It was an employee step challenge that got Anna Shields back into running.
She was in her mid-20s, working at a bank in her hometown of Torrington, Connecticut, and the former high-school standout and college athlete had not run in years. The step challenge was meant to help keep employees active — and the person with the most steps would win a free week of groceries — so Shields decided adding little jogs into her day so she could win.
Soon, she was cruising through six mile runs in the hilly farm area near her house.
“It just felt so good, and it was so beautiful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really enjoying this. maybe I could start running again.’”
Fast-forward four years, and Shields is a senior at Point Park University and competing at the top of her game at 27 years old. The athlete, who was just crowned the 2019 NAIA Women’s Indoor Track National Athlete of the Year (her fifth athlete of the year award by the association), is also a national champion in the indoor 1,000-meter run and the mile and has qualified for both indoor and outdoor USATF National Championships.
The middle distance runner’s reentry to the sport was unexpected: a promising athlete in middle and high school, Shields suffered from low iron and didn’t know how to properly recover after hard workouts. By her senior year, her times slowed and her letter of intent to compete for the University of North Carolina was rescinded. She enrolled at Central Connecticut State and ran on the track team, but left the program after one year and dropped out of school after another. She quit running entirely and she didn’t think she’d ever begin again.
“Sometimes I would have dreams about running, of winning a race again,” she says. “I would wake up and feel sad because I thought it wasn’t possible.”
At the bank, in preparation to win the step challenge, Shields purchased her first pair of running shoes in six years. They were an inexpensive pair from Target and quickly featured holes. However, they were enough to propel her to a win in the employee competition and the experience reignited her passion for running.
She started going to the local high school track for a weekly mile time trial. The first of which she was happy to complete in six minutes and 30 seconds. Within weeks, after watching a high school track athlete win the mile in five minutes and 45 seconds, Shields did her own time trial after the meet and beat the winning time by a few seconds.
“It might sound silly,” she says, “But the little steps of finding myself as a runner again were so joyful. Every step.”
After a year of dedicated running, Shields said she really started to find confidence in the sport. She ran a 1:25 to win a hilly half marathon and started assistant coaching at a local high school. The seniors on her team were looking at colleges and Shield’s head coach reminded her that at age 25, she still had years of NAIA eligibility. So she started calling around to coaches, and Point Park University expressed immediate interest. In Fall 2016, she enrolled in school, joined the track team and immediately began to excel.
“I really just found my stride the second time around,” Shields said.
In her second stint as a collegiate runner, she’s prioritizing nutrition. She said it’s been a goal to consume enough protein, vitamin B-12 and Iron, and it’s made a big difference in her body. She’s also prioritizing rest and enjoying the off days.
“I’m stronger than I ever have been,” she said. “When you’re recovering is when you’re getting better.”
Shields has continued improving with the help of her Point Park team. She does most of her workouts with a group of middle-distance runners on the men’s team, and during the last two and a half years she’s appreciated the support system of a tight-knit group of men and women.
“I absolutely love being on a team,” she said. “Our program keeps developing every year.”
Shield’s second chance competing at the collegiate level has paid off, and she’s been a formidable competitor in middle distance races. She’s run national championship-qualifying times in five events, and she was Park Point’s first-ever national champion. Most recently, she won national championships in the indoor 1,000-meter run last month — with a national record of 2:44.35 — and the indoor mile.
Shields has also qualified for two USATF National Championships: the 2019 indoor meet, in which she ran the 1,000-meter run, and the 2018 outdoor meet, in which she qualified for both the 800 and 1500-meter runs.
As she heads into her final outdoor season, Shields her sights set on another trip to nationals in her signature outdoor event, the 1500-meter run — and looking ahead to the following year, she hopes she has a shot to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials.
“I think that sometimes in our sport, people have this idea of where good runners come from and what the path is to being a good runner,” she said. “I like thinking outside the box with that. I think good runners can come from anywhere, maybe with a non-traditional path. And that’s what’s so cool about our sport.”