For once, normal seemed to be all right. A well-paying job as a quality assurance specialist in the food industry, a steady boyfriend, and an apartment in Seattle.
It was far from everything Laura Galvan had known. Far from her close-knit family in Guanajuato, Mexico. Far from her standout collegiate running career at Kansas State University. Certainly far from any Olympic dreams she had since she made the Mexican National team year after year as a teenager.
For half her life, running defined her. The endless workouts, the early mornings and the late nights, all in search of a few extra seconds on race day. Some would say burnout was inevitable, and now, three years after her last competitive race, running was an afterthought.
But what if you start running again, just for fun? Just a little, and then some more?
What happens when you sign up for your first marathon ever, just because your boyfriend is running it? And then qualify for Boston with almost no training at 27 years of age, a quarter-life crossroads?
Well, you start thinking in ‘what ifs.’ And there goes the normal.
Laura Galvan’s not sure how she actually got into running. Nobody in her family was athletic, but at the age of 11, a teacher in school urged her to participate in a local race between schools. She won. That same teacher connected her to a coach. She kept winning.
Galvan was clearly a natural, but it wasn’t easy work. Without a track nearby, and the idea of a “pre-teen running career” low on the list of familial priorities, running practice came by way of a 45-minute bus ride, alone, after school, to a track outside the city. She typically wouldn’t get home until 9 p.m. Nevertheless, she did it for almost two years.
“I don’t know why I kept going, it was a big hassle doing that,” recalls Galvan. “At that point, I didn’t have an idea of what I was doing. I would just do what coach told me.”
However, the work paid off. In 2004, at 13 years of age, Galvan qualified for Mexico’s National Championships and placed second in the 1200m. “After that, I really wanted to keep on winning,” says Galvan.
From there she went on to win a number of medals during her teenage years, which eventually caught the attention of Coach Michael Smith of Kansas State. She committed to run for the Wildcats and shortly thereafter found herself smack dab in the middle of the United States, far from home for the first time ever, with only a cursory knowledge of English.
“I just had my teammates and coach, and they became my family,” remembers Galvan, 28. “It was really hard, but I just focused on that hard work, going to classes, trying to learn English, and trying to do the best I could in my practices.”
She excelled both on and off the track, becoming fluent in English, graduating with a degree in food science, and finishing in the top 15 in the Big 12 Cross Country Championships three years in a row.
After graduation, Galvan had options: Pursue running further, or do the “normal” adult thing. While a lot of runners in their young twenties would choose the former, the truth is, Galvan just wanted to experience life outside of running. After all, for half her life, her identity fit into the box of “student-athlete.” She never had a real job, an apartment, or her own car. Her normal was not most people’s normal. She just wanted to be, well, like everyone else.
“Running had taken me all these places, but [ever since] I was young, I wanted to finish college and have a job,” says Galvan. “I felt like I needed a break. I didn’t want to get up at six [a.m.] and train and be tired. It was weird because I just didn’t want to go run.”
She stopped running for the most part, hitting the roads maybe once or twice a week. With her focus away from the sport, she turned to her work as a kitchen production manager in Manhattan, Kan., before she was offered a job in Chicago as a food specialist. After working there for a year, she took another offer and found herself on the other side of the country in Seattle.
At that point, almost three years had passed since she ran competitively; however, she found herself starting to put in some more miles, especially now that she was living in the running-conducive weather of the Pacific Northwest. As she upped the mileage, she noticed that her pacing was really good at an easy pace, often dipping into the high 5’s during long runs.
Shortly thereafter, she qualified for Boston at the 2018 Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, and everything changed. “I felt all the things I used to feel when training and competing at a high level,” says Galvan.
When she went back to Guanajuato in December of 2018 to visit family, she ran into her former coach Cecilio Blancarte Godinez, who implored her to come back and give elite running one more shot. Her stay at home lasted three weeks, with her coach’s words running in a continual cycle through her head. When it was time to go back to Seattle, she wasn’t ready.
But when she got back to Seattle, her mind had been made: She was ready to go back home, to Guanajuato, for good.
Some of her family members thought she was nuts. Her boyfriend struggled to understand. She had a high-paying job, a great life in the States– why give that up for a moonshot at running, something she hadn’t done competitively since college?
“I just thought, ‘If I don’t try to run again, I’m 27 and time will go, and I won’t have this ever again. I can always find a job somewhere, but running, I will never have that, because time just goes,’” recalls Galvan.
Within a week, she had packed up and moved back to Mexico. Then, it was time to do work, and a lot of it. “Knowing that I left my job, one of the best jobs I’ll ever have, and I broke up a relationship I had for a year, my focus was to give 110%, to be good at what I really wanted to do,” says Galvan.
Her success came so quickly, even she was surprised. Within three months of returning to Mexico, she had qualified for the 1500m and the 5000m at the 2019 Pan-American Games. Training at nearly 9,000 feet of elevation certainly helped, as did her natural talent and commitment to hard work. “As a young girl, I saw my mom working really hard to provide everything for us, and I felt like that work ethic she always showed, that I was doing that, but in running,” says Galvan. During her training over the next several months, Galvan focused on the 1500m distance, hoping to medal at the Games in Lima, Peru.
It was all for nothing, almost.
At the Pan-American Games on August 9, Galvan ran a smart race in the 1500m, lingering in the back of the pack before surging in the last 200 meters; however, her finishing kick came up short and she finished in fourth place.
But there was still the 5000m. It wasn’t her strongest event and the race was set to start only 45 minutes later, a quick turnaround to say the least. “I thought, ‘Well I don’t know, but what I know is it’s an opportunity. I’ll throw myself in there and see what happens,’” says Galvan.
She wasn’t quite sure what to do, so she ate some honey, snacked on a bar– she even sat down and put her feet up for a couple minutes, certainly raising some eyebrows. After that, a couple quick strides before lining up at the start, and suddenly they were off.
The leaders went out slower than she expected, and Galvan was able to hang on without too much effort. With 400 meters to go she had a solid lock on third place. It went that way until the last 200 meters, when she made her move, this time at the right time. She edged up on Canadian Jessica O’Connell and overtook American Kimberly Conley. And while O’Connell nearly came back in the last 50 meters, Galvan hung on, her fingernails painted with the Mexican flag, pulling magic out of thin air. She crossed the finish line in 15:35:47, another gold medal in a long line of Mexican women runners at the Pan-American Games.
“It was definitely one of those moments you’ll never forget,” says Galvan. “I was really happy to have a medal for Mexico, and just so happy to bring it home.”
Shortly thereafter, Galvan signed a deal with her first sponsor, HOKA ONE ONE. It’s a symbiotic partnership– HOKA is intentional on making inroads into the Latinx community while Galvan is able to train and race in a variety of shoes that suit her needs, from the Clifton 6 on long runs to the Carbon Rocket and Carbon X on speed and tempo days.
The signing paid immediate dividends as Galvan finished third in the 3000m at the Millrose Games on February 8 (8:49.74), breaking the Mexican national indoor record in the process.
As for future plans, Galvan was intent on representing Mexico in the 2020 Olympic Games, but due to the novel coronavirus, those plans are on hold. However, she feels confident she’ll be able to build on her performances over the past year and carry them over into Mexico’s Olympic Trials (the rescheduled date has yet to be determined). When the time comes, she has no doubt she’ll be ready.
“To me, sometimes it’s easier to compete than train, because you have to train hard every day, and it’s a job. You have to have a really strong mindset and do something that you really, really want to. Races are just doing that you did in training.”
For her, that’s just normal.