Olympic Marathon Trials Bound NWHSU Student Andrea Toppin: Iowa Profile

Mile posts: Marathon Trials Q&A with former Ventura High, Iowa State runner Andrea Toppin
Original article by Lance Bergeson at the Des Moines Register

Andrea Toppin never dreamed she would be a marathoner. The former Ventura High School star excelled at the 1,500 meters and 3,000 steeplechase at Iowa State when healthy. The problem was she spent more time on the sidelines than racing during her five years in Ames. She attributes much of injuries to stress and her diet, when she was told she needed to lose weight.

Following her days at Iowa State, Toppin enrolled at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minn., to become a doctor of chiropractic. It was while she was a student at Northwestern Health in 2017 that Toppin was convinced by fellow former Cyclone Tyler Jermann to try a half marathon. With that success, Toppin tried the 2017 Twin Cities Marathon and ran a debut time of 2 hours, 52 minutes, 51 seconds.

Stresses of college took her away from the marathon until the fall of 2018, when she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a 2:42:12 at the California International Marathon in Sacramento.

Her lead-up to the Trials has not been smooth. She suffered from Achilles tendinitis in the summer and fall and opted for a break from running in November. She said she was burned out emotionally and physically from her studies. Now, with a fresh perspective and a focus on sleeping more, eating healthier and meditation, Toppin has resumed training and is optimistic for a strong finish at the Trials.

Andrea was in Dallas for the holidays with her boyfriend when I interviewed her Monday. Here is a shortened version of the interview.

LB: Hello Andrea. You are one of the people that I really wanted to interview this winter. You were on Instagram recently and said you were essentially burned out from training, school. You wrote an article about it.

AT: Yeah. Definitely. I wrote it in November, but it didn’t come out until December.

LB: What kind of reaction have you had from that?

AT: So it varies, it depends day by day. Depends on how stress hits me. Every day is different. I feel more confident when I get more sleep. I feel a lot more relaxed when I meditate. I will do my breathing exercises and it makes my day a lot more doable. Do you want me to go into my most stressful day?

LB: Sure.

AT: When we have finals, we have two weeks of finals and we have 10 to 14 finals (for chiropractic school). That’s not counting the national boards we have to take. We have to take five of those.

LB: Are you in chiropractic school at the U of M?

AT: (laughing) Everyone thinks that. I live kind of by there. I go to Northwestern Health (Sciences University). It’s in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis.

LB: Sure, by the mall.

AT: My undergrad (at Iowa State) helped me a lot with juggling that. (I knew) I am never going to make it in competitive running. I had a lot of setbacks in college. I was ready to be done.

I moved up to Minneapolis-St. Paul with Katy Moen, now Katy Jermann. We roomed together. I was interested in chiropractic. That was kind of my backup. I was wait-listed at a bunch of PT (physical therapy) schools. I fit better with chiropractic. I decided to go to chiropractic school up here.

When Katy and Tyler (Jermann) moved in together, they lived down the street from me. I was doing all of these easy runs. He (Tyler) asked, “What are you training for?” I said it calms me down, soothes me. He pushed me into doing some half marathons. I finished fifth in my first one. He (Tyler) wanted me to try a marathon. So I started training for Twin Cities (Marathon). My first goal was to break 3 (hours). I hit them (goals) in my first one, 2:52. The Twin Cities course is pretty similar to the (U.S. Olympic Marathon) Trials course with how tough it is and how it grinds.

LB: You ran 2:52? So you blew that out of the water.

AT: Yeah, I wasn’t really training for it. Gosh darn it, Toppin. I just wanted to break 3 (hours). I got this fire inside of me. That was a really tough course.

LB: So 2017 you ran Twin Cities?

AT: Yeah. I took two months off after that race. Tyler said I should try Grandma’s Marathon the next June because it was flatter. I started training in December. I was going into one of my toughest trimesters. The first one (trimester) they welcome you in and the second one they weed you out.

LB: How many trimesters are there?

AT: Ten trimesters. I am currently in my eighth one. The toughest trimesters are the first ones. People say the first one is the hardest, but I think the second is. You are learning how to be a doctor in the classroom full time. I skipped a lot of runs. I was really busy, constantly stressed with tests with four a week. It was really insane. In March, I told Tyler I don’t think I am ready. So I scratched Grandma’s in 2018. I just kind of threw away the marathon dream. I said I will just focus on being a chiropractor.

