Annie Rodenfels Has Gone From NCAA D-III Champion To World Leader

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2022 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(03-Feb) — When Annie Rodenfels left Centre College in Danville, Ky., in 2019 with a B.S. in psychology and a minor in gender studies, she hardly had the kind of track credentials which would have steered her towards a professional running career.  Rodenfels, originally from Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton, came to Centre with little high school running experience; she played soccer.  But Centre coach Lisa Owens saw something in the now 25-year-old and helped her develop into a three-time NCAA Division III champion, twice in the steeplechase and once in the 5000m.

“Coach Owens just was like really the only coach… that seemed super-excited and tried to recruit me in any way,” Rodenfels told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview from Boston where she lives and trains.  She continued: “She drove three hours to come and eat dinner with my family.”

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By the time Rodenfels was a senior in 2019, she had put up only modest personal bests by truly elite standards: 5:02.30 for the mile, 9:54.38 for 3000m and 16:35.40 for 5000m (Editor’s note: She did run 4:27.89 for 1500 which is much better than 5:02).  But in the steeplechase, she got down to a credible 9:58.83, then a slightly faster 9:57.39 at a post-season meet.  Those performances, which made Rodenfels the 21st-fastest American in that discipline for 2019, gave her enough hope that if she really focused on training, without the distractions and sleep deprivation from her rigorous academic studies, there might be a path for her to an elite career.

“I knew I wasn’t that close to the top people,” Rodenfels admitted.  She continued: “I also just knew that I was going to get a lot better.  I could feel that when I ran my 9:58 it was easy.  I was like, I could have gone faster. That was easy, that wasn’t hard.  I hadn’t been training very long.  I hadn’t been consistently training, maybe only three years at that point.  I just thought I could do more.”

Annie Rodenfels in Boston in the fall of 2021 (photo by Collin Woodruff, @apertureangles; used with permission)

But with those modest credentials, Rodenfels’s options for a post-collegiate training groups were limited.  Despite winning both the steeplechase and 5000 at the DIII NCAAs in 2019 (as well as the steeple in 2018), she didn’t have the kind of running résumé which would attract traditional shoe company sponsorship or catch the eye of a coach of one of the top branded teams like Hoka Northern Arizona Elite or the Nike Bowerman Track Club.  Rodenfels weighed her options.

“So, I decided to take a chance,” she said.  “It was kind of risky.  I considered just getting a job and training on the side, but I was like, I don’t know.  I kind of wanted to see if I actually focused on this what I could do.”  She added: “It was really the 9:58 that told me that.”

Looking for a training group where she could get at least some support, Rodenfels ended up at ASICS Greenville Track Club-ELITE in South Carolina under coaches Laura and Mike Caldwell.  The Caldwells had been recommended to her by her Centre graduate assistant, Victor Pataky, a steeplechaser who had worked closely with Rodenfels.

“He was just a really good coach and I still trust his word a lot,” Rodenfels said.  “I trusted Victor and he said I could get better there.”

So Rodenfels relocated to South Carolina where she was able to train under the Caldwells and work part-time jobs as a corporate wellness coordinator and a high school coach to support herself.  In early 2020 she got down to 9:18.93 in the 3000m, and by the end of the year –despite the pandemic– she improved dramatically in the 5000m, recording a national-class 15:35.18.  She also met her now partner, Collin Woodruff, who was working at a local running store with some of Rodenfels teammates.

The one-year delay in holding the USA Olympic Trials initially worked in Rodenfels’s favor, giving her an extra year to improve.  Indeed, in April, 2021, she ran a 9:46.98 steeplechase, comfortably under the Trials entry standard of 9:50.  She was officially national class.

“That felt pretty good,” she wrote on her Twitter account at the time.

But Rodenfels had developed significant back pain and it turned out she had a bulging disc, diagnosed only about three weeks before the Trials.  She missed a significant amount of training, and struggled through her preliminary heat.  She finished 15th in 10:11.76, and as she walked off of the track she tried to block out the disappointment and think about what she should do next.

“I was coming up to the end of my first contract at ASICS GTC-ELITE and I just felt like… I wasn’t making as big a leaps as I wanted to,” Rodenfels recounted.  “I felt like I had kind of outgrown the club a little bit.”  She added: “I felt like I had gotten everything there was to get out of it.”

Rodenfels, who still doesn’t have an agent, reached out to a few training groups to see if there was any interest, including the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team.  She e-mailed coach Mark Carroll, an Irish Olympian with a 3:50 mile personal best.  She kept her pitch simple.

“So I e-mailed Mark and here are my times,” Rodenfels recalled.  “I think I can still improve a lot on my times and I’m just looking for somewhere where I can have training partners and be more supported financially.”

Carroll was receptive.

“I gave her a call and we chatted for a while,” Carroll told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview.  “I was just really impressed with her passion.”

