Q + A WITH HEIDI DAHL
interviewed by Dave Milner 10.05.09
It has been an interesting journey east for 23-year-old Heidi Dahl.
While at Mountain View High School, the then Heidi Magill was a staggering 14-time Utah state champion, undefeated in any individual events on the track in-state. She graduated in 2004 as the Utah state record holder in the 400m, 800m and DMR. She was a 2-time indoor national champion in the 800m and DMR, and clocked the fastest 800m in the nation in 2002. She was also a 2-time state runner-up in cross country, and was a 3-time Foot Locker Nationals qualifier, placing 6th her senior year.
Great things were expected of the versatile runner when she signed with Brigham Young University, just three miles down the road in Provo. But after a stellar freshman year, the long-legged runner's career was essentially derailed by chronic Achilles tendinitis.
Her return to form has taken place in East Tennessee. It has been a long time coming, and she’s making the most of it now, running professionally for New Balance.
After briefly attending the University of Tennessee, Dahl established herself as a middle distance star in short order at East Tennessee State University, using her last remaing year of collegiate eligibility to rewrite the record book at ETSU. In Fenruary and March, she lowered the school 800m and 1 mile records to 2:07.21 and 4:39.39 indoors and qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships. A few months later, she lowered the school's outdoor 800m and 1500m records to 2:06.44 and 4:14.92, and then placed 6th in the 1500m at the NCAA Championships - becoming the Bucaneers' first All-American in nine years.
After carrying that momentum into the U.S Championships in Eugene, where she placed 7th in the 1500m, she inked a shoe deal with New Balance, and went on to lower her 800m and 1500m PRs to 2:00.88 and 4:09.75 respectively in Europe.
TR caught up with her over the phone and via e-mail while she was in Florida.
TR: How did you begin running?
HD: I was the first in the family to take up running. I played soccer when I was little, but when I was in junior high I joined the track team and was a high jumper. In the spring of my 8th grade year, the district track meet was held at the High School I was going to end up at, and the cross-country coach at the High School was in charge of the meet. He saw me run on our 4x400 relay (I was put on it at the last minute) and thought I looked fast, so he asked me to come out for cross-country the following fall. I didn't know what cross-country was, and when I found out I was reluctant to do it because I thought I was going to be a great sprinter and jumper. I evenutally went out for it at the end of the summer and ended up being the number 1 or 2 runner my freshman year. And it just went from there.
TR: At BYU as a freshman you placed 58th at the NCAA National XC meet, and indoos ran a then personal best in the mile of 4:39.0, finished 6th at the NCAA indoor championships, earning All-America status, repeated that feat outdoors, and then posted one of the fastest collegiate 800m in the nation that year outdoors. That's a pretty stellar first year of collegiate running.
HD: Yes, I had a good year. I ran 2:04.12 that year at the Pan-Am Junior Games. I think there were a couple of girls who ran 2:03 low that year. One of my team mates and a girl from Arkansas, I think. Outdoors I was fifth in the 1500 at NCAAs. I ran 4:15, but I had no idea what I was doing.
TR: But then, after running solidly in the fall (39th at NCAA Cross Nationals), you ended up redshirting track in 2006, right?
HD: I battled chronic Achilles tendon problems that would eventually force me to take a break from running. It had me pretty much incapacitated for two years. I took a year off from running, and then had one year of easy running. I decided to commit myself to racing again in 2007.
TR: How did you end up in East Tennessee?
HD: My Husband, David is from Oak Ridge. We met at BYU and he is currently a fourth year medical student at ETSU. When he left Utah for medical school I was starting my Junior year at BYU. We lived apart for that year, but it was really hard and decided we wanted to get married. He tried to transfer to the University of Utah, but we soon found out that transfering medical schools is pretty much imposible. So, I started looking for places to run close to him. We lived in Morristown for awhile, commuting in different directions. I had enrolled at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville while David made the daily trek to Johnson City.
TR: Did you run for Tennessee? What prompted the decision to enroll at and run for East Tennessee State rather than stay at UT and run for J.J Clark?
HD: I ran at UT for one cross-country season. I was drawn to Coach Clark because of his great reputation as a coach.
But the commute made things really hard, not to mention really expensive. At BYU I was used to only having organized practices three days a week. The rest of the time we did things on our own. I didn't realize the huge difference in time commitment that there would be between BYU and UT. UT meets for practice every day, and twice on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as opposed to BYU only meeting once on Monday, Wednesday amd Friday and running on your own the other days. So, between that and the commute, and dealing with being newly married and in a completely new place and culture, it just became too much. I decided to go and live in Johnson City with my husband and just figure out what would happen with running from there.
