An Interview with Amy Van Alstine of McMillan Elite

AmyVanAlstineFlagstaff, AZ - May 15, 2012 - Amy Van Alstine comes from Midland Park, New Jersey, where she attended Midland Park High School and graduated with personal bests of 5:09 for 1600 meters and 10:57 for 3200 meters.  She went on to compete for University of Richmond in Virginia, earning multiple Atlantic 10 Conference Championships, NCAA Championship berths (2010 Cross Country and 2011 Outdoor Track), and All-America honors.  She holds school records in the 1500, 3k, and 5k and the conference meet record in the 1500 and was the 2011 Atlantic 10 Track and Field Athlete of the Year.  She holds personal bests of 4:19.38 for 1500 meters and 15:42.67 for 5000 meters.

Have you always been a competitive runner or did you play other sports in high school?  What drew you to running?  Are there other athletes in your family?

Amy: I played a variety of sports when I was young, but I knew I was going to run once I got to high school.  I come from a running family so it’s more or less in my blood.  My dad has been a runner since his early 20s and encouraged everyone in my family to run.  One of my sisters, Lindsay, won the New Jersey Cross Country Meet of Champions and went to Footlocker Nationals when I was in 8th grade; based on her success, a lot of people expected my siblings and me to run as well.  My older sister, Beth, was also really successful in college at NYU and USC.  My twin brother Ryan and I got to experience the meets my sisters went to and we were excited to see what we could do.  Since all of us ran, our meets were always a fun, family event!

How did you choose University of Richmond?  What was your experience like?

Amy:  My experience at Richmond was really good! I had some ups and downs but I ended my college career on a high note. I was injured a few times but my coach, Lori Taylor, was always able to help me to maintain my confidence. She met with us each week individually to discuss races, training, and anything else on our minds, which was really helpful for the team. Overall, it was a good environment because I felt as though we all motivated each other. We also had a large New Jersey contingent on the team which made it even more fun.  One of them in particular, Nicol Traynor, became a great training partner.

When trying to decide where to go to college, I was able to narrow my list down to three schools pretty easily.  However, it was my recruiting visit to Richmond that really sold me.  I felt the team and coaches there were the best fit for me compared to the other places I saw. Additionally, after emailing a bunch of coaches, I remember Coach Taylor was the only coach to call me right away.

What would you consider your most notable accomplishment(s) at UR?

Amy:  My most notable accomplishment at UR was earning All-American honors at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship in the 5k. I came close to making NCAAs before, but it wasn’t until my last year at Richmond that I finally qualified in cross country and outdoor track. Prior to that year I couldn’t get through a whole year without injury or sickness that limited my training.

Did that make you realize you wanted to continue to pursue running post-collegiately or was it something else?  What concerns did you have?

Amy:  My last year at Richmond was by far my most successful so that gave me a lot of confidence to pursue running post-collegiately. It was the first year in which I stayed completely healthy, and I felt if I could have consistent training I could improve even more.  That excited and motivated me to continue running.

To be honest, I didn’t have too many concerns.  I knew I wanted to train with a group in a location at altitude that had good running trails. My biggest concern was going so far from home since the places I was looking at were very far from my family in New Jersey. I am very happy here now and although I miss home, I haven’t really been home-sick yet.

Did you have any guidance in your process of becoming a professional runner?

Amy:  RunPro was the most amazing resource!  It just started last year and is designed to assist promising young distance runners in making the transition from collegiate to professional running. I also had friends going through the same process, so I was able to get their insights. My parents helped, too. They thought it was a great opportunity for me and helped me research potential places to train.

In March, you joined McMillan Elite nine months after finishing your NCAA eligibility and graduating.  Talk a little bit about that transition and how you decided on Flagstaff and McMillan Elite.  What did you do during that time?

Amy:  I hoped to be somewhere a little earlier than March, but it didn’t work out that way, which is fine. My plan was to live at home, train and work to save money until making my decision so I would be able to move somewhere by January.  

The location was really important to me when picking a group.  I had narrowed it down to Boulder and Flagstaff. It was a hard decision because I really liked both places, but Flagstaff seemed to be a better choice in the end.

What is your training like in Flagstaff?  Has it been difficult getting acclimated to a new group, new coach, and training at altitude for the first time?  How does it differ from your college program?

Amy:  Training in Flagstaff has been really great. Everyone has been really nice and helpful in my transition so I think that has made it so much easier to adjust.  It is also really motivating to be surrounded by so many great runners.  I’m not only talking about my teammates, but because Flagstaff is such a training mecca, other professional runners come through all the time. It’s fun because you never know who you might run into on the trails.

The training is very different than college, but I like it. College consisted more of shorter speed training; whereas now I’m focusing on doing longer workouts to increase my strength.

