Interview with Heather Hanscom
by Jessie Sackett

Heather Hanscom finishes sixth at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in St. Louis.
(Photo: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)

See also:'s November 2003 interview with Hanscom.

Heather Hanscom, sixth-place finisher at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and winner of the 2003 Marine Corps Marathon, has a history that lends itself to grandiose phrases like "rising to the challenge" and "strength in the face of adversity." She had an impressive college career, including James Madison University's fifth all-time best in the indoor 5,000 (16:52:23 in 2001) and ECAC qualifying times in the indoor mile, 3,000, and 5,000 and outdoor 10,000. She struggled with injury and illness, though, and never quite ran to her potential.

The scope of that potential became apparent in 2003, when her coach, Matt Centrowitz, pushed her to move up to the marathon. When Centrowitz and Hanscom's teammates suggested she was capable of running sub-2:40 in her debut at the Marine Corps Marathon, she didn't think she could run that fast — but she went on to win in 2:37:59. That win paved the way for an outstanding 2:31:53 in her sophomore marathon, the Olympic Trials in April.

As well-known as these successes is the challenge she faced her freshman year of high school, when she had surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor. By the end of that year, though, Hanscom was literally back on track, proving to be a talented middle-distance runner for her high school's two-time state championship team. On October 5, 2004, she celebrated 12 years of being cancer-free.

Hanscom, who runs for the Pacers Racing Team in Alexandria, Virginia, and is coached by American University's Matt Centrowitz, was considered a wild-card contender to make the Olympic Team. Although she was three places shy of qualifying, the Trials pegged her as one to watch in the upcoming season. Since the Trials, however, she has only raced once, with health problems forcing her withdraw from a number of races, including the New Haven 20K. But she's healthy now, and sat down with to talk about her difficult summer and her plans for the future. Congratulations on the Trials. How did it feel to have two breakout performances within six months?
Heather Hanscom:
Thank you. It was good — since they were close together it didn't give me much time to think about anything else.

FW: Did you surprise yourself with your performance, or did your run at Marine Corps make you realize you'd be capable of more?
Once I ran Marine Corps, I realized that [marathon running] was something that came a little more naturally. It was something that I enjoyed more than I thought I was going to. I'd only run one marathon before the Trials but the closer it got and the better my workouts went, I realized I could really do something. I didn't have a specific goal for
time or place, I just figured I had nothing to lose, so I wanted to see what I could do.

FW: Did you watch the Olympics? Did you have any 'wish I were there' pangs?
I was hooked on the Olympics. I watched as much as I could. The Sunday of the women's marathon I had to work so I was in the lab for 10 hours [Note: Heather works as a researcher at the University of Maryland]. A friend called me and gave me 'play-by-play' commentary. Last Sunday, I watched the marathon for the first time, with my dad. Even though I knew the outcome, it was very exciting and gave me a little extra spark for racing again, a nice booster. Although I was thinking about how much had wanted to make the team, I am happy with my race at the Trials. I did the best I could that day. I believe everything happens for a reason. I learned a lot from that experience but I am definitely looking forward — and working toward — 2008.

FW: You've talked in the past about running competitively at other distances, such as 10K. Is that still a goal, or do you plan to focus on the marathon?
I definitely want to be a versatile runner. I want to be able to run a lot of different events, and be competitive at them, but it's going to take me a little longer to be competitive at the national level at 5K and 10K. It doesn't come as naturally to me. But I do think that to be a better marathon runner, I have to be a better 10K and 5K runner.

FW: So are your workouts geared to shorter distances now?
Yes, [they are] much different than I was doing for the marathon. I'm having to get used to it. Tuesdays are interval days — miles, 800s. We've been doing a lot of mile repeats the past few weeks. For Thursdays, I'm on a three-week cycle: hills, track, tempo is the name of the game. One Thursday I do hill sprints. The next Thursday I'm on the track for short, quick reps like 12 x 300. [The third week] is a long tempo on the canal: mile easy, 10 mile cut-down, mile easy. And then back to hill sprints. Saturdays are either long runs or longer track workouts that combine doing something quick, then something long, maybe a harder run or longer interval, and then something quick again.

FW: Who are you training with these days?
I do my long runs with the Pacers guys — Mike Wardian, Chris Farley, Erik Kean, and Edmund Burke. I do my workouts with American University — Keira Carlstrom and some of the other girls, depending on what the workout is.

FW: Can they keep up with you?
Now that we're doing the shorter stuff, yes! It's good because Keira and I have different strengths. She's very good at the shorter intervals and the speed stuff, and I'm stronger on the tempos and the longer runs. We're polar opposites, so it works well.

