Interview with Heather Hanscom
By Pat MacAdie

Heather Hanscom competes at the 2002 USA Cross Country Championships
(Both Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Hanscom runs the 10,000m for James Madison at the 2001 Penn Relays.

Heather Hanscom always set the bar high for herself because she felt she had untapped potential in running. In October, the 25-year-old came one step closer toward achieving her goals by winning the Marine Corps Marathon and running 2:37:59, safely below the Olympic Trials "A" qualifying standard of 2:40:00. A smooth buildup in the summer had forecasted a good run — she ran a 1:14:11 half marathon at the Philadelphia Distance Run followed by a 2:04:35 20-miler at the Stonewall Jackson Ambulance Run — but she was shocked with the result.

Hanscom’s road to success has been filled with setbacks and hurdles. As a 14-year-old freshman in high school, she had a life-threatening brain tumor removed. In college she struggled with on-again off-again injuries, never staying healthy enough to break through. Since graduating from James Madison University, she joined the Pacers Racing Team, changed coaches, and also started working for the Red Cross as a researcher. She is sponsored by the Pacers running store in Alexandria, Virginia, and now coached by American University coach and two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz.

A few weeks after her marathon victory, we spoke with Hanscom about her future plans, as well as her thoughts on the race now that it has had time to sink in.

On the Marine Corps Marathon:
I had three goals. I wanted to finish, I wanted to qualify [for the Olympic Trials], and I wanted to win, but I didn't think about that until later. Overall it was pretty easy. We got to the first mile and it was like 5:50… Whoops… So we just kept trying to slow down. Some girls went out, but I took the lead a half-mile in to the race, and by the mile marker, they were dropping back.

Chris Farley (the owner of Pacers running store) was showing me tables about what I could run based on my half-marathon time. It said I could run in the 2:37s, so then I was thinking maybe I can do it. The day before I figured out it was 6:06 or 6:07 and I was like, 'I don't really know how I am going to do that.'

Mentally, I was done as soon as I crossed the finish line. I was in shock and was anticipating that it would have been much harder to run under the "A" standard. This race and most importantly the time that I ran is a huge stepping stone. It's confirmation for me that not only have I been working really hard for a very long time, but I am actually getting closer to my dreams.

On her career progression:
High school was good. I was a decent runner, but not outstanding. My team won the Virginia AAA state meet my sophomore and junior year in cross country. I don't remember what place I finished, but I ran fifth and then fourth for our team. In track I qualified for the state meet in the mile, two-mile, and 4 x 800.

I went James Madison University. I was on the super-senior five-year program. It's all about the five years. My freshman year, I ran top seven a lot and I went on the team's big trip to a race down in Auburn.

I made my big jump between my sophomore and junior year. That year I started being competitive with Georgetown's top runners. My fourth year of cross country was probably my best season. Coach (Juli) Henner [now at Georgetown] was my coach for the first three years, and then we had Coach (Dave) Rinker. I won all my races except for two, but then I got sick and didn't go nationals and that was upsetting. From then on it was downhill.

In track, I did the 10k, but [during] my last two outdoor seasons, I was injured at times. I would run a race, strain my hamstring in the race, not run for two weeks, run another 10k, strain my hamstring again. Just stuff like that over and over.

On life as a post-collegiate:
I went back with my high school coach, who was affiliated with the Pacers Racing Team, whose store sponsors me. It was good for my first year because I was injury-free. But then, last fall, my coach had me do mileage all summer, had me run a 5k road race where I ran 17:10. Then, for my first workout, he had me do 10 400s in 72 and I strained my hamstring again. I didn't even hit the times. He just wanted to see how fast I could go. It was just stuff like that. He is someone I'm very close with but coaching-wise it wasn't going anywhere. Last February I bombed in the [USA Cross Country Championships].

On life outside of running:
It's definitely limited, but my friends understand that I don't stay out like super late and I have asthma so I can't go to smoky bars for a long time. I sing in the church choir (laughs).

On managing a full-time job with running:
I research angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) at the Red Cross. I actually love my job. My boss is very flexible about running. I usually work 7:30 to 3:30 so I can miss traffic, or Mondays and Wednesdays I stay late if I leave early on other days. It's like chemistry lab. I do experiments, so sometimes I have down time and just go for a run.

On injury-prevention:
I used to do Tae Kwon Do stuff, which was fun, but I was a little too rough (laughs). The girls told me I was too rough, so I always had to partner with the instructor. I hurt my knees a lot, so I started going to the chiropractor and she told me I had to quit. My sacroiliac joint is hyper-mobile, the tendons are stretched. It moves around a lot, so my hamstrings and back get tight a lot. So I go to the chiropractor about once every two or three weeks.

On training under coach Matt Centrowitz:
Everything falls into place. Ideally [at the Philadelphia Distance Run] I wanted to run sub-1:15 and I ended up doing that and feeling pretty good. But in August when [Coach Centrowitz] decided I was going to run a marathon, I didn't think I would run that fast. Before the race I didn't run that much and I didn't really taper that much. I read Deeja Youngquist was doing like 120 a week, but I definitely only ran like 75 to 85 a week. I incorporate tempo runs, long runs, track work, and easy days. On my easy days, it's fair to say I'm under 7:00 pace. On workout days I usually work out with American University graduate Samia Akbar. We ran our repeats this fall on a grass loop in downtown Washington.

On how important the routine is:
It's very key. Going to bed is my worst thing, I'm terrible at it. I have alarms that go off at 8:30, which means I should start getting ready for bed. At 9:00 o'clock it means I should be well on my to bed and I usually get into bed by 9:30 or 10:00. I usually meet Mike [Wardian] and sometimes Chris Farley in the mornings. We start running at 6:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I'm usually up at 5:20.

On future racing plans:
I have some PRs to break, so I'm not just going to stick with marathons. I mean, I PRed in the 10k during my half marathon. I'm really fired up and excited to race again, but apparently that's not going to be for a while. I'm also really excited to see how I can stack up when I race against other top-ranked women. I definitely want to run the 15k championships (at the Gate River Run) before the Olympic Trials marathon. I also want to qualify for the Trials in 10k.

On how having a brain tumor removed at age 14 changed her outlook:
Looking back, I can see I had symptoms in seventh grade and more in eighth grade and then they found it the beginning of ninth grade. When I think about it kind of seems like it happened to another person. It's like I'm telling somebody else's story. Sometimes I have a hard time comprehending that was me, because I am such a different person now. I definitely don't take things for granted. I'm kind of hard on myself — or people tell me I am — but I am a perfectionist. I feel like if I'm going to spend my time on something, I'm not going to waste my time because there might not be tomorrow.

On her parents' support:
My dad is my biggest fan. Since I started running in high school, he has not missed a race, unless he was out of the country for business. When I went to Stanford in college he came out to watch that, when I do the cross country races he always comes to those. He's always been behind me 100 percent. He's also one of the reasons I started running, because I used to go for runs with him.

Overall, there is no question in my mind that I would not be here today, much less who I am today if it were not for my family. They have always supported me no matter what I was doing, regardless of how fast or slow I am running. I am very blessed in many ways most of all with family, friends, a coach, and teammates that enable me to listen to my heart and follow my dream

On achieving her goals:
Sometimes I think about my goals and think How I'm ever going to get there? But I take it one day at a time and just keep plugging away.

(Interview posted November 19, 2003.)

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