Heather Kampf’s Fifth Olympic Trials
Let’s face it: most endurance athletes are tightly wound. “No days off” sounds pretty nice, because the reality is more like “no moments off”. Every second matters. Training doesn’t start tomorrow; it started yesterday. Questions screech like sick 3am owls: How will this nap, beer, or social event affect my training? Obsession? We are all undoubtedly guilty.
So, when an athlete comes along who prioritises play and experimentation, it can shake us right out of our compression sleeves. Enter Heather Kampf, middle-distance runner and college track phenom turned marathoner, who is learning to lean on intuition and fun leading up to her fifth Olympic trials. Kampf gained those five qualifications in the 800m, 1500m, and now, bafflingly, the marathon.
Though Kampf – who won the USA 1 Mile Championships four times between 2011 and 2016, and made the podium another two times in the same period – officially retired in 2021, she’s recently found a new kind of freedom in longer distances and will be approaching Orlando this weekend with a sense of joy. “It’s a cherry on top,” she says.
The Early Years
In grade- and middle-school, “running in circles seemed so boring”, the Minnesota native says. Gymnastics captured her attention, but she relished “beating the boys during presidential fitness tests”. One day, after she overtook the Rosemount High School track coach in sprints, he convinced her to take up track. So, with the unflagging support of her family – they would go on to attend every track meet in high school and college – she hung up her leotard and ran in the 4x200m and 4x400m relays, the lone freshman. “I was a shy and quiet kid,” Kampf says. “But I could 'live out loud' running as hard as I could on the track.”
Kampf ran her first Olympic trials in 2008 while a junior at the University of Minnesota, where she earned All-American nine times and became a much-decorated track star. She remembers begging her coach to let her run cross country to stay fit in the off season. “I would do anything a coach told me to do,” she says, remembering her early days as rigid and disciplined. In that trials build-up, she ran two workouts a week with ten-mile long runs, topping out around forty miles per week. Patellar tendonitis nagged at her, but she was charged with adrenaline. “I was fan-girling, on cloud nine, and taking pictures with every Olympics sign, banner and flag.” It was a dream, and yet she was, by her own admission, a little overtrained, “running on fumes”. She ran 2:04.66 in the 800m prelims and 2:05.76 in the semi-finals for 11th overall.
Kampf tacked on a ninth semester at U of M in order to run cross country, add a minor in psychology and complete her Bachelor of Science in kinesiology. Immediately after graduating she turned pro, running for Team USA Minnesota (now Minnesota Distance Elite) and garnering a sponsorship from ASICS. That year she won the USA 1 Mile Championships in 4:36, an early step on her way to becoming “Queen of the Road Mile”, and took third at the US Indoor Track and Field Championships in the 800m in 2:04. The miles ramped up. The workouts got harder, but she kept grinding and qualified for the trials in both the 800 and 1500m. These achievements felt “less novel, but there was a glimmer of potentially making a team”. She had an edge of seriousness and remembers trying to control every variable. “It rained like cats and dogs for the 800 and was pretty hot for the 1500.” Still, she ran 2:01 in the prelims and made it to the finals for the 800m, placing 7th overall.
Running 60–65 miles (95–105 km) per week, Kampf felt strong and was confident in switching to focus on the 1500m. “I was firing on all cylinders, had the standard, was ready to rock.” But a week before the trials, her calf seized up and she was hobbling around the infield between reps. “I took a couple days off, got treatment, and got clearance to run the day before I boarded the flight to the trials. I was like, ‘Okay God, what purpose do you have for me now?’” With a big sigh, she recalls the 2016 trials as “bittersweet”, with a “pretty painful finish toward the end”. But two short months later Kampf would PR in the mile (4:19) at the Fifth Avenue Mile and win her third consecutive 1 Mile Road Championship in her hometown of Minneapolis. In February of the following year, she ran a PR of 8:51 in the 3000m at the Armory Track Invitational. “Timing is everything,” she says.
