Nevada Mareno Outruns Anxiety, Burnout Back To The Top
By Johanna Gretschel
Nevada Mareno made sure her first appearance in a Team USA jersey was a memorable one.
The senior at Leesville Road High School in North Carolina earned an individual bronze medal and led the red, white and blue to the junior women’s team title over Great Britain and Europe at the Bupa Great Edinburgh Run in Scotland last weekend.
The accomplishment is another notch on the belt for the athlete that FloTrack ranks the No. 1 distance recruit in the Class of 2017.
But just a year ago, the rising star in American distance running couldn’t get herself off the couch.
“I finished really well at Foot Locker [in third], and I was so excited to get home and ready to do a lot of crazy stuff indoor,” Mareno said of her mentality last December. “Within a day or two, and then five days off, I realized how nice it was not to be running and how stress-free I was. It was like I was a different person for those five days.
“If I had a workout, I would be thinking about it all day at school. ‘What should I be at 200m? At 400m?’
“Just coming home and watching TV and taking a nap... it was so nice. I would get out my door to go for a run and start crying.”
While Mareno’s name might be familiar in scholastic track and field circles, soccer, not running, was actually her first love.
She played on Leesville Road’s team during the spring season for her first two years of high school. After her sister and soccer teammate, Jordan, graduated in 2015, Mareno decided to compete in all three running seasons for the first time.
Mareno had always trained with her school team, and was coached by Karen Hawkins during cross country and Jerry Canada during track.
But when Tim Frazier offered to help her prepare for Foot Locker in the fall of 2015, she couldn’t say no. The fellow Raleigh resident is the father of multiple-time national prep champions Wesley and Ryen.
Both sisters, who now compete for North Carolina State, supplemented their training with workouts devised by their dad. But the Frazier girls were injured for much of the 2015-16 track season, so in Mareno, Frazier had found a new project.
“Basically out of the goodness of his heart, Tim said, ‘Hey, we could have another great female distance runner out of this area,’” Jason Mareno, Nevada’s father, recalled.
During the school season, she still attended Leesville practices and only worked with Frazier on the weekends. But as the post-season races approached, she worked solely with Frazier.
“I understood wanting to have more individual attention, because I couldn’t give that to her,” said Hawkins, who no longer coaches at the school. “The one problem I had was her mindset that she needs to work harder to get better and she needs to be completely drained every workout.”
The season was a success. Mareno set a course record of 16:36 for 5K at the WakeMed Soccer Complex, won her first state cross country title, placed second to Weini Kelati of Virginia at Foot Locker South, and took third overall behind Kelati and Maryjeanne Gilbert of Illinois at Foot Locker Nationals.
After Foot Locker, Mareno was offered a spot on Team USA competing at the Great Edinburgh Cross-Country International Challenge in Scotland, but turned it down at her parents’ urging.
“We said, ‘This is a lifelong journey and maybe right now it’s best to recover,’” Jason said. “I could see that she was tired.”
So Mareno flew back to Raleigh from San Diego and enjoyed a few days off... and then a few more. The passing of each week did little to rekindle her desire to resume running.
“My dad was like, ‘Alright, maybe just lace up your shoes every few days and see how you feel,’” Mareno said. “And then eventually, it was like, ‘We should start training for outdoor soon.’ After two and a half months, he was like, ‘Are you ever going to run again?’”
If anyone could empathize with Mareno’s lethargy it was her dad.
Jason Mareno ran in high school and trained for one year at the University of Illinois, but unrealistic expectations and pounding his body trying to keep up with teammates like three-time Dutch Olympian Marko Koers, forced him to quit the team.
“I kind of recognize burnout,” Jason said. “I could see the signs of wanting more than is appropriate at the time or measuring yourself against a yardstick that is not the right one at the time.”
So Jason let his national-champion daughter make her own decision on her own timetable, which she did after a few months completely off.
“I knew I wanted to run again in college,” Mareno said, “so I knew I had to get my shit together.”
