At peace, U.S. runner Morgan Uceny bids for a Worlds medal
DAEGU, South Korea -- At some point she will feel the panic, because panic is the middle distance runner's silent enemy, lying in wait to attack and to undo all the training, to spoil all the work. Morgan Uceny of the U.S. will be running in Thursday night's women's 1,500-meter final at the world track and field championships -- three and three-quarter laps around the Boise State blue, 400-meter track, the so-called "metric mile'' -- and the field will alternately bunch and spread, bunch and spread. Arms will become tangled and razor-sharp spikes will brush against flesh, sometimes slicing through shoes and drawing blood.
A dozen athletes, the world's best in their gender at this classic distance, each of them seeking a place to run in comfort until one of them decides to launch a desperate bid for the finish. That kick might come after 800 meters and it might not come until only 200 meters remain. Some of the racers will find themselves pinned inside; others jostled wide and running precious extra steps.
They will all feel a mix of claustrophobia and galloping impatience. Such is the nature of championship running at this distance, where the mind can be more important than the feet.
Morgan Uceny, a 26-year-old Cornell graduate, has in 2011 become one of the best 1,500-meter runners in the world. On June 30 in Lausanne, Switzerland, she won a prestigious Diamond League 1,500 meter race, taking a lead in the stretch. When she saw the sponsor's finish tape pulled across the track in front of her, she wondered how to react. "I see the banner and I'm like, 'what should I do?''' says Uceny. "That's kind of a funny thought as you're about to win this major race, but I really didn't know. Should I put my arms up? But what did I do? Nothing! I just ran through.''
Ten days later she won another Diamond League race in Birmingham, England on July 10 and 12 days after that she lowered her personal best to 4:01.51 while finishing third in another race in Monaco.
Thursday's final will be one of the most wide-open during the nine days of the worlds; 10 women have run times within 1.86 seconds of each other in 2011 and outside that group Uceny's teammate, 2008 steeplechase Olympian Jenny Barringer Simpson, looked terrific when winning one of the two semifinal races Tuesday night.
All of them will feel that pressure. Uceny will feel it, too. And then she will say to herself:
It is a mantra she learned this year from an intuitive healer who works with coach Terrence Mahon's well-known training group in Mammoth Lakes, California (including marathoners Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor). But it is also much more than that. It is the distillation of everything that brought Uceny to this night (and, she hopes, to a similar moment a year from now at the 2012 Olympics in London), because medals are not made from one race, they are crafted in a lifetime.
For Uceny (pronounced YOU-sinee) the roots of that experience were sunk in Plymouth, Indiana, a town with a population just over 10,000, 25 miles south of South Bend in the north-central part of the state. Her father, Marty, is a former high school wrestler and now a stone mason and bricklayer who runs his own business: Marty's Masonry. Her mother, Brenda, was a school bus driver and is now a transportation administrator for the Plymouth school district. Neither went to college. Both value hard work and made their children do likewise. She has two older brothers, Alex and Matt.
Early on, Morgan's parents kept her busy; they enrolled her in the 4H Club, and she had to care for six or seven goats and two steers that were kept on the family's property. She had to do chores every morning, like cleaning manure from the animals' stalls. "As I got older,'' Uceny says, "There were times when I would want to go the movies, but I had to stay home and make sure the cows and goats were fed. It was teaching me responsibility, but I hated it.''
The animals were kept for showing in fairs, but the steers were slaughtered every year and the family kept the meat in their freezer. In this, too, there were lessons. "Well, number one, knowing where your food comes from,'' says Uceny, in her best schoolteacher-ese. "And number two, don't get too attached to your pets.''
Her older brothers were wrestlers, like their Dad, and played football and ran track, as well. The whole family, says Uceny, is 5-foot-6. (Uceny was appalled to see that USA Track and Field's World Championships media guide listed her as 5-3. "No!'' she said, "I'm 5-6!'') Once Uceny reached high school, she won a state cross-country championship as a freshman and ran again as a sophomore, but in her junior year dropped it in favor of sticking with just basketball and track. Basketball, in fact, was the Indiana girl's first love. "I was going to play in the WNBA,'' she says, then brings the discussion back to that offending media guide. "Of course I could never do that at five-three.''
