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Director of Development keeps on running

Submitted by Alton Young on November 7, 2013 – 1:37 pmNo Comment

Leah Thorvilson, the new University of Arkansas at Little Rock director of development, leads a double life.  In her work life, she is a dedicated university employee who has been on post since September.  But in her off-hours, Thorvilson is one of the most successful distance runners in the country.

Thorvilson won the Midsouth Marathon in Wynne on Nov. 2, which qualifies her for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in January. She finished 55th in the 2012 Olympic Trials. She also won the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure last month.

Her victories represent more than just the typical determination of a distance runner.  Thorvilson is coming back from a torn hamstring that might have ended the careers of most runners.  For Thorvilson, though, the injury was just the latest challenge in her career.

The Robbinsdale, Minn., native said that although she did compete in high school, she wasn’t heavily recruited by college programs.  She wasn’t a long-distance runner on her high school team; instead she participated in events such as sprints, relays, hurdles, and the triple jump.

“I had contact from a couple of Division II colleges, but I just wasn’t real sure of what I wanted to do,” Thorvilson said. A member of her high school dance team, she figured that dance was in her future.  After graduating high school, she was coaching the school’s junior varsity dance team and attending a community college that had no track team. A chance meeting with the track coach changed her career path.

She had heard that the girl’s track coach had quit and she offered to supervise the team, but instead the coach told her that she should still be competing herself. He got her in contact with UALR’s head coach at the time, Kirk Elias.  Elias had ties to her home state, having worked at the University of Minnesota from 1985-1993.  The coach brought her to the campus for a visit.  UALR offered her a partial scholarship to join the track team, which she accepted in January 1999. That’s when she “kind of fell in love with running.”

The 2003 UALR graduate was a member of the school’s cross-country and the track and field teams from 1999-2002.  According to the UALR Trojan website, Thorvilson was a leader on the 2002 team that repeated as Sun Belt Champions.  She also won several other Sun Belt honors during her collegiate career.  She holds course records in 17 distance races.

The first time that she remembers participating in a distance run was during high school when her father, who only ran for exercise at the time, asked her to join him in a 5K run.  She thinks that he asked her only in jest, thinking she would go back to sleep, but she agreed to join him and ended up beating him.

Her father kept the record of the results from that race, recently mailing them to her.  She was 16 at the time of that race and she has continued racing ever since.  To hear her talk about running is to understand why she still does it.

“Everything can feel so scrambled, but you can get out there on a run and kind of lose yourself in it,” she said.  “You feel good; you feel at peace with yourself.”

And though she says the feeling may not last for forever, it’s “a feeling that I don’t get from anything else.”

The determination of getting that feeling back is part of what helped her get back in the race.  The other thing that helped were her friends, who helped her during recovery from surgery by driving her to work and basically being her support system as she recovered.  Even while on crutches, she would walk miles – with friends on bikes riding beside her in some instances. The people that she has met through running mean a lot to Thorvilson.

“I don’t have any family in the state, so they’ve become like a family to me,” she said.  “It would be hard to get me to move out of Little Rock, because of the people I’ve met.”

The diagnosis of a torn hamstring took several months to find, so though the news wasn’t great, she was glad to finally know what it was.  She wanted to have surgery to repair it as soon as she knew that it was necessary, if she wanted to compete again.

It’s no surprise that, now that she is well into her recovery, her training regimen continues even with the added responsibilities of her new job.  The 85-100 total miles per week and the 4:00 a.m. sessions, while also juggling a full-time job show that her determination isn’t faltering.  Despite everything else, she plans to keep on running.


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