FW: You're still being coached by Matt Centrowitz , the head coach at American. You've talked before about what a great, trusting relationship you have, but his instincts about you and the marathon must have increased that trust even more.
Of course! Sometimes it's frustrating because I don't understand why I'm doing everything, but I just have to trust that it's going to work out in the end. I've only raced once since the Trials [34:24 at the Circle of Friends New York Mini 10K on June 12] because I had some setbacks this summer, and I wanted to be gung-ho and start racing again. I know it's better that I didn't, but it's still frustrating because all I want to do is race.

FW: Can you tell us about the setbacks you experienced?
I was really sick. No one could tell me what was wrong with me. I was nauseous, like being carsick all the time. And it felt like someone was blowing a balloon up inside of me; my legs would get so swollen I couldn't straighten my knees out. It was pretty bad. I went out to see David Ramsey out in Kansas and he fixed me. My adrenal glands weren't working.

FW: What kind of doctor is he?
He does holistic medicine. He tunes into your biorhythms, uses neurolymphatic release, acupuncture points. Various methods, he just listens to your body and then corrects whatever is wrong. It's kind of hard to describe. He's in Olathe, Kansas, but he travels all over.

FW: How long did you have symptoms before getting treated? How long did it take you to start feeling healthy again?
I started feeling symptoms way back in May. They just kept getting
worse and worse. So the Thursday before Labor Day, I flew out to Kansas. I was there until Sunday and [Ramsey] worked on me twice a day, every day. Thursday and Friday I wanted to die I felt so sick. By Saturday I started feeling better and by Sunday when I flew back I felt like a new person. I felt like myself again. I had energy, I could function. My family noticed the change, they were glad I was back.

FW: How did your past health history affect your reaction to your illness this summer? Do you tend to jump to the worst-case scenario, or do you believe you can handle anything?
I'm really happy because October 5 was my 12-year mark, cancer-free. I tend not to jump to the worst-case scenario, I've learned to be more of a positive thinker. I know that it could be worse. I just talk myself out of the sickness/situation and try to take care of the little details: extra rest, more vitamin C. My coach said that I need
to stop that because I let little things, or big things that I think are no big deal, build up and then have to deal with much bigger ramifications. This summer is a perfect example. But I have learned that how you look at a situation, including your health, with either positive or negative energy will directly affect the outcome.

FW: We're glad to hear you're feeling healthy again. Do you feel like you're getting back into shape?
I do feel healthy now. It is amazing. I didn't realize how badly I was
actually feeling until I felt normal again. My running is going much better also. It took about a week for my legs to feel good on easy runs. Now in workouts I don't feel like I'm struggling to get by or hanging on for dear life. I now feel like I'm in control of the workouts, mentally and physically. That is a very good feeling.

FW: How did your difficult summer affect your racing plans for the fall? [Were you planning to run a fall marathon?]
I never planned to run a fall marathon. I love the marathon, but the worst thing is afterwards, having to take a month to get back into training and workouts, and I figured I had done that for a year, and I just wanted to race consistently and have good training.

I had a lot of races picked out over the summer, but it always [ended up that] the week before I'd be so wiped out and not having good workouts, and I would have to pull out of the race. That's what I've been doing all summer. It's very frustrating.

FW: So what are your racing plans now? Some journalists have speculated that you're considering the 2005 IAAF World Championships.
I don't know where that came from! I'm looking at the [USA Cross Country Championships in February], that's my immediate goal. Of course international competition is always a goal, but I haven't specifically sat down, and said, 'I want to run this race.'

I think I'm running at a Penn State cross country meet on the 16th. American University is going up for the meet and I'm going to tag along. [Note: She finished eighth in Penn State's National Invitational, running 20:46 for 6K.] I haven't picked out a race in November yet, but December 4 is the National Club Cross Country race in Portland, Oregon. So I'm hoping to run that one also, and then race again sometime in January.

FW: In addition to training, you're a coach for Miles Ahead, a training program organized by the Pacers Running Store. How do you like coaching?
That's fun for me, I really enjoy it. We're training a group of people for Marine Corps and the ING New York City Marathon. It reminds me of why I run, the fun of it. We meet them on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. We customize their workouts and their times, and develop their own training programs. I think of myself as a pseudo coach, because I don't really know what I'm doing, I just do what my coach tells me. I just enjoy the atmosphere.

(Interview conducted October 9, 2004, and posted October 25, 2004.)

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