Jackie Areson had a breakout year in 2012, catapulting herself from a solid college runner at the University of Tennessee to one of the best 5,000 meter runners in the United States.
At the Stanford Invitational last April, the 24-year-old Areson slashed a massive 33 seconds off her previous personal best for 5,000, clocking 15:18.31 to defeat eventual Olympian Lisa Uhl. At the time, Areson's performance was the fastest outdoor 5,000 time in the world for 2012. Areson would go on to lower her personal best by another 4 seconds in May, winning the Oxy High Performance meet in 15:14.31 over Uhl and Deena Kastor. The Nike-sponsored Areson, who trains in Houston and is coached by University of Houston cross country and track coach Steve Magness, won't catch as many people by surprise in her second year as a professional.
The middle child between two brothers, Areson was born in Hong Kong and lived on a boat until she was 10 before moving to Del Ray Beach, Fla., a place she called home through high school. After finishing up at Tennessee in 2011, Areson moved to Portland, Ore., where she was a member of Nike's Oregon Project before relocating to Houston last fall.
"It's kind of funny when people ask me where I'm from," says Areson, whose father is from New York and whose mother is Australian. "I don't really know what to say, whether it's Hong Kong or Florida, Tennessee, Oregon or Houston, so I usually just go through the whole story."
Competitor.com caught up with Areson in Houston this month as she was putting in her preparations for the 2013 outdoor track season.
In college you ran a 4:12 in the 1,500 and then last year took a significant chunk of time off your 5K. What was the thinking behind deciding to move up and focus on the 5K last year? And was taking over 30 seconds off of your 5K PR last year a surprise to you at all?
I ran 4:12 [in the 1,500] a couple months afters I graduated, so technically my college PR was 4:18. I never really ran the 1,500 seriously in college, so I knew I could run a lot faster. That year I didn't really focus on the 5K because I had a lot of stomach issues and side stitch issues where I couldn't really finish a race, so I knew I was going to be a 5K runner but it just didn't really work out that first year out of college. It wasn't really a question which race I was going to focus on -- it was always going to be the 5K for the next couple years.
Getting my time down wasn't a surprise because I knew I wanted to go for the [Olympic A] standard (under 15:20), but when I did it so early and so easily I was completely shocked. You say, "Oh, I really want to get the standard" -- and everyone wants to say that, so it's hard to differentiate whether it's realistic or not sometimes. Going into the outdoor season, early on I knew I wanted the standard but it was one of those things where I was like, "That's really fast!" Once you think about it, you're like, "I really don't know if it's that easy," and you realize it's going to be really tough and you're going to need to have the race of your life. So that's what I thought going into Stanford, that it was going to be one of those races getting back into it and I thought maybe I'll hit 15:30, or I'll just run around my PR. I was completely shocked that it came so easily, but I tried not to think that it was always going to be that easy after that.
Going into the [Olympic] trials, did you think you were a favorite to make the team? Or maybe an outside shot? How would you sum up your thought process?
I considered myself to have a shot. I should have been in there. That was a huge blow [Areson failed to qualify for the 5,000 final]. It was probably the worst day of my life because it was hard not to plan that I was going to the Olympics. I didn't want to keep saying that but it was in my head. I knew I didn't even have to have a great race to go to the Olympics. I just had to have a regular or average race for me, so that was really hard when it was a complete disaster. It was the worst day of my life, but I use that as motivation now. It still really hurts to think about, and it hasn't backed down since then. I know I never want to feel like that again, and that I’ll do everything I can for that not to happen again.
What were the biggest changes you made training-wise since graduating from Tennessee? Was there a big jump in mileage and/or intensity? And what were some of the biggest lessons you learned in your first year as a pro?
I don't even know where to begin [laughs]. I changed everything. Going from one place to another and having a completely different mindset I knew everything was going to be different, like, "you're going to be in the big leagues now." I just knew I had a lot more in me. I started doing more distance runner stuff. I trained like an 800-meter runner and miler at Tennessee, so I knew I had a lot of weaknesses that I needed to work on, so just doing tempo runs, getting stronger, focusing on longer stuff and just running more. My mileage was really low in college. It's still low now. We haven't really added a lot more mileage, but just doing something different and having at least one person to run with every day was a big change. In college, my senior year I did maybe an average of low-to-mid 40s [miles per week], and then in my fifth year I did maybe 50, and last year when I ran pretty fast my average was maybe 55 to 57, so not much more, but it was just more consistent. In college I was very up and down because we raced so much, so just backing off the racing and having consistent mileage really helped.
Also, I learned that slowing down doesn't mean you’re getting out of shape. Backing off can make you faster. In college we trained so hard and always hammered. And I wasn't always the one who always initiated it, but in college I hammered all the time. Compared to now I just trained so hard and it was probably a little bit too much and I was always toast by outdoor season. So, just backing off a little: all my mileage was slower, a lot of my workouts were slower, so it's just kind of funny that I slowed everything down and the intensity was a lot less but I got that much better.
Have you and Steve [Magness] talked about moving up in distance sometime in the next four years or do you think 5K is going to be where it's at for you?
I'm really weak as a distance runner still compared to a lot of the other 5K girls and I’m not going to try 10K for the next couple years. Maybe I'll try it before the next Olympic trials, but I'm not going to focus on it as my event for a while.
Talk about your situation now, balancing your second year as a professional with being a volunteer coach at Houston. How is your situation different now than it was last year when you were in Oregon?
I'm a lot more motivated now because I know what level I can compete at and last year I shocked myself with how easily some of my times came, and I thought they were going to be really tough. It’s easy to get caught up in that, but I know how much better of shape I’m in now and how much better I'm getting at the strength stuff and that’s exciting for me. Just helping out with the team and teaching other people is really exciting for me. Getting other people excited about what we do is really cool and having them see what life after college running is like, even if they're not going to be there, kind of makes them want to act like professionals while they're in college, so that's fun. One of the things that Steve always tells me that a lot of people don't necessarily work on is enjoying the process of running, or at least the process of getting better and working out and not just thinking about the end goal, which has always been really tough for me. So I'm getting better at that and it feels good.