Washington, DC
Runners start the 3,000 meters at the Sept. 21, 2016 Tidal Basin Run. Photo by Karsten Brown

It may be older than the Marine Corps Marathon, but the Tidal Basin Runs might be the best kept secret in Washington’s running community — and its tight-knit group of members seems to like it that way.

Every month since April 1974, the club has met for what can only be described as the most covert race you’ve probably never seen or heard of. Yet the meticulously kept race results date back over 15 years and some runners have been participating for over 30.

There’s no entry fee (other than the club’s $10 annual membership fee), no bibs, no timing chips or race clock, no awards, and no commemorative t-shirts. In fact, there’s barely a start line — just a faint white line drawn across Ohio Drive SW that’s been slowly erased over the years by the elements and countless runners, cyclists, and vehicles that have made their way around the tip of Hains Point.

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Lasure tracks her progress on a map of the Alexandria’s streets.

For the last 19 weeks, Stephanie Lasure has been running every street in the City of Alexandria. She is weaving her way through every nook and cranny — down every block in Old Town, around every cul-de-sac in Seminary Hill and up every ascent in Rosemont.

Over 151,000 residents call the City of Alexandria home, nestling themselves into an area that’s only a little over 15 square miles. But as Lasure has slowly checked street after street off her list, she’s logged nearly 240 miles –and she’s not done yet.

Lasure was inspired by a professional ultrarunner she follows on Instagram, a man named Rickey Gates. On Nov. 1, 2018, he set out to run every street in San Francisco, ultimately covering over 1,300 miles in 47 consecutive days. His effort spawned a mini-movement of sorts, complete with its own hashtag — #EverySingleStreet — that now stretches across the globe, spanning from San Francisco to New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, and Brazil. The number of runners tackling new cities seems to grow every week.

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Sandra Charles runs at dusk in Adams Morgan. Photo: Sara Alepin/Photos from the Harty

Washington-area runners are fortunate to have miles upon miles of trails and paths at their disposal. We can essentially run clear from one side of the metro area to the other and everywhere in between. But the region’s weather extremes, our isolated and dully lit trails, and our blighted stretches of paths often force many runners to shift their routines — for safety’s sake.

Even for those who feel they know Washington’s labyrinth of streets and trails like the back of their hand, sometimes runners can go more than a mile without another person in sight. This can leave runners vulnerable, as one runner who anonymously shared her story with us remembered.  

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Adam Schwaber pushes his daughter Julia up Wilson Boulevard at the end of the Four Courts Four Miler.
Adam Schwaber pushes his daughter Julia up Wilson Boulevard at the end of the Four Courts Four Miler. “Julia kept asking me why I was slow and told me to go faster,” he said. “I don’t usually take her out on training runs, but for races that my wife and I both want to run, I usually bring Julia along in the stroller.” Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photography

Let’s get something out of the way early: There’s nothing wrong with people passed by a running pushing a stroller.

When Alexandria’s Matias Palavecino breezes by with Leo or Chloe in their BOB, know its an Ironman world championships qualifier getting in a little resistance work. He and young Leo trounced the competition several times at the Patent and Trademark Office Society Innovation 5k.

At last year’s Alexandria Turkey Trot 5 Miler, he finished fourth in his age group with a time of 28:43 and earned himself a first-place finish in the stroller category.

Meanwhile, former Alexandria resident Emily Potter did most of her training for the Olympic Marathon Trials while pushing a double stroller.

So just because they’re running for two, or three, that’s no reason to discount them, or, race directors, listen up, relegate them to the back.

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Good Counsel's George Drewyer edges The Heights' Ian Dennis. Photo: Marleen van den Neste
Good Counsel’s George Drewyer edges The Heights’ Ian Dennis. Photo: Marleen van den Neste

For the second consecutive year, Dalton Hengst of McDonogh nabbed the top spot in the varsity large school race at the Maryland-D.C. Private Schools Cross Country Championships. But this time, it was far from the neck-and-neck race to the finish he experienced last year. He blew away the competition, running 15:29 — a full 44 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Hunter Petrik, of Mount Saint Joseph (16:14), and a 20-second PR over his time last year.

D.C.-Maryland Private School Championships

Nov. 12, 2016 – Agricultural History Farm Park, Derwood, Md.

Results

Photos by Marleen van den Neste

I definitely went a lot faster than I thought I was going for the first mile — 4:40 was a little too fast for this course,” Hengst said. “But it was a big mental game out there. That was the hardest part.”

