February 7, 2024
"It’s just finding the joy in it again… It used to always be like, ‘This is Jess, she's a professional runner.' I was always so proud of it, but now it's like, ‘This is Jess. She’s all these other things,’ and I love that… It's a part of who I am, but it's not all that I am anymore. "
Jess McClain (née Tonn) stunned America on Saturday when she finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She ran 2:25:46 for a personal best by nearly four minutes. She is unsponsored. She has a full-time job as the executive director of the Love Up Foundation. She also works as a marketing consultant. Before all of that, many in the track and field community remember her as Jess Tonn – the former Brooks Beast 5000m specialist and an All-American at Stanford. We didn’t have her on our pre-race predictions or our radar at all but now we will.
In this episode, we re-introduce you to Jess as one of America’s newest marathoning stars. She takes us through the past few years and how running may have always been part of her life but didn’t define her after leaving the professional ranks. She ran her first marathon in February 2022 with a 2:33 at the Mesa Marathon. She ran 2:29:25 at Grandma’s Marathon in June 2023. And then the stunner at the Trials.
Even though she was seconds away from making an Olympic team, she is all smiles and calls this her favorite running memory of all-time.
Host: Chris Chavez | @chris_j_chavez on Instagram
Guest: Jess McClain | @jesstonn on Instagram
Justin Britton / @JustinBritton
The following interview excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Jess McClain on the CITIUS MAG Podcast – available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your shows.
CITIUS MAG: You're all smiles right now. A lot of people might assume that you would be heartbroken since you finished fourth. Where does your positivity come from?
Jess McClain: I just really enjoyed getting here. Maybe not the whole last eight years – it's been a road and a journey – but the last year or two of running has been so fun. I know it's been a whole thing that I don't have a coach, don't have an agent, don't have a sponsor. But I literally have just been running because I love it. It's been so freeing and there's been no pressure. I think I needed to step away from that infrastructure and that approach to the sport for a little bit. And it's just been so fun. I think enjoying the process, not having that pressure coming into the trials – I had nothing to lose. I knew I had to be smart, that it could go sideways if I wasn't. Getting here healthy was 100% the focus and enjoying every moment of training…
I think I'm the only person in that race that wished the race was longer because who knows what could have happened if I had another 800m? But I mean Fiona (O'Keeffe), Emily (Sisson), and Dakota (Lindwurm), who made the team, were meant to make that team. Best case scenario is that they get to Paris and they're able to represent USA, but I am obviously going to train through August and be there if I need to… I feel like I'll be in good shape if I need to step in. I would obviously be very honored, but I'm hoping that isn't the case for obvious reasons.
Jess on taking a step back from professional running and what she learned from her experience:
Jess McClain: “I kind of just stepped back for a little bit. I kept running but stepped back from racing, got married, had fun, really soaking that in. I got my first big girl marketing job that was full-time and enjoyed that. But then I realized that I really missed racing. So I got back into that in 2022. It's been a lot, but I wouldn't change it. I've learned so much…
It was like, ‘What is going to make me run my best and be my best self and just happiest self?’ For me, I think that step was just to move home. I kind of looked at it as throwing in the towel – I'm moving home, I'm going to live with my parents for a year while I figure all this out. But it was honestly the best thing I could have done – take myself out of a situation where I had more time there… I think I applied a lot of the learnings from that experience to my professional career, off the track and roads and just in life in general. It's interesting – you learn a lot about yourself as you progress through the sport...
That situation also works for so many people and it's so cool to see. I think I said this in one of my interviews after the race, but the different approaches to the sport that people take and how it can work out – like the amount of mothers I was running with on Saturday that are doing everything I'm doing but then have one or two kids to feed and keep alive and lose sleep over. I'm just like, ‘How do they do it?’ You just kind of figure it out.
CITIUS MAG: The question everyone has been asking is, ‘Who is Jess McClain? You weren't on anyone's radar. But in 2021 and 2022, when you were slowly taking to the roads, the professional runner part of your identity was no longer attached to who you were. How much is running a part of your identity?
Jess McClain: It's always going to be a part of who I am. Since being a little kid, I’ve loved to run… I just loved it. And I feel like I'm back in that mindset. And it's so funny to say that because I'm almost 32 now, and that's when I was like 12… It's a part of who I am, but I can have a bad race and it literally just doesn't matter. I'm not contractually going to be affected by it or lose money over it. I've busted my ass to get to the point where I have jobs where I'm fortunate to not have to use running that way. It would be great to, I would love to entertain that now, but I think it's just become something that I get to do everyday. And the racing has been so fun. I've popped into so many local road races and it's been awesome.
It’s just finding the joy in it again… It used to always be like, ‘This is Jess, she's a professional runner.' I was always so proud of it, obviously, but now it's like, ‘This is Jess. She’s all these other things,’ and I love that… The long winded answer is it's a part of who I am, but it's not all that I am anymore.
Jess on ramping up training again heading into the Trials:
Jess McClain: I was like, ‘Jess, if you want to do this, we need to channel the pro approach that we had years ago.’ I really got my ass into gear and figured out my fueling, figured out my recovery, left the job that was stressing me out. Now I have amazing coworkers and bosses. I'm in the nonprofit sector and I couple that with marketing consulting, so I'm hybrid from home. I go to PT every week, I get a massage every other week. I'm doing all the little things right. I cut out drinking since October and really emphasized sleep. I just got to the start line at the trials and was like, ‘I'm healthy, I left no boxes unchecked…’ We all know what it takes. But I did find out that my sweet spot in mileage is 72 miles, so I never exceeded that in this whole build.
Jess breaking down her race strategy and how the race unfolded:
Jess McClain: The plan was to go out in the lead pack and I was there for like the first mile. But then I looked at my watch and I was like, ‘This is fast!’ I ended up sticking with it for a few miles and then just made the call to let them go because it was pretty hot. I luckily had found my way into a solid pack – race ‘one’ was going on up front, and then I feel like we were in our own little race in our pack of maybe six to eight of us. So I kind of found my home there in that pack, probably up until like mile ten or 11.
Then I realized I was feeling pretty okay. I felt like I was kind of doing the work for everybody, so I was like, if I'm going to lead, I may as well try to ratchet it down a little bit because I was hoping to run under 5:40s. You get that feeling like, ‘This is the moment where I need to make a decision to either stay here or move up.’ And my gut told me to press the pedal a little bit. So I did, and I think I was kind of alone until I saw Natosha (Rogers) kind of coming back to me. I know I was definitely alone through halfway.
Then the last few miles, I could just see people coming back to me. I knew I wasn't going to die. My legs were still under me. I was like, worst case, you kick and don't get the people that you thought you were going to. It was the weirdest feeling – like I should not be passing Caroline (Rotich) and I should not be passing Sara (Hall). Part of you is so devastated doing that, because I know what each place means. I think people were yelling at me that I was in fourth place with 600m to go. At that point, I was like, ‘Holy crap, if I had just gone a little earlier, what could have happened?’ But you can't really think that way. It was all I could do. I gave it my all for sure.
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Chris Chavez launched CITIUS MAG in 2016 as a passion project while working full-time for Sports Illustrated. He covered the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and grew his humble blog into a multi-pronged media company. He completed all six World Marathon Majors and is an aspiring sub-five-minute miler.