Long-distance breakout star Ruth Brennan Morrey certainly took a circuitous route to where she is today. First, she was a NCAA Division I soccer star. Then a semi-pro soccer player. Then an Olympic Trials qualifying marathoner. Then a PHD in psychology, a mom of three and finally a professional triathlete. Here, the 38-year-old Rochester, Minn.-native fills us in on her less-than-typical journey to the top of the sport.
Triathlete.com: Tell us about your athletic background. Did you swim or run as a kid?
Brennan Morrey: Nope, I never swam and maybe ran one track race in high school. But I’ve been playing soccer for as far back as I can remember. If I wasn’t out on the field with my team, I’d be kicking a ball against a door. I wound up getting an athletic scholarship play at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a center midfielder. We won the Big 10 champs my freshman year and by the time I was a senior I was the team captain. During the summers in college, I played on the Chicago Cobras, a semi-pro women’s soccer team. Soccer was my life.
Triathlete.com: So how did you start running, then?
Brennan Morrey: After my four years of eligibility at Wisconsin, I randomly joined a marathon training class for credit. In order to pass, you had to run a marathon and also learn about the physiology and nutritional aspects of distance running. The running was actually the easiest part! I came in third place at the 1998 Madison Marathon and ran a 3:15. A couple days later, I played in a 90-minute soccer game, so I knew I probably had a lot more in me. At that point, I made a goal to break three hours in my next marathon.
Triathlete.com: And did you?
Brennan Morrey: Yes, much to my surprise, I ran 2:48:20 at Grandma’s Marathon in 1999. My brother—a 2:32 marathoner—created a training plan for me and ran with me at Grandma’s. At one point, he said, “If you keep this pace up, you’ll qualify for the Olympic Trials!” I ignored him, but I wound up qualifying, got myself a coach and ran on a team for a short period of time. At the Trials race in 2000, I placed 33rd and ran 2:48:17.
Triathlete.com: Then you took a rather lengthy break from competition. Why?
Brennan Morrey: At the time, I was running quite a bit and was very injury prone. I kind of burned myself out. I got to the point where I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, so I gave up running. I shifted my focus to grad school, and later my post-grad work in psychology. I got married to my husband Mark and had my kids, Connor, Shea and Finn [now ages 9, 7, and 4]. All told, I took about 10 years off.
Triathlete.com: But it wasn’t like you completely cut ties with the sport all together, right?
Brennan Morrey: Actually, my Masters degree is in athletic counseling and sports psychology, and my thesis was on comparing self-talk between elite and non-elite marathon runners. So I definitely stayed connected to the running world even though I wasn’t competing any more. And I ran here and there and rode my bike maybe once a month. Mark and I jumped into a triathlon in 2002, but I didn’t fall in love with it immediately. I didn’t know how to swim back then, and I wasn’t really good on the bike.
Triathlete.com: What prompted the shift back to racing?
Brennan Morrey: In 2011, we were down in Florida for Mark’s medical rotation—he’s an orthopedic surgeon—and a consultant he was working with is a big triathlete. He invited me out to run with his tri team, and there was one long run in particular where we held a 6-minute pace on a 13-mile run. After that, all of the guys started encouraging me to do a half-Ironman, just to see if I could complete it. I started training with them, and ended up coming in third at the Chicago Lakes Triathlon that July. Then someone else said, “Hey, you should try to qualify for the ITU Long Distance World Championships,” which was just a few months later in Henderson, Nev. I thought he was crazy, but I figured, I might as well go for it. I qualified by placing third overall at the Pigman Long Course Triathlon in August, then in November went to the World Champs and finished as the first overall amateur and ninth among the pros.
Triathlete.com: And this was all with a very limited swimming background?
Brennan Morrey: Yes, at first, I didn’t even know how far it was from one side of the pool to the other. It’s been a process, but I have taken all sorts of lessons, and I am finally feeling much more comfortable and faster in the water. Duathlon may play to my strengths [editor’s note: Brennan Morrey was selected by USAT as the 2013 Elite Duathlete of the Year and placed third in the ITU Long Distance Duathlon World Championships last September], but I actually embrace the challenge of swimming. Besides, I love coming from behind!
Triathlete.com: You only competed as an age-grouper for two seasons before turning pro last year. What was behind that decision?
Brennan Morrey: Mostly, it’s my age. I’m 38, so turning pro was a “now or never” type of decision. I just wanted to see how far I could get in the sport. Also, an age-grouper, there were races where I’d win by a 10- to 15-minute margin and I thought I’d get more appreciation and love out of the sport if I competed against some of the big names. I’m still a no-name, but I hope to be building on that. I’d much rather come in the top five as a pro than winning an amateur race.
Triathlete.com: You live in Rochester, Minn.—not necessarily a mecca for triathletes. Do you mostly train alone, or do you have a group you work with?
Brennan Morrey: I’d say 90 to 95 percent of my training is solo—and that’s primarily a factor of my family and trying to stay balanced with my life. I do train with a Masters swim group here, but my runs and rides—including my long rides on the weekends—are primarily on my own, and I enjoy that. I get workouts from my coach Phil Skiba, who also works with [Scottish triathlete] Cat Morrison and runs PhysFarm Training Systems, and I usually fit in everything before the kids get home from school.
Triathlete.com: Speaking of your kids, how have you managed to strike a balance between being a professional triathlete and a full-time mom?
Brennan Morrey: Right now, I try to get out of the house as early as possible so that I’m home by the time they are waking up and they don’t even realize that I’m gone. I do have a sitter who comes every morning at 5 a.m. who is able to help us quite a bit in getting the kids up and ready to go. Every day is a little different, but I try as best as I can to fit everything in while they’re in school so I can focus on homework with them and getting dinner ready and whatever evening activities we may have. It’s a nonstop day from the time I wake up until they go to bed, but it’s a good distraction to have.
Along the same lines, having something to focus on outside of my kids is so important for me. I decided last year to take time off of work so that I wouldn’t be spread too thin with my family and training, so now triathlon serves as my very own passion. This pushes me to be a better athlete—and a better mom. I want to set a good example for them by working hard, and not giving up.
Triathlete.com: You recently placed fifth among a deep field at Ironman 70.3 Panama with the fastest run of the day. What’s next for you?
Brennan Morrey: My goal is to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Champs. So I’ll be doing Texas on April 6, then the U.S. Pro Champs in St. George on May 3, Kansas in June, Racine in July, and then, hopefully, the World Champs in September. If I don’t qualify, I’ll go to the Long Distance Duathlon World Champs again.
Triathlete.com: Any Ironman plans?
Brennan Morrey: I’ll start a Kona 2015 campaign with my first Ironman race at the end of September in Chattanooga. I can’t wait for that marathon! Right now, I think I’m in low 2:40 [marathon] shape, so it will be really exciting to see what I can do off the bike. I’ll actually be turning 40 on the day of the Ironman World Championship in 2015, and I can’t think of any better way to celebrate my birthday than in Kona.