There are always going to be difficult-to-live-up-to expectations for NCAA champions following their collegiate career, and that was no different for former NC State standout, Elly Henes. But in her first year as a professional for adidas, living in Flagstaff and training under coach Mike Smith, she has delivered. On Sunday at the ISATF Berlin meeting, Henes ran an 11-second personal best in the 5000m, going 14:52.87 to notch the World Standard. I caught up with her to hear more about the race and what was an extremely successful rookie season.
Please tell me everything about the race in Berlin. It’s very impressive for a first-year professional to still be running well in September, but to be setting massive 5000m personal bests at this point in the season is incredible. What are your thoughts on the performance?
I’ve never gone this late into a season. In college, you’re done by the end of June, but there are so many more races throughout the season. This year was nice because it’s longer, but not as much racing so it felt like a similar vibe.
During COVID there was a time period when I was training to race from March, maybe until December because things kept popping up randomly. You just had to be ready and that experience probably helped me.
Going into the race, Natosha [Rogers] and I had planned to find each other and switch off on the pace because the rabbit was initially set to go really fast. My best time going in was 15:03, but I felt my fitness level was better than that. I didn’t have the opportunity at USAs to run fast and then I lost my shoe in my last one at Sound and that sort of preoccupied my mind.
I totally forgot about that! So I guess you knew that this was in there?
Yes and no. I believed that it was possible, but putting it together is a whole other thing. Then actually doing it — it felt so reaffirming. This whole season has been about managing expectations. When I sat down with coach Smith at the start of the year he asked me about career goals and of course it starts with making teams, but I had said I’d hope to be down to 14:50 in a few years. Then doing it this year, it’s just like, ‘back to the drawing board!’
During the race, I was engaged the whole time, but honestly, I kind of got into my own world and just zoned into being out there. It felt like I was alone on the track, just me and unfinished business in the five.
Finding that zone is so special and rare.
Losing the shoe was one thing, but the way the race played out at USAs — I think mentally I wasn’t in the right place when that shift happened. I didn’t really put it together on that day. So I feel like that last mile when I was just alone with myself, it was just putting up whatever I had left.
Talking about managing expectations and looking at your 2022, you ran personal bests at every distance you competed in. In terms of a first professional season, you can’t ask for much more. How would you rate it, not just in terms of performances, but your whole life and the changes that come after college?
It’s funny to go from being the fifth year in college where you’re the oldest and the one with the experience. You’ve been around the block and seen how it all plays out and then suddenly you’re the freshmen again. My favorite thing is at a meet and the fact that I am only 23 comes up — I’m the baby of the group.
When we sat down and I was talking about those goals, I kind of realized that up until this year I wasn’t really a student of the sport. It was something that I liked doing because it was fun and I had my team. Fortunately, we have a very good dynamic going on in Flagstaff and I still have what I consider teammates and friends, but it’s different from a college team.
It’s a whole new version of figuring out what drives you and why you get up every day to do this sport — there’s a learning curve. It’s about owning it now because even in college, having my mom there all the time, it was a constant reminder of the family dynamic and the way that I kind of came into the sport. I still talk to her every day on the phone, though.
Is she still giving your advice or is it back to just being Mom?
We’re figuring out that dynamic again because after five years, it is an interesting switch to just go back to like, okay, just Mom. Especially when she knows so much about the sport and how I function. It has definitely gone back to much more just like mom-daughter stuff, but she understands and gets it since she’s been there.
There’s always good advice there if I ever need it, but moving across the country feels like a lot of change which comes with its own life lessons. I’m totally in control of my career now and that means my successes and failures are mine to own.
Is it tough to transition coming from an environment like what you had at NC State, where your motivation is largely stemming from the team? It seems like you still have a great support system behind you.
It happened organically — I haven’t thought about it much. I never feel like I’m just running for myself because with all those connections and support, I am never actually alone. But these performances are on me and a reflection of me as an athlete. I’m managing how to not get too low when things don’t go my way or too high when things go well. I’m searching for that consistency in the middle of not letting it define you.
That’s one of my favorite things about coach Smith in general. He wants to and believes in making sure that you’re well-rounded and working on yourself as a person because that stuff plays into racing and training.
Sounds like your old coach!
(This interview was condensed and edited for your reading pleasure.)
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