When Shalane Flanagan broke the tape at the 2017 New York City Marathon this past weekend, she became the first American woman to win the race in 40 years. It was a moment that instantly sent fresh inspiration and hope into US women’s distance running.
But as we were all basking in the excitement of her finish, something else extraordinary was happening on the course behind her. Allie Kieffer, a 30-year-old who lives and trains in Buffalo, New York, was about three minutes back. Her eyes fixed on a few women a few seconds ahead.
With 400 meters to go, Kieffer blasted past them and never looked back. She stepped across the line as the fifth woman and the second American in a time of 2:29:39. It was a 26-minute marathon PR and a performance that even Kieffer herself didn’t expect.
After her stand-out race in New York, Kieffer went from a virtually unknown runner, to being touted as America’s next great women’s distance superstar.
How she got here, though, is most likely not the story that you would expect.
Before lining up in New York, Kieffer had only run two marathons, both in 2016, and neither particularly fast by elite standards. One was on a 200-meter indoor track, where she set a World Indoor Marathon record (which has since fallen)—2:44:44. The other was the Miami Marathon in a 2:55:30.
From those times, it’s hard to imagine she could run so much faster just a year later, but that’s just it. Kieffer has probably never run even close to her potential and her 2:29:29 marathon is likely only scratching the surface.
“I want to rewrite my own record book,” she says. “My 5K PR is from 2012. So, it seems like that’s ready to go.” To do this, she says she’ll revisit the track—which she hasn’t been to in a long time (she didn’t train on the track at all for NYC). Instead, she focused on higher mileage weeks—sometimes weeks with upwards of 100 miles—and long, hard tempo grinds. Perhaps the most surprising thing about her current training, though: she coaches herself.
“I don’t need a coach because I don’t need anyone else to hold me accountable. I can do that,” she says and adds, “I was super annoying to coaches because I asked so many questions. I always wanted to understand why I was doing something and how it would help me,” she says.
Kieffer adds that she knows herself well enough to write her own training plans, which she adapts from training she did with the Hudson Elite in Boulder, CO, several years ago.
It was in Boulder, in 2011, that she dropped her 5K from the low 16:50s into the low 15:50s and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 10,000. It seemed like she achieved everything she wanted. But today she admits that she was quick to give it all up. She was also flat broke, so that helped with her decision. So, she closed up her running chapter and flew home to New York to be a nanny.
So, how did she run a 2:29 at the New York City Marathon? This is probably a good time to go back to the beginning.
Kieffer started running before she was seven. It was a game of running away that she played with her best friend Shelby—an escape from what she describes as a “difficult home life.” Running was a form of therapy.
It wasn’t long before she realized she had talent. In high school in 2003, she qualified for Footlocker Nationals.
“They took us all out to dinner,” she says, recounting the experience, “and they told us that we were going to be the next Olympians. So, I went to college thinking I could be the best.”
But it wasn’t that easy. Her older sister, Meghan, died tragically in a car accident. For a while afterward, Kieffer felt lost, confused, and scared. On top of that, an unhealthy college running atmosphere created a perfect storm.
“Girls going to college are young, their bodies are changing, and still, they are given the wrong message: eat fewer calories,” she says. “When I was in college, I was told to drink hot tea before dinner so that I wouldn’t be hungry. I was told to be thin.”
With so much pressure, Kieffer ran a 17:48 5K. While some might consider a sub 18-minute 5K a success, she knew she had a lot more to give. With a little eligibility left, she transferred to another school out west. There she trained in a much more positive atmosphere. Conversation about weight never came up. In fact, she says, they focused solely on training hard.
Still, she wanted more.
That’s when she moved to Boulder and started to see real improvement. After walking away from Colorado, though, it would be almost two years before she would run again. “I didn’t run even 15 miles a week until 2015,” she says. “Even last year, I took six months off and only ran between January and June.”
In 2017, she and her boyfriend moved to Buffalo, New York. It's there that she trained for The New York City Marathon with support from the Nike Project Moon Shot program. While she's not a sponsored athlete yet, she says Nike helped pay for things like massage and recovery, which were crucial to her improvement. She recovered faster and squeezed in harder workouts and higher mileage than she otherwise could have.
While she is certainly focussed on getting faster these days, she is also finally running simply because she loves it. Plus, she says that eating well is part of that, that it's the best path towards health and happiness, and that it’s what actually results in great performances.
“I’m running now because I want to run and I like running, not because I want to get some results. It’s how I self-identify, and it’s what I want to be doing,” she says. “This is the first time in my life that I'm running for the right reasons. I’m running because I want to be out there and I enjoy the process.”
But that’s not the whole of it. She’s also worked to change her mindset.
“I used to give up easily,” she says. “In 2012, I felt very entitled. I qualified for the Olympic Trials, and I was like ‘where’s the contract?’ Now I don’t feel like I deserve things and I’m grateful for what I’m able to get. So, when I ran in New York, I was like ‘wow, you’re doing amazing.’”