Good Life Q&A with Rebecca Donaghue

From, by Chris Rosenblum:

Rebecca Donaghue

Photo By Christopher Weddle

It’s a wonder Rebecca Donaghue hasn’t run out of energy.

One of the top American female runners at 35 and an Olympic hopeful, she clocks as many as 95 miles a week training. That’s in addition to being a Penn State art education graduate student, head coach of the State College Area High School girls’ cross country team and an accomplished painter.

In a rare free moment, the former art teacher and University of Massachusetts runner recently talked about her career and aspirations.

When did you become a professional runner?

Well, officially, I guess it was 2009. I signed a contract with New Balance. That was a big breakthrough year for me.

Why? I ran really well indoors. I was setting [personal records] left and right. I qualified for my first world team for cross country. I went to Amman, Jordan, for that, competed there. And I followed up that with fifth place in the country for 5K on the track, and after that, … I went to Europe and ran some races there, and continued to set huge [personal records]. I ran a 4:12 in the 1,500-[meter race], which is equivalent to about a 4:29 mile. …Then I came back to the states and hit the road-racing circuit here. I was the top American in most of those races, and at the U.S. championships, I was second in the 5K, second in the 10K.

What interested you in running?

I think it was a combination of watching the Boston Marathon on TV, because [in Massachusetts] it’s like the Olympics. It’s on every major channel. Just watching that, and being inspired by that, and watching the Olympics on TV. But also at school, I was pretty shy. I found a lot of confidence on the playground, with little footraces, challenges, where I would beat the boys. Not all of them, but I beat a majority of them.

How did you turn pro?

When I was in college, honestly, I didn’t know what the next step would be. I had a full athletic scholarship so I was all set there, but I had a lot of injury trouble. …My last collegiate race, it was really emotional because I just didn’t know what was next for me. I knew I needed some sort of career to make money, and at that point, running, that wasn’t going to be an option for me. … in the running system, a lot of it depends on how you did in college. If you win a national title, or are even in the top 5, you can be set up pretty well financially. You can find funding a lot easier. … And I was a little shy of that. I had qualified for nationals twice in college, individually, but that wasn’t going to cut it really. I had just missed All- American, never made track nationals. … So my senior year, I knew I had to be a teacher, an art teacher, and I would figure out the running thing as I go. Luckily, I did find a good training group, Reebok Boston, and the coach, sure enough, he had coached [Olympic gold medal marathoner] Joan Benoit Samuelson. … In that group, there were some professionals, some women who had signed contracts with shoe companies. So I definitely saw what they did, and that seed was planted in my head: ‘OK, maybe I can do this.’

When did that crystallize for you?

Even after college, for a few years, I was struggling with the same injury. There was an imbalance in my hips that was causing a lot of trouble in my lower legs and feet. No one could figure it out. I went to numerous doctors and struggled while working full time as an art teacher in Dedham [Mass.].

So I did that for four years, but still thinking, ‘I’ve done professional workouts with these women. I’ve hung on to them.What would happen if I didn’t have these injuries?’ … Or: ‘What would happen if I had the time?’ … In 2003, I was laid off, the state deficit in Massachusetts … That was kind of my opportunity. That’s what brought me out here. I had started dating a teammate on Reebook Boston who had run for Penn State, so he thought, ‘Well, State College is an amazing place to train. Let’s move out there.’ And I figured I could work on my graduate degree, and he would do some schooling too, and we would just train.

So we moved out here in the fall of 2003, and I found some people who helped me with my hips, track trainers at Penn State, and they found the imbalances, and I was pain-free for the first time since 1997. It was pretty emotional running. … Just a few months later, I entered the U.S.cross-country championships, and I just missed making the [national] world [championships] team.’ … Right there, that told me I could run with these women.

What are you training for now?

Now, the ultimate goal is definitely the Olympics … To make the world team as well. This year is a world championship year. The tryouts for those are at the end of June. That’s what I’m getting ready for right now.

What are you trying out for?

The 5K or the 10K. I haven’t quite decided. I have qualifier [times] in both. And then, in not too many months, the Olympic trials for the marathon are in January.

Do you want to keep coaching?

Definitely. I always think I’ll be involved in the sport in some capacity. I hope to continue running as a master, but at some point, I know I want to go back to being an art teacher, and then I would love to just coach after school wherever I am.

Is there a link between your art and running?

There’s just a lot of discipline … you have to keep to a schedule. I mean, I’ve done a lot of projects that take as much as 40-plus hours. Just sitting down, getting prepared, getting your supplies out: It is very similar to running, the discipline involved. It sometimes is an endurance event because I tend to take a long time with the pieces I’ve done. …My style is photorealistic, but almost with a little hint of Impressionism. I’m a perfectionist. That’s why it takes me a long time.

Is this your last shot at the Olympics?

It seems to me that women in their 30s are really excelling at long distances, especially the marathon. … Signing that contract for me was pretty huge at my age. It was a struggle … If you don’t get it done in college, it’s really difficult to make your way to where I’ve gotten. As far as my age and making an Olympic team, I’m definitely competing with a lot of younger women, but there are also a good amount who are my age. … I don’t have too many more years left, but at the same time, I was injured all those years so I didn’t put in all those miles and didn’t run all those races. So in a sense, I feel like I’m fresh still. There are lot of women in their early 40s and competing with the best, so I’m thinking that’s going to be me.

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