Val Constien: “I think a lot of people are still going to underestimate me.”
Edwards Olympian eyes first World Championships on American soil this summer
Perhaps “moonlighting” as a pro runner while working as a full-time customer service rep gave it away.
As the 2022 outdoor track season began — one which will culminate at the first ever IAAF World Championships on U.S. soil in Eugene, Oregon from July 15-24 — unsponsored 2020 Olympian Val Constien still considers herself the underdog.
“I think a lot of people are still going to underestimate me, so I think in some regards, I still am kind of an underdog,” the Battle Mountain alumna admitted to Lindsey Hein on the “I’ll Have Another” podcast on March 4. In the hour-long conversation with Hein, Constien illuminated fans on her work/training balance, battles with an eating disorder in high school and college and her goals for this season.
Constien’s longshot story, which includes mental health struggles and a battle with an eating disorder, has a point of contact for everyone, even if your “second job” has nothing to do with chasing gold medals.
Rise to prominence
For those unfamiliar with Constien’s story, the “too-long-didn’t-read” version goes something like this: Her meteoric rise from Battle Mountain star to All-American at Colorado to Tokyo Olympic steeplechase qualifier is an astounding leap, even for someone whose event consists of four barriers to jump over on every lap.
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Even though Constien’s best high school 3200-meter time no longer registers in the school’s top-10, she left Edwards in 2014 for University of Colorado Boulder, Mark Wetmore’s steeplechase-U, responsible for raising up American-record holders Jenny Simpson and Emma Coburn. Simpson became a World Champion in the 1500-meter and Coburn put American steeplechase on the map with her World gold and silver medals and 2016 Olympic bronze. Nine of the last 10 U.S. steeplechase titles (she didn’t compete in 2013) are Coburn’s.
“I remember my senior year of high school and I was cross-country skiing and my ski coach was watching some video,” Constien recalled to Hein.
“He was like, ‘Val, do you know who this is?’ I was like, ‘nope, no clue.’ ‘That’s Emma Coburn, the best steeplechaser in America. You’re going to CU and you’re going to be coached by her coaches.'”
The seed was planted. “I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is crazy, I would love to be where she is at some point,'” Constien continued.
On April 10, 2015, she made her steeplechase debut at the Colorado Invitational, finishing in 11 minutes, 9.09 seconds. She qualified for the NCAA championships the following season on the strength of her 10:09.89 personal best, but didn’t make the final. In 2018, she placed fifth in 9:48.40, earning the first of her three All-American awards. She placed 30th in cross-country the following fall, and felt poised for greatness that spring.
Mononucleosis, coupled with getting hit by a car walking to class, derailed her training.
“This is going to keep me from reaching what my potential was,” Constien recalled thinking. “And so because of that I always knew that I at least wanted to train through the Trials because I was like ‘I think I can run faster than what I did.'”
Originally aiming for a sub-9:40 — not even sniffing distance of the proverbially penciled in Tokyo trio of Coburn, Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley (Alaskan wunderkind Allie Ostrander was presumed next in line should anything unexpected happen), the pandemic-caused year-long Olympic delay would provide extra time for improvement … once Constien successfully navigated the normal post-collegiate waters of figuring out a work/life balance void of a DI team’s structure.
“I definitely developed a lot during that time. The athlete I was in 2019 — she is miles behind the athlete I am now,” Constien told Hein.
She graduated with a broken calcaneus and torn plantar fasciitis, leaving her helpless to offset work frustrations with her regular running release.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing but I knew that training was something that brought me a lot of happiness and joy.” Eventually, she started putting in miles again.
“I was like, OK, even if these jobs suck — even if I’m not super crazy about my working, professional life — every time I run I feel so much better.”
At the 2020 USATF Golden Games in May 2020, the Edwards native busted out a 9:35.73.
“Oh my gosh, I beat some actual professionals,” she told Hein of her mindset afterward.
“Maybe I should try and have some professional running goals at this point. That’s when I decided I really wanted to give it my all and be more invested in training and everything.”
Tokyo was postponed until the summer of 2021, allowing Constien to continue her progression. In November 2020, she began working full-time as a customer service representative at Stryd. Amidst the strict 40-hour work week, she’s found solace in her allotted training time.
“It just made everything else so much better and I just really leaned into that — how running fast and feeling good after a run just boosted my whole personality,” she said.
Going into Eugene, Coburn and Frierichs were still the presumptive favorites, but Quigley, battling a mysterious injury, hadn’t raced that season. “Is she going to open up with a 9:12? I don’t know?” Constien rhetorically asked Hein.
“I knew that if I had a good day, it would happen,” she said.
Following her own plan, Constien kept herself in the fourth spot throughout the race, capitalizing on Leah Falland’s fall to punch her ticket to Japan.
It all “turned out like a dream” according to Constien, who became emotional when she ran by her family during the victory lap around Hayward Field.
“I realized that I made that team the hardest way possible. With zero help, no support, all out of my own pocket, and it really just sunk in that I had done it,” she told Hein.
