Interview: Erika Odlaug

By Becky Orfinger

Erika Odlaug runs in fourth during the first mile of the 2001 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.
Photo: New York Road Runners
Odlaug during the second mile of the 2001 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.
Photo: New York Road Runners
Odlaug runs with Molly Huddle. Odlaug used a fierce finishing kick to finish second in the race behind a record-setting Amber Trotter.
Photo: New York Road Runners

Last year at this time, Erika Odlaug was getting ready for the Golden West Invitational, where she would run a huge personal record of 10:11.31 to win the 3,200m and beat several well-known prep runners, including in-state rival Maria Cicero. This June, Odlaug is doing something she hasn't in quite a while: simply enjoying life as a teenager.

Although she won the Illinois Class AA State 3,200m title (in a nationally-ranked time of 10:35.13) on May 18 of this year, Odlaug has been hampered by posterior tibialis (ankle) tendonitis since the World Cross Country Championships in Dublin, Ireland. Odlaug's 17th-place finish in the junior race at Worlds was the highest placing by an American junior in 10 years.

Odlaug was excited about her final high school track season following her amazing showing on the international running scene, but her ankle injury kept her from training to her full potential. After the state meet, she made the difficult decision to end her season without competing in any high-profile post-season track meets so that she could give her ankle enough time to heal before college. Odlaug, Jackie Zeigle and Laura Zeigle will join the University of Colorado Buffaloes this fall, adding to an already talented team that won the NCAA Cross Country title in 2000 and placed eighth in 2001.

But before she starts building up her mileage in preparation for her first season as a Buff, Odlaug is rehabbing her ankle and celebrating her recent graduation from Deerfield High School, located about 20 minutes outside of Chicago. We caught up with her after a weekend of self-described "graduation party-hopping." First off, congratulations on your state 3,200 title. What's been going on with you since then?
Erika Odlaug: I've just been chilling out, pretty much. I don't want to do any cross-training involving my legs because I want my tendonitis to heal, so I've been swimming with one of those floaty-things in between my legs. It's been kind of fun, actually, and I know my arms are getting a good workout because they are really sore. I'm getting better at swimming -- I never really knew how before. Maybe I could do a triathlon after this.

Were you happy with your time in the state two-mile race?
Considering how my season went, yes, but it was pretty far off my best. But I didn't really do any speedwork during the season, so I guess I have to be happy with how it turned out.

What about the 1600 at the state meet? [Ed. Note: Odlaug failed to advance to the finals in that event the day before her 3200 victory.] Were you, like everyone else, surprised when you didn't make it to the final?
I just really messed up. I went in with the idea to take it as easy as I could, but still qualify -- and yeah, that's how it should have gone. But somewhere between the second and third lap, I just kind of was in my own little world or something. I ran the first two-and-a-half laps just as I should have. I was behind at first but moved up to third place. I knew on the last lap I had to move into second place [to qualify], so I started moving up on the girl in third. All of a sudden this girl comes blazing past me, and I thought, "Uh oh, I'm fourth," and got that panicky feeling. I tried to get back with her, but never did and finished fourth. I figured I probably wouldn't make it into the finals on that kind of time [Odlaug ran 5:18.51 in prelims], and I was right -- the next heat was a fast heat. Having tendonitis made distance running in Illinois a lot more competitive than it was in the fall.

Is your injury really painful? Were you in pain when you ran at the state meet?
Oh, no, it didn't hurt during the race -- but it was bothering me afterwards. It was never really that painful to begin with, but I knew if I kept running on it, it would keep getting worse, so I decided to take it easy. First I took two weeks off and just cross-trained and swam and stuff, but I must have done something that kept it from healing, because it didn't, and when I tried to come back it just started up again. When it was feeling better, I could only run three days a week.

Does having to take time off drive you crazy?
Well, it did at first, but it was something I had to deal with so I could get better. It's not worth it to push and push and then have something horrible happen. It was just kind of disappointing because I had all these goals set for the season, and now I'm not even running my goal races.

Well, you'll come back in the fall and remind people that taking time off is a good thing.
I know. Actually, a lot of the seniors that I raced against in the fall have ended their seasons already, either because they are injured or because they are just not interested in running post-season races. It's such a long season… we worked really hard in the fall, and now we just want to enjoy the people that we probably won't see again for a while.

So when do you think you'll start building up your mileage again? Do you already have a plan from [Colorado] Coach Wetmore?
July 1st, probably. I'm going to see how my ankle is in two weeks and then think about it. It's been feeling pretty good. The podiatrist gave me this boot to wear when I walk around to help it heal faster, but I have a feeling it's making it worse for some reason, so I might stop using it. I don't have a summer training plan or anything from Coach Wetmore yet… last time I talked to him was last weekend, but we didn't talk too long. He's been out of town for NCAAs and has had a lot going on.

