Duluth New's Tribune writes about Mizuno Ambassador Jen Houck, America's up-and-coming marathoner.
by Mizuno USA on June 16, 2011
Jennifer Houck isn’t a professional runner, but she races like one.
The physical therapist, who grew up in Wright, attended Cromwell High School and St. Scholastica, has gained a spot among America’s up-and-coming marathoners with a swift ascent the past four years.
She comes into Saturday’s 35th Grandma’s Marathon with a chance to become the first women’s winner from Minnesota in 20 years. Houck’s credentials say she’s prepared to give it a go.
“This will be her first mental test and her first chance to win a marathon,” says Chad Salmela of Duluth, Houck’s coach and St. Scholastica’s Nordic ski coach. “She’s fit, she feels better than when she ran the Boston Marathon in April. On a decent day she could be in the top five. On a great day she could challenge to win.”
Houck, 27, lives in Bloomington, Minn., and works four days a week for the Institute of Athletic Medicine (associated with Fairview Health Services), primarily treating high school and college athletes. She’s been employed there since February after spending part of 2010 living and working in Oregon.
Each of her four career marathons has been progressively faster — placing 38th in the 2009 Twin Cities Marathon in 2 hours, 47 minutes, 42 seconds; 17th in the 2010 Boston Marathon in 2:39:02; 19th in the 2010 Chicago Marathon in 2:37:16; and 18th in the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:34:28 on April 18.
Also in 2011, Houck was 12th in the USA Half-Marathon Championships in 1:15:02; 10th in the USA 15-Kilometer Championships in 52:04; and fifth in the USA 25-Kilometer Championships in 1:30:06. She set the Park Point Five-Miler women’s course mark of 28:30 in 2009 and ran the 2010 Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon in 1:15:49, the fastest time among Northeastern Minnesota women in race history.
“It’s been a steady gain since working with Chad. I’ve been really committed and I understand the focus that’s needed,” said Houck, a cross country and 10,000-meter track runner at St. Scholastica. “I also love my job; I love that part of my life. I need that balance.”
Salmela provides four-week training schedules and corresponds with Houck through texts and e-mails. She often grades the effort of workouts with a heart-rate monitor and portable blood lactate analyzer, typical of elite endurance athletes. Training weeks are usually measured by total time spent working out, yet Salmela figures Houck’s strength-building phase averaged 140 to 150 miles a week.
While improving, she’s been injury-free.
The primary target is the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials on Jan. 14 in Houston, for men and women, where three runners from each race will qualify for the Summer Games in London. Houck has already met the American trials A standard of 2:39.
“The philosophy I have is to build fitness, run a marathon, adjust to the results and run even faster,” says Salmela, a former national-level biathlete. “When I started to work with Jen, I didn’t know if she could run under 2:40, but she’s progressed and shown she can run at a high level.”
Where does Houck fit in with the Grandma’s Marathon elite women’s field? Hard to say. Many of the top entrants, based on personal best times, are 40 and older, including course record-holder Fira Sultanova, 50, of Russia with a best of 2:27:05. Wearing No. 1 is Russian Lyubov Morgunova, 40, who won the 1997 Twin Cities Marathon and has run 2:25:12. Three-time Grandma’s Marathon champion Mary Akor, 34, of Hawthorne, Calif., has run 2:33:40, yet is coming back from surgery.
Among Saturday’s top entrants, only two have run faster than Houck within the past year — Ethiopia’s Serkalem Abrha, 24, ran 2:32:06 in the 2010 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Morgunova ran 2:33:17 in the 2010 Prague Marathon. Salmela believes Houck is prepared to run as fast as 2:32.
The last Grandma’s Marathon women’s champion from Minnesota was Janice Ettle of St. Paul in 1991 in 2:35:27. By Duluth standards, Houck is the next best thing to Olympic marathon hopeful Kara Goucher, now of Portland, Ore., who ran a personal-best of 2:24:52 to finish fifth at the 2011 Boston Marathon.
Houck has one more tune-up before the Olympic Trials, the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9.
“If anyone had told me four years ago that I would be running this fast, and not be injured, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” said Houck, who was 12th in the 2007 NCAA Division III 10,000-meter race. “But I’ve been able to handle the training and racing, and have recovered well.”