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Interview with Rebecca Donaghue 

By Matthew Manfred
October, 2009

This year Rebecca Donaghue has been climbing her way through the rankings of the top road racing women in the United States. After graduating from Nashoba Regional High School in 1994 and then going on to two A-10 Conference titles and two NCAA berths in cross country at UMass, Rebecca pursued her desire to make it as a professional distance runner, eventually moving to State College, PA. In September she placed second at the CVS Downtown 5K in Providence, RI, the national championship at that distance, and on Monday, October 12 she again placed second at a national championship, this time at the Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women in Boston.   In 2008 Rebecca placed in the top ten at the US championships for 5K, 8K, and 10K and ran the Olympic Trials 5,000m, placing eighth. This year has seen her expand her range to include the national 15K and 20K races, placing eighth and fourth respectively, as well as winning the Stanford 10K and representing the US at World Cross Country.  Coached by Artie Gilkes, Donaghue is also a coach, guiding the State College Area High School girls cross country team which placed eighth in Pennsylvania last fall. Between the CVS Downtown 5K and the Tufts 10K, Rebecca had the chance to talk about her 2009 races, a future marathon, and outrunning her own role models.  

MM:   Let’s start off with your year, 2009. It’s been pretty good. Would you call it a breakthrough year, as far as placings go, even times?  

RD: Sort of. I kind of want to say that 2008 was really the beginning, and in 2009 I’m getting a little bit stronger.  That year I was fourth in the 10K, fifth in the 5K for the road championships and I also did the 8K and I was top ten there, so there was three US road championships where I was in the top ten and the Olympic Trials in 2008. And just really gradually it’s been getting better and better. But I think 2008 I did more road championships and placed in the top ten and now I am getting a little bit stronger and placing a little bit higher.  But probably what I just did was with the deepest field ever and the time was pretty stand out for me.  

MM: So how close to the perfect effort, the perfect race, was this past weekend?  

RD: Pretty close. You can always wonder ‘what if?’ Amy Yoder Begley, Jen Rhines and Sara Hall pulled away slightly with maybe 800 to go. They opened up a tiny bit of a gap, maybe a little bit more that I would have liked. And then kicking in with point one to go, if I’d had a little less of a gap I wonder if I could have gotten Begley (who won in 15:27 to Rebecca‘s 15:30). But of course I can say that afterwards. But it was good. You know, I didn’t really think much in the race, I just went for it. A lot of times I’ll think “Oh, there’s so-and-so”, but this time I just went and felt strong from gun to finish. And I think I ran pretty strong and didn’t let anyone pull away. There was one woman I didn’t even know about. She was an Ethiopian and she went out in like 4:44. We caught her right before the two and she just died. I was thinking ‘Where’d she come from?’ She just appeared. But she really paid for it and I don’t even know if she finished.  

MM: Wasn’t it about a twenty second PR for you?  

RD:  On the roads I ran 15:53 actually in 2007.  In 2007 I was fourth in the 5K championships, 2008 I was fifth, 2009 second. So it’s been a lot of building. So that was a 5K PR for road and track. I knew I was capable of running that time, but I wasn’t sure when, or if it was going to happen on that day.  

MM: As a US championship do they limit the field and try to keep US women toward the top of it?  

RD:  No, I don’t think so. There were three or four foreign athletes. It’s just who showed up. I think anyone can enter. They just have to prove that they have run certain times to get the lower number. Although I had 883 for my number because I was a last minute entry, so that looked kind of funny. And so did Jenn Rhines.  

MM:  Why the late entry? 

RD: Originally I had wondered if I’d do a fall marathon which is a little scary. We were just toying with the idea of Twin Cities (the US marathon championship), and the plan was to see how the New Haven 20K went. And it went okay and I ran solid. But I finished thinking ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle a marathon.’ It would only be three weeks from the 20K so there wasn’t quite enough time and my mileage wasn’t as high as maybe it should be. So we scrapped that idea and that’s why I did the 5K.  

MM:  Do you think you’ll come back to that idea? 