Then I watched the Boston Marathon and Sarah Sellers finish second. She was a huge underdog. She beat a bunch of great pros in that race. I thought if she can do it, anybody can. That really inspired me. She is a full-time nurse. I can qualify for the Olympic Trials. A couple days after that, I contacted Tyler and said I wanted to do this. He said I was a really great strength runner like her and would be great in the marathon. I wanted to do marathons after a long injury history at Iowa State.

LB: I was going to get to that.

AT: I thought it would be really great for my (chiropractic) career. I want to work with runners. I really still love to run. I did a really progressive build into CIM (California International Marathon), six months. It was hard.

LB: What was the hardest part of it?

AT: Just timing. The hardest part was getting enough energy for the day. In the summer I did a lot of my workouts in the morning, just myself. It’s really hard to motivate myself, especially under the stress I was under. I had to work on my sleep. The anxiety of grad school makes it hard to sleep. You have 10,000 things in your head.

It took real planning. That was a whole trial-and-error saga and obviously it worked. In December of 2018 I qualified for the Trials. Met a lot of great friends from the races. After that, I looked at myself differently. I raced a lot more. I raced in a lot more U.S. Championships. I did OK, not like Katy. She’s on fire.

I started training with Team USA Minnesota. Tyler still coached me at that point. It was really nice being around other people who wanted the same thing. I couldn’t make every day. Sometimes my classes are at weird times. I saw a lot of success. I placed better at the (2019 U.S.) 25k (Championships), but that field wasn’t as strong. I felt (the 15K Championships in March at) Jacksonville was a really great race for me. I felt light on my feet. I had a different mindset. I started getting burned out from school around the 25k (Championships in May).

Leading up to that, I was getting five hours of sleep a day. I was doing 80 miles, building up to that. The half marathon there at Grandma’s was a shock for me. That was a really good confidence booster.

Coming off that, I got lateral Achilles tendinitis in the summer after I came back from my break. Both the right and left. Both of them went away when I wasn’t stressed. That was during my three-week break. School is year-around, but we have three-week breaks. That is a good time to recharge. I started to run 90-mile weeks. I wasn’t sleeping well at all. I wasn’t doing well. I was burned out.

I got really bad Achilles tendinitis on my right side. That was one I couldn’t shake. My Achilles was essentially done. I tried to do a race the following week. It was definitely injured. I shut it down in November. I am kind of happy it ended that way. I was burned out, emotionally, physically, everything. I just needed a breather. So many weeks, months of not enough sleep. It adds up. I’m just really happy now.

LB: So how long have you been training?

AT: I took the full two weeks off. I would say the end of November is when I started up. The first three weeks back was pretty tough. My Achilles wasn’t getting any better. It takes so much more mental and physical training. So much energy you have to put into your rehab. The first four weeks were pretty tough. I am on week eight. A muscular tendon injury takes eight weeks, sometimes 12. There’s not much blood flow in that region.

LB: I know what you mean. I have to stretch my left Achilles tendon every day before I run. Otherwise it acts up on me.

AT: It’s frightening, to be honest. I feel I do better in these situations, just overcoming something on a short time frame. I have done it before. No reason why I can’t do it again. I dealt with Achilles tendinitis in college. We will see how this goes. I Believe it will be fine. I feel like the Achilles problem isn’t there any more.

LB: Speaking of which, let’s talk about your injury history at Iowa State. I read an article where a doctor told you that you might not be able to run again.

AT: I had a stress fracture in my fourth year. I started off really strong in the season. I could have been top five or top seven on the team. We were really strong that year. I felt pain on the inside of my tibia. Right by my knee. It kept moving. I was pretty sure this is a stress fracture. They thought it was bursitis. Finally, I cried my way into an MRI.

I was having significant pain running at zero gravity. Maybe not zero. The water was up to my shoulders. I told the trainer, it still hurts and I started crying. I was right. It was the medial tibial. It was almost a complete fracture. The orthopedist said you have to be careful about this. I was on crutches for six weeks, no physical activity for eight weeks. He said most likely this won’t heal. Be ready to end your career.