“I had been working so hard and it all paid off.”
Her objective, visible improvement is what makes Constien’s underdog redemption story fun to follow, but it’s the barriers she hurdles daily — overcoming an eating disorder and being an unsponsored world-class athlete — that form a rare bridge of relatability.
Constien told Hein that her eating disorder first surfaced in high school, but she carried “seven years of bad habits” with her through college.
“And you know, I’m still working through it every day,” she said.
“There’s still certain things that might trigger me or make me feel like I need to go back to what I was doing.”
Buffs assistant coach Heather Burroughs directed Constien to nutritionists and sport psychologists at CU.
“That mental health piece is so important, so I’m really glad that Heather pushed me towards the psychologist in college,” she told Hein, noting she felt like “something was wrong with me” when she first sought professional health.
She expressed a transparent message to those still thickly engrossed in a similar struggle.
“I mean it’s hard. It’s brutal. Every single day is a massive struggle,” she said.
“That eating disorder made everything way harder and that eating disorder is what led to my clinical depression, which led to horrible thoughts of self-harm and all kinds of terrible things. It’s hard to admit that it could be so life or death, but it can be, and a lot of times it is.”
Today, she said she eats what she is craving, which sometimes means starting the day with coffee and cookies.
“I think that the moment that I start thinking like ‘oh, well I need to eat something healthier in the morning, that’s when the bad thoughts kind of creep in and it makes me feel like I’m not myself,” she told Hein.
The rest of her day is jammed. Work is sandwiched by morning and afternoon runs. Sometimes, she works a few more hours after coming home. She shares her home with her boyfriend, former Adams State All-American Kaylee Bogina and Bogina’s boyfriend, Charlie Sweeney, a graduate at CU whom Constien coaches as a CU volunteer assistant.
“Those Alamosa kids are tough,” she said of Bogina, who has joined her on many of the 70-80 weekly winter miles.
“This is the best I’ve ever felt in January in my entire life, so I’m very excited,” she told Hein. All of the miles mean frequent trips to Boulder Running Company to replace worn-out shoes.
She buys her own.
“The people who work at the stores know who I am and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?'” she recounted to Hein. “Oh, I don’t have a contract.”
Constien’s agent, Josh Cox, whose clientele includes American distance running icons Sara and Ryan Hall amongst others, is apparently as flummoxed as the running shoe sales clerks.
“This is probably the longest time Josh has had an athlete as good as me that he hasn’t been able to sign,” Constien told Hein.
“But I think that there is a lot of apprehension around signing me because I kind of came out of nowhere.”
Constien believes that by ignoring her, shoe companies — typically only concerned with athletes’ international competitive potential — are missing out on a runner who can empathize with the average customer.
“And I think that my story is a lot more relatable,” she pitched to Hein.
“Nobody gets giant contracts out of college to be a full-time runner. Most people, their professional running dreams are dependent upon getting a full-time job and making training work around your real life. I mean, I think there’s a lot of value in that. Not only am I one of the best runners in the world, but I’m also super relatable to the customer.”
That is, until she puts those shoes to work.
Constien hopes to make two trips to Eugene, Oregon, this year. “Tracktown USA” will host the U.S. Outdoor Championships June 23-26 and the IAAF World Championships in July. Even with her resume, she isn’t counting any chickens before they hatch.
“Well, first I need to qualify for USA’s and first I need to make it to the final, but obviously that’s the goal,” she told a Runnerspace.com reporter who inquired about her goals for Worlds this winter.
“I would be honored to represent my country again,” Constien continued.
A slightly inflamed Achilles tendon after the Games forced a brief layoff, but Constien told Runnerspace.com that since then, she’s been “really focused — haven’t been doing anything but training and working and it’s paid off.”
She looked sharp in two indoor races, opening with a mile at the CU Invite before heading to the Dempsey Indoor Center’s famed 300-meter track for February’s Husky Classic, often the site of elite early-season distance fields. Constien followed the tradition, racing to an 8:52 win.
“I’m significantly fitter than I was this time last year,” she told RunnerSpace.com in the finish area, pointing to a 9:25 she ran in the 2021 winter build-up to Tokyo.
Constien opened up her outdoor campaign with a 4:09.9 1500-meter at the Stanford Invitational April 2. On April 14, she ran 9:31.20 to place second to Courtney Wayment in her 3000-meter steeple season-opener. Both results indicate she’s headed in the right direction, proving her high school Nordic ski coach to be prescient in aligning her fate with the likes of Coburn.
“I never thought I’d be on a team with her,” Constien told Heins of the teammate she said calmed her anxiety in the Olympic dining hall and was like a big sister.
“Making that team was incredible because it felt like everything I had been working towards my whole life and the person I had idolized since I was 16-years old was now someone I was going to practice with and lifting weights with and toeing the line with.”
Coburn may well someday hand the American steeplechase baton off to Constien. And if that passing of the torch seems like another longshot … it’s probably exactly how Constien wants it.