Interview with Emily LeVan
by Alison Wade

Emily LeVan runs at the 2003 B.A.A. Boston Marathon.
LeVan at the 2004 Peoples Beach to Beacon 10K.

Until recently, Emily LeVan's running accomplishments have received little attention outside of Maine. With her 2:39:54 win at the Sportshoe Maine Marathon on October 3rd, where she finished fourth overall and was more than 26 minutes in front of the second woman, LeVan served notice that she can contend on the national level. At the Twin Cities Marathon — which was held the same day in Minnesota and featured a top-quality field — the same time would have placed her eighth in the women's field and fourth among the American women.

LeVan has taken an unconventional route to the elite ranks. Though she ran track in high school, she concentrated on field hockey at Bowdoin. She didn't focus on running again until a couple years after she graduated from college. In 1998, she ran her first marathon, the Sugarloaf Marathon, in 3:16:24. Her big breakthrough occurred at the at 2002 Sportshoe Maine Marathon, where she dropped her time from 3:00:51 to 2:47:38 — and followed it up a month later with a 2:48:58 in New York. She shaved another six minutes off her time in the spring of 2003, when she ran 2:41:37 in Boston while others wilted in the heat. Shortly after that race, she learned that she was pregnant and took more than a year off from competitive running to have a baby. Her daughter, Madeline, was born on January 18, 2004, three days after LeVan's 31st birthday.

A native of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, LeVan is married to fellow Bowdoin graduate, Brad Johnson, and they reside in Wiscasset, Maine. LeVan attends nursing school at the University of Southern Maine. We caught up with her four days after her marathon victory. Can you talk about your run at last weekend's Maine Marathon? What was your plan, and did things unfold as you had hoped?
Emily LeVan: Going into it, I didn't know what to expect, because I hadn't run a marathon in about a year and half, and I hadn't run one since I had my daughter, about eight and a half months ago. I had hoped to run under 2:45, and kind of, as a big goal, somewhere in the future, I had hoped to run under 2:40. So I was pretty pleased that I was able to get under 2:40. I had run a couple of shorter races in August and I had a pretty good sense as to where I thought I could finish up with the marathon. Also, from my training, I thought that under 2:45 was a realistic expectation, but I wasn't quite sure about running under 2:40, because I had never run that fast before. It certain exceeded my expectations, that was pretty satisfying.

FW: Did you run a pretty even pace the whole way? Do you know what your halfway split was?
I think my halfway split was about 1:19. I like to run negative splits, but I didn't do that this time. I probably went out a little too fast and too aggressively. I probably would have been better served by saving a little bit more for the second half, but sometimes it's hard to do that. When I hit the halfway point around 1:19, I was a little bit nervous that I had gone out way too fast, that I might really pay for it in the second half, but I was able to do pretty well in terms of not running the second half too much slower than the first.

FW: Did you feel like you hit the wall at all, or did you feel pretty strong for the last few miles?
I didn't feel like I hit the wall, I think for about the last eight or 10 miles, I just felt a little bit tighter than I typically do in a marathon. That got my attention a little bit, and I don't know what to attribute that to, but I didn't have any point at 18 or 20 miles where I felt like, 'Oh boy.' I think for me, actually, the hardest miles are between about 13 and 17. You've hit the halfway point, but you still have a long way to go. I think mentally those miles tend to be harder for me. When I reach 18 or 20, I tend to get a bit more energized, I think, just because I feel like I'm on the 'downhill' part of the race. Only having six or eight miles to go seems a little more manageable than 13 or so.

FW: Did you find it challenging not having many people around you to race?
Definitely. That made it — especially the miles like 13 through 17 — challenging. It's just mentally draining, because you're the only one out there setting your pace, and you're the only one out there that you can use as motivation. In many of the bigger races, there are often competitors around you, whether they're male or female, and they can be used to catch someone up ahead, or often times there might be people running a similar pace, and you can use those folks to help you pace yourself. It's also nice sometimes in the larger races because there's a lot of fan support along the way. The crowd in this race was definitely a lot more spread out, so there were more solitary moments.