Rounding out the top three in the varsity boys large school race were Petrik and Alex Whittaker, both of Mount Saint Joseph, who finished in 16:14 and 16:24, respectively. Overall, the Mount Saint Joseph boys grabbed four of the top 10 finishes, earning a first-place finish in the team competition. They were followed by Our Lady of Good Counsel, Sidwell Friends, St. Albans and, in fifth place, Georgetown Day.

In the varsity girls large school race, National Cathedral junior Page Lester took an early lead within the first few hundred meters and held on throughout the rolling, 3.1-mile course. When she crossed the finish line in 17:59 — course record time — there were no other runners in sight. This was her second first-place finish in just seven days after winning the DCSAA Championships last weekend in Kenilworth Park.

“Over my high school career, this is my sixth time doing [the Derwood, Maryland course]. I’m used to it,” Lester said, adding that she noticed the absence of Megan Lynch, a freshman at Georgetown Visitation, which, along with Gonzaga, did not compete in both championships. “[We] usually go out in the first mile and a half, but they weren’t here today. So I wasn’t really sure if there would be someone to go out with me.”

Lester opted to start the race at a conservative pace — a relatively new strategy for her, but one that has been paying off this season. Her closest competitors,

Genevieve DiBari and Isabel Barnidge , both of Stone Ridge, finished in second and third place with times of 19:31 and 19:45, respectively.

Senior William Jones, of St. Maria Goretti, finished first (15:58) in the varsity boys small school race and second overall, just 29 seconds behind Hengst.

I felt pretty good. I made sure I sprinted out to get in front of the crowds so I didn’t get boxed in, and I just tried to stay in the lead as long as I could,” Jones said. “I kept looking at [Hengst]. I just tried closing the gap. I just hammered hard.”

Luke Armbruster (16:37) of St. Andrew’s Episcopal took second in the varsity boys small school competition, followed by The Heights senior Matthew Zischkau (16:44). Overall, The Heights took home first in the team competition, with Lions Upper School in second and St. Andrew’s Episcopal in third.

Several of the Sidwell Friends  seniors were thrilled with the way they ended the season.

“We’ve had a pretty strong pack this year. When we run together, we really push each other hard. So it’s good to run that way,” said Amal Mattoo.

Christian Roberts said the team’s strategy for the end-of-season race was to “have fun.”

“It’s always one of the harder races,” he said. “There are big schools like Mount Saint Joseph and Good Counsel — teams we don’t see a lot. It’s the end of the season when we come together and have fun being competitive.”

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Hand-crank cyclists lead off the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon. Photo: Jimmy Daly
Hand-crank cyclists lead off the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon. Photo: Jimmy Daly

Push-rim wheelchair racers and handcyclists are familiar on the courses of D.C.-area races, but that’s not the case elsewhere in the country.

For as long as Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger can remember, running has been a part of her life and of her family’s. Three years ago, the competitive runner was vying for a Boston qualifying time — and missed it by mere minutes. It was a blow, but she was young and certainly would have another shot.

Just a few months later, in March 2013, Elmlinger learned she had synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue tumor, in her lower left leg. While she avoided amputation, the nine surgeries that followed left her without function in her leg. It was difficult to walk, let alone continue to run competitively.

After three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, she began caring for wounded warriors as a nurse on the orthopedic unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and knew her competitive life was not over.

While her cancer diagnosis was devastating, getting back on the road and track as a push rim athlete was bittersweet. In a short time, she’s become an accomplished wheelchair athlete, earning gold medals in the 100m and 400m women’s wheelchair races at the 2014 Invictus Games in London. And she won four silver medals as the only woman to compete in last year’s Warrior Games  held at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Quantico, Va.

Earlier this year, the fierce competitor set her eyes on a second shot at qualifying for Boston.

“I’ve always been a person that always has some type of athletic goal,”  Elmlinger said. “My thought was, ‘I’m going for it and I’m going for it in the chair.’”

Elmlinger qualified by more than 10 minutes after her third-place finish in the women’s push rim division at the 2015 LA Marathon — her first in a wheelchair. This fall, she traveled to D.C. from her home in San Antonio to compete in the 2015 Army Ten-Miler’s push rim division.

“I wish other people could experience what I’ve been able to,” Elmlinger said, adding that she considers herself lucky to live in a community that has a strong Paralympic and adaptive sports scene. Still, it’s often difficult to find races that will allow her to participate. That’s why she comes to Washington.

At races across the D.C. area, wheeled athletes — both push-rim wheelchair racers and handcyclists — are a common sight. For roughly 20 years, two of Washington’s biggest races, the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) and the Army Ten-Miler (ATM), have welcomed wheeled athletes with open arms.

