Kelly Calway eyes a rebound at this month’s Olympic Marathon Trials

As her World Class Athlete Program team stood victorious in winning the 2015 Army Ten-Miler, Kelly Calway lowered her five-month-old daughter, Hattie, into the trophy. She fit perfectly. 

Four months later, when Calway came home from Los Angeles with a stress fracture, it was her eight-year-old, Hazel who told her, “Mom, I love you,” and helped ease Calway’s fears that she had let the family down when she dropped out of the 2016 Olympic Trials.

As Calway, of McLean, nears the 2020 Trials, she’s counting on pushes from her family to help her get closer to the 25th place finish she notched at the 2012 Trials or her 2013 Marine Corps Marathon title than to her injury-shortened 2016 race. 

“My dream is to get my whole family running together,” she said. 

She’s close to it. Her husband, Chris, is training for the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Half Marathon. Hazel, now 12, has been running 5ks since she was a four-year-old in Girls on the Run, and Hattie, now 4, has run a mile. The three set up water stops and cheering stations on her long runs as she puts the finishing touches on her training. 

Don Beeby’s first conclusion when he heard about how his former West Potomac runner Kelly Brown was doing was that motherhood was agreeing with her.

“I did a double-take when I first heard” about her running 2:37:10 at the 2012 Trials, he said. “But I think that when she had her first baby, something clicked for her, and all of that work fell into place. It’s not uncommon for distance runners to get better after giving birth,” either physiologically or mentally. On top of that, he added, her high-achieving personality laid plenty of basework to add up to success eventually.

Calway came to West Potomac as she followed her father, Gen. Robert Brown’s military career back to the Pentagon.

Though she started running at age eight while the family was in Hawaii, she started making a name for herself at Killeen High School in Texas, running well for an understaffed school that offered her a softball coach during cross country season. West Potomac, and Northern Virginia in general, gave her more of a challenge, more teammates and more competition, they also gave her a coach who cared.

“When she came here, she was really lacking confidence,” Beeby said. “She wanted to set big goals, but she needed some TLC.”

That meant some more individualized coaching, and he was careful to keep her development in mind.

“We basically trained her like she was a 10k runner,” he said. “It took time — in cross country she was barely in the top 20 for our program on the Burke Lake course, but by her senior year she won the mile at the district championship and was winning the mile at the region meet until the last 100 meters.”

She noticed his influence.

“I wouldn’t have gone on to run in college if it wasn’t for Coach Beeby,” she said. “And running around here, where every week you’re on the starting line with Keira Carlstrom or Kelly Swain, you can’t let up. Northern Virginia running helped make me what I am”

Calway went on to run with Swain’s sister Erin at North Carolina State, where she balanced track with ROTC.

“I had to translate between coaches and military science professors, so they each knew what I was doing for the other,” she said. “There was a lot of getting up at 5 a.m. for PT while I was running 85 miles a week.”

That mileage fed an ambition that ended up somewhat out of touch with reality.

“I always wanted to run a marathon,” she said. “I told my coaches and they said ‘We don’t get points if you run a marathon.'”

That would wait until a few months after she graduated and was commissioned into the Army. While she was at Fort Huachuca, a friend offered her an entry to the nearby Tucson Marathon. It was time to run that marathon.

“I was so dumb. I was so cocky,” she said. “I didn’t respect the distance. I thought because I ran 18 miles in college I could do 26.”

She didn’t take water or gel for the first few hours as she ran on pace toward a 2:40 finish. By mile 22, she was falling apart and stretched the race out to finish in 3:10.

“I knew right then I wanted to run another one,” she said. “Do it right.”

She got the first part, at least, running the Honolulu Marathon seven weeks after Hazel was born in 2007, just as Chris was being deployed to Iraq. It was hectic, but she knew what she wanted, even if it would be slower than her debut.

“I needed control over something,” she said. “Running a marathon was my way of having that.” 

He came home and she headed off to Iraq herself for nine months. When Calway returned, she joined the Army’s World Class Athlete Program when she and her husband moved to Colorado Springs, and she started working with retired Air Force Academy Coach Mark Stanforth.

“I wouldn’t say I did too much to help her, but one of her first runs up here, I was biking alongside her and told her a marathoner has to be tough,” he said. “She replied in a way that let me know she was tough.”

At the 2010 California International Marathon, she dropped her PR by 17 minutes, running 2:42:19. Soon after, she started volunteering with Colorado Springs’ Landsharks Running Club and coaching with Girls on the Run as Hazel got involved with the sport. 

Then came the 2012 Trials.

“I was so intimidated to be on the starting line with people like Shalane Flanagan,” she said. “Then we ran the entire first loop together — that took all the fear out of me. It was such a fun race, so many people were working together.”

She moved up as each lap of the course in Houston passed, and she had a blast.

“I heard people cheering for me all over the course, people I couldn’t recognize,” she said. “It turns out my dad had been recruiting fans for me.”

With her 2:37:10 in Houston, Calway thought she was just scratching the surface. She was the top military finisher in the women’s race, and that complemented a number of years on world military championship cross country teams.

She came home, or as close to home as she knew growing up in the Army, and raced Marine Corps in 2013, winning by five minutes and qualifying for the 2016 Trails early in the qualifying window.

“My daughter is going to be thrilled,” she said at the time. “Hazel is six and so competitive, she loves hearing about when I win.”