Speaking of Colorado, how hard was it to make a college decision? What made you choose CU?
Well, it was down to Colorado and Notre Dame. The thought of running in South Bend just wasn't that appealing to me, especially compared to Colorado. It's beautiful there. Notre Dame's a great school and everything, but I can still get a great education at Colorado. Plus, even if I wasn't running, I think I'd be happier there. It's a different kind of place, with lots of different kinds of people. It will be nice to get away from this [Midwest] area. And my brother just finished his freshman year at Colorado. He really likes it there.

When you do get back into training, what do you think your peak mileage will be to build up for the cross country season?
Oh, I'm going to have to come back pretty easy because I'm going to be so out of shape! I'm more of a swimmer right now than a runner. But I'm actually having a lot of fun right now, just being a normal high schooler. If I don't like what I'm doing, I don't do it.

I don't think I'll be making a huge mileage jump right away. [Coach Wetmore] knows what kind of mileage I've done in the past, and we'll go from there. I was averaging in the 50 miles per week range during cross country. I've never gone higher than 60. I did it for one week and my body just kind of started to break down.

Do you think you have had more fun and more success in terms of running because you entered the elite ranks sort of late in the game?
Definitely. I think if I would have started when I was younger, I would have just gotten tired of it -- it would be the same old thing by now. If you start up a little later and you see that you have potential, it gives you a reason to keep going. It's easy to get burned out if you do too much too soon.

And you had been pretty active in other sports before you got serious about running, so that probably gave you a good base. Do you still do other sports sometimes, just for fun?
Yeah, I played soccer and basketball for a long time. I played a little bit of soccer last summer, but my knee really hurt, so I decided not to risk it in case it interfered with running. It was fun, though.

Between you and the Zeigle twins, the Buffs have a pretty amazing recruiting class. Do you think the team will be in the hunt for a national XC title next fall?
The outlook for the team is really good. I'm glad the Zeigles are going to Colorado; they are both really sweet. Actually, I'm hoping Megan Kaltenbach will want to come when she graduates, since she's from Colorado and everything. We have to talk to her! We should definitely have a good team for the next couple of years, especially with Sara Gorton. It's exciting, because they have really gotten good results with their recent recruits.

Plus, I'm looking forward to being part of a real team. I've never really had people to run with and do workouts with. I had the boys in high school, but it's not the same. I liked having teammates in basketball and soccer a lot. It's hard to stay motivated when you are training on your own.

Let's go back to the 2001 XC season. You were already well-known on the national prep scene for your 10:11 victory at Golden West the previous spring, but you were so dominating during your senior XC season. Besides giving up soccer, what changed?
It was basically just a lot more running, and learning more about what was right for me to be doing. You know, not doing too much -- well, I haven't really learned that yet -- and figuring out what my body could handle.

Were you working with your high school coach, or someone else?
When I was in season, I worked only with my high school coach because you aren't allowed to have an outside coach. But Jenny Spangler pretty much coached me for post-season meets. [Ed. Note: Jenny Spangler won the 1996 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.]

How did you get hooked up with her?
I ran with the Lake Forest Running Club [in the Chicago area] and she runs with them, too. And my mom talked to [former top Illinois high school runner] Victoria Jackson's mom a lot at meets, and she suggested calling Jenny to see if she would help us out.

So do you get along with her well?
Yeah, she's awesome. She just had a baby, actually. She hasn't really been running competitively and is just getting back into it. But I have a feeling she wants to make a comeback soon. Some people come back stronger after they have a baby. That always reminds me about how people that are born and live in high altitudes -- like the Kenyans -- are just naturally faster. That's cheap! (laughs)

Speaking of Kenyans, did you get to interact much with runners from other countries at the World Cross Country meet?
Yeah, we traded some stuff, which was cool. The Japanese girls were so generous -- I got two t-shirts from them, and pins -- they were just giving stuff away, saying, "Present! Present!" It was neat. The Ethiopians and the Kenyans would not trade anything, it was kind of weird. We definitely tried to talk to a lot of people, like the British girls, and people from France. It was just cool being there with all these athletes from all over the world.

Even before making the World junior team, you had traveled a lot internationally with your family, right? What countries have you visited?
Well, I lived in Germany for a couple of years. We did a lot of traveling to Austria, France, Ireland, England, Scotland… I speak German but I've forgotten quite a bit of it. It would probably come back pretty fast if I went back to Germany.

How was the whole experience of being part of a national team?
It was awesome. We learned a lot from the women on the senior teams. They were really nice. I knew a couple of the girls on the junior team -- I raced against Maria [Cicero] a lot in high school and Valerie [Lauver] ran at Nationals with me in the fall, but I didn't really get to know her there. She was my roommate and we got to know each other better -- she's so nice.

