Karissa Schweizer Is Ready For Some Real Racing

Despite the lack of “outside competition,” Karissa Schweizer has racked up an impressive set of PRs in the last year. (KEVIN MORRIS)

AFTER A YEAR of dazzling times in the midst of the pandemic, Karissa Schweizer is more than ready to race for real. Still just 24, the Nike Bowerman runner burned her way to the higher reaches of the all-time U.S. lists in all her key events over a 12-month span.

The onslaught started in late-February ’20, when she broke the absolute American Record for 3000m (Mary Slaney’s last record) with a shocking 8:25.70 in Boston. Racing was sparse over the pandemic summer, but she made it count, hitting 14:26.34 over 5000m in placing 2nd to training partner Shelby Houlihan’s AR. Eleven days later she sizzled a 1500 in 4:00.02, moving to No. 8 all-time in the U.S.

On February 20 of this year, she placed 2nd to teammate Elise Cranny in the 10K in San Juan Capistrano, her 30:47.99 making her No. 4 all-time U.S. With the exception of the 3000 right before the pandemic shut things down, all of the marks came in choreographed events that for all purposes were basically time trials.

“I’ve talked to [coach Jerry Schumacher] about this,” she says, “and it’s like, I’m just so frustrated that we have to just keep racing our team. At some point, you don’t want to keep racing against the same people. You just want that getting on the line and not knowing anything about your competitors and just going out there and seeing what you can do for the day.

“He just keeps telling us, ‘This is setting you guys up for when everything does go back to normal. And we’ll just be that much more ready for when things do return to normal.’”

Now training with her teammates in Park City, Utah, during one final altitude phase before the “real” racing begins, Schweizer finds herself powering through a little more snow than expected. “I don’t know if we’ve ever been up here this early. They just closed the ski slopes for the season, but we just got dumped on.”

Even with the winter cold, it’s a more optimistic time than it was a year ago. Then, with her first year under her belt as a pro — and a 9th-place finish in the Doha 5000 — Schweizer had aimed for big things heading in to the Tokyo Olympics only to see the schedule turned upside down.

“There was a time in the spring where I was just like, ‘Gosh, I feel like nothing’s going for us.’ And we really didn’t know what we were going to do with everything being postponed. And Jerry was like, ‘We should go up to altitude still and just try to mimic a normal year.’

“I know personally I was pretty unmotivated to go up. It was so hard to be committed and dedicated when you don’t even know if you’re going to be able to race. So we just kind of went up with the hopes of having a time-trial event [that summer] and Jerry was going to time it. I’m grateful that it turned into something way more than just that.”

The 5000 performance in July vaulted Schweizer into the event’s elite, with only 13 humans ever faster, all but two of them born in Africa. “I wasn’t super-surprised because Shelby and I were training very hard throughout the whole spring and summer and just kind of felt we were on another level. We went and paced the other girls in a 5K the week prior to our race. We paced them through 4K and we were like, ‘That felt really good.’

“That gave us a ton of confidence. We told Jerry, ‘We think we can run sub-14:30’ and he just shook his head. He’s like, ‘Let’s just focus on trying to break the current record [14:34.45]. Let’s not go crazy.’

“We were both itching for a little more but he was definitely trying to keep us grounded.”

The 1500 PR? Let’s just say Schweizer, just a 4:10.68 performer when she wrapped her collegiate career, has mixed feelings on the 4:00.02: “That one kills me. I think that’s my least favorite of all time, but Jerry was really happy with that one. He’s like, ‘I never would have thought that you from college would be a 4-flat 1500 runner, and the way you ran it, I know you’re sub-4.’

“It was just really frustrating because I was coming down the homestretch and the clock was delayed. When I crossed it said 3:59 but then it corrected itself to 4:00.02 and it was just heartbreaking. I was like, ‘Omigosh!’ I think back, if the clock wasn’t delayed, would I have run faster? But at the same time I was very well spent on the line.

“That was a tough race, especially because I was just kinda out on my own at the end. It’s always nice to have someone pushing you to get those extra little 0.02 seconds.”

The 10,000 in February: “We planned to run a fast 10K for a while and we didn’t really know how fast it was going to be. We were talking about trying to get the Olympic standard and that’s a pretty big PB already. We were doing these workouts and Jerry was like, ‘You’re really ready for a fast 10K!’ I think he just wanted everything to be perfect.

“We had our pacers through 4M or so and after that the instructions were for me to take over and then for Elise to take over. We just kept swapping the lead and cranking it down. I was impressed at how much we were able to wind it down at the end. I definitely didn’t think we were going to go under 31. It was exciting to know how that felt and that we are ready for those big 10Ks.”

Of all of her races, Schweizer looks back to the 3000 AR as the one that’s most meaningful: “The whole race in itself, I surprised myself. A lot of people were focused on Shelby or other people breaking the record and I just kind of went into it like, ‘Why not me?’ I stuck my nose in it and I was really happy with the outcome.”

Clearly, Schweizer has found the right mix in her current training environment. The 6-time NCAA champion for Missouri has blossomed far beyond her collegiate expectations. Her timing couldn’t be better for the upcoming stretch of 5 straight years with global championships, starting with an anticipated 5K/10K double at the Trials. “After that whole summer, I was just itching to race other people to see how we stack up to them because we finally ran these times and have this confidence. We’re going into a big year and I can put myself into the mix because I’m confident. I’ve run those times.”

Of her improvements, she adds: “I think those jumps are super-exciting and every time I’ve made a big jump, I was kind of expecting it in a weird way. You see these workouts and you see all the training going into it.

“It’s been exciting and on paper, it looks crazy. But when you see the training, it all makes sense.”