Mareno started jogging again in mid-February. Before the end of the month, she was back to the workout grind. This time, she trained exclusively with Frazier and a prevailing sense of guilt over months of “slacking off” led her to put the pedal to the metal too soon.
“There was a big sense of guilt for me being in the best shape of my life and being lazy and wanting to watch TV,” Mareno said of her first-ever outdoor season last year. “I was super grateful Mr. Frazier was willing to pick me up again --my little chubby self-- and help me get back.
“But I went into outdoor way too hard, way too fast.”
After taking nearly three months off from running, her first race back was a 4:47 full mile -- 4 seconds off her PR -- at the Raleigh Relays. She also recorded an impressive quadruple win at the North Carolina state meet (800m, 1600m, 3200m, 4x800m), with state meet records in the 800m (2:08.51) and 3200m (10:17.7).
Mareno soon began feeling the effects of overtraining syndrome.
“I would start going 6:40 pace -- which was the easiest thing ever -- but I would start hyperventilating and I couldn’t do it,” she said.
Her training was targeted to peak during the weekend of June 18, as she planned to race the Dream 1500m at the adidas Boost Boston Games on Friday night, then fly back to North Carolina to compete in the two-mile and mile at New Balance Nationals Outdoor on Saturday and Sunday.
“I almost called that weekend off,” Mareno said.
Instead, she cruised through two weeks of easy training which enabled her to compete in all three national championship events as planned -- recording or equalling PRs in all. Her final tally for the weekend: fourth place in the 1500m (4:18), runner-up honors to Weini Kelati in the two-mile in a dramatic 10:00.38 to 10:00.44 contest, and third place in the mile (4:43).
“I would say I was satisfied with it,” she said of her busy championship weekend. “There was nothing earth-shattering about it but after [how I’d felt] about two weeks prior in my training, my dad, Mr. Frazier and I were surprised I was able to compile any of the results I did.
“I knew I could’ve performed better at adidas and wanted to take another shot at beating Weini [in the two mile]. The two mile was definitely the highlight for me. That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a race and the most I’ve ever exerted myself in a race. I could barely walk after.”
Dad Jason tried to suggest that his clearly exhausted daughter drop the mile on the final day of competition, but Nevada wouldn’t hear it.
“The mile on Sunday was almost just a celebration of my survival of that season and knowing I had done all I could do to hopefully secure a spot on my dream college team,” she said. “Especially after the feats that the Fraziers have pulled off, I [didn’t want] to wonder how I would’ve done.”
Over the summer, Mareno purposely ran less than the year before.
She attended the Nike Elite Camp in Oregon and raced at Hayward Field. She watched the Olympic Trials. She went on vacation to Emerald Isle, N.C. She hung out with her large family -- at 17 years old, she’s the second oldest behind Jordan (19) and also has a 15-year-old sister, 13-year-old brother and a 7-year-old sister, plus parents Jason and Janice. (Jason is the runner, but he says lovingly that “Mama is a slugger!” at the batting cage).
As fall approached, the Frazier sisters were healthy again, so Nevada did not approach Tim for guidance.
She had attended pre-season cross country practices during the summer with her teammates, but once September hit, she decided to go it alone.
“I was disappointed from the team side of things,” Hawkins said. “I thought she could benefit from being around her friends and I thought her teammates benefited from being around her. When she was with the team every day, it seemed to keep her in a place where she wasn’t burnt out.”
Instead, Mareno and her father sort of... made things up, incorporating the previous year’s workouts into a new training regimen aimed at keeping her from going too deep into the well.
Mareno logged about 30 miles per week, the same amount as in 2015 but at a lower intensity. But without a team, and without the guidance of a proven coach like Frazier, it was hard to stay motivated.
“It was just me and my dad,” Mareno said. “Everything we did was pretty random.”
The situation presented a unique challenge to Jason.
“I feel that my job is not to push her or to drive her training, but rather, I know if I get her out on the trail and get her warm and loose, then the challenge reverses itself and becomes one of holding her back,” he said. “I don’t know if these stories are true, but I’ve heard if you have a thoroughbred and an inexperienced jockey, if the horse is gifted then it will literally drive itself to death unless you have a smart jockey to guide it through. In some ways, she’s like that.
