Ann Theisen’s training for the Tokyo Marathon didn’t go to waste
What do you do if you’ve trained for the Tokyo Marathon but it gets canceled for all but the most-elite runners to mitigate coronavirus risk? If you’re valley resident Anne Theisen, you change your plane ticket, fly to California and run in the Napa Valley Marathon. Oh, and you win it.
Theisen was slated to run the Tokyo Marathon on March 1, as her fifth World Marathon Majors race (running the six largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Boston, Chicago, Berlin, London – which Theisen has run – Tokyo and New York City, which she plans to run).
But 13 days before Tokyo, just as she was beginning her training taper, Theisen got a text from her Japanese host mom (with whom Theisen lived years ago) telling her that the Tokyo Marathon was closed to all but a relative handful of elite runners and wheelchair racers.
“Coronavirus was on the rise in Japan,” says Theisen, “and they didn’t want that many people in one place.”
Race organizers couldn’t just cancel the marathon, however, because it was being used as an Olympic trials qualifier for the Japanese team. Japan needed the event in order to select top athletes from those who were vying for spots as Olympians. So 38,000 runners, including Theisen, were cut from the marathon, and it took place as scheduled with about 200 racers, most of them Japanese elite runners.
Theisen cycled through denial, anger and profound disappointment quickly, once the news was confirmed. Her biggest frustration was that she had just completed 28 weeks of the most rigorous training program of her life to be ready for such an early-season marathon, and now she wouldn’t be able to run it just as she was in peak condition.
Training in the Methow Valley was tough, given cold temperatures, snow and icy rain, and road conditions. But thanks to her work with coach Sam Naney through Uphill Athlete, Theisen felt strong and ready to run Tokyo, and all that punishing training would soon be a hazy memory.
In fact, just the day before the Tokyo Marathon plans changed, Theisen had said to her daughter, “Wow, those months of training were so grueling, but at least I’m tapering now and I’ll never have to do that again.” Famous last words.
Once Theisen moved into the acceptance phase, however, she shifted gears and turned her sights to the Napa Valley Marathon. “Once I realized Tokyo was out, I quickly started looking for other marathons taking place on March 1 [to stick with her training trajectory],” she says. “Napa made sense; getting there was easy, and it was still open for registration.” Thirty-six hours after the text from her Japanese host mom, Theisen’s plans for Napa were finalized.
Theisen ran her first marathon in college, at age 19, and then “took a 20-year hiatus.” When she eventually returned to running marathons at age 39, after having two children, Theisen was pleasantly surprised to see herself getting progressively faster throughout her 40s.
“I think it’s my maturity and tenacity,” she says. “I finally have the discipline to stick with the training program and do all the other things outside of running that make running work: regular stretching, a commitment to recovery time, and strategic core work. I didn’t have the time or the drive to prioritize those things when the kids were young.”
When Theisen moved from Seattle to the Methow Valley full-time in the summer of 2019 and got confirmation that she had qualified for the semi-elite wave of the Tokyo Marathon, she needed a local coach, one who would be aware of the day-to day-conditions she was facing. “I needed someone with a finger on the pulse of the weather and road and trail conditions,” she says.
Also, Theisen points out, a west side coach wouldn’t know how to effectively incorporate Nordic skiing into marathon training. But Naney knew precisely how to do that, and with a winter that included several periods with extremely cold temperatures, the Nordic training was critical to Theisen’s progress.
It’s possible that Theisen was the only Tokyo qualifier with Nordic workouts constituting a significant portion of her training program, and quite likely that she is the only Napa winner in history who logged more training miles on skinny boards than on sneakers.
Napa is a hillier course than Tokyo, and this is where Theisen’s Methow Valley training paid off, simply because many of her workouts had taken place in the valley’s steep terrain. “It’s always easier to train on hills and move to a flat course,” she says, which is what would have happened had she run the Tokyo Marathon. Napa was hilly, but Theisen had inadvertently trained for it.
The other key differentiator between Tokyo and Napa, Theisen says, was that Tokyo was forecast to be chilly, whereas Napa had temperatures in the high 40s, with a light drizzle at the starting line. “That freaks some runners out,” says Theisen, but it felt just like home for someone who trains in Seattle and the Methow.
At the Napa starting line, Theisen and a handful of other women self-selected into a group that would aim for sub-3-hour finish times. Theisen was in the lead for the first 3 miles, then wasn’t, and then was again, and from miles 15 – 24 she ran alone.
The top male and female runners in the race were shadowed by cyclists, who would dart ahead of the runners at spectator locations and say “Here comes the first male (or female) runner!” and get the crowd to cheer, which Theisen says helped her morale immensely.
At mile 24, Theisen says, the cyclist announced her, the spectators went crazy, and then from somewhere in the crowd Theisen heard someone yelling “You’re the second woman!” which tipped Theisen off that there was another runner very close behind her, within earshot.
“Right then and there,” Theisen says “I decided it was my race to lose, and I wasn’t going to do that. I knew I had to give it whatever I had left.”
Somehow, Theisen says, “I found another gear.” She ended up winning the women’s race in 2.52:58, earning not only a personal record by 3 minutes, but also beating the second-place woman by 20 seconds. When she later congratulated the woman – who at 30 is 17 years younger than Theisen – the woman said in a grudgingly admiring tone, “you’re a badass.”
Which Thiesen is, and which she attributes in part to her Methow Valley training.
“Training in the Methow really increased my grit factor,” she says. “Winter running here is so difficult; I was really mentally strong going into this race. After running in snow and storms all winter, when I got to Napa and ran on bare pavement with light shoes and light clothing, I felt invincible.”