Watch the entire interview here

Balanced Running is the only official certified training program and club in Kennesaw, Georgia. Balanced Running also serves the greater Atlanta area. Tina Klein is a world-ranked and an All-American track athlete.

With me today is Caroline Dunn, the newest gold medalist for Team USA and we’re going to talk to her today about her journey to gold.

I’ve been coaching Caroline for years and this year, I felt she was ready to compete at the international level for Team USA and she did it! And you can to, if you have the drive and put in the work. I thought it would be great for her to share her experiences with everyone in case you’re interested in competing or are just curious on what it takes to medal for Team USA.

Tina: When did you realize you wanted to run races?

Caroline: I’ve always enjoyed races, even if I walked a race. Most races are to support a charity, and I personally enjoyed walking the first few 5Ks, before I started running.

I say this because I don’t want to discourage anyone from signing up for a 5K because they think it is a super competitive event. Most road races are for a good cause, and we should support good causes because it’s the right thing to do, regardless if we are walking or running. Generally speaking, most 5Ks welcome walkers with open arms.

Tina: For example, the upcoming Greyhound 5K on October 5th, welcomes walkers and runners of all abilities and benefits the South East Greyhound adoption agency.

Caroline: I’d show up for the Greyhound 5K just for the joy of petting and interacting with the greyhounds that come out for the event.

But back to your question about when I realized I wanted to run races,

I was on my way to the Etowah River Run 5K, and my husband looks up the previous year’s race results and points out that if I could run slightly faster than my last race, I could win an age group award. I suddenly became laser focused on winning. I became completely consumed by the thought of winning something, anything. I ran hard, no strategy, just as hard as I could. I ended up winning my age group that day (out of 20 people) and a small trophy hand made by a local artist. I still have that trophy and I cherish it.

Tina: Did you run track or XC in your youth?

Caroline: Short answer no. I had zero running experience before the age of 35. As an Asian kid growing up, I was subjected to racial and gender stereotypes and had to participate in activities that were part of those stereotypes. The extent of my athletic youth was taking a few gymnastics and ice skating lessons. In high school I was in band and the math club. In college I focused on my GPA in Electrical Engineering.

Today my husband will say, “You should have run XC in high school, you would have totally dominated.”

Tina: When did you decide to transition from being a “casual runner who goes for a “jog” and just run” to actually challenging your full potential?

I don’t think I was ever a “casual runner,” I started as a walker, then a slow runner who needed to take a lot of walk breaks.

My husband started running at least 5 years before I ever ran even half a mile. My goal was just to keep up with him on one of his training runs. I struggled greatly, and it made me disappointed in myself. I was stressed because I didn’t want to hold him back. He was very supportive of me getting into running as something we could do together.

Back then I also had a small dog that kept on pulling on his leash when we went out for walks. He had so much energy, and wouldn’t stop pulling his leash. It started by running a little bit here and there as an attempt to appease him, but he took that as a green light to keep on pulling his leash. Looking back, I was not exactly an authority figure in his life.

I like races because they are social event in which everyone is high on endorphins which pretty much guarantees a good experience. But as a competitive person, races also are a lot of temptation for me.

The first age group award I won was at a very small race with only 5 people in my age group and I came in 3rd. I was ecstatic. I didn’t mean to come in 3rd, my goal was to run the 5K in under 30 minutes. At this point, I wasn’t coached, I wasn’t in a running group, I didn’t have anyone to compare myself to unless it was at a race. I started realizing that I consistently came in the top 20% of my age group, and if the race was small enough, I could get an age group award.

After my husband ran about 20 half marathons, the “allure” of the half got me and I decided I wanted to run a half marathon, but the competitive side of me only wanted to do it if I could run it in 2 hours and 10 minutes. I wasn’t interested in just finishing, I wanted a good showing. I did not make my goal of 2 hours and 10 minutes, It took me 2 hours and 20 minutes to finish my first half marathon, butt I was still super proud of myself for finishing. Regardless of the time, it was still a milestone accomplishment in my life that I’ll never forget.

A year and a half later, I ran my 2nd half marathon and came in at 2 hours and 9 minutes. The last 3 miles was an “all-out” effort. My husband ran with me and he was very encouraging, shouting at me the last 3 miles. I wanted to kill him. I was so annoyed and stressed about making my 2:10 goal. I decided that I need to channel my energy from my mouth to my feet and I stayed perfectly quiet and focused on my goal which I achieved.