But elsewhere across the country, these competitive athletes have fought to be included in the local race scene. Tami Faram, public relations coordinator for the Marine Corps Marathon, explained that because handcycles have gears and brakes, they’re considered bicycles and fall under the jurisdiction of USA Cycling — so many marathons don’t allow them.

In fact, USA Track & Field (USATF) sanctions only allow for a push rim division “provided the wheelchair (push rim) race is done as a separate division or course from the running event,” according to USA TF spokeswoman Jill Geer. Handcycles aren’t even allowed.

“Handcycles are not covered in our area of oversight or insurance,” Greer explained, adding that handcycles are a “different category of equipment.”

Logistically, wheeled divisions require additional planning, something not all race organizers seem to want to do. For starters, handcycles are much faster than push rim wheelchairs and in some cases blaze through the course so quickly that they easily can outrun street closures — a huge liability. A recent case against the Missoula Marathon in Montana found reasonable cause that race organizers discriminated against a quadriplegic participant by limiting the number of wheeled athletes to just eight, imposing speed limits and instructing them to yield to runners, among other offenses.

But some more progressive race organizers are changing this thinking, going the extra mile to allow for all wheelchair athletes — regardless of their mode of transportation — to participate.

“With so many wounded veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces taking up the sport, the MCM allows the wheeled division, which includes both handcyclists and push rim, to continue to participate in ‘The People’s Marathon,’” Faram said.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are approximately 4 million “service-connected” disabled veterans living in the U.S., meaning that their disability was a result of “disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service.” And while the veteran population has been declining for the last 30 years, advances in medicine have meant that more wounded veterans are able to survive their injuries; therefore, there’s been a rise in disabled veterans.

For many of these vets, endurance sports like running help them with rehabilitation and regaining the confidence they had before their life-altering injuries. Organizations like D.C.-based Paralyzed Veterans of America have been advocating for more races to allow wheeled athletes to compete.

“It is one of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s big initiatives,” says Jody Shiflett, adaptive cycling program consultant at Paralyzed Veterans of America and an Army veteran. “We work closely with race directors who are open to our involvement and suggestions on how to better accommodate more disabled athletes. The Pittsburgh Marathon is one of the latest marathons that has become more open to the growth of wheeled athletes. The Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio, also has a very progressive race management team and wants to include more wheeled athletes in their growth. Too often, race directors are limiting or even stopping the wheeled racers from competing due to liability and cost.”

Elmlinger believes there’s a “big movement” to shed more light on the issue, especially for disabled vets, and she applauds the military for helping advance the cause.

“You look at what happened with Vietnam [vets]. They weren’t treated very well. We have to change some of these things about society to allow these people to live equally,” she said. “We really credit the military for upping the game in adaptive sports. There are a large amount of wounded veterans. We can’t not do anything for these individuals.”

Army Ten-Miler race director Jim Vandak was surprised to hear there are races that don’t allow these divisions. During his 19-year tenure with the event, wheeled athletes have always been included.

“It’s important to the ATM,” Vandak said. “Many of the people … are wounded, single or double amputees that are still in the Army or they are veterans. The amount of courage and determination to get out there is an inspiration. They are out there to participate and compete and we applaud that. We welcome them.”

Elmlinger plans to return to Washington over the next few years to compete in the

Marine Corps Marathon and the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Marathon as a push rim athlete.

“Sports really do matter. It doesn’t just make me better — it makes me better for my daughter and makes me better for my friends. It has a trickle-down effect. It doesn’t just end with that person.”

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Aaron Liiva shows off his secret ingredient for a PR (and it doesn't invovle eating it). Photo: Charlie Ban
Aaron Liiva shows off his secret ingredient for a PR (and it doesn’t invovle eating it). Photo: Charlie Ban

It started by accident, but before every race, Aaron Liiva makes sure he dabs a little bit of marinara sauce on his spikes.

He doesn’t use any particular type of sauce — although the Blake senior mentioned he’s partial to Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand. Usually, he just makes a point to save some of the sauce from his pre-race spaghetti.

It began earlier this year when Liiva spilled marinara sauce all over his uniform right before a race. But that day, he ran a 40-second PR. Since then, he’s added the ritual to his long list of pre-race routines, which also include placing an oak leaf in his right sock and wearing the same bandana.

“I have a lot of pre-race rituals,” Liiva said, pointing to his bandana. “I started wearing the bandana, so I don’t want to not wear the bandana because it might be bad.”

The field at Saturday’s DCXC Invitational was full of traditions and superstitions, but food was a common theme.

