Caroline White will be competing in the Marathon Olympic Trials this Saturday, vying for one of the three spots on the Olympic team. She will be racing amongst the nation’s fastest runners, although her journey to becoming a nationally competitive athlete is unprecedented. White’s experiences as a jumpmaster, triathlete, and pilot allowed her to develop into the runner she is today.
While most Olympic caliber athletes started their distance training in high school, White took a different path and focused on pole-vaulting during her high school career. She loved the challenge, technique, and strength required with this event, and continued to compete during her freshman year at the Air Force Academy.
While White excelled at the pole vault, she was recruited for a different team after her freshman year – the Air Force Parachute team. White has since parachuted out of a plane more than 600 times. While at the Academy, White advanced through the ranks to become the jump master and represented the Air Force in public events like landing on the field of an NCAA football game.
While at the Air Force Academy, White could never be defined by a simple label. She wasn’t just a jock; she was a Rhodes Scholar finalist. She wasn’t just a cadet; she expanded her horizons doing everything from scuba diving to climbing mountains.
It wasn’t until after college that White decided to give distance running another try. At the urging of one of her friends, she decided to train for a marathon. Once again, White could not commit to just one challenging activity, but decided to compete in a full Ironman triathlon as well after two months of marathon training. Upon winning her division at the Coeur D’Alene Ironman, White went on to place 12th in her division at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
It was obvious after White’s marathon in her Philadelphia Marathon debut of 3:09 that she had untapped potential at the 26.2 mile distance. While White used an online training plan to run her first marathon, she decided her next goal would be to qualify for the marathon trials. Being active duty in the Air Force, White could not pursue the typical path of joining a training group. As White moved across the country for pilot training and Air Force duties, she was able to enlist Randy Ashley of ZAP fitness to coach her from afar.
Many elite marathoners deal with the stresses of balancing training with part-time or even full-time jobs, but very few athletes have to schedule their runs around flight schedules. White acknowledges the challenge of being both a pilot and a marathoner, but feels the two even complement each other.
“If it is a very challenging flying day, I won’t run beforehand,” White explains due to the physical effects of experiencing multiple g-forces. “But flying also makes me a stronger runner. Flying teaches the will to survive – If I don’t do this right, I will die. It teaches an incredible amount of discipline, and on the flip side, running serves as a stress reliever to help me be a better pilot.”
White’s efforts of balancing solo training runs with life as a pilot paid off in October of 2009 when she met the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 2:46 with 39 seconds to spare. White crossed the finish line of the Medtronic Twin Cities marathon in 2:45.21. Since her qualifying performance, White has since lowered her personal best to 2:37:30 to cross the finish line as the fifth American woman at the 2011 Boston Marathon.
Along her journey, White slowly realized that what she is doing is inspiring to other women. One of the first times that White recalls this awareness starting to sink in was after her pilot training assignments were announced. When White received her assignment and it was announced that she was assigned to the F-15, people were shocked. Only a dozen pilots are assigned to this particular plane each year, and very few females have ever flown an F-15.
“After my assignment, this woman came up to me and said, ‘I don’t even know you, but I cried when you got your assignment. I am so happy for you.’ That really touched me,” White explained.
White is eager to use her experiences to inspire others. She has spoken to girl scout troops in Oregon and given tours of the Air Force base. After moving to Colorado Springs as part of the World Class Athlete program to train for the marathon full-time, White even took fellow athletes from the Olympic Training Center on a tour of the Air Force Academy.
When White lines up for the Olympic Trials Marathon on January 14, she knows that her PR of 2:37 is ten or more minutes off the time the leaders should run, but she is still optimistic. After all, White was not even a runner during the last Olympics and is now one of the top 40 marathoners in the U.S. While making the Olympic team may be more of a reality for White in 2016 or 2020, it is a goal that would bring a familiar pride to Captain White.
“I think making the Olympic team would be the same type of pride I have in being in the Air Force,” she said. “It’s values, discipline and dedication that bring you to both. They are both too difficult to do for your own reasons; you have to be driven by higher purposes.”