Interview with Nicole Aish
by Kevin Beck

Nicole Aish competes at the 2005 USA 8K Championships in New York City.
(Photo by Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)

On October 2, Nicole Aish won the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota in 2:40:21, becoming the second woman in three years to win the USA Marathon Championship in her debut at the distance (Sara Wells accomplished the feat in 2003). Aish, who as Nicole Jefferson was primarily a 1,500-meter specialist as a collegian at Western State University in Gunnison, Colorado, went through the first half of the race in 1:15:55 and held a three-quarter-mile lead with less than five miles remaining before grappling with cramps and exhaustion and holding off runner-up Zika Palmer (2:41:06) by less than 200 meters.

Aish, who won three NCAA track titles before graduating from Western State in 1999, headed into her professional career with personal bests of 4:20 for 1,500 meters, 9:17 for 3,000 meters and 15:54 for 5,000 meters. Not until 2002 did Aish discover her potential at "long" distances, notching times of 32:12 for 10,000 meters and 39:14 for seven miles at the Falmouth Road Race, the latter good for 12th in a world-class field. In 2003, she took sixth in the 5,000 at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. The following winter, she was fifth in the 3,000 meters at USA Indoor Track & Field Championships, and later that year lowered her 5,000 meter best to 15:20.51.

In October, Aish — who'd twice competed in the Gate River Run 15K in Jacksonville taking 11th in 2003 and ninth this March — entered and won her first 13.1-miler, laying down a 1:15:12 at the Big Sur Half-Marathon. Not until this past summer, however, did Aish commit to the full marathon distance. Part of her tune-up included the New Haven 20K, four weeks before Twin Cities; there, Aish finished third in 1:09:08, equivalent to about a 1:13:00 half-marathon. spoke with Aish as she recovered from her effort and prepared to accompany her husband and coach Michael, a 27:53 10,000 meter runner and New Zealand Olympian, to Sunday's LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. Other than feeling like a national champion, how do you feel three days after going to the bottom of the well?
Nicole Aish:
Well, today is the best I've felt since the marathon. Monday and Tuesday were the worst — it was so painful to walk, especially after sitting for a while. I had trouble sleeping and my appetite has yet to return. The marathon is such a huge task for your body. The amount of trauma really sets you back for a bit. I told my mom it feels like I just had surgery again. But every day is getting better and better. I'm not going to attempt to run just yet, though — I'm going to enjoy some down time this weekend and cheer Michael on to what will hopefully be a great performance in Chicago, and of course enjoy the food and the sights after the race on Sunday.

FW: Despite being a marathon debutante, you brought some heavy credentials into Twin Cities. Were you running to win from the moment you entered?
Yes, that was the main goal. The secondary goal was running for time — under 2:34. I'd never done marathon training, so it was hard to know just what to expect, but based on my 20K at New Haven on Labor Day (1:09:08), other runners told me I could run under 2:35, so that was encouraging. And at New Haven I was able to pull off a good race despite feeling pretty bad much of the way.

On [Twin Cities'] race day people were saying, 'It's hot, it's so hot,' but I decided I'd stick with my race plan, 5:50 pace or so. I know people have to be saying, 'How did 2:40 win a race like that and $30,000?' I won't make excuses, but it's encouraging to me that I ran 2:40 on what turned out to be a slow day. It was my first marathon and I know there are things I can do better next time. I felt great through 22 miles, and I can think of things to try in the future — for example, I think I need to water down my drinks more.

FW: When did you decide for sure that you'd run Twin Cities?
Mike and I started looking at it about a year ago. After track season this year, we decided that Twin Cities would be the next 'big thing' on my schedule.

FW: When you started prepping for the marathon, how did your training change? Did you have any 'landmark' workouts or type of workout that proved especially useful in building confidence?
I upped my mileage to 95 to 100 a week — in the past it was 70 or 80 for track season, sometimes up to 85. I also extended the length of my tempo runs, my medium-long run, and of course my long run. I usually did three harder sessions a week — for example, a hill workout on Tuesday, a long interval workout on Thursday, and a tempo run on Saturday, followed by a Sunday long run. At altitude, my workouts times aren't as fast as at sea level, of course, but we have a mile loop in Gunnison I use, and when I was hitting the times consistently that I'd hit during track, I knew I was in good shape.

There was no single workout that was especially confidence-boosting — it was more the consistency and knowing I could handle the increased workload week after week. When I first started, I wasn't used to the day-to-day heavy-legs feeling, because I always felt sharp from being on the track so much. But people like Colleen De Reuck told me, 'During the training, you aren't going to feel great much of the time!' So I knew I was on the right track.

FW: Your halfway split at Twin Cities was close to the time you ran in your one and only half-marathon. Was this encouraging, worrisome, or a bit of both?
I saw split and was excited because I felt so good. In fact in back of my mind I was almost worried because of just how great I felt, so I a did self-check to make sure nothing was going wrong, that I wasn't pushing too much. I knew I had cushion on my time goal, whether someone was right behind me or not. I wasn't sure how much of a lead I had at that point.

FW: You had a 4 ½-minute lead at 20 miles and wound up winning by 45 seconds. Were you getting updates as to the size of your lead during the last 10K?
I actually didn't know for sure how far ahead I was, although I was told at around 20 miles that had three or four minutes by someone I thought was associated with the race. I slowed down going up the hill at 21 ½, but still felt I was holding good form — I tried to power my way up it, but I did slow down, and my split for that mile was over 6:00. I told myself, 'You're OK, you're OK,' but then I was getting quad cramps, and people around me were walking and dropping out. At 23 miles, I decided I would stop and get a drink and stretch my quads; I'm not sure how long I stopped. Then I ran to the 24-mile mark, but had sharp pains again, so I had to stop again. By then I was probably dehydrated and glycogen depleted, but I kept telling myself to stay positive and just get to the finish. In all I stopped three times between 22 and 24 miles.