FW: Do you think you'll look for a bigger race with more competition next time around?
I think so, definitely. One of the reason that I chose to run this race is that it's a local race and I like to support it. In terms of traveling with our daughter, it made it easy just to hop in the car and drive 45 minutes down the road and be at the race. But now that I've done this race and I know what I'm capable of, or where I think I can go, I think I will be a little more selective in terms of the races I decide to do. I think at this point, having some other runners near me can really help push me in terms of improving my time. I feel like, in some ways, my internal motivation can only take me so far, but having a little external motivation in terms of competition, will really help push me a little bit more, and can improve my time. That's kind of always the goal.

FW: We read — and correct us if we're wrong — that a few marathons ago, you got your training program from the Runner's World Web site. Is that true?
I used a variety of different Web sites. I think on Runner's World, they had a link to Hal Higdon's program and some other programs. I basically just downloaded a lot of different programs and looked at them. I tried to see which parts of the various programs fit the best with my skill level and the time that I had available to train, and just my situation. That seemed to work pretty well. More recently, I bought the book Advanced Marathoning [by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas] and I used that quite a bit in the last three or four races I've done. My experience has also helped quite a bit, in teaching me what sort of training works well for me.

FW: So you don't have a coach at this point?

FW: Have you considered taking one on?
I guess no, not really. I just feel like things have worked out so well for me the way I'm doing them right now. I don't really want to tweak things too much. Sometimes I do wish I had someone I could consult with and run questions by, and things like that, so that might be something that I look into at some point. Right now I really enjoy kind of doing it on my own, and the results have been pretty good as well.

FW: You almost come across as someone who just decided to pick up marathoning as a hobby, and you're no different than the average competitive runner, except you happen to run an hour [more, actually] faster than them. Is that accurate, or are you more intense than you come across?
I don't know. My main reason for running is just because I enjoy it. I guess someone somewhere gave me some talent to go with that interest. I am supremely motivated, and I think that has helped me improve my times over the years. If you look at the first marathon I did, I finished in 3:16, and over the last several years I've been able to cut that down by 30-some odd minutes. I think a lot of it is just kind of this internal drive that I have, always wanting to set goals for myself and see what I can achieve. I think in some ways I'm just really internally motivated. In some ways I see the marathoning more as a competition with myself: What can I do during my training to improve my performance? I guess in a lot of ways, I see myself as a runner like all the other runners — going out there because they enjoy it and because it's a fun challenge.

FW: Do you think your 2:39 is going to inspire you to take your running to a new level, or are you pretty happy with the amount of time and energy you're devoting to it now? Or putting it another way: There have been people slower than you who have quit their jobs, gone to training camps, and train full time. Has that even crossed your mind?
That's a good question. I've thought a lot about that the last couple years, in terms of what I want this to be in my life. One of the things that has concerned me about doing something like that — quitting school, dropping everything, and going into it whole hog — is that right now I do it mainly because I enjoy it, it's a very fun activity. The fact that I'm successful is great, I enjoy that. I enjoy improving my time, and I enjoy going to different races, but if I did drop everything and running was my job, I wonder if it would become a job, and I would lose some of that genuine joy of running that I have now. I guess I just never want it to become something that I have to do, I always want it to be something that I want to do.

When I got to Bowdoin, I ran track my first year, but I ended up not running track after that. I think largely I didn't run because all these people had this expectation of what I should do or what I would do. I felt like a lot of the fun was taken out of it. I guess I just always want it to be a fun activity. I also wonder if in order to continue to improve, if I need to do a whole lot more — if I really need to get a coach, or if I really need to do this, that, or the other thing. I'm not sure, it'll be really interesting to see. When I run [the B.A.A. Boston Marathon] in the spring, I'll probably follow a fairly similar training plan to what I've been doing the last couple of years. It'll be interesting to see if I can keep continuing to improve under my existing regimen, or if maybe at some point I'll hit the plateau of what I can do on my own. I'm not really sure.

