Interview with Amy Mortimer
by Becky Orfinger

Amy Mortimer competes in the 1,500 at the 2002 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Mortimer smiles on the awards podium after finishing fourth above.
Mortimer competes at the 2001 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
All Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners

In June, Kansas State senior Amy Mortimer closed out an outstanding collegiate career with a PR of 4:12.39 (for only 10th place!) in the finals of the NCAA 1,500 meters. A twelve-time All-American, Mortimer is best known for her middle distance talent but also enjoyed success in cross country and ran 15:44 for 5,000 meters at the Mt. Sac Relays this spring.

Although Mortimer completed her athletic eligibility this year, she has one more semester to go before officially graduating from Kansas State. A self-proclaimed bookworm, she will remain at Kansas State for graduate school, making good use of two recently-awarded postgraduate scholarships — one from the Big 12 Conference and one from the NCAA.

We caught up with Mortimer after she returned from spending nearly a month in California competing (she placed 9th in the 1,500 at the USA Outdoor Championships with a 4:18.36 a week after NCAAs) and vacationing. Congratulations on finishing an amazing college career. I bet it feels nice to take a break after such a long track season — did it feel long to you?
Amy Mortimer:
It was probably actually a blessing in disguise that I had a nagging case of tendonitis in my leg that kept me from being able to train as hard as I would have liked during cross country season. This turned out to be a good thing because by the end of track season, I had been racing for nearly 11 months. I was happy that I was able to end my season with some new PRs and that I still felt somewhat fresh [even after so many months]. I've learned that sometimes that's all you can ask for.

FW: Were you satisfied with the way your senior seasons of cross country and track went?
I was happy with my outdoor season. Cross was a struggle, just because I was dealing with not being in as good shape as I would have liked. It was pretty frustrating. Once we got the tendonitis cleared up with some different training shoes, I was pretty fired up for indoor [track].

But although I ran some good times during indoor track, I didn't seem to be able to put it together and run one really good race. Then, I came down with a virus or something right before indoor nationals that totally killed my appetite. I remember warming up for the 3,000 feeling sorry for myself, and I just decided right then that I had to suck it up. I ran a decent time and was actually pretty thrilled with my finish considering how I felt (Editor's Note: She finished sixth in 9:15.08).

Outdoor was probably the season that I was most pleased with. I PRed in the 5,000 on lower mileage training than usual and I was feeling really strong in the 1,500. NCAAs were so tough and such a rush at the same time. I was really excited about my times, because my time in the final broke our school record, but at the same time, it's always rough to finish so far back.

I went in to the USA Nationals just excited about getting the experience of racing at that level. We knew that I had a chance to make the final, but I wasn't counting on it. When I did make it, I was really excited, but I didn't run so well [in the final]. I was ready to take a break after that — four 1,500s in 10 days was quite a workout.

FW: I'm sure you weren't the only one disappointed with finishing far back at NCAAs despite a blazing time. The progression of the women's mile/1,500 on the NCAA D1 level has been astounding, even just in the time you were in college. Has that helped you improve your times?
I think it is great that college women are running so fast — it really shows a lot of promise for the U.S. to make a comeback in the distance events on the world scene. On the other hand, it is kind of frustrating! But I always look at situations like this one as an opportunity for me to build up some competitive fire, and you can't help but run fast times with this kind of competition.

FW: Were you impressed with Tiffany McWilliams' performances at the NCAA and USATF champs? Was the feeling before NCAAs that she was the one to beat?
I am definitely impressed with Tiffany McWilliams' performances and I applaud her tenacity. I think the feeling was that she was one of the ones to beat, but I think Lena Nilsson is definitely a dangerous competitor, as was pretty much everyone in that race. Most of the girls in the top ten would have won that race in any given year with their times, and that says a lot for each and every one of them.

FW: Even though you had a successful high school career, you were still able to improve and take it to the next level at Kansas State. Do you attribute this to coaching?
Yes, I was really blessed to have a coach in high school who was very careful not to burn me out. Coach [Garry] Sigle would always tell me that he wanted me to have a good college career too — not just a good high school one. He was good about holding me back, because I'm kind of hard-headed and uptight, and I can run myself into the ground, given the chance.