I wasn’t originally going to take that fifth year. I was on track to graduate in four. I kind of wanted to leave and I was applying to graduate schools. I needed another year to figure things out. I took some higher-level graduate classes. It was a pretty chill year. I was hoping for more in track (in fifth year), but I got Achilles tendinitis really bad. I was in really good shape coming off cross country. I got a PRP.

LB: What is that?

AT: A platelet-rich plasma shot. It speeds up the natural healing process. It helped for a week, but I kind of ran myself into the Big 12 Championships. I got ninth in the steeplechase. It wasn’t where I wanted to be. Coach (Andrea Grove-)McDonough told my mom if I had two more weeks, I could have squeaked into regionals. It was one big frustration. I felt like there was something more. I am not good enough to go postcollegiate (and run professionally).

Those two years I took off, I guess a year and a half I took off from racing, I became a whole new person. That helped me become the runner I am and gave me more confidence. When you are in college, when that gets taken away from you, you feel like nothing. Once I got back into running, in grad school, it was a healthy relationship I had with running.

LB: You aren’t running for the name across the singlet.

AT: This summer I talked to Oiselle and their recruiting coordinator, talking back and forth. After Grandma’s half (marathon), they were interested in signing me on. I was really excited about that. I had some friends who had just joined Oiselle. I love representing Oiselle and what they stand for – strong women. What has happened in the last year, with Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar, Kara Goucher, women’s rights in the sport, I am really grateful to be sponsored by them and what they bring to the table.

LB: I read your post on Twitter that you experienced body shaming at Iowa State by your boyfriend. You actually did try to lose weight to please him and the coaches.

AT: The second half of my freshman year, I wasn’t doing as well (with weight). I might have put on too much weight (laughing). It was a pivotal point of what I thought of myself as a runner. I never felt myself as fat. I thought I was a confident, strong runner. Everyone was telling me I was doing everything wrong. My whole world kind of tumbled down. I thought, “Why am I here?” I debated quitting the team. A lot of negative thoughts went in my head. A lot of false images. I am 5-9, tall, muscular. I am not a petite little runner. In high school everyone told me how lean, fit I was. Maybe I did have a little bit of the freshman 15 (pounds). It’s a lot to take on being in a different environment than you are used to after 18 years. Being in a small pond like Ventura to a school like one of the top in the nation for women. It was my dream. There were eating disorders on our team. They are common in our sport. Sadly. I downloaded an app, MyFitnessPal, for what I thought my goal weight would be. I put that on there and it told me I had to take 1,200 calories a day. It would be no way physically possible for me.

LB: What were they telling you at Iowa State?

AT: I was trying to make sure I was taking enough vitamins, all of the food groups. They told me I had to eat 3,000 to 3,500 calories a day. Back then, I was eating 2,000 a day. I wasn’t eating. They weren’t nutritionally sound as they should be. In 2012, I wanted to eat 1,200 calories a day. I was putting no fat in my body. I ate like zero carbs. It was crazy. I did that for two years. I didn’t have a period for two years. I had a stress fracture. Then I started eating like I did in high school, I was a lot happier and my mood increased.

I had to find out what makes me happy. It took a good two, three years to figure that out. Mary Cain went though that. Thousands upon thousands of girls and women go through that with each other. I look at Des Linden, she is built really strong. She’s been great for the running community, with fueling your body and body image.

LB: And there’s a well-known runner from Iowa who has been a role model. Though she runs shorter races like the 1,500, Shelby Houlihan is a strong, powerful runner. And she loves her bread sticks.

AP: You’re so right about Shelby.

LB: You had tremendous academic success at Iowa State. You were on the All-Big 12 Academic teams several times.

AT: I definitely wouldn’t be where I am at now without that academic success. I chose academics first. Iowa State had a great kinesiology program.

LB: So you majored in that?

AT: I decided on kinesiology. I minored in psych. The biggest thing I took away from Iowa State isn’t the medals or the placing, but the relationships I formed with the team. I still talk to McDonough a lot today. She’s kind of like a second mom. She was definitely like a second mom when I was in school.

LB: She wasn’t one of the people telling you to lose the weight?

AT: No, no, no. She was on my side.

LB: Did you ever think you would turn into a marathoner who would be racing at the U.S. Trials?

