“I just don’t know if I’m built for this sport. My body just isn’t handling it.”

Emily Infeld said those words to Jerry Schumacher, her coach at the Bowerman Track Club, last December. In August she won bronze in the 10,000m at the Beijing World Championships. This is how it all went right for the American.

World champs bronze was the indisputable high of Emily Infeld’s whirlwind summer. When SPIKES speaks to her two days after her win in Beijing, she is giddy with excitement and disbelief. The Ohio-native’s cheer provides scant hint of the grit inside; to appreciate that you have to consider the season she has just had, and the woe that preceded it.

It’s pretty easy to map out Infeld’s 2015. The first coordinate is Payton Jordan, where in May she ran her first ever track 10,000m. It went better than expected.

“[The plan] was to run the first four miles at 5.16 pace,” she recalls. “But everyone went out so hard and I was dead last. I just tried to go with it.”

She rode out the early jostling and emerged at the tail end of the race in the lead pack, crossing the line in 31:38.71 – sixth place in a field of 37. It was a surprise. Infeld was originally penciled in for the 5000m, but that changed after a very modest 68-second flat out 400m in training the week before. But on the back of her Payton Jordan performance, Wisconsin-born Schumacher told his fellow Midwesterner that she had a chance of making the world team over the longer distance.

“I didn’t realise that I was in that good a shape,” she says. “I’d only been back running for about six weeks.”

Emily Infeld ()

RACE MANAGEMENT: Infeld tucked in in third position during the 10k at USA nationals in Eugene

The next grid reference is Eugene, Oregon, where in blistering June heat at USA nationals, Infeld finished third in the 10,000m. Like at Payton Jordan, she stuck with the pace and, when it got down to business, was there with the lead pack. Schumacher had been right: she was on the team.

Joining her would be her Bowerman training partner and 2008 Olympic medallist Shalane Flanagan, who Infeld credits as being a huge inspiration as well as a great friend. “She has really helped to guide me,” she says of the American 10,000m record holder. “She’s given me advice on absolutely everything, on running and on life in general.”

Even with an experienced foil, Infeld’s performance in Eugene was a surprise. Her reaction when we spoke to her at the time speaks volumes: “I’m still in shock! I was so happy just crossing the line. I don’t know. I feel really great. I’m so excited! It’s just really fun. This is what I wanted so bad.”

Emily Infeld ()

"I’m still in shock! I was so happy just crossing the line."

Which points the compass to Beijing, where in the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium, Infeld repeated the trick. Once again, the 25-year-old could be seen holding a position in the lead group, tight to the rail, all elbows and forearms, fighting for space. As others wilted, she was still at the front in the home stretch, arrowing under the arm of her fellow American Molly Huddle to win bronze on the line. It was the USA's only middle distance medal of the championships.

Thirty-six hours on, the achievement has still not sunk in: “I’m so thrilled. I’m so excited. I feel like I just keep smiling. It’s just so crazy.”

You could call the Georgetown University graduate a classic middle distance scrapper. You could call her the ultimate opportunist. She is both. The two qualities make her a brilliant race tactician, though she plays down that suggestion.

“You have to have a little luck on your side too,” she deprecates. “The race kind of played out exactly to my abilities.”

Another thing she has is strength, both physically and mentally. The source can be traced back to her injury struggles. Infeld missed the last two seasons because of consecutive stress fractures to her sacrum – the bone that connects the spine with the hips. Her recovery from the first, on the left side, was compounded by the news in December that she had repeated the injury, this time on the right side. She was crushed.

“I wanted to give up,” she admits. “There were definitely times I thought ‘I just need to go back to school, go back to business school or something and find a career’.”

#trainingpartnergoals

She was talked back from the brink, but not without taking a step back. After her first sacral stress fracture she had rushed to get back; the second fracture was most likely a consequence of doing “too much too soon”. Twice shy, in her second bout of rehab she trusted the process and trained smart. Her steady return included swimming (“I HATE swimming”), aqua jogging and Alter-G treadmill sessions (“a saviour to me”). When she began running outdoors again, she says it was about putting quality before high mileage.

“Jerry’s training is all about strength. He loves long, hard workouts on the track. I love our long runs that we do. We make them in to a work out. I hate doing them, because they’re so hard for me. But I know because it’s super hard that I’m working on something that I need to be working on, and I can get some benefit from it.”

This robust base explains her ability to fight her way out of tight races. The decision to fight on after the soul-searching that followed her repeat injury is evidence of her mental resilience. That was always there – she was turned down from Cleveland AAU as a child so took up race walking before joining her high school track club. So when the opportunities came along, when the luck that anyone needs to achieve success presented itself, Infeld was in prime spot to grab the moment with both hands.

But in spite of having glittering summer while still short of full fitness, it’s clear that Infeld’s injuries have had an effect on her outlook.

“It’s hard,” she says. “In my heart of hearts I know what I want. I have goals.

“[Winning bronze] definitely gave me confidence in that sense, and gave me hope for next year. But I’m trying to take it day by day. You never know what’s going to happen.

“I think getting injured has helped me with that; helped me think that you can’t think too much about the future.” 

Emily Infeld ()

ICYMI: "A medal for patience, persistence and sheer force of personality."

Whatever happens, Infeld’s return this year couldn’t have gone much better. A week on, when we run into her at the Zurich Diamond League, she is still a bag of smiles. Her aim was originally just to “make it through the season”; the podium finish in Beijing was a surreal bonus that is still sinking in.

An outing over 3000m at the Weltklasse was her last race of the summer. She is now back in Portland, and can enjoy a winter sampling all of Oregon’s delights – the outdoors, tasty food, tasty wines – in good shape, raring to get back to what she was born to do.

“I wanted to give up but Jerry was great, my teammates are great. I’m really happy that I stuck with it, and I love it so much. I love running.”