Julie Culley had retired from competitive running, finishing her career at Rutgers burned out and banged up as a fifth-year senior. She had started the next phase of her life, coaching the women's track team at Loyola College and assisting the men's and women's cross country teams.
Then she bumped into American coach Matt Centrowitz at a meet and confusion set in.
"He really brought me back to life as an athlete," Culley, now 31, recalled. "He asked me why I was coaching. He said, 'You're too young to be coaching full time. You should still be running.' He was probably the one who put the bug in my ear. I credit him for my getting back into the sport."
It eventually led Culley to leave Loyola after three years and move down to Washington, taking a full-time job at a custom T-shirt company while working part time at American and training under Centrowitz.
When she left college, she was hurt, but once she started to get healthy, I could see the competitiveness come back when she ran with the kids," said former Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan, who gave his blessing for Culley to leave. "We had a lot of good runners, and she turned them into terrific runners. They worshipped the ground she walked on. Once she got healthy, she became more focused [on running again]."
Said Centrowitz, "I could tell she was conflicted, she still had a lot of passion for running. I told her that she had plenty of time to become a coach."
That renewed spirit brought the kinds of results Culley had hoped for in college. She won the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials this summer and finished a respectable 14th overall in London. Culley had been invited to compete in this year's New York Marathon but will have to wait to compete in her first 26.2-mile event after the iconic race was canceled Friday in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Along with the encouragement from Centrowitz, a turning point for Culley came when she was was picked up by Asics, the running shoe manufacturer, at the end of 2009, and her career as a professional runner took off.
"It was really a game-changer for me," Culley said of her Asics sponsorship. "I was able to focus on my career. [Before that] I considered myself a semi-professional trying to make ends meet and holding on to that dream."
Though still considered in the prime of her middle-distance running career, Culley is thinking down the road. After accepting an invitation from the New York Road Runners club to participate in a 5-kilometer race before last year's marathon, Culley got to see what's in store by watching the main event from an officials' vehicle.
"It was kind of a recruiting tool for them," Culley said. "Once I got in the mood of it and the feeling of it, it was definitely something that was more in my mind going into 2012."
Culley said the experience was inspiring and intimidating.
"If I hadn't been in the vehicle and watch the race unfold, I think I would have a very unrealistic view of it," Culley said. "Being this big celebration on the streets of New York, everyone's so happy, the vibe of it really hooks people.
"But sitting on the truck and watching the agony of it and the pain that you see with some of the athletes, it was an eye-opener for me and it certainly leveled me. I think I had a much more realistic idea of what the marathon is all about."
Having never run more than a half-marathon competively — and recently running a 22-miler in practice with the team she trains with near her hometown of Clinton, N.J. — Culley doesn't know what to expect when she finally gets to run her first marathon.
"My goal for the [first] marathon is to be happy and walk away and want to do it again," she said before Hurricane Sandy.
An Asics spokeswoman said Friday night that Culley, who splits time between Northern Virginia and her hometown of Clinton, was affected by the hurricane and was not available to comment on the marathon's cancellation.
"We don't know what the specifics are, but she's had a tough week," the spokeswoman said.
Centrowitz, who tried to recruit Culley out of high school, believes she has potential in the marathon — if she can stay healthy.
"Julie has a lot of desire, but her toughness will pay off the longer the distance," said Centrowitz, whose son Matthew was also an Olympian this summer. "If she can stay healthy and do the required amount of running, that's the only thing that's stopping her. Can she hold it together physically?"
Culley said she might eventually transition into running marathons on a more regular basis.
"I'm not really transitioning away necessarily from the track. ... I do think ultimately I'll have a future in this," she said. "I want to kind of get my feet wet, I'm 31 and I want to see how my body takes to it and then see if it's something I will be good at."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun