Cragg hits stride for Olympic trials
Gradually, almost sneakily, Amy Cragg has worked her way into position to become one of the top female marathoners in American history.
When Cragg clocked 2 hours, 21 minutes, 42 seconds to place third in the Tokyo Marathon last year, she set a personal record by more than five minutes and climbed into fifth place on the U.S. women's marathon list behind only Deena Kastor, Jordan Hasay, Shalane Flanagan and Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Now Cragg wants more.
The Portland runner is gearing toward gaining a spot on the U.S. team that will compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, with a medal in mind.
That's a reasonable goal, given the bronze medal she won in the marathon at the 2017 world championships in London.
"I have a world medal," Cragg said during a break from training at the track on the Nike campus in Beaverton. "The first goal is to make the (Olympic) team, but after that, it will be trying to be on that top-three position in Tokyo."
Cragg, 35, is a two-time Olympian and a two-time Olympic trials champion, having won the 10,000 in 2012 and the marathon in 2016, both in Eugene.
Like contemporaries Flanagan (38), Desiree Linden (36) and Molly Huddle (35), she is banking that age will not be a detriment to her drive for a medal in Tokyo. American Meb Keflezighi made the men's Olympic team in the marathon at 41 in 2016. Flanagan won the New York Marathon last year at 37.
"The idea of what age you peak in the marathon has shifted over the last few years," Cragg said. "We've seen with Meb that you can be good into your 40s. With the (medical and training) treatment we receive now, with knowing our bodies and how to take care of ourselves, it's almost like the longer you can stay healthy, the better you get.
"Those training miles you've done in the past, they never really leave you. They're always inside of you. If you can continue to build on that while staying healthy, you're going to keep getting better. Right now, I think I can be as good as I've ever been. I showed that by running a PR at a relatively late age. I feel as good as I ever have, and I'm excited going into the trials."
Growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas, Amy Hastings wasn't a prodigy. As a youngster, she tried volleyball and other sports without much success.
"I always loved sports growing up, but I was never very good," she said. "I was always the benchwarmer, the team cheerleader from the sidelines, but I loved being part of a team.
"As soon as I found running in eighth grade, I realized I could contribute more. I fell in love with it immediately."
After claiming two state prep championships on the track and one in cross country, Amy signed a letter of intent with Arizona State, leaving behind the harsh winters of Kansas.
"I visited Arizona in January," she said. "We were having a big ice storm (in Kansas) that weekend. I thought immediately, 'This is going to be a great place to train.'
"The reality was, I loved the coaches, I loved the team. The second I was there, I knew that was the place for me."
One of those coaches was Louie Quintana, now the head women's coach at Oregon State.
"Amy wasn't a real heralded recruit, but Arizona State was a blue-collar place at the time," Quintana said. "The very first race she ran as a freshman was at Notre Dame. She goes out and leads the thing, hammers it through the first 2K, and finishes in the top five. I remember thinking, 'We can work with this.' Her toughness and level of (handling) pain was amazing. It was being able to mold that and how to hold back and how to push. She had the instinct to go to the front. She felt like she belonged there. That made it really easy.
"She always had a little bit of a chip on her shoulder and trained that way. She had the gift of being able to stay healthy. She was able to take some chances in training and started to believe she could win."
Amy Hastings wound up being a 10-time All-American in indoor and outdoor track and cross country for the Sun Devils. She still holds the school 10,000-meter record at 32:30.37 and ranks third on the list at 5,000 (15:50.19), fourth in the steeplechase (10:17.67) and 10th in the 1,500 (4:21.73).
"I was part of a team that was building the entire time I was there," she said. "Our first year, we were 23rd at nationals in cross country. By my senior year, we made the podium (placing fourth). It was a great experience. We came together as a team. Being part of that was more special than anything to me."
She raced professionally for the next eight years, first for Adidas, then for Brooks. In 2011, she earned her first national title, winning the 5,000 at the U.S. championships. She qualified for the finals at the world championships and finished 14th at Daegu, South Korea.
"Those were big steps in my career," she said. "Making that first (Olympic or national) team is really special and exciting. And being able to wear your nation's colors and represent the U.S. is huge. I was so proud of it. And then afterward, it was, 'All right, let's take the next step.'"
She ran her first marathon that year, finishing second in LA in 2:27.03.
"I didn't know what to expect, but it was really cool," she said. "It was something completely new. It was like the nervousness and excitement I felt when running the mile for the first time in high school. It was the same feeling I had when I first fell in love with running."
In January 2012, with a top-three finish and a spot on the Olympic team in mind, she placed fourth in U.S. Olympic trials in the marathon. Afterward, she has told interviewers, she cried for a month.
"At the Olympic trials, fourth place just doesn't work," she said. "But the reality was, there were three better women than me that day. They absolutely deserved to make the team. That didn't make it any less heartbreaking for me.
"Almost immediately after the race, I said, 'Let's try to make it in the 10K.' A lot of people think the two events go together, but they're way different. You have to stop and train in a completely different way. But when I was home, I'd still get teary-eyed. My dream was to make it in the marathon. But when I was at practice, I was focused and thinking about that next goal."
Five months later, she surprised nearly everyone at the Olympic trials by winning the 10,000 to write her ticket to London.
"That was one of the best feelings of my career," she said. "The Olympic team was my dream, but I didn't think it would be in the 10K. You get this rush of feelings as you cross the finish line. It was my proudest moment up to that point."
She finished 11th in the 10,000 at London.