Would you encourage other distance runners to join a team?  What would you say are the benefits of training as part of a post-collegiate training group or specifically of being a part of the group you chose?

Amy:  Yes, in my opinion if you join the right group it will do great things for you. After being home and training on my own, it was awesome to come to Flagstaff and consistently have people to train with. Flagstaff is also the perfect place for a runner and it’s just a great running environment.  I love having easy access to trails and running on them every day. That makes up for the rough days when I can’t breathe (Flagstaff is at 7,000 ft altitude)!

You most recently competed at the Payton Jordan Invite, where you ran a 24 second personal best in your first 5,000 meter race as part of McMillan Elite (15:42.67).  What are your goals and expectations coming into this season?  What do you hope to accomplish in the long-term?

Amy:  I had big goals for this season but didn’t really know what to expect since it was my first time at altitude. I wasn’t sure how my body would respond and I hadn’t run a competitive 5k in almost a year.  However, after racing two 1500s before Payton Jordan I was able to go into the race with confidence.

I’d like to run longer distances in the future but right now I’m focusing on the 5k and the plan is to increase my strength and then my racing distance. I’d love to make the trials this year in the 5k but my ultimate goal would be to make the team in 2016 - one step at a time!

You have a BA in Psychology with a minor in Criminal Justice.  Do you see yourself using those degrees at some point in the future?  Do you currently have a job in addition to running?  How do you support yourself?

Amy:  One of the problems with attempting to run professionally is the financial side of things.  The demands on your time don’t really allow for a full time career type of job.  Not only is the training demanding, but you also spend a lot of time traveling, which makes holding a regular job difficult.

Depending on your group, you may have other responsibilities as well.  For example, part of McMillan Elite’s team charter is to improve the whole person and not narrowly focus just on the running.  Coach McMillan stresses his five circles of success which include athletics (achievement of our goals), self-improvement (core values in life), life goals/skills (preparation for our post running life and career), community involvement (volunteering and encouraging local youth), and sport involvement (promoting running and mentoring). 

As for right now, I have put my non-running career on hold but my hope is that the experience and personal growth will more than offset any negatives brought about by delaying a more conventional career.  I haven’t gotten a part time job yet.  I’ve have a few interviews set up, but for the time being I am living off of the money I saved over the course of the past year.  I do recommend getting a job, though. I will need to start doing something part-time soon but thought it would be good to focus on adjusting to Flagstaff the first few months.  I’d have to say that the financial side of things is the most unnerving and the biggest unknown.

What advice do you have for people who aspire to run professionally?

Amy: I’m just starting out so I still have much to learn. I will say that when I did my research, there seemed to be no two groups alike which in a way is a good thing because no two people are alike.  Some groups appear to be more team oriented, some focus on certain distances, and there are different arrangements and support offered.  I found is that there are different levels of groups so if you can’t get into your first choice, you can always continue to go for your dream somewhere else.

Do you have a favorite pre-race meal?  What about post-race?  Talk a little bit about your pre-race preparations (day before, night before, morning of, etc.).

Amy: My favorite pre-race meal would probably be a pasta or chicken dish. I’m not really that picky with what I eat as long as it isn’t anything weird. In high school, I had chicken fingers and french fries before a meet once because it was my birthday and I set a personal best by 30 seconds. I then ate chicken fingers and french fries before races for about two years. Once I got to college, I decided I should probably let go of that.  I’m pretty convinced that it doesn’t matter that much what I eat before a race. I try to stay pretty consistent with everything though.

Post-race, I try and eat something healthy that will help with my recovery. What I eat after the race is much more important since I tend to have trouble recovering from races. That said, I usually end the night with ice cream. It’s a reward!

Are there any staple workouts that you do to boost your confidence and let you know you're really fit?  When do you typically run those?

Amy: I don’t think there is one workout in particular. The best thing for my confidence is for all my workouts to be good, but I think I’m good at not letting a bad workout affect how I think I’ll perform in a race.

I had a mini workout before the 5k at Payton Jordan and actually felt awful. I usually try to think back to a really good workout I had so I can convince myself mentally that I’m in good shape before a race. For that race, I thought back to a 6 x 1000 workout I did a few weeks back and knew I was ready to run fast.

What is the craziest or most interesting running-related story you have?

Amy: I don’t think I have any really crazy running stories. If I do I probably can’t tell you!  I did get stung by a bee right below my eye a few years ago over summer break. The bee got stuck to my face and I had to rip it off. Luckily I was 5 minutes from my house, but my face blew up. My eyes were swollen shut for two weeks and it was really scary for me to go in public. I had to go to a bunch of doctors and they were worried I could have permanent damage in my one eye. It was rough. My friends laughed at me and my parents took pictures which they happily displayed in a slideshow at my going away party a few months ago.