Matthew Owens, a senior at Quince Orchard, said the team always goes to the same restaurant — Noodles & Company — before each race.

“We’ve been doing it for so many years. It was done before we came in, so we decided to continue it,” he said, adding that he usually gets the Wisconsin Mac & Cheese. “I’ve done well when I’ve had it.”

Owens’ teammate, Rene Mugabo, opts for 24 Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets.

“One time, my brother took me before county and I did really well, so I just kept eating it,” he explained.

Across Kenilworth Park, spectators could quickly tell which teams use music, huddles and team cheers to prepare to toe the start line.

For the last year, the Westfield boys have started each race the same way.

Photo: Charlie Ban
Colin Affterton. Photo: Charlie Ban

“We say, ‘Are you ready to get nasty?’ then we are like, ‘Yeah, we are!’ And we get a banana and throw it around,” said senior Colin Affterton, adding that they’ve dubbed “Cooking By The Book” — a rap remix of a song from a kids’ show — as the official team song.

Whether any of it helps them run faster is up for debate.

“We just have a lot of fun doing it,” he said.

The Blake girls have a similar ritual.

“We’ll scream, ‘Who are we?’ and the answer is, ‘Blake XC!'” said Claire Jacobs, a junior.

Eric Bartley, also a junior at Blake, gets hyped up before every race by listening to “Our Song,” by Taylor Swift.

“It’s actually a great song,” he explained. “I get in that moment where I feel like I can run forever.”

On the flip side, Bartley’s teammate, Jack O’Grady, has his go-to playlist of hard metal.

“It’s really intense stuff,” said O’Grady, adding that he always listens to the same songs in the same order. “I have to be kind of angry to run fast.”

For others, the start line offers a brief moment of calm before the excitement of the race.

“We always circle up and have a pre-meet talk and then we’ll say a prayer before we start,” said Logan Ali, a sophomore from Hempfield Area High School in Greensburg, Pa.

“Our coach always says to close our eyes and pictures ourselves as the champions,” said Junho Kim-Lee, a senior at Sidwell. “That’s something our coach has always done. And I like how he does that. I think it really helps to take a moment to think about how you want to run.”

Kim-Lee recalled how the tradition helped him in the early days of his cross-country career.

“I remember at my first race as a freshman. My whole body would be shaking. Even the day before, I couldn’t think. My thoughts would be scrambled,” he said. “But now I’m a lot more confident at the start line. It just helps focus on how you want to run.”

And then there are the runners who stick to their tried-and-true rituals out of fear changing them could be detrimental.

“I always wear the same tshirt and shorts the day of the race and I always bring an extra pair of socks and change into them like 10 minutes before the race,” said Sidwell senior Jordan Chernof. “It worked out once and now I’m too scared to change it up.”

“First, I have to crack my [right] hip. I can run without doing it, but it’s just something that I feel like I have to do. I started doing it my junior year and that’s when I started getting good at this,” said Maya Jacobson, a senior at Quince Orchard. “I’m also convinced that if I don’t wear this bracelet, something really bad is going to happen. The one time I didn’t wear this bracelet I put myself in the slow heat of the mile of indoor track and I ran really slow.”

For some, they rely on mantras and quotes to get them to the finish.

“I always think of this quote that my mama taught me,” said Blake senior Andy Otero. “It doesn’t really apply to cross country. It applies to when you’re being chased by a bear. It’s ‘Run faster than your friend.'”

Photo: Charlie Ban
Ella Pearlman-Chang and Talia Lehrich show off their tattoos. Photo: Charlie Ban

Ella Pearlman-Chang and Talia Lehrich, both freshmen at Woodrow Wilson, have only been on the team for a month, but they’re already thinking about establishing their own rituals for their high school cross-country careers. At Saturday’s race, they donned hair ribbons and matching temporary tattoos wrapped around their right arms.

“Our tradition is to do fun stuff before races,” Pearlman-Chang explained.

And then, of course, there are those whose only ritual is to not have any rituals.

“I don’t really believe in superstitions,” said Jason McFadden, a junior at Quince Orchard. “I don’t believe there’s anything you can do that’ll change the race other than train before. I don’t believe in those little charms. I found that tricking myself into thinking that these little things will make a difference kind of psychs me out and just makes me more nervous than I already am.”

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camp2 (1)With summer finally here, many D.C.-area high schoolers are already looking ahead to the upcoming cross country season. Namely, ways to maintain their fitness levels during the off-season or to log additional training time to start the season off strong.

