Learning from Great Athletes: Mary Davies, 2:28 Marathoner, New Zealand

I’ll start with the stats. Mary is a 2:28 marathoner, putting her fourth on the New Zealand All-Time rankings. She won triple gold in the insane 10,000m-5,000m-Steeplechase triple at the 2006 Big 12 Outdoor Track Conference Meet while attending Oklahoma State University (OSU). She is a two-time All-American and finished third in the 10,000 meters at NCAAs in Sacramento in 2006. She competed for New Zealand at two World Championships (Berlin, 2009; Moscow, 2013) in the Marathon. Mary continued to have some impressive track and marathon performances, but great races aren’t enough to make Olympic Teams. She just missed out on the Rio Olympics in the marathon and 10k. She never achieved her ultimate Olympic goal, but her story chasing her dream is worth sharing and contains many valuable lessons.  

1.     Lesson 1: Adult athlete superstars are not always child athlete superstars.

As a sport psychology consultant, a lot of parents ask me about the best path to success for their aspiring athlete children. My biggest advice is don’t let them specialize too young. Beyond that, it is hard to predict. So many athletes have completely different journeys. Mary definitely took an unconventional path to success.

So, knowing Mary’s running resume, when do you think she became serious about the sport? Give it a guess….

Ok, now let me tell you.

Mary started running when she was 19. NINETEEN. Growing up, Mary played team sports, and then focused on Field Hockey. She gave running a shot when she as 19 and had some immediate success. Her quick rise to a high standard gave her the opportunity to run at Oklahoma State University (OSU), and her career took off when she went to run in the NCAA at age 22.

Unlike many aspiring collegiate runners, Mary didn’t dream of a scholarship to a DI school. She never visited Oklahoma State and didn’t talk to other coaches or look at other universities. Mary had a friend who was running at OSU, they were both coached by Ian Babe in New Zealand, and Mary’s friend mentioned Mary’s success to the OSU coach. Ian spoke with the OSU coach about Mary and that sealed the deal. It was a great opportunity and she took it.

Mary admits that she didn’t know much when she got on the plane to Stillwater. There weren’t drone videos of campus facilities or virtual tours of the campus at this time. All she knew was that this was a great experience and presented her with more opportunities than she would have staying in her small hometown of Ruakaka.

“I still remember flying from New Zealand and seeing all this red dirt. I was thinking, wow, where’s the water. I mean, I knew there was no beach, but it was very strange. And then of course the coach wasn’t there at the airport, he was two hours late, and I was just sitting there at the airport, and I was thinking, am I at the right place? I had no idea.”

Mary was in unknown territory. Not only was the Oklahoma landscape a shock, but also Mary had never spent time on a synthetic track surface.

“I hadn’t ever really been on a track before because you just have grass tracks in New Zealand.” Mary had done some longer road races but racing in spikes on a red track would be new for her. This didn’t seem to be a problem, however, and Mary adapted quickly to life on the track. She immediately excelled at the longer races. In 2005, she was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, and finished 8th in her first NCAA track championships. In 2006, she was the Big 12 Female Performer of the Year and earned her second All-American performance with a 3rd place finish at the NCAA Championships. Mary still holds the Big 12 record in the 10k. Her late dive into running opened up new doors for her and changed the trajectory of her life.  

Lesson 2: We live for the good races

It’s a euphoric feeling to achieve or even surpass a goal that you set for yourself. In athletics, there are many disappointing moments: injury, sickness, underperformances. And honestly, these subpar races can start to outnumber the great ones, especially if you are in the sport for long enough. Improving gets harder and harder as you get better. As you succeed in the sport, the people that you are comparing yourself against are also getting better and better. The margin for error shrinks and more competition-day precision is required for success. Failure becomes inevitable as the fields you compete against improve in caliber. Considering all of this, if you’re going to make it in athletics, you’ve got to find a way to continue moving forward after disappointing races. Great athletes can do this: they live for the good races. The chase for that feeling drives them. Remembering that feeling makes it all worth it.  

Mary’s best running memory came after the birth of her first child, Lucas. She won the Toronto Marathon in 2:28:57 on October 14th, 2012. She moved to the front of the race at 41k (25.5 miles), and with 800m to go realized she was going to win. I can hear a complete shift in her voice and see her facial expression brighten as she talks about this race. You can feel the excitement and sense of pride she has when she recalls the vivid memory of crossing the finish line in a 10-minute PB.

“I had no place winning that race, it was just so surreal, and then crossing the finish line and seeing Lucas, it was surreal.”

This was also the most lucrative race of her career. From talking to many marathoners over the years, it seems like when you get it right, it pays off in a big way. Mary got it right in Toronto and it paid off with a big PB, a big check, and a reaffirmation that her Olympic dream was in sight.

Mary believed in herself, which helped her chip away at her goals and break below the 2:30 barrier in 2012. She paid her way to the 2009 World Championships as part of the team event for the marathon. She ran under the 2:45 team event qualification standard in her first marathon, but Athletics New Zealand was only willing to pay for athletes who had achieved the qualification to compete as an individual (the team qualification as significantly slower than the individual qualification). She knew that she need to do more in the marathon to get to the level where she wanted to be, so she paid for her flights and even her uniform to line up and represent New Zealand that day. The race rewarded her with a PB under the 2:40 barrier and extra motivation to close the gap from where she currently was as a runner to where she wanted to be.  

