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Track, cross country standout Laura Thweatt ready for NYC Marathon

Laura Thweatt says she's ready to step outside her comfort zone at the New York City Marathon. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Laura Thweatt covered a lot of ground on her list of running goals for 2015.

She hoped to finish in the top five at the U.S. Cross Country Championships and make the U.S. team for the World Championships. Also on her list were four specific targets for the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, her track specialties.

Nowhere did she write, "Make my marathon debut in New York."

The marathon wasn't part of her lexicon. She'd run everything from the 800 meters to the half-marathon in her college and post-college career, but racing 26.2 miles was just a fuzzy concept somewhere in the distance. This year and next would be dedicated to cross country and making the U.S. Olympic team for Rio de Janeiro in the 5,000 or 10,000.

But separate injuries to a foot and knee scrubbed her game plan for 2015. Like a quarterback reading a blitz, Thweatt and her coach, Lee Troop, called an audible. They decided the best course might be an entirely new one.

So, on Sunday, Thweatt -- a 26-year-old former University of Colorado standout and reigning U.S. cross country champion -- will run the New York City Marathon. It's possible that Thweatt could be a surprise contender. She's been on the rise the past three years, excelling on tough, undulating cross country courses and on the track against elite competition.

"Definitely, her range of 1,500 at 4 minutes, 10 seconds through to a half-marathon in 70 minutes shows that she's got fantastic range," says Troop, a three-time Olympic marathoner for Australia. "And I certainly think she's a marathoner in the making."

Yet, it's strange new territory, and Thweatt doesn't know what to expect. The foray into marathoning is just a temporary, alternate route to give her a fresh experience and a solid base heading into a new year. She has no plans to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in the marathon. She has no plans to run a specific time or finish in a certain place. She will run as well as she can and learn from it.

"It was kind of like, 'Why not?'" she says, laughing. The beauty of running New York, she says, is there are no expectations. She's a wild card.

"You've got to step outside your comfort zone sometimes," she said, "to see what you're capable of doing."

Fresh perspective

Thweatt accomplished Goal No. 1 for this year when she won the USA Cross Country Championships in February in Boulder, Colorado, where she lives. She trains there with Troop as part of the Boulder Track Club. She ran 27:42 over the 8K course, dominating the field and winning by 31 seconds, energized by the friends, family and former college teammates who turned out.

"The energy was amazing," says Thweatt, who grew up in Durango.

Troop says Thweatt took control from the start, then "put the hammer down" after the second lap of the four 2K laps and kept churning. "She just crushed everybody in the last lap," he says.

But over the final few hundred meters, she jumped a small ditch for the fourth time in the race and twisted her foot. The resulting injury -- she calls it a stress reaction -- worsened when she returned from running for fifth-place Team USA in the World Cross Country Championships in China in March, where she finished 29th overall.

"I had some issues with it off and on, building up for China, and then when I got back it was just really sore," she says.

That injury, plus a bruise she suffered to a bursa sac on her knee in a car accident, effectively sidelined her for about three months. It wiped out a big chunk of the track season and prompted Troop to come up with an alternate plan. The goals for the 5,000 and 10,000 meters would be scratched.

"I just tried to look at what we could salvage for the rest of the year to get her some really good base, get her some really good fitness, but more importantly be a great launch pad to 2016, which is when it really counts," he says.

He suggested she focus on the New York City Marathon, and she agreed. Troop's idea was in part to give her a fresh start. She had done well in 2013 and 2014, and he didn't want her to start comparing herself to those performances while fighting through recovery.

Thweatt won the 2013 and 2014 National Club Cross Country Championships; ran 1:11:01 in her half-marathon debut in Philadelphia in 2014; was third in the 2013 U.S. 12K Road Championships; and was ranked No. 4 in the U.S. in the 5,000 meters in 2014 (where her best time is 15:04.)

He didn't want her to be discouraged if she fared poorly, and was hoping she could go into 2016 fresh, healthy and inspired. Troop set up a training schedule for New York that wasn't the full-marathon training experience, leaving out some of the more intense aspects.

"I haven't done the real grinding marathon training," he says. "That stuff is really, really hard mentally and physically, and for her I didn't want to do that. The setbacks we had, unfortunately, when she won U.S. Cross in February through to May were hard enough, and I didn't want her to get to the point where she broke down with an injury again because I trained her too hard."

The results have been good. Thweatt is as fit as she's ever been. She won a half marathon tune-up in Virginia Beach, Va., in September (1:11:01) and was fourth in the U.S. 10-Mile Championship in October (53:14).

"This fall it was just nice to train for something brand new and kind of just mix up the routine, get out of the same races I've been doing year after year and comparing myself, trying to be right back up where I thought I should be," she says.

After New York, she's set to compete again in the National Club Cross Country Championships in December. After that, she'll aim to win a spot on the Olympic team. Troop believes she has the talent and makeup to be an excellent marathoner, but she's still young and has plenty of time. In a couple of years, perhaps, it will be a focus. The 2020 Games could be her time, he says.

But what happens if Thweatt runs a terrific race in New York? Would that cause her to re-think her plans?

"I always saw myself as being a little bit better at the longer distances, so I think down the road, I think the marathon is going to be my strength. Or at least now I'm thinking that," she says, laughing. "But yeah, if it goes well, it will be just one more positive step in the right direction, one more breakthrough."

Passion lost, then found

In a way, it's surprising that Thweatt's career has been on the rise.

After leaving Colorado, her passion for running waned. An athletic career was uncertain. Then, two things happened: she began coaching high school cross country five years ago, then started working with Troop a year later.

Working with the boys and girls at Monarch High in Louisville, Colo., just outside Boulder, in cross country and track, gave her a fresh perspective. She often runs with her team.

"My kids have been amazing," she says. "They really helped me fall back in love with it again. It was just so much fun being out there. High school cross country was so great for me, so to be part of it again has been really cool."

Watching them, feeling their exuberance and then helping them improve has been a tonic. Aligning with Troop was a second boost.

"The biggest thing Lee's done for me is he's just reminded me how much I love running," she says. "And he's really helped me see myself as a great athlete. He's really helped me believe I can compete against the best and that I eventually can become one of the best."

Now, she says, she's not afraid to take on new challenges and "really go for it" in the big races.

The New York City Marathon is about as big as it gets. A debut there, followed by an Olympic push, presents a year of opportunities for Thweatt.

Troop is convinced Thweatt has a bright future. She also reminds him of his younger self.

"She's got this tenacious ability to just really push herself as fast and as hard as she can," he says. "She's a competitor on the track and then off the track, she's the most pleasant individual that you'll meet. She likes to make sure that when training's finished or the race is finished that she's given 100 percent, so I think that resonates with me a lot and why I've enjoyed coaching her from day one."

He can see her excelling at the marathon, and points out that runners such as Deena Kastor, Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden have been successful both on the track and in marathons. As race day approaches, Thweatt admits to being "really excited, but in a terrified kind of way." She knows a race like New York can humble even the best runners. She's never hit the 20-mile mark in a race and still had to push on. She's confident she can.

"I think I'm really strong and I think I can grind, and that's the marathon from what I've been told and what I can understand," she says.

"It's a tough race and the more strength you have the more you're able to just put your head down and really grind it out. I think that's going to be my biggest strength."