Shelby Houlihan won the mile and 2 mile at the USA Indoor Champs in early March. Houlihan is coming into her own, and we have many more exciting performances to see from Shelby, per this fine piece by Cait Chock.
The Lethal Speed of Shelby Houlihan
By: Cait Chock
When Shelby Houlihan hit the bell lap leading the two miles at the 2017 USATF Indoor Championships, she decided to close with a statement. Houlihan ripped a 29.91 second last 200 meters and added the win to her mile victory just the day before.
Less than two years ago Houlihan was fresh out of college and a newbie to the Nike backed Bowerman Track Club headed by Coach Jerry Schumacher. She had capped off her time at Arizona State University as a 12-time All American and NCAA Champion, but she was in a new playing field…she was with the pros. “It was really hard at first getting my butt kicked every workout by the other girls but after a few months, I was able to hold my own and stay with them in the workouts and even push them a bit as well.”
She wasn’t daunted. If you want to be the best, you train with the best. That may mean you even get your butt kicked by the best, but stick to it and eventually you’ll be the one handing out the butt kickings. At 2017 Indoor Champs, Houlihan was the one doing just.
Houlihan’s rise through the professional ranks are a testament to patience. Often times the bane of a distance runner, where it’s all too easy to get sucked into immediate gratification and the head games that come with doing more, more, more. “Staying patient and not doing too much is a big thing that I’ve noticed people have trouble doing. I think it’s important to remember that sometimes less is better. My first year in this program, I felt like I was being lazy at times because unlike some of my teammates, I never cross trained, never did a second run, my mileage wasn’t really high enough to have to, and a lot of the time, I was just laying around and watching TV. I’m sure I could have done more but I don’t think it was necessary to at that time.”
She’s taken this same approach since being a college freshman, gradually building off of the year before, doing small tweaks to her volume, intensity, diet, and recovery habits. Taking small steps, not a major overhaul all at once, but added up, she’s been able to stay healthy throughout, all the while getting faster. Even now, she still sees areas to improve upon, “I really believe patience is one of the most important lessons in running because these things never happen overnight.”
There really was no question that upon leaving college she’d move up to Portland, Oregon. The rainy city surrounded by forests was a far cry from the constant sunshine she was used to at Arizona, but it was the only option because she wanted to find out how good she could be, how fast she could run, and life is too short to bother with regrets. “If I didn’t go with Jerry, I felt that I would always wonder what would have happened if I had and I didn’t want to look back at my running career and have any regrets. Ultimately, my gut was telling me that Jerry’s group was where I needed to go and I feel that I made the right choice for myself.”
Schumacher guided the runner along firmly but gently, practical yet punishing just enough. They would push her along, but they wouldn’t do it all at once, they would toe the line of just enough, and up the ante gradually year after year. They would be patient. “We kept my mileage the same as the previous year while increasing the intensity of the workouts. We didn’t want to change too many variables at once because the main goal is to stay healthy.”
Starting with just intensity was more than enough, “After almost every workout, I would just lay in bed the rest of the day watching TV because my body was so tired.” But eventually she wasn’t totally destroyed after workouts and she went from the one clinging on to the back of the pack as the team blitzed around that beautiful track with a forest of trees on the infield, to the one now pushing the pace. “Now, my body has definitely grown used to that higher intensity and the workouts don’t tire me out as much as they used to.”
Houlihan’s now doing some double days, but still not all the time. She and Schumacher are still practicing patience, which should be all that more intimidating to Houlihan’s competitors. She’s still far from finding her best.
It’s been almost two years and Portland is growing on her; she doesn’t love the rain, but she’s accepted it. She may be wet and soggy more than she would like but the tradeoff is worth it. She has a bevy of teammates there to push her, support her, encourage her, and hold her accountable on a daily basis. Which is something she hadn’t previously had, “I love my team. I’ve always mostly trained by myself and so I wasn’t sure how I would adjust to having teammates that would push me everyday. Joining this team was the best decision I could have made.”
They all do share the same mission, the same goal, and the same commitment to doing whatever it takes to find their personal best. “This is a group of people that has made a culture of working as hard as they can to be the best and it’s easy to buy into that culture because everyone holds each other accountable.”
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Houlihan was the only American female to advance to the final round of the 5000 meters. An event that is, for all intents and purposes, completely new to the middle distance star. “I really feel like I’m still learning how to run [the 5k] because I keep having too much energy in the last mile. I’m enjoying the learning process right now though.”
Houlihan’s an untapped well in that regard. She started as an 800 meter runner in high school, but off of a modest 20 miles per week and sprinter workouts, she would still go out and crush the competition during cross country season. Everyone told her she would be an incredible 5k runner one day.
The bottom line is, Houlihan isn’t picky about the race distance so long as she’s winning. “I’ve always said that I will do whatever event I have the best chance of medaling in. I really just love to race and I don’t really have a preference what it is. I think the variety of events that I get to do makes it more fun because I’m constantly racing differently.”
Her versatility and range makes her any coach’s dream and the pinnacle of every competitor’s envy.
Her days are consistent, starting at 7:30am, “I would love to sleep in later but for some reason, I always wake up around this time,” followed by breakfast and the first run or workout of the day. Lunch is directly after and either recovery time or core work with strength coach, Pascal Dobert, is in the afternoon. If it’s an easy day and she hasn’t gone over her mileage for the week then she may do a second run. Her nights wrap up with dinner and hanging out until bedtime at 10pm.
The workouts of the Bowerman Track Club aren’t magical, just hard. Hard work is their secret. But again, holding to the adage of misery loves company, the crew pulls each other through the grind because the feeling one gets after those brutal workouts is magical. “I’ve gotten through workouts that I didn’t think I could do because I have these girls that push me and make me not want to give up and I try to do the same for them.”
Frequents for Houlihan are 4 mile tempo’s followed by shorter intervals like 8×400 or 2x 800/400/400 and long run workouts where the second hour hovers at 6 minute pace. She really is game for really any kind of workout, but she detests fartleks with a passion, “I hate fartleks.”
Fartleks aside, you won’t see or hear Houlihan complaining. When you’re on a quest to discover how good you can be, there’s no time for complaining. The rest of the year is stretched before her and “the main goal for this year is to focus on making the World Team this summer.” The rest of her goals are time-based, “Some other, possibly long term goals I have for myself are breaking 2:00 in the 800, 4:00 in the 1500, and 15:00 in the 5k. Who knows if all of those will happen this year but I like to set high goals for myself.”
Beyond that, like the smart, patient and long-sighted athlete she is, her eyes are on more Championship and Olympic teams, but never losing sight of the core of it all. “[To continue] to run faster each year, having a really long and successful running career, and also continuing to have as much fun as possible!”
To which one could say, winning is certainly fun, and taking a nod from the Indoor Championships, Houlihan is doing plenty of both.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and comedian, you can see more of her work on her website, Instagram @caitchock, and Twitter @caitlinchock.