Heather Oliva is running in just her third marathon on Saturday, and it’ll be alongside runners with Olympic aspirations.
The 29-year-old personal trainer qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon last November, which she ran in two hours, 44 minutes, and 28 seconds. (Women must run a marathon in under two hours and 45 minutes to qualify.) She and two other San Antonio women – Erica Kirkwood and Anita Perez – will be among about 480 competing in Atlanta on Saturday for one of three spots on the U.S. women’s Olympic marathon team.
Although none of the three are expected to grab one of those spots, this event features the highest number of qualified racers from San Antonio that local running coach Gary Brimmer, who works with Perez, has seen since he moved to San Antonio in 1994. (San Antonian Ryan Miller also is running in Atlanta in the men’s marathon trial.)
“All three of them are tremendously talented athletes, and they are very very disciplined and hardworking young women,” Brimmer said. “They deserve all the accolades they earn.”
Oliva started training for marathons two years ago, but only recently was able to complete one. She was a college track and field athlete, but was rarely able to compete, Oliva said.
“I ran my freshman year in college,” she said. “[Sixteen minutes and 58 seconds] in a 5K. That was the extent of my running career – always start running a bit, get injured. Start running again, get injured.”
Oliva’s injuries stemmed from anorexia, an eating disorder that led her to restrict her food intake severely while still exercising every day. She sustained eight stress fractures over a three-year period in college. Doctors told her as a teenager that she had osteoporosis – a result of her not eating enough since she was 12, she said.
“When I got the results of my bone density test when I was 18, the doctor said, ‘You have the bones of a 70-year-old,’” Oliva said.
More than a decade after that diagnosis, Oliva is healthy and making a long-shot bid for an Olympic spot in a crowded field. It’s the first year that this many women qualified for the trials, Oliva said. She theorized that part of that increase could be attributed to more women in general running, and how women in the running world bond with each other.
The men’s marathon qualifier is also Saturday in Atlanta, with a field of more than 200.
“No one is vindictive, no one runs nasty,” Oliva said of her fellow marathon competitors. “Everyone is extremely supportive. They pace with each other, they even make groups before the race starts and say, ‘Hey, what’s your goal? How are you going to pace this?’ And that’s been huge for this change in the Olympic trials and why there are so many women. Women really come together in races to support one another, and it makes a big difference.”
Oliva stays fit as part of her professional life as well. She has been working as a personal trainer for more than four years and has been coaching herself, waking up at 3:30 a.m. every day and running by 4 a.m. She runs alone, with no headphones.
“It is very much a stress reliever,” she said. “It’s very meditative. I can be running 20 miles and completely zone out for 20 miles, and come back and tell you, ‘I don’t even know what I was thinking about.’’
Though Oliva said she doesn’t think anyone can ever fully recover from an eating disorder, running marathons has allowed her to regain control over her body and sense of self.
“It’s given me a sense of freedom, of purpose,” Oliva said. “It makes me a little more grateful for all that I have overcome. Not only am I back running, but the marathon is a beast. To handle the mileage I’m putting in now, and when I could barely get to those miles years ago – it’s a big accomplishment for me.”
When Oliva graduated from college – a college athlete in name only, she said, as she was almost never able to compete due to constant injuries – she decided that she would focus on getting healthy. She started weight training and putting on muscle, which she said helped take weight off of her bones. She hasn’t had a stress fracture since college.
Oliva also credits her husband as a large motivator to stay healthy. He doesn’t run with her, but he never misses a race, she said. And together, they raise her “No. 1 accomplishment” – her 3-year-old son Axyl. Doctors originally told her she’d never have kids due to health complications from her eating disorder.
“My body was really struggling,” Oliva said. “The first time I was hospitalized I was 85 pounds, and I’m 5-5. I was about 100 pounds when they were going to re-hospitalize me when I was 18. So that’s why we consider him my greatest achievement – they always told me I wouldn’t be able to have kids.”
Axyl will turn 4 on Wednesday. He’s an active child and plays lacrosse with kids a few years older than he is, “swimming” in his helmet that was designed for larger children. He also likes to accompany his mom when she trains, Oliva said.
“My son will take any run I agree to to push him in the stroller,” Oliva said. “He puts in quite a few miles in the stroller.”
Oliva will run in Atlanta around noon on Saturday, cheered on by Axyl and her husband, Anderson. She’s not running with the singular goal to make the Summer Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo, but to push herself as an athlete.
“My goal for this trial is not necessarily to chase after those first three spots,” Oliva said. “I want to better my time, run a faster marathon, run with literally the fastest women in the United States, and see how high I can place among those women.”