By Paul Gains
It wasn’t until she stood atop the winner’s podium at the 2012 Ottawa 10k that Lindsey Scherf realised the enormity of her accomplishment.
Receiving $6,000 for her victory was one thing; realising Geoffrey Mutai, one of the world’s greatest distance runners had won the men’s race, was another. That’s certainly exalted company.
Now, a year later, the 26 year old native of Westchester, New York is committed to defending the title she won with a time of 33:12.8.
“It was my first win, besides a little local race, since I left college,” she remembers. “So it was sort of a big deal for me. I guess I didn’t realise the significance of the race - being an IAAF silver label race. And I didn’t expect to come in and win the race.”
That contest was a comeback of sorts. The previous fall she had undergone surgery to remove an extra bone in her foot and was cautious in her return to proper training. To avoid the ice and snow, her longtime coach, Mike Barnow of the Westchester Track Club, suggested she spend the winter in North Carolina where the footing would be less treacherous.
“My best friend from high school got her master’s degree down here so immediately I inherited a bunch of her friends,” Scherf reveals. “It was supposed to be a temporary thing but I love it here. There’s nice places to train. I decided to stay and feel very much at home here. I live in Chapel Hill.”
Along with the heavy training program she has undertaken Scherf is also enrolled in an Emergency Medical Technician course, which is equivalent to the initial paramedic training Canadian medics take.
Scherf graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and did her Master’s degree in Kinesiology at the University of Michigan. At one point she had planned to become a US Air Force fighter pilot and signed up for the training program thinking that she could eventually go to medical school. However, she was deemed not fit because of her lifelong exercise-induced asthma. This condition would cause her undue problems in 2007.
“I love the idea of flying planes, something that is a challenge,” she declares. “Technically women can be as good, if not better, fighter pilots as men because they can withstand more ‘G’ forces and again I think its something I would be good at.
“It didn’t end up working out for me, almost for the better, in a certain sense, because I wouldn’t have got back into running. I always thought of the idea of medicine, even when I was in the air force. They will pay for your education, for medical school. Now, I am ending up at the same destination just a different route to it.”
In 2007 she spent a semester studying in Australia and decided to enter the Gold Coast Marathon in Brisbane. Her father, acting as her agent, was told she needed an international Therapeutic Use Exception or TUE from USA Track and Field so she could continue using the asthma medication, Flovent. She had used this medication since the age of 13.
The application was made nine weeks before the race but the paperwork didn’t arrive in time. Reluctant to run without the TUE she says the race director convinced her by pointing out the event had not been subjected to doping control the past few years. To her horror, after the race doping officials approached her for a urine sample. Mistakenly, she refused the test, thinking that the repercussions would be less than if she tested positive for the asthma medication. Although the US Anti Doping Agency acknowledged there were extenuating circumstances she was suspended for a year.
“Sometimes these frustrating situations happen and you just try and make the best and move on,” Scherf says of the incident. “I think, at the end of the day, at least my integrity was intact.
“I am still taking the same asthma medication I have been taking since I was 13 years old. It controls my asthma. It reduces the attacks and my symptoms. Now the IAAF no longer requires a TUE for Flovent. They no longer consider it an issue.”
Such character assassinations aside, there’s no denying that Scherf is a tough international competitor. She placed second at the 2012 US 25k national championship and admits she is better suited to the longer distances. But in her buildup to this year’s Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend she ran eleven seconds faster in the Cooper River Bridge Run 10k than a year ago.
“My goal of the year is to run my favourite distance, which is the half marathon,” she reveals. “I am really targeting the US Half Marathon championships. It’s not a record-eligible course, I can’t control the competition, but my goal is to run under 1 hour 10 minutes by the end of June.”
But first there’s her return to Ottawa. This time she will approach the race as a defending champion and with a newfound understanding of how prestigious an IAAF silver label race really is.