It’s been an interesting summer for Marisa Howard.
Howard, a former Boise State All-American who still lives in Boise, finished fifth in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the USA Track & Field Championships in late July in Des Moines, Iowa.
She finished in 9 minutes, 51.37 seconds.
But about a week before the championships, Howard found out that she was named to the USA Track & Field team for the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
Howard, whose maiden name is Vander Malle, picked up a silver medal there.
And now, she is training for The Match, a dual competition where she was invited to help represent the U.S. against a team of Europeans. That happens Sept. 9-10 in Minsk, Belarus.
“It’s been very busy,” said Howard — a Pasco, Washington, native — in a phone interview with the Tri-City Herald.
Luckily for Howard, a school nurse, she had much of the summer off to concentrate on running competition.
Focus on a fast pace
Concentration is needed in the steeplechase, which has a tall hurdle on one side of the track. Runners, competing at a very fast pace, must time their steps to jump up on top of the wide hurdle. Then they jump down into a pool of water (about ankle high) before trying to pick up that pace again.
“I did a little bit of hurdling at McLaughlin Middle School in Pasco,” Howard said. “In high school, I did the steeplechase once a year for two years at a meet in Hermiston. So I got a little taste of it.
“But there is no 3,000 meters or 2-mile run in college. But the steeplechase is 3,000 meters.”
As a freshman at Boise State, Howard’s coaches had her try the event as a freshman, and she was successful.
“I just missed qualifying for nationals that first year,” she said.
She’s been in love with the event ever since, even becoming an NCAA All-American in the event in 2015.
“Anything can happen in the steeplechase,” Howard said. “You can never count yourself out. People can fall. People can lose on the last lap of the race. Everybody has a fighting chance.”
What makes it so hard is it’s a 7 ½ lap race, and the change in speeds as runners approach the hurdle can affect performance.
“Right now, the level I am at is running a 5-minute pace (per mile),” said Howard. “The top women run a 4:45 pace.”
Howard turned professional four years ago, and the 27-year-old is 35th in the world, according to the International Association of Athletics Federation (international track and field’s governing body).
Road to Peru
Getting to Peru took some doing.
Back in December, USA Track and Field announced it would be looking at athletes’ times and marks in determining the 2019 Pan American team roster.
However, in January when athletes could apply for the team, the paperwork said athletes’ 2019 times and marks would be considered. It was a clerical error.
USA Track & Field officials stuck with the two-year window. Coaches of athletes left off the roster filed appeals, and the decision was overturned to just consider 2019 times and marks.
That included Howard, who was originally left off the team.
“In June, I ran the No. 2 time in the steeplechase (for this year),” Howard said. “I found out a week before the USA Championships in July I was on the team. Obviously I knew one of the athletes who were taken off in my event. And I obviously had to let go of it thinking it was my fault.”
Howard got to Peru early with the team, and her family came along, taking in the sights with her.
The event itself, run on Aug. 10, was won by Canada’s Genevieve Lalonde with a time of 9 minutes, 41.45 seconds. That was almost 7 seconds faster than the old record – 9:48.12 by Ashley Higginson of the United States in 2015.
Howard was right behind Lalonde with a 9:43.78, which also beat the old mark.
“Fourteen runners were supposed to start,” said Howard. “But one of the runners from the United States (Allie Ostrander) got sick before the race and had to pull out. So we had 13 competitors.”
The game plan involved staying close to Canada’s Lalonde.
“My coach said he wanted me in the pack,” Howard said. “And I was to try to take the lead with two or three laps to go. But Genevieve took the lead with three laps to go, and I went with her. I kind of wish I had taken off earlier, but it was a learning experience. The biggest goal was medaling.”
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, Howard gave herself a 7 on the race.
“My initial reaction was I wanted to win gold,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, I’d give myself a 7. It definitely was really special. My confidence went up this past week. My coach finally saw the race video – he wasn’t there – and he had some really nice things to say about it.”
An eye toward Tokyo
It was the fourth time Howard represented the U.S. in a running competition. The other three times involved cross country, including an event last January in Scotland.
“My best finish in cross country in high school was 42nd at state,” said Howard. “But I finished second in the 2-mile at state track.”
Which maybe is why Howard holds track and field closer to her heart.
“I definitely got emotional when I walked onto the track inside the stadium in Peru,” she said.
Howard said she was injured a lot in college. So she now splits her training up during the week.
“I run four days a week, and I do a lot of swimming. Like five days a week of swimming,” she said. “I love it.”
She’s now training for The Match. The U.S. will have four athletes in each track and field event compete against four of Europe’s best.
“I’m hoping to hit the Olympic standard of 9:30 when I am there,” she said. “Get it out of the way before next year.”
Because next year is the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and that’s where Howard said she hopes to be.
“That’s the goal!” she said.