“Even on a day when she says she doesn’t want to be out there, her competitive mindset takes over.”
Nevada skipped a few larger invitationals due to college visits and breezed through her regular-season competition -- albeit with slower times than in 2015.
“I knew what it would take to get to Foot Locker [again] from having the experience of the past season and sort of just did enough each day,” she said.
Mareno says she didn’t try to hide her lack of motivation on the college visits. And, no, her mental struggles didn’t scare away her potential new coaches.
“I think it was intriguing to the college coaches,” she said. “And I’m going to come to them at the perfect time. I haven’t had any idea what I was doing until last year, and it was my first outdoor track season, so I was bound to do something wrong. I seem to have all this experience, but I’m still really new to the sport.”
She announced her commitment to Stanford on Halloween and soon found her mojo.
“After one or two average performances in early meets, I realized I wasn’t content with just being okay. I realized if I’m going to train every day, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, because what’s the point in going through it all to be less than your best?”
But would her late-season effort be enough?
Mareno was runner-up to eventual Foot Locker champion Kelati at the South Regional in 2015 but only gave herself a 10-percent shot to win the regional in 2016. But, defying expectation, she broke away from the pack at the mile mark to win wire-to-wire.
After the impressive performance, she still had doubts about her prospects for San Diego in her post-race interview.
“The thing that I’m afraid of is that it’s Nationals and anybody can have an amazing day,” Mareno said. “You just have to look down the line and find the person who’s most focused and that’s the person you should be most afraid of.”
“I think in her own mind, she remembered the previous season and her work with Tim through a slanted lens, perhaps,” Jason said. “They had done workouts that pressed her more. We elected not to go that far this year, not take any single workout and continue to the point that they did in the previous year, and I think in her mind that meant she wasn’t in the same physical condition.”
However, Mareno finally revealed her peak fitness in San Diego on Dec. 10 as she chased down pre-race favorite Claudia Lane and made a legitimate move to win the Foot Locker title. It was not quite enough as the Malibu sophomore had an extra gear in the final meters to win in 17:04, the fastest time at Balboa Park in six years.
Mareno clocked 17:08 for runner-up honors, one place higher and nine seconds faster than 2015 -- when she thought she was in the best shape of her life.
All Or Nothing
This year after San Diego, Mareno didn’t stew on the couch for a week.
Instead, she was all-in to board her first international flight, don the Team USA jersey for the first time and compete at Great Edinburgh.
She took a few days off, ran, took a few days off, and overall enjoyed the holidays while maintaining a baseline level of fitness. Excitement to contend in her first international championship even got Mareno back to her school’s practice for a few track workouts.
One day, it was 16x200m at 32 seconds with 200m jog in between and an 800m jog after eight repetitions. Another time, she did 5x1K at an average of 3:09 with 600m active recovery and a set of 150m strides to finish the day. It helped to have male teammates pushing the pace for her again.
In Edinburgh on Jan. 7, Mareno exceeded her low expectations (“It’s hard to build expectations for racing people when you have no idea about their history; you can look at times but it’s all relative in cross country”) to earn a bronze medal, and the effort seems to have rejuvenated the young star.
“I definitely want to go under 4:40 for the mile this year,” Mareno said. “At this point, it’s almost embarrassing that I haven’t.”
Perhaps most refreshing is to hear that she has no regrets.
“I’m really glad I’ve had all these insane crazy things happen to me,” she said. “I think I’m finally starting to train normally.
“I’m sort of an all-or-nothing type person.”
As Jason knows well, that can be both good, and scary.
“I saw her win a race in sixth grade against seventh and eighth graders,” he recalled. “When she finished that race, she was nearly unconscious. She had clearly just poured it all into that race to win it. If this girl wants it, she’s got the right mind for it.
“But you have to be careful.”
Johanna Gretschel is the Senior Editor of MileSplit National. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jojo_shea.