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Interview: Kim Pawelek

Kim Pawelek takes water near mile eight of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
(Photo: Alison Wade/

One of the most promising young distance runners in the U.S., Kim Pawelek has taken a somewhat unconventional route to the top, not taking up distance running until her senior year of high school and not really starting to hit her stride until her senior year at the University of North Florida (an NCAA Division II school) and beyond. In December of 1998, she ran her first marathon (without really training) -- a 2:41:58. In 1999, she ran a 2:37:56 to win the Twin Cities Marathon and in the process, became the U.S. Marathon Champion. She then ran a 1:12:46 at the Naples Half Marathon and went on to finish 7th at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on an unseasonably warm day.

FW: Could you tell me a little about your childhood -- you were born in Vietnam but moved to the U.S. at a very young age, right?

KP: Yes, both my sister Mary and I were born in Viet Nam. We (my mother, father, sister, and I) left in April of 1975, during the war. I was a year old, my sister was four days old. When we arrived in the US, we settled in my father's hometown of Thorp, Wisconsin (pop. ~1600). Just before I turned 13, my parents separated, and that was when we moved to Port Charlotte, FL.

FW: Your mother and sister left Port Charlotte when you were 14, but you stayed there, living with another family. What prompted that? Did you stay there until the end of high school?

KP: The move to Florida was not only an adjustment, it was literally "culture shock" for me. I soon became an angry, rebellious teenager and sadly enough, had no respect for my family, let alone my mother's authority. I was uncontrollable, and you could easily say my running days started then when I would just leave the house without my mother's permission. So, when she decided two years later that she wanted to move again, I, of course, incessantly opposed the decision. The reason for the move? Her cousin was living in Beaumont, TX after escaping from Viet Nam, and was a full-time student at Texas A&M, working 70 hours a week. My mother wanted to be near family once again, and Beaumont was home to a large Vietnamese community as well. Being 14 years old and "knowing it all," I gave her an ultimatum -- let me stay where she knew I'd be safe and living with a loving, caring family, or make me move, where I'd just run away after the fact. She reluctantly let me move in with my best friend's family (the Fehr's) to finish up my high school years. However, to ease her mind, I told her my full concentration would be devoted to my academics and athletics, in hopes of getting a college scholarship. Playing the college card into her hand was almost always a sure bet. However, I fully intended to implement this plan either way because there was no way I was going to have her bear those extra financial burdens, especially after what I put her through.

FW: Speaking of high school, is it true that you didn't start running until your senior year, when you traded in soccer for cross country? What made you start running and when did you first realize that you had some talent?

KP: I actually ran track and field all four years of high school. However, the first three years I sprinted. I only ran the 100m and the 200m , and tried the 400m a couple of times my junior year. It was during my junior year of soccer that my curiosity for distance running was peaked. I played midfield and soon discovered that I could sustain my endurance for almost the entire game. My cross country coach Bethany Morse noticed that as well, so after the season, she persuaded me into running a local 5k. I won my age group and beat all the local high school distance runners that day. That's when I realized I had some talent, so I decided to try out for the cross country team for the first time my senior year. That first day of practice was unbelievably humbling. I came in dead last on a 2.5-mile run, but that proved to be best thing that could've happened to me. By the time our first meet rolled around, I was running number one for the team and had made it to the State Championship at the end of the season. Ironically, my first outdoor track meet that year, I ran the 1-mile, the 2-mile, and the 200 meters and won all three events.

FW: What were your PRs in high school?

KP: My PRs in high school are as follows: 100m - 13.2, 200m - 27.3, 400m - 61, 800m - 2:19, mile - 5:24, 2-mile - 11:30.

FW: Tell us a little about your experiences running at the University of North Florida... You still have seven school records in track -- did you have women to train with (who could challenge you) while you were there? Was Mark VanAlstyne your coach?

KP: When I first arrived at the University of North Florida, it was literally only my second year of distance running, so it was a difficult adjustment in the beginning. However, a beginner can't do anything but improve because of lack of experience, and that was the beauty of the position I was in. My motivation and hunger for the sport was fueled by new challenges and maddening results. I say maddening because one day I would have the best workout, and the next day I would have the worst race. It was all a learning experience, a definite rollercoaster ride, but I believe that's what makes you a stronger person -- pushing through adversity, learning from it, and challenging yourself once again. Yes, I had women to run with, but more so on the track. The team was mostlycomprised of middle distance runners (800m, 1500, 3000m) who didn't run as much mileage as I wanted to, so I ran with the guys whenever I could, mostly on their easy days. It made me a stronger runner, and slowly I began to do part of my workouts with them on the track. However, I did most of my workouts with an 800/1500m girl named Leanne Moore. I was a late bloomer in college, so I didn't see any real significant results until the beginning of my junior year. I made All-American for the first time in cross country that year, and then again at the Indoor Track Nationals, where I placed 4th in the 5k. I didn't go to Outdoors that year due to a clerical error in declarations for the meet. My senior year was when I finally achieved the results I was working for all those years. I placed 8th at the Cross Country Nationals, 2nd in the Indoor Track Nationals in the 5k, and I won both the 5k and 10k Outdoor Track Nationals. And yes, Mark VanAlstyne was my coach at the time.

Warming up for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
(Photo: Alison Wade/

FW: What about now -- who do you train with (if anyone) and who coaches you?