I spent the spring of 2008 and fall of 2009 going to school at ETSU and so I was eligible to compete for them in indoor and outdoor track in 2009.
TR: You had a great indoor and outdoor season for ETSU, culminating in a 6th place finish (just 1.06 seconds behind 2nd place) in atight 1500 race at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Did your 2009 collegiate season exceed your expectations?
HD: I don't think it was all that i was hoping it would be. Indoor nationals was pretty rough for me, I didn't even make the final. There were a couple of factors playing into that, but I know I had a faster mile in me than the one I've run.
Outdoors was good, but just like in Europe, I was a little frustrated with the way my 1500 progressed. I just wasn't running as fast as my workouts were indicating that I could. With all that said, I'm still pleased with the season. I came a really long way in a small amount of time and now a have some really positive things to build on for next season.
TR: You recently signed on with Flynn Sports Management, inked a dealwith New Balance and are now running professionally. How did that come about?
HD: I had always dreamed about running professionally, but had no idea if it would happen. I’ve learned a lot through my injuries and everything else the last few years. Hopefully, I can apply what I've learned!
Flynn Sports is based in Johnson City and Ray Flynn actually attended ETSU, so once I started running well (outdoor NCAAs) he told me he was interested in representing me. After my performance at U.S nationals he was able to get me a contract with New Balance.TR: Are you working at all, or focusing purely on running?
HD: Right now I am just running. I may get a job; I may not. David is graduating in April, and we will be moving on to residency after that, so right now we are just trying to work that out.
TR: Tell us about your first season racing in Europe and what you learned.
HD: It was really awesome. I have wanted to run professionally since I found out it was possible. When I was 14 my high school coach told me about professional runners in Europe, so it has been a dream of mine for eight years. I learned that I am capable of some pretty incredible things. It was really good for me, especially after being out with an achilles injury for two full years. I really thought that I had lost some things and that I would just never get them back. I found out on that trip that I haven't lost anything. I may be a little behind where I would have been, but all the tools are still there and so is the desire.
TR: You had a pretty great week at the end of July, setting your current 800 and 1500 PRs in the space of five days in Europe. Tell us how those two races unfolded.
HD: The 800 just happened. I just got out there and was competitive. I wasn't even worried about the time. I was focusing on my finish, because its something I feel hasn't really recovered since the injury. The time just happened. I felt really strong the whole time. Other than the fact that I didn't run, it was the perfect race.
The 1500 was a little different. I still dont have tons of confidence running the 1500. My workouts indicated that I was capable of running in the 4:06 range, but I just never made it happen. When I ran my current PR the rabbit went out a little slow, and I dont really have the confidence right now to take the race from the rabbit; that's something I'm working on. So we went out in like 2:15 I think and I just tried to finish as strong as I could. I was happy to get under 4:10 and I'll always take a PR. I'm just frustrated with myself because I haven't had the confidence to go out and just bust a really fast time. Next year for sure, though.
TR: Michelle Byrne was your coach for the last year. Is she still coaching you?
HD: Yes, although I haven't seen her in a while. I have been traveling pretty much non-stop since July.
TR: You were pencilled into run against a stacked field in the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City last weekend, but pulled out. What prompted that decision?
HD: Yes. I was really looking forward to it. I think I will really like running road miles. I took two weeks off after my last race in Europe. And when I got back into my training my body just started breaking down. It had been a really long season and we had accomplished a lot in a relatively short amount of time. So instead of getting greedy, especially considering my history with injuries, I decided it was best to not do the race and just go into my base training phase. So thats what I'm doing right now.
TR: At 5' 11" with such long legs, you certainly stand out in a crowd of distance runners. But not necessarily at home, right?
HD: Yes, I come from a large family of tall folks! My father, Michael, is 6' 4" and my mother, Nancy is 5' 10". I have five older brothers and all but one of them are in the 6'5 range. My three sisters are all tall as well. My youngest sister is 6'2. I'm actually relatively short in my family.
TR: What are your goals for 2010? Will you stick to 800 and 1500?
HD: My goals for 2010 are to stay healthy, and to get new PRs in both the 800 and 1500. I really think I am ready for a big PR in the 1500. I don't know which race I'll do more of. I think in the long run I will be better at the 1500, but right now I have a lot more experience in the 800.
TR editor DAVE MILNER is the assistant coach at ETSU's conference rivals, Belmont University. Long in the torso, but short in the leg, a cruel twist of biological fate left him with a body much the opposite of Dahl's .