By Jonathan Gault
August 18, 2015
With 100 meters to go in the women’s 1,500 final at the 2015 USATF Outdoor Championships, a living room full of people in Huntington, Ind., sat on the edge of their seats. Over two thousand miles west, in Eugene, Ore., Oregon Track Club Elite assistant coach Nick Johnson looked down from high in Hayward Field’s East Grandstand alongside his boss, OTC head coach Mark Rowland. On the track below, the woman they were all watching — OTC runner and Huntington native Lauren Johnson, who just happens to be Nick’s wife — hugged the rail in third.
The race had gone out slowly, 2:26 through 800 meters, and with only a straightaway to go, 10 women still had a chance of grabbing one of the four spots on Team USA at the IAAF World Championships, which begin on August 22 in Beijing. Defending champion Jenny Simpson, already on the team by virtue of her 2014 Diamond League title, began to pull away. Shannon Rowbury, who would set the American record three weeks later in Monaco, followed her. Clad in her green and white OTC kit, Johnson drifted out into lane 2 to follow them, but Rowbury and Simpson were moving too quickly. With 50 meters to go, Kerri Gallagher slid in front of Johnson. 2013 U.S. champion Treniere Moser had gained a step on Johnson on the outside. Johnson was now in fifth place, and her shot at the team was slipping away from her.
“I thought she was tightening up,” Nick Johnson said.
Back home in Huntington, Lauren’s sister, Liesl Nowlan, watched with over 20 of her family members. On the television, they watched as a grimace spread across Lauren’s face. Was she hurt?
No. But she was hurting.
With 20 meters to go, the top three spots were all settled but Johnson had drawn almost level with Moser in fourth. To Moser’s outside, Heather Kampf and Rachel Schneider were kicking like crazy for the all-important final spot. Five meters from the line, Johnson had perhaps an inch or two on Moser and Schneider when she lost control of her body. As exhaustion set in, Johnson began to tumble toward the ground. All she could do was throw herself at the finish line and hope that her torso crossed before those belonging to her rivals.
In the blink of an eye, four women crossed the finish line.
In the East Grandstand, Nick Johnson saw his wife hit the track in what he assumed was sixth place. Not a bad effort, Nick thought. That will get her to Pan Ams or NACACs. After a few seconds, he looked up at the scoreboard and saw:
4 Lauren Johnson Nike/OTC 4:16.08
Nick is the optimist in the relationship. From the moment he and Lauren packed up and moved to Oregon in 2009, Nick had never stopped believing his wife. Not when a freak ankle injury kept her out of the Olympic Trials in 2012. And not when a peroneal nerve injury derailed her and kept her from USAs a year later. Always he’d been there for her during the recovery process, offering words of encouragement and sitting in on doctor appointments to learn about a massage or technique he could perform at home on his wife.
Yet now, after the greatest race of Lauren’s life, Nick couldn’t quite believe it.
“I saw the results said she was 4th and I hesitated because sometimes they reorder the results as they add more names on the scoreboard,” Nick said.
It was only when the last name flashed onto the scoreboard that Nick was fully convinced Lauren had secured the fourth and final spot on Team USA. Immediately, he jumped up and hugged Rowland before heading down to dispense a hug to his wife.
Back home in Huntington, it took a lot longer for official word to get out.
“My parents were there [in Eugene] watching,” Nowlan said. “My mom was live-texting me back and forth trying to figure out if she made it for sure. I had heard there was a hesitancy, the runner behind her tried to challenge, stuff like that. I was keeping everyone else filled in.”
It wasn’t until several hours later that Nowlan received the official word from her mom: Lauren had finished fourth.
But the final result wasn’t important to Nowlan that day. In February, Lauren’s grandmother, Jane Schenkel, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. On race day, Johnson wore the same wristband many of her family members sported back home in Huntington, inscribed with the words “No one fights alone,” in Schenkel’s honor. Then in May, Johnson’s cousin, Rebekah Chapel, rolled her tractor into a drainage ditch on her farm. The tractor crushed Chapel, killing her. Johnson’s race was the first time her family had gathered together since the accident.
“Our family has been through tragedy the last few months and has grown a lot closer,” Nowlan said. “[Lauren’s race] was an opportunity for us to get together and celebrate something for once.”
