Esther Erb: National Champion

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Esther Erb is a national champion! She just won the Twin Cities Marathon. We interviewed her for our magazine (Jul/Aug 2014 issue) back in the spring after she ran an outstanding Boston Marathon (2:33:15 for 20th place). Take a look and see how forward thinking the LVL is. We know greatness before it become official.

1. Why are you a runner?

My oldest sister was a very serious cross country and distance runner when she was in high school and I was in elementary school.  I grew up going to cross country meets and always thinking to myself, “Man, I can run faster than that!”  When it came to running in gym class, I always had to be the best.  However, because neither of my parents trained while I was growing up, I didn’t realize that I could work towards winning the timed mile by running on my own. Everything might have been different had I only known…

Esther Erb in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Photo by Kevin Morris.

However, I had other plans for my life, too.  I also knew that I wanted to go abroad for my junior year of high school.  That goal combined with my daily after-school commitments to musical groups put joining a high school sports team out of the question.  So for the first two years of high school, I ran two (non-continuous) miles per year—in gym class—and I think my best was 7:12.  I was always somewhere around 7:10-7:20 for the timed mile even though I did absolutely nothing aerobic other than carry my cello around.

Then I went to Germany for my junior year of high school and managed to pack-on over twenty pounds worth of sausage, bread, Nutella, and beer by Christmas.  After celebrating the five-day German binge called Carnival in February, I decided that something had to change.  Inspired by my host mom who had recently run a 5k, I resolved that I wasn’t allowed to shower unless I went running.  All I had was an old pair of adidas shoes from middle school (they might have even been hand-me-downs from my sister) and one sports bra, but that’s all I needed.

I quickly established a loop that I ran every day.  I mapped it and it turned out to be 3.35 miles.  At first it took me around 34 minutes but I ran hard every time I did it and started to set course PR’s by the minute.  I still remember the satisfaction I felt when I finally broke 28:00.  By then it was almost summer and time to come home the same size as I had left.  I smiled through my sweat and basked in the glory of that warm night.  That’s how I became a runner.

2. Most people dream of becoming a full time runner. You lived that dream as a professional athlete for ZAP Fitness. How would you compare that experience to the one you lead now as more of a blue collar runner who balances training with a career?

ZAP is an incredible place.  Runners of every level who have the time should go to their adult running camps held every summer (  ZAP is the type of place that you have to see to believe.  It’s picturesque and the lifestyle provides everything you could ever need as a runner.  However, it turns out that while I love my running more than I love anything else, I am not just a runner.  Before ZAP, I had always juggled at least three distinct and separate lives.

In college, I was a DIII athlete, a musician, and a student.  After college, I lived in Vienna for two years where I was a teacher, a singer, and a runner.  Then I came to ZAP and all of a sudden, I was just a runner.  That’s exactly what I came for, and that’s exactly what I got.  I wanted to give it a shot and see what would happen if I tried to focus my ADD mind on one task.  It turns out that I ran really well.  I PR’ed every year and steadily improved the whole time I was at ZAP.  Eventually it sunk in, however, that no amount of running success could ever be enough to justify going on living the secluded, selfish lifestyle that ZAP had provided me for three years.  I needed more.

So, I left.  The day I left, I began my search for a coaching position, and forty-eight hours later, I had already sent out over a dozen applications.  The funny part is that I had my eye on Rider from the very beginning just because it’s located halfway between my sister’s place in Philly and NYC, and there was a good chance that I would live close enough to New York to run for the highly esteemed New York Athletic Club.  That was before I realized how awesome the Rider head coach, Bob Hamer, is.  The team dynamic is great, and the training venues are better than I ever imagined.  During my last two marathon build-ups for Twin Cities and Boston, I felt like I almost had more time to train and more focus in my training than I did at ZAP.  I got super lucky with my position because Coach Hamer is very supportive of my running career and his requirements of me are nothing like some of the other part-time or volunteer assistants who get worked to the bone.  I get to do all the fun parts of coaching and very little of the rest!

3. After training with a team at both ZAP and Case Western Reserve University [Erb was a six time All-American in college], you have recently transitioned to training solo. Do you find this liberating or lonely or a combination of the two?

