Thursday, April 7, 2005
Blake Russell, one of the fastest long distance runners in the country, came to Marina late last winter with one goal in mind: a spot on the 2004 US Olympic marathon team. Two weeks into what was supposed to be a six-week stay, she called her husband in Boston and said, “Sell the house, I’m not coming home.”
Russell, who came to Marina to train with her longtime coach, Bob Sevene, took fourth in last year’s 26.2 mile qualifying race, missing a spot on the US marathon team by only 30 seconds.
Though she missed the Olympics, her coast-to-coast move is paying off. On March 20, Russell placed 15th overall and second for Team USA in the World Cross Country Championships in France, helping the American women bring back a bronze medal.
Russell, a petite, soft-spoken 29-year-old, has big ambitions.
“Ultimately, I think I can be one of the fastest marathon runners of all time,” Russell says.
Based on past experience, her marathon dreams may be within reach. Though she didn’t start running until 9th grade, Russell won 11 out of 12 track and field state championships in the 800 meter, one mile and two mile races in four years of high school. In her senior year of college at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, she won the NCAA National Championships in the 1500 and 5000 meter races.
After college, Russell kept pounding the pavement and placed seventh in the 10K at the 2000 Olympic trials; not enough to make the team, but too close to walk away.
“I looked around at that race and realized, out of all the other runners, I was the only one coaching myself,” Russell said.
Determined to find a coach, Russell and her husband Jon, also an elite runner, moved to Boston to train under Sevene, one of the best distance running coaches in the country. In 1984, Sevene coached Joan Benoit to an Olympic marathon gold medal. No American has won the gold in this event since.
After training with Sevene for three years, Russell garnered the third fastest American debut time ever when she ran her first marathon in 2003.
“He’s so unique, he just lives and breathes the sport,” Russell says of her coach. “He always has his athlete’s best interest in mind, whether fighting to get you in a faster heat or paying for you to go to a meet if you don’t have the money to do it yourself.”
In August of 2003, however, Sevene left Boston to head what is now the Big Sur Distance Project, an elite development center for long distance runners based at CSU Monterey Bay and supported by the Big Sur International Marathon.
Russell tried for a while to call in her workouts to Sevene over the phone, but eventually took a six-week leave from work to train with her coach before the 2004 Olympic trials.
“I can run year round here,” Russell says of her new home. “The warm weather and trails on Fort Ord are so much easier on my body than the pavement and snow banks of Boston.”
Even with a great coach and training grounds, Russell still faces challenges.
“I don’t think I’ll ever win a gold medal or a world championship,” Russell says, noting the rampant increase in the use of performance enhancing drugs by many of her competitors.
Other runners either live at elevation or sleep in “oxygen tents,” pressurized indoor tents with reduced oxygen levels that naturally induce production of additional oxygen-rich red blood cells.
“When you get to this level, everyone is looking for a gimmick to get faster,” Russell says. “You’ve just got to find something that works for you.”
For Russell, her secret seems to be a lot of hard work.
“I don’t think people realize that it’s a full-time job,” Russell says of her training. “I’m running 90-100 miles per week, lifting weights, doing workouts twice a day, going to some sort of [physical] therapy because something always hurts, doing Saturday morning practices and a [17-mile] Sunday long run.”
Russell recently signed a three-year contract with Reebok that allows her to train full-time.
“Reebok is the only reason I can do it financially,” Russell says. “It’s really nice that I can run full-time and not feel guilty about it.”
Using words like “relaxing” and “reflective” to describe her occupation, Russell seems to enjoy what she is doing.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t truly love to run,” she says. “Once you get in good enough shape, it doesn’t hurt. It’s as easy for me as walking.”