Right now, I'm really pretty happy with how things are, and one of the things about running is that it's one thing that I do, and it's not the thing that I do, and that's really important. I have a lot of other things that are important to me, and I want to make sure that all of those things have their allotted time in my life.

FW: And you're signed up for next month's ING New York City Marathon. How seriously are you considering running?
Well I've been thinking about it. When I signed up back in May, I was kind of targeting the Maine Marathon and/or New York. I thought, 'Well, I'll sign up for both of them,' because I wasn't sure if the training might take me longer than I wanted or if I get an injury along the way, it would be nice to have the two races to shoot for. And then I thought that after Maine, I could kind of see how I was feeling in terms of recovering and so forth. I thought if I had a good time at Maine, if I was able to get an elite starting spot in New York, it might be really fun to run with that type of competition. At the Maine Marathon, I didn't have any of that, so it's pretty appealing to think about having some of the best competition in the world right there. [Note: LeVan has since decided that she will participate in next month's ING New York City Marathon.]

FW: Can you talk a little bit about your athletic background? We know that you played field hockey at Bowdoin, and you also ran track in high school?
I did quite a bit of running in high school. I played field hockey and soccer in high school, and then I ran track in the spring. In track I ran mostly the 400 and the 800, along with some relays, and the long jump and triple jump.

FW: So you did everything.
People think it's kind of funny though, because they figure that I would have run the longer distances. So I did that in high school, and then I played field hockey all four years at Bowdoin. I ran [indoor and outdoor] track my freshman year at Bowdoin. I ended up studying away my sophomore spring and my junior spring, and then I graduated a semester early, so I wasn't there for another spring. I just kind of lost the drive to run track after my freshman year. And I actually didn't do a lot of running during the rest of college, or even for the first couple years after college. Then I started thinking that I wanted some sort of athletic pursuit after college, because I had always been into athletics, so I got back into road racing.

FW: Do you remember any of your times from high school or college?
[Thinks about it for a while.] Well I used to have a couple of records at Bowdoin, I don't know if they're still there, but I used to have the 400 record, like a 58.9, something like that. [Note: She still holds the record of 58.91.] In high school, I went to this little private day school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and we ran in this little prep school league, and I set the conference record my senior year in the 800. I think it was 2:17, but I can't really remember for sure.

FW: What inspired you to do your first marathon?
I just kind of thought it would be a good challenge. When I was in high school, I had done a lot of [local 10K road races] and those were really fun, so I had a fair amount of road racing experience, but I just thought the marathon would be a nice challenge. So I ran the Sugarloaf Marathon up near Kingfield, Maine, and I just started training, not knowing anything about what I was doing. I think that was when I went onto the Runner's World Web site and got just a real basic training program and followed it. I just really wanted to finish the first time I ran it. After I finished the first one, I thought it was pretty fun, but my main goal — aside from finishing — was to qualify for Boston, because I had always heard all these cool things about the Boston Marathon. I was lucky enough to qualify, and the following year I ran Boston. It just evolved from there, I guess.

FW: When did you start to get really serious about it and begin running higher mileage?
The second time I ran Boston, I finished in just over three hours, and after that race, I didn't run another marathon for maybe another year and a half or so, because my husband and I took some time off to hike the Appalachian Trail.

FW: The whole thing?
Yeah, it was lots of fun. But as we were on this five-month excursion, I had a lot of time to think about my life. I thought, 'Well, this running is pretty cool,' and then I started thinking, 'Whenever I get back from the trail, I really want to see what I can do with it.' I thought, 'Three hours, that's a pretty decent time.' I thought it would be fun to see if I could get under three hours and see how far I could go with that. So once we got back from the trail, I started to kind of focus on running a little bit more. Then I really geared up for the 2002 Maine Marathon. That's when I ran the 2:47. So I guess really just in the last two and a half years, I would say, is when I really started to think about how the training can impact my races. I think in the previous marathons that I did, I followed a training program, but I wasn't really doing speed workouts, and my workouts didn't really have all the components that I think they need to have in order to produce quality results. When I started training in the summer of 2002 for the Maine Marathon, I really looked at, 'Okay, what do I really need to be putting into these workouts to yield improved results?'

