In just a few more days all eyes in the world of running will be on the men and women competing in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. One of those is runnerAlexis Zeis, the 71-minute half marathoner who is preparing to run her first-ever marathon at the Trials.
While some might think Zeis is insane for using this big race as her first-ever marathon, after knowing the runner’s stats, this only seems like the next natural progression.
At the same time, she is practical and realistic, going into the Olympic Trials in a few days with a more lighthearted than competitive mindset. As a young runner in the sport, she knows that while making the Olympic Team would be amazing it isn’t the end-all goal.
She is going into the Trials using the marathon as a way to better herself as a runner, to learn as much from it as she can at this large scale stage, and then hope to use this experience to her advantage for the next Trials.
There is no doubt in my mind that the running world will continue to see great things from Zeis beyond Atlanta 2020.
I spoke to the runner to learn more about the start of her running career, that 71:31 half marathon time, and how she is feeling going into the Olympic Trials.
Read related: Runner Taylor Ward talks 2020 Olympic Trials
Q: When does your running journey begin? How did you get your start in the sport?
A: I’m originally from Bismarck, North Dakota and I grew up as a figure skater for 15 years, but I was running all the time.
I started track my 6th-grade year. I think it’s funny—I came home one day and I remember I told my mom that I’m going to run the mile at the track meet. And she goes, ‘You know that’s four laps around the track, right?’ And I said, ‘I know.’ And I ended up winning it.
And that started it.
I wanted to keep running. I was doing track, but I was also doing soccer and volleyball throughout middle school but when I was in 9th grade, the cross country coaches convinced me to go out for the team.
I kept figure skating. I skated for a synchronized skating team in Bismarck. We were nationally ranked. I went to Nationals three times in a row with that team, but I knew I didn’t want to do it in college.
So I decided to forgo synchronized swimming my senior year and just stay in individual skiing and compete individually. But I focused on running more because I wanted to go to a college and get a scholarship for running.
Q: When was that moment where you knew you had a real talent in the sport and this was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
A: Going into my freshman year of college my mom said something to me that really stuck with me. ‘Nobody cares about what you did in high school. You can do whatever you want in college.’ And I took that as an opportunity to get better at something I know that I can do well at because I always felt like I was improving every year.
I think throughout college I thought,’Oh, I’m just going to run in college and I don’t really know what I am going to do after college.’ But my senior year of college, it was two weeks before I was graduating, we were at Mount SAC in California and we were watching the Bowerman’s [Track Club] runningin the 1500.
And for some reason, I had this moment while watching this race… where I said I want to continue running. I want to be better. I want to reach that pinnacle of talent like the Boweman girls—especially Shelby Houlihan—she’s someone I really look up to.
It was two weeks before graduation and I actually pulled from my graduate program and said I’m going to move to Boulder, Colorado—not sure what I’m not to do besides run, but that’s what’s going to happen.
Q. That was a bold move, but you do have an impressive college resume of wins. How important were your coaches at UMary in your running success?
A: My coach Dennis Newell, he knew a lot about running. He really took me under his arm, especially my freshman year. And throughout the years we also had graduate assistant coaches and those graduate assistant coaches were also buying into the program and wanting us to excel as a team.
It’s also my teammates, too. I wanted to be a great team—not just individually. I wanted us to win conference titles, win regional titles, place in the National podium in all that.
So our coaches, especially Coach Newell, would say if you didn’t buy into the program or buy into the team, then there’s no way that you’re going to excel in what you want to do.
Q. Coming out of the Houston Half, it’s easy to say you are only getting faster. What do you think is behind that success?
A: I believe that if you want to get better at the sport you have to grow with the sport.
My coach right now, Doctor Richard Hansen, has helped me grow over the past two years for sure coming out of college. But Coach Newell also helped us grow as individuals, looking at what we want to do with our lives. And with that, I think that’s something huge with running. If you want to become better at the sport, you have to continue to grow with the sport.
You need to be accountable, you need to check your mental health, and all runners have some type of mental game with their head.
For me, this is the first time I ever moved away from home. So I have the help of a lot of my teammates and my coach is helping me, guiding me on what is right and wrong to be at a professional level, to compete with the best.
And there are mistakes that I’ve made. There are decisions that I probably shouldn’t have done, but I learned from them and I’m trying to be better from them.
Q: Let’s talk about the Houston Half Marathon. What was it like running the Houston half and becoming a 71-minute half marathoner?
A: Houston. If you would’ve asked me 4 months ago at that time, I probably wouldn’t have done Houston.
There was a lot of personal stuff going on, things weren’t clicking and my coach was telling me I probably wasn’t going to do Houston anymore.
Just that talk made something click in my mind. This is something I recalled want to do, and basically, I need to get it together.
So going into Houston workouts I was feeling good. I was getting into my highest mileage ever.
I think going in what was nice was we had almost our whole team there. We had four of the guys and three of the women so it was pretty awesome knowing I was going out with my teammates and we were all going after PRs. And we knew it was going to be fast. It was the last weekend of the qualifiers for Trials.
