Olympian Kim Conley will make her debut as a Nike-sponsored runner at the 2022 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. Credit: Drew Wartenburg

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The track is home to some of Olympian Kim Conley’s biggest career moments. She finished third in a thrilling 5,000 meter race at the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, to unexpectedly qualify to run at the 2012 London Olympics. Four years later, with increased pressure and expectations, she once again finished top three in the 5,000 meters at the trials to make the team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But during the early stages of the pandemic, as races around the country were shut down and canceled, it wasn’t the track that Conley missed the most. She longed for another type of running event: road racing.

“I think losing road races during the pandemic was a huge bummer and I was really grateful that there were track meets that kind of popped up and emerged, and we were able to race, period,” Conley tells City Paper. “But it’s just different to be out on the roads, when you have thousands of other people that are also participating, and you just get that really electric atmosphere. It’s just so fun. And mentally, I like to be off the track and not be thinking about running laps, or, like, my position within the field. It just feels kind of liberating to be out on the road.”

This spring, Conley, a 36-year-old Flagstaff, Arizona, resident, has been focused on transitioning from the track to longer distances on the road. On Sunday, Conley will make her Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run debut as the headliner for the women’s elite field. The event is returning to its usual April date after being held in September last year due to the pandemic. Race organizers are expecting a full field for both the 10-mile run and the 5K run-walk at 17,000 and 3,000 participants, respectively. (One of the 10-mile run participants will be Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.)

In addition to Conley, the women’s elite field will include Reston’s Susanna Sullivan, an elementary school teacher and a multiple time top 10 finisher in the Cherry Blossom race, British Olympian Stephanie Twell, and professional runners Sarah Pagano, Paige Stoner, Elaina Tabb, and Julia Griffey. Carrie Verdon, a first-grade teacher based in Boulder, Colorado, has the fastest Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run personal best in the field.

On the men’s side, two-time Cherry Blossom champion Stephen Sambu is expected to return, and will be joined by Kenyan runners Nicholas Kosimbei, Wilfred Kimitei, and Shadrack Kimining. The American men include Diego Estrada, who competed in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 London Olympics for Mexico, Futsum Zeinasellassie, and Reid Buchanan.

“I’ve known about it for so many years throughout my entire career,” Conley says of the Cherry Blossom race. “It’s just always kind of been on my radar as a really cool event that brings together a great field.”

Sunday will also mark Conley’s first race as an official Nike-sponsored athlete. Her contract with New Balance, which she first signed in 2012, expired at the end of last year.

“Nike has been leading the way with footwear innovation and it’s changed the sport,” Conley says. “I was with New Balance for 10 years, and in that time I never tried on another company’s shoes. When my contract expired I decided to see it as an opportunity to try something new. It’s been exciting to explore all the Nike footwear options and begin a new chapter of my career.”

To get used to the longer road races, Conley has been doing her harder workouts on the road near her home in Flagstaff or wherever she’s traveling rather than on the track. She typically does her runs by herself or with her coach and husband, Drew Wartenburg, pacing her. Conley will meet up with runner friends in Flagstaff for longer recovery runs. 

Earlier this month, Conley ran the New York City Half Marathon, finishing 19th in the women’s division with a time of 1 hour, 12 minutes, and 39 seconds. She plans to run the Boston Athletic Association 5K on April 16 after the Cherry Blossom race. The ultimate move, Wartenburg says, is to train for a fall marathon, and the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials is the “principle driver.” Conley did not participate in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last year due to plantar fasciitis in her foot and a calf injury. 

“I think really what we’re trying to spend some time doing is just strengthening her entire repertoire of race distances,” Wartenburg says. “5K roads are obviously going to be a sweet spot historically, matching more closely to what she’s done on the track, but just getting in good events where they’re going to be competitive fields at races, distances like the half, the 10, even road 10Ks, just strengthening the racing resolve that’s required of longer distances, both sort of physical and mental side.”

As for the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run this weekend, Conley is keeping it simple. She just wants to race.

“I’m a competitor, and so setting time goals just never goes well for me,” she says. “I don’t like to look at the clock. I would rather look at a field and then think about where is a reasonable expectation to try to finish within the field and just try to beat people and compete with them.”