Interview with Shayne Culpepper
by Alison Wade

Above and below: Shayne Culpepper on her way to a win in the 3,000 at the 2004 USA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
(All Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)

It's been a good winter for the Culpepper family. On February 7, Shayne Culpepper watched her husband Alan win the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Men's Marathon, and guarantee himself a spot in the 2004 Athens Olympics. One month later, Shayne surpassed expectations and won a bronze medal in the 3,000m at the World Indoor Track & Field Championships. Later this year, Shayne will attempt to join her husband on the Olympic team when she competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials - Track & Field.

Culpepper got her start in the sport running for Haverford (PA) High School, where she ran a best of approximately 2:19 in the 800. She began her collegiate career at the University of Vermont, but transferred to the University of Colorado after spending a summer near Boulder and falling in love with the city. She walked on to the CU track and cross country teams and, after becoming more serious about her training, became a several-time All-American.

Culpepper finished a heartbreaking fourth in the 1,500m at the 2000 Olympic Trials, but was able to represent the U.S. in Sydney after Regina Jacobs withdrew from the team at the last minute. With less-than-ideal preparation, Culpepper ran 4:12.52 and finished ninth in her first round heat.

After taking time off in 2001 and 2002 to have a baby, Culpepper has returned to competition stronger than ever. Her son, Cruz Samuel Culpepper, will celebrate his second birthday April 10. As an elite runner, you have to believe that you're capable of medaling at the world level, but does actually doing it change anything for you mentally?
Shayne Culpepper:
It changes my confidence level, yes. It just gives me increased confidence as far as competing on the world scene in the future.

FW: Does it change your expectations at all?
A little bit, yeah, it does [laughs]. My goal going into it was to be top six, so...I'm still taking it all in.

FW: I think many fans have come to expect U.S. distance runners to go to the World Championships and not qualify for the final, or not be competitive in the final, so a lot of people were excited about this.
...The jet-lag is extremely difficult to adjust to. I felt terrible in my prelim. and I more or less just lucked out getting into the final. If all the U.S. runners had run how we ran at U.S. Nationals, we all would have been in the final. It's just a matter of that adjustment being so hard to make, and so few of our competitors really have to make that type of trip, so I definitely think that's a big factor... Just talking to everyone about how we all felt in the prelim — we all felt tired, not training tired, but sleepy tired.

FW: Do you think part of that was because U.S. Nationals was so close to Worlds?
I do. I don't think that that helped the situation.

FW: I don't know if you left the day after Nationals, but I was surprised when I found out some of the athletes were leaving on Monday.
I actually snuck home for two days. That was hard, for anyone to be away from home and their training base for that long.

FW: What's up next for you? Would you consider Worlds the end of one season, and now you're beginning another, or is this all one big track season?
Probably the end of one and the beginning of another, although I am planning at this point on doing [the 5,000m at] Mt. SAC, which I wasn't planning on this whole year. With the field looking the way it's looking, I will likely race there. I just want to give myself as many opportunities as possible to hit the Olympic 'A' standard.

FW: Did you take a break after Worlds, or are you just training straight through, at least until Mt. SAC?
I'm still training. I took two days off, with no running, and I took the rest of the week pretty easy, just one run a day. But I'm still feeling tired from the trip, I'm still sleeping a ton at night. I'm definitely taking it one day at a time, I'm not hitting it yet.

FW: Beyond Mt. SAC, have you planned any other races, other than the Trials?
I'll do Pre, [the adidas Oregon Track Classic], and Home Depot. Depending on how I run at Mt. SAC, I'll probably do two more 1,500s and another 5.

FW: At the Trials, you're planning to run both the 1,500 and 5,000?
Yes. So much can happen during the season, it just depends on how my season unfolds and how I'm feeling in both events. As of now, I'm planning on doing both, but I'm still focusing more on the 5K at this point.

FW: Although you're already an Olympian, it would probably be nice to have some advance notice if you go to the Olympics in the future.
Yeah, a victory lap would be nice. [In 2000], it was a bummer at the Trials, although we had a blast when we found out in Sydney. Making it with the time, with the place, on that day would be really nice.

FW: When did you start working with [your current coach], Brad Hudson?
Just this past December. After I had the baby, that same year my coach, Jason Drake, took a coaching job at [Washington State]. I had Cruz, and coming back, I pretty much just coached myself. I kind of simulated what Alan does, which ended up not being what I needed to be doing. I felt really bad pretty much all of last year, especially after the indoor season. Looking back, I was just making a lot of mistakes and at the end of the season, I just felt like I really needed a coach.

