© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated

Photo credit: Samantha Murphy

Mariah Kelly is a Canadian middle-distance runner who specialises primarily in the 1500-metre distance. Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, she grew up playing several sports including soccer, basketball and running.

She was offered a scholarship by Baylor University in Waco, Texas and went on to earn a health sciences degree.

During her early days while competing for the Bears, she ran into injury trouble, but finished her NCAA career strong. She earned two Big 12 Conference titles, was named team captain and went onto break two Baylor track records. Kelly twice competed in the NCAA championships.

Upon graduation Kelly was identified by Athletics Canada to be offered an opportunity to join the A.C. West High Performance Hub located in Victoria, BC. She is currently coached by former middle-distance runner Heather Hennigar.

Personal bests: 

800m 2:03.65 Victoria, BC 2016
1500m 4:10.30 Victoria, BC 2016
1609m (mile) 4:36.56 Dublin, Ireland 2016
5,000m 17:36.22 Lubbock, TX 2014

Christopher Kelsall:
What are your plans with the health sciences degree that you attained while at Baylor University?

Mariah Kelly: I used to be sure that after university I would go to medical school, but that all changed when I made the decision to keep running. It wasn’t until my final year at Baylor that I considered post-collegiate running. I always wanted to be an Olympian, but I thought if I was going to make that happen I would do it in University. I was so naive about the sport and what it took to reach that level. In my final year at Baylor I knew I couldn’t stop running because I knew I hadn’t yet come close to my potential and I had still had a burning desire to run, so I started looking around for options to run post-collegiately. I looked at a few groups in the states, but I felt a real sense of home when I visited Victoria and met Heather (Hennigar).

I didn’t know why but I just felt like this was the place for me and Heather was the person who was going to help me get to that next level. I moved halfway across the nation again and uprooted my whole life in the span of a month.

Photo credit: Samantha Murphy

My boyfriend, Dennis, also committed to this big move and came with me. This is when the situation went from hard to harder. We had to go through the whole visa application process while Dennis waited for his work permit, it really wasn’t fun. We really struggled financially this past year and if it wasn’t for the loan we got from my parents, we couldn’t have gotten through. Dennis actually got his work permit late in the year and is now working, so life here seems a lot more realistic now.

I have taken a lot of risks to be here and to give myself a true shot at this sport and the people I love have also taken those same risks. Right now and for the next four years, I have dedicated myself to going after my goals in my athletic career. I am only going to focus on that for now because I truly only have one shot at this and I don’t want to miss my opprtunity at being a great athlete. I will re-evaluate my academic plans after this quadrennial.

CK: That is quite the commitment from both you and Dennis, but being coached by Heather Hennigar is worth all of that.

How is the environment and culture working out for you in Victoria?

MK: It was a huge risk for both of us, especially Dennis, but we chose Victoria for more than just a place for me to train. We both love the mountains, the beaches and the outdoors, so Victoria really just works for what we are looking for in a home. Obviously, the main reason for deciding to come to Victoria was the group and Heather, but it fit for more than just a place to train. We have been here a year now and we both agree it was well worth the risk. It was quite the struggle getting through this last year but we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to explore a lot of places while Dennis was waiting on his work permit, so that was a blessing in disguise.

CK: Have you had a thorough explore?

MK: We have explored almost every inch of Victoria, Langford and Sooke, and we love it all. We try to get out and see something new as often as we can. We have seen some other places outside of Langford and up the Malahat, but we still have quite a bit left to check out.

CK: Tofino?

MK: We were fortunate enough to travel to Tofino last December with my family for Christmas. It was so beautiful and so fun. We had the opportunity to explore the Pacific West Coast Trail and we got to go surfing. Dennis was better at it than I was, but it was still a lot of fun. I am always in awe of the beauty this Island has to offer. I feel so blessed every day to call this beautiful place my home.

CK: Any recreational pursuits around SUP or further surfing in the plans?

MK: I would love to learn to be a better surfer. I love swimming and I love the ocean, the only way those two things could get any better than they already are, is if I was good at surfing. This is something I will definitely be working on in the coming years during my time off. Besides that I love to hike and explore new places. I also enjoy my road bike and taking it anywhere and everywhere. I am new to the Victoria community so something I want to make a priority this year is getting involved in some community service events. I have always made doing volunteer work a part of my life and I truly enjoy it. I would like to get back into that now that I am settled in here.

CK: You ran at least three new personal bests this year one in the mile at 4:36.56, the 1500-metres with a 4:10.30 and the 800-metres in 2:03.65. It could be argued that your 800 represents your best performance of the three. Have you decided to specialise in one?

