asics Greenville Track Club-ELITE - a post-collegiate, Olympic-development program
The following is an article published on the website TrackYack.com, which covers many NCAA Division III institution's Cross Country/Track & Field endeavors. Thanks to author Julia O’Rourke for her work in publishing this content.
At this time two years ago, Annie Rodenfels was likely hustling around the Centre College campus with schoolwork in hand, trying to squeeze in one of her many commitments before arriving at practice. And once at practice, she was no doubt visualizing herself racing in upcoming championship races, most notably at DIII Nationals. While she didn’t know it at the time, her hard work was about to pay off as she would go on to place third at Nationals. She would then continue to build off her 3,000 Steeplechase victory from the spring before with not one but two titles at the 2019 NCAA DIII Track & Field Championships (3K Steeple & 5K) and a runner-up finish in the Indoor 5K.
While the trajectory for Champion DIII athletes typically includes pursuing a traditional career, perhaps joining a track club, and maybe even taking a shot at an Olympic Trials marathon qualification, Rodenfels has carved her own path in the last year and a half: she decided to risk it all and become a professional runner.
“It seems really sexy and fun,” Rodenfels says of her new career, “but most of the time my life looks pretty boring. I work part-time, double twice a week, lift three times a week, and always have to stay on top of [napping] and eating right. It’s just not flashy.”
When she was considering “going pro” during her senior year at Centre College in Kentucky, Rodenfels sat down and wrote out all of the times she wanted to hit as a senior. If she could “run these lofty times within the year,” then it would be worth her time and resources to continue at the next level.
These targets must have been lofty, indeed, given that Rodenfels had already made enormous improvements over the course of her first three collegiate years. She did not qualify for Cross Country Nationals her first year, and her fastest 6K was 24:22. The following year, she qualified and placed 168th. That spring, she leapt onto the national stage, finishing third in the Outdoor Steeplechase at NCAAs. As a junior, Rodenfels added to her All-American medal rack with a 12th place finish at XC Nationals and her first national title in the Steeplechase. Yet despite this impressive track record, her personal bests in every event (with the exception of the rarely run 2K and 2 mile events) were run in her senior year. She had met her goals, and had thus given herself permission to enter the professional running realm.
The path to professional life was not straight-forward. “Groups usually don’t come to you, especially as a DIII runner,” says Rodenfels. “I had to seek out and apply or get in contact with everyone myself.” She dedicated a huge amount of time during her senior years researching online, determining whether or not particular groups still existed, what each one offered, and what their standards were. And that’s only the first step. “You have to be willing to sell yourself,” Rodenfels explains. In her experience, most of these groups don’t know the top DIII runners, so athletes may have to prove themselves to professional squads.
Rodenfels urges athletes who are interested in pursuing the same path to advocate for themselves. “I think that DIII runners can actually be pretty successful as elite runners because oftentimes they still have more to give and the mentality to work hard without being given much.” Rodenfels is more than willing to help other DIII runners get in contact with groups because she found it to be a “really hard and tedious process.”
Even without guidance, Rodenfels managed to find a great fit. She trains in Greenville, South Carolina with ASICS Greenville Track Club-Elite, a group she was drawn to because of the coaches, Mike and Laura Caldwell. The Caldwells’ knowledge and commitment to track and field impressed Rodenfels, who appreciates the fact that their coaching is rooted in the “most recent scientific knowledge about how to train effectively.” She believes so much in her team’s system that she is “on a mission to build it up to be as well-known as the other developmental running groups,” such as Hansons-Brooks, Zap Endurance, and the Atlanta Track Club. “I’m proud of my group and I want others to know about the incredible coaching and opportunities we have to offer post-collegiate and professional runners.”
Under the Caldwells, Rodenfels has already made significant progress even though she had been training by herself for months before Emily Forner, another former DIII National Champion (Indoor 3K, 2019), joined the team. With the benefits of a training partner, she expects to see even greater gains than she already has.
Rodenfels jumped straight into the professional sphere after graduating, running at Nashville’s Music City Distance Carnival just one week after her double at Nationals. She went on to run at the US Championship in July before joining her team in South Carolina. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodenfels was able to toe the line with some speedy women at this year’s Nashville MCDC (where global stars like Emma Coburn and Ce’Aira Brown also competed) and take advantage of this singular racing opportunity with an incredible personal record in the 5K (15:49). She finished right behind Saucony’s Sara Sutherland and Team Boss’s Maddie Alm and improved on her college best of 16:35 by almost a minute.
Since March, Rodenfels has been utilizing a team gym area in her garage and backyard to focus on building strength and speed. “I focused on improving turnover without doing any real speed work and it definitely showed in practice. I was able to hit 200 meter times at the end of my workouts that I probably could not have touched in college while fresh. It was a really productive time for me.” While racing opportunities have been few and far between, Rodenfels has run a few unofficial PRs which have left her feeling encouraged and hungry for more.
Looking ahead, Rodenfels has sat back down and created more lofty goals for herself. She is primarily focused on her upcoming 3K Steeple race at USAs, but also hopes to run a qualifying time for the Olympic Trials in the 5K. “Ultimately, I want to get myself to the starting line of the trials in the steeplechase and give myself the best opportunity possible to try and make a team. I have a lot of work to do to get there, and so this might be more of a several year goal, but you have to start somewhere.” Last year, she ran at USAs for experience, but this time hopes to make the finals and finish in the top ten.
Outside of times, Rodenfels hopes to get a brand contract to set herself up for longevity in the sport, “which mostly hinges on making it more financially feasible to do this long-term.” However, she isn’t especially enticed by monetary incentives or even fame. “It’s nice to get recognition for how fast you run or for being a professional athlete, but from the beginning I was never anyone who the larger running community knew.” Accordingly, she is not deterred by her competition and does not need external approval to excel. “My motivation is intrinsic,” something that extends from her DIII roots. “I think that has already proven to be a huge advantage during COVID, but will also contribute to a (hopefully) long running career as well.”
Although she owes much of her recent success to her new team, Rodenfels believes that Centre prepared her in ways she had not realized while in college. “As a professional runner, I often have the entire day at my disposal. Learning how to spend that time in the most effective ways is vital to being successful, and Centre definitely taught me the value [of] utilizing my time.”
While it’s easy to spend her entire day fixated on running, Rodenfels is careful to find a deliberate, healthy balance, something she learned through her DIII experience. She finds this balance by coaching a high school women’s team, which has developed significantly under her coaching. “I’m more nervous about their workouts and races than my own,” she says. “It’s been incredibly fulfilling to watch them discover running and experience the joy of running their best time yet.”
Rodenfels is also “extremely grateful” for her college coach, Lisa Owens, who pushed her without letting her burn out. “The training is similar enough… that I had no problem jumping in quickly, but I also didn’t feel like I had already peaked in college, as I think many do when coming from Division I.”
Although the former Centre stand-out is primarily focused on signing a contract and making Team USA, she has some light-hearted goals in the back of her mind, like running faster than DIII legend Missy Buttry-Rock in the 5K (about ten seconds faster than Rodenfels’ current best). “I just think she’s so cool. A truly amazing trailblazer for DIII women wanting to be great,” she says of Buttry-Rock. “She’s still running fast times too, which is incredibly intimidating. I hope I can be more like her.”
While Annie Rodenfels looks to those who came before her for inspiration, she will undoubtedly be one who current and future DIII runners look up to for years to come.You can follow Annie Rodenfels on Twitter (@Annie_Rodenfels) and Instagram (@andrearodenfels)