I called a couple coaches and did some of my own research, and simultaneously, Steve Slattery was reevaluating the way that he trains. He's good friends with Brad, and they came up with a plan for what they were going to be doing. Brad is just always researching and reading, he's been involved with the sport since he was 12 years old, so he's a wealth of knowledge. I'd just been doing a lot of investigating as far as middle distance training goes, how the best 5k/3k runners in the world do actually train. So I kind of had come up with a plan on my own, and Brad and Steve were like, 'Hey, wait a second.' So I sat down and talked to them. I definitely wasn't completely convinced at first when I kind of heard what he thought I should be doing, it definitely took some coaxing. But everything Brad has ever asked me to do, he hands me a packet of research backing it, so I just decided to give it a try and kind of hand things over to him completely.

FW: You're doing less mileage this year?
I am. Last year I got up to about 95, and I don't think I've gone over 80 this year.

FW: What about the mileage has changed? Is it higher quality?
It is. I run twice a day every day, except for Saturday and Sunday. Last year, I think my fastest easy day the whole year was about 7:15 pace, and now I'll run close to 6:40s by the end of the run. Also, I'm only doing long runs maybe once every three weeks. During my buildup, when I wasn't doing workouts yet, I would do them once a week, but that's been the biggest change for me, pretty much, taking out a very hard long run.

FW: Are there any challenges associated with training for a 1,500 at altitude?
No, I think it's truthfully more challenging to train for a 5K. You can do speedwork up here just fine. It's the long interval stuff that's really tricky and hard to recover from. You have to take [more rest] between sets, it's tough to do.

FW: Can you tell us a little about your decision to have a baby in the middle of your career? We hear a lot about the guidelines for pregnant runners, were those guidelines any different for an elite runner?
For me, personally, I didn't run at all during the pregnancy. Maybe the first couple months, I'd run a couple days a week, but I felt terrible when I was running. My heart rate was so high, I was very winded, it felt awkward. This is not why I had a baby, but the break physically and mentally was nice as well. I'd just come off [a period in which] I'd always been right on the edge of making teams — make a team and miss the time, or have the time and miss the place, so I was a little bit frustrated. I definitely have always wanted a family, too, and I knew I could do both, so I figured it was an off year, so why not.

FW: Did you do any other exercise while you were pregnant?
No. I watched TV and hung out [laughs]. I wasn't a couch potato or anything, but I definitely took it easy and enjoyed that time.

FW: Once you had Cruz, was it hard getting back into it?
No. I was so motivated. By the time nine months passed by and [I'd] gained that weight and just sat around a lot, I was ready to go, so motivation was not an issue. I think I ran 12 days after I delivered.

FW: Was it hard to lose the weight?
No, it came right off.

FW: A lot of elite runners might not want to take that kind of chance in the middle of their careers. Was that an issue for you, or did you just not really care?
No, I didn't care at all. I really enjoy my career and I want to do a lot more than I've done, but my running career is a distant second to my family.

FW: What about life post-baby — has your lifestyle changed much?
Not really. We are obviously running around chasing a two-year-old, and we don't have as much down-time, but we definitely don't get as bored as we used to get [laughs]. [Pre-Cruz] we were both home all day in-between runs, and I remember [wondering], 'What should we do?' So we don't have that anymore. But as far as training goes, in a way it's become easier, because we have to be so regimented in our scheduling. We used to wake up and hang out and I'd be like, 'I don't want to run.' I'd kind of have to force myself out the door some days. Now I don't have time to do that, so I don't even think about it. Mentally, it's not even a problem if you only have so much time to do it.

FW: And you run in shifts? If you both run twice a day, that must mean there are four running shifts.
Alan, when he's training for the marathon, he'll run twice a day, six days a week. He usually sleeps an hour longer than I do, so I'll wake up and get going, then he wakes up and gets himself and Cruz up and dressed. By the time they're out of bed, he's ready to go, and I'm usually back from my run.

FW: In a way, it seems like a nice setup for parents raising a young child. If you had a 9-5 job, you wouldn't get to spend nearly as much time with Cruz during the day.
Exactly. We have it a lot easier than a lot of folks do.

FW: In being married to another elite runner, do you two talk running much, or do you try to stay away from it a lot of the time?
We don't try and stay away from it, but I think naturally, we do. It depends what's going on. If there's an event coming up or an event just happened, sure, we'll talk about it more. Or, if I'm making a coaching change, we'll talk about types of training, but I don't think we talk about it much more than we would [if only one of us were a professional runner].

FW: What kind of non-running activities do you like to do?
Right now, we're both just training so much. But when we're on breaks, we love taking road trips, we travel and see our family a lot. We just built a new house, so we've spent time doing stuff around here.

(Interview conducted March 18, 2004, and posted March 23, 2004.)

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