Once I got to college, I didn't know what Coach [Randy] Cole would expect, but it turned out that he didn't ever put any limits on me. When I wanted to go after everything I could, he encouraged me to do just that. I was really excited about stepping up my training. I was so lucky to have two great coaches at two different periods in my life. Coach Sigle was careful to develop me, but not burn me out, and Coach Cole helped me take my running to the next level. I owe them both a big thank you.

FW: Although you did have great success right off the bat your freshman season at KSU, you've said in other interviews that you did struggle in your sophomore year. How did you get out of your slump and turn it back around? What advice would you have for other collegiate athletes experiencing a similar situation?
As I said, I tend to over train if I am given the opportunity. When I came in my freshman year, I was pretty scared about the situation, just because I had no idea what I could realistically do. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how much work it was going to take. So I always did as much as possible, although my freshman year I was careful about resting when I was tired. I think a lot of people believe that when they don't feel like running, they are just being lazy, and that was definitely the case with me.

So, my sophomore year, I threw the idea of resting when I was tired out the window. When I was tired, I would just ignore it. I would ask Coach to give me harder workouts. It turned into an insidious kind of exhaustion because it was building up slowly. Eventually I got to the point where I couldn't do anything but train and go to school. At night, I was so exhausted that I would eat dinner and just lie on the floor watching TV until it was time to go to bed.

Even though I was working myself so hard and having the workouts of my life, my race times started to suffer. My consistency was something I had always been so proud of. Both my high school and college coaches could always count on me to go out and take care of business in each and every race. Suddenly, I was having these terrible races out of nowhere. And mentally, I was a mess. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what, and at times I just assumed that I had lost it, and that my talent was gone. My family finally stepped in and confronted me about it and from there we were able to work slowly to correct the problem. It was a long haul. I slipped back into trouble several times after that and it was probably a year before I really started to feel comfortable racing again. I had to totally change my attitude. When I really didn't feel like running on a given day, I had to realize that my body was telling me that it was time to take a break. It drove me crazy a lot, and at times I had to have my mom order me not to run — which she still does from time to time.

I just feel really lucky to have such supportive parents and a coach who never came down on me. There are probably hundreds of times that he could have lost his temper and just called me on the carpet, but he never did. Our relationship suffered a little during that dark period, but we were able to work through it, which I think is the most important part of getting through an ordeal like this. Learning to trust my body was also really important. I think a lot of people start to overtrain and then that only fuels their belief that they just need to train even more. It is really a vicious cycle, and whenever I'm unhappy about a time I run now, I look back to my sophomore track season, and I'm just grateful that I stuck with running.

FW: You've done well in cross country and in the longer distances, but you seem to focus on the shorter stuff for the big meets. Do you ultimately see yourself as a miler?
I wish I could make up my mind. I love the 1,500 and I'm excited that I've been able to lower my time by four seconds over the last year. I think I have a lot of room for improvement in the 5,000, but I worry about how my body would handle the training that is more suitable for the longer events. My ferritin levels tend to drop and I'm still nervous about overdoing it. My mileage was actually a little lower this year and we worked more on getting stronger in the weight room.

FW: What is your weekly mileage like? I would assume it depends on what point in the season you are in.
Generally, I stay between 50 and 60 miles a week. I've been as high as 70 once and that almost killed me.

FW: Do you have any "staple" workouts?
Not really, Coach always surprises me. I rarely do the exact same workout twice, and I feel bad when people ask me about my workouts because I don't mean to be evasive, I just don't know how to describe Coach's philosophy for workouts without probably taking an hour!

FW: How have you dealt with injuries as they have come up over the years for you?
I've been really lucky as far as that goes. I've only had two injuries in college that actually made me miss more than a day or two of practice. I tweaked my hip my junior year right before Christmas break, again from overdoing something — this time abdominal stuff. The timing was good there, although, at the time, I was really frustrated. I wanted to be training hard, but I had to sit back and only run a half hour every other day for almost a month. I was so out of shape when I showed up for practice in January. It must have been good for my body, though, because I had my best indoor season ever, despite the slow start.