Kampf suffered a stress fracture of the sacrum in 2017 after falling on the ice while walking her dogs. That, along with increased mileage, caused two consecutive stress reactions between 2017 and 2018. It was a difficult time. Tension mounted in her marriage, she wasn’t running much, and, as she admits, “It is probably less fun to support someone who is sad a lot.” Slowly, though, she got healthy and built up her mileage to 75 (120km) per week. Kampf was at an altitude training camp in Colorado when the entire world came to a screeching halt. “It was a difficult year. I thought I had a hernia at the trials, but it turns out I had double stress reactions in my pubic bone.” That year, she placed 13th in prelims for the 1500 in 4:14.1 and 15th in the semi-finals in 4:13.28. “I couldn’t accelerate to save my life,” she says. “The turnover wasn’t there. That was all the more reason to retire.”
Retirement and Community
If you run trails and paths in the Twin Cities, chances are you’ll see at least one Mill City Running singlet on any given day. As of last year, the all-paces-welcome race team neared 1,000 members. The namesake store, where Kampf was employee number one, has been a bastion of support for many athletes, including Gabi Rooker and Kim Horner, who are both set to run the marathon trials alongside Kampf. The pair has been training in Austin, Texas for the past six weeks and agree with Kampf that Mill City has been vital in their successes.
Though she quit coaching with Mill City Running in 2021, Heather remains a part-time staff member. “She believed in the vision from the very start,” store owners Jeff and Bekah Metzdorff told me. “She is part of the DNA of our store.” Dre Haus, the community and marketing manager, says, “Heather is one of the kindest and most generous people I've ever met. She inspires me to be more mindful in every aspect of my life – to slow down and stay silly and be present. There aren't many folks out there like Heather; she really is one of a kind.”
But Mill City isn’t the only place where Kampf has left a mark. Her old coach at Team USA Minnesota, Chris Lundstrom, told me, “She was truly a professional in the best sense of the word – in her mental, physical, and emotional commitment to the process of becoming the best athlete she could be.”
Kampf landed a job at a financial advisory firm in 2021, joined the Mill City race team as “just another member” and started running for fun. “I’d come up with some workout the night before while brushing my teeth.” Eventually, she thought it would be a fun challenge to run sub-55 at the Twin Cities Ten Mile in 2022, but a few weeks prior at the City of Lakes Half Marathon she surprised herself by running 1:13:19 in her debut half. “Somebody said, ‘That’s not that far off from the half standard for the trials.’ I then wondered if I could qualify via the half and make my first marathon at the trials?” She laughs, delighted at the thought of “just seeing what I could do”.
She ran the Chevron Houston Half Marathon in early 2023 but overtrained, dropping only 12 seconds from her PR. She needed more time. She ran her debut 26-mile race at Grandma’s in 2023 but says she “got too far away from my speed”.
The strain of her marriage finally broke that summer. “That separation … I was running on adrenaline all the time. Every day I’d run 6:35 pace [4:06/km] and go, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” But she leaned into the adrenaline and built up for the California International Marathon in December as a last-ditch effort to qualify. “It was a strange time, and running felt like the one area of my life where I could control the pain I was going through.” She ran 2:36:30, beating the qualifying time by a mere 30 seconds.
Six days off, then a six-week build to the trials – no big deal. She smiles at the wonder of it all: the constant experimentation, relearning her energy systems, stealing workouts from friends on Strava and testing out lower intensity and higher mileage. “Actual marathon training, some might say,” she laughs. She peaked at 100 miles (160km) for this cycle, running 90 miles (145km) almost entirely on her treadmill during a recent blast of sub-zero temperatures. “Technically I ran my third and fourth marathons during this cycle, with 26.4 mile runs on the treadmill. I wore extra layers to ‘heat train’,” she says.
After all the years of charming coaches with her dedication, running prescribed plans, and gritting out gruelling sessions on the tracks, Kampf seems to have struck a balance most competitive athletes dream of. Twelve women in the marathon field at the trials boast personal bests of 2:25 or faster, so Kampf isn’t counting on making the Olympic team. Instead, she will be angling for joy, simply trying to compete with those around her on Saturday.
After the trials? She’ll gear up for the Superior 50 Mile Trail Race in September. “From trials to trail,” she says. “My openness to new experiences is off the charts.”