By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor
Published: June 3, 2015, 9:23 PM
Alexa Efraimson reflects on her first year as a professional runner.
On a recent rainy afternoon, one of the hottest young names in American running blazed around the Hudson’s Bay High School track.
As Alexa Efraimson’s eyes locked onto the finish line ahead, each step kicked up water behind.
She was doing the unglamorous work of building her speed, 150 meters of sprinting at a time. The only onlookers were her coach, a journalist, a local resident training on his own and the occasional crow.
It was a low-key and humble setting compared to the previous Saturday, when Efraimson made a resounding statement to the track and field world.
At the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., the 18 year old ran the fastest 1,500 meters ever by an American woman younger than 20. Her time of 4 minutes, 3.39 seconds shaved more than three seconds off her previous best time.
In a race filled with world-class talent, much of the buzz was about the runner who placed seventh despite being two weeks shy of her graduation from Camas High School.
No longer was anyone doubting her decision to turn professional last summer and forgo her senior year of high school competition. The conversation had turned to whether she might earn a spot on the U.S. team headed to the World Championships in August.
But Efraimson’s breakthrough didn’t come overnight. Rather, it capped an exciting, eventful and sometimes tumultuous year that began with her final high school race.
“I’ve grown a lot over the past year,” Efraimson said.
From prep to pro
One year ago, Efraimson was also in track and field’s national spotlight. At the state meet in Tacoma, she broke the national high school record in the 1,600 meters.
The speculation was already swirling that the race might be Efraimson’s last as an amateur runner. She was weighing turning professional, following the audacious and unconventional path of forgoing college competition.
It was a decision she didn’t take lightly. And it weighed on her throughout a summer that showed both her immense talent and where she needed to improve.
Two weeks after the state meet, she ran a 1,500 personal-best of 4:07.05 against professionals at a Diamond League meet June 14 in New York. That showed she could perform in top-flight races.
But two weeks later, she failed to qualify for the finals in the 1,500 at the U.S. outdoor championships. She faded down the stretch in the Sacramento heat.
“I felt like she kinda got beat up a little bit at the U.S. nationals,” her coach Mike Hickey said. “But that’s OK. That’s where we learn and get better.”
The Junior World Championships the following month in Eugene also offered a learning opportunity. Efraimson ran with the lead pack until the final 100 meters, where she faded to sixth.
She chalked it up to another lesson.
“She’s a very intelligent, diligent and focused person,” Hickey said. “And if she makes a mistake twice, she’s very thoughtful about like ‘I did it again, did I?’ It’s OK, you’re 18 years old.”
In August, Efraimson made the decision to sign a professional contract with Nike.
“Honestly without my family, friends and coach, I wouldn’t be in the place I am today,” she said. “My decision to go pro wasn’t just my decision. It was all of our decision. They helped me weigh the balances and make sure every decision I make I’m going full into it and not half-effort.”
Efraimson says she has grown both physically and mentally in the past year.
She has crafted the late-race kick she lacked at times the previous summer. A rich diet of sprint and strength training and accompanies the nearly 70 miles a week she now runs. Hickey said her training occupies up to four hours a day.
Efraimson also said her mental approach in the days before a big race has changed.
“I’d say for the really big races, I have to make sure I stay calm,” she said. “The day of, I’ll start focusing more on it. But the week before, making sure I don’t overthink things.”
And there’s also the fact that Efraimson balances professional-level training with being a high school student. There are still classes to attend, including a full slate through Clark College’s Running Start program. She will attend the University of Portland in the fall.
There are still friends and hang out with and life experiences to have. Her friends on the Camas track and field team say Efraimson is still the same “goofy kid” she has always been.
“The media and the success, that’s the running side,” she said. “But when I’m with my friends, I just want to be myself. … But when I’m at practice, that’s where I focus on running. Me and my family make sure we have a good balance.”
What lies ahead?
In some people’s eyes, Saturday’s breakout race raised the bar for what’s expected of Efraimson this season. “Efraimson makes case for World Team Spot!” the track and field website FloTrack tweeted on Saturday.
Efraimson doesn’t quite see it that way.
“I’d say it was just another stepping stone,” she said.
Efraimson will race this weekend at the Harry Jerome Track Classic in Vancouver, B.C. Beyond that, she said how she fares at the U.S. Outdoor Championships on June 26-28 in Eugene will determine which course her season takes.
Pressure? Efraimson isn’t feeling it. She’s approaching this season like she does everything else on the track and off – one step at a time.
“My coach and I talk about that pressure is only felt when the task at hand is out of our capability,” she said. “But this isn’t out of my capability. I’m out here. I’m still learning. I’m still growing.”