RD: Yeah, definitely. Not sure when. I think after Tufts (the 10K national championship on October 12) I’ll take a little bit of a break, maybe two weeks of no running…and then it’s back to building a base.  

MM:  When was your first time competing internationally?  How long have you been at that level?  

RD:  Well, actually I did an ekiden in, oh boy, it was either 2000 or 2001. I was chosen and I did the one in Seoul.  I did a 4K leg of that. It was the last leg and I got to finish in the Olympic stadium which was pretty cool. It was the biggest trip I’d ever done in my life. I was young so it was a little scary but I’m glad I did it for the experience. Then after that I did well in 2006 at the cross country championships and just missed the World team. That, actually, I’m going to say was my big, big breakthrough. Kara Goucher beat me and she was able to go because somebody had an injury and she was the alternate. I was eighth. She was seventh.  Instead I was chosen for the NACAC team so that was an international team and I was the first American there and third overall.  

MM:  What’s been the trajectory of your career as a professional runner?

 RD:  Two years ago New Balance started to support me a little bit more, and that definitely has helped a lot. I was able to cut back on one of my jobs. I had a job at Penn State as a part-time study hall monitor. That was kind of lame, but any little bit of cash I could get I could use for bills and stuff. After U-Mass I ran for Reebok Boston and that was just for gear. I was working full-time as a teacher, commuting 50 minutes to work and did that for four years. I was also coaching. So I was doing my runs at night, go home and go right to bed. It just wasn’t the ideal set up and I knew I wanted to be a professional runner. But with budget cuts at U-Mass in 2003 I was cut as an art teacher. That’s when I really sat down and said ‘I’m going to go after this.’ I moved out here and got healthy. I’d been injured for years, since 1997. So it was really ’97 to 2005 that I was injured with different biomechanical things. I got healthy and it just started coming together. Reebok Boston became New Balance Boston. That’s where my connection is with New Balance. And then they started to help me out financially a little bit more. But I’ve always known I wanted to do this. It’s just doing it the right way and trying to figure out financially how to do it.  

MM:  Well, you’ve had a couple paydays this year.  

RD:  Yeah, that’s been nice.  

MM: At Cross Country Nationals you qualified to run at the World Championships in Amman, Jordan. You were fifth in the US race and third for the US over there.  Was it good to be in a USA jersey again?  

RD:  Yeah, that was awesome. The race itself was not the best race for me. But I went after it. And they told us afterward there was a little bit of altitude change. I don’t think it was enough to make a difference but I know I did have trouble breathing. I did go after it and I just faded on the last hill which was the whole finish. It was tough. I was second American at that point and got passed, then was the third American and lost a few spots. But I mean, 36th in the world, that’s okay.  

MM:  Then after outdoor nationals this summer you headed to Europe to try to qualify for the track World Championships?   

RD:   Yeah, that was pretty nice.  

MM:  And what was that like, because you’re not really representing the US there?  

RD:  That was my first time with the European circuit.  I just ran a couple 1500s and a 5K.  I was kind of going for the 5K standard since I had the opportunity to chase the World standard. I would have had to have made the A standard, which was a little bit farfetched but you just don’t know. And my US championships was not a good set up for me so I thought maybe I’m capable of going after it, just give it a try. I stayed in Hulst, a cute little town in the Netherlands. It was pretty neat. I didn’t get to do any sightseeing. It was just all about training and doing those few races. I was only there for two and a half weeks so I just got a little taste of it.but it was fun. All the races were fast races and I PRed in all of them. I think if I do it next year it will be better because I’ll know what to expect with the traveling and getting used to the culture and everything.  

MM:  Late this summer you were the first American woman at both Beach to Beacon and the Falmouth Road Race. What was it like going from the tracks on Europe to the roads of your New England home territory?  

