By Jonathan Gault
August 2, 2019
Did you forget about Amy Cragg?
Look, it’s okay to admit it. A lot has happened in the 17 months since Cragg ran her last marathon. Des Linden won Boston. Americans finished 3-4-6 in New York last fall. Emily Sisson ran a sterling 2:23:08 in her debut in London. It’s enough that it might be hard to remember the hot streak Cragg was on from 2016-2018.
A refresher: Cragg, now 35, won the last Olympic Trials and finished 9th at the Games in Rio in 2016 and followed that up with two superb marathons, taking bronze at the 2017 World Championships in London and running a PR of 2:21:42 in Tokyo in February 2018 to become the fifth-fastest American of all time.
The path Cragg has taken since the last Olympics is rare for an American marathoner with her credentials. Normally, it’s Boston in the spring, Chicago or New York in the fall. Yet Cragg has not run a marathon on US soil since the 2016 Trials, and hasn’t run a US World Marathon Major since taking 4th in Chicago in 2014 (she was 19th in New York in 2013 and started Boston in 2015 but didn’t finish).
That drought will end when Cragg returns to run Chicago on October 13, but even that race wasn’t supposed to happen; Cragg was initially slated to run Chicago last year, but withdrew after a hamstring injury put her behind schedule. In Chicago, Cragg won’t just be reminding the marathon world of her existence — re-inserting her name into Olympic contender discussions alongside the likes of Linden, Sisson, and Jordan Hasay — she’ll be reminding herself of the uniquely painful experience of racing a marathon.
“With my injuries over the last year, I really feel like I need to get back into the marathon swing of things before the Olympic Trials,” Cragg said in a phone interview last week. “Right now, things are feeling good, I feel like my old self and I think going and running 26.2 miles hard, you can’t simulate that in training. And it’s just been too long since I’ve raced.
“So going into the Olympic Trials, I want to have another hard one under my belt. I want to feel the training again. I think your body really adapts to high mileage. And since it’s been so long since I’ve even done that, I want to make sure that my body is adapted going into the training for the Trials.”
With over 10 weeks until race day, Cragg said it’s still too early to put a goal out there for Chicago (her chief American rival in Chicago, Jordan Hasay, took a different approach, announcing her goal to break Deena Kastor‘s 2:19:36 American record practically as soon as she crossed the finish line in Boston in April). After USATF announced that the Trials had been granted Gold Label status last week, Cragg no longer needs to worry about hitting the Olympic standard (either top 10 in Chicago or sub-2:29:30), but that doesn’t mean she’s suddenly going to take a bunch of risks during her training for Chicago or during the race itself. Cragg said she views Chicago as a stepping-stone race — or more accurately, a stepping stone to a stepping stone.
“At the Olympics, I’ll say, I would do anything to try and be in the top three,” Cragg said. “It’s top three or bust. At this one, it’s having the best possible race I can have on that day.”
Cragg heads into Chicago after a spring that ended on a sour note. After a solid fifth-place finish at the USA Cross Country Championships and a win at the 8-mile test event on the Olympic Trials course in Atlanta, Cragg’s main aim was to run fast at the Prague Half Marathon in April. Instead, the race was a disaster, as she could only manage 73:27 — over 90 seconds slower than the pace she ran for a full marathon in Tokyo last year. Cragg said she went out a bit too aggressively in a race that was won in 65:44, but that ultimately, it was just a bad day at the office.
“As soon as we got back, [coach] Jerry [Schumacher] had me do a 10-mile tempo with the girls and I actually averaged much faster in that 10-mile tempo than I did in the race, which is silly,” Cragg said.
She has put the race behind her, and believes that she is still capable of running fast, whether it’s in Chicago or somewhere else down the road.
“I do think I have another PR in me,” Cragg said.
Chicago is next on the schedule, but, as it does for every American marathoner worth their salt, the Olympic Trials loom in the distance. We are less than seven months away. And for all the accolades racked up by her competitors since the last Trials in LA — major marathon wins for Linden and Shalane Flanagan, a 2:20:57 in Chicago by Hasay — it is Cragg who will enter Atlanta as the defending champion on February 29.
Cragg’s win at the 2016 Trials became more interesting in 2017 when it emerged that she had raced in a prototype version of Nike’s now-infamous Vaporfly racing flats. As more evidence comes in that shows that the Vaporflys boost running economy and provide a performance advantage, how much of an impact does Cragg believe the shoes make?
“I think they’re worth a lot just because if you can train in them, they kind of save your legs in training,” Cragg said. “I love them. I think they’re finally the shoe that’s worthy of the marathon. For a long time, people would take trainers, and they were just trying to make trainers lighter for the marathon. And we don’t do that for the 100 meters on the track, we don’t do that for any other event, really. But for some reason for the marathon, it was just like what we train in, but lighter.”
Cragg said that with the added cushioning and stability of the Vaporflys, her legs feel better in long workouts and, in particular, the end of races.
“I will say I feel a lot better in the last six miles [of a marathon] than I ever felt before,” Cragg said.
But for the 2016 Trials specifically, where Cragg (2:28:20) and training partner Shalane Flanagan (2:29:19) finished first and third in Vaporflys and Kara Goucher, racing in Skechers, finished fourth in 2:30:23), Cragg does not believe footwear dictated the outcome.
“In 2012, I was with a different shoe company (Brooks),” Cragg said. “I think Kara was running with Nike at the time (she was). I believe in 2012, when I was fourth, the three best women on that day made that team. I believe in 2016, the three best women on that day made the team. Honestly, the biggest contributing factor [in 2016] was not shoes, it was the heat.”
Looking ahead to the 2020 Trials, Chicago will offer a key read on where Cragg stands. Should she return at her 2016-18 level, she immediately becomes a favorite for the team. But it will be a fiercely competitive team to make, with all the major contenders facing questions. Hasay has run three terrific marathons but has battled injury issues in the past. Sisson has run just one marathon in her life. Linden just turned 36. Molly Huddle has yet to fully master the marathon.
And then there is Flanagan, 38, who underwent knee surgery in April and has yet to officially commit to chasing a fifth Olympic team. Will Flanagan run in Atlanta? That’s one topic Cragg doesn’t want to touch.
“I don’t know,” Cragg teased, in a sing-songy, I-know-something-you-don’t-know kind of way, “you’re gonna have to ask her.”
Cragg, who turns 36 in January, said that 2020 will “probably” be her last Olympic Trials, but added that that doesn’t mean she’ll be done after next year. The World Championships are in the United States in 2021, and there are some majors Cragg hasn’t run that remain on her bucket list. But Cragg doesn’t want to plan beyond 2020.
“After the Olympics, I think everyone kind of reassesses,” Cragg said. “It will definitely be a talk that I have with my husband and coach and kind of decide where I go from there.”
Talk about this article on our messageboard: MB: Amy Cragg on Zoom Vapofly 4% Shoes: “I think they’re worth a lot..they kind of save your legs in training.”
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Cragg had never run the Boston Marathon. In fact, she started the race in 2015 but did not finish.