KSU geology professor competes in US Olympic Marathon Trials

Professor Elizabeth Herndon runs on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. Herndon participated in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, where she placed 43rd.

Benjamin VanHoose

Tucked away on the second floor of McGilvrey Hall is the office of geology assistant professor Elizabeth Herndon. The room appears like any other scientist’s work area would with stacks of papers, samples of rock and soil scattered throughout. What an unsuspecting student would not be able to detect judging by the office, however, is Herndon’s second life outside of the classroom.

In fact, there’s even less evidence that she just ran 12-plus miles—and that’s only before heading to work.

Herndon is a longtime avid runner with several big-time races under her belt. She added the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon trials to that list Saturday, Feb. 13 where she placed 43rd with a time of 02:45:32.

The race, broadcast live on NBC, took over the streets of downtown Los Angeles so that Herndon and hundreds of other Olympic-hopefuls could compete for a spot on America’s team.

“It was really neat,” Herndon said. “Usually for marathons there will be people at the beginning and the end but few between. This time there were spectators cheering all along the course.”

The number of people watching wasn’t the only thing uncharacteristic of her usual race experiences. Her mindset at the starting line was surprisingly calm.

“For some reason I wasn’t nervous at that point,” Herndon said. “I was just excited, telling myself to be smart and not go sprinting right out of the gate.” 

A total of 246 women from across the country met the qualifications to compete in the trials. The other runners weren’t Herndon’s only competition, though. The California heat proved to be a worthy adversary over the 26.2 miles.

“My fear was that I would drop out due to the heat,” Herndon said. “It wasn’t until the last eight miles that it became a struggle.”

By the end of the race, Herndon recalled the heat reaching 80 degrees—a temperature far from her favorite to run in. 

“My ideal marathon conditions are 40 degrees and overcast with no wind,” Herndon said. “It definitely was not that at the trials.”

Crossing the finish line after a long, laborious race was a moment she will not forget. 

“It was overwhelming,” Herndon said. “The only bad part is when you stop right after a marathon, everything immediately starts to hurt.”

After the big race, Herndon celebrated exactly the way non-runners would want her to: by downing a huge platter of greasy nachos.

“I ordered an appetizer of nachos that you’re supposed to share with other people and ate it all myself,” Herndon said. “It was a long day and I was just excited to finally eat.”

Only the top three runners from the trials make the U.S. team. Representing America this summer in Rio will be Amy Cragg, Desiree Linden and Shalane Flanagan. Herndon said she holds no bad blood and will still tune in to the Olympics.

“I had no expectations of qualifying, I’m just satisfied to have been among the top 50 runners in the country,” Herndon said. “My main goal was to have a good time with it no matter how the race turned out.”

Herndon grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with two runners for parents—a reason she cites for investing so much of her time in the sport. She graduated from Washington University in 2007 with two degrees and three D-III All-American titles to her name.

It was clear to her soon after she started college that geology was the right fit for her.

“I had always enjoyed earth sciences,” Herndon said. “And, like a lot of geologists, I really like hiking and being outdoors.”

The common dilemma among college athletes is notoriously time management. Herndon, however, felt athletics made her a better student.

“It forced me to be very organized and efficient with my time,” Herndon said.

Herndon earned her PhD from Penn State University in 2012 and was soon after hired by Kent State. Even now, she still juggles her schedule between classes, research and training.

“There’s always a crunch for time,” Herndon said. “Sometimes it can be difficult to find the time that I need.”

Research Herndon is currently conducting falls under the category of environmental geochemistry, exploring how humans impact the soil around them.

Kiersten Duroe and Brianne Yarger are geology graduate students, and work closely with Herndon.

“Her enthusiasm and ambition is contagious,” Yarger said. “Many research scientists tend to lose themselves in academia, so it is refreshing to see one attaining lifetime dreams while still being a productive researcher.”

“She is a great role model for me as a successful female in geosciences and as someone able to balance the continued pursuit of her other passions,” Duroe said.

Herndon’s Olympic participation has garnered her a bit of attention with profiles published by ESPN-W and Runners World. Duroe and Yarger agree that she remains humble within her moment of fame.

“I still find it very surreal and strange,” Herndon said. “No one recognizes me or anything, but when they find out, they’re very interested.”

Though Herndon said she’s received a lot of positive feedback about the trials, she said it’s nothing compared to the response she received for setting the Beer Mile world record in December 2014. The event, which has runners chug beer at several stations along a course, was of particular interest among students.

Unfortunately, her record was recently bested by a few seconds.

“I want that record back,” Herndon said. “I’ll consider going back.”

Herndon said she plans to run in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials as well, but likely won’t change up her training regimen leading up to it.

“I think it’s good to run harder each time but not go crazy just because it’s the Olympic Trials or else you’ll end up injured or burnt out,” Herndon said.  

Herndon plans to take a bit of a break in her running—but by “break” she in no way means to slow down.

“I’ll continue to train and run in local, shorter road races,” Herndon said. “Just no marathons for a while.”

Mark Croghan, Kent State assistant track and cross country coach, knows the amount of dedication required at that advanced stage of running.

“I admire any athlete willing to make the necessary sacrifices to compete at such a high level,” Croghan said. “That kind of training requires significant time commitment.”

The key to success, in Herndon’s mind, is outlining goals.

“Keep track of your progress and know that success is gradual and doesn’t happen overnight,” Herndon said. “Being positive will pay off.”

Benjamin VanHoose is an entertainment reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].