Photos by Amanda Cortese | Essay by Ryan Drendel
October 5, 2021
As they enter the first weekend of fall, Kellyn Taylor and Stephanie Rothstein Bruce are running long tempos on Lake Mary Road in preparation for the New York City Marathon. With six weeks until the peak of their cycle, this morning’s workout is an opportunity to temper their fitness and experiment with new nutrition methods.
It’s an unusually still morning at Mailboxes. A procession of cars waits along the right shoulder of Lake Mary Road. They are no doubt filled with foam rollers, old towels, water bottles, and worn shoes.
There’s a buzz in the brisk air this morning. This is a favorite meeting spot for Flagstaff’s collegiate, developing, and professional runners–and the fall racing season is right around the corner.
At 8am, the temperature is hovering at a cool, but comfortable 54 degrees. While the sun brightens the blacktop, athletes from a variety of local teams groan out of their cars. After a few perfunctory stretches and some pre-workout mingling, the runners trot away in waves down the forest road to warm up.
On this particular morning, NAZ Elite teammates Kellyn Taylor and Stephanie Rothstein Bruce have a “10-10” on the schedule. After their two-mile warm up, the duo will run ten miles at a controlled 6:30 pace. Once complete, they’ll go right into another ten–this time aiming for 5:45 a mile.
The buildup to the New York City Marathon has been solid so far. Both athletes have just finished a 7-week block feeling healthy. Kellyn is running more miles than she ever has in preparation for a marathon. And just last week, Steph placed 2nd at the Cow Harbor 10K in Long Island, running 32:36 on a challenging course.
Steph says the trip out east went well for several reasons. She was able to check her fitness, practice adjusting to the time change, and visit her extended family. She also ran part of the New York City course once again, just “to remind [herself] of how tough it is.”
But that was last week. “Now,” Steph says, “it’s time to practice the things we need to take care of on race day. We’re trying to do same day nutrition. To be well fueled. To practice running on tired legs and on hills. We’re here to mentally get back into marathon training.”
While Steph does a couple strides, Kellyn laces her HOKA Rocket X flats. This is the shoe both marathoners will be wearing when they toe the line in Staten Island.
Despite the difficulty of running big miles at altitude, head Coach Ben Rosario says Kellyn “has taken the challenge of high mileage and is really excited about it. She’s enjoying it as much as you can enjoy it.”
“That’s really the story of her segment: volume.”
All warmed up, the teammates cross the road, take a moment to gather themselves, and begin the workout. They are joined by Steph’s husband, assistant coach Ben Bruce. His job today is to maintain a steady pace for the group through the first ten miles.
Ray Langlais, the coaching intern who is helping facilitate today’s workout, calls Ben’s pacing abilities “metronomic.” And sure enough, as the trio passes the first mile mark, Ray clicks his watch and calmly reads, “6:30.”
Steph and Kellyn are running the workout on Lake Mary Road for a few reasons. This two-lane highway undulates through the ponderosa pine forest that surrounds Flagstaff. It flows southeast from the town, running parallel to its namesake.
The traffic here is fast but relatively infrequent. The road’s wide shoulders allot the runners enough space to get comfortable and lose themselves in the task at hand.
For the first ten miles–while the workout calls for controlled running and casual conversation–Lake Mary offers plenty of opportunities to let the eyes and mind wander. An overwhelming monsoon season has left an array of late-summer wildflowers blooming beside the road. The runners slide past patches of cutleaf coneflower and desert goldenrod, passing through yellow fields of fendler’s sundrops and rubber rabbitbrush.
The clouds above are still and overcast, carrying with them the early-fall chill that makes all runners anticipate their upcoming races.
Just before reaching the fourth mile turnaround point, the trio swoops past their first fluid station. Without clipping a stride, they snatch their respective bottles and take a few quick swigs. Within eighty meters, Kellyn and Steph have both tossed their bottles by the roadside for Ray to retrieve. Ben holds onto his in case anyone needs another sip.