After missing the 2012 Olympics with the birth of her first son, Lucas, Mary put her focus on Rio 2016. New Zealand set their A standard at 2:27 and their B Standard at 2:32, but she would need two B standards. For the marathon, there aren’t many second chances to get it right. Running 2:27 would require the perfect day and running 2:32 twice in such a short period after the birth or her daughter, Olivia, was also a hard ask. The marathon build-up is long, the taper is precise, and weather conditions can make or break an opportunity. Mary didn’t get the perfect day in the marathon before the Rio 2016 selection closed for the marathon (note: no New Zealand marathoners competed in Rio). She shifted her focus to the 10k and poured everything into making the team on the track. Mary ran a couple of back-to-back personal bests but was a few seconds shy of reaching the qualification standard. She missed out on running an Olympic Games in the home country of her husband.

Mary can look back on her career and remember all of the hard times. The politics of her country setting tougher standards than the Olympic committee, the unlucky stomach bug or heat and humidity that would strike during her fittest moments to qualify for the Olympics, or all of the financial resources that she poured into chasing her dreams. But, Mary chooses to smile when she thinks about her career. She remembers all of the places she travelled, the friends she made, and the overwhelming joy she felt when crossing the line in Toronto. Even though she never had a big contract, she’s thankful to Mizuno and Brooks for their help with gear and shoes. Mary never expected anything to come easy, and the sentiment in her voice may give hint to moments of regret in the sport, but overall, running brought joy to her life.

“Reassessing after not qualifying (for Rio) and looking back and deciding should I keep going or should I not, I think in the end, that now with the family, I think that I’ve shown enough about how to set goals and work through different battles. Even though you might not achieve the peak of what you want to do, if you try hard and do your best that is what should matter.”

Lesson 3: Mindset matters  

Mary and her family moved to Houston during her buildup to Rio and she hooked up with Rice University Coach Jim Bevan. Bevan looked over Mary’s training journals from her years with Ian Babe to learn more about her background. He immediately knew the Mary had a unique mindset compared to many of the runners he had coached. She did almost the same training every week all alone on the same routes, with small adjustments only to the intensity or duration.

As Mary describe it, Ian’s training followed a simple progression: build a base, add some structure, get faster each week, insert a down week every 4-5 weeks. Every day was the same, just over and over, week after week. Mary didn’t find training alone and executing the same workouts week after week boring or lonely.

“I was very motivated and focused and no one was really around. I didn’t question it, I just ran. I just got into that real focused mentality of this is what I want to be doing. And I found good results from the training.”

Mary describes her focused, inward mentality and how it stemmed from her childhood. “My mum had some mental health issues, so I was mainly brought up by my grandma. And my dad also had mental health issues so he wasn’t around. So I think that growing up, needing to learn how to survive in not a traditional upbringing, it gave me a lot of inward strength that no matter what happens, you’re going to be OK.”

Mary’s healthy perspective on running helped her push through the more challenging aspects of training and racing.  

“I wouldn’t see a hard workout as something that would impact my life, I remembered it was fun. Growing up was hard and knowing that I had this amazing opportunity to go to the states, anything that was coming, it was fine, it was so much better than anything else.”

Although Mary mastered the art of having a wider understanding and bigger purpose for running, she struggled going elbow-to elbow with her competitors. Unlike many athletes, competition or rivalry was never her primary motivator.

“I’m not very competitive though with other people. I mean at nationals and Big 12s I wanted to win, but it was an inward drive of wanting to do my best and that was what got me the win.”

Looking back, Mary wishes she had more of a pack mentality when racing on the track. If she could have been able to use people more in races, especially in situations like the 10k at Payton Jordan, she may have fared better. But Mary liked to push the pace herself and take control of her own splits. You have to race to your strengths, and Mary always used her inward drive to push the pace.

“I think that goes back to my upbringing. It doesn’t matter to me what other people are doing. I don’t have a drive of beating everyone else. If I could have changed that mentality some, I think I could have performed better. We tried to work on that. But I found it hard to attach to people and let them do the work.”

Perhaps in some moments, having more of a drive to latch on and beat others may have helped Mary. However, it was likely Mary’s mental edge of not worrying about others that allowed her to execute her race plans and training sessions with confidence for most of her career. Her level of inward focus was so powerful and is one of the hardest skills to teach athletes today.

So, looking over Mary’s career, what can we learn? For me, there are three take home points. First, it’s hard to predict which 16-year-old stars will turn into NCAA stars and post-collegiate stars. It would have been impossible to predict Mary’s trajectory from watching her play Field Hockey as a child. Second, success is never guaranteed when you line up for a race. From my experiences, so many high school and collegiate runners (and even some pros) feel like they are the odd ones out for not improving race after race, year after year. Although there were parts of Mary’s career that followed neat, orderly success, a lot of it was interrupted by injury, illness, life developments, and, well, just bad races. However, Mary relished the good races and this attitude helped her continue in the sport. Third, it takes a special perspective to stay at the top of an elite sport for 10-years. Running with a purpose and intrinsic motivation helped Mary cultivate a mindset that pushed her day in and day out.