“IF YOU WOULD HAVE ASKED ME in college if I were to ever run a 10K or if I would like a 10K, I probably would have laughed at you, like, ‘No way, that’s not for me!’”
Back when she was at Georgetown, Rachel Schneider was a 5-time All America who specialized in the 1500, where she ran in the World Juniors as a frosh and eventually hit a collegiate low of 4:10.53 in ’13 for the Hoyas.
Since those days, the New Hampshire native, now 29, has transformed herself into one of America’s top distance runners, one whose name crops up in serious Olympic Trials 5000/10,000 discussions.
Last December, in her first-ever track 10,000, she showed what a force she has become, running 31:09.79 in standard Under Armour spikes to outkick youngsters Weini Kelati and Alicia Monson and at the time move to No. 8 American ever. Super-shoe performances since then have bumped her from the top 10.
Schneider’s incarnation as a 1500 runner eventually took her to the ’16 Trials, where she failed to clear the semis. Now she says, “It’s crazy to believe that the 2016 Trials were 5 years ago now. I feel like a totally different runner than I was back then.”
Since that season, Schneider has pounded out a steady drumbeat of leaps forward. In ’17 it was a 4:25.62 mile and a 31-second improvement in the 5000 to 15:33.06.
The next year she got even faster: 15:15.88. In ’19, she ran 15:06.71 before making her first Worlds team, going out in the heats in Doha. Notably, she also raced the mile in Monaco, hitting a PR 4:20.91 (and 4:02.26 en route).
Perhaps no one expected big things out of her in ’20 once the news of the Olympic postponement hit. And when she ran herself into an Achilles injury over the summer, even more of the pressure went away.
So when she dropped her December 31:09.79 in San Juan Capistrano, that was, indeed, another big step forward.
“I think the way that my strength has started to shine through has been a really exciting element for me just to build confidence,” she says. “I’ve seen that in training throughout the years just with some of my threshold workouts and sub-thresholds… Some of the things we’ve been doing in training have definitely led me to believe that I could be competitive in the 5K to half-marathon, and to see that come out in race results and performances, it’s been an exciting part of my growth.”
The transformation has come in a large part due to her work with Mike Smith, who started guiding her career back in her Georgetown days and is now the acclaimed coach of the Northern Arizona program that just won another NCAA men’s cross country crown.
“He’s always done a phenomenal job of always putting the person above performance,” she says. “He cares so much more about the person than he does about the performance and any one of his athletes will really feel that. I think that what helps them thrive so much is they feel seen and cared for.
“He’s really always had that at the center of his philosophy. He’s grown as a coach in a lot of beautiful ways over the last few years.”
She adds, “Shortly after we both moved out to Flagstaff — at that point in our coach-athlete relationship, we had become way more collaborative — we started developing a friendship and then we started dating about 4 years ago.”
Over the past winter, the two got engaged, with plans for a wedding in the fall. “We’re really excited,” she says.
“Being his fiancée, it’s a really intimate look into the ways that he coaches his college athletes and other people and it feels like it’s a privilege to get to witness it and be a part of it and to bounce ideas off each other. We talk a lot about coaching philosophy and just philosophy in general.”
Not that all of their talk is about running. She explains, “So much of our passions and interests are actually outside of the sport. We love spending time with the dogs and garden and going on all these outdoor adventures and going camping and stand-up paddleboarding. I feel like a lot of our time is actually spent not revolving around running, which is really healthy for both of us.”
One theme that keeps emerging is that she has found her happy place in Flagstaff, from the outdoor opportunities to the running community to the fact that her sister/best friend has just moved there with her family. Schneider had just finished a training run with marathoners Sara Hall and Diane Nukuri when she was interviewed for this article. “Another really beautiful part of Flagstaff is just that there are so many incredible runners who I’m able to train with.”
Meanwhile, the coaching bug has rubbed off on Schneider, who herself coaches 10 runners of varying ages and abilities online. “It’s a wide range of goals but it actually gives me a lot of good energy. It’s really uplifting to help people take down their personal goals.”
Speaking of which, Schneider has goals of her own that are coming into sharp focus with the approach of the Olympic Trials. “I get really excited about thinking of moving into the roads and the trails someday but there’s still definitely a few things I want to accomplish on the track or at least go after before hanging up the spikes.”
So far this year, Schneider has only had two race days, a one-day indoor double at Camel City where she captured both the mile (4:30.54) and 3000 (8:57.01). Then a week later she placed 4th in the 5000 at the Texas Qualifier in 15:23.25.
“Texas was a little disappointing because my fitness was in a much better place than that result indicated, so that was a bummer. But between Camel City and that I feel pretty confident that training’s been going really, really well these last couple months and I’m super fired-up targeting the Trials.”
As for which event she is liable to focus on in Eugene, she says, “That’s a good question. Definitely I’ll be doing the 10K because it’s last. There’s nothing to lose in that one. But the 1500 and the 5000, those are at the beginning and they overlap, so I have to choose between the 1500/10K double or the 5K/10 double.
“We’re going to wait to see where we see our biggest strength is. If I had to decide right now, my guess would be 5K/10K double.”
That jibes with the math of her PRs, where the confluence of her mile and 10,000 bests would seem to indicate another big performance jump in the 5000 is in the cards. “You never know until you actually do it, but my training would have indicated that we were in sub-15:00 shape quite a few times in the last few years and had not capitalized on the few opportunities I’ve had. That’s something I desire to do hopefully this outdoor season, is to actually get to run a really fast 5K and go after some of the goals and things I believe I can do in that event.”
Through it all, Schneider’s relentless positivity is the force that drives her. “I am still feeling like there are very few runs I don’t look forward to,” she says. “I feel like as long as I’m excited about why we’re doing the workout and who I’m meeting up with, I love getting out and doing it.”