One of the simple difficulties of marathon racing is the precarious task of keeping the body nourished. Today, Steph is experimenting with a set of electrolyte-rich gels.
“I took them on a long run a few weeks ago, and they sat well, but they were hard to get down by themselves.” For today’s workout, she has dissolved the same gels into her primary water bottle.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Lake Mary Road is its rolling topography. It is helpful, Coach Rosario explains, because “New York is never really flat. You’re always going a little bit up or a little bit down. In a couple of spots, you’re going quite a bit up and quite a bit down: over bridges, and as you head up to Central Park.
“Lake Mary is the same way. There’s some gradual up and down, but there’s also some pretty good size hills. I think it’s the perfect place to train for New York.”
As the trio heads back up the road towards the Mailboxes, a light breeze begins to brew, and the sun finally beams its way through the thinning clouds. In the low humidity of Northern Arizona, a little sunlight like this can cause an immediate five- to ten-degree uptick.
Just like on race day, the runners can never quite predict how the weather will behave out here. Steph says, “some days you have a tailwind and you nail a workout. Other days there’s a headwind going all the way out.” In this way, Lake Mary prepares its athletes for all sorts of potential race day conditions.
But the sun doesn’t stop the athletes from passing the sixth mile with four seconds to spare. As they roll by, Kellyn’s long, flowing strides briefly sync up with Steph’s deliberate, carefully-measured steps.
As they pass, one can overhear a snippet of conversation: some idle chatter about a soccer practice in Phoenix. All three athletes appear in control and relaxed.
The trio receives plenty of support as they grind up the route’s longest hill. Ray is joined by Jennifer Higgins, a sports scientist from Ireland, who’s recently moved across the pond to observe the team.
While passing the Mailboxes, Steph and Kellyn are greeted by a familiar face. Shannon, a local sports psychologist, has just finished her run. From the other side of the road, she shouts words of encouragement over the zooms of passing traffic.
As the sun warms up the day and begins to reflect off the road, the marathoners shed layers, execute another successful fluid station, and put down a few good gulps.
At mile ten, they stop for the briefest of bathroom breaks. Before their heart rates can drop, the trio is gathered back on the side of the road. After a round of concerted coughs, they drop their heads, click their watches, and take off.
Kellyn puts in four more miles at 5:45 pace, before deciding to shut things down a bit early. Although her workout doesn’t end as planned, after cooling down, Kellyn still logs at least 18 miles for the day–14 of them quite quick.
Coach Rosario doesn’t worry too much about the outcome. “When we’re pushing the envelope, there’s going to be workouts we don’t nail. I would only be concerned if two in a row went bad, and the next one was great.”
“We don’t dwell on workouts–good or bad–for too long.”
When Kellyn pulls off, so too does Ben Bruce, leaving Steph to practice running alone for the rest of the workout. At mile 16, the fourth fluid station of the day, Steph decides not to snag her primary bottle.
The still air that started the morning has now become a full-blown breeze. Steph perseveres for another mile down Lake Mary Road before calling it good at 17.
Reflecting on the workout, Steph has “a mixed bag of feelings.” Although she’s disappointed her dissolved gels didn’t sit well in the late stages of the workout, Steph has been working on fueling and gut issues for much of her career. She knows today was another step in the process of trial and error.
Moving forward, Coach Rosario thinks Steph can implement a Less-is-More approach to mid-race nutrition.
“We are trying to focus on the foods [Steph] is eating on Friday, Saturday, and on Sunday morning. By making sure she has the kind of foods that will provide long-lasting energy…we can get away with mostly water during the race, and just a little bit of electrolyte-rich fluids.”
In a weird way, Coach Rosario thinks “it’s neat that the workout wasn’t a smashing success. Because it was real. That’s the truth of the matter: not every workout goes perfectly, especially when you’re trying to train at a world-class level.”
Kellyn and Steph still have a bit over a month before the NYC Marathon on Sunday, November 7. Plenty of time to build fitness, tweak nutrition plans, and run a few more tempos out on Lake Mary Road.