After the half marathon, I decided that the 2 hours and 9 minutes went by too fast. 12 weeks of training was over in 2 hours and 9 minutes.

I set my sights on a full marathon which I completed 6 months later in 4:33:36.

Tina: When did you decide to transition from “community race runner” to competing in track, XC, and on the international level?

It was my coach Tina Klein that really encouraged me to compete at a higher level. When she first proposed the idea, I had no intention of competing on track, but something happened to make me change my mind, and it had nothing to do with running. Earlier this year, I interviewed for and received a written job offer for an executive position. The job offer was subsequently rescinded before I could start. I was devastated. I had invested about 100 hours prepping, researching, interviewing, following up over a 3-4 week period to get that written job offer, only to have it rescinded. I decided I needed to turn a big negative in my life into a big positive. I immediately signed up to be a member of USATF and registered for the upcoming Georgia Games.  I competed in the 3000m track event and won Gold at the Georgia Games. Then at the Georgia Master’s Association track meet, I won Gold in the 5000m and 1500m events.

Next, Coach Tina Klein encouraged me to compete at the World Regionals in Toronto. This was competing against runners from North America, Central American, and the Caribbean.

Even if I had known about the event, I wouldn’t have signed up to go without Coach Tina’s encouragement. Tina really took me under her wing to explain how international competitions work. This was a combination of intense training and strategy. We strategized on which races I could realistically medal in. Coach Tina explained that our goal was to win as many medals for Team USA as possible, preferably gold ones of course. Coach even made me look at the anti-doping team USA website and told me to check the website before I put anything in my mouth. It made me more conscious of my diet and fluid intake.

Tina: How does mental toughness play a role in your running?

I learned about mental toughness when training for and running my first marathon in 2014. A marathon is no joke, it is so physically challenging, at some point your body will just say, “no more running, I’m out.” and you’ll be forced to figure out how overcome your physical limits with your mental toughness.

Tina: When did you realize you had to get on the track to do the “speed work”?

The track is awesome for doing speed work because it is perfectly flat. Your coach will give you a training plan that says something like, Run 800 meters in under 4 minutes, with 400 meters rest and repeat 4 times. On a regular run, here in Atlanta, at least half of my 800 meters will be straight up a hill, which will make it even tougher to meet my 4 minute time goal. Running on the track normalizes all of that.

Tina: How did you prepare for your 8K XC and 10K road race in Toronto?

Caroline: My coach came up with my training plan which I executed. I woke up at 5 am 5 days a week to train. I had never run XC before I had to buy XC spikes. For all the road racers out there, the XC shoe is half the width of my road shoe, but my foot is the same width. I had to work in XC runs so that I could get used to XC spikes.

I checked the USATF anti-doping website before I put anything in my mouth.

I read the competitor’s handbook cover to cover and practically memorized it.

The meet requires that all athletes wear a country team uniform that clearly identifies which county they are competing for. The Team USA uniform was discontinued. Where could I buy a discontinued uniform? Ebay! I had to be resourceful.

Tina: What events did you compete in and why?

I competed in the 10K road race and the 8K XC. Why? Because my coach told me those were my best chances to medal for Team USA. I was also very tempted to sign up for the 5000m, but I think 3 races would have been too much to handle in a 4-day period, plus I had the lowest chances of medaling in the 5000m.

Tina: Explain the differences between Road Running, Track Running and Cross Country and the training that you had to prep for each?

Caroline: Road running is the most common out of the three. This are your 5K / 10K / Marathon/ Half-Marathon community races with hundreds of participants, generally raising money for a good cause. It is exactly what it sounds like, they usually get a permit from the city and close down roads for runners for the event. To train for road running, I generally run on paved surfaces which is pretty easy for me to find since I live in the city.

XC is generally racing on grass in a closed field and is mainly for high school and college students. This was a bit harder for me to find places to train for XC. I started by running in the grass in Piedmont Park. If the weather is hot and the ground is hard, it wears on your spikes. The definition of a XC path leaves a lot for interpretation. For example, you could be racing through puddles of water, sand, gravel in a XC race. My coach, Tina Klein prepared me for this by having me run trails.

