NEW YORK -- Allie Kieffer churns her way through the hilly mile and three-quarters loop of Delaware Park in Buffalo, a crisp Canadian-blown breeze hitting her face.
Periodically, she passes the folding table she set up before her workout, grabs a water bottle, and takes a long-drawn pull of her sports drink.
Today, running is as much about preparation for this weekend’s TCS New York City Marathon -- her first World Marathon Major -- as it is getting away from the onlookers wondering what this crazy lady is doing and asking if they can buy lemonade from her stand.
As she clips off loops like a metronome, her mind flashes back to her younger years, when running was an escape from troubles at home, a way to ease the grief of tremendous personal loss, and a perceived means to achieving the promise predicted for her.
But she quickly snaps back to the here and now, and why she is still running competitively at age 30 when the easy choice would have been to move on with a “normal” life, whatever that means.
“Running has given me an opportunity to become a more well-rounded as a person, it has given me confidence, and it has given me amazing things in life,” Kieffer said. “It is a struggle to keep running, but I run because I love it and I self-identify as a runner. Running makes me a better me. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always wanted to be.”
Like many athletes, Kieffer got her start in running largely through the influence of an older sibling, in this case her sister Meghan.
“The crossing guard at our elementary school in West Islip told my parents that my sister looked like a fast runner and they should sign her up for this club team,” Kieffer said. “My parents both worked, so they needed a place for both of us to go since they they couldn’t get us to two different places. So, in kindergarten, I was the youngest person ever on this track team called the Golden Girls.
“By the time I got to 7th grade we got to pick which sport we wanted to do, so I picked track because my sister ran. I got into because of her, but she wasn’t as dedicated to running as I was. I was always a little bit obsessed.”
Call it obsession, call it work ethic inherited from her mother Barbara, but Kieffer put everything into running. The dedication helped her make the varsity team at West Islip High School as a freshman. By the time she graduated, she had earned three letters in cross-country, four in indoor track, and three in outdoor track.
Growing up, Kieffer’s best friend was a girl named Shelby. They were seemingly inseparable from day one; Kiefer said, “Shelby was at the hospital the day I was born.” Their parents shared a friendship. They also shared a disease.
“I come from an alcoholic family and so did Shelby, but her family was a bit more violent,” Kieffer said. “We would always like go running in the woods in high school and pretend we were running away from our families. Running was always our escape, our way to get far away and find a happy place.”
Running took Kieffer pretty far during her senior year at West Islip in 2003. She finished 15th at the New York state meet, eighth at the Foot Locker Regional, and 22nd at Foot Locker Nationals, earning All-America honors. In San Diego, Kieffer’s roommate was a junior from Oviedo, Florida, named Jenny Barringer, who would go on to win a world championship and an Olympic bronze medal in the 1500m.
“I remember at nationals, that they sat all of us in a room and the speaker told us that we were the future or American distance running, that we’re the next generation of Olympians,” Kieffer said. “I looked around and thought, ‘We’re not all going to be Olympians.’ I certainly didn’t think I was ever going to the Olympics, but being included in group anticipated to accomplish so much felt amazing.”
Kieffer earned a scholarship to run collegiately at Wake Forest. After a so-so freshman year, she started to showcase some of the promise forecasted for her at Foot Locker. In 2006, she competed in every cross country race for the Demon Deacons -- she only raced three times the year before -- finishing sixth at the Pre-ACC Invitational in 18:25, running 22:14 at Pre-Nats, finishing 47th at the ACC Championships in 23:02.5, and clocking 22:58.8 at NCAAs.
But personal tragedy soon altered the course of her life and running.
In August of 2007, on the eve of her junior season at Wake, Kieffer’s older sister Meghan was killed in an eight-car collision at a toll plaza on Interstate 95 outside of Newark, Delaware.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Meghan was headed home to New York for a long weekend and hitched a ride with two friends in Virginia, where she lived and worked after graduating from Loyola College in Baltimore. Their 2006 Acura was stopped in a line to pay the toll when their vehicle was slammed into from behind at full speed by a Ford Econoline van.
