Interview with Carrie Messner
By Erik Heinonen

Carrie Messner on her way to a third place finish in the steeplechase at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials.
(Both Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Messner competes at the 2004 CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K in Providence, Rhode Island.

Heading into 2004, the oft-injured Carrie Messner had several goals, principal among them staying healthy. She managed that, and the results were impressive. The former University of Colorado standout set personal bests in the 1,500m (4:13.70) and 5,000m (16:01.95), and in her first year racing the 3,000m steeplechase, ran faster than 9:51 three times — including a best of 9:49.40 — and finished third at the Olympic Trials.

In the Trials race, which featured the bizarre disqualification of the first finisher, Briana Shook, for skipping the opening water jump, Messner battled with eventual winner and American record breaker Ann Gaffigan, and runner-up Kassi Andersen, through five laps and hung on to finish third in 9:50.70. The top-three finish came with all the trappings of any other award-podium performance in Sacramento — flowers, a medal, and a press conference in the media tent — except the one that meant the most: a trip to the Athens Olympic Games.

Although it has been contested at the USA Championships since 1999 and the NCAA Championships since 2001, the women's steeplechase is still an Olympiad away from inclusion in the Games. The event is, however, scheduled to make its World Championships debut next summer in Helsinki.

A Colorado state champion in the 1,600 and 3,200 while attending Mullen High School in Evergreen, just west of Denver, Messner elected to stay in state and attend the University of Colorado. At CU, she earned All-America honors four times and took fourth in the mile at the 1999 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships. Coached by Bobby McGee, who has also worked with Colleen De Reuck and currently guides the training of Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist, Messner now resides in Carbondale, 6,170 feet up in the mountains of Western Colorado.

FW: From a track fans point of view, 2004 looked to be a breakthrough year for you. Having had several weeks to reflect on it, what's your take?
It's been a great year. It was definitely a big opening year for me [compared to how things have gone in the past]. For the first time, I've been completely injury free, which for me, has been pretty rare [laughs]. I felt like I made some great breakthroughs with a new coach, who I've been working with for a few years now.

FW: Heading into the Olympic Trials, you'd run a couple steeplechases, including a fast one [9:50.16] on a warm day at Mt. SAC. What were your expectations for Sacramento?
Yeah, [the Trials] was my fourth steeple. I'd run one in Greeley, that was my first one. Then one in Arizona, then Mt. SAC. That was the first one where I'd actually competed with a whole lot of people, which was nice — it was a good experience. Going into the Trials, I had good hopes. I knew there was a shot at winning, of course, but more than anything else I wanted to get in and have a good race and get better experience with the steeple, because it was such a new event for me this year, but something I've always wanted to do.

FW: And of course, the obligatory question about the Trials: were you aware of Briana Shook skipping the first water barrier, and if so, did it have any affect on your race?
I was aware of it. I think we were all stuck. We didn't know whether to yell out something to her, or if the officials were going to help her out, because she is such a talented and wonderful steeplechase runner. It makes you stop for a minute and think, 'Whoa, what just happened?' It was really the first steeple where I had more than one or two people around me for the whole race. I definitely felt a little shaken, and I don't think I had a great race there. A lot of my steeple jumps weren't what I wanted them to be. But, in our sport, it's a matter of experience and learning, and I felt like I learned a lot in that race.

FW: Obviously, going in you knew it was an exhibition event, and nobody would be headed to Athens. But still, was it difficult to finish third, go through the award-stand ceremony and everything else, then have to watch the Olympics on TV?
It was really frustrating. We train just as hard as everybody in every other event, and they've been trying for eight years to get this event in, and I don't feel like there's been enough push to get this event where it needs to be. The men have been running this event in the Olympics since 1900. It's 2004, I think it's ridiculous it wasn't [contested in the Olympics]. I understand the reasoning that it's not in, but it's not fair that we don't have as many events as the men. There are so many women who have been training for so many years in so many sports to get everything. It sucks. Basically that's what it comes down to. And that's one of the reasons I chose to run both the steeple and the 1,500 in the Trials. If we're not going to run it, we're not going to get it where it needs to be. That was one of my deciding factors — besides wanting to get more into the steeple — to try to get this event taken seriously. I'm older than most of the women that I race against. I didn't even get to run it in college; it wasn't even there for me.

FW: After the Trials you went to Europe and raced in Heusden, and PRed again [9:49.40]. What was that like?
That was my first trip to Europe. It was awesome. The hype and the crowd and the competition, it was great. We had so much fun. It was just Briana and me over there from the US, but we had so much fun and it was a great learning experience. Whatever you could gain from racing and traveling over there was worth it. It was awesome.

FW: You talked a moment ago about some of the reasons you decided to get into the steeple. How long had you considered giving the event a try before you actually did?
I'd always thought — even in college — that it was something I'd love to do. Once I got out of school, I always kind of thought about it, but never really seriously until last year, when I talked to my coach about it. We decided we were going to wait until this year to get started. I basically started doing steeple drills in February. So, I hadn't done a whole lot of prep work for it, but I'm fortunate to have an athletic build and a strong build so it wasn't a huge transition to hurdling — not that my form is that great. But, it's so much fun.

FW: What other things are you doing in training that's specifically steeplechase work?
A lot of my training [for the steeple] involved a major increase in core strengthening. That was one of the biggest steps we [took] this year, because in the steeple, when you're landing, it can really throw your hips off, and you need a really strong core to keep everything in line. We did a lot more strength building: hill workouts, repetitions on the track with hurdles. We didn't do a lot of water pit work [though]; you don't want to overdo your hurdle work. So, just a lot of strengthening. That was the biggest change we made this year.

