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A Pandemic, Junk Food, Wildfires...and AR and WR Performances


Bowerman TC meeting, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

September 18th, 2020

For those of us who so far have been fortunate enough to sidestep the Coronavirus, there is still inconvenience. Even though we realize we must collaborate as one to defeat this pandemic, each of us must choose our own way to react, to adapt, whether it is shuttering at home; conforming with recommended protocol; working remotely; collaborating with family members; assisting with school-aged children and aging parents; etc. Decorated distance runner Shelby Houlihan has her own distinct manner of dealing with the seemingly-unending challenges of 2020 - and has nonetheless been able to set an American record and a world record along the way.


2020 Bowerman TC meeting, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

The 27-year-old Houlihan, a 12-time All American while at Arizona State University, is a member of the Bowerman Track Club and trains under the watchful eye of widely-respected coach Jerry Schumacher. In addition to dealing with the COVID-19 threat that impacts all of us, Houlihan - a Portland, Oregon resident - has had to deal with additional concerns during this topsy-turvy year: security issues arising from nightly skirmishes among peaceful protesters, outside agitators, local police, and unsolicited federal enforcers; devastating wildfires gripping increasing sectors of the west coast; and choking smoke resulting in the world's worst and most dangerous air quality. Through it all, Shelby finds a way: "There is smoke and stuff around here. It is really, really smoky. It's getting crazy," expains Houlihan. "Actually, you can't run outside now. In Portland right now, it is like the worst air quality in the world. It's not good - especially not for running." But Houlihan, always resourceful, finds a way. "I'm going to have to hop on a treadmill later today."

Bowerman TC meeting, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

The 11-time national champion easily recalls when she initially learned about the global health threat. "When I first found out it was definitely rough," explains Houlihan who immediately understood the likely consequences that were ahead. "I knew it [an extensive shutdown and interruption] was a possibility because I was seeing a lot of college programs shutting down. I knew it was only a matter of time."

Bowerman TC meeting, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

Houlihan's peculiar and perhaps mischievous response to the pandemic reality wouldn't have been predicted for any other world class athlete. "When I did find out the Olympics were postponed, I think I had a little bit different reaction than some of my teammates," she begins with a chuckle. "I ended up going to the grocery store and just buying a bunch of junk food. I was like, 'What's the point?'" she laughs. "For that next week after I found out, my diet went downhill. I just binged on like candy and cookies and junk food. That was like my morning breakfast."

Shelby Houlihan, 2019 USA Champs, 1,500m, photo by Cortney Ware

Amidst the laughter, the reigning national indoor champion at 1500m and 3000m and outdoor champion at 1500m and 5000m, explains there was a method to her apparent madness. "While I was doing that, I wasn't taking a physical break. I was still running every day and working out. It wasn't like I was getting super out of shape by doing that," she explains. "So it was like I was giving myself that mental, grieving break, I suppose. After about a week I was really sick of eating junk food. So I kind of incorporated some of the healthy eating back into it."

Shelby Houlihan and Nikki Hiltz duke it out at 2019 USA Champs 1,500m, photo by Cortney Ware

All kidding aside, Shelby sees a tangible benefit from her food frolic. "I think it was a good mental break for me. I felt like up until that point it was just like hammering year after year after year. It was actually really nice to take a year and have no pressure." And the Sioux City native saw the descending pandemic as creating an unusual and special opportunity for rejuvenation prior to a later start to an unprecedented and abbreviated season. "I didn't have to get ready for any specific big race. And when we were able to start putting on meets, we ended up to altitude camp [in Utah]. And I like to use altitude camp as my dial-in period where I usually turn it on and do all the right things. I try to treat that as normal. I did all the right things and buckled down. It was a good trip." And after a brief pause, she adds, "And then we came down and ran really fast."

Shelby Houlihan, 2019 USA Champs, 1,500m, photo by Cortney Ware

Like all training groups, Bowerman Track Club had to figure out the best way forward for its athletes. "We could train with the hope of having some races popping up in August or September. But you never know if that is actually going to happen. So we decided to create our own schedule: do races in July," explains Houlihan. The races were held at Portland's Jesuit High School track and featured an announced broadcast and all of the elements necessary to ensure any record performances would be properly recognized. "We were really fortunate to be able to do the things necessary to make it count," recalls Houlihan. "Thank God for that. I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around doing an American record in the 5K and at the end not count," laughs Shelby.

