By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Kim Conley has made herself into quite a distance runner — defined, in this case, as someone who can win a race at practically any distance.
Most of us know Conley as the local product who qualified for the London Olympics in the 5,000 meters in 2012. Considering her background in cross country, that would seem to be a natural distance for this Montgomery High grad.
But rushing headlong into the indoor track season this winter, Conley nearly won at 800 meters before former UC Davis teammate (and Ukiah native) Lauren Wallace ran past her at the UW Indoor Preview in Seattle; set an Armory course record in the mile (and clocked the second-fastest time for a woman this year at 4:24.54) at the New Balance Games in New York; won at 2,000 meters in her first race ever at that distance, at the New Balance Grand Prix in Roxbury, Mass.; and returned to The Armory a week later to win at 3,000 meters in the prestigious Millrose Games.
Apparently, this woman’s never met a tape measure she didn’t like.
“I still consider myself primarily a distance runner,” Conley said by phone recently. “I work with a sports psychologist who tells me I am whatever I’m racing that day. If I’m running the mile, that day I think like a miler. If I’m running a 5K, that day I’m a 5K runner.”
Turning to 10K next
For her next trick, Conley will become a 10,000-meter specialist. After tearing through the indoor circuit, she should have been primed to compete at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championship in Albuquerque, N.M., last weekend. She declined, noting that the U.S. championship is primarily a springboard to the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Poland. Had Conley competed at the worlds on March 9, it would have delayed her outdoor training for the 10,000.
“I’m gonna go train at altitude in March. It became a matter of either-or,” Conley said. “I could go to Poland, or I could hit reset and do the work I need to do to get ready for 10K.”
Specifically, Conley is aiming for the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational. She won the 5,000-meter race at that meet last year. This year, she’ll be in the 10,000. Top-tier distance runners like Molly Huddle are expected to join her on May 4, and Conley wants to test herself.
This was her plan all along, but she admits that she briefly considered changing direction when her indoor season became such a triumph. It was all a pleasant surprise, considering Conley had never competed on the indoor circuit before. It presented new challenges. The indoor track is 200 meters around, half the distance of an outdoor track, and has sharper, banked turns. Wind and rain are eliminated as factors, but that doesn’t mean the environment is perfect.
“I noticed the air was really dry,” Conley said. “I kind of had a hack afterward, almost like you feel a little sick.”
Embraced the conditions
And yet Conley clearly embraced the conditions. Her goal was to set a personal record and win at every distance she raced this winter — on its face, an absurd standard — and she very nearly did so. Wallace nipped her by six-tenths of a second in the 800. Maybe she was meant for indoor meets all along.
“Someone said shorter people have an easier time around tight turns,” Conley noted. “But it was also a taller person who told me that.”
Conley tops out at 5 feet, 3 inches.
Just as she moved up the rankings in the 5,000 in 2012, Conley hopes to break through as a 10K runner. It would represent another plot twist in her career. Though she is just entering her prime as a distance runner at 27, Conley got a late start as a world-class athlete. She did well at UC Davis, but never competed at the NCAA championships. The one year she qualified, she was sidelined by food poisoning.
Stunning run in London
Conley’s college PR in the 5,000 meters was 16:17.51. At the Olympics in London, she ran it in 15:14.48. That’s a stunning improvement in four years.
“I kind of came into my own in the last few years,” Conley said. “A big part of that was kind of an evolving attitude toward training and lifestyle that I didn’t have before. I always loved to run, and it was important to establish that foundation of having fun — but maybe not trying my hardest every day.”
Conley has learned to push herself, and the next round starts immediately. Later this month, she will head to Flagstaff, Ariz., for a month of altitude training. Lots of distance runners live or train there, including a former teammate at Montgomery High, Sara Bei Hall.
Conley’s permanent base is now Sacramento, where she still trains with her former UC Davis coach, Drew Wartenburg. She has fallen in love with running on the American River Parkway, and she can get to the Lake Tahoe area in two hours for runs at elevation.
A home meet in June
If all goes well for her, the 2014 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships will be a home meet for Conley. They are in Sacramento this year, from June 26-29. She figures that’s close enough to draw a lot of friends and family from Santa Rosa.
Many of those loved ones remember Conley’s epic third-place finish at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., in 2012 as if it were yesterday. Representing her country in London certainly was a career highlight for Conley, but that’s not the moment she’s living in now.
“For me, I still see the best years of my career being in front of me,” she said. “It’s almost like that was a very, very important steppingstone, but I’m focused on what’s ahead. There’s a lot more I want to accomplish.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.