Leading the Pack in Her First Marathon

MINNEAPOLIS — There’s an adage among running coaches: Run your own race. Don’t focus on things you can’t control, including your competitors’ tactics.

Last month, Chris Lundstrom, the coach of Minnesota Distance Elite, watched as one of his athletes, Annie Frisbie, did just that in the New York City Marathon.

Frisbie’s version of running her own race — her debut marathon, at that — involved her leading the field for the first half, ahead of Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, the gold medalist in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics, and Molly Seidel, the bronze medalist from the United States.

Lundstrom, a Minnesotan through and through, might as well have reacted by saying, “Oh, geez.”

“On the one hand, you’re like, ‘Maybe don’t lead,’” the coach said gingerly, remembering seeing Frisbie for the first time along the marathon course in Brooklyn. He had given her a pretty simple race plan. Stay relaxed in the first half, and compete in the second half to the best of her ability.

“It was cool, but I also didn’t really let myself think about it too much,” Frisbie, 24, said of leading the stacked race. “I was mostly just focusing on checking in on myself and how I was feeling.”

When Lundstrom saw her half-marathon split — 1 hour 12 minutes 43 seconds, a pace of 5 minutes 32 seconds per mile — he said he reacted hesitantly again, thinking, “Well, OK, that’s aggressive, a little bit aggressive.”

Frisbie finished in an impressive 2:26:18 — a time good enough for seventh place, and one that made her the third American woman overall. The results are still sinking in. She ran the fourth-fastest marathon debut for an American woman and became the fourth-fastest American woman ever to run the New York City Marathon.

Frisbie is another female American distance runner who has carved out her own path in the sport and exceeded expectations but who is uninterested in focusing on running and running alone. She’s in good company: Sarah Sellers took second place in the 2018 Boston Marathon while working as a nurse anesthetist. Keira D’Amato works as a real estate agent and finished fourth in this year’s Chicago Marathon.

Frisbie led the women’s pack of runners at the New York City Marathon.Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

Frisbie’s journey started in middle school in River Falls, Wis., when her mother told her to try volleyball or cross-country. She didn’t really like volleyball, so she joined the cross-country team. She hadn’t considered running in college until recruiters expressed interest, and she realized the opportunity could help her pay for a higher education. So she ran track and cross-country at Iowa State.

She hadn’t really considered running professionally, either. Frisbie wanted to be close to home and had accepted an internship in the Twin Cities when a current teammate of hers told her about Minnesota Distance Elite, a small group that meets three times a week to train athletes who range from 1,500-meter runners to marathoners.

It’s a different type of team: one in which the runners — and the coach — have their occupations listed next to their personal-best times. Lundstrom is on the teaching faculty at the University of Minnesota school of kinesiology. He coaches teachers, an accountant, a data scientist and a software developer, among others.

Frisbie said it was an easy decision to join. She accepted a job as a graphic designer for a health care start-up and began training with the group. Her colleagues were shocked to see their “colleague who runs” on ESPN leading a major marathon.

“Having a more well-rounded life makes you a happier person and in turn a faster runner,” she said over a cider in Minneapolis, a city she intends to keep as her home base. And, she added, “It would stress me out if I just ran and it wasn’t making me any money.”

When asked about the reality of training as a professional running in Minnesota — where weeks can go by without the temperature rising above zero and thin layers of ice and several feet of snow can cover the ground — both Frisbie and Lundstrom said little more than “meh.” Most cities that attract professional runners and teams have more temperate climates: Think Eugene, Ore.; Boulder, Colo.; or Flagstaff, Ariz.

Sure, Frisbie and Lundstrom say, some speed workouts are done inside when it’s really icy. But long runs in the cold? Eh, no problem.

After her breakout race, Frisbie has been inundated with messages from potential sponsors and agents. Suddenly races want her name on their lineups. It wouldn’t be unheard-of for an athlete in her position to quit her job, move to a more temperate climate and live and train with sponsorship dollars.

It’s also tempting to look at a runner like Frisbie and slap a label next to her name. She could be one of the next great American distance runners, the next Sara Hall or Des Linden — the rising athlete who could continue to shatter expectations.

After Frisbie’s showing at the marathon, potential sponsors and agents have inundated her with messages.Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Frisbie and Lundstrom are holding back on all of the above. Frisbie is happy, healthy and at home in her current environment. Lundstrom is not looking to name a floor or ceiling for what’s next for the young marathoner.

“It’s not worth spending a ton of energy on dreaming about what’s possible when you just need to do all the things, and the athlete needs to stay healthy and make progress,” Lundstrom said.

The “work hard and be nice” Minnesota mentality was seeping through his every word: Don’t get a big ego. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Think about each workout as a steppingstone.

Frisbie is talking to agents and former professional runners about their forays into the high-profile world of the sport, and she’s excited for all that’s to come. But at 24, she has the maturity of an athlete who has seen what can go wrong when a great race, and the pressure that follows, gets to your head.

“If you aren’t loving it at the moment, and you’re just forcing yourself to go through training and go through life, your chances of burning out are pretty high,” she said. “You’re probably not going to make it for a 10- or 15-year career, which is what I hope to do. So I think you have to take each day in stride.”

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