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Steeplechase specialist Shayla Houlihan, has recorded a number of personal bests in recent years with impressive improvements in the steeple and at the 5000 metre distance during 2009 and 2010. She is now looking to take the next step in her progression towards becoming an international competitor.

As it turns out Houlihan, after some consideration and taking the time to explore a few options has now become the latest athlete to move to Flagstaff, Arizona. She is sponsored by Brooks and races for Team USA, Arizona.

Greg McMillan

“I watched Shayla run at the US Track & Field Championships in late June and saw a lot of potential. We met a few hours after the final and talked about what she felt she needed, to go to the next level (IAAF A Standard level). Her needs fit perfectly with what our group offers plus she will be a great training partner for our current steeplechasers, Lindsay Allen and Erin Bedell.

Most women steeplers have to train alone so this will be a new experience to have three high quality steeplechasers training together. Shayla is altitude trained, a hard worker, determined and gets along well with everyone. I think she’ll be a great addition to our training group and I’m excited to work with her toward her goals.”

Houlihan graduated from the University of Utah. She trained and competed under Coach Kyle Kepler who’s coaching methods are taken from some of the leading minds in athletics including Dr. Joe Vigil, Dr. Jack Daniels, Bob Larson, Irv Ray, Arthur Lydiard and Del Hessel.

Days before her arrival to Flagstaff, I had the opportunity to communicate with Shayla about goals, her fast family and her efforts to take that next step .

Christopher Kelsall: You recently wrote in a blog entry, “I need to get out from the mask I have been hiding behind.” Are you referring to a social mask or were you simply accepting training direction that you know is not right for you, but were doing it anyway?

Shayla Houlihan: It was really a multitude of things for me. I went on my journey thinking that in the back of my mind I would be perfectly happy staying put where I was (Salt Lake City). Once I left and saw what a positive group setting looked and felt like I knew exactly what I had been missing in SLC to propel me to that next level.

I am a very positive person who loves to surround myself with those same type of people and I think I’ve felt pretty drained from having to do every training session by myself. Coach Kepler did a great job of joining me on tempo or long runs as often as he could. I was so fortunate to have had that!

CK: Now of course you get to train day-to-day with a solid group of runners, you must be excited.

SH: Yes, that’s the most exiting part for me! I’ve found people that have the same dreams as me!

CK: What is the next level? Any specific goals you would like to share?

SH: Well, I mean realistically in order for me to make the Olympic team I will have to run somewhere around 9:20 or faster; considering the way all of the women in the USA have been developing in the event. You never know who the next collegian will be to step it up and you never know when someone like myself is going to make another huge jump. There are too many unknowns of who it will be to make the team, but in order to put myself in a good position to make that team I have to drop some major time again, bottom line.

It’s going to be a challenge, but I also know I still can improve on so many things I have not been able to even think about. I feel like my new teammates will help me so much, in so many ways to get faster. I really just want to test my limits. I’ve had PR’s from 800m on up to the 8k in every event this year. Honestly, I think 2011 has a lot in store for me, more PR’s I promise.

CK: Looks like you are on a roll. To what do you attribute the improvement to?

SH: Being patient and always letting my body be in control. This is a road I started on about 4 years ago. My junior year at Northern Iowa, I got a stress fracture in my femur. This was one of many I had experienced in the previous 3 years of college. I wasn’t listening to my body. I vowed from there-on-out to take care of myself better. It was a long route to success, but I knew and know what I’m still capable of if I can keep doing the right things and making the right moves. Basically, it is an accumulation of years of base. Everyday I ask myself while I’m working out if I’m doing everything in my power to make myself the best athlete that I can be on that day because I know that it takes days, weeks, months and ultimately years to make someone the best.

CK: In regards to the three years of stress fractures in college, were you just running hard all the time?