We spoke with several new and long-running camps — all of them different in their own unique ways — that offer athletes a chance to break the monotony of solo training runs and learn from elite coaches and staff while having fun away from home. From the camp that loves a killer game of ultimate Frisbee as much as it loves a good fartlek, to the camp that touts its urban backdrop, there’s something for everyone this summer.

 

The Everyman Camp

American Running Camp’s history dates back more than two decades to the University of Oregon, over 3,000 miles away from the camp’s home in Portsmouth, R.I. Legendary Ducks coach Bill Dellinger — who trained stars like Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar — started the camp based on his successful “Oregon System” of distance running.

“Lectures, workouts and runs are all based on these principles — moderation, progression, adaptability, variation and callousing — and teaching campers these principles,” said Kerri Gallagher, assistant camp director, adding that co-camp directors Matt Centrowitz and Pat Tyson both ran for Oregon under the tutelage of Dellinger in the 1970s.

The staff at American Running Camp, which will take place Aug. 1-6 on the campus of Portsmouth Abbey School, is a diverse mix of Olympians, high school and college coaches, and elite post-collegiate athletes.

“We have a lot of different perspectives [from coaches and staff] having different backgrounds,” explained Gallagher, who represented Team USA at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. “We can relate to a lot of different kids, whether trying out for cross country for the first time or the runner going into senior year and top in the state and looking to have a big season coming up. I think we’re very versatile in that way.”

Aside from its incredibly experienced staff, what sets American Running Camp apart is the fact it is open to athletes of all ages and abilities from middle and high school students to adults. Campers are assigned to running groups based on their current ability and mileage background, but have the flexibility to move groups as needed. The typical day is structured around a morning run followed by a meal and strength or stretching sessions such as yoga, core or hurdles. After lunch and some free time, athletes have the option to head out for a second run depending on their ability.

“We’re very aware that every runner is at a different place at that point during the summer,” Gallagher said.

Each day ends with a fun evening activity. At the close of camp, runners participate in a casual, non-competitive race as a way to gauge their fitness level and abilities heading into the official cross country season.

Additional perks of American Running Camp include on-site housing in Portsmouth Abbey School’s dormitories and a fully staffed dining hall that is very accommodating of dietary needs, Gallagher said.

 

The Urban Camp

This July, Pacers Running’s DCXC Distance Project will hold its first summer cross country camp, DCXC Camp, on the campus of Georgetown University. Athletes will get a taste of being a Washingtonian runner over the four days (July 23-27), including running through Rock Creek Park, Glover-Archbold Park and along the C&O Towpatch, participating in the Crystal City Twilighter 5K and exploring the National Mall and Smithsonian museums.

“This is the only camp that I know of that highlights it as an urban camp experience. It’s a unique feature,” said Landon Peacock, assistant manager at Pacers 14th Street and the camp’s director.

The day-to-day structure of DCXC Camp will be modeled after the 42-year-old Wisconsin Cross Country Camp of Champions, where Peacock, a two-time all American from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked for five years. The camp will feature clinics on strength and conditioning, injury prevention, form and gait analysis, and running workouts. Most notably, campers will have one-on-one contact with runners who have competed at the collegiate, professional and Olympic levels.

“What makes camps [like Wisconsin] good is the counselors and how much they’re willing to engage with the kids,” Peacock said, adding that Julie Culley, a 2012 Olympian and Arlington resident, is booked as a guest speaker. “[DCXC Camp] will be a good combo of fun activities and something they’re going to learn and take from the camp to use throughout their running careers.”

In addition, campers will stay in Georgetown University’s Southwest Quad dorms and have access to the facilities at Yates Field House, which includes a 200-meter indoor track, eight-lane pool, weight room, tennis courts and more.

 

The “Un-Camp”

Nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of Madison, Va., Camp Varsity Running Camp has been churning out state champions, All-Americans and record holders for nearly 35 years. Although it’s almost 100 miles from Washington, the camp has extremely local roots and attracts many area runners. Its founder — then George Mason University coach John Cook — started the camp in the early 1980s and operated it for several years with George Watts, an All-American out of the University of Tennessee and native of Alexandria, Va. Today it’s run by Bob Digby, head track and field coach at Lake Braddock High School.

During Camp Varsity Running Camp, which this year will run from Aug. 14 to 20, athletes are up early for the first run of the day, followed by breakfast, a morning recreational activity like volleyball or ultimate Frisbee and then free time at the waterfront and on-site country store. After lunch, campers have an opportunity to squeeze in a nap before an afternoon run, followed by more free time, dinner and a fun evening activity such as capture the flag. At the end of the week there is a camp-wide relay where the victors are awarded an ice cream party.