Three weeks later, Johnson officially punched her ticket to Worlds, running 4:04.17 in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, to hit the IAAF standard. On August 22, the fastest runners in the world will line up to contest the first round of the women’s 1500 meters. Genzebe Dibaba, the world record holder/possible alien from Ethiopia who ran 3:50.07 on July 17 in Monaco will be there. So too will 2011 World champion Jenny Simpson and American record holder Shannon Rowbury, two of the United States’ greatest-ever middle distance runners. And somewhere on the start line in one of those heats, you’ll find Lauren Johnson, the basketball-playing, horse-training Indiana farm girl who just so happens to be a pretty decent runner, too.
Like most everyone in Indiana, Johnson grew up playing basketball. As the middle of Garrett and Jody Davenport’s three children, Johnson, now 28, fell in love with the sport at an early age. Garrett played collegiately at Division III Manchester (Ind.) University and coached Lauren’s brother, Austen, in a local YMCA league when he was five years old. Lauren, a year younger, wanted to join her brother on the court so much that Garrett fudged her birthday to get her on the team. For the next 18 years, Lauren played all the time, whether it was shooting on the family’s driveway hoop, playing club or AAU ball during the summer or starring at Huntington North High School as a point guard, where she led the Vikings to sectional titles as a junior and senior.
When she wasn’t playing basketball, Lauren was tending to the horses on her family’s farm. Both she and Liesl showed horses at events put on by the Pony of the Americas Club, where they competed in a range of classes, from halter showmanship, which was judged on how well she could groom and present a horse, to English or Western saddle riding.
“My favorite was the jumping events where they set up a course of eight jumps and you have to go through in a certain pattern,” Lauren said. “Sometimes you’re judged on how quickly you complete the course, other times it’s on how well your horse jumps — if he knocks any of the jumps down, if he hits any of them.”
At any given time, the Davenports had around 10 horses living in their barn. Lauren and her parents reached an agreement: she and Liesl could train and show the horses, but they also had to handle the chores, like feeding them and cleaning out their stalls.
Lauren’s work ethic was forged in the Indiana winter, where she would rise at 5 a.m. to bring the horses their water before catching the bus to school. On especially frigid days, the work could take extra long. Sometimes, the water would freeze and Lauren would have to break up the ice with a crowbar. On the worst days, the spigot by the barn would freeze up, forcing Lauren to fill up inside the house and carry the water out to the horses.
Somehow, Lauren found time to run track in the spring as well and found modest success, though she never broke 60 seconds in the 400 or 2:20 in the 800, her two primary events.
“Basketball was definitely my favorite and my priority,” Lauren said. “If things conflicted that’s always what I chose first. Between track and horse showing, it would probably be a tie.”
When Lauren started dating Nick Johnson, there was no doubt who the runner in the relationship was. A friendship that began thanks to a fortuitous seating arrangement in freshman geometry class at Huntington North High School blossomed into a romance by their junior year, right around the time Nick’s running career was taking off. He ran 9:24 for 3200 meters at the state meet that spring, and as a senior in the fall of 2004 emerged as one of the top prospects in the state on the strength of impressive road race PBs of 14:41 (5K) and 1:10:30 (half marathon).
Nick seemed destined for greatness at the state meet and held several scholarship offers from D-I schools, but Nick developed a stress fracture midway through the cross country season. Not wanting to sacrifice his final year of high school cross country, he ran on it anyway; at the regional meet, his leg gave out. Shattered tibia. Season over.
Scared off by his injury, the bigger schools retracted their scholarship offers until Nick only had one remaining: his hometown Huntington University, a small NAIA school. Though Nick had wanted to run with the big boys, it just so happened Huntington wanted Lauren to play basketball for them as well. The two decided to stay home.
The summer before he enrolled at Huntington, misfortune hit Nick again as he suffered kidney and colon lacerations after colliding with another person during an ultimate frisbee game. The internal bleeding he suffered during the injury was serious; Nick remembers doctors telling his parents if they had waited an extra couple hours to perform surgery, he may have bled out and died. The next three weeks were a blur, but there was one constant: Lauren.
Every day, she would visit Nick in the hospital, holding his hand for hours on end.
“That was definitely a point where our relationship got more serious,” Nick said. “[The next three years were rough] for me in terms of injury, but she supported me through all of that.”
