The extra distance between a mile and a 1,500 meter race is only about the size of a football field. Yet for runners like Peabody's Heather MacLean, it could make all the difference.
"I'll prepare for a 1500 like it's a mile —and then get excited when it's over a little sooner," MacLean said with a laugh.
At either distance, the start of the professional indoor season has been a revelation for the 25-year-old UMass Amherst graduate now running for coach Mark Coogan and Team New Balance Boston.
MacLean began the year with a win in the "Blankenship mile" at 4:27.54 (the best time in the world so far this year) and followed that up by winning the 1500 at the New Balance Grand Prix in New York in 4:06.32.
MacLean has won three of four races so far this season with eyes on continuing to improve as the June's U.S. Olympic Trials loom. She's open to attacking the 800 or the 1500, and overall is thrilled to be racing again after the pandemic ended all of last summer's scheduled competitions.
"It almost felt like I forgot how to race in big groups," said MacLean, who was able to train in small groups with her New Balance teammates in Boston throughout the summer and the fall.
"There was a lot of anxiety at first because we didn't know what was going to happen (because of the pandemic) and the Olympics didn't get cancelled until two months in," she recalled. "Once things opened up a little in the summer, it was like a weight was lifted off. We were just racing the clock with no nerves and were fortunate to be in Boston with so many running groups. We came out of the fall feeling fit, healthy and strong."
The toughest part about staying fit during the strictest conditions of the pandemic was missing all the extra work pro athletes need to be at their best. Things like massage therapy, chiropractic work, stretching and nutritional resources were tough to come by when you're using household items to do makeshift training in your apartment. MacLean and her teammates made the best of it by leaning on one another.
"We were expected to train at that same high level with half the resources," MacLean said. "I think it was tough for every athlete trying to train with everything going on, whether they're pros or in college."
Initially turning pro when she was studying for her Masters degree in sports administration at UMass, MacLean feels great about where she's at right now in her training. She feels totally healthy after battling some injuries in her college career and is seeing the work she's put in as a pro translate to better and better times.
"I'm living a mostly stress free life right now and it's nice not to have all those stressors of grad school and classes. There were times I wasn't living or training like an athlete," MacLean said. "I feel very fortunate right now to be kind of living this low key life where I can focus on all the little things about competing that you don't always have time to focus on."
Of course, low key is a relative term. MacLean's races with the American Track League have been broadcast on ESPN and the spotlight is starting to find a still blossoming middle distance star who helped Peabody High win the Division 1 girls cross country state title in 2012.
"I'll get text messages saying, 'Oh, I was at the bar and your race was on the screen.' It's been very cool to see track get more air time," MacLean said. "Track's the original sport and to think there's multi-time Olympians that people don't know about ... I'm just really excited for our sport to get some of the (national) coverage is deserves."
MacLean and her teammates, including Danvers native Drew Piazza, spent some time training in Arizona recently and are focused on finishing a strong indoor season. While she's winning races and putting up pretty outstanding times, MacLean is staying grounded while targeting some of her personal best times (2:00.29 in the 800, 4:25.98 in the mile and 4:05.27 in the 1500).
"I'm trying to take it day by day and not get too caught up in things. It's really exciting to have a great season opener in a race that was on TV ... I raced well but I'm most happy that I learned from the race," she said. "Mostly I'm happy to be racing after we were away for so long, and excited to still be doing what I love."