Major health problems and falling short of the 2004 Olympics haven’t slowed Heather Hanscom’s determination to reach the top of her sport .
“If you greatly desire something, have the guts to stake everything on obtaining it,” Brendan Francis Behan, Irish playwright
This is the scene on a recent weekday: Heather Hanscom finishes a morning workout at NAU’s Lumberjack Stadium track and takes a seat on a metal bench. A few yards away, fellow U.S. distance-running standouts Abdi Abdirahman and Ryan Shay are wrapping up their late-morning routine. At the same time, local fitness guru John Blievernicht, the president of the Institute for Sports, Health & Fitness, is helping mountain biker Dara Marks-Marino do a series of exercises. Then Dr. Jack Daniels, NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training’s head coach, stops by to observe what’s happening.
This is why Hanscom, a marathon runner, moved to Flagstaff in September: to be a part of something.
She was living in Arlington, Va., where she primarily trained alone.
“I just needed a change of scenery,” she says. Also, she remembers, her coach, Matt Centrowitz suggested that “maybe she needed to move to find a group, something a little more conducive to training.”
While vacationing in Finland in July, the determined 27-year-old had a chance to think about her coach’s advice and make plans for what she’d do next.
During the summer months, Hanscom spoke with Frank “Gags” Gagliano, the well-respected coach of the Nike Farm Team in Palo Alto, Calif., and Daniels about her options.
Flagstaff was her choice.
“I had been back for about a week or so and (Daniels) said, ‘You should get down to Flagstaff as soon as you can,’ and so I said, ‘All right, I’ll be there,'” she says.
“In the next week, I was there. … I bought a one-way (airplane) ticket and here I am.”
Hanscom, a 2001 James Madison University grad, is a relative newcomer to the national stage. She didn’t started training for marathons until she finished college.
But what a glorious debut it was.
Remarkably (or was it miraculously?), she finished first in her first-ever marathon, the 2003 Marine Corps Marathon (2 hours, 37 minutes, 59 seconds). She also took 11th at the 2003 USA Cross Country Championships’ 8-kilometer race (28:39).
A year later, she was sixth at her second marathon, the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon (2:31.53), and sixth in the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships’ 6K.
Those performances helped Hanscom earn a spot on Team USA’s World Marathon Team for the 2005 IAAF World Championships in August in Helsinki, Finland.
Talk about motivation to train hard.
In June, though, Hanscom’s training came to an abrupt halt.
“I tripped in a pothole and fell and strained pretty much all my stabilizing muscles,” she says.
She says she had excruciating pain in her piriformis muscle (a muscle that’s behind the hip joint) and glute muscles.
“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t put any weight on it,” she continues. “I strained both my hip flexors. I couldn’t lift my leg. It was not a very fun two months. I ended up having to pull out of the marathon.”
Still, that injury didn’t spoil Hanscom’s summer. She traveled to Finland anyway. She was the maid of honor at one of her best friend’s weddings. And, yes, she watched the women’s marathon at the world championships.
She spent a month in the Scandinavian nation and began to start running again. Slowly but surely, she was running for 30 minutes again (contrast that with her pre-injury routine of 80-110 miles per week).
Fast forward to early autumn. Hanscom’s finally getting acclimated to Flagstaff’s 7,000 feet.
“I’ve been here almost a month now,” she says, “and I can make it through a run without having air sucked out my lungs.”
Daniels’ plan is for Hanscom to run about 90 miles a week for a few weeks and gradually increase that total to about 130-140.
“The goal right now is just to have her train and build up her fitness level,” the coach says. “This is an ideal place (for that). … Being at altitude shortcuts that process, bringing you from a lower level of fitness to a higher level.
“I think she’ll reach a higher level sooner.”
The real test should come in November, when Hanscom plans to race in two key races: the USATF West Region & Pacific Association Cross Country Championships Nov. 6 in San Francisco and the USATF Club Nationals two weeks later in Rochester, N.Y.
She’s scheduled to return to marathon running in the spring. Competing in P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon in Phoenix in January could be a tuneup race for her. In the meantime, she also keeps busy as a volunteer coach for the Center for High’s Altitude Training’s new Middle School Running Program, working with St. Mary’s Catholic School students Monday and Wednesday afternoons.
Hanscom took up the sport as a middle-school student, often joining her father for runs.
A couple years later, Hanscom, then a high school freshman, was diagnosed with cancer. She was told she had brain tumor. She had surgery.
She’s been cancer-free for 13 years now. And she officially celebrates the day every Oct. 5.
Actually, she celebrates life every day by running as she strives to keep getting better, to keep getting closer to the level that’ll earn her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team some day.
“It was always a goal from high school,” she says of her Olympic aspirations, which now keep her focused on the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. “I had surgery when I was a freshman … and then as soon as I started running again, that was what I wanted to do.”
As a college runner, Hanscom had a solid career, posting the school’s fifth-best time in the 5,000 and conference-qualifying marks in four other events.
Injuries, though, took their toll on her. She qualified for nationals as both a junior and a senior but wasn’t able to compete either year.
“I’d always get injured,” she says, pointing to her hamstring as the problem. “I would strain it at the end of (the) indoor (season) and then I would not run for two weeks and then coach would throw me in a 10K and I’d make it through 10, 15 laps and something would pop and it’d pop the rest of the race and not run for two weeks.”
This process repeated it itself.
“Pretty much my last two outdoor seasons were very disappointing,” she says.
But Hanscom refuses to give up, refuses to feel sorry for herself.
“I have learned that how you look at a situation, including your health, with either positive or negative energy will directly affect the outcome,” she told Fast-women.com in 2004.
Which is why it comes as no surprise to Daniels that Hanscom is well-suited to endure — and excel — in racing 26.2 miles, the distance of a marathon.
“People who are that type of person tend to be very, very strong mentally,” he says. “They just look at the marathon as a race. … I think people like Heather look at it as her distance.”
“Her best event is clearly the marathon. She’s a better runner the farther it gets.”
So has her determination as a runner improved because of her numerous setbacks?
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Daniels says. “People go through something like that … (and) they want every day to count. I’m sure she’s made that kind of commitment to herself.”
Hanscom, an outgoing, smiling conversationalist during our interview, agreed.
“Definitely it made me probably a little more motivated,” she says, “but I’d also say more than that it’s made me appreciate things a little more.
“Running is like my thanksgiving. I’m alive today I get to run. That’s my thanksgiving, but it’s not the only thing. My family is way more important to me than running. They support me and my dreams, so it works out well.”