Despite Camp Varsity Running Camp’s illustrious reputation and staff, noticeably missing from its schedule are the numerous lectures and speakers found at other running camps.

“Our camp is extremely different because the focus doesn’t necessarily rely around intense training. We spend a considerable amount of time on non-running things,” explained Bob Digby, director of Camp Varsity Running Camp. “I’m a believer that kids are not in great shape in August and if you take those kids and pound them for a week, you’re going to send them back to their coaches broken.”

While it may seem like an unproductive concept, Camp Varsity Running Camp is a disruptor by design — borrowing some of the “fun, goofy activities” from the six-week recreational camp, simply named Camp Varsity, that precedes it. And Digby, who has worked at the running camp since 1983 before taking it over 12 years later, has no plans to change its philosophy of fun.

“Our camp focuses on the recreational, fun part of it. It affords kids the opportunity to be kids, [especially for] juniors and seniors who are stressed out about college,” he said, adding that many of Lake Braddock’s coaches opt also to coach at the summer running camp, giving their teams a chance to see them in a “non-coaching role,” goofing around and dressing up silly for dinner. “That’s such an important thing for kids to have and they just don’t get at that age. It’s nice to be able to provide that.”

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Hiruni Wijayaratne finishes the Rock 'n' Roll DC Half Marathon. Photo: MarathonFoto
Hiruni Wijayaratne finishes the Rock ‘n’ Roll DC Half Marathon. Photo: MarathonFoto

For Hiruni Wijayaratne, the last six years have been a whirlwind adventure. The track star — who won a 3,200m state championship as a junior at Herndon High School — is now eyeing the chance to represent her native Sri Lanka at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing this August.

Although her career at the marathon and half marathon distances has been brief — only spanning about six months — it’s been wildly successful. Last October, she was the first-place female finisher at the Evansville Half Marathon in Indiana. A month later, her debut marathon in Indianapolis — where she clocked 2:43:35 — was just seconds shy of making the marathon trials-qualifying cut for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. It was fast enough, however, to qualify to compete as part of the Sri Lankan national team.

But the excitement of qualifying has been somewhat clouded by immigration regulations both at home and in a country nearly 9,000 miles away. Like millions of other immigrants, Wijayaratne renounced her native citizenship upon becoming a U.S. citizen last year. Now, to solidify her place on the Sri Lankan World Championships team, Wijayaratne needs to become a dual citizen of Sri Lanka — which has been an extensive process.

“The Sri Lankan government was willing to consider me a ‘special case’ and accept a request for dual citizenship. Then the Sri Lanka elections occurred [in January], a new president stepped into office and, since, the political agenda and regulations have been a mess,” she explained. “They are now requesting double the application fee — which is a lot of money — and to summon a special committee to review any application, which is taking a very long time.”

Wijayaratne has spent the last 15 years away from the country, making her a relatively unfamiliar face in the Sri Lankan athletics scene. She has several Sri Lankan national records pending in the half-marathon, 15k and 10k, and did receive positive press when a national newspaper, The Sunday Times, wrote about her stellar performance at the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis. But her best chance to make the team is to do well at her first Boston Marathon appearance on April 20, when she’ll toe the start line with the elite women.

“I hope to run fast enough in Boston for my ‘net worth’ in athletic terms to increase, which should lead to an expedited [dual citizenship] process,” she said, adding that she expects to know the Sri Lanka Athletics Association’s final decision shortly after the Boston Marathon. Despite the high stakes, Wijayaratne is thrilled just to be competing in the iconic race.

“Boston will be my first time in a race of that caliber,” she said. “I’m in the elite field and I’m ecstatic. I don’t know how that happened.”

Wijayaratne humbly credits her success as “beginner’s luck,” but Pete Sherry, her coach at Herndon, knew she had the potential to be a great runner since she took her first lap around the track back in the fall of 2005, when she was just a freshman.

Sherry, who won silver in the World University Games in 1991 and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials three times, credits her success to talent and consistent training. He coached her for four years in high school and, since then, they’ve stuck together. Sherry now coaches her via phone from her new home in Evansville. Although it comes with challenges, Sherry believes their decade-long relationship serves them well.

“I know her so well that we’ve clicked. I get her,” Sherry said. “Not being able to see her work out is the only real issue. There are times during training I may have given her more or less depending on how she looked. She is incredibly driven. To be able to handle this training, work full time and live in Evansville is amazing.”