"I knew it was a long shot for me to medal," she said. "I was there to have my best possible race. I thought a top-eight finish was possible, but I took a couple of risks during the race and ended up 11th. When it comes down to it, I'm proud of how I raced, and of those risks I took."
During the period after the 2012 Olympic Games, life changed in many ways for Amy. She had met Alistair Cragg, a distance runner who had won seven indoor and outdoor NCAA titles and had represented Ireland in three Olympic Games.
"We were teammates with the Mammoth Track Club (in Mammoth Lakes, California)," Amy said. "He was just finishing his career."
In 2014, they wed. At the end of 2015, she signed with Nike and they moved to Portland to join the Bowerman Track Club and coach Jerry Schumacher.
"I had plateaued in my career," she said. "I decided I either wanted to do everything I could to do better, or just be done (running)."
Cragg met Schumacher and Flanagan while training at altitude in Park City, Utah, in 2015.
"I realized (the BTC) was a place where I was going to get everything out of myself," she said. "I saw that the culture was of hard work and support. It was something I wanted to be a part of.
"This was my chance. I was either going to be as good as I possibly could be, or I'd be done. If I didn't make that (2016 Olympic) team, I'd have been done. And I'd have been OK with that. I knew coming in I would have tested it to the limit."
Cragg won the U.S. Olympic trials in the marathon in LA in 2:28.20. The runner-up was Linden, her former ASU teammate. Flanagan was third.
"That was my dream team going into it," Cragg said. "It was a dramatic race, for sure. Once everybody crossed the finish line, I was so happy. I was thrilled it was the three of us making the team."
Cragg placed ninth in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio that year in 2:28.25.
"I found (Schumacher) with about two miles to go," she said. "I'd gotten passed by a couple of North Koreans. I was dying and feeling sorry for myself. They were way ahead of me, but he yelled, 'You can catch them.' It seemed impossible, but it put the belief in me.
"I put my head down and ran just about as hard as I ever have to fight for ninth, which I'm so glad I did. I wanted a higher finish than I'd had in 2012. It would have been a tough pill to swallow, had I worked so hard for four years and not improved at the Olympic Games."
In 2017, Cragg placed third in the marathon at the world championships in London in 2:27.18, earning the bronze medal behind a pair of Africans, Rosa Chelimo and Edna Kiplagat. No other non-Africans were in the top eight. Cragg was closing on two-time world champion Kiplagat for second as the race ended. Again, Schumacher provided inspiration.
"It was a dream come true," Cragg said. "Like the Olympics, the world championships are top three and then everyone else. With 10K to go, I decided to make a move. I started pushing it, but with about two miles to go, I found myself fourth and fading. I was thinking, 'Not fourth — not again.'
"All of a sudden, I saw (Schumacher) pop up on the side of the road at the perfect time. He said, 'If you get a little bit closer, you'll catch her with 800 to go.' All of a sudden, something inside of me changed, and I was able to catch her. If I hadn't seen Jerry at that moment, if I hadn't had that belief in him, I don't know if that would have happened."
In 2018, Cragg placed third in the Tokyo Marathon in an astounding 2:21.42, a finish that defines her career so far.
"That was the cherry on top," she said. "I had run so many races in the 2:27, 2:28 range. I felt like it was a matter of time before I would run faster, but you never know what you're going to get on the day of the race. You have to go out and do it.
"It validated my world medal. It wasn't a fluke. I'm one of the top runners. It was special to solidify my spot on the world stage."
Cragg, who has dealt with some injury issues, hasn't run a marathon since then. She pulled out of the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13 and isn't sure if she will race again before the Olympic trials on Feb. 29 in Atlanta.
"Everything from here on out is geared toward making that (Olympic) team," she said. "If we decide that doing a race would help, we'll do that."
Cragg will face tremendous competition to secure one of the three spots that will guarantee her a spot on the U.S. team for Tokyo.
"It's going to be very hard," she said. "There are probably 10 women who could make that team. On paper, it's the most difficult Olympic team (in the women's marathon) to make ever. I'll be as prepared as I possibly can."
Cragg believes a new marathon PR is within her grasp.
"I think so," she said. "It's not over yet. I will say, it's hard to do. At the same time, if I can get into that mode (for Tokyo) again, it's definitely possible. I'm healthy. I feel good. I feel rested heading into the trials."
Cragg has an outstanding array of training partners to work with in Portland, including Flanagan, Shelby Houlihan, Courtney Frerichs and Emily Infeld.
"I can't tell you how helpful that is," Cragg said. "I got thrown into the deep end training with Shalane, but she was absolutely amazing to me. Not just the marathon at the (2016) trials, but going into the race was about as good as it can be.
"Before the (2017) worlds, I was training with the younger women on the team. We didn't match up as much for the long runs, but when you're running 130 miles a week, it's so nice to have someone there for part of it, so you're not constantly in your own head. My husband paces me a lot, too. It's really not that much time on my own. I always have someone around."
The 5-4, 100-pound Cragg has benefited from the tutelage of Schumacher the past four years.
"The first 10 years of my career, I always felt like I was on the verge of something, but I didn't quite make that breakthrough," she said. "I got here and Jerry opened the door for me. I feel very lucky to be part of his group."
If Cragg medals at Tokyo, will she retire?
"I think so," she said. "I don't see how it could get much better than that.
"Having said that, there are dream races, a few bucket-list events I have to go do, a few things I have to redo to make my career exactly what I wanted."
However it plays out, Cragg will have earned the admiration of many, including her college coach.
"She's one of the sweetest people you could ever meet," Quintana said. "All that success couldn't have happened to a better person."
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