Was running the national cross country meet in Vancouver something you had planned early on in your season?
No, I was supposed to run an indoor track race in Lincoln, Neb., that weekend, but I thought about it and realized that it would probably be a lot more fun to try for a spot on the world team. What could be better than that?

Plus, I was having trouble motivating after Foot Locker because I was really… I don't want to say depressed -- it was the post-event letdown syndrome. For so long, I had to focus on that race, and after it was over, it was like, 'Okay, what else do I have now?' I felt like that for a long time. At first, I thought it was because I wasn't running right after the race, but then I started running again, and I didn't even feel like running. I figured out that I wasn't satisfied after Foot Locker because I had sucked some of the joy out of racing.

Because you didn't win, you mean?
No, even if I would have won, I would have found something I wasn't happy with. What made me feel so sad after the race was that I hadn't been enjoying myself through everything. I had gone through this incredible journey, and the whole time I didn't stop to look at the scenery or take pictures or really capture the moment. Basically, I was just along for the ride.

After that, I tried to learn how to put the joy back in. One thing I did was to change my goal from perfection to enjoyment. I didn't have to be perfect for every workout, every race. My two goals are to enjoy running and to be the best I can be at it. I can't have one without the other. I've learned so much about myself in the past eight months. I was just so unhappy not having anything [except running] going on in my life, and I don't want to feel that way at all.

One thing that helped was when my coach told me to make a list of 25 things that I knew I wanted in my life when I was older. He had me write them down, in order, on a piece of paper. Things like…I want to own a restaurant, I want to have a family, I want to be a nice person. Stuff like that. And then I had to prioritize all of them -- what would I get rid of if I had to cross something off the list? That's how you can see where running fits in. Maybe it will be the third thing on the list, maybe it will be your first priority -- but it can't be the only thing in your life.

That's a great way to look at it. It must have helped since you had an awesome performance at the actual World Championships, finishing 17th overall and first for the team. Did you surprise yourself?
Yes, I was shooting to finish in the top 30. I think I race best when I am patient instead of busting out really fast in the beginning. I like to work my way up, and that's how I ran that race.

What did you think about the course?
It was a loop course; we ran the same loop three times. It was okay. It was nothing like I expected, though. I thought it was going to be through the woods or something, but it was pretty flat with only a few rolling hills, and not spectator-friendly at all. And the grass was really, really thick, because the course was on a horse racing track. In the pictures from the finish line it looks like we were going in slow motion, because of the wind and because by that point, your feet are just dragging.

I know your parents went with you to Ireland for the race. Are they pretty supportive of your running endeavors?
Oh, yeah, especially my dad. You should see the scrapbooks he makes -- I don't think I've seen half the stuff in there. He's put together so much stuff so that I can show my kids one day, to prove I wasn't lazy (laughs).

You said before the Foot Locker race that you were going to let Amber Trotter go out however she wanted to and run your own race. Do you regret that strategy now, or do you think Amber was simply unbeatable that day?
Despite the post-race letdown feeling, I was really happy with the way that race went. I wouldn't have done anything differently that day -- I couldn't have beaten Amber Trotter. I gave that race everything I had. I guess that's why I felt the way I did afterwards -- I did do really well, so it was anticlimactic after thinking about it for so long.

During the fall, Amber Trotter was pretty outspoken about her struggle with an eating disorder. Do you think this problem is widespread among high-level competitive runners like yourself?
It's huge. I worried a little bit about my weight when I first got started running, just because I wanted to do everything right. But I realized I was at a healthy body weight and healthy body fat percentage. I eat really well. But in order to be able to compete in college, I need to be at 9 percent body fat, and I just found out I wasn't at 9 percent. I went to a physiologist and he told me I had to increase my amount of fat because I was dangerously low -- I couldn't believe it. So now I have to make sure that I'm taking in more calories than I'm burning, which basically means I need to eat an extra energy bar at night.

I know that when you do have an eating disorder, you can't just come back and expect to be strong like you used to be. You've messed up your metabolism and your body will just be worn down, if you've had it long enough. It's scary since it is such an easy trap to fall into.

How will you be spending your last summer before college? Do you have a job?
I wanted to work, but I don't know if I will. My parents aren't as hard on me about getting a job as they are on my brothers. A lot of my friends work at Starbucks since it is such a high school hangout-type place. I might try to do some sort of community service work that will be less of a time commitment.

What are some of your interests outside of running? Any idea of what you might major in at CU?
I've thought about it a lot -- probably something having to do with fine arts. I'm really into painting and other types of art. I'm also interested in the human body, though, so maybe I'll do something like physical therapy. Something that doesn't involve that much science. I'm really not sure yet -- but luckily I have a little while before I have to make up my mind.

Becky Orfinger is a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer and runner.

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