KP: Currently, Keith Brantly, a 1996 Olympian in the marathon, coaches me. I train with a lot of the local runners/triathletes here in Jacksonville -- Jim VanCleave, Max Minter, Chuck Drayton, and at times, the UNF men's team. There is really only one other woman I do my training with and that is Cathy Vasto. An accomplished runner herself, she specializes in the 5000m and runs for Asics.

FW: What is a typical training week like for you? (What kind of mileage do you do, what kind of speedwork, any crosstraining and what pace are most of your runs?)

KP: A typical week will usually see my mileage linger around the 90-100 range. The mileage doesn't break me down, so as long as I'm able to do it, I will. I'm at the track at least once a week, but mostly twice a week, even when I'm training for the marathon. I will do one workout that focuses on speed: ie. 12-16 x 400m in 72-76 or 6-8 x 800m in 2:33-36; and one emphasizing distance: ie. 4-8 x 1 mile at 5:15-25 pace or 3-4 x 2 mile in 10:45-11:00. Sometimes, instead of doing longer intervals, I will substitute it for a tempo run -- anywhere from 3-12 miles. I like to keep the tempo runs between 5:20-40 for anything shorter than 6 miles, and 5:50-6:10 pace for the longer distances. In addition to my running, I also like to complement it with weights and swimming. When I get into a weights routine, I lift twice a week. I'm in the pool 3-5 times a week, swimming on average 3000 yards.

FW: What are you currently training for? Do you plan on making road racing and marathons your focus?

KP: Currently, I'm training to get back into racing shape once again! But seriously, the key race for me in the near future is a spring marathon. Which races I will run between now and then will be determined by the progress of my fitness in the next couple of months. I haven’t committed myself to any one particular race as of yet. Road racing and marathons have always been my focus; I just wasn't racing on the roads as often, and I hadn't attempted any marathons till December of 1998.

FW: Could you tell us a little about your Olympic Trials experience? You got A LOT of media attention -- it seems like everyone was looking for a darkhorse and they picked you. You can't be disappointed because you finished ahead of your seed and only two minutes off your PR on a tough course and a tough day. What did you take away from that experience?

KP: To make a long story short, the Olympic Trials experience was bittersweet. I had the worst race of my life, but it was indeed, the greatest experience altogether because of the many lessons learned. Yes, I did receive a lot of media attention, but it really didn’t hit till about two weeks out from the Trials when the interviews seemed never-ending. The day before the race was the most overwhelming, though. It was my first press conference, and that in itself was an event. There were so many questions, but we were all having so much fun with it, that it spurred even more questions and comments. Afterwards, I sat talking with more reporters for a good hour. I've never been through something like that before, and it was amazing how mentally draining it actually was -- much like having to sit through four hours of SAT testing. Yes, a lot of this media attention was ignited by the fact that I had become the dark horse, the Jenny Spangler of 2000. However, I would have much rather been in that position that not be. The day of the race found me, ironically, more at peace than at any other time leading up to the Trials. I was ready and I was prepared for my test and was anxiously awaiting to see how the racing would unfold. Unfortunately, it took a minor problem with my feet in the first three miles to set up the biggest challenge ever, mentally and physically. My feet had become swollen and hot, making each step feel as if I was stepping on pins and needles. I thought it would go away eventually, so I kept with my race plan (to stay with the leaders and/or push for A-standard pace of 2:33 in hopes of getting three athletes to the Olympics) until I no longer could. Several times over I wanted to drop out, but I didn't want to have to make that decision mentally. I wanted my body to make the decision for me. I battled with that dilemma for most of the race, for I thought there was no way I was going to see that finish line anyway, so why not just stop the "madness" now? Staying in the race was the best decision I ever made, and I know it will just make me that much more hungry, yet wiser, the next time around.

FW: What is a typical day like for you -- when do you do your training and what do you do with the rest of your time? What do you do to relax?

KP: A typical day will find me doing a morning run between 6-7:00 am, followed by a 3000 yard swim. I'll run again in the evening, with the two runs totaling 13-18 miles. Workout sessions are usually on Tuesdays and Fridays, with a long run on Sunday. In between the training, I work part-time at our local running store, First Place Sports. Doug and Jane Alred are the owners, and they have been extremely flexible and supportive with my running. So flexible and supportive that I don't even have a work schedule. Doug is actually the race director for the River Run, the 15k National Championships, and the two are long-time runners, so they both understand everything that the training and racing schedules entail. Relaxation time usually finds me spending time with my friends (usually for "eats, drinks, and laughs"), watching TV, surfing the internet, reading, or napping.

FW: We've heard the story of your mother wanting you to get you a "real" job -- has she come around at all yet?

KP: No, my mother has yet to warm up to the "running thing," as she likes to call it. In fact, she has gone from asking me "why I run," to "how much longer does this last?" I suppose she's just being a mother, though…always wanting the best for her children when she doesn't think one is capitalizing on her education and utilizing the "land of opportunity." Surprisingly, I think we’ve come to an understanding. Although she continues to ask me when I will move on, she knows that this is what I am going to do for as long as I can. Here's the kicker, though -- I just have to remind her to be thankful that I'm happy, safe, and healthy; that I've gotten my degree; I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict; and most importantly, I'm not pregnant. I think she watches too many of those daily talk shows! As long as I can get her to keep her perspective on those details, the "running thing" doesn't seem so bad after all. Nonetheless, she does keep harping at me to complete my Masters degree, so that I'll be better prepared for when I do decide to get that "real job."

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