Truth be told, I haven’t had regular company on workouts since maybe my freshman year at Case.  At Case and ZAP, there were long periods where I didn’t even have company for regular runs.  Doing many of my easy runs with the Rider teams, I’ve gone on more group runs that started and finished together this year than possibly ever before.  At Case, my schedule was different from everybody else’s and plus, I was kind of a lone wolf at that point anyway, so that’s why I trained solo there.  At ZAP, I was the slowest runner there for almost my entire three years.  I couldn’t run recovery runs with everybody else and still be able to work out well.  I tried, but it just didn’t work.

The only group of women I’ve ever worked out with was the BAA women’s team for a few weeks back in 2009.  That was when I met Terry Shea and I was so in love with the idea of having a group of regular training partners that it became my main mission when looking for a training group after I came back from Vienna.  Unfortunately, the ZAP women’s squad is intentionally small, and our racing schedules were always so different that I never had company on workouts.  That was probably the biggest disappointment I experienced when I got to ZAP.

4. You dominated the local scene at this year’s Boston Marathon placing as first regional American (New England plus New York and New Jersey). How did you do it?

I didn’t even realize I was first in that category (that you just made up)!  My Boston build-up was very much like the course—a lot of ups and downs.  One thing that made it different from the rest of my build-ups, though, was that I actually ran in eight races during my build-up as opposed to my typical one or two.  Half of them were all-out efforts, and half of them were workouts.  Probably the two highest highlights of my Boston training were winning the Tallahassee Marathon in 2:46 as my second workout of the build-up and a double that I ran at a Princeton indoor track meet.  I entered the Mile and the 3000 and technically ran PRs in both—with a 10-mile run including a 10k in 36:32 all on the outdoor track between the two races.  I love racing, and as I said, I don’t have much company on workouts, so it’s great to throw myself into some races and at least have somebody else out there on the track with me for those efforts.

My mileage hovered around 100 for most of the build-up and I only really had down-weeks before bigger races like the NYC Half and the Collegiate Running Association Championships hosted by the Monument 10k.

erb 100 questions 10.5.145. You may not be from Boston but your connections to it are strong as you are coached by an underground legend in these parts, Terry Shea. What’s it like having a long distance coach who isn’t with you every day?

I’ve always loved Boston, ever since I was a kid.  One of the family jokes about me was that I used to mix up the city of Boston and our nearest amusement park because I thought it was so much fun.  I had the privilege of staying there for a few weeks in September of 2009, and around that time, a good friend of mine decided to join the BAA, mostly because of the impression that Terry had made on him.  He also mentioned my debut time of 2:46 to Terry, and Terry offered to coach me on the spot.  That generous offer completely changed the trajectory of my life, as his coaching is what led me to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials and earn myself a spot at ZAP.

As soon as I had stopped crying on the day I announced that I was leaving ZAP, I called Terry to ask if he’d agree to coach me again.  For whatever reason, Terry is extremely gifted at coaching bull-headed, intelligent women.  Usually our collaboration works something like this:  I tell him what race I want to target, he shares his thoughts on it, then I send him a bunch of races that I want to do during my build-up and he yeas or nays them.  Then once we have the framework in place, he sends me weekly e-mails with all of my daily workouts and target mileage, which I log on athleticore, and then he checks up on me before he sends me the next week of work.

6. How do you know you’re ready for your target race?

Anybody who knows me well will know how crazy it is for me to say what I’m about to say, but I know I’m ready to race when Terry says I’m ready to race.  The truth is I always want to race, or if I don’t, there’s something seriously wrong with me.  My biggest struggle has been believing in myself and believing in my training.  I’ve had periods of great confidence like my senior year of cross country and this year’s marathons, but in general, a lot of what has held me back is questioning my ability and my training.  I think that being a coach and seeing myself from the other side has helped both my confidence and my faith in myself and my training.  I also appreciate race events so much more now that they are my only windows into feeling like an elite athlete.  In short, I know I’m ready to race when my head is on straight.

7. Describe your best performance and proudest accomplishment.

I am most proud of both of my negative-split marathons. The first negative split was when I ran my 2012 Trials qualifier in Seville on Valentine’s Day 2010.  I trained almost entirely solo through the thick of the Viennese winter (think dark, overcast, cold, and windy), flew across the continent to a country where I could barely understand a word that was said, to a relatively tiny local event.  With a PR of 2:46 and hopes of running 2:42, I went through halfway in 1:20:30 and came back in 1:19:17—a negative split of 73 seconds.  I came across the line bursting with joy and pride, but since I had traveled entirely alone, there was no one who could understand me except for the few Africans who had beaten me.  I didn’t need validation though, I was on cloud nine.