With a Marine Corps win out of the way, she was off to Kuwait a few days later, where she was the first woman to serve in an infantry battalion after combat roles were opened to women. 

To her chagrin, she spent nine months  as part of a rapid response team that ended up never seeing action.

She came home, finished her master’s degree in kinesiology, had Hattie, and focused on improving her 2012 Trials finish in 2016.

“I wasn’t just happy to be going back, I wanted to do something great,” she said. “I wanted to race really hard.”

But as she started her taper, the little aches and pains didn’t go away. 

“A few weeks before the race, the doctor said it was a soft tissue injury,” Calway said. “Soft tissue? I can push through that.”

When she arrived in Los Angeles, things deteriorated.

“I was crying, trying to run my pre-race on a treadmill the day before,” she said. “I started running up and down the hallway, looking for my leg to feel a little better. I was trying to be optimistic.”

She started the race, but three miles in, her coach, Juli Benson, saw her “compromised stride” and pulled the plug.

“I collapsed on the side of the road in tears, really feeling sorry for myself, I had done all this work. I had so much to prove,” she said. “I was devastated. It wasn’t happy, it wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t the way 2012 was in any way.”

Calway had a stage four stress fracture in her femur, which doctors diagnosed a week after the race.

“I do remember being very concerned about the specific location of her fracture and risks involved in running on a fracture in that area,” Benson wrote in an email. “During my career in both coaching and running, I have been told by many physical therapists (and) orthopedic doctors that hip stress fractures are very serious and that running through this type of injury can potentially lead to a shortened career.”

She came home to West Point, N.Y., where she and Chris were teaching at the U.S. Military Academy. He was home with their daughters, then nine (Hazel) and less than a year (Hattie).

“I thought they were going to be so disappointed,” Calway said. “It was clear the girls didn’t even care, they were just happy I was home.That’s when I realized this wasn’t everything.”

That’s not to say running became less important for Calway. As her femur healed, she looked ahead to what was next — she had to keep moving ahead to new challenges. She was at West Point to teach hand-to-hand combat, and she looked at her students to see when they gave up.

“Not necessarily when they’re overpowered, but when they stop strategizing for how they’re going to approach each opponent,” she said. “It’s like racing, when you realize your top goal isn’t going to happen and you figure out what you’re shooting for now.”

She passed on trying to race the 10,000 meters in the summer’s track Trials. Instead, she ran the national Mountain Running Championship in New Hampshire.

“I definitely didn’t train hard enough for that,” she said. “Those ladies destroyed me.”

As 2016 went on, she ran that fall’s New York City Marathon in 2:42, proving that she was still capable of running fast. She started coaching West Point’s marathon club team and mentored cadets. She opened the door the other way, telling them about her struggle. 

“It took me about a year to really talk about Los Angeles after I came home,” she said. “It was really hard to share because it wasn’t something I had experienced before – to go for a goal and fail so miserably. I didn’t even get to hit the wall at 22. It was my first real failure.”

She feels like being able to share her story made a difference with the cadets.

“A lot of them have never had anything but an A in school before, and not excelling is really hard for them. Now, here’s someone they look up to talking about failure. It changes their perception.”

Calway, now a major in the Army, returned to Northern Virginia in the summer of 2018, soon after she qualified for the 2020 Trials at Grandma’s Marathon, along with her old high school friend Keira D’Amato. She dealt with hamstring and foot injuries in 2019 and a long illness at the end of the year, but as the 2020 Trials approach, she feels fresh, healthy and ready to go.

She’s coaching herself now, having come to terms with her own weaknesses on the athlete’s side of that relationship.

“I’m not always honest with how I am feeling,” without a coach on hand to watch her workouts, she said. “I push too hard. I’m always an optimist, thinking I’m doing better than I am.”

She doesn’t want those weaknesses to reflect on someone else’s coaching work, but she is also betting on herself as a coach. She has been coaching the All-Army team recently, on top of a variety of sub-elite athletes, including Selvi Rajagopal, who finished third at the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon. 

After a neighbor ran up to her one day for advice on her daughter’s high school running career, Calway has been coaching distance runners at Langley High School, writing training plans year-round and coming to practice two or three days a week when she can get away early from the Pentagon, where she is a strategic intelligence officer.

“It’s a different challenge because in high school, some kids are athletic and some show up with a running form I’d never seen before,” she said. “They come with a wide range of abilities.”

Beeby, now retired from coaching but serving as a track official, is thrilled to hear that.

“This is a real credit to Kelly, she gives back, she’s a great teacher and great motivator,” he said. “That kind of thing makes you as proud as seeing how fast kids run after they leave high school.”

It’s simple for Calway.

“I wouldn’t be running today if I didn’t have a teacher in third grade who encouraged me and coaches who kept me engaged,” she said. “I just want to give them a focused and scientific training plan so they can improve and support so they can love the sport. I don’t foresee being able to be there every day until I retire, but I feel passionately about showing kids that running isn’t strapping yourself to a treadmill and torturing yourself.”

She’s also there for Hazel, who spends most of her time swimming, but has shown talent for running and most importantly for Calway, loves it.

“She taught me to be strong and never walk during a 5k,” Hazel said. The two go on 20-minute runs together. “I just like being outside, running and talking with mom. She’s fun.”

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