Running with the Olympic Spirit

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
— Baron de Coubertin, The Olympic Creed

There’s only 24 hours in a day and Alyssa Vassallo is determined to make every one of them count. Currently in her second year of medical school at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Alyssa also finds the time to train for the Olympic Marathon Trials. The race won’t be held till February 2020, but Alyssa is not letting any day go to waste.

“Running in the trials is a big dream of mine and I don’t want to keep thinking to myself that I could’ve done it but I never tried and gave myself that fair shot,” said Alyssa. “I love pushing myself to the limit and with running, it’s just so cut and dry — you did it or you didn’t.”

Alyssa is doing everything she can to ensure she has that fair shot. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Alyssa logs easy miles, which range from 10-15 mile runs. She spends Tuesdays and Fridays working on speed, and also fits in strength training on those days. Sundays are long run days, where she’ll put in about 22-24 miles. All told, Alyssa averages 90-100 miles per week. She rests every 14th day or so, but even on those days, she cross-trains — either biking or swimming.

With a full class load to manage as well, Alyssa typically completes her training in the early mornings. She usually embarks on her runs between 6:15-6:30 and finishes around 7:30. She purposefully lives right across the street from campus so she can quickly transition from athlete to student. Because with both running and studying, time is of the essence.

“With medicine you can never know enough,” said Alyssa. “There’s always so much more you can learn and there’s so many resources you can use. So when I’m done with my runs, the entire rest of the day is spent studying.”

Alyssa Vassallo, semi-professional runner on a track and field.

Alyssa’s professors understand her unique situation and are very supportive of her endeavor. Last year, they let her move around her exam schedule when she competed in Nationals and the Dean will even dogsit for her when she’s on the road.

Alyssa is typically away every other month as she has a short break following a 7-week block of classes and exams. On her week off, Alyssa heads to Boulder, CO, where she trains with a running group.
“Those are the best weeks, when I can train with everyone,” said Alyssa. “We’ll make dinner and desserts and watch any races that are going on.”

It was during a week out in Boulder that Alyssa heard of 88 Acres from one of her friends.

“I became obsessed with the seed butters — especially that pumpkin seed one,” said Alyssa.

Alyssa usually includes Seed Butters in her breakfast. Her go-to meal is energy bites, which include mashed banana, oats and Pumpkin Seed Butter.

Alyssa Vassallo training for her Olympic Trials marathon run.

Despite having so much to manage, Alyssa gets into the zone whenever she runs. Everything else takes a back seat — the only thing that matters is the run.

“I’m mostly focusing on form and just trying to be the most efficient with using the least amount of energy,” said Alyssa. “And then on harder efforts, like if I’m supposed to be going at a 5:30 pace, I’ll be looking at my watch checking it, pretty much like every minute to 2 minutes to make sure I’m on pace. My mind goes nowhere else besides times and numbers and stuff like that.”

Alyssa is aiming for a time between 2:43:00-2:44:00, which will require her to maintain ~6:15 pace for 26.2 miles. To qualify for the Olympic trials in Atlanta, she’ll have to run a marathon below the 2:45:00 mark. Only the top 3 finishers from that race will travel to Tokyo that summer for the Olympics, and Alyssa recognizes that it’s unlikely that she’ll reach that tier. But for her, it’d be an honor to just take part in the trials and compete with some of the greatest athletes in the world.

Alyssa Vassallo is a semi-professional runner and full-time medical student at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.