FW: You mentioned that you'd had a history of injury before this year. What allowed you to make it through this one — besides a little luck of course?
I think the biggest change I made was getting the coach I have. I think Bobby has made the biggest difference in my training and my racing. A lot of my injuries were due to a lack of recovery. I've torn both of my plantar fascias, I had my knee scoped, and a lot of IT Band problems. And, again, I think a lot of them were related to a lack of strength, and a lack of recovery in my training. And in college, you're trying to peak for three seasons and what you put your body through is a lot.

FW: Aside from staying healthy, is there anything else to which you'd attribute the steps you made on the track in the 1,500 and 5,000, as well as the steeple?
I think a lot of the improvement came from having a really, really strong winter of training. Unfortunately my coach was away, but I was still able to focus a lot more this year. Again, the biggest steps I feel like I made were mental this year. So much of running is the mental strengthening side. And also increasing my strength. You just develop as you train, and get the base down over a couple years, and transition into a coach's program.

FW: Do you have any training partners or are you mostly working out on your own?
I basically train by myself, but my dogs run with me a lot [laughs]. They're great. Mostly, I do my workouts on my own. I tend to be better, I feel, training on my own. I can focus more on my workouts and not get caught up in everybody else's stuff.

FW: And you recently relocated to Carbondale?
I'd been splitting my time between Carbondale and Boulder for about three years. My boyfriend and I have a home here, and this year actually, since getting back from Europe, I've moved up here full time.

FW: How's that going so far?
It's going great. It's beautiful. It's wonderful. It's hard to come up and continue training after being in Europe. I'm running in Providence this weekend [where she finished eighth in the CVs/pharmacy Downtown 5K in 16:28], then I'm going to take break. But, it's been going well. It is an adjustment. It's a little bit higher in altitude, and any time you move it's an adjustment, but I feel like this is going to be a good place to train.

FW: Can you talk a little bit about your coaching situation since getting out of college?
Well, I started with my old assistant coach, Jason Drake (JD). Actually, after I graduated I took a year off. I was pretty tired and had been so injury prone. I was very frustrated. So I took a year off from racing and took about two or three months off from running. I started to build back up, and actually went to Tanzania for a month with my family. When I came back, I called [Drake] and started working with him and training with Janet Trujillo, Sarah Toland and Shayne [Culpepper], before she got pregnant. I started out well. I placed fifth in the Boston Indoor Golden Spike meet where Regina [Jacobs] set the American two-mile record. Following that was when I tore my plantar. Then, trying to come back from injury, I didn't have a good outdoor season. After that, JD had taken a full-time coaching job in Pullman [at Washington State University]. I was kind of on the lookout for a new coach, and Janet put me [in touch with] Bobby. Once again, I was frustrated and mentally tired and having the same problems I was having in college.

FW: Was there ever a time where you felt like post-collegiate running wasn't going to work out for you?
The year right after I graduated, I went through an emotional time of thinking, 'Do I really want to run again?' I felt like I never wanted to run again and thought about moving [to another country] and teaching or pursuing some other aspects of my life. My family raises horses, and it's always been something I was interested in, and I thought maybe I should stick with raising horses, and breaking colts, and doing all that. But it didn't feel like I was finished. I felt like I had more to give and that it wasn't fair to myself to give up.

FW: How have you managed to run and make ends meet financially since graduating?
It's very difficult. I was lucky enough — through a very, very good high school friend of mine who ran at UC-Irvine — to get in touch with Shawn Frack of Asics. They were nice enough to take a chance on me and help me out with equipment, which right there was such a big help. From there, I'm very, very fortunate to have very, very, very loving and supportive parents. They've always been there for me, and to help me financially. Knowing I had to train in Boulder, I was able to live with them in Evergreen, while maintaining my house here. Honestly, if it weren't for my parents, I would not be able to do it. To be able to train and perform how you need, you can't necessarily be working full time. Some people try it and tend to do well, but given how injury-prone I was and with the recovery time I needed, it wasn't something I felt I could do. So I work part-time, and Asics has done what they can for me, and I'm thankful for that. [I get] a lot of support from family and my boyfriend. I don't know if I would have kept running without his support.

FW: Growing up, how did you first get into running?
When I was younger I ski raced. We always did dry land training, and I could keep up with my brothers. When I got to high school, my brother John told me I needed to run track. I said, 'No, I'm going to play volleyball.' Actually the track coach, saw me at practice and told me I should go out for track in the spring. That's kind of when I got started.

FW: What did you take from your college running experience that you feel has helped you in the years that followed?
The competitive level at the University of Colorado was a big step and a big change for me. I was recruited by Jerry Quilller, who took another job when I got there, and then I ran for Toby Jacober my freshman year, but she left right after that. It was kind of a transition [from] Toby's training to Mark [Wetmore's], but it worked out well. I ended up [being a four-time All-American]. I had some injuries, but I made a lot of wonderful friends there, and I learned how to compete and train hard. Whether it was the best program for me, I don't know, but at the same time, I ran well there so you can't argue with it. I think it's a good program, and I love the people there.

FW: As far as the future, how long do see yourself continuing to train hard and compete at a high level?
At this point, I'm trying to take things yearly. I don't think that looking too far in the future is a healthy thing. I definitely plan to be at the Trials in 2008, but I'm really trying to take things one year at a time, focus on things as they come, and adjust and do what I need to do. I try not to set points too far into the future, and [instead] focus as I go. That seems to be what works the best for me.

FW: The women's steeplechase becomes a World Championship event next year and it would seem that improvements are going to start coming pretty fast over the next few years. Where do you see the American record — it's just under 9:30 now — being the next time the Olympic Trials roll around?
Wow, I think it's really going to drop. It's so new and everybody's times are dropping really quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if it was right around sub-9:10 — at least. That's a tough question. I have no idea, but the potential is there.

(Interview posted September 16, 2004.)

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