ran with the girls on the team a lot in the fall and Kiel helped me with workouts when needed. In the spring I trained with Betsy Saina whenever it matched up, which was really nice," things were starting to feel more 'right', more in balance.
A surprise did come that spring when Coach Ihmels took the position as head coach for Boise State. "Selfishly, I was bummed he was leaving, but I knew it was the right decision for him and his family. My husband and I moved back to Iowa for many reasons, and we knew we wanted to stay here. I also knew I wanted to keep working with Corey. We discussed it and he made sure I knew he was still invested in helping me become the best athlete I could be." Thrown for a bit of a loop, as is the way of life, but things were figured out with Ihmels sending her workouts and her traveling to Boise a few times a year to train under his watchful eye.
The next starting line Uhl will be standing at is the 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. "I chose Chicago for several reasons. First, I'm from the Midwest originally, went to school at Iowa State University, and have always felt like Chicago was my big city home. Second, the course is flat and fast and I felt like it would play to my strengths as an athlete. In the past I've excelled when I can dial into a rhythm and slowly progress throughout the race." With a course conducive to her strengths and known for fast times, Uhl's main priority is hitting the US Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time. Meaning the move up in distance is here to stay. "After 2016, I see myself shifting to more of a full-time marathoner, but of course that could change!"
Moving up to the marathon signifies another major shift for the runner. The past year and a half Uhl hasn't raced all that often, she ultimately hasn't been feeling like herself either. "I've gone through cycles where training would go well for a few weeks, and then I would get sick, or injured, or feel terrible for a few weeks and instead of my fitness level increasing from workouts, it would actually start decreasing. It was like the harder I worked, the worse my performances got and I had no consistency." Seeing numerous doctors, specialists, and running the gambit of tests without being able to nail down a definitive answer, a process that was just as trying emotionally as physically, Uhl decided the only course of action had to be a dramatic step back to allow her body to fully recover. The prolonged break from any hard training the entire spring was mentally torturous for the runner but, she knew it had to be done. "I couldn't keep doing the same things and expect the result to change. I also knew my long-term goals were the most important ones."
Thankfully the reward was worth it, "I started workouts again this past June when I started the marathon training cycle, and I've felt more and more like my usual self every week. I've been seeing consistency and progress, which is something I lacked from the spring of 2013 to the spring of 2014." No struggle comes without lessons and coming out of the ordeal, Uhl is now more diligent in recognizing earlier signs of fatigue.
Another silver lining? "The support I received from other athletes and coaches reminded me just how great the running community is." This brings us to Lisa Uhl the role model. In moving back to Iowa, "I knew I wanted to find a way to connect to the Iowa high school running community." Traveling to different high schools, sharing her story and encouraging the next generation of runners, Uhl finds immense joy and was inspired to take it one step further. This past July saw the first 'Lisa Uhl's Camp of Champions', a tradition she has every intention to continue. "It was so fun for me to connect on such a personal level with an awesome group of kids whose roots are in the same place as mine. It has been fun to follow all of them this cross-country season and I'm already looking forward to next summer's camp!"
Feeling Whole Again
In coming full circle Lisa Uhl is finding her balance and both the person and the runner are thriving. Being married to a runner has its perks and when available, Kiel helps pace her workouts when his schedule allows [he works full time as an architect], though he is able to make nearly every long run. There is also a local high school coach and 2:25-marathoner keeping Uhl company on many of her workouts. "Most of the year I train in Iowa. I'll do my longer training sessions in Des Moines....a few times a week I'll go up to Ames, about a 30 minute drive, in the afternoon for my shorter runs or track sessions and spend time with the Iowa State women's team. Andrea Grove-McDonough coaches the women and she has been really welcoming and supportive of me, so it has been great to continue to be involved with the program that gave me so many opportunities."
With workouts now back on target, Uhl is excited for her first venture into the marathon. She won't be abandoning the track entirely, post-Chicago she wants to make the World Championship 10k team as well as get back to the 15:00 minute 5k range. Yet all that awaits past the most pressing finish line.
October 12th, the Chicago Marathon, we have the privilege of seeing the return of Lisa Uhl the Olympian; a re-energized, happier, more balanced version of herself.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.