The field for the Cook Medical Beat the Heat 5K in Winston-Salem on July 22 will welcome a familiar but special competitor.
Abbey D'Agostino Cooper, a 2016 U.S. Olympic runner and a new mother, will be among more than 30 runners competing in the Twin City Track Club's Elite/NC USATF 5K Championship.
Cooper spoke at the track club's Winter Seminar in February 2022.
"I'm just really looking forward to it,” Cooper said Friday by phone. “I've heard about this event. ZAP Endurance (in Blowing Rock) has plugged this event. I'm really looking forward to lining up with some familiar faces."
Cooper and her husband, Jacob, who live in Boone, welcomed newborn daughter Mercy Louise into their world on Jan. 25. The Beat the Heat 5K will be Cooper's first race in more than a year.
"I'm not really sure exactly where my fitness is right now," Cooper said. "It's been non-linear in these few months of getting back to form. But the whole point of the 22nd is just to get my feet wet in the competitive element again."
Running events will start at 6 p.m. that night, and the elite race at 7:30 p.m. will cap the evening and provide an opportunity for runners to cheer on Cooper and others who are among the state's fastest in the sport.
Cooper, a seven-time NCAA Division I champion at Dartmouth, ran for the United States in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and became part of one of the greatest examples of grace and sportsmanship in competition. Cooper stumbled over New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin, who had fallen, during the first round of the 5,000 meters and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Cooper encouraged Hamblin to get up and to keep running before finishing the race herself, smiling. The two embraced afterward.
Cooper endured knee construction and other injuries before returning to competition. She raced in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials, aiming to reach the Tokyo Games in 2021 five years after the fall at Rio. Going into the trials, Cooper still needed to achieve the Olympic standard (15 minutes, 10 seconds), but she did so with a dramatic run in the event's first round and a victory in her heat in 15:07:80.
Three nights later, Cooper finished fourth in the finals, behind Elise Cranny, Karissa Schweizer and Rachel Schneider, and narrowly missed the U.S. team.
Cooper, who is sponsored by New Balance and works with Montreat College coach Jason Lewkowicz and agent Chris Layne, fielded a few questions on Friday afternoon. Spoiler alert: Another big goal lies ahead.
RS: Congratulations! How is motherhood?
Cooper: "It's been really sweet. We reached the point around 2½ or three months where things got significantly more manageable. What everyone says is true: The first eight, 10 weeks are a haze. You're just recovering, getting used to having a little one, a little needy one, around. We had a lot of help initially, and we're super-grateful.
"I love having this new role and feel super-thankful that I get to balance two things that I love. It comes with its challenges. She's still fully breast-fed. I'm navigating a lot of stuff as I try to get back to racing.
"But I wouldn't want it any other way."
RS: You're no stranger to the Twin City Track Club. Why does the Beat the Heat 5K appeal to you?
Cooper: "I genuinely enjoyed going down there and getting to know some of the folks in the Twin City Track Club. I was hosted by Er and Cathy Ralston, and they were super-gracious. I was looking for something local, because this will be my first race since Mercy, my first competitive race in probably 13, 15 months. There was the appeal of it being 90 minutes from us and already having some established relationships within the race. I imagine I'll know some of the other women who are lining up. Mercy and my husband will be able to come down and watch as well."
When: July 22.
Where: Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.
Schedule and entry fees: Family Fun Run, $10, 6 p.m.; Youth Mile Race, $20, 6 p.m.; Beat the Heat 5K Walk, $40, 6:15 p.m.; Beat the Heat 5K Run, $40, 6:30 p.m.; Elite/NC USATF 5K Championship, 7:30 p.m.
Information: Beat the Heat 5K signup page, Twin City Track Club site, Twin City Track Club on Facebook, Twin City Track Club on Instagram.
Notable: The Beat the Heat 5K was founded in 1989 as the Coors Lite Saturday Night Fever 5K and began hosting the state 5K championship in 2008.
RS: What has helped you balance being a mother, and trying to get sleep, with training and being a high-level athlete?
Cooper: "Time management never really has been a top skill of mine. So it's been helpful to have community. Both sets of parents don't live nearby. They're wonderful and come down when they can. We have two really fantastic baby-sitters. That's been key in allowing me a few hours every morning to get my training in. I've had to be really regimented with setting goals. This is the longest I've been away from competitive running, and I know that's the case for most women coming back.
"From a psychological standpoint, it's been very helpful to externalize my goals and talk those out with my coach. To remind myself of what's possible. Within the day-to-day grind, it's so easy to lose sight of why I'm spending several hours away from my daughter every day. There's definitely a tension there about spending time away from her in key developmental years. Just externalizing my goals and keeping myself accountable and having really solid community around us to help: It really does take a village."
RS: What's been the hardest thing about motherhood, and what has come easier than you expected?
Cooper: "One thing that has been harder than I thought was recognizing my own selfishness in a lot of ways. I've had the privilege of having a lot more time, previous to Mercy, in the day to spend. I was able to really stretch out my training if I wanted to. I just don't have that ability to do that now. It's revealed that maybe I could've been more efficient with my time before.
"It's a big sacrifice to still be the source of fuel for my daughter. I find myself tempted to resent the realities that come with it, particularly in the summer: When I sweat, it really drains her milk supply. I'm having to deal with the fact that I need to make a lot of choices that maybe inconvenience me momentarily but are for her long-term good.
"One thing that has surprised me is she is a pretty good sleeper. I feel so guilty every time I say that. I know that could change any minute. I know that's not the experience for a lot of babies and parents. You get what you get. She's had her moments, obviously, but she's in a pretty good routine now. I'm thankful that we're not up a lot in the middle of the night."
RS: What will racing look like for you now, in the short term in 2023 and going forward?
Cooper: "Short-term, we're looking at a fall racing block with the premier event being the 5K national championships on the road, the Abbott Dash to the Finish Line (Nov. 4), the day before the New York City Marathon. That will be the starred event in this training block. We'll regroup after that and put together a base phase for the track season.
"I'm 100 percent going for making the (U.S. Olympic) team next summer. I'm very aware of the depth of women's distance running right now. I always try to remind myself that in 2021, I was probably the underdog of underdogs going into the trials. I've seen the benefits of consistent training and the belief, and even when the odds are stacked against me believing the same thing. Now I'm living a more well-rounded life – not that I wasn't well-rounded before – it was really important for me to be holistic in my approach. That's even more of a reality now that I'm a mother."
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