In September, she signed a deal with the B.A.A., which is affiliated with adidas, after visiting Boston.  She immediately felt at home.

“I just love Boston,” she said.  “It worked out with my partner where he could move with me, wherever that was.  We made a big leap and packed up a U-Haul and moved all our stuff here.”

Training last fall with club mates Abbey Wheeler and Erika Kemp, Rodenfels was getting in consistent mileage and also doing some faster sessions.  In October and November she won two regional cross country races for her new club, and feeling fit at the beginning of December she decided to run the 5000m at the Boston University Sharon Colyear-Danville Season Opener.  Rodenfels and Wheeler were actually contracted to pace through 3000m targeting a 15:20 finish time, but that’s not what happened.

“‘They offered us to pace,'” Rodenfels recalls Coach Carroll telling her, which would include a fee.  “He was like, ‘let’s just do that.'”

Rodenfels, who coaches cross country and track at Wellesley College on the side, felt like she was in good shape but hadn’t done a track race since the Trials.  The organizers dropped the time goal from 15:20 to 15:10, the 2022 World Athletics Championships qualifying mark.  That meant Rodenfels would have to pass through 3000m in 9:06 to 9:10, faster than her personal best. She had a strong track workout before the race and Coach Carroll thought she could handle the fast pace through 3000m, and even continue.  Rodenfels wasn’t so sure.

“‘What if we pace it and you just stay in the race?'” Rodenfels recalls Carroll telling her.  “I was like, OK, I guess so.”  She continued: “I was like, if I feel good I’ll stay in, but I’m probably just going to hop out.”

Rodenfels and Wheeler did their pacing job.  Rodenfels concentrated on running even splits and she felt comfortable.  She wasn’t concerned with racing anyone.  The pace felt good.

“I like being in the front,” she explained.  “I think in some ways I was able to relax in this weird way.  And then Abbey was with me and that made me feel better.”

Rodenfels went through 1000m in 3:03 and 2000m in 6:07, right on pace.  When she got to 3000m she kept going, and going, and going.  She ended up winning in 15:08.80, a world-leading time just ahead of 2021 NCAA cross country champion Whittni Orton (15:09.47).  Both women made the 2022 World Athletics qualifying standard of 15:10.00.  Rodenfels was shocked.

“I felt great,” she said.  “I just stayed on, kicked to win a time I did not think I would be running this year.  It was very, very exciting to say the least.”

Coach Carroll was also surprised, but perhaps only a little.

“From what I saw in the fall I would put Annie somewhere at 15:20 going into the meet in December,” he said.  He added: “What I would regard as your early year building blocks, she want from 15:37 to 15:08.”

After the year-end holiday break, Rodenfels ran 8:52.84 for 3000m on the same Boston University track last Friday, within striking distance of the 8:49.00 entry standard for the World Athletics Indoor Championships in March in Belgrade.  At this Sunday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix at the Ocean Breeze track in Staten Island, N.Y., Rodenfels will try to get under 8:49 in what will be the most competitive race of her life.

“That’s why we’re doing it,” Rodenfels said of Sunday’s race which includes two-time Wanamaker Mile champion Elle Purrier St. Pierre and Canadian 1500m record holder Gabriela Debues-Stafford.  “I had no idea the standard was 8:49.  I kind of assumed it was 8:55 which is the standard for the U.S.  If I had known that, I don’t know if I would have changed the race or not.”

With her focus on the 3000m and the 5000m right now, Rodenfels isn’t sure if she’ll be re-dedicating herself to the steeplechase in the spring.  Although she is strong with a high pain tolerance (good qualities for a steeplechaser), she said that her hurdling isn’t great and that she “double-foots” her water jump landings.  Her success in flat races has given her pause about her best path forward.

“This is the question that everyone keeps asking me,” said Rodenfels with a sigh.  “I don’t know.  I love the steeplechase, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it the last year.  I am not great at the barriers.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen me steeplechase, but I double-foot it.  I have spent a lot of time trying not to double-foot it, but obviously at the most professional level that’s not very good.”  She added: “The technical part as of right now is not there for me.”

Coach Carroll said that he wanted Rodenfels to run the steeple, at least when he signed her for the team.  He might rethink that.

“The truth be told I recruited Annie with the steeplechase in mind,” said Carroll.  “If you can get under 9:30 you can do well at the national level.”

But the outdoor track season is months away, so Rodenfels has some time to decide on her next move.

“I don’t know,” Rodenfels concluded.  “Honestly, the last year I’ve felt like I’ve had a lot of room to gain in the mile, 1500, but I almost never race it.  I know I have a lot of natural speed.  I’m kind of interested in what I can do in that this year, but now that I’ve run a really great 5-K I love the 5-K, too.  So, I don’t really know.”

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