Morgan Uceny trying to end U.S. drought

Middle-distance runner Morgan Uceny spent three peaceful weeks training in a walled city just outside of Pisa.

No distractions (except for the natural splendor of Italy), no demands (outside of the occasional interview), just work -- constant work.

Feeling fresh, fit and fast, the former Ivy League runner is eager to unveil the fruits of all that uninterrupted training at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, next week.

Uceny is part of an American crew of up-and-coming 1,500-meter runners who are trying to make their mark in the event, possibly even become the next Mary (Decker) Slaney. The 1,500 is an event the U.S. has hardly dominated over the years, struggling to win gold at worlds since Slaney (Decker back then) did so in 1983.

The 26-year-old Uceny has a shot to end that drought. She has the eighth-fastest time in the world this season with a 4 minute, 1.51 second performance last month in Monaco. That's just a little more than a second off the top time of Bahrain's Maryam Yusuf Jamal, who captured gold at worlds in 2009.

"I'm finally putting some things together," Uceny said in a phone interview from Lucca, Italy, in between workout sessions. "I'm executing."

Uceny hardly ran the 1,500 during her collegiate days at Cornell University, mostly focusing on the 800. So the learning curve has been swift and steep.

But she's steadily catching on to the tactics of the demanding race, with the assistance of coach Terrence Mahon.

Want to go out fast? She can.

Prefer to slow it down and make it a sprint down the backstretch? That's perfectly fine with her, too.

"The fun part is seeing how the race develops," Uceny said.

And then acting accordingly.

At the U.S. championships in June, Christin Wurth-Thomas took the pace out fast and opened up quite a gap on the field. Instead of chasing after her, Uceny and company just bided their time, hoping Wurth-Thomas would fade.

When Wurth-Thomas tired near the finish, Uceny passed her for the win, followed by Jennifer (Barringer) Simpson and Shannon Rowbury to earn the three spots on the world squad.

There was a time when Uceny might have pursued Wurth-Thomas, possibly even tiring herself out and leaving nothing for the final kick. But with experience comes restraint.

"I wasn't going to do something drastic that could've ruined my chances," Uceny said. "One of my weaknesses is patience, so I've focused on being patient."

To help in that area, Uceny has taken up crossword puzzles, a tactic that focuses her mind and keeps her on task. She's not ready to solve the New York Times' difficult Sunday puzzle grids just yet, but she's getting closer.

"I suppose any type of problem-solving is good practice, so it can't hurt," Uceny said.

For her power on the track, she can thank, in part, her father's masonry business.

Uceny worked summers for her dad in Plymouth, Ind., shoveling mortar, along with cutting and carrying bricks.

"Working for [my dad] taught me to pay attention to the details and that complaining won't get you anywhere," Uceny said, laughing. "It's a very demanding occupation."

Nearly two years ago, Uceny relocated to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a move that's bolstered her career. Deena Kastor and Anna Pierce also train there, giving Uceny quality competition each day in practice.

"I ran with Deena soon after her pregnancy. She still left me behind," an amazed Uceny said of Kastor, an Olympic bronze medalist in 2004. "I learn a lot from Deena, not just from running, but her wisdom. She has such a great outlook and a positive vibe."

One of Uceny's biggest adversaries on the track doubles as one of her good friends away from it. She puts in miles with Pierce, who's making a seamless transition from Olympic steeplechaser to a polished middle-distance runner.

"There could be tension, being in the same event. But with us, we have different strengths and help each other," Uceny said. "She's more of a speed person and I'm more strength. We bring that to the table and help each other out."

It's paying off as Uceny has won two races in the Diamond League series this summer to take the lead in the 1,500 point standings.

"Last year she was on the cusp of breaking into the top 5 many times on the Diamond League circuit. She spent a lot of the offseason connecting the dots in the areas that still needed work," Mahon said. "It is showing in her racing skills and in her confidence to step on the line against anyone in the world."

There's been quite a boon in middle-distance runners in recent years, with the rise of Simpson -- an NCAA champion out of the University of Colorado -- along with the consistency of Wurth-Thomas and Rowbury, who won bronze at worlds in 2009. There's also a fleet of youngsters waiting in the wings, including Jordan Hasay, a two-time NCAA champion at Oregon.

But it's Uceny leading the way right now. And with the London Olympics just around the corner, she's the runner everyone is keeping a close eye on these days.

"London also seems like a lifetime away as a lot can happen in a year," Uceny said. "It's just great that the U.S. is finally doing well [in the 1,500] and standing out a little more."