“I wasn’t always fast,” says Annie Thiessen, a Tacoma veterinarian who in the past 10 years has won well over 30 marathons. “I just don’t know what happened.” But she does know when it happened. It was 2005 and she was competing in a low-key marathon at Birch Bay State Park. The $5 entry fee didn’t cover aid stations or mile markers, so while she was running, she really had no idea of her pace. She only knew there was someone in front of her. “I kept thinking, I can catch that guy.”
She breezed through the finish line at three hours and 14 minutes. She couldn’t believe she was nearly a half hour quicker than her previous year’s time. And she won the race.
It was so far from her first marathon in 1995, which she barely finished and after which she vowed she would never race again. She had signed up for the Seattle Marathon thinking that since she could run 19 miles with a friend on the Palouse, a few more miles in Seattle wouldn’t be that difficult. “Oh, I was wrong,” she says. The first 19 miles went OK, but after that the world turned sideways. “I’m not clear about the details,” she says. She does know that she staggered through to a finish. She was hurt, sick, and barely able to move. “I was adamant I would never, ever, ever, ever do that again,” she says.
But she did. The very next year. And she did so again the year after. And again. And then two years ago she not only ran the Seattle Marathon, she won it.
In the past 15 years Thiessen has completed more than 100 marathons and ultra races. It’s not really a lifelong habit, though. She started running short distances as a child growing up in Minnesota. “I did it to get home from the stables on time so my mother wouldn’t think it was too late,” she says. She ran some in college, but didn’t think about doing it competitively until she was at WSU as a veterinary student and her running friend Lisa Broidy ’97 PhD pointed out that her runs were nearing marathon-length.
Recently Thiessen, who was fresh from winning the Yakima Marathon in three hours and 56 seconds, was relaxing with her husband Phil and cat Horton at their Tacoma home. They’re in the process of restoring the house, which they know dates to the late 1800s, and love how it just happens to be in a neighborhood popular with runners.
As she sits in the bay window of her dining room, she describes her training schedule, which includes rising at 5 a.m., lacing up her Asics (she has four pairs for training that she rotates and then retires after they’ve logged more than 400 miles), and dashing out her door to meet up with group of friends who include a pharmaceutical rep, an Army lieutenant, a lawyer, a therapist, and a teacher. They do one of their regular routes, logging seven to nine miles and “talking the whole time.” Then she heads home again for shower and a breakfast of eggs and veggies before heading to work at Chambers Creek Veterinary Hospital.
On weekends when she’s not competing, Thiessen meets up with another group of runners for distance work. But racing is her best way to get in the speed training she needs to maintain and improve her time. She loves to do it. When the gun goes off, it’s “Grrrr, kill, kill,” she admits—but is quick to add, “It’s the social aspect that I adore.” Everyone in the race has run the same hills, stopped at the same aid stations, and gotten lost in the same places. “No matter what your time is, it’s like you’ve all been to war together.”
And sometimes she just goes out on her own to look around. “I love to head out my door with nothing but (her running clothes and) a pair of tennis shoes,” she says. Her neighborhood, the north end of Tacoma is filled with beautiful old houses. “I love to run at twilight, so I can see inside,” she says. “It never gets boring.”
All her running and training have allowed her to eat what she wants, and keeps her pretty even-keeled, she says. But it has also taken its toll in stress fractures—her pelvis, her leg, and her foot. Sometimes she has to remind herself to slow down. Where she once ran a marathon (or two) every weekend, she now limits herself to about 10 a year. “I just needed to give my body a break,” she says.
But her version of a break is quite different. Now she and some of her training pals are in the habit of running ultramarathons of 50 kilometers to 100 miles. One of her favorite races is the White River 50 Mile Endurance run, which climbs up Crystal Mountain, goes through woods, offers great vistas, and includes only a few hundred of the toughest runners. In this group, Thiessen has managed a third-place win at eight hours and 29 minutes. She’s eager to go back and improve her time. “It’s all a state of mind,” she shrugs and smiles. “It’s a warped state of mind.” But for her it works.