The chain-reaction crash left 18 injured. Meghan, who was a backseat passenger in the Acura, was pronounced dead at the scene, the lone fatality in the accident. She was just 23. The driver of the van, Hai Lin of Kimball, Tennessee, was charged with operating a vehicle causing death.
“After Meghan died, I was a little lost for a while,” Kieffer said. “I was scared thinking we can die at any moment, so what am I going to do right now if I know I am dying tomorrow?
“I kind of wanted to live my life as if I were her, and she was really, really different than me. For a couple of years, I lived more of a crazy life because I wanted to really live today so I didn’t have any regrets.”
Kieffer wound up redshirting in 2007, and had on the surface what appeared to be a successful final cross country season for Wake Forest, earning all-conference honors and finishing as the team’s top runner in all five meets during the fall of 2008, including an 11th-place finish overall at the ACC Championship meet.
But Kieffer was not satisfied with her performance.
“I wasn’t running particularly well,” she said. “The coach at the time was having her own personal problems and, to be honest, I don’t think her coaching style worked for me. So I transferred to Arizona State for my fifth year.”
In her final cross country season competing for the Sun Devils, Kieffer finished 49th at the NCAA championships in Terre Haute, running 20:56 for 6K. After exhausting her eligibility, she began exploring the idea of running professionally. Arizona State assistant coach Rob Cole offered to coach her if she was serious about training.
Cole crafted a training regimen around maximizing speed, and by the end of 2011 Kieffer had improved to the point of setting new PRs in the 1500m (4:17.56), the road mile (4:40.9), the indoor 3000m (9:08.13), and the 5000m (15:52.37). Just as she had during her collegiate career, Kieffer was showing more glimpses of success and potential.
But she wanted more
“Ryan ended up being phenomenal,” Kieffer said. “I went from a 16:50 5K to a 15:52 5K, which still wasn’t going to get me to the national championship so it wasn’t a big jump. When Ryan got the head coaching job of the women’s team at Arizona State, I had to find a new coach.”
In 2012, Kieffer moved to Boulder, Colorado, and joined Hudson Elite, the Olympic Development running group led by by renowned distance coach Brad Hudson. Coming out of a more speed-based training system at Arizona State, Hudson’s strength and endurance-centric regimen provided the perfect counterbalance.
Kieffer opened the season with a 10th-place finish at the Carlsbad 5K, clocking a personal-best 15:57, followed later that April with a 15th-place finish in the 10,000m at the Payton Jordan Invitational. Her time of 32:25.69 qualified her for the U.S. Olympic Trials. The next day, she received a one-year shoe and apparel deal with Puma.
While she may have been a “sponsored” athlete in a post-collegiate training group, Kieffer was far from training and competing in a professional environment.
“It was just a struggle to keep running because you have to win races and prize money so you can continue doing it,” Kieffer said. “I got a bit jaded. I felt entitled, like, ‘Someone should really sponsor me. I’m worth something. I should be getting money for this.’ That kind of like took away some of the love for running because I felt like I wasn’t getting what I deserved.”
Eventually, the little bit of prize money won, as well as the savings she inherited after Meghan’s death, dried up, and Kieffer was unable to financially support her training at Hudson Elite. She left the group in 2013, moved back to New York, and got a full-time job as a nanny. For all intents and purposes, she had given up on the dream of becoming an elite runner.
“When I left Boulder, I felt like I had achieved everything I was going to achieve, and I didn’t really have any goal to get back into running seriously,” Kieffer said. “I didn’t have any friends, so I started running with people to make friends. But once I was running to make friends, I’m not really very good at doing something half-assed. And so I just started getting more and more dedicated.
“Eventually, I joined a club and I got hooked up with Sarah Cummings, who had just run 2:34 in Boston. I was keeping up with her for most of the workouts but I was racing 5Ks and 10Ks and I didn’t run faster than 5:50. So you don’t run that much faster in the race. It’s not as impressive when you’re only racing the 5K, so that didn’t really work either. Her coach ended up dropping me.”
