Sophia Liu Running to the Olympics

Sophia ran a personal best of 17:48 in the 5K at this year's Run for the Pies in Carnation.
Runner profile

The women athletes profiled on Northwest in Motion tend to have one thing in common: They typically enter their respective sports not as kids or teens, but in their mid to late-20s, often as the result of serendipity. Their first forays into athletic competition are usually the result of joining a race or event on a whim with the encouragement of a friend. To their surprise they win the event and discover previously unknown athleticism.

Sophia was surprised to win the 2014 Seattle Marathon.
Sophia was surprised to win the 2014 Seattle Marathon.

After scoring a win at the 2014 Seattle Marathon, Sophia Liu (Liu Ziyang) has been in the limelight of the local running scene. Originally from Tianjin, China, she is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Kevin Conley’s lab researching how muscles age. Her previous academic accomplishments include a Ph.D in Human Bioenergetics from Ball State University, a M.S. in Exercise Science from Central Washington University, and a B.S. in Pharmacology from Tianjin University of Traditional Medicine. Academic success is another trait shared by many of the area’s top women athletes.

As a kid in China she focused on school: “I didn’t experience many different things–just school and homework.”

Although she did have an interest in running as a youngster, she didn’t pursue it because athletics weren’t part of the culture. Kids in Tianjin are primarily focused on academics. She participated in a little PE, and a coach measured her heart rate after a 100m test, but she wasn’t identified as a potential athlete. She *did* like to compete with her twin sister who is also very academically inclined. I asked whether she experienced any bias against girls in China: I have a few friends who have adopted Chinese daughters, and I had the misconception that abandoning girls was commonplace. Sophia said that bias against girls is common in rural areas, not big cities. And, although she was born during the era of China’s one-child policy, she says that she and her twin were treated just fine.

Proud parents with Sophia in her lab.
Proud parents with Sophia in her lab.

Sophia credits her dad with leading her to running. “He liked to be active; he swims and bikes a lot.”

She initially used walking as a tool to clear her head of academic stress. “Walking made me feel really good.”

While working on her master’s degree at Central Washington, her lab mates encouraged her to try running, and her first race of any kind was the 2010 Seattle Marathon. Pretty much “off the couch” she qualified for Boston in 3:35:40. “Before I studied abroad I never participated in any sports or even raced a 5K. I really enjoy long distance running rather than track and short distance, so I ran my first marathon before running a 5K.”

Celebrating after the MS 5K
Celebrating after the MS 5K

“I didn’t understand the significance of qualifying for Boston. In fact, I did everything wrong in terms of training. I ran every day (but loved it!); I didn’t have a watch or pay attention to time; I never paid attention to pace.”

“Running has become my routine, a way to escape academic stress, a transportation tool, and a way to be free. I really picked up training after received my doctorate degree and moved to Seattle at the end of 2014. Right now, I have consistently trained for average of 70 miles a week with peak week up to 100 miles for about two years. Not surprising, most of my PRs were set that year, from 5k to marathon to ultra 50 mile trail race, with big goals still up to come.”

It’s only recently that she has come to realize her potential. She just likes to run and be active. But, in 2017 a huge opportunity opened up for her when the Chinese Olympic team announced it would select one top non-professional male and female marathoner to represent China at the 2020 Olympics. The qualifying time to get in that pipeline is 2:45. In December 2017 she ran a 2:42:50 at the California International Marathon.

Sophia with Burn Running at the California International Marathon.
Sophia with Burn Running at the California International Marathon.

The sub-2:45 was the data point she needed to confirm she has the potential to compete with the Chinese Olympic team, but she has to pass through some challenging hoops to get there. She only recently started working with a coach, which has been a big help in reducing the numbers of mistakes with training and racing. Next, she’ll have to run a sub-2:45 at a qualifying race in China, most likely the Beijing or Shanghai marathon. If she can do that she’ll be in the list of possible contenders that are stack-ranked based on their performances. If she makes it past that hurdle she would be asked to join a training camp where coaches and staff make a final decision.

At the 2016 Beijing Marathon 2016 Sophia was the 1st Chinese and 8th Female
At the 2016 Beijing Marathon 2016 Sophia was the 1st Chinese and 8th Female

All of this is complicated by the fact that she’s not in China. Despite this obstacle she says she’ll give it her best shot.

Her training and intensity have ramped up. Earlier this year she missed Boston as a result of a stress fracture in a distal fibula. To recover she’s been aquajogging (loves it) a couple times a week. She says the hydrostatic pressure from being in a pool helps with recovery. She’s also been doing hot and power yoga, which she thinks should help with races in hot environments like Beijing, and it also helps her range of motion.

Celebrating with the Seattle Running Club after an event at Bridle Trails
Celebrating with the Seattle Running Club after an event at Bridle Trails

Sophia’s tips for other women interested in running:

“It doesn’t matter how busy you are or how many children or duties you have, everyday try to leave some time for yourself. Make it a habit. In the long run it gives you better relationship with family and friends.”

Celebrating the completion of her PhD with her twin sister.
Celebrating the completion of her PhD with her twin sister.

Here’s wishing Sophia success on her Olympic ambitions! I can’t wait to see her competing in Tokyo!

Chinese Media Stories about Sophia (install a translate plugin to your browser so you can read these)
California Marathon 2:42! Liu Ziyang ran out of the Chinese amateur woman’s fastest annual
Three-run Seattle Rock Marathon Dr. Liu Ziyang won the runner-up
Dr. Liu Ziyang, a US student, do not know the Chinese marathon champion

NW Asian News:
Sophia Liu wins Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon

Sophia ran a personal best of 17:48 in the 5K at this year's Run for the Pies in Carnation.
Sophia ran a personal best of 17:48 in the 5K at this year’s Run for the Pies in Carnation.

Sophia’s Personal Bests
17:48 Road 5K (Jul 2018)
36:26 Road 10K (Jan 2018)
1:19:20 ½ marathon (Jan 2018)
2:42:50 California International Marathon (Dec 2017)

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