Host James Rogers sits down with professional runner and former Michigan State standout Leah O’Connor for an expansive conversation. Now based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the 27-year-old discusses her hometown roots, decorated MSU career and pro running roller-coaster ride. Topics also include mental health, faith, writing, farm life, support systems and Harper (her dog).
At MSU, Leah captured multiple Big Ten titles—cross country, indoor track, outdoor track—and won a national title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (June 2014) and indoor mile (March 2015). She was a member of the undefeated 2014 MSU women’s cross-country team coached by Walt Drenth that won the national title in dominating fashion.
Leah’s 9:18.85 personal record in the 3K steeplechase set in May 2016 makes her the fifth-fastest American ever in the women’s steeple. Now sponsored by HOKA and coached by Dathan Ritzenhein, Leah is a member of the Gazelle Elite Racing Team.
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Erin Herrmann (No. 10) races in the NCAA Division III women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final on May 27 in Geneva, Ohio. Erin won the national title with a time of 10:21.08.
Erin Herrmann joins James Rogers in conversation. On May 27, Erin captured the national title in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Geneva, Ohio. She finished runner-up at nationals in 2016—her junior year. Erin wrapped up her Hope College running career with a personal best of 10:13.39 in the steeple on June 10 at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville. She has Hope school records in the steeplechase, outdoor 5K, indoor 3K and as the mile leg of the Distance Medley Relay. She is a four-time All-American and now owns the fourth-fastest steeplechase in women’s D3 history.
Erin shares her journey to a national title, including balancing academic responsibilities and battling eating disorders while maintaining full-time training. The conversation also includes racing anecdotes and the love/appreciation for teammates and coaches. She talks about the role of faith in her daily life and where the Lord is leading her post-Hope. Erin has Colorado on her radar for the fall—she plans to student-teach at a school for refugee children in Denver.
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“My advice for someone who wants to run in college is the importance of doing the little things right. It’s something we talk a lot about here. The importance of getting good sleep, of eating well, stretching—those little things can really help prevent injuries, and they can really help long-term create your season and kind of help mold the runner you are. It also gives you more confidence knowing you did everything right. You don’t doubt yourself like, ‘Oh, well maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that before I raced today, or maybe I should have slept more.’ You know no matter what, you left everything out there.”
“I was injured my sophomore cross-country year and my junior year, so I went two consecutive cross-country seasons of battling injuries, trying to help out my team to win Big Tens—it’s always been a back-and-forth battle between Michigan State. It’s been really, really tough. For some reason, I train too hard in the summer after track season, and I end up getting injured in cross-country. I think the hardest moment for me was my junior year when I ended up fracturing a bone in my foot after just months and months of trying to avoid that. And I did that at Pre-Nats, and the following weekend was Big Tens, and our team ended up winning [Big Tens]. It was really bittersweet for me, because I wanted to be a part of it, but I was so happy for them. And at the same time, I was like, ‘Gosh, you don’t get a championship every year.’ We’ve been battling the last two years, and we’ve gotten beat by Michigan State the last two years. I think my teammates wanted to share it with me, but at the same time, it’s different when you’re not in the race or you don’t get to run. After that, I was hungry—I wanted to help the team, I wanted to be a part of a championship. Finally last year, my senior year, I was healthy, and we almost won the Big Ten meet, but the biggest thing was that we got fourth at nationals. That was really, really incredible. That’s almost as cool as winning a championship. It was nice to finally share that with my teammates.”
“Describe that feeling of being fourth at nationals.”
“You know what, we got done, and we were so cold and so defeated in a way, that we were like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t good. Man, it was so tough.’ We’re all just freezing cold, and we got out, and everybody was like smiling and so happy, and we’re like, ‘What happened?’ And then we hear we got fourth, and we’re like, ‘There’s no way we got fourth.’ And we ended up actually getting fourth. We just were ecstatic—that’s what happens when everybody finishes a race and feels like they couldn’t have given anything else. It was defeating because we all were so tired, and we felt like it didn’t go well because it was one of the hardest races that we had ever run. It was 19 degrees, there was ankle-deep mud and water the entire race, so when you get done, you don’t know how you did, because the times aren’t fast, you feel like you’re drowning the whole time. … To share that with your teammates is something that you never forget. It’s hard to explain what it does feel like. It’s unlike any individual thing that I’ve ever accomplished.”
“What’s still on the running bucket list?”
“I don’t have an outdoor season anymore, but I specialize in the steeplechase, and I ran 10:02 last year. I would do anything to break the 10-minute barrier. I’d also like to go to USAs this year. I do think I’m going to give it another run.”
R: “I really like Alexi Pappas, mainly because she’s just different. Not many people know her; she’s not too big. She’s not like Mary Cain. I know that she’s friends with Jordan Hasay, and I really like Jordan Hasay, too. I just really like their friendship. And I like how [Alexi] does the steeplechase.”
L: “My inspiration is my boyfriend. He’s here today to race. He got me to keep running, because I wanted to quit.”