After a brief stint training with Esther Atkins under coach Terrance Shea, Kieffer began training with University of Houston distance coach Steve Magness in early 2015. But she struggled with the long-distance coaching and with taking to his training methods. By August, they parted ways.
“I could do Magness’ sprints all the time but it just doesn’t make me faster,” Kieffer said. “It was killing my soul. I felt like I could never hit the splits and then I wasn’t getting better and I was trying really hard, and I was also working like 50 hours a week. It was also hard not really knowing him. He was in Texas. I was in New York City. I was struggling to be invested in training that wasn’t really succeeding to help me.”
What Kieffer did have, however, was an understanding of what worked for her and the knowledge and training insights gleaned from some of the best coaches in America. So she decided to embark on her own.
In 2016, she began offering her services as a coach while simultaneously crafting her own training plan. Gradually, Kieffer was able to work herself into better shape.
“I was coaching a guy who ended up running a 2:39 marathon, but I couldn’t keep up with him,” Kieffer said. “I couldn’t be a good coach to him as I couldn’t push him at the end of the workout. So I started getting a lot more into it.”
In doing so, Kieffer morphed into somewhat of a running mercenary, choosing her races solely based on the feasibility of winning prize money.
It made for quite an extraordinary 2016.
Kieffer registered to run the Miami Half Marathon in January, figuring it would be low-key enough where she might be able to pick up some prize money. But she miscalculated the number of runners who had earned U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying standards in the marathon and would be looking for a tune-up half three weeks out.
“The night before, I went to the technical meeting and there were actually like quite a number of people that were pretty good that were racing the half marathon,” Kieffer said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to win any prize money.’ I had already paid for a plane ticket and a hotel down there and I’m not going to make any of that back. So I asked to know who of these people I was in the marathon and what’s the prize money for that. There were only a few people signed up for the marathon and it was double the prize money, so I switched.”
So training just 70 miles per week and woefully unprepared, Kieffer made her marathon debut, winning in 2:55:30. She pocketed $2,000 in prize money.
“I had done an 18-mile run but, yeah, nothing marathon-specific and nothing super fast,” Kieffer said. “I felt really good, but I also got huge blisters because I raced with my training shoes. I didn’t know anything. Like I just had no idea. I had no GU or gels with me. I stopped at an aid station -- literally stopped running -- and asked someone where are the GUs. They were like looking in a box and didn’t find any and said, ‘I don’t know, maybe that’s the next station.’ I just had no plan whatsoever.”
Building on that theme, Kieffer decided to jump into the Armory New York City Indoor Marathon, a new 211-lap race around the famed track in Upper Manhattan concocted to create “world record” attempts at a distance that had rarely been run indoors.
Having again done zero marathon-specific training, Kieffer submitted her entry on Wednesday, April 6, for the race on Saturday, April 9. The sole female entrant, she crossed the finish line in 2:44:44, breaking the previous world best of 2:51.
“They didn’t have any other women in the field and it was right in my backyard,” Kieffer explained. “I had just run 2:55 in Miami wearing training shoes so I figured I had a lot more in the tank. I figured it was going to be the easiest $6,000 I’d probably ever make.
“One of the guys was going to run about the same pace as I wanted to run so I just ran with him for a while, and then after an hour we turned around and I picked up the pace. There was music, they were announcing, I’m from New York so I had some people there cheering for me and it was fun. Afterwards, we got to go to Coogan’s and I got my picture on the wall, which is pretty amazing. It was a great experience.”
Kieffer continued to pick up prize money on the roads: $750 for a runner-up finish at the MORE/SHAPE Women’s Half Marathon in 1:17:08; $2000 for a fourth-place finish at the Freihofer’s Run For Women 5K in 16:17.1; and $500 for finishing 21st at the NYRR New York Mini 10K in 34:35.
By this point, she had quit her job as a nanny and moved in with her boyfriend. In between jobs, the couple spent two months traveling through Europe, during which Kieffer took time off from training and racing. When they returned to the States in January, they each found new employment which required them to move to Buffalo.