FW: What did you do in terms of mid-race fueling and hydration?
I took 12 bottles of fluid in all — Glenn Latimer told me right before the race, 'Nicole, it's really warm, so be sure to get all of your drinks.' So I took some every 2, 2 ½ miles. I used Accelerade, which I'd also used a lot in practice. I'm glad I did because as Mike said I probably would have cramped sooner without regular fluids. I also took two gels.

FW: Was it difficult not to panic or were you too busy trying to hold everything together?
I was trying to stay positive, use positive self-talk. I didn't panic, but I went into a survival mode. Unfortunately I knew I wasn't on pace for my goal anymore, but I knew I had a pretty good lead. I wasn't worried, but just wanted to get to the end, and of course win the race.

FW: Although you suffered through a 43:00 last 10K, even those known for smart pacing more or less cratered across the board, with many elites dropping out late. With your only marathon experience being Twin Cities, are you able to view those last painful four miles in the context of the unfavorable conditions and not as a necessary marathon evil?
I think I ran a smart race and I don't think it was my fitness at all; I went in as prepared as possible. Maybe someone with more experience would have known to run differently, but I wanted to stick to my pre-race plan. I didn't run the fastest of times, but I know I can run better and I also know what I can do to improve.

FW: When you were interviewed for this site four years ago, you were a 1,500-meter hopeful considering making the jump all the way up to the 5K.
Well [laughs], I always knew I wanted run a marathon before I turned 30. I wasn't succeeding as well at 1,500 as I would have liked. When I moved to the 5K and ran 15:30, then 15:20, I just kind of knew that based off my training I would have more success 5K, 10K, and above. You always want to be a miler/5K runner because those are glamour events — they're exciting. But I did enjoy racing the marathon even though I struggled at end.

FW: So being more successful at 5K and 10K than at 1,500 quickly became a factor in your looking to the roads in general and to the marathon in particular.
Yes. My first 10K was in the spring of 2002 at the Cardinal Invitational, where I ran 32:12. I was hoping to run 32:30, so being faster did plant a seed in my mind. Mike and I were thinking that maybe 10K and beyond is where I belong and could be successful nationally and internationally — it was kind of an eye-opener for both of us. But as far as the 10K on the track is concerned, when it is going well it's great, and when it's not it's awful.

FW: Even as far back as 2002, which was the first year you ran the Falmouth Seven-Miler, you showed the potential to excel at distances over 10K. Then you ran the Gate River Run 15K in 2003, and then a half-marathon (Big Sur) last fall. So really you've been creeping up in distance throughout your career.
Falmouth that year was great. It was so nice as a newcomer to the road scene to be an invited runner - they gave me a chance. My family came with me to Massachusetts. That was one of my first "big ones." Michael always said based on my stride and things that I'd excel on the roads, but I always wanted to be versatile and still do.

FW: Do you see yourself running marathons regularly in the future or in your mind are you still a trackster dabbling in longer road distances?
I still love the track and I will love the marathon after I can get it down. I loved the challenge and think eventually it'll be a good event for me. I won my first marathon; obviously my time isn't the kind of time that's good enough to win big marathons, but I have to take it for what it was and be happy with having succeeded as well as I did.

FW: So if you could pick an event to run in the 2007 World Championships or the 2008 Olympics, it would be…
I would like to run the 10,000 in 2007, and the marathon in 2008. But there are a lot of good girls out there!

FW: You've mentioned wanting to run another marathon. Have you considered your options for 2006?
Twin Cities was great, but if Chicago would have me I'd love to try it next year. I like the schedule of a fall marathon so I can run cross country this winter, hopefully, have a limited indoor track season (with maybe a 5K in Washington State), then run outdoor track before starting marathon training. We have a tentative plan, but we're still working on it.

FW: Michael seems intent on making the marathon work for him despite some frustrations in his initial attempts. Was your stepping up to the distance yourself mainly the result of his coaching influence, or has it stemmed primarily from your own desires?
He never pushes me to do anything, actually, and has always told me not to do a marathon until I absolutely want to. Because he'd run so fast at 5K and 10K, people assumed he'd run a really fast marathon right away, but like anyone he has some things to work out. But some of the mistakes that he made are ones I could learn from — practicing with drinks, changing training emphasis, running more workouts on the roads. He's running Chicago this weekend and 'just' wants to run 2:15 or under.

FW: Does he have any desire to compete for the U.S. someday?
Well, New Zealanders as a group take a lot of pride in their heritage, so probably not.

FW: Do the two of you spend much time in New Zealand?
We try to get back there every two years or so for six to eight weeks. It's a nice way to escape winter. We're going back for the Commonwealth Games in March. It's a beautiful place to train.

FW: You're one of the few elite Americans based in Colorado who's actually been there since high school or before. Do you figure you'll be there for the rest of your career?
I think so. We do go somewhere else every winter — we might go to Monterey, California, this winter and stay with some friends, and get in some sea-level time. But I moved so much as a kid, as an Army brat, that it's nice to have some roots.

(Interview conducted October 5, 2005, and posted October 6, 2005)

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