Amy Cragg: The Art of The Changeup

Amy Cragg: The Art of The Changeup

By Latria Graham

In a professional slump and unsure of what to do, Cragg changed everything from her home to her coach to her shoes, and realized some surprising outcomes.

It's early afternoon on a crisp November day and Portland, Oregon's, notorious rain just won't let up. Amy Cragg doesn't mind. She hops out of her SUV and faces the winter onslaught without flinching.

The 33-year-old two-time Olympian is familiar with this weather, she's lived near Portland for two years now. She walks with purpose towards the gym where she trains, a futuristic silver-and-glass building at the center of Nike's main campus.

Even though she did a 10-mile run earlier this morning she has energy to spare and bounds up the wooden stairs to the second story workout space.

After 10 years of grinding behind the scenes, Cragg, who recently became the first American woman since 1983 to win a medal in the marathon at the World Championships, has finally found the success she dreamt of for so long. It took letting go of everything she believed she knew about running to get here, but doing so helped her make women's running history.

“I try to tell young runners especially—they'll have this great build up and then they won't have the race they wanted at the end of it,"Cragg says. "All those miles, it's going to be for something, you just don't know what it is yet."

Hip-hop is blaring through the speakers when she starts her workout. She is the model of an enthusiastic athlete, tackling her exercises with tenacity, picking up and slamming the battle ropes against the jet black floor with an earnest thwack. At 5 feet 4 inches tall, her slender build is dwarfed by the punching bag she's hitting. Still, the power she puts out knocks the weighted bag back every time.

She wasn't always such a fierce presence—in the gym or on the track. Although she decided she wanted to specialize in running marathons at 14—inspired by her high school running coach—it took years of training before she made her own marathon debut in Los Angeles in 2011. Back then she went by her maiden name, Amy Hastings.

Gripped by a freezing cold, torrential downpour, the normally sunny city was pale and grey. Not long after the marathon began, the athletes came around Dodger Stadium with Cragg leading the group down the stretch towards Santa Monica.

The marathon commentator called her effort a breakout performance.

“Amy Hastings is another star in the making," he said.

But at the 19.5 mile-marker, she began to struggle. Pain blossomed in her lower back and spread towards her legs. She was still in the top three and knew she had a chance to win.

“You have to respect the distance," Cragg says now, “because in a lot of the shorter races, you can get beat by other people, but in the marathon you can get beat by yourself."

She pushed beyond the discomfort and took second place.

Cragg decided to attempt the feat again at the Olympic marathon trials in Houston, Texas, in January 2012. In order to represent the United States in London, she had to finish in the top three. She crossed the finish line fourth.

Disappointed, but not entirely defeated, she recalibrated and earned a spot at the Olympics in the 10k.

Then, in 2014, Cragg hit a wall. The 10-time All-American's race performance times began to stall and she wasn't taking home as many medals. While she was often in the top 15, she wanted top three, and her sponsors needed first-class finishes to justify their investment in her. Burned out from the stress of managing expectations—her own and other people's—and tired of often training alone, Amy found herself wondering if it was time to leave the sport she loved so much. She had two choices: work harder, or walk away.

Cragg realized she needed something different. Around that same time fellow long-distance runner Shalane Flanagan asked Cragg to come train with her and the Bowerman Track Club in Portland.

Many elite runners would deem switching coaches and training strategies less than a year before the Olympics and less than three months before the Olympic trials, reckless. She talked the decision through with her husband, retired two-time Irish Olympian, Alistair Cragg.

Moving "was very high risk," Cragg says. "But we decided even if it doesn't work out, even if I come here and work really hard and I get hurt, or I work really hard and I am not cut out for it, at least I'd get out of the sport knowing I did everything I possibly could.

“I like to say I wasn't born with the engine that a lot of natural long distance runners have, but I was given all the tools to make one," Cragg continues. "I've been working these 10 years to make this engine and I finally feel like I have something kind of special."

The day after Cragg arrived in Portland, at the end of September 2015, she began training. Coach Jerry Schumacher changed everything. He gave her new warm-ups, a more intense weight training regimen, and higher mileage goals—often up to 20 miles a day. Even her former running shoes went into the trash.

“Jerry has completely changed my running," she says. “He completely changed my life. After all of these years of running I knew I could be better but it just wasn't coming around." By the beginning of January 2016, she had a new sponsor, too: Nike.

Cragg's early days with the track club looked like this: wake up, run, eat, train, eat, run, eat, sleep, repeat.

“It was almost like starting over," she says, unable to remember much aside from her exhaustion. "It was three of the most intense months of my life."

Changing everything she knew about running left her depleted at the end of the day. But her persistence paid off: she shaved seconds off of her marathon pace and at the 2016 trials she punched her ticket to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Key to her transformation was the way she reframed her mindset. With her new training partner and coach, Cragg learned to find fortitude in uncomfortable moments when anxiety and pain threatened to overtake her and derail her performance. She focused on consistency, strategy and being totally prepared for every race.

Although Cragg says she used to be stressed out even before she hit the start line, now she prepares about six weeks before a race. She decides what to wear, decorates her water bottle with neon duct tape and chooses her shoes. Two weeks before competition she stops ruminating.

"Control what you can, and let the rest roll off of your back," she says.

By the time the 2017 World Championships in London rolled around, Cragg couldn't have been more prepared.

“I can do this, I can do this," she said to herself at the start.

The pain arrived right after the last water stop and radiated through her body in the final miles. “I can do this, I can do this," she repeated, refusing to let distress turn into despair.

She stuck to the race strategy she designed with Schumacher and trusted in the training she'd done with her team.

"When I started thinking 'I can't do this' I changed my mind and thought 'maybe I can do something I didn't think I was capable of thirty seconds ago,'" she says.

Then, a pivotal moment, about one mile from the finish line: Her coach yelled to her to try and close the gap, even just a little, between herself and those in the lead.

Cragg focused on the back of Kenyan Flomena Daniel's black and red jersey, hoping to get just one inch closer to her competition. Daniels took off in a sprint, hoping Cragg wouldn't overtake her. To no avail.

With 600 meters remaining, she made her move, eclipsing Daniels and setting her sights on another Kenyan, Edna Kiplagat, in a fight for a place on the podium. As she turned the corner and hit the straightaway, all she could hear was her heartbeat and the sound of her white Nike shoes hitting the asphalt. She leaned into the long stretch ahead of Tower Bridge. She could see the finish line.

Soon the race was over. Cragg never passed Kiplagat, but she still crossed the yellow paint in third place. She crumpled to her knees. She'd made history.

The gentle sound of rain against the window of the gym brings Amy back to the present. The downpour is now a drizzle. Thinking back to that time, Cragg remembers why she runs: "I'm in love with the race. I think it's really special to find out what your body is capable of doing," she says. "I want to see what my mind can kind of make me do. I want to see my upper limits at something, and for me that's running. That's why I get out of bed every day."

At that, she puts the kettle bell down and picks up her jacket, prepping to brace against the wind. But when she opens the door it has stopped raining. The weather, just like everything else, can change.