At Huntington, basketball still consumed Lauren’s free time, but she kept running after the track coach found out about her and offered some scholarship money to run the 400, 800 and 400 hurdles. Through three years, Lauren hadn’t improved much on the track, any small gains offset by the nine months she spent away from the sport every year.
As a senior, Lauren embarked on a new conditioning program during the basketball season to improve her stamina on the court. Three days a week, she’d log three miles on the treadmill after practice. On Sundays, she’d put in a “long” run of five or six miles.
Though it helped her on the court — Johnson averaged almost 40 minutes per game — her fitness regimen paid its biggest dividends on the track. Lauren ran 2:16 in her first 800 of the year, a three-second PR. By the end of the season, she had dropped her 800 time all the way down to 2:07 and registered PRs in the 400 (57) and the 400 hurdles (63). Her success convinced her to take the sport more seriously and to begin training year-round.
“I saw glimpses of potential that I had never seen in any athlete before, male or female,” Nick said. “I knew there was something there that was untapped. That spring, I saw her doing things she shouldn’t have been able to do with her level of training.”
Nick and Lauren married after graduating in 2009. That summer, Lauren met Amy and Andrew Begley while working a running camp in Indiana. She mentioned that she was looking to continue her running career. Andrew, who was based in Beaverton, Ore., at the time, offered to coach her. While it wasn’t an easy decision to pack up and move across the country, Johnson didn’t want to look back on her life 10 years later and ponder what might have been. After running cross country for Huntington that fall — and making NAIA history by becoming the first athlete to earn All-American honors in cross country, basketball and track — she and Nick moved to Beaverton in January 2010.
Though she would also train with Beaverton native Bianca Martin, Lauren’s primary workout partner under Begley was Nick, with whom she ran daily following her early-morning shift as a lifeguard. Lauren’s times on the track continued to drop, as she reached PRs of 2:03.96 and 4:11.22 under Begley, but injuries prevented her from realizing her full potential. This was to become a pattern.
In 2011, after running 4:33 for the mile indoors, Lauren sprained her ankle, forcing her to miss USA indoors. The next year, Lauren relocated with Amy to Eugene for the buildup to the Olympic Trials while their husbands stayed in Beaverton. The first weekend in May, Lauren felt a pinch in her ankle. Initially diagnosed as an Achilles injury, Lauren tried to train through it, not wanting to miss out on her first Olympic Trials. Two months later, her doctors figured out that Lauren hadn’t suffered an Achilles injury at all but that she had been born with an extra bone in each ankle and it was this bone that was causing all the problems. By then it was too late, however. Lauren had missed the Trials.
The only positive that spring was that Lauren had grown to love the city of Eugene. With Amy no longer training with the Nike Oregon Project in Beaverton and Andrew looking for coaching gigs, she and Nick made the decision to move to Eugene and part ways to the Begleys.
“We didn’t really know where they were going to be and I knew I didn’t want to do a long-distance thing,” Lauren said, noting that she will forever be grateful to the Begleys for taking a chance on her.
Now she needed someone to coach her. Lauren had been looking to transition to the steeplechase and spoke to Bridget Franek, a 2012 Olympian in the event who trained with the Oregon Track Club Elite, whose head coach, Mark Rowland, earned the 1988 Olympic bronze medal in the steeple. Franek recommended she reach out to Rowland and OTC assistant Mark Rinker. Her first attempt, at the 2012 Trials, was rebuffed; Rowland already had too many athletes as it was. He told her to work through the rehab process and come back to him in the fall.
When she met with Rinker and Rowland a few months later, Lauren was hardly in a strong negotiating position. She was in a walking boot, dealing with an injury that stemmed from her ankle issues. But by then Rowland and Rinker were looking to add a couple of women, and Rowland liked taking on the occasional project.
“Mark was very upfront with me in terms of ‘If we bring you on, you’re coming on as a developmental athlete,’” Lauren said. “Which means that you’re not going to get the full funding that we provide for our higher-level athletes. You’re not going to get the priority, attention, in terms of time at workouts, attention from the coaches, that kind of thing.
“And I definitely understood that….having that understanding going in made things a lot easier.”