As a senior, Uceny was recruited by several Division I scholarship colleges, including Illinois and Kentucky (Uceny won the Indiana state 800-meter title as a senior, in 2:13), but she didn't want to run cross-country, just track, and that complicated the process. "Any school that offered me a scholarship wanted me to run cross country,'' says Uceny. The process took her to Cornell, a first-rate academic university, but a member of the Ivy League, which does not offer athletic scholarships.
She went just the same. "For me to go to such a prestigious college was an honor for me,'' says Uceny. "And for my parents, too.''
At Cornell, Uceny was a six-time league champion (indoors and outdoors) in the 800 meters, her specialty, and she never ran cross country. During summers back in Plymouth she worked on her father's masonry crew -- carrying bricks, cutting bricks, shoveling mortar. "Every day I woke up and geared up for a day of hard work,'' says Uceny. "It was hot, and I had to wear pants and it was just really tough work.'' She would run in the evenings, after work was finished.
She graduated from Cornell in 2007 and became a professional runner. She moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to work with coach Mike McGuire and signed a three-year contract with Reebok. But the contract was small and success was difficult to attain, so Uceny also worked for one year at a pet boutique and another as a personal trainer, neither of which is as difficult as stone masonry (or mucking cow manure, for that matter), but both of which slashed into her training time. And she still needed help. "Nobody wants to be supported by their parents in their mid-20s,'' says Uceny. "But mine were helping and I needed that.''
In the fall of 2009 she moved to Mammoth to train with Mahon's group, which also included 2008 Olympian Anna Willard Pierce, another Ivy League graduate (Brown) who was running the 1,500 meters. (Pierce ran 3:59.38 in 2009, faster than Uceny's PR, but did not make this year's world's team in an increasingly competitive event). Uceny went back to work, part-time as a realtor, but quit that job to dedicate herself to training. "It was cutting into my nap time,'' she says, and she's not being funny. World class training is exhausting.
She also made a preseason decision to move up from the 800 meters, which had long been her specialty, to the 1,500. It was a vaguely awkward decision, because it meant that Uceny and Pierce would be not only be training together (and good friends), but competing for national team berths in the same event. "I didn't want to compete head-to-head with my teammate,'' says Uceny. "But I knew deep down, I wanted the 1,500. In the 800, one mistake and you're done. The 800 puts more pressure on you. In the 1,500 you have a little more time, I feel more in control. And also, from a training perspective, I was doing better at longer intervals.'' She had also run 4:02.10 in 2010 to finish fifth in a race on Monaco, off 800-meter training, an unsubtle suggestion by her own body that it was time to move up.
She says there's been no single reason behind dropping her PR more than five seconds in two years and, more importantly, beating the best milers in the world. Just the usual: Sustained health, consistent training. She is a learner by nature. "I cook things exactly by the recipe a few times,'' she says, "before I go off on my own and change things.'' Mahon has taught her to finish strongly by emphasizing the latter half of intervals, vital to international success in the 1,500. Uceny has soaked up the lessons.
Thursday night's final will be a rollicking crapshoot. Uceny could win. Barringer could win. Two-time world champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain could win. Or Natalia Rodriguez of Spain, who has looked strong in the very tight heats, could win. And for Uceny, there is a bigger picture. This night is long in the making, another step in the journey, slightly bigger than some of the others, but a step nevertheless. She signed a long-term contract with Adidas last fall and with that, along with money earned from her victories, she is truly a professional runner.
Uceny has watched video of past world and Olympic championship races, to better understand the complex tactics. "I want to be ready for anything,'' she says. "I'm ready for a slow pace. I'm ready for a fast pace.'' Like summers on masonry crew: Gearing up for hard work. Like long days in the mountains, getting ready, holding the panic at bay and being at peace.
In Thursday night's 1,500-meter final, Morgan Uceny was tripped and fell while in a contending position with 550 meters left in the race. She resumed the race, but had lost far too much ground and finished 10th of 12 runners.