FW: We read that you cut back your training a little bit since having your daughter. Can you give an overview of what your training was like for the 2004 Maine Marathon?
I guess I would say that in general, the training still had all of the same components, it just had fewer miles. For example, I still did two speed workouts a week. One of the speed workouts was mile repeats. It depended a little bit on what point in the training I was at, but I would usually do them somewhere between 5:35 and 5:45, with a couple minutes of rest inbetween. I worked my way up to about eight of those. The second speed workout, at the beginning of the training, was just a hill workout. I did that for maybe six weeks at the beginning of the training, and then I moved to a marathon-pace speed workout, and I would do eight or 10 miles at marathon pace, with a couple miles to warm up and a couple of miles to cool down. And then I'd always have a long run, on Sundays, usually. I would build my long runs up to 20 miles, and I think I ended up with six 20-mile runs. And then the days inbetween those — Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — I did more just kind of general aerobic-type runs. Sometimes I would do doubles, usually one of those days I would try to make it a bit of a longer run, between 10 and 13 miles, and then then other days would just be pretty mellow.

FW: Do you do most of your training by yourself?
I do all of it by myself, although my daughter has come with me a ton, in the baby jogger, since she joined the family [laughs].

FW: How much does pushing the baby jogger affect your pace?
My speed workouts, I do on a treadmill in the basement.

FW: So she just watches...
Well hopefully she sleeps [laughs]. But in terms of the other general aerobic runs that she goes on with me, it's not too bad. I think it slows me down a little bit, but on those runs, I'm not too concerned with my pace. Some of those runs are recovery runs, and some of them it's more just long slow distance, so it doesn't matter that I have her with me on those days.

FW: We read that you've worn a heart rate monitor in the past. Do you still do that?
I don't do it quite as much. Maybe the glamour of the heart rate monitor has worn off for me [laughs]. When I was training, before Maddie was born, for Boston and for the [2002] Maine Marathon, I wore it quite a bit. I wrote down everything and calculated all these crazy calculations. It was pretty cool to get to see how your heart rate varies when you do a workout at the beginning of your training schedule, as opposed to as you're peaking, that was pretty interesting. I just found that this time, I didn't have the time to be so anal about it and write everything down. This time, I didn't do a lot of that.

FW: And it didn't hurt you at all.
No, I guess not. I sometimes would wear it during my speed workouts, because my treadmill has a little heart rate monitor component, but I found that I just didn't need it quite as much, I'm not sure why.

FW: Living in Maine and being a marathoner, you must get compared to [Joan Benoit Samuelson] a lot, or people must talk to you about her a lot. Have you had a chance to meet her, and has she given you any advice?
I think I met her once or twice when I was at Bowdoin, but I haven't talked to her recently about running or marathoning. I did get a really nice note from her two years ago after the Maine Marathon, just a congratulations and that kind of thing. But I haven't really spoken with her about running. I'd like to at some point. She could be a good resource to tap into. As I was mentioning earlier, sometimes I wish I did have someone who I could contact to ask questions, since I don't have a coach or trainer or anything like that. I think in some ways, I just kind of stick to myself a lot. I'm not a member of a running club or anything like that. Living up in Wiscasset, there aren't a lot of runners up here. I just sort of do my own thing in terms of running, and that's okay I guess.

FW: You qualified for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials but didn't run because you had Maddie two and a half months earlier. Were you disappointed to miss the Trials?
No, not at all. I knew that if we ended up having Maddie that the timing would be such that she was born [within months of] the Trials. That was fine. That was a decision that my husband and I made together. We were both happy about it. We felt that if the Trials worked out, that would be great, but having Maddie around is a joy far beyond anything running could ever bring. The reality is, too, that there's the potential [to run] the Trials in the future. It'll still be there in a few years, if I'm still up and running.