MK: In high school I specialised in the 800m event and I swore I would never run anything over that distance, but then in college I got pretty good at some of the longer races, so I decided to turn my focus. I have never been the type to want to say that I was a single event type of person. I think in order to be good at any one event you have to be good at the other events that compliments it. Right now I would say my best is the 1500m event. However, if I want to run the best 1500m possible, I have to work on my 800m speed and my 5,000m strength. So I like to use those other events as compliments to my 1500m in order to make me better. I only ran the 800m three times this past season and that third time I ran pretty fast. I would definitely like to see what else I can do in that event, but right now I would still only consider it secondary to the 1500m.

CK: You played basketball and soccer growing up in Niagara Falls. At what point in high school did you realise that running was your sport?

MK: I always tell people that I didn’t really find running, running found me. I started running in elementary school, but only did it for fun at the time. However, with no training I won all of the elementary school races I ever competed in and I won some road races outside school too. In the other sports I played, soccer and basketball. What the coaches liked best about me was the fact that I could run fast and I could run for a long time. I was always the best runner on the team no matter what sport it was. My first year of high school I wasn’t training at all, I was still running off talent and at the smaller levels I was still pretty good, but I was no match for the bigger levels.

CK: Did someone make a suggestion towards focussing on running?

MK: A girl I knew in high school told me I had the talent to run and I shouldn’t waste it. She told me to join this local running club called Niagara Regional Athletics and that if I wanted to see how good I could be I would find out there. So in the middle of my second year of high school I joined that club and saw immediate results. I ran 2:29 in the 800m and made OFSAA for the first time. The next year I made OFSAA in cross-country and the OFSAA final in track for the 800m.

I ran 2:15 that year with only one year of training under my belt. My final year of high school I made OFSAA in cross-country again and then in outdoors I made the final in the 800m again.

I had my sights on a medal this time, but came up short. I concluded my high school career running 2:11 in the 800m. I decided to return to high school for Grade 13 because I hadn’t yet decided which University I wanted to go to and I had unfinished business.

I was a good high school runner, but I wasn’t good enough for every university to be running after me so I had to sell myself to them. I knew I wanted to run in the NCAA because I knew it was the highest level of competition and I wanted to be the best so in my mind I had to compete against the best. After selling myself to the top Universities in Canada and the top-50 NCAA schools, I had received a few offers from both, but I decided in Christmas of my Grade 13 year that I would commit to Baylor. My club coach loved that school and knew Baylor graduated many Olympians. Later that year I suffered from two stress fractures in my right foot during the OFSAA final in the 800m. I didn’t accomplish my goal of winning an OFSAA medal but I did give myself a shot at collegiate running so the journey wasn’t over.

CK: Nothing like a little failure to fuel your desire to achieve more.

MK: Absolutely! I feel like my whole career has been a long line of tests that have always made me face the question; how bad do you want this and how far are you willing to go to get it? Up until this point I have faced multiple challenges and some almost brought me to my knees and made me want to throw in the towel but somehow every time I found the strength to get back up and keep going. Looking back, I am grateful for every hard challenge I have faced because it brought me to where I am today and I wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else than here chasing this dream. I feel like the challenges in my life have prepared me well for what is to come but most importantly they have made me who I am today and I am proud of the person I have become.

CK: What position did you play in soccer?

MK: In soccer I was a midfielder. I loved that position because it required the most running and I was the only one on the team that could do that much running in a game and not get tired. It was funny because I think I loved playing soccer so much because I loved to run.

CK: You were born the year after Mariah Carey hit it big with her debut album, any correlation between your being named Mariah and the famous singer?

MK: I get that question a lot, but as far as I have been told by my parents there is no correlation. My dad’s side of the family is very Irish so originally my name was supposed to be Mary-Kate but instead my mom chose the name Mariah and made my middle name Kathleen. So basically my current name is a long version of Mary-Kate. I can’t really imagine being named anything but Mariah.

CK: We talked a bit about track, how do you like cross-country running?

MK: To be honest I absolutely hate cross-country because I find it so hard and I am not efficient while running on the grass or trails, but I love how tough it makes you. In college I had to work really hard at being good at cross-country, but I did end up reaching a level that was pretty impressive. I think the best part about cross-country is the team aspect of it. I loved going out there with a group of girls and knowing that I had to run hard for more than just myself because my place mattered toward our team standing. It was like going to battle with the people you love. You want to work hard for them because they have worked hard for you and you are all striving toward a common goal. That part was always really fun to me.

CK: Are you finding the trail network to your liking in Victoria? Have you had much opportunity to run at Thetis Lake?

MK: I absolutely love the trails in Victoria. They are incredible and they are so beautiful. I can’t even tell you how many times during a run I look around and think how did I get so lucky. Sometimes I will be doing really hard workouts in the trails and I will be hurting so bad, but the view literally makes the pain a little less terrible. I make sure to try and run in different places all the time so I can appreciate all the beauty on the island. I have run at Thetis a few times, it is a challenging loop full of hills but I love it. I feel like as I am running that loop I can feel myself getting stronger. I live in Langford so hills are usually a must do on a run, but I think running hills is great for making your legs stronger.