RD:  At Beach to Beacon I literally stepped off the plane from Europe and spent maybe a week or so up in Maine, in Acadia National Park. (Coach Artie Gilkes’) grandmother has a house on Mount Desert Island which is where Acadia National Park is. There are all these carriage roads and trails throughout the mountains and along the ocean. So I did some training out there for a couple days and then I did Beach to Beacon. I was coming off the track circuit and feeling quick, so I did Beach to Beacon and PRed in the 10K and was the top American (fifth overall). I ran 32:46 and I felt so good. I felt amazing, better than I’ve ever felt, and I think the track races helped with that. You know, running 4:12 not two weeks before that helped a little bit. So I did that, went back up to Mount Desert Island and trained for another week. Then we drove to Massachusetts for Falmouth and I felt great there again. I was challenging the Kenyan and Ethiopian women and ended up placing second overall.  

MM:  You led that race for a while right?  

RD:  Yeah, it went out slow, it was a weird start. We went out in 5:08, which I was thinking we’d probably go out in 5:00. But I led for the first two miles then some of the Kenyans and Ethiopians started passing me, but I made sure to maintain good contact. One of them took off and I just let her go. And I just kept reeling them in and felt good, and further into the race still felt good. And I finished still feeling really, really good. So I ran a big PR there and was top American there. That’s pretty big and second overall is big. I was really pleased with how that went. And it’s my home state. I love the ocean. I’m a Pisces so… 

MM:  What is next for you? How are you going to end your strong 2009 season?  

RD:  I have Tufts coming up. It’s an all women’s race. The proceeds go towards cancer research. It’s the 10K Champs for women. This will be my third time doing it. I was fifth my first year, then fourth, and I’m just going to go for the win obviously. It’s in two weeks, on October twelfth. And that’s in my home town so that’s pretty special. So I’m gearing up for that. Then take some time off and then start doing some indoor races. I want to do a couple races here at Penn State, maybe do some races in Boston at the BU track. I don’t know about US indoors. It’s at altitude in New Mexico.  I’m not sure about that yet. But I definitely think I want to do cross again, it’s in Spokane, Washington, and make the World team for that. And then just try to go after the Worlds standards for 5K and 10K for the track.  

MM:  With successful runs from 5K to 20K, is there a US Championship you won’t run?  

RD:  I might even do the US half marathon championships, in Houston. I think it’s important to be strong in all the different distances. From 1500 or even 800 and up. I mean, I’ve run 2:07. It would be nice to run maybe faster than that, maybe not right now, but maybe run 2:05. Just to say I’ve run 2:05. And yeah, a marathon is in there somewhere. I’m excited to try it but it’s a little daunting.  

MM:  At this point in your career, with the goals you have in your mind, are you satisfied? 

RD:  No, I’m not satisfied. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied, because if you settle for what you’ve just achieved then you’re done.  So, no, I’m obviously nowhere near satisfied. Obviously an Olympic team, and once I make an Olympic team I want to go further. Alright, is there a possibility of medaling? If you don’t do that then you have to retire. So obviously I’m going to always shoot for bigger and better things. Short term right now, I’m trying to win a national title, qualify for the track World Championships, an Olympic team obviously. So yeah, it’s close to my short term goals. Long term are a bit further, a little more work, a few more years.  

MM:  With that in mind, in 2012 you’ll be 36, so can we look for you in the marathon at that time?   

RD:  Yeah, definitely. I imagine by a year from now I will have done at least one marathon. And then I don’t know what I’m going to do for the Trials, whether it’s going to be the marathon, 10K or 5K. I just don’t know.  

MM:  Or go Jen Rhines and do it all.

 RD:  I know. There are women right now, like Jen DeReuck, she’s 45. Technically I could have another ten plus years in me. And I feel like I do, because I didn’t race a ton after college. I was hurt a lot. I continued to train but I didn’t get in a lot of racing because of my injury. So I feel like I’m fresher, I’m just getting started. Yeah, I could possibly go to 45 or longer. We’ll see.  

MM:  What kind of long runs and mileage have you gotten in?  

