Ukiah’s Wallace, Montgomery’s Conley racing at USA championship meet

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Every American runner dreams of competing in the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships. Kim Conley and Lauren Wallace will be living that dream

The Redwood Empire's top sprinter when she competed for Ukiah High School, Lauren Wallace, right, has extended her range and become one of the nation's top 800-meter runners.

The Redwood Empire’s top sprinter when she competed for Ukiah High School, Lauren Wallace, right, has extended her range and become one of the nation’s top 800-meter runners.

today. Except Conley and Wallace aren’t going to the national championships. The meet is coming to them.

Sometime around 4:15 or 4:30 p.m., Wallace will race in a preliminary round of the women’s 800 meters at Hornet Stadium on the Sacramento State campus. At 8:20 p.m., Conley is scheduled to run in the final of the women’s 10,000 (which has no preliminaries). It’s a special moment for these two Sacramento/Davis residents and Redwood Empire natives.

The USATF Outdoor Championships bring together the best of American sprinters, distance runners, jumpers and throwers. Big names like LaShawn Merritt, Lolo Jones, Christian Cantwell and Sanya Richards-Ross are supposed to be there, and so are Wallace and Conley, both of whom qualified for their events earlier this year.

For Conley, this sort of accomplishment is becoming less of a surprise. She is featured on the cover of the July issue of Running Times, with a blurb reading, “THE SURPRISE OLYMPIAN WHO KEEPS GETTING FASTER.”

The Montgomery High grad represented her country at the 2012 Olympics in London after a stirring performance in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials, and she excelled at a number of distances – from 800 to 3,000 meters – during the most recent indoor season.

Still, Conley’s path to the USATF Championships wasn’t entirely smooth. She passed on the U.S. Indoor Championships and the World Indoor Championships to focus on training for 10,000 meters, and specifically for the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford in early May. But she discovered she had not left herself enough time to prepare.

“I was hoping to run around 31 minutes in the 10,000m,” Conley wrote in an email. “By the time we were within a couple weeks of the race I knew I wasn’t prepared to run that fast and so I modified the goal to sub 32 minutes because my PR was 32:00 and the standard to qualify for the World Championships next year is 32 minutes, so I felt like that was within my ability and two worthy objectives to try to accomplish. Modifying the goal by a full minute was a hard pill to swallow initially.”

But Conley finished in 31:48.71, a new personal record and fast enough to qualify for the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing.

Today’s 10,000-meter race is stacked. It includes all three women – Shalane Flanagan, Jordan Hasay and Amy Hastings – who represented Team USA at the World Championships in Moscow last year. Flanagan is the reigning American record holder in the 10,000.

Conley, 28, has emerged as an elite distance runner, and could challenge all of them.

“In Sacramento the race is all about competing to be on the podium, and time is really a secondary element,” she wrote. “That being said, with the field we have lined up it may well take a PR effort to run with the women in the field so I am prepared to do that.”

Wallace is a bit newer to this. And if you’re having a hard time recalling her high school exploits, it may be because she has reinvented herself since then. Wallace was the top female sprinter in the Empire when she attended Ukiah High, winning at both 100 and 200 meters at the North Bay League championships as a senior.

Running at UC Davis, she gradually extended her range, first to 400 meters, and eventually to 800 and even 1,500. After an injury-plagued junior year, Wallace redshirted as a senior. But she continued to work with the team and succeeded in dropping her time in the 800 to an impressive 2:05.9. Hardly anybody knew, because Wallace was doing it only at practice, but it boosted her confidence.

“It made me really excited, because I was coming off a year where I was running times I knew I should never be running, but not accomplishing anything I wanted to accomplish,” she said. “I was excited to be competing again and winning races. I didn’t care that my name wasn’t showing up. The people who mattered all knew – my family, my coaches, my teammates.”

Concentrating on the 800, Wallace wound up winning the Big West title, finishing eighth at the NCAA Championships and qualifying for the U.S. Championships in her final year of college.

Since graduating with a degree in international relations and French, Wallace has continued to live in Davis and work under Wartenburg, while joining the Oiselle sponsorship team. And she has thrived. In her four most recent races Wallace has set a PR in the 1,500, established her qualifying mark for the national championships in the 800 and then PR’d at that distance – twice. The last time was in St. Louis on June 5, when she clocked a 2:05.2.

Wallace, 24, is hoping to race in Sunday’s 800-meter final. To do that she’ll have to record one of the eight fastest times in Friday’s semifinals.

There is just enough of an age gap between Conley and Wallace to have made them miss one another in high school and college. But after Conley ran at UC Davis – where she and teammate Kaitlin Gregg became the first Aggies to qualify for the NCAA Division I Championships – Conley stuck around the program as a volunteer assistant. That was Wallace’s freshman year.

The two have been chummy ever since.

“During college, Kimmy was always there for us whenever anything was going on,” Wallace said. “Because obviously she’d been through all the stages of running. But this year, too. Being my first year as a professional, she showed me the ropes in dealing with sponsors, agents, all of that. She’s helped me physically, too. Obviously I’m still learning the whole distance thing. She tried to create a really big base for me this fall.”

Conley works with Wartenburg, too, and she and Wallace recently teamed up with three other women – Amanda Mergaert, Brett Zorich and Healdsburg High alum Sarah Sumpter – to form a running collective called the NorCal Distance Project, based in and around Sacramento.

Wallace and Conley have been working out together frequently in this literal run-up to the championships, despite competing at different distances. They might, for example, run repeats on a certain day and start together each time, Conley going a mile, Wallace a kilometer.

“I love Lauren,” Conley said. “She is very feisty and competitive and also disciplined and hard working. We have similar personalities and get along really well.”

They’ve had plenty to talk about lately, with the championships coming to Sacramento. It’s a logistical dream for Conley and Wallace, who slept in their own beds and cooked in their own kitchens as the meet approached.

“It’s so exciting,” Wallace said. “I’ve raced on the Sac State track so many times. I know where all the marks are, where the finish is.”

The way these two are running, they should probably know where the podium is, too.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

 

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