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The 100% Pursuit

Words by Peter Bromka
Photography by Brendan Davies

What does it take to give your all? And when you do, what remains?

In a world of more, more, more, with opportunities left and right, it’s easy to say that we always give our “best,” but there’s something different about those rare occasions when you go all in.

Excitement flips to fear, turns toward opportunity, and settles on risk. Truly asking everything of yourself is exhausting. Regardless of pace, I’m most inspired by those willing to venture completely. To expend themselves entirely.

Sure, running affords many adventures, from run streaks lasting years to fun runs across towns, but nothing captivates my attention or spikes my adrenaline like someone going all in on a crisp goal. The honesty of athletics is a willingness to extend yourself fully, only then to discover if it’s enough.

To this, we introduce: The 100% Pursuit A profile series spotlighting those willing to extend themselves until they are unable. This isn’t about being elite.

Some pros are all in, but others only risk disappointment silently. Their pursuits are less engaging than the trail runner scheming about how to tackle an FKT. Or the beginner Covid Runner sharing their dream of stopping a 5k clock under 20.

Why do they do this? Why allow themselves the emotional risk of being transfixed by such a standard?

All we know is we love their gumption, the tenacity required to dream, share, and train in pursuit of more strength and speed to cash out in one day.

Sure, much of this ends in failure. But I’d rather support a mother who’s spent a decade chipping away at a BQ, making time between play dates and extending her long run over years, than someone playing our sport safely, unwilling to dance with defeat.

Let’s celebrate the dreamers and chasers. Even the repeat failures. Those willing to just… keep… trying.

You can go clap for someone jogging a marathon every week, while we’re busy screaming for those sprinting recklessly toward a goal time as the clock counts down – those who may fail, but sleep soundly, knowing they’ve given their all.

The 100% Pursuit - celebrating athletes unafraid to finish on empty. First up is veteran steeplechaser, new mother, and four-time US finalist Marisa Howard.

“It was just surreal to have this dream of being a professional athlete and being a mom and having them both come together.”

This was her moment.

You could see it from the whites of her eyes. With 2 minutes of racing remaining in the Olympic Trials, Marisa Howard (@marisvanderhow) had just slipped into 3rd place, the final spot to Tokyo, squeaking by on the inside.

Now she needed to hang on. But the steeplechase is unforgiving.

“I think I just kind of panicked. A little bit. This is it, this is the race! But really, there were two laps left.” Now three years in rearview, she reflects on her time in podium position.

To understand the essence of The 100% Pursuit, it helps to hear from someone who’s finished top-5 in the US. Twice.

“I've had a few races in my career where my brain has been shut off, and I've just been responding. That is such a cool place to get to in this sport. You're not thinking about the pace. You're not thinking about hurting. You're letting your body do what it's capable of,” Marisa marvels at when running becomes a blur of effort and intuition.

Approaching the 2024 Trials this month in Eugene, Oregon, she again prepares to enter that zone of maximal exertion. Going there, flat out, beyond the edge of rational effort, isn’t a place a runner can go too often, but there are moments. “You can practice it,” Marisa reveals. “In something like 8 times a mile.”

“He won’t put a cap on how fast I can go. I just let my body do what it can on the day.” Marisa’s voice drifts as if even she discovers something about herself in those efforts.

The beauty of the steeple is its chaos. 

“My coach will give me a starting point, ‘No faster than this for the first few,’ and then work down. He knows I’m not going to go CRAZY at the end,” she emphasizes in a way that makes you suspect that she might.

“My coach always says, ‘Marissa, keep racing, keep racing, because you never know what could happen in front of you.” A willingness to keep seeking, even when your effort is red-lined and your stride feels like mud.

With past champions sidelined, there’s space on this year’s podium for fresh faces. Marisa enters with experience and excitement. “That's what brings me into the steeplechase. Knowing that it could be anybody's game until the last seconds.”

But you can’t always give your all.

For years Marisa broke herself trying. Over and over again. In college, it became an annual tradition. Arriving at Boise State as an All-State performer in HS, one might not have tagged the 5 foot 3 inch athlete as a future steeplechase All-American. But traditional odds don’t acknowledge her diverse skills.

You start with drive. An ever-present focus on being elite. Add a gymnastics career derailed by injury. And a childhood passion for swimming. What you get is an athlete founded in agility, endurance, and a willingness to leap toward opportunity.

Yet intense athletic drive has a downside. Injury is an inextricable element of our sport, but that doesn’t make it welcome. At times, willingness to heed your intuition is more critical than commitment.

“When you have a stress injury, you're thinking about it nonstop,” Marisa acknowledges, emphasizing the hard-earned lesson.

“From the moment you wake up until evening. It's kind of achy, and you're testing it, jumping on one foot.”

As sure as semesters cycle, Marisa’s youthful willingness to over-train resulted in seasons sidelined with injury. Winters spent incapable led to springs sparked with freshness, resulting in championship performances fueled with gratitude;podium moments actualizing the endless pool hours spent visualizing success. Her swimming skill, honed out of necessity, has served somewhat as a secret weapon.

“I think swimming has been a huge piece that's kept me healthy. but also that's helped me rise to the top of US distance running.”

Some lessons are only truly learned through disappointment.

“One indoor race in college, I ran so poorly, injured, and afterward, I was outside by myself crying, and a coach I didn’t know approached me,” she reflects with appreciation and amazement. “Marissa, you're going to come back from this. You're strong!” He told her.

“Marissa, you’re going to come back from this.
You’re strong!”

As athletes, we sometimes need others to envision us as able when our self-belief has begun to fade. “And that, to me, was a game changer for my career.” Months later, on the podium at Nationals, the coach reapproached her, “I told you!”

She beams at the memory of a pivot point in her running career. The ‘24 Trials aren’t a dream, but they once were.

“Before I was even pregnant, I had a dream that my husband was holding a little boy at the ‘24 Trials,” Marisa marvels at her prescience as a young athlete. Her son Kai, now nearly two, will be in her husband's arms when this year’s steeple prelim begins.

Rising to become a Top-5 American steepler once takes good fortune. Doing it a second time, a year postpartum, left her feeling blessed.

“It was just surreal to have this dream of being a professional athlete and being a mom and having them both come together.” Such a fusion of success demands a willingness to both physically prepare and stomp out excuses at every one of life’s turns.

“Running is really hard,” she understates, looking up and away as if drifting off into the moment of her greatest competitive discomfort.

“It's a really hard sport, and I think we will give ourselves every excuse we can,” she elaborates about the attention to detail necessary to preempt internal doubt.

“I just never want to have a reason why I'm not giving my best effort. Taking care of all the little details, fueling well, getting good sleep, and saying no to certain things.”

A key to Marisa’s success, and ability to perform, is being mentally prepared to go all out. “I pride myself in not taking shortcuts, taking care of the details so that I can show up on race day ready to give 100%.”

All that effort, over days, weeks, and years, to arrive at 5:59 pm on June 24th, when the evening sunlight will slant onto the Hayward Field backstretch, and she’ll stand at the starting line without a doubt. With full faith that she’s again prepared to be among America’s best. Nearing a decade at the national level, these moments still shine brightly.

“Walking out, just looking around, and taking it all in. I almost get teary-eyed before I even start the race. Lord has placed me and given me these opportunities.”

A willingness to give a 100% effort without certainty of success in return demands a drive and deep appreciation.

“I want to bottle up this feeling. I would love to give that to everybody who's supported me.”

Her supporters will scream, especially as she enters those final two laps.