Few coaches strive to learn more about their athletes’ bodies than Rowland, and when he first looked at Lauren, he saw a flawed athlete.
“Her aerobic systems, I wasn’t too convinced,” Rowland said. “I thought that was one of the areas that needed to be addressed. She had a lot of problems with her feet that impinged on her consistency and being able to train. It tended to appear when we would do more dynamic work, which was kind of strange especially from the fact that she had a basketball background…Even though she appeared to be reasonably strong, she was actually quite weak, I thought.”
But Rowland also saw an athlete with anaerobic potential and a desire to work hard. That, he could work with.
Unfortunately Johnson’s body betrayed her once again during her first year under Rowland. A peroneal nerve injury sidelined her in February and as she tried to come back for the spring season, she suffered from joint instability in her foot.
Not wanting to miss USAs for the second straight year, Johnson tried to get in a last-ditch qualifier at the Portland Track Festival.
“I didn’t have the fitness,” Johnson said. “When it didn’t happen, just having the failure of not qualifying for nationals was really hard to deal with.”
But whenever Lauren got down on herself, Nick was there to comfort her.
“My husband’s always been the foundation of my support network,” Lauren said. “He’s also the one who, no matter what, always still believed in me and that this was going to work out.”
The more Lauren worked with Rowland, the more he tailored his program to her strengths and weaknesses.
“It amazes me sometimes, people think it’s a quick-fix wonder,” Rowland said. “It takes 10 years to make an athlete. Normally two to three years I’ve got to have them [just to really get to know them.]”
Rowland noticed Johnson was running a little too quickly on her easy days and asked her to reel it in. He saw her struggling with Eugene’s pollen and had Lauren visit with Dr. Kraig Jacobson, who prescribed her medication to combat her allergy-induced asthma.
But if there’s one area in which Johnson has really improved under Rowland, it’s recovery.
“High-intensity workouts were always a bit of a struggle,” Rowland said. “Even though she’s a little older, she hadn’t trained at that high of an intensity…In the early days, her eating habits were pretty poor. When you increase the stress, refueling process becomes more important.”
Lauren never ate much meat, but as she changed her diet, she made a conscious effort to eat more in order to make sure she was getting enough protein.
Finally healthy for an extended period, in 2014, she responded with PRs in the 800 (2:02.19, previous best 2:03.96 from 2010) and 1500 (4:10.67, previous best 4:11.22 from 2012). And though she also PR’d in the steeple (10:00.79, previous best 10:04.49 from 2012), Rowland began to realize that her future lay in the shorter distances.
“The last 12 months we’ve had quite a consistent period of time but [even] with altitude [training], there was still an aspect missing to actually go from running a 9:50 to under a 9:30 or around 9:30,” Rowland said. “[It] was just too much of an order.”
In 2015, everything fell into place. Healthy since February, Johnson has logged six months of uninterrupted quality training, much of it in the company of her two dogs, Raven (a black lab) and Luna (an American Eskimo), who also provide a spiritual boost.
“They do almost two-thirds of her recovery runs with her,” Nick said. “On long runs, if she’s just going easy, she’ll run with one dog while I walk with another.”
Raven can manage runs of up to eight miles; Luna usually tops out at six.
Still, even while firing on all cylinders, making the U.S. team at 1500 was going to be a big ask. At the start of the year, established names like Simpson, Rowbury, Mary Cain and Treniere Moser dominated the discussion. Even after Johnson ran 4:07.33 in Portland and made the final at USAs, she was a big longshot.
“The commentators on NBC are talking about the different runners and not once was her name mentioned,” Nowlan said. “The rest of my family was getting so mad. ‘Why aren’t they saying her name? Why aren’t they talking about her?’ And I had to remind them that she’s is kind of the underdog still.”
Now Johnson’s going to Beijing to run in the World Championships. And even Rowland, a no-nonsense Englishman, never one to sugarcoat things, can’t help but be moved by Johnson’s story.
“You wouldn’t necessarily put a Lauren Johnson into the top echelon of the American middle distance crew,” Rowland said. “She took her opportunity…. that’s the beauty of our sport. That’s what make us tick and keeps us going.
“It’s a great story, an inspiration. I don’t like using that word — very American — but I think it just adds to the fact that other people can get excited that someone like a Lauren Johnson can make a team.”