Having my teammates—especially my teammate Jen Bergman—she and I are at the same pace for a lot of stuff, so we do a lot of workouts together and she and I going in were planning on staying together.
I think just with her at the start line made my nerves a lot less. We were both trying to reach the same goal, and both of our goals were running sub 72 (or right under 71 and we both were right int he middle of that) and I have to say that as soon as the gun went off all my nerves went away.
Within the first two miles, I was feeling good and I caught up to another girl that actually trained in Colorado Springs and we worked together the whole race and it was a beautiful morning. There was some headwind from mile 9 to 11, but other than that I couldn’t be happier.
And when I saw the time I thought ‘no way. This can’t be possible.’ But my training was going well, and I was feeling good and feeling fit and everything was coming into place.
Q: So then how did you feel when you realized that you hit that PR?
A: I just had excitement.
The first thing is I hugged girl I ran with, her name was Jessica [Watychowicz], and then I saw my teammate and she was really excited too and she threw her arms out and we just hugged each other.
We were just smiling and laughing the whole time. And seeing all the teammates that PR’ed—because I have a teammate Maggie [Montoya] who ran a 70:08 in her second ever half marathon—it was awesome to know that our team is so supportive of each other. I think that was what was more exciting—was having that team excitement again.
Q: What do you think the best part of running a half marathon is?
A: Coming out of college I never ran more than 10k. My first real, long races was USATF 10 Mile Championships in Minnesota. And from that race on I just fell in love with running the longer distances.
And then I ran my first half marathon at the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Minnesota—that’s actually my qualifier to the US Trials.I ran a 72:41. This distance, it’s not super fast, but it’s still at a really good pace and it just feels really good.
I think trying now to break 71 and then break 70, it’s such a common race that you want to be up there with the top people.
Q: What did it feel like to know you were a Trials qualifier with this race?
A: I was a little bit in shock. I was like—because I wanted tor un fast, but I didn’t know how fast I could run at the time.
My coach and I were talking about the Trials and we were like ‘I don’t know if I’ll be ready for a marathon, but we’ll see what you can do with this half marathon.’
Q: Going into the Trials you have never run a full marathon before. How are you feeling going into the race and how has your training changed.
A: I’ve been doing more marathon specific stuff. Over the last few weeks, I’ve done my first ever 20-miler, 21-miler, two and a half-hour run. It’s all foreign to me, and I’m going into what I call “foreign territory” because I’ve never run anything longer than—I did US 25K Champs, so I never ran anything longer than a 15-mile race.
At this point I feel more prepared than when I even ran that 25k so I’m really excited to go in and to have an open mind, to have fun.
It’s the US Trials. It only happens every four years. I think for me, I’m not the youngest but I’m one of the youngest, and I feel like I have more in me after this year. So I’m just going out there to see what I can do but also compete at the same time.
At this point with the Trials, time is thrown out. The course is going to be the toughest course they ever had. It’s the most people they ever. had.
I feel that there’s always going to be someone to run with during this race. And I’m excited. My family gets to come down there. The atmosphere is probably going to be amazing. It’s going to be a really fun weekend.
Q: How is your race strategy changing for this race?
A: I have stuff kind of played in my mind. For me it’s foreign, but throughout college, I was really good at cross country. And I feel like honestly, this course is a cross country course, but on the road.
So we’ve been doing a lot of hill workouts here. We have a certain loop that we do that is equivalent to the evolution gain that they have at the Trials, so we’ve been doing that a lot.
I don’t know what my strategy would be right now. More than likely just go out, feel good the first half and go for it for the second half.
Q: What do you think is the most challenging part of training for the marathon?
A: Being mentally intact. That’s something I’ve really been working on—especially doing these 20-mile long runs.
My first one, it was fine, it was a good run, but also I wasn’t mentally engaged towards the end. I was feeling fatigued and just tired and like my legs were locking up, but I was talking to my teammates and they told me you’re going to feel like that. That’s something we all went through—feeling like your body is locking up, but it’s. A good thing because your body is learning for it for the next time you do it. And has. I kept doing it, I felt less and less like that feeling.
Q: Do you have a specific time goal for the Trial race?
A: I’ve been doing all my workouts between 2:35 to 2:37 pace. But I think with this course, time is being thrown out. I know I have the strength in me, so let’s see what time I can really go for.
Q: What would it mean for you to make the Olympic team?
A: At this point, I think it is a long shot. I think for me, this is step one of the next four years leading to the next Olympics. This is a good experience.
If I ever make the Olympics I would probably be in such shock that I would probably not know what to say.
Everyone would love to make the Olympics, but for me, it’s always about what more can I do. I want to make the Olympics, but it’s not something I think about. I just want to be better every time.
Q: What’s next for after the Trials?
A: After the Trials will probably be a down week, but the next goal will be track and trying to qualify for the track Trials, focus more on the 10k. I’ll probably have some road races in there as well.
I will head to Mount SAC in April and see what I can do in the 10k. I feel like there is more in me, hopefully, break 33—I mean I’m really close to it.
And then go from there.
Watch Alexis Zeis compete in the US Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 29 on NBC.