This past cross season, I had tendonitis in my lower leg and we kept treating it and it would not go away, so eventually, I tried out some new shoes and that seemed to do the trick. It went away almost instantaneously.

FW: Besides the iron problems you mentioned, then, you've managed to stay really healthy. Do you think your nutrition habits have helped you stay so healthy?
I generally have a pretty balanced diet, with plenty of calories. This year I started eating more often and eating less at once, and I felt like I definitely had more energy. In high school, I was pretty good about eating healthy and I didn't really eat much junk food. In college, I became introduced to dorm food and then convenience food. I just get so busy, that I just would get home after practice and throw down one of those microwave meals. Eating healthier is definitely one of my goals to work on from now on.

The best was this year when I was running late for my evening class and I threw my hamburger helper in a throw-away container and was eating it as I walked to class. My sister happened to drive by and give me a ride. I walked into the building still eating it and practically collided with my professor — he just looked down at my hamburger helper and gave me a weird look. We laughed about it later. I don't know, I do my best with my diet, but it could definitely use some more fresh unprocessed food. The nice part is, I grew up on a small cattle farm, so I am never hurting for red meat.

FW: How was the team experience at Kansas State? I imagine you had a pretty large support network, being that you grew up nearby.
It's kind of funny; because I'll be in the strangest places — like writing a check in the grocery store — and someone will be like, "Oh, you're that runner girl." But they always tell me supportive things, and I love the people in Manhattan. The team at KSU was such a nice change. In high school, I was kind of a loner on the track team. I was just a lot more serious than most of the people. I went to a small school where everyone did three sports a year and all I did was run, so I think my teammates didn't understand me sometimes. I think they thought I was crazy, At KSU, pretty much everyone was serious and I had all these cool new girls to run with — it was great.

FW: How was it having your sister, Erin, on the team this year with you? Do you two get competitive at all?
It was nice having her around in cross — we got to room together on a bunch of the trips. But a hip injury kind of sidelined her in indoor. We're not too competitive. I'm way more of a "Type-A" personality and take things way more seriously than she does.

FW: Did you find it hard to balance the amount of time needed for studying and practice in college?
Yes, especially when I was having a hard semester and some of my classes were demanding tons of extra study time. It seems like either running was going really well or school was, but I have yet to get them both at the same time. But school has been good to me, and I enjoy the structure that I have to impose in order to get everything done.

FW: Have you ever felt pressure during your career, being one of the "big name" women's track performers in college running?
I think the most pressure that I feel is self-imposed. I learned early on in high school that I don't respond well to outside pressure, so I try to block that stuff out, but running is tough. When you race poorly, it's just you out there looking slow. None of your teammates are out there to cover up your bad day. And people will say some pretty hurtful things.

FW: Who do you consider your own running idols?
That's a hard question. I do know that I felt so amazed at the finals at USA Nationals because there I was, standing on the starting line next to Regina Jacobs and next to her is Suzy Favor Hamilton. It was just a really cool feeling.

FW: What's next? Will you be training with one of the Team USA groups with the Olympic Trials as a goal?
As of now, I'm hanging out in Manhattan and finishing up my Bachelor's degree in accounting, and then I will be starting my Master's in the spring, thanks to some scholarships from the Big 12 and the NCAA. I'm kind of a dork, and I really like school, so I'm actually pretty excited about starting the Masters program. The running thing is kind of up in the air right now. I'm just coming off of nearly a five-week break, and I want to start training again, but I'm not sure how seriously I will take it this year. It was nice to take such a long break — my first in about seven years. I feel rested and the drive to train is coming back. I think I'll know for sure how seriously I want to take it in a few months. I just want to make school my first priority this year.

FW: What other interests do you have time for?
Well, I would like to reiterate that I'm a huge dork and I pretty much spend all my extra time studying or reading for pleasure. I've tried to take as many literature classes as possible, because that is definitely my passion in life. I just loved attending those classes. And last semester I spent a ton of time on instant messenger because my boyfriend was in Prague for a semester.

(Interview posted August 25, 2003.)

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