Kim Conley: Empire All Star, By Alex Wolf-Root

Nov15Alex_Kimmy02(An ongoing series of interviews of redwood empire runners by Alex Wolf-Root)

To be honest, this intro blurb is likely a bit unnecessary; who in the running world, especially our Redwood Empire running world, doesn’t know Kim Conley? Excuse me, Olympian Kim Conley. Her dramatic finish in the 5,000m at the 2012 Olympic Trials will be forever etched in the history books, as will that look of excited disbelief. However, Kimmy is far from a one-race wonder. As a prep at Montgomery HS, she was a member of the Viking’s State Championship team (2000), a two-time NBL champion on the track, a state qualifier in the 1,600m, and still 6th all-time in that event. While at UC Davis, she was the first Aggie to qualify for the NCAA XC Nationals since they moved to Division I, and since her Olympic experience has captured US titles in the 10,000m and half-marathon.

However, the last 10 months she has been a bit off of the radar…

Question: After many years of consistent, steady improvements, this year you’ve finally seemed mortal. Can you tell us a little bit about how the year has played out since your injury earlier this spring?

Answer: I spent the winter and spring doing everything I could get healthy and be ready to toe the line at the U.S. [Track & Field] Championships. There were a lot of stressful moments as I travelled around the country seeking medical advice and looking for the “magic bullet” (that doesn’t exist!) all while trying to build fitness cross training and on the Alter-G. The more I pushed myself, the more it seemed my body pushed back against me and eventually I had to take a step back and look at the big picture of what I was doing to myself and how it could affect my goals in the long term, specifically looking beyond the World Championships and into the Olympic year.

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Being the reigning 10,000m National Champion and having made the finals in the 5,000m two years ago, this couldn’t have been easy. How tough was it to make the call?

It was very difficult to make the decision to not have a track season and give up the opportunity to compete for the US at the World Championships. Putting on the USA singlet is always a huge honor and what I look forward to most when I set my goals.

I am fortunate to be surrounded by a great support network, and between conversations with New Balance and [Coach] Drew [Wartenburg] I was finally able to decide to forego the track season and allow my body to heal on its own time. It still took longer than I had hoped, but fortunately I am past that rough patch and moving forward.

Notably, you’ve PR’d on the track every year of your career. While clearly not as big a deal as qualifying for Worlds, it’d be sad seeing that streak end!

We still have a few months of 2015 left and I have a track 10,000m scheduled for December 6th, the Pacific 10,000m Pursuit, so there is still a chance I can keep the PR streak alive!

Track in December?! While not common in the US, it’s great to see your club NorCal Distance step up to change that. Care to tell us a bit more?

The Pacific 10,000m Pursuit is intended to fill a hole in the schedule for distance athletes who are coming off fall road seasons or getting ready for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. We’ve found over the past couple years that early December is a time when my fitness is very good but I don’t have a race on the schedule to use it, so Drew reached out to several coaches across the country to see if there were other athletes out there who had found themselves in similar situations. The feedback was very positive, so he went about creating this opportunity for us.

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And it looks like you’re priming yourself to be ready for that opportunity, as you’ve shown some useful fitness at the recent US 5K and 10mi championships. How do those play into this 10,000m, and the upcoming year as a whole?

I am using the fall road season to simply compete against other top U.S. athletes and integrate myself back in the competitive arena. In December I’ll run the Pacific 10,000m Pursuit with the hope of putting up a decent track 10,000m time while we’re still in the 2015 calendar year. At that point I will turn my attention to the track and race a couple indoor races (probably a mile and a 5,000m), before hitting reset and then gearing up for the 2016 outdoor season.

Speaking of the mile, you ran a ridiculous middle-distance indoor campaign in 2014, including a scintillating 4:24 mile. Do you have any desire to drop down in distance sometime and focus on the 1,500m? Or will you continue to view those middle distances as support events?

I don’t think I will ever fully focus my training and racing around the 1,500m, but I definitely think there is a place for it in making me a more competitive athlete over 5,000m and 10,000m. From a big picture view, it will always be a secondary event, however in the moment when I am racing a 1,500m or doing a mile specific workout I approach it as though that is my primary event and try not limit myself by not completely owning it.

Well what about the other side of the spectrum? Obviously your 1:09:44 got people talking about the marathon, and you’ve made clear that you’d like to run one someday. Should fans keep an eye out at LA 2016 just incase, or, assuming not (I assume not!), when do you think you may make your debut?

I really enjoyed racing the US Half Marathon Championships last January, and the experience definitely made me excited for a future where I can continue to move up in distance. There isn’t a definite time line set, other than that it will be sometime in the next Olympic cycle. As long as I take well to the training and the race, I would love to be in the 2020 Olympic Trials for the marathon and competing as a marathoner in Tokyo.

Well for now we’ll just have to keep our eyes on the track! Speaking of the oval, the US just went 3-4-5 in the 10,000m at Worlds, the best finish I can remember. How was it watching that?