Wijayaratne, who also received her MBA from the University of Kentucky in 2014, works approximately 60 hours each week as an executive team lead at Target, which she said is a demanding job, both physically and mentally. She spends roughly 90 percent of her workday on her feet. Couple that with running 80-100 miles a week and the lack of quality training facilities in Evansville, and Wijayaratne has a tough workload.

“This is where Pete Sherry excels,” she said. “He understands I can’t train like a professional marathoner because I’m not one. So we have figured out a way to squeeze in workouts wherever and whenever. There are days I run just before midnight to get the miles in that day! But, hey, what’s success without a little sacrifice?”

She and Sherry make it work, shifting workouts and rest days depending on her schedule each week. Wijayaratne logs 10 to 12 miles three times a week, with strength training and treadmill work on Thursdays. Her long runs of 16-22 miles typically land on Tuesdays — a bit “unorthodox,” she said, but allow her to get the recovery time she needs. Wijayaratne works every other weekend, so on her Saturdays off, she gets in a second workout.

Despite Wijayaratne’s unconventional schedule, she’s confident she’ll perform well in Boston later this month. Her goal is simple: just run faster than she did in Indianapolis. From there, she’s gunning for a spot on the 2016 Olympic marathon team in Rio de Janeiro, when she’ll be 25.

“I think the goal is feasible,” she said. “I’ve already run under 2:44 for the Sri Lankan team. But if for some reason it isn’t in the plan for this coming Olympic games, then Tokyo [in 2020] would be one of my last and best chances either for Sri Lanka or the U.S.”

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Here to Stay

Eritrea native Weini Kelati came out of nowhere to take high school running by storm

Photo: Ed Lull
Photo: Ed Lull

She blends in with her classmates at Heritage High School, constantly joking around and texting with her friends and cross country teammates. But Weini Kelati doesn’t share the same stories with her classmates about growing up in Leesburg, having shown up a year and a half ago from a country only her most geographically-astute classmates knew about — Eritrea.

Now a junior academically, the 19-year-old has been making headlines all school year as she nabs win after win, including the 2015 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in December and a national high school record 16:08.33 for the 5000 meters at the New Balance Nationals Indoor in New York, two seconds faster than the existing record set my Anna Rohrer last year in 16:10.79. But her journey to become a champion — which began half a world away on the east coast of Africa — was not easy.

Coming to America

Eritrea borders Ethiopia and Sudan on the Horn of Africa. Therace she ever ran, she recalled, was in her sixth grade physical education class, and she hated it. But soon enough, her natural talent took over. At age 12, she already was a top-ranked runner in Eritrea, racing well outside of her age group and mixing it up with professionals in their 20s.

She competed at international meets across Europe as a teenager, but she was mostly unknown in the United States. In July 2014, at 17 years, Kelati ran 9:12.32 to finish eighth in the 3,000 meters at the at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore.

Then, she didn’t go home. She applied for asylum and moved to Leesburg to live with her third cousin and now guardian, Amlesom Teklai, also an Eritrean immigrant and former competitive runner for West Potomac (Alexandria) in the late 1990s. Teklai, who first approached Heritage cross country coach Doug Gilbert, didn’t know he had a distant relative in Kelati until another family member in Texas asked him to take her in.

“[Amlesom] told me he just enrolled his cousin [at Heritage] and she loves to run. He mentioned she had just gotten back from the world championships,” Gilbert said. “It was at that point I Googled her name and very quickly found out who she was. It’s been a pretty large whirlwind since then.”

Kelati’s Eritrean Roots

Kelati doesn’t volunteer much about leaving Eritrea, spinning any question into a chance to talk about how excited she is to be in the United States, but it’s easy enough to find any number of reasons she’d be motivated to leave behind all she knew, her family, her friends.

Human Rights Watch calls the country’s record “dismal,” and the numbers — the United Nations estimates 5,000 émigrés flee the country every month — back that up.

Eritreans now make up the third-largest migrant group — behind Syrians and Afghans — trying to reach Europe. It’s a dangerous journey that requires crossing the borders into Ethiopia and Sudan, then on to Libya and across the Sahara. Finally, they must make the treacherous trip across the Mediterranean.

Many are leaving the country because of its forced military conscription. Eritreans are required by law to serve in the country’s military for 18 months when they reach 18 years of age, yet many remaining conscripted for 10 years or more while earning incredibly low pay that places an undue financial burden on their families.

Kelati shares a heritage with American Olympian Meb Keflezighi, whom she got to meet at the Foot Locker championships. But the two didn’t spend much time talking about the old country. “We both know about Eritrea so we didn’t need to talk about it,” she said, matter of factly.

That sums things up.