Track running is on a 400m track and is open to all ages. Racing on the track is great, as I said earlier, I love flat surfaces. On the flip side, it is hard to find tracks for training. Tracks mostly belong to schools and there are very few open to non-students.

There’s also trail running which is generally in more wooded areas. I generally don’t trail race because it is slower than road racing due to uneven surfaces, there are a lot of tree roots, and I’m paranoid about tripping and falling and inuring myself in a fall. That and I live in the city where it is mostly road racing.

Tina: How did you feel before your first race for TEAM USA?

My first race at the World Regionals in Toronto was the 10K road race which was good because I’m most familiar with road racing. The biggest challenge was getting to the race and getting our racing credentials. There was some confusion if we had to pick up our race bibs at a different location the day before, or if we could pick up our race bibs at the event. When we finally got our race bibs, there were 3, and there was confusion as to which one(s) should be worn and where. Out of the 3 bibs, only 1 bib had a timing chip, that bib had to be worn on the front. A second bib was to be worn on the back, and the 3rd bib could be attached to identify your bag.

One of the athletes who picked up her bibs the day before left her bib with the timing chip in her hotel room thinking that all 3 bibs were the same. Another athlete attached the bib with the timing chip to her bag. Euleen who made the discovery, blurted out, “Is your bag going to run the race?” I almost fell over laughing because it was so funny the way she said it. Euleen is was a double gold medalist at the event, and exemplified incredible sportsmanship. She started going around to the other athletes and checking to make sure we were all wearing the right bibs.

Tina: How did you feel after your first race and medaling for TEAM USA? (heart racing, nerves, etc)

I was pretty dead after running the 10K road race. At the start of the race, the gun went off and everyone took off. Pace wise, I started too fast, which probably caused me to slow down as I got closer to the finish. I was at my maximum heart rate for over 50% of the race, according to my GPS watch. I was racing for the bronze when I came upon the leader limping at about 2.5km into the race. I ran past her, hoping to create some margin between us. I was afraid she would start running again and pass me. I was just trying to create as much distance as I could while she was walking to make it a challenge for her. In the end she decided to drop out of the race due to an injury, and I won silver.

Here’s another story about Euleen taking me under her wing. After the 10K, we’re kind of standing around, meeting athletes from Team USA and other countries. It was a celebration of great sportsmanship. I was so wrapped up in talking with the other athletes that I almost missed the medal ceremony. Suddenly Euleen comes up to me and tells me that they’re about to start and I follow her to the awards ceremony area. I hear my name announced, I get on the podium and I feel like a rock star or Olympic athlete. The silver medal is placed around my neck, everyone is taking pictures. It was an incredible moment. I was so happy.

Tina: What did you learn from the experience?

I learned that athletes train their bodies hard and sometimes too hard. I was heartbroken when my competitor was injured and dropped out of the race. But she had a bigger goal in mind, she was training for the NYC marathon and couldn’t risk her NYC marathon goal. She had to minimize her injury and hope to recover for New York.

I couldn’t have done it without first the encouragement and training from my coach. Navigating the rules and logistics required being taken under the wing of my coach and teammate Euleen.

Tina: How did you mentally prep for that race and for the 8K XC race?

I think it is important to visualize your future success, and set your intention for the race. I wasn’t experienced in XC since I didn’t race in my youth. I was most worried about tripping and falling in my spikes. Mentally, I visualized myself at the top of the podium and I set my intention to run a solid race I could be proud of later.

Tina: What type of “rituals” did you (or do you) practice before race day?

#1 No new things. I eat oatmeal for breakfast to fuel up before races. I had to make sure I had oatmeal and the items needed to cook my oatmeal the morning of. I have a “racing checklist” on my phone that I can refer to so that I don’t forget anything. I go over the timeline the day before to make sure I know what time I need to wake up, leave the hotel to get to the race on time.

Tina: Share the feeling you had when you were on the Podium proudly draped with the American flag?

It was a dream come true. Like everyone else, I watch the Olympics every 4 years and I get emotional when I see Americans on the podium. I see their training and sacrifices finally paying off.

Tina: What are some changes you’re going to adjust for next year’s 2020 World Championships?

How about what I plan to continue doing? I plan to continue to listen to my coach, train hard, work hard.