AT: Oh, no. I remember when Samantha Bluske qualified for the 2016 Trials, I was in my fifth year (at Iowa State). We were all in the locker room watching it on TV. I remember thinking I am never doing that. It was super freaking hot that day. When my collegiate career was getting to an end, people were asking, “Are you going to do a marathon?” No, never.

The USA 10-mile Championships, in the fall of 2016, I was awful. The most I had ever raced was a 6k in cross country. I never thought I would race a marathon. I have had to be careful with my Achilles. I did my first marathon-specific workout this past weekend. It reminded me of how tough marathon training is.

LB: What was the workout you did?

AT: I did a 15-mile long run and within that was eight miles at marathon effort. I wanted to run 6 flat, high 5:50s. I was feeling it out. I started out at 6:16 (pace). All right. I don’t have my legs under me quite yet. I averaged probably in the 6:15 range. The last one was 6:11. I averaged 2:40s pace. I don’t think I will get that because the course is so difficult.

LB: How will you be dealing with the cold Minnesota winter for the next eight weeks or so?

AT: I will go to the treadmill. I have been on the treadmill more. The snow kind of melted so that has been pretty good. I am in Dallas right now. I come back Saturday. I come back to the treadmill then. If I can get outside, I try to go outside. Above zero, not icy, then it won’t tick my Achilles off, I will be outside. We do a lot of indoor workouts at the U, indoor track workouts on Tuesdays. The University of Minnesota is very helpful.

LB: So you won’t be going down to Arkansas until the Trials like Katy and Tyler?

AT: I will be training in Minneapolis primarily. I have five clinical internships. I am in my third. My first two are on campus. The last three are out of private practice so you aren’t on campus at all. I can’t leave to go on training camp or somewhere (laughs). Unfortunately.

LB: Is Tyler still coaching you?

AT: (Team USA Minnesota coach) Chris Lundstrom is coaching me now. He started coaching me in July. I started doing their workouts this summer. I reached out to Chris and now I work out with them.

LB: Do you see yourself staying in the Twin Cities after you graduate?

AT: I love the Twin Cities. I have always wanted to move out west. Colorado is where I am setting my sights right now. That or Arizona or Montana. I will move to either Colorado, Montana or Arizona for my final internship in August. Hopefully I will get a job.

LB: What about your boyfriend?

AT: He’s in Texas. He eventually wants to move to Colorado. He’s pretty open to it.

LB: What’s his name?

AT: Dillon Terry. He went to Oklahoma State. He’s from Oklahoma originally.

LB: So basically you aren’t trying to go over 80 miles?

AT: I don’t know what I will get up to. Seventy-five to 85 is basically my sweet spot. I just have to get my sleep. Breathing and meditation, but centering myself in the morning before I run. Especially at night. Ideally I would run the ‘A’ standard at the Trials. I would love to run a 2:35, but that course doesn’t look inviting. But I am good at hills. When I qualified and Tyler ran that course, in the Gold Race (Race to Gold) or something, he and Katy talked that it would suit me well because I am a strength runner.

My goal is more to place. If I had an amazing day, I would like to be in the top 50. I am just going to be as strong and consistent through mile 20 as I can be. The last 6 miles, 10k, maintain that strength. Hopefully chase a lot of people down. Right now I know I can be in the top half. It would be awesome to be in the top 50.

LB: Last question before I go. What is something that people might not know about you?

AT: That’s a tough one. Does it have to be funny?

LB: Not at all.

AT: (long pause) This isn’t funny at all, but I do 85 percent of my training with my little brother (Joel Toppin).

LB: That’s pretty cool.

AT: He ran Division III at Wartburg (College). He was on their national collegiate teams. He’s a year behind me in school (at Northwestern Health). We’re very close, best friends. We are thinking about opening a clinic together in the future. He’s been a big part of my success in high school and collegiately. He’s three years younger than me. He didn’t take a fifth (year of college). He went to chiropractic school right out of college. It’s been cool to go through this (chiropractic) process with him. He’s kind of my refresher button. He will come with questions and I will give him notes. He keeps me accountable with school and running.

He ran CIM (in December). He was originally supposed to be my pacer. I want to still do it. He is still kind of getting used to running more than an 8k or 10k. He ran 2:32 at CIM, which I think is pretty good for him. It is good to see his confidence grow. He had lots of run with it. He is a natural marathoner.