It was very awesome! When I watched the 10,000m at USAs I knew we were sending a great team to the World Championships. In championship races you have to be open to the possibility that anything can happen. To watch Emily [Infield] finish third in the US and then finish third in the world confirmed that women’s distance running in the US is in a great place and made me very excited to be a part of it.

And much of that greatness is now flocking to Sacramento, California, in the form of your NorCal Distance Project. Can you tell us a little about how this group has grown from just Drew coaching you post-graduation to now having top post-collegiate women moving down to train in your squad?

I guess you could say it began when Lauren Wallace graduated from UC Davis, decided to continue running as a professional, and asked Drew to coach her. Drew and I already had developed a routine and it was easy to integrate her into that system. Once there were two of us running well in that system other athletes took interest. It didn’t take long for us to desire more formality, in terms of being an official group with a name, logo, website etc rather than simply a group of professional runners training together. Creating that formal, professional environment is a full-time commitment though, and so the biggest evolution came when Drew decided to resign from his position as the director of track and field at UC Davis to pursue developing a post-collegiate group. The group continues to evolve, but the core principles of creating a professional environment to develop athletes to compete on a national and international level will remain constant.

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And unlike other groups, yours has the ability to compete in a wide range of events, from Lauren at 800m, to Kate Grace at the 1,500m, all the way up to you in the half. How is it working with athletes who excel at the shorter stuff instead of just working out with other long distance women?

Our training is designed such that we touch a variety of paces throughout a week and training cycle so we often have room for overlap. I enjoy any opportunity to be pushed and love it when I get the chance to workout with both Lauren and Kate.

But before you had such a strong group, and before you were an Olympian, you were living the tough post-collegiate life. What were those years between June ’09 and July ’12 like, without a major sponsor or team?

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Looking back on it now, I can see how hard it was (especially compared to my current situation), but at the time I didn’t know any better and I was very happy to be chasing that dream. Each year I ran much faster than I had the year before and I was quietly working my way up the ranks of US distance running, and I was enjoying that process of improving and having a big picture vision that culminated with the 2012 Olympic Trials.

And it was at those 2012 Trials where we first saw that New Balance logo on you, and now we see they’ve joined forces with your squad as a whole. (Though you do let athletes have other sponsors, like Oiselle, which is pretty awesome.) How is it having such a huge brand so intimately involved with you and your squad?

I have had a great relationship with New Balance since partnering with them in 2012. Putting on their singlet at the Olympic Trials was an important component of what helped me believe that I belonged in that field and contending for a spot on the Olympic team. Since then, they have been extremely supportive of the vision Drew and I have for my career, in terms of experimenting with different distances, expanding my range, and developing a post-collegiate group. Their support of the group allows us to give the developmental athletes with us access to resources that I didn’t have at that stage to help make their path a little smoother in pursuit of the Olympic Dream.

While you’re clearing making waves in the national scene, to this audience back home you’ll always be a Viking. Let’s go back to those HS days. As many know, you were a freshman on that amazing Montgomery HS team led by Sara Bei (now Hall, look for her interview in future months!) that captured the California D1 Title in 2000. How did that introduction to running effect the trajectory of your running career.

Winning the state title in 2000 was a great introduction to the sport of cross country. That season taught me right off the bat about the importance of setting goals, working with and for teammates, and maintains belief in ourselves and those goals even in the face of obstacles. Those lessons have served me throughout my career and I can still call upon my experiences that season for motivation to this day.

Thinking back to those prep days, who would you say were some of your biggest role models or positive influences?

My coaches, from my youth days with Santa Rosa Express, to Jr. High at Slater Middle School, and of course at Montgomery High School, definitely had the most profound affect on my career. I will never forget when I was graduating from Montgomery and looking forward to running at UC Davis, a conversation with Larry Meredith where he asked me to promise him that no matter how rigorous or challenging running became in college, to never lose my love for the sport. I never have, and even though I treat running very much as a profession now, at the core I train and compete because it’s what I love to do and I love what it brings out in me.

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To what would you attribute your transformation from that new Viking runner back in 2000 to the world class runner you are today? What advice would you give to the current prep runners reading this today who want to see how far they can go?

The trajectory of my career is due to steady progress over many years. I have been fortunate to have sustained very few injuries and I have stacked together weeks, months, and years of consistent training. I am always learning about myself and looking into ways to continue to refine my approach and get more out of myself. It is a process I really enjoy and makes me excited for my continued development.

And the question I’m expecting most of the club wants me to ask: when will you come back and reclaim your Kenwood 3K title?!

One day! July 4th falls in the heart of the track season, so as long as I’m competing as a professional track athlete it’s unlikely I’ll toe the line in Kenwood. Once I have retired it will make it back into the rotation.

Thanks for the chat Kimmy, and I can’t wait to see what you do on the oval in the near future, be it in Sacramento or Rio!

To follow Kimmy as she continues on her amazing journey, your best bet is really to just pop on over to the American River Trail in Sacramento! But for the rest of us all around the world, you can follow her journey on Twitter, Facebook, and her personal blog, complete with discussions and all!

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