SH: In high school I ran maybe 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week. I stress ‘maybe’ in that sentence. So when I came in as a walk-on freshman, I had no clue what to do. I just tried to hang with the upper class-men as long as I could. I did too much too soon. Then my junior year I had come off of what I thought was a promising sophomore year and I ended up pushing as hard as I could every session  to stay with one of our new teammates who was way better than me. It wasn’t smart on my part. I’m a very intuitive and realistic person so for me to push the way I did, I should have known what was coming.

CK: So does several weeks and possibly months of strong aerobic running as your primary training suit the mind of a person who loves to push very hard?

SH: I know that when I move to Flag everything slows down again for me. I’m the type of runner that likes to run fast everyday, but just because I like to do it doesn’t mean I do just that. I can tell when my body needs to go slower and I do it. I do think this type of training does suit me very well; because when I’m in the middle or end of my track season I know that my months and months of base training are what has made me stronger and is ultimately carrying me through races.

CK: You visited several training groups and found all of them to have benefits, but settled on Team USA, Arizona. It appears part of the reason is to do with how welcoming everyone was and the endless supply of running partners and plenty of fast women to train with including a couple of solid steeplechase specialists that are there. Did you have a chance to go over the training methods to discover what you will be doing on a day-to-day basis and season-to-season? Did this have some effect on your decision?

SH: Yes, absolutely. The training that Coach McMillan provides is very similar to what I am already doing with Coach Kepler. I also felt like the doors of communication were wide open from the first time I spoke with him after USA’s. It felt comfortable and right. I think that is very important considering I’m leaving a coach that I grew to trust in virtually every aspect of my life. Coach McMillan and I briefly talked about what needed to be done to reach some long term goals and I’m looking forward to planning the appropriate steps that need to be taken in order to reach those goals.

Coach Kyle Kepler

“Her PR’s in the last three years have been fun to be a part of. Ultimately, she has done all the necessary work to earn that type of improvement. She has also become a greater student of the sport and of herself. She understands her body as well as any athlete I’ve coached and knows when she can push and when she needs to back off or take a break.”

CK: You are saying Coach McMillan is like your previous coach in a couple of ways: training methods and  communication style. So are you needing a training group around you to help you move to the next level? Is that really the key difference?

SH: Yes, training is going to be very similar to what I’m used to. It’s also going to be a little different in other ways. What I’m going to be doing is a making a very smooth transition from one coach to another and that is exactly what Coach Kepler and I talked about earlier this year when he and I knew a change of some sort needed to be made. Also, we knew the main change I needed was to be in a group setting. Kep saw how drained I was getting training by myself after those long interval workouts. I wouldn’t have changed the last 2 years for anything though. I learned a lot about who I am as an athlete. I know I can do some of the hardest workouts completely on my own and hit the times I need to hit every single time.

CK: Can you give me an example of some of those very hard workouts?

SH: Mainly they were the longer interval type workouts. I remember one specifically during indoor track season, right before my opener at Boise State. I did 6x1200m. I got to the 5th one and said I couldn’t do another one. Kep totally saw me freaking out mentally. He told me to do 200 meters at a time and the second I fell off of pace I was to stop, take :30 seconds and then finish the workout. Needless to say I got it done and I believe faster than the time I was supposed to hit; I knew how much harder it would be if I had to start another bout. This was the type of workout that helps assure me that I can pretty much do anything if I can do all of that by myself and hit the times.

CK: How do you think adaptation to Flagstaff’s 7000 feet of elevation will go?

SH: I think the adaption should be fairly easy and quick since I am coming from altitude here in Salt Lake City. You just never know how altitude is going to affect you though. It initially took me over 6 months to adapt to Salt Lake’s 4,500-5,000 ft. Adding another 2,000ft might be kind of similar, but that’s okay it makes racing at sea level that much more fun!

CK: Can you put into words the experience of a quality workout or race at sea level when coming down from altitude?

SH: It’s like there is more air than you know what to do with. I sometimes have to have people strategically placed around the track reminding me to breath because I’m so used to not having all this abundance of fine O2 around me. It’s crazy! Also, for me I instinctively start to run faster and faster as the workout or race goes on.


