RRW: Queen Of The Road Mile Heather Kampf Reveals Tricks Of The Trade

By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

NEW YORK (12-Sep) — With a star studded field that includes three-time champion Jenny Simpson and American 1500m record holder Shannon Rowbury, all entrants know it is going to take something special to win the elite women’s race at Sunday’s NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile here in Manhattan. The last eight winning times have all been under 4:24.2, and the women’s event record stands at 4:16.68. To say it’ll be a hot pace surely is an understatement.

No one entered in the 35th running of the event has a better road mile resume than Team USA Minnesota’s Heather Kampf. The 28-year-old has been anointed ‘Queen of the Road Mile,’ a designation that she proudly smiles at. While Kampf is one of America’s best middle distance runners on the track, she shines particularly bright on the roads.

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“I think my strengths really bar well with the roads. I think that the strategic aspect to the road mile is much different than anything on the track,” Kampf told Race Results Weekly, speaking at the New York Road Runners’ history headquarters on the Upper East Side. This year Kampf has won road miles in Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis, Minn.; Charlevoix, Mich.; Pittsburgh, Penn.; and Flint, Mich. She’s finished first at 17 road miles since 2011, and is a three-time national champion.

“I love them,” she added.

The only major road mile title which has eluded Kampf is the one which will be awarded here on Sunday afternoon. Of her five NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile appearances, she’s finished in the top eight three times, including a personal best 4:22 showing for fourth place last year. Missing the podium by two-tenths of a second –and the opportunity to celebrate with a victory lap on the iconic Avenue– has served as motivation for the University of Minnesota graduate.

“After placing fourth last year and just missing out on running around with the flag on Fifth Ave was a bummer for me,” she admitted. “If I can podium, if I can win, that would be even better, but it’s just all about really executing well and being confident and trusting those instincts.”

So how is Kampf so consistent on the roads? She revealed some of her top tricks to Race Results Weekly, breaking the road mile down into five key areas.

First, approaching the race a bit different than one on the track is important. On the oval, one always sets their sights on gaining position along the inside rail. On the roads, it’s about simply staying in contact with the leaders. Having that mindset sets you up perfectly for step number two: being alert and ready for the decisive move.

“The fact that you can kind of be anywhere in the race and still be running the tangents in a straight road mile like Fifth Ave is really great,” Kampf said. “I really like feeling like I am in contact, so all I’m really thinking about in the early part of the race is committing, and then just really being alert in the second part of the race to make the moves that are essential to stay with the people who are going for the win.”

Third is a mixture of confidence and experience. Kampf has found a rhythm for success over the years, taking mental notes of what it takes to win at each road mile stop on the circuit. There is a pattern of familiarity and comfort lacing up her Asics road flats to hit the pavement.

“I think it really helps for me to build confidence on the roads. Every time you have success in an event, when you come back to it the next time you just feel that much more confident and able to go out there and perform again. That’s probably a huge secret of mine that isn’t any secret — you just have to build up that success and have it,” she said.

When asked whether she prefers a track or road mile, Kampf instantly answers road without a moment’s hesitation. When questioned again if she likes racing on the track or road more –no matter the distance– she hesitates for two seconds before saying the road, simply because she races on the track more often.

The final tip Kampf is willing to share seems simple but can in actuality be a bit tricky, especially on Fifth Avenue: know your surroundings.

“It’s all about being aware how far you actually are in the race. It’s really easy to see the finish line and think that you’re right there and start kicking really early, but just paying attention to those [quarter] mile markers and feeling it out for yourself,” she said. With roughly 800 meters to go on Fifth Avenue, racers can see the finish tape. “The primal instincts kind of come in when you don’t exactly know where you are in a race versus when you’re on a track and you’re always really aware.”

Soft-spoken, Kampf knows that she has fewer than four minutes and 30 seconds of hard running left in her season: the amount of time it’ll take to go from East 80th Street to East 60th Street. Part of her strategy is to let every last bit of energy go on the race course. By following her the tips noted here, she could very well extend the American women’s winning streak here to seven years.

“Having that in your head, you literally have nothing to save for,” she says with a smile. “Ending here on a strong note is always such a strong catapult into the following season, which is so important with next year being 2016.”

Before concluding the interview and focusing on her competition, Kampf reveals what is the simplest yet most fitting tip of all: just run.

“I like just thinking that I can run from here to there as fast as I can and I’ll be OK. Just trusting your instincts and going after it,” she says.