Tina: What’s next for Athlete, Gold and Silver Medalist Caroline Dunn?

I’m competing in the LDR Georgia Grand Prix. I’m currently in 2nd place behind Euleen, of course. There are 4 races required to compete in the grand prix. I’ve done 2 and I’ve got the other 2 on my calendar. I also applied for the USATF Phildippidies Award for all of the races I’ve already completed this year.

Tina: How did you manage to make it a family event? Was it the training he watched you do day in and day out that persuaded him?

My husband is and has always been very supportive of my running. He goes around telling other runners that I would have dominated had I started as a kid.

The way this came about is, first of all my coach encouraged me to compete in Toronto. I went back to my husband and had to get his buy-in on the trip. I had no idea what he was going to say. Would I go to Toronto by myself or would he go with me?

Men are negotiators. He was very supportive and agreed, but I had a few stipulations. First of all, he added 4 days to the beginning of the trip so that we could go to Montreal, and secondly, he wanted to compete as well in the same events. Montreal was so much fun. His “negotiation points” were more than reasonable.

On the flipside, I was really lucky that we have the means to completely self-fund our entire experience. I saw other athletes drive for Uber and stay in dorm rooms for the chance to compete. It gives me a new perspective on the financial burdens on our Olympic hopefuls. They didn’t just win one competition. They traveled to many other competitions that they had to win to get the opportunity to represent our country at the Olympics. They trained and sacrificed financially and emotionally to get to that podium. At some point, it is a combination of means and athletic ability, although we’d like to think it is just the latter.

Tina: What events did he compete in?

As I mentioned earlier, he decided to compete in the same events that I would, somewhat so that we could do stick together. I think we are one of those couples that prefers to do things side by side instead of having our time apart. He competed in the 10K road race, outran the athlete from Jamaica, and won the Bronze medal for Team USA. I was so proud of him. He ran hard for that bronze medal. He also ran the 8K XC. I’m so proud of him, he did it without spikes which made the race for him significantly harder. He also has a heart of gold and helps everyone out. Right before the 8K, there was an athlete from Mexico at the check-in booth trying to ask a question to the race officials. The athlete from Mexico couldn’t speak English, and the race official in the tent couldn’t speak Spanish. I hear the race official shout out that she needed a translator. Paul came over and used his language skills to translate for them. What a great guy!

Tina: What advice would you give someone?

  • Who’s never run a race – There’s a famous quote, “If you are losing faith in humanity, go out and watch a marathon,” Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Watch a race, and you’ll probably want to be part of the magic. I started by walking a 5K, and I still loved it. It once took me 38 minutes to run a 5K. I seriously worked hard for 38 minutes. When I reached the finish line, there was a woman (stranger) waiting for me and my dog to finish the race. This is one of those races where they let you run with your dog. She finished in 26 minutes and stood at the finish line 12 minutes late (which is a long time at a 5K) until I came across just to have the opportunity to hold my dog after the race. I’ll never forget that. I had a very cute dog. Totally worth waiting around at the finish line for my dog.
  • Who’s run and never thought of themselves as an athlete – I never thought of myself as an athlete, but there are things I could do even if I didn’t have any talent: #1 show up, try my best, be on time, be disciplined, do the right thing.
  • Who thinks they are too old to run – It’s never too late to start. I started after 35, closer to 40, if I’m being honest. I could lament that I didn’t have the opportunity when I was a kid, or I could just go out and win a gold medal at the next competition.
  • What would you tell the younger you? Stop believing racial and gender stereotypes. Start running earlier.

Tina: How many new friends do you make on the World’s Circuit?

Thanks to the magic of social media, friendships are no longer just meeting once or only at these type of events. We can keep in touch in our daily lives on Facebook, Instagram, and even Strava. Viktoria Brown, the gold medalist from the 10K, we’re now friends on Strava. I saw that she competed in a triathlon shortly after the race and placed 4th. I was so proud of her and so excited to see that.

I made a filter on Instagram and Brent Diaz from Mexico showcased it on his feed and I got a lot of buzz thanks to him.

We met NYC model Aysha, who I would call her somewhat of a polarizing figure. She’s not afraid to express herself. We basically “see each other” every day via Instagram and Facebook. She has a very glamorous model life. It’s fun to watch her. Go Aysha!