CK: All runners have a beer of choice, yours?

SH: Boddingtons.

CK: As the under-25 crowd says: legit. Boddingtons: A nice, slightly bitter amber brew with a creamy head and floral finish. Bagels?

SH: Einsteins.

CK: Music?

SH: Lily Allen.

CK: In a recent interview, you mentioned Kid Cudi. What do you think of his song, The Pursuit of Happiness?

SH: I love that song! I think it describes my life pretty well.

CK: You call a gurl a steeplechic what’s a dude, a steepledude?

SH: Haha, I might have an inappropriate answer for this question.

CK: Does the inappropriate answer rhyme with steeplechic?

SH: Perhaps it may. I’ll let the imagination take over for the readers.

CK: University of Utah and Salt Lake City, do you miss that environment?

SH: I’m proud to call myself an alumni and former coach.

Family affairs

CK: Having grown up in Sioux City, Iowa, was  there a good running environment for you?

SH: It actually is decent for running in the aspect that you’re going to never escape a hill during a running session. It’s always good because I have my favorite training partner, my baby sister Shelby to train with. I have the best support system while I’m home. Dad drives and drops me off for longer runs and makes sure I’m hydrated throughout the whole thing! My step-mom used to run every run with me up until last year when she got injured.

CK: How about your father, does he run? Did he play sports back in the day?

SH: He didn’t start running until later on in life, but had some great success running marathons. Now he just works all the time, rightfully so though having to take care of 5 women:)

CK: Self preservation. You ever get lactic acid in the arms in an 800m?

SH: Yes! My last 800 at Brussels this year. It was an extremely weird experience. I swore I would never again run an 800 after that race. I don’t care if my 800 PR is only a 2:12… Never doing it again.

CK: Your step mom Connie and sister Shelby must be good runners to be able to train with you. Home must provide a healthy running environment.

SH: My step mom was a world-class marathoner for International Asics-Tiger back in the day, she was ranked #4 in the world at one point. Shelby is awesome as well. She holds the all-time 800 meter high school record (2:07.35) in the state of Iowa. They both inspire me daily and have helped me become who I am today.

Ed note: Connie (Prince) Houlihan finished 3rd during the 1986 Twin Cities Marathon with a finishing time of 2:35:25 – her half mile high school record of 2:19 stood for 31 years

CK: Are there sibling rivalry issues in the Houlihan house?

SH: No way! We love competing against each other but all in good fun. We have so much respect for each other. I am stronger at longer stuff while Shelby kills me in speedy stuff. I have to constantly tell her not to kill me if we start doing faster stuff. We make a pretty good “Team Houlihan”.

CK: How old is Shelby?

SH: 17, she is a Senior in high school!

CK: What sort of mileage would you get up to during the off season?

SH: Last Fall I was up to 65 consistently with one week at 70. This season I hope to get up to 75 or 80 miles-per-week. This will happen in about a month and a half. I will stay at this mileage for awhile with some down weeks in between but that is all still up for debate right now.

CK: Does this mean no cross season, then?

SH: I’m still not sure on that either. If I decide on cross it will probably be USA Cross Championships in February. Coach McMillan and I need to sit down and figure out all of the different variables of my training and racing, yet.

CK: Is steeple your event or are you open to attempting standard in other distances?

SH: I love the steeple. I think if you ask any steeplechic they’ll all say the same. Can I be more competitive in other events? I hope so. I really believe I’m a lot faster than I sometimes let on. I’d love to be more competitive in the 1500 and 5k for sure. Right now however the steeple is going very well for me. I ran the 5k for the first time in 5 years this year and was 1 second from the B USA standard, so there is a lot of room  to grow for me. I had no idea what I was doing, my body just took control. I love to race, so my drive and focus is to be competitive every time I step foot on the track no matter what event it is.