DAVIS — Kim Conley is the 10,000-meter national champion, and her reward is a trip abroad. A trip to train, and to compete, and to continue the incremental progress toward her ultimate goal: winning an Olympic medal.
Conley, who was born in England but grew up in Santa Rosa, leaves for Europe today. She is hoping to participate in a couple of Diamond League meets — the highest level of track-and-field competition there — and will be based with a team of athletes in Leuven, Belgium, just outside of Brussels.
“It reminds me in lots of ways of Davis, in terms of college-town atmosphere,” Conley said of Leuven. “Just about a thousand years older, maybe. Cobblestone streets everywhere and beautiful old buildings.”
Conley’s victory in the 10,000 hasn’t lost its luster over the past week and a half. Local track authority Jim Crowhurst believes it was the first national title by a Redwood Empire athlete in a running event since Ron Whitney, who later coached track at Santa Rosa JC, won the 400 hurdles for the second time in 1967.
Conley is appropriately proud of her achievement, but she knows that in track, the start line and the finish line are frequently the same place. She wants to be a force at the 2015 IAAF World Outdoor Championship in Beijing, and at the Brazil Olympics in 2016, and her national title is another step in that direction.
“I’ve always kind of had this master plan, if you will, in my head, between 2012 and 2016, and how I’d become a much better athlete on the world stage,” Conley said.
After a memorable third-place finish in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 and an appearance at the London Games that summer, Conley and her coach, Drew Wartenburg, put the plan in place. One of the line items was to improve Conley’s closing speed at the end of long races, so she entered shorter events during last winter’s indoor season.
“I always thought that was gonna be the hardest step for me to take, because I just felt like that raw speed comes a little bit more down to natural ability,” Conley said.
Perhaps she had a little more of that ability than she thought. During the indoor season, she won at a mile, 2,000 meters and 3,000 meters at various meets, and finished second to former UC Davis teammate (and Ukiah native) Lauren Wallace at 800.
Before that season ended, she had turned her focus to the 10,000 meters. Her first real test wasn’t a huge success. Running at the Payton Jordan Stanford Invitational on May 4, she finished eighth in the 10K at 31:48.71. Kenya’s Sally Kipyego, Olympic silver medalist in 2012, won in 30:42.26, and Molly Huddle was close behind at 30:47.59 — the second-fastest time ever recorded by an American woman. Another American, Jordan Hasay, was fourth at 31:39.67.
Even then, Conley was confident she could close the gap.
“I knew that at Payton Jordan I was kind of right on the cusp of being ready to race, but didn’t quite feel there yet,” she said. “I trusted, just knowing how the training progresses and knowing how my body responds to it, that by seven weeks later there would be a big turning point.”
Seven weeks later were the prestigious USATF Outdoor Championships, held at Hornet Stadium on the Sacramento State campus — practically a hometown venue for Conley, who has lived in Sacramento since graduating from UC Davis. Huddle opted to run at 5,000 meters at the championships, leaving Conley, Hasay and Olympian Amy Hastings as the likely favorites.
Conley and Hasay pulled away from Hastings with about a mile to go, and the duo wound up even after the final turn on lap 25. That’s when Conley put that indoor-season experience to work and outraced Hasay to the finish. She ran her last mile in 4:47, a pace that would have been unthinkable a couple years ago. And when Hasay passed her on the final backstretch, Conley kept her cool and retook the lead coming off the last turn.
“If you look at my race at the Olympic Trials (in 2012), I let myself fall way out of contention because I was letting doubts creep in my mind, basically,” she said. “But now, having been there, and because I made that comeback on that day, now when I’m in a similar situation, I’m much more relaxed.”
If her Olympic bid had lifted her into national consciousness in 2012, the U.S. championship was just as notable within track’s inner circle.
“She’s come from the Olympic year, where it was, ‘Is she a fluke? Was it a one-off?’ ” Wartenburg said. “She feels like she belongs, and I think now is free from the burden of ‘I have to prove every time out I belong,’ to saying, ‘I can just race to the best of my ability now.’ ”
The next stage of the master plan has Conley running 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter races in Europe this month, and the •US National 12K in Alexandria, Va., and some other road races in November.
After that, it gets a little hazy. Conley’s goal is to remain strong enough in both the 5K and the 10K to be able to choose between the two events for the 2015 world championships and the 2016 Olympics. The question is how to get there.
“We’d be lying to say we haven’t talked about the five versus the 10 (thousand), and what’s the best chance of making the (Olympic) team, individual strength aside,” Wartenburg said.
Wartenburg says that either way, Conley has two routes to choose from this winter. She can go back indoors for additional speed work, or dabble in more half-marathons to increase her length. Conley said she is leaning toward a half-marathon in January, and toying with the idea of running a full marathon this fall.
“Those are the fun problems to have,” Wartenburg said. “And as I told her this morning, what you aren’t is pigeonholed. We don’t have one card left to play. We can play devil’s advocate with ourselves.”
In other words, they can take a critical look at Conley’s progress at both distances before making a decision.
The plan has worked to perfection so far, it seems, but it doesn’t leave a lot of time for introspection. Soon after Conley was crowned national champion in the 10,000 meters, she was on to the next thing.
Yet she does occasionally note the amazing strides she has made over the past few years.
“Every time I look back, I’m definitely able to kind of step outside myself and look at the big picture,” she said. “It’s very satisfying to think about the progress. And I just feel very lucky. We built this really good system, and I really trust the training and the process. I can kind of know where I am every year and not have those doubts.”
For the people who closely follow Conley’s career, those doubts have been left in the dust.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.