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“ In fact, maybe the only way to get to where you want is to detour from that path that you had in mind originally, or that, you know, is the traditional path of doing things and, and trusting that those people in your support network will actually…Be excited about it”
Vanessa Fraser joins the More Than Running Podcast to discuss some big changes in her life. We recorded this in my living room in San Francisco, which will play a big role in her career moving forward.
For those who may not be as familiar, Vanessa joined the Nike Bowerman Track Club after graduating from Stanford in 2018 as a seven-time All-American. As a member of the Bowerman Track Club, Fraser set personal bests of 4:09.74 for 1500m, 4:37.33 for the mile, 8:53.11 for 3,000m (indoors), 14:48.51 for 5000m (indoors) and 31:52.11 for 10,000 meters.
She has decided to relocate to San Francisco for a new job but will still run under contract with Nike and be coached by Shalane Flanagan, who is an assistant coach with the Bowerman Track Club and just joined the University of Oregon track & field and cross country program as an assistant coach under Jerry Schumacher.
We touch on her career, her interests and so much more in this conversation:
Fraser explains why she has decided to leave the Bowerman Track Club and move to San Francisco. (49-minute mark):
“This decision was probably the hardest decision I’ve made in my life to this point. It was also the most unexpected decision. In school, you have such a definitive timeline of when you’re going to move on to the next chapter – when you graduate or when you move up to the next year. In the real world, there’s no timeline. There’s no structure, and you have to define that for yourself. I’ve also learned that nothing always goes to plan. My plan in my head was at least really sight set on the 2024 Olympic Trials and staying grounded in where I was at and committing to the process I’ve already sought out to get there. I believed in it. I ran 14:48 and that always gave me that hope that this works for me. ‘I have it in me. I’m going to stay the course. I’m going to find a way to get back to that level or even better for the 2024 Trials. I had this very specific point in mind for that. And then I’ll figure it out after that.’ Typically, what we do as athletes is we decide that we’re going to go for another cycle.
So this opportunity came to me truly out of the blue and unsolicited. I wasn’t thinking of changing things up as I said because I had this 2024 timeline in my head. I get recruited on LinkedIn for a job at a venture capital firm, which has been a space that has always interested me. Specifically, going back to decision-making: I wrote a thesis in my undergraduate on the decision-making processes in venture capital firms because they’re making these huge decisions and investing in early-stage entrepreneurs and start-ups off very little information. How can you predict what the next Uber or Facebook is going to be when it’s just the seed of an idea of people on the team? It’s a huge risk and there’s no way of knowing if it’s going to pan out. 90% of venture companies fail. That’s what makes it exciting because when you do get that one special unicorn, as they call them, that takes off. Obviously, that’s really exciting. It’s that fascination of: How do these people pick these entrepreneurs and how do they know that it has the potential to be big? They’re putting millions of dollars into these things! It’s just a fascination in general and broadly with how that process works. So I get this message on LinkedIn and it’s literally hitting home on something that’s fascinated me for a long time. It’s not just some random thing.
I sat on it for a couple of weeks. I didn’t even think that I was going to respond because 2024 was my everything and my focus right now and I can’t be swayed. Something in me had that spark of curiosity and I felt that. So I thought that it can’t hurt to take the phone call. I take the phone call and I feel a bigger spark of curiosity. I take a couple more phone calls and go down the path of exploring it. At that point, it was just exploratory. This was really cool. It was sparking my interest. If anything, this will lead to a cool connection to have after running because as athletes “the next step” in our careers can be very scary and you feel like you’re lacking experience or behind arbitrary timelines of where you should be in your career outside of sport. I was like, ‘Well, great. Now I have someone who I can call who may be able to help me in a few years whether that’s two years, six years or whatever.’
It did for whatever reason keep sitting in me. I wasn’t able to shake it. It was this feeling that this is a really insane opportunity that I do not want to pass up. It’s with a venture firm that similarly to Bowerman is one of the best in the world and has highly successful people. I’ve learned so much in that environment at Bowerman. It hasn’t been the picture-perfect story but it has definitely pushed me to new heights. I thought, ‘Wow. What if I could be in that environment in this other space that really does spark so much curiosity? Who knows where it could lead? Do I want a career in venture capital? I honestly don’t know until I see what it’s like. Going back to following my curiosity, that’s what I have to go with.
I just couldn’t shake it. It did force me to have this really existential breakdown of my life and running career and what is it that I really want out of running and how do I really feel? We are so driven that it’s so easy to push down any feelings of not being happy. ‘Because we want something so bad that by any means necessary I’m going to keep pushing; going to keep getting back up after every failure, and I’m going to keep pushing through every adversity because that’s how we get to our goal. Getting to my goal is the most important thing in my whole life so I don’t care what it takes. I would do anything.’ That’s the mindset. So I had to stop and think, ‘Is that mindset serving me right now? It’s not exactly getting me the results that I want anyway. So maybe there’s something to that. Maybe that’s not always the way that you should approach things.
I had very helpful conversations with everyone on our staff, all of our coaches, my former college coaches and a lot of mentors in my sport. I had a really difficult time with it but I’m so glad that I talked to them because I think they all really empowered me to take the leap of faith and to take the job. I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have those people in my corner specifically from the running side of things. They told me, ‘You have already done it in a way. You’ve already achieved so much. You don’t have to feel like you should keep pushing on this specific path.’ Just feeling their support and that they were proud of me for what I’ve already done actually did mean the world. Shalane (Flanagan) was also really instrumental because in my dream scenario I thought I could keep working with her. I knew working with Jerry wouldn’t be an option because he’s not a remote coach type of guy. That’s just not how he operates. Shalane actually offered to continue to help me out and continue coaching me without me even asking, which was such an honor…Never in a million years, I think I could have these two things at once. Knowing that those two things at once were an option, that’s speaking to me and exciting me more than anything.