“My boyfriend is into CrossFit, so after we moved to Buffalo we found a CrossFit gym,” Kieffer said. “I was kind of telling the coaches to go easy on me because I was a runner. And they were like, ‘OK, cool. How much do you run?’ And I was like, ‘Well, since I stopped training in June I haven’t run more than 25 miles in the past six months.’
“It was funny because I was self-identifying as a runner but not doing it at all. It kind of sparked something inside of me to get back to running seriously.”
Kieffer returned to training, and to her roots on the track. After opening with 22nd-place finish in 32:45.36 at the 10,000m at the Payton Jordan Invitational on May 5, she bounced back a little over a month later to run a personal best 32:09.89 at the Portland Track Festival, finishing third behind four-time U.S. Olympian Shalane Flanagan (31:38.68) and Rachel Cliff (32:07.94), and hitting the IAAF World Championships qualifying standard.
But she was unable to repeat that success later in the summer and earlier this fall. At the USA Outdoor Championships, the qualifying meet for the World Championships, she wilted under the June Sacramento heat and wound up 11th in the 10,000m in 33:24.78. In October, she finished fourth at the Medtronic Twin Cities 10-Mile, this year’s U.S. Road Championship at the distance, a PR of 54:20.
“I feel like I was capable of much better,” Kieffer said. “So much of this year has been trying to figure out the mental side. There are so many different ways to physically get to the results you want, but you’re not going to get there without training your mind. I was fit back in the spring. I’m probably more fit now, but if my mind isn’t strong enough, I’m not going to run the results I want.”
Kieffer is also not naive enough to believe that it is that simple.
Fortunately, she was one of a handful of applicants chosen to participate in Nike’s Project Moonshot, an offshoot of the shoe giant’s Breaking2 quest in May, which saw Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge come tantalizingly close to breaking the mythical 2-hour barrier in a marathon run under almost lab-controlled conditions in Monza, Italy.
The principle of Project Moonshot is almost the same: Nike provides local sub-elite runners with ideal circumstances - apparel, shoes, coaching, nutrition, physio - so that all they need to worry about is training and racing to achieve their individual dream performance.
“It’s been a complete game-changer,” said Kieffer, who has earned $31,850 in prize money during her career, according to the Association of Road Running Statisticians. “My times have been so much better this fall compared to the spring because, to be honest with you, I just could not have afforded these resources on my own.
“I was doing the right things, but I would have to cut corners. I was going to a massage but once every two weeks. Now I’m getting a massage twice a week. I don’t have to make dinner every night because I get food delivered. I get to see the strength trainer and do it the proper way.”
With this added support -- and sufficient pre-planning -- Kieffer proclaims this to be her best training block ever (Weeks 1-4 / Weeks 5-9). Only once prior, in 2012, had she logged as much as 95 miles in a single week. In preparation for Sunday she has eight weeks of between 95 and 105 miles of training. Training in Buffalo she managed to do a 24-mile long run at 1600 meters elevation, “poor man’s altitude,” as her boyfriend calls it.
She also finds herself in a positive frame of mind, knowing that she has beaten the odds. When she thinks back to the 2003 Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals, of her 31 peers only she, Jenny Simpson, Nicole Blood, and Mel Lawrence are still running competitively. And, Lord knows, she has had more reasons and opportunities than most to step away.
Other than having the desire to continue running on the track and the roads, Kieffer is unsure of what her future in running holds.
Maybe she will have a breakthrough on Sunday that catches the attention of an agent, or helps her find a training group. Maybe she will continue her running journey solo. She is fine either way as long as she is still enjoying the process.
“I’m willing to flow with life,” Kieffer said. “I think running will always be a part of that. It’s at the top of the heap right now, but maybe it won’t always be my No. 1. You always hear runners say they want a break from running, but I’m still hungry to think like I don’t need a break from my life. I love my life and what I’m doing.
“I don’t feel like I need to escape from anything, and that is certainly a change from the old Allie. So if being in the moment and liking what I’m doing is allowing me to be the best runner I can be, then I’m fortunate that I’ve come to this mental headspace. I just want to be happy, and this is making me happy.”