Since then, I have run four competitive marathons, and Boston was the first time I improved on that negative split and saw another jump in fitness, too.  In fact, I ran an 83-second negative split at Boston on a course where the first half is largely downhill and the second… is not.  However, what was even better than my negative split was my positive attitude going into the race.  I had a rough few weeks of training and hadn’t been feeling good about the race at all but just a few days before, I decided that my mantra for race day was going to be the catchy phrase from that song by American Authors, “This is gonna be the best day of my life.”  I totally bought into it, and the song was playing in my head the whole race and wound up coming true.  Boston was right up there with my performance at NCAA DIII Nationals when I won the 10,000m in 2008.  At that time, I wasn’t nearly the best runner on the track, nor was I anything close to the athlete that I am today, but I’m pretty sure I still haven’t run a 400m faster than I ran the last lap of that 10k to win.  I was 5m behind with 200m to go, and about 50m away from the line, something clicked inside me and suddenly taking second was not an option.  I won with 0.4 seconds to spare.  I think those three races sum up my greatest qualities and accomplishments as a runner.

8. What non-running activities do you do to support your running?

I lifted quite a bit during college and in Vienna, too.  I put on muscle pretty easily, and so that is part of why I have always looked like a pretty strong runner, particularly in my arms and shoulders.  ZAP put a lot of focus on core and stability work, mostly using body weight and stability balls.  This year I’ve kind of done my own thing, but having the Rider team to train with has kept me in touch with hurdle drills, dynamic mobility, some medicine ball work, and I think that one crucial aspect to my Boston training was occasional sessions of squats, deadlifts, and cleans just to exhaust my quads.  I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that those helped a lot when it came to preparing my quads for the beating they’d get on the Boston course.

9. Mental toughness is such an important aspect of this sport.  What do you do to keep the pace honest or on some days just get out the door when your body is telling you otherwise?

Keeping the pace honest has a different meaning to me than it does to a lot of people.  I wasn’t always this way, but as I get older, I value an honest effort far more than an “honest pace.”  I used to focus on running hard every day when I was in college, but this last build-up was a true testament to my new philosophy of keeping the effort honest.

Terry focuses a lot on making sure that we get in enough mileage at marathon pace during the build-up.  However, he has made it clear that marathon pace is not a number.  It’s an effort that changes as our fitness improves.  At points during the build-up, this approach was almost heartbreaking because marathon pace ended up being 6:10 pace on some days, when I had run a marathon at 5:53 pace just that fall.  However, I stuck to my guns and didn’t force 5:50s because I knew that the effort was what mattered, and faking my workouts would only throw off my sensory data come race day.

As for getting out the door, I know that I’ll feel much worse if I don’t run than I possibly could if I do.  I’ve also gotten a lot better at just accepting how my body feels and taking whatever it can give me at any given time.  Just this past Monday, I felt like a bag of poop on my morning run and as a result, my first mile was a 9:16, and my second was barely sub-9:00.  I finished in a blazing 7:54, and that’s just what my body had to offer.  Unless it’s a workout, a long run, or a race, pace doesn’t matter.  Recovery runs are pass/fail.  You either did it or you didn’t.

10. What do you think is the hardest thing about the sport of running?

That’s easy: the unpredictability and not knowing your limits.  In so many other aspects of life, for the most part, you get out what you put in, and more = better.  If you study for a test, you’ll get a good grade.  If you practice your instrument, you’ll play well.  If you practice ball skills on your own, you’ll get more play time.  But in running, the hardest part is finding that perfect balancing point between working hard and hurting yourself.  As I’ve learned, particularly in coaching, you could do practically nothing at all, and still get hurt.  And the most crushing feeling in the world is knowing you’re in incredible shape and having a terribly disappointing race.  The more I learn, the more I realize that my unpredictability was largely due to issues with keeping my iron up.  I really wish I knew more about these magical keys because I’m sure I could prevent a lot more coaching and training issues if I did.


Below is a contribution from Terry Shea, coach of Esther Erb.

erb coach curve shea 10.5.14

If you’d like to read more from our Jul/Aug 2014 edition, click the image below.

Click cover to start reading

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