As noted in our original profile of runner/scientist Sophia Liu (Liu Ziyang), her athletic journey is similar to that of many other top Seattle-area women athletes. She discovered her remarkable athleticism by accident: grad school mates encouraged her to try running "just for the fun of it," after which she promptly won a marathon. Meanwhile, Sophia is dedicated to an ambitious career track as a scientist.
For the past few years, Sophia has been working on earning a highly-coveted spot for non-professionals on the Chinese Olympic Marathon team. Since our original profile, Sophia has raced in Beijing and Shanghai. At Beijing she ran a 2:43:10 which made her the top non-professional female, and the top competitor in the Chinese Athletics Association's (CAA) "Run for Olympics" program. This program is intended to "encourage many runners to run for their best and attract more people to join the sport." Under this program, non-professionals could become eligible to qualify for the Chinese Olympic Team through a ranking system, or by running a qualifying race under a qualifying standard (2:45 for women.)
Sophia also received China's 2019 award for best non-professional performance of the year.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with international competition, the Olympic standards have changed since Sophia began her quest.
Athletes have two ways to qualify:
--Running a 2:29:30 or faster marathon (the previous standard was 2:45)
Qualify by virtue of their IAAF World Ranking position:
--A top 80 worldwide ranking based on a complicated IAAF scoring system
--A top 10 finish in a world major race, or a top 5 in a IAAF gold label race
Sophia turned in a disapointing 2:43:06 Chicago Marathon in October. Although it was close to her personal best at the time (a 2:42:50 in the 2017 California International Marathon), based on her training she knew her Chicago performance was lackluster.
After Chicago, she set her sights on the Guangzhou Marathon, an IAAF gold label race on Dec. 8th. After 6 weeks of focused training to sharpen her fitness she ran a new personal best of 2:40:30, but more importantly placed fifth in the gold label race which qualified her for the new Olympic standards. She became one of seven Chinese females and the only Chinese non-professional runner to meet the new Olympic qualifying standards. Read this Chinese media report.
Professionally, Sophia is still working in the same research direction, which has to do with aging and mitochondrial health. Dr. Marcinek is her lab's new director, and the lab has expanded its scope of research from in vivo human clinical trials to study the mechanisms of aging using in vitro techniques in animals. Sophia has transitioned from postdoc to research scientist, and feels the weight of the added professional responsibility.
Sophia's next big event, is the Xuzhou Marathon, the Chinese marathon trails, on March 22.
"I have worked with coach Mario Fraioli for two and half years now. One big aspect of training is trying to work on my speed. I am getting faster from 5k to 10k but he always reminds me that my strength is still my strength. I've learned that communication between athlete and coach are keys to success. Sometimes, I would alter my workout to run with teammates as long as it would not affect the plan too much. We generally agree on the changes."
"The support from Club Northwest (CNW) is huge. It is good to have a local team and coach that can guide your everyday training, and see you once or twice a week. I used to train alone. For these past few years, as the bar gets sets higher, I have learned to really lean on my teammates. Every Wednesday and Saturday CNW has group training where different pace groups are set. I can always find people with similar paces or faster to push myself. For long runs, a handful of 2:20-2:30 guys from Seattle Running Club (SRC) and CNW have been helping me go through tough sections (of my training plan)."
"Although I am currently the only non-pro with the qualifying standards, the selection policy has been revised to select the top three (with the Olympic standards) regardless of professional status at the trials."
"So, my goal at the trials is to have the best race in my life. I want to have no regrets about my performance in the race. Whether that will be good enough to earn an Olympic spot or not, I have learned and grown so much during this journey. Friends, colleagues, teammates, coaches, and my family have supported me and believed in me. I want a race to represent their beliefs. I want a race to make us proud."
As you can imagine, Sophia's Olympic journey has been a rich source of learning about her body and mind.
"Set a goal, work toward it everyday, and good or bad, enjoy the process. Also, when things get tough don’t give up. See it through. I am not talented (um, pretty sure that 5th in a IAAF gold race requires talent), I started running pretty late in life (it's never too late), and missed the period of speed development. Dream high means pushing boundaries, these past two years as my PRs got reset I also had multiple injuries. Some required more time off than others, but in general I was out of running for 1-2 months, then another 1 or 2 months to play catch up."
"For example, a stress fracture of the fibula in 2018 was one of the major injuries I had. It sidelined me for Boston. That experience made me realize it is okay to fail, but not okay to give up. After 3 month of cross training, and 12 weeks building up I ran a good performance in Beijing (2:43:10) and earned the female top “non-professional going to Olympic” spot. I got impatient and wanted more which resulted in another setback in Shanghai 2 months later. Although I ran pretty well (2:43:33), the injury got worse which did affect my build-up for Boston 2019. In the build-up to Guangzhou (Dec. 8th), Chicago (Oct. 13) wasn't the race I wanted, but I didn't repeat the same mistake. Rather, I reduced my training load 20% , yet still set a new personal best by 3 minutes. That is the experience/lessons gained from Shanghai. Also, I constantly remind myself being patient in training. It is better to be 10% under-trained than 1% over-trained."
Whatever the results at the Xuzhou Marathon, Sophia has a balanced perspective about her future.
"I love running, it will always be a part of me, but it doesn't define me. I am surrounded by good people who are supportive, but that doesn't mean I should take advantage of it. Every time I race in China I take no more than 5 days off from work to race a marathon across the world. I try to be involved in giving back to the running community as much as I can, which includes volunteering for races, organizing group runs, and giving my personal advice/experiences to fellow teammates who are injured. Of course, there are things I have neglected: friends, family, long due vacations... I have said no to lots of things because I have a big run on the weekend or I need to squeeze in a strength training. I would like to be a bit more balanced in my personal life after this pursuit."
"Regardless of the results for the trails, I am a scientist first. I have a career I enjoy and I think it will make a difference. I would like to focus more on my career using my background in exercise physiology to contribute to healthy aging worldwide."