FW: Did you even consider running the Trials at all?
No, I didn't. I felt like I had enough on my plate after she was born, and that was a really special time for us as a family. I just didn't feel like I wanted to drop family things, because I would have needed to spend a lot of time training. Spending time with my husband and with Maddie was much more important at that point than the Trials. I just didn't know how realistic it would be for me to get out there. I think if I had done it, I would have wanted to have been thoroughly prepared for it. I just didn't think there would be enough time to make that happen.

FW: How much exercise did you do during your pregnancy? Did you feel like you stayed in pretty good shape?
Yeah, I felt like generally I stayed in pretty good shape. It's a hard kind of scale in some ways. When I got pregnant, I had just come off running the Boston Marathon and was generally in the best shape I'd ever been in, in my life. I ran throughout most of the pregnancy, up until the eighth month or so, but it was a very different kind of running. It wasn't the same intensity or duration I was accustomed to. I think I stayed in pretty good shape, but even so, after Maddie was born, it definitely looked like a long road ahead of me to get into marathon shape. That was a little bit daunting, I'd say. I had kind of targeted October or November for a marathon, and after Maddie was born in January, it seemed like a long way off in a lot of ways [laughs]. But that was kind of a fun challenge. It worked out pretty well, I guess.

FW: How has having a child changed your life, or how hasn't it changed your life? How do you balance all of these things now?
I don't know [laughs], I'm still trying to figure that out. It's changed almost everything, but in many good ways. There's a very different focus now, in my life. Before she was born, training and most every part of my life, in many ways, was easy. I essentially did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. I didn't have anyone who was really depending on me for their every need. Now it's very much that she runs the schedule, and that's fine. I think that that has enabled me in my training, in some ways, to not be as strict or regimented, or as neurotic, I guess, as I was before. I've learned to be a little more mellow in terms of if I don't get out for the particular run I wanted to do because Maddie was fussy or Maddie needed something, I needed to learn to not get too worked up about that. And that's been good, I think because of that my training has been really enjoyable, and I've been able to share a lot of it with her as far as having her along in the running stroller, that's been really fun. I definitely get much less sleep now, which is not quite as fun [laughs], but I've learned to adapt to that.

FW: How far into nursing school are you and how much do you have left?
I'm technically in my last year, but I think I'll finish in the summertime, because I'm only taking two classes per semester right now. I took last spring and summer off to take care of Maddie, and I've just started back. After this semester I have four classes left, so I think I'll be able to finish up in the summer. Then we'll see where we go from there.

FW: When one is in nursing school, does that mean he or she will become a nurse no matter what, or are there multiple career options?
One of the options, yes, is to become a nurse. I've also been debating continuing on in the program and doing a nurse practitioner program, which is more schooling. My husband is convinced, I think, that I'm going to be a student for the rest of my life. But it would also be nice to go out and get some experience as well. There are a lot of different options once I finish up, so I'm not quite sure where it will take me. But it's kind of fun to be venturing into a profession that has so many options.

FW: Have you had to rely on child care, or have the two of you been able to arrange your schedules so that one of you is at home most of the time?
I go down to Portland to go to class two mornings a week, and we've set up some child care during those times. Other than that, I'm able to stay at home with Maddie, which is nice. I've been fortunate to be able to kind of fit my running in by taking her with me, or when my husband gets home, I'll go out for a run, or if she's napping, I'll run on the treadmill. Sometimes it's a bit of a balancing act, and early on, she didn't like to nap, so that limited things a little bit.

FW: So it sounds like this winter might involve a lot of treadmill running.
Yeah, which I'm not really looking forward to, because I've already studied the hot water heater and the washing machine down in the basement...

FW: Maybe you need a TV?
Exactly. I think Santa Claus is going to bring us a TV, hopefully with a DVD player in it.

(Interview conducted October 7, 2004, and posted October 15, 2004.)

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