In 2013, New Balance professional runner Jenny Simpson crossed the finish line of Drake Stadium’s blue oval in 4 minutes, 3.35 seconds — good for a new stadium record in the 1,500-meter run. It was at the iconic Drake Relays in Iowa, Simpson’s native state.
Karissa Schweizer, who grew up in Iowa and ran at the Relays in high school, was in the stands in 2013. She watched Simpson break the record, and she got autographs of the professional runners who competed.
Courtesy Ann Rogers of the Columbian Missourian, click here! Feature photo: Shelby Houlihan and Karissa Schweizer ©Jim Kirby 2017
At the 2017 Drake Relays, held this past weekend in Des Moines, Schweizer wasn’t watching from the stands as Simpson, now a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1,500, raced around that blue oval. Instead, Schweizer toed the line with Simpson, competing in the elite Rio Rematch 1,500 on Friday.
Simpson was one of six Olympians in that race. Others included Brenda Martinez, who ran the 1,500 at the Rio Olympics, and Shelby Houlihan — another Iowa native — who ran the 5,000 in Rio. Schweizer was one of two collegians.
“I follow all (of the professionals) on Instagram, and they’re the ones I look up to as runners, so it really meant a lot for me to be with them on the line,” Schweizer said. “Years before, I would never have imagined myself doing that.”
Schweizer ended up finishing eighth out of 13, in 4:18.16. Simpson won in 4:16.10.
The race itself was slower than one might think an elite race would be, but Simpson said that’s how championship races usually go. Additionally, it was below 50 degrees and rainy on Friday in Des Moines. It came down to the final lap to determine who was the fastest.
“The 1,500 meters is always unpredictable,” Simpson said. “The race really didn’t get strung out until 200 meters to go. It was like a total sit-and-kick race.”
Schweizer, who won the NCAA Cross Country Championship title because of a big kick at the end of the race, relied on her kick again in the last lap of the Rio Rematch. She stayed relaxed in the laps before that.
It wasn’t easy to remain composed, especially warming up.
Schweizer found out she would be running the elite race a little more than 24 hours before. Originally, Missouri distance coach Marc Burns thought she would run the 5K collegiate race. Schweizer had done a lot of racing in the past weeks, and he wanted her take it somewhat easy during the Relays.
When the heat sheets came out, the competition didn’t stack up to what he and Schweizer thought it would be. Burns had Schweizer mentally prepare for the elite competition in hopes of getting her on that elite heat sheet. Finally, Drake Relays director Blake Boldon gave Burns the thumbs-up.
“He called me on Thursday night as the men’s 4×1, 600-meter relay was finishing up, and he asked how bad (Schweizer) wanted to run (the Rio Rematch),” Burns said. “I was like, ‘Blake, she really wants to run this race.’ And he said, ‘All right. Let’s have her run the race.'”
Simpson said it’s important for some long-distance runners to compete in races like the 1,500 because it’s a way to work on speed. For Schweizer to do that against professionals is even better.
“Whether you run the 1,500-meter or the 5K, you have to be a good closer on a national and international level,” Simpson said. “I would really encourage (Schweizer) to do a couple of 15s each year to remind herself that that last lap is going to be fast no matter what. When you get on the international level in the 5K, that speed you see in the 1,500 comes in really handy.”
After learning Schweizer was to run with the elites, it was a matter of preparing for a race the way she always does — staying calm. Standing in the warmup tent with Olympic runners, Schweizer realized she was more nervous than she thought she would be.
“I saw all of them do their stride-outs, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and then I remember thinking, ‘OK, their strides are pretty fast, too, great,'” Schweizer said. “But I just had to prepare like it was a normal race and not freak out. I tried to remain looking calm so people didn’t see I was nervous.”
After the race, Schweizer relayed what had happened with Simpson and Houlihan. Simpson said the first three laps can feel as if they’re going in slow motion, and she likened the last lap to a train wreck because it’s simply a matter of who can run the fastest. The three Iowans talked about it on a peer-to-peer basis.
“I appreciate and am honored that a lot of those women in the field look up to me and are hoping to fill my shoes in the future, but when we’re on the starting line and we’re competing, I see us all as peers and equals,” Simpson said. “We’re all fighting for the same thing.”