Shelby Houlihan taking the accolades, 2019 USA Champs, 1,500m, photo by Cortney Ware

BTC's novel self-initiated racing approach was a great success. In a mid-July meet, a carefully-planned assault on the 5000 meter American record was showcased. Shelby was joined by 6 of her BTC teammates in an attempt to better Houlihan's 2018 5K AR of 14:34.45. With her covey of teammates cranking out 70 second laps with Swiss-like precision, Houlihan took over late in the race, ran her final mile in 4:26, lowered her American record to a then-world leading 14:23.92, and lifting her to #12 on the 5000m all-time performer list. "I definitely think there is more there which is exciting," she explains. "I'm happy with where things are right now. Hopefully everything keeps getting better and I keep getting faster. At least I have that 14:23 [now #2 on the WL] under my belt and I know I can run faster. That's just giving me the confidence to do it a little better next time. But, yeah, baby steps..." Hey Shelby, did that springtime junk food bender aid you in your record performance? "For sure!" blurts Shelby with a laugh. "I guess that's the secret."

2019 USA Champs, 5000m, Shelby Houlihan, photo by Cortney Ware

At the end of July, it was back to the track for yet another record attempt. "Jerry thought we could get this 4 x 1500m world record; that it was definitely doable. He asked us if we wanted to give it a try. And we said, 'Yeah, why not? What else do we have to do!' laughs Shelby. "We have a number of teammates that can run 4:08 pace so I thought we had a good shot at it." With BTC athletes Colleen Quigley, Elise Cranny, and Karissa Schweizer setting the table - as they did earlier in the month in the 5K record event - Houlihan took the stick on the anchor leg with the record within reach. Running a powerful leg, Houlihan hit the line in 16:27.02 to handily take down the old AR clocking of 16:55.33 and the WR mark of 16:33.58 [Kenya; Bahamas, 2014]. "It was exciting," exclaims the relay leader with a smile. "It's not every day that you can get a world record."

2019 USA Champs 5000m, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

Looking ahead to 2021, Houlihan has ambitious, yet realistic, goals for the continued Olympic year. As for the Olympic Trials, competing in both the 1500m and 5000m is envisioned. "Yes, that is the plan: to do that," states Shelby without equivocation. "The schedule sets up perfectly because the women's 1500m is early in the schedule and the women's 5000m is toward the end of the Trials. I get the 15 out of the way early." Looking beyond to the Games, Shelby is less certain. "The schedule is not as ideal for the Olympics. So I don't know if I would do both there [if I qualified]. But I definitely want to do both at the Trials."

2019 USA Champs 5000m, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

In addition to her newly-lowered American record in the 5000m, Houlihan also holds the American best in the 1500m [3:54.99], set during her 4th place finish in the Doha world championship final last year, where she missed the bronze medal by .61 seconds and the silver by .77 seconds. With impressive range, Houlihan is the only American woman to have run sub-2:00 for 800m [1:59.92], sub-4:00 for 1500m, and sub-15:00 for 5000m. [Editor Note: A rather exhaustive search revealed only two non-American women have accomplished this feat: Germany's Konstance Klosterhalfen. and Great Britain's Laura Muir.] Which event - the 1500m or the 5000m - gives her the better opportunity for a medal in 2021 Olympic Games? Shelby - who will be 28 in February - believes it is the 1500m. "There is a lot of potential in the 5K. But I haven't raced that enough, I don't feel, tactic-wise. My gut instinct is not there in that race. I'd make dumb mistakes. Not that I don't in the 15 sometimes. But it's just that I know how to race the 15 a little better, especially at a championship level. The 5K is something I'm still trying to figure out, work on, and grow in that event."

2019 USA Champs, 5000m, Shelby Houlihan, photo by Cortney Ware

When asked about long-range career goals, athletes are often coy in their reply. But Shelby handles that inquiry differently. "I want to try and get as many medals as possible: that gold Olympic medal; World Championship medals," Houlihan offers frankly. "I also have world records in my sights - like that 5K world record [14:11.15 / Tirunesh Dibaba / Oslo, 2008]. And even that world record in the 1500m [3:50.07 / Genzebe Dibaba / Monaco, 2015] - I would love to break 3:50. Who knows if I can? But I'm going to try," states the 2016 Olympian. "While those are my goals, the more important thing for me is to enjoy the process and not to get too hung up on the end goals. Even if I don't get those goals, I want to be happy with what I did and have no regrets." I suspect in that journey there'll be an occasional Snickers along the way.

/ Dave Hunter /

2019 USA Champs 5000m, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, photo by Cortney Ware

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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