Photo: Baylor University

CK: They absolutely are. Is there a story behind the Wonder Woman headband?

MK: There is a story behind the Wonder Woman headband, but it is probably not what everyone thinks it is. During my junior year at Baylor I was named captain of the track team and that year we were hosting the Big 12 conference meet. It was also the last year we would be on that track because we were having a new one built closer to campus. It was a symbolic year in a lot of ways. Up until that point our team had struggled. When I came in as a freshman, our team had a tradition of excellence and a reputation of finishing amongst the top teams in the conference and in the nation.

CK: So as captain, you rallied the team.

MK: Yes when I was named captain of the team I made it our goal to reach that level again. I met with our team multiple times throughout the year and we had signs up everywhere reminding everyone of our goals. We wanted to finish amongst the top three schools in the conference at the conference meet, while on our home track and in order to do that everyone had to step up because prior to that year we had only finished as high as fifth.

The night before the conference meet a girl on our team passed out gold headbands and suggested we all wear them. I doubled in two events in order to score more points for the team which meant I would potentially have to run four races in less than 24 hours, and I did. I scored 12 points for the team by placing second in the 1500m and fifth in the 800m.

On both days of competition the two events were only 30 minutes apart. Everyone on the team stepped up in a big way at that meet and we placed third for the first time in my career at Baylor. It was a big day for us. Since then a lot of us just kept wearing the headband and it became a tradition to wear it at the conference meet. From that moment on we kept reaching new levels of success as a team while wearing those headbands and I was the captain through it all.

CK: And by the end of your career you had multiple individual Big 12 titles, NCAA All-American honours and bettered multiple school records. And (taking a breath) you scored the highest points in team history and placed the highest in the conference and in the nation…

MK: Yes and our highest finish in the conference was second and in the nation our highest finish was seventh and that was the best we had ever done in school history. Individually, during that time, I had earned All Big 12 conference honours in events ranging from the 800m to 6K cross-country with multiple runner-up finishes and I was named captain every year from that point on.

So the headband signified the beginning of a new era and it marked the beginning of big success in my career. When I put that headband on I feel like I am capable of anything and I can do anything. I feel like Wonder Woman so to speak. Throughout our time at Baylor multiple people told us what we wanted to accomplish couldn’t be done. Individually I was told that a lot of my goals were unrealistic, but when we put those headbands on no one could tell us anything because from that point forward we were capable of anything. I made a habit out of wearing it and continued the tradition even after I left Baylor because I still believe I am capable of anything.

CK: What are your 2017 goals?

MK: My primary goal for the 2017 season is to run an IAAF World Championships standard in my event and to qualify to represent Team Canada at the Worlds that are taking place in London, England. So the big question is how do I accomplish that goal and the answer to that is to attain my smaller goals, which ultimately will lead to attaining my primary goal.

My first goal of the season is to get through the off-season healthy and stronger than ever. My second goal of the season is to get through the indoor season healthy, hit a few personal best times in some off-distances, practice my race tactics and use my training to reach a higher level of fitness. My goal for the competitive season is to run standard as early as possible and then have a podium finish at nationals, so I can earn myself a spot on the team. Once I am make that team anything can happen when I reach the world stage.

CK: As long as you are wearing that headband. Do you think the standard will be sub-4:07 for London? Will you try for both 1500m and 800m, to make sure?

MK: Yes, I absolutely know it will take running sub-4:07 in order to make the team so I plan to be ready to do that when it counts. At this point I will be gearing up and focussing on the 1500m event, but I will still pursue the 800m too, in order to help better my overall performance. As I said before, it is my opinion that in order to be a world-class 1500m runner you have to have 800m speed and good 5,000m strength, so that is what I will focus on accomplishing this year.

CK: Apparently you are running a crowdfunding campaign, how is that going?

MK: Yes, I am. I am currently running two campaigns, one is an online crowdfunding campaign (at Pursu.it) and the other is going to be a community fundraiser in my hometown.

The online campaign is for anyone who can’t make the hometown fundraiser, but would still like to contribute to my journey. My goal for the online campaign is to raise $10,000. The hometown fundraiser will be a banquet held on September 25th in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I have a dinner and raffle set up for the event so I am hoping I have a good turnout. My goal is to make $10,000 from this event as well.

This money is going to be used to help me get through the next four years of training no matter what happens. As you know, in Canada, most support is on a year-to-year basis so nothing is guaranteed. I am pursuing some athletic brand sponsorships but nothing has been confirmed yet. That is why I am doing this. I want to secure enough support so that I can rely on it in case something happens over the next four years and I need some help to get through.