Amy Cragg’s Marathon Chess Game

Next Stop Tokyo WMM Race
For World Champs Medalist

by Sieg Lindstrom

February 8, 2018


Amy Cragg, ’17 World Championships bronze medalist, Olympic Trials winner in ’16 and 9th-place finisher in Rio, is playing the marathon leadup to the Tokyo Olympics like a 4-year chess game.

She plans to make her next move—strategic step 2 since Rio—mostly coincidentally, in the Japanese capital at the Tokyo World Marathon Majors stop in less than 3 weeks (February 25).

“It was kind of after Rio that we started talking about the next 4 years, what I needed to improve upon and kind of what I needed to do to reach the next level,” Cragg tells T&FN, outlining the game plan she and Bowerman TC coach Jerry Schumacher are working from.

“Worlds [’17] was decided because it was the last championship race I would be able to do before Tokyo. We decided to do that one with the goal of putting myself in contention for a medal. Start working on that and then also get better at closing over the last 10K.

”I think we accomplished both of those things, however I still have a slower PR than most of the women I line up against every marathon. So this year it’s more about just trying to run fast, trying to cut some time off my PR, and I think that will lead to big things in 2020, hopefully.”

In London—as she became the first U.S. women’s marathon medalist at a World Champs in 34 years—Cragg closed from 30–40K in 34:22, but the second half of that segment, her 16:27 split for the 35–40K portion of the race, told the more revealing tale. And then Cragg outlegged two-time world champ Edna Kiplagat 7:04–7:12 over the final 2.195K to finish with both awarded the same time at the line.

For Tokyo this month, Cragg says, “Really, the biggest goal is to run a PR. I think I’ve been in shape to run a lot faster than my current PR before.”

As her “training gets closer [to race day],” Cragg explains, ”we’ll have a more specific time in mind. But, yeah, it’s definitely to try and run a very big PR.”

After running 2:27:03 out of the box in her debut marathon back in ’11, Los Angeles, Cragg, now 34, still seeks the ceiling-smashing time she believes her legs are ready to bring out. She ran 2:27:17 to place 4th at the ’12 Olympic Trials race, another 2:27:03 at Chicago ’14, 2:28:20 in the miserably hot-weather ’16 OT win and 2:27:18 for her medal-effort in London last summer, a tactical chase as champs competitions often are.

Comparisons with women who’ve been around her suggest Cragg and a new PR are ready for a meeting. She trains with ace clubmate Shalane Flanagan when their schedules sync, and Flanagan’s best is 2:21:14. Kiplagat, the same-time-as-Cragg London Worlds silver medalist, has run 2:19:50 and has five races of 2:21:52 or faster on her résumé.

“I’m pretty confident in my last 10K now and I think I’m getting stronger. That’s something we’re still going to continue working on. I was pretty close to my PR in [London] and the first 20 miles or so felt just so easy.”


World champion Rose Chelimo, 7 seconds faster than Cragg in London, has run 2:22:51. Filomena Cheyech, the 35-year-old Kenyan Cragg ran down over the last half-mile at Worlds, PRed at 2:21:22 last April. London 5th-placer Shure Demise ran 2:20:59 to set the World Junior Record 3 years ago. You get the idea, enough stats.

Winning a World Championships medal finishing just 3 seconds behind the winner, as you might imagine, has boosted Cragg’s belief in the improvement curve she’s on like a turbo. “Absolutely,” she says. “I’m pretty confident in my last 10K now and I think I’m getting stronger. That’s something we’re still going to continue working on. I was pretty close to my PR in that race and the first 20 miles or so felt just so easy. So, yeah, that one gave me a lot of confidence.”

The World Champs denouement raised Cragg’s mental game as well. “The last couple of miles were really tough and it was definitely a lot of up and down emotions,” she recalls. “I switched back and forth between 4th and 3rd a lot, and there was one point I was in 4th and falling back and [Cheyech] was just really pulling away.

“Right at that moment I was like, ‘Oh, no, I think this is going to be it, this is how it’s going to be.’ And Jerry just happened to pop up on the side of the course right then. He said, ‘You can get just a little bit closer. You’ll catch her with 800 meters to go.’

“It kind of shifted my mind and it wasn’t this huge gap anymore: ‘OK, just a little closer, let’s get one step closer.’ And as soon as I was able to do that, just the one step, I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna catch her with 800 to go.’

“And that’s almost exactly what happened. With 800 to go was kind of when I started closing. I think I caught her somewhere around 600 or 500 to go and then the last little bit all of a sudden I was not worried about 3rd anymore, I was focusing on the next two people in front of me.”

Finally, there’s the Flanagan Factor, having watched her training partner’s thrilling win at the New York City Marathon in November.

“I was at home with my dog, we were watching it together, I was jumping up in front of the TV, she was snoring away,” says Cragg, who does much of her training with husband Alistair, he of the NCAA 5K win and 10K 2nd for Arkansas back in ’03. “It was incredible. I had the privilege of seeing a lot of [Flanagan’s] workouts going into it and I knew that something special was going to happen there. It was just an incredible buildup and she was working so hard. It was kind of just one of those things where everything just came together.

“I was like, ‘Man, if she doesn’t win this race, after seeing what she did and what she put into [her preparation], there’s not much hope for any of us.’ She did so now I think all Americans are like, ‘We can do it! This is something we can do.’ ”

Cragg’s medal performance last summer sent the same message, many would argue. “I hope so, I hope so,” she says. “I think we can be really good as Americans. I think we can do a lot better than we have in the past so I hope it starts changing the attitude coming into the marathon. It’s kind of changing who wants to do it. For a while I think it was an event not many people really wanted to mess with. It’s becoming more exciting now, especially seeing how well the U.S. women are doing on the world level, it’s going to make more people excited for it and I think we’re going to have a very big presence in the future.”

Part of that future is nigh, in Tokyo. “It’s a faster course, it’s more of a time trial course, and, yeah, that’s pretty much why we decided to go there,” Cragg says. “And going to Japan, I love going to Japan. That makes it nice too.”

Has Cragg added any new twists to the recipe for this next race? “I have and I haven’t,” she says. ”It’s based off my training block before Worlds. However last time for the first time I hit a certain mileage and I couldn’t max out. I did it for 4 weeks and after 4 weeks it kind of killed me and my workouts started suffering so we cut back.

“But this time I was able to do 6 weeks at that high mileage I was still able to hit better workouts and was feeling better on a daily basis, and my runs on a daily basis weren’t suffering from it. So I think it was just being able to hold that longer. My body had adjusted from the previous buildup to be able to just do a little bit more. Every time it’s just building on the last one.”

Her Tokyo result will determine Cragg and Schumacher’s next move. “After the marathon is when we kind of start talking about it again, however I would like to run a fall marathon,” she says. “It’s kind of crazy because after the Olympics you have three years between so you immediately start talking about six marathons. Except you can’t do a fall marathon before the Trials so that’s only five marathons, and if you do Worlds then that takes away another one. [Since Cragg eschewed a spring marathon in ’17, she’s likely looking at four between Rio and Tokyo including the ’20 OT] So I think I could use more racing experience and so I would love to do one. But then again, you never know until afterwards.”


© Track & Field News 2018