RD:  I did a 19 miler a couple weeks before New Haven (the US 20K road championships) and I felt alright. I was practicing taking gel and fluids because we weren’t sure if maybe I’d do a marathon. And wow, that was tough, just trying to get the fluid in and swallowing it. I’m okay with gels but the liquids were tough. But the run itself was good. Artie wanted me to pick up the last five or six miles and I averaged in the 5:50 or 5:45 range feeling okay. I have a lot of work to do though if I want to do well at the marathon, a lot more work. Over the years I’ve increased (mileage) so gradually. I’ve moved up to about 75 to 80. I know it’s definitely lower compared to a lot of these other women but I just do better if I do it very gradually.  

MM:  What makes you want to do things like coaching girls cross country at State College High School or help with the Nittany Valley Youth Track Club?   

RD:  I actually started coaching right out of college. Well, first I started counseling at a camp that I went to in high school, Camp Foss in New Hampshire. I really liked the attitude of younger athletes and it reminded me of what it was like when I was starting out and I don’t want to lose sight of that excitement. I want to keep that in my own running. And I think it’s important to be involved in the sport as much as you can, important for the growth of the sport, to keep it going. I just wish it had more coverage. I wish it were more popular. And I think a lot of it is that you have to start with the kids when they’re young to keep it going, to keep it alive. So I think it’s important to be involved. And it’s fun. It mixes it up for me so life’s not so stale. A lot of times I look at these women that are beating me and I think ‘Oh, they don’t have a job, all they do is run.’ But then I picture myself doing that and I don’t think I’d be so happy. I think you need something else in your life. There are times it’s tough. Maybe I could be taking a nap instead of being on my feet coaching but it’s just really not my style to be doing that. And it’s working out. I just really enjoy it.  

MM:  But as an athlete you don’t write your own training. You’re coached by Artie Gilkes. Do you just leave it all up to him and trust him with everything?  

RD:  Yeah, every little bit. He has everything down for me a few weeks ahead and he’s very specific. He puts a lot of time and effort into what I need to be doing and he is really passionate about it. And he ran at Penn State and is volunteering with the team right now. He’s trying to run some marathons himself. And he’s coaching another woman, Beth Herndon, who is in her fifth year at Penn State. He’d like to coach more people, so if anyone’s interested he’ll take them on. Artie was coaching Dan Mazzocco after he graduated from Penn State for a little bit. He’s doing a great job. I couldn’t ask for a better coach. It’s good because we see each other everyday and he knows exactly how I’m feeling and he’ll adjust things according to what’s happened in the day. We’re a good team.  

MM:  So what you have to show for all this work is that right now you’re ranked seventh on the road circuit. Do you pay attention to that?  

RD:  I just looked at it for the first time last night. I kind of loosely pay attention to it. There’s money for the top three. But it’s tough. I don’t quite understand how the point system works but if you do well in a marathon it’s double the points. And I’m not doing a marathon so I think it’d be pretty difficult to be in the top three with the Twin Cities coming up. That’s the US [marathon] championships.  But yeah, being in the top ten in that is pretty big. I was fifth for Running Times’ poll, I think.

MM:  On that list you’re ahead of a good sized list of Olympians who, I suppose, aren’t all road people, but you must be happy with that. 

RD:  Yeah, it’s pretty cool to be amongst all these women who I’ve read about and looked up to for all these years. And to start beating them is a pretty big boost in my confidence. But I’ve always known in the back of my head that I’ve been capable of big things. It’s just a matter of putting it together correctly and the timing has to be right.  

MM:  So the success that you’ve been having, does it come as not a surprise? Even graduating from college and working through injuries did you know you would be placing second at US championships?  

RD:  I’ve had a vision in my head for a long, long time. I would say since I was a little kid I’ve had a vision in my head of doing big things in running. It’s been a dream and a vision in my head since watching the Boston Marathon on TV as a kid, watching all the different events in the Olympics and gaining a lot of confidence in running.  Being able to out sprint some of the boys and pretty much all the girls, that’s helped my confidence, because I was really shy. It’s been a big part of my life. So, yeah, I’ve always just kind of known that that’s where I need to be.

By Matthew Manfred 




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