It’s been difficult, of course, to be thousands of miles removed from her family and friends. While Washington, D.C., has the second-largest African-born immigrant population in the U.S., the Eritrean community is undeniably small. But what she lost when she left Eritrea, she gained as part of a new family at Heritage.

A Strong Start

Fresh off an impressive finish at the World Junior Championships, Kelati had a strong start to her first cross-country season at Heritage. Despite stopping to tie her shoe not once, but twice, during the Oatlands Invitational in September 2014, Kelati maintained a 5:52 pace to win in 18:12.

“She was doing what I thought was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible stuff.’ I’ve had some incredible distance runners, but no one ever touched what she was doing,” Gilbert said.
But later in the season, her momentum began to fade. Battling a language barrier, Kelati struggled to explain the level of training she was accustomed to in Eritrea — and her fitness level suffered. She had been conditioned to run on Eritrea’s mountainous terrain, a drastic change from Northern Virginia’s grassy, rolling hills. Despite their best efforts, Gilbert and Kelati could not get aligned on her training. Though she made the national finals, she finished 20th. Given the excitement that surrounded her debut, it was a letdown, and to nobody more than Kelati.

“She speaks Tigrinya, a language most people probably never heard of. It was pretty nerve-racking. I did a lot of big arm motions and speaking loudly, which is not the right approach,” Gilbert said, laughing. “We could look at times and paces all day, but in terms of explaining why we’re doing certain workouts … it was tough last year.”
It wasn’t until they were returning from the state championships that November that Gilbert finally understood Kelati needed to be pushed harder than the rest of the team for her to stay on top.

“Everything was intense in Eritrea. There really was no such thing as a recovery day for her. Even on easy days, she was intense. I told her if we could get things together and work hard she could be the best runner in the United States,” Gilbert said. “I love how she races. I love the aggressiveness. She makes it a guts race. [But] her fitness level last year just didn’t suit that racing strategy.”

2015 FootLocker Cross Country Finals San Diego, Ca Dec. 12, 2015. Photo: Victor Sailer/ PhotoRun
2015 FootLocker Cross Country Finals San Diego, Ca Dec. 12, 2015. Photo: Victor Sailer/ PhotoRun

Becoming a National Champion

Over the next year, Kelati’s coach and teammates rallied around her, upping her training and helping her to learn English.

“This year, a major goal of ours was to tailor everything [Kelati] did, so she could race the way she wanted to,” Gilbert explained.

Teammates like Georgie Mackenzie used their workouts as an excuse to teach Kelati English. Others brought her an English dictionary and practiced with her during their lunch period, Kelati said.

“She’d teach me phrases in Tigrinya,” Mackenzie recalled. “And we just kind of got along like that. As soon as I met her, I automatically wanted to help her.”

Once Kelati’s English flowed more easily, so did her gradual return to the top of the leaderboard. In her second cross country season at Heritage, she once again placed first at the Oatlands Invitational, though this time even faster than before (17:11), blowing past the second-place finisher, the same runner as the year before, by 72 seconds. Then in October, Kelati took home the title
at the Glory Days Invitational, dipping under 17 minutes for the first time and leaving Lake Braddock junior Kate Murphy, who later won the state 6A title, in her wake.

Here is how she summed up her strategy: “I don’t think about who I am running against, if they want to come with me they can,” she said after Glory Days. “I just want to run fast.”

“She’s just going to hammer,” Gilbert added. “I can try to tell her to do something else, but she’s just going to do it.”

Nowhere was that more apparent than at the Foot Locker meet, a race she came into undefeated. Opening a several-seconds lead early on, Kelati was eventually swallowed by a chase pack. Even then she refused to let anyone else dictate the pace — she was going to run the race on her terms, and that did not include drafting and saving her energy. She fought back to the front and ahead of Illinois’ Maryjeanne Gilbert to win by less than one second.

She was a national champion of a country that was still new to her.

 

The Road Ahead

As Kelati prepares to enter her final year of high school this fall, she wraps up her last year of eligibility to compete for Heritage. She plans to focus on academics and getting into college — a goal echoed by Keflezighi.

“He told me to just be strong,” Kelati said. “And to get a good education. And after, when I’m done [with college], I could become a faster runner. But first I have to get my education.”

Kelati will undoubtedly make appearances in the Washington-area racing scene throughout the year to stay in shape, but will continue to focus her training on the 5k and 10k. Eventually, she wants to transition to competing in half marathons and marathons — maybe even gunning for a spot on the Olympic team.

“My dream is to run the marathon in the Olympics,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of RunWashington.

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