Nature and nurture tried their darnedest to make Lauren Wallace a distance runner.
Growing up in Ukiah, she accompanied her parents and dogs on hikes through the wide-open countryside and long runs around Lake Mendocino.
“My mom and dad were distance runners,” Wallace said. “My mom made me run 2 miles each morning.”
But when she had her choice of events at Ukiah High School, Wallace chose to be a sprinter. She quickly became the fastest girl in town, and Wallace still considered herself a sprinter when she joined the UC Davis track team after transferring from UC Riverside in 2009.
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It wasn’t until her UC Davis coaches suggested trying races with more than one turn that Wallace took the path she’s on today.
“I guess I fought it for as a long as I could,” she said.
Fast-forward to March 1, when Wallace trailed the leaders with one lap remaining in the women’s 1,000-meter final at the USATF Indoor Championships outside Boston. Wallace set the early pace but was passed on the fourth of five 200-meter laps by Charlene Lipsey and Stephanie Brown. Wallace wasn’t as confident as one might think an ex-sprinter would be in that position.
“In high school, I was known for a lethal kick, but I hadn’t shown it as a professional,” Wallace said. “As a professional, everyone has a lethal kick.”
But Wallace had observed in other indoor races that the leaders had a habit of drifting toward the middle lanes as they came off the final turn. After being passed at the USA championships, Wallace held her position on the inside. And sure enough, Lipsey provided an opening by drifting wide entering the homestretch.
Wallace sprinted to victory on the inside in 2 minutes, 40.42 seconds, two-tenths ahead of Treniere Moser and Brown. Lipsey finished fourth.
“I guess my old kick finally came back,” Wallace said.
Since finding her niche as an 800-meter runner as a UC Davis sophomore, Wallace showed steady progress, cutting her time to 2:02.91 as a senior. Her eighth-place finish at the 2013 NCAA Championships earned her All-America honors and a professional contract with Oiselle, a women’s running-apparel company.
Wallace trimmed her personal best to 2:02.16 in the heats of the 2014 USA Outdoor Championships in Sacramento before bowing out in the semifinals. Even after winning two summer races in Europe, Wallace appeared to be a few years from seriously competing for a national title.
But just two months into the pre-Olympic year, in a race even longer than her preferred 800, the former sprinter became a national champion.
Two weeks later, relaxing at a coffee shop following a morning run along the American River bike trail, Wallace sounded almost as surprised by the breakthrough as she looked when she crossed the finish line in Massachusetts.
“I experienced so many emotions at once,” Wallace said. “It’s crazy. You know you’re capable of doing something like this, but to do it, and to do it by coming from behind … it was amazing.
“It was a big step. A necessary step.”
Wallace’s goals this season include making the final at the USA Outdoor Championships in June and meeting the IAAF’s world “A” qualifying standard of 2:01.
Wallace, 25, lives in Sacramento and trains under Drew Wartenburg, her former coach at UC Davis who now heads the NorCal Distance Project. Although she already had switched to the middle distances when Wartenburg began coaching her at UCD, Wallace has no doubt that Wartenburg is the architect of her success.
“While a lot of things have to go right to run at Lauren’s level, nothing about her recent performances surprises me,” said Wartenburg, who also coaches Olympian Kim Conley.
Wallace’s goals this season include making the final at the USA Outdoor Championships in June and meeting the IAAF’s world “A” qualifying standard of 2:01. She spent much of April training at high altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz., returning to the track at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford with a personal-best 4:14.67 in the 1,500 meters.
“I want to use this year as a building year. I need more experience. I know I’m not up there yet with Ajee Wilson,” Wallace said, referring to the U.S. outdoor champion. “I know I can run a lot faster than 2:02. I just need to do it in a race.”
Wallace has come a long way from her days in Ukiah, when her best times in the sprints (12.9 in the 100, 25.9 in the 200 and 59.0 in the 400) pale next to her middle-distance evolution. But the small-town upbringing shaped her in other ways – the hikes with her father, Scott Wallace; the runs with her mother, Lisa Cortina; the countless hours spent riding her horse through the Mendocino County fields.
“I’m a granola, Northern California-type girl,” Wallace said. “I love hiking, nature, the outdoors. People hate hiking with me. I like going from Point A to Point B in a certain time. It was instilled in me at an early age.”
Wallace majored in international relations and French at UC Davis. She talks about earning a graduate degree in environmental studies or possibly going to law school. But she also talks about remaining competitive on the track through 2020.
“I absolutely love pushing my body to heights I never thought possible,” she said. “I can’t imagine my life without running.”