Mary Lynn (Denholm) Schneider’s path to becoming one of the top American long-distance runners almost went downhill.
Schneider, who grew up in Sparks and competed in the Olympic Marathon Trials last month, had considered pursuing skiing instead of running. She won a few races in the slalom and giant slalom, spent her junior and senior years rotating between St. Paul’s in Baltimore and Okemo Mountain School in Vermont, and competed as a freshman for the Saint Michael’s (Vermont) College’s NCAA Division I alpine skiing program.
“I did love it, and I enjoyed racing,” Schneider recalled of her foray into skiing. “But ultimately, I was a better runner than I was a skier when I look back.”
Schneider’s athletic change has paid off handsomely. Although she was nearly 14 minutes behind winner Aliphine Tuliamuk at the trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29, Schneider crossed the line in 51st place out of 390 finishers and set a personal-record time of 2 hours, 41 minutes, 8 seconds. Her coach, Nick Klastava, called her performance “amazing.”
“I knew she was going to have a good day,” he said. “We didn’t really want to talk about it. So we just let it sit there, but she was hitting paces. … I also knew she was a very good runner when it comes to racing people and that she’s smart. I knew she wouldn’t go out too hard on this course, that she would sit back and just pick people off. As I watched the race unfold, I got to sit back and watch her pass us six times, and each time she passed by, she looked like she was stronger, and it looked like a lot of people were hurting.”
Schneider’s genesis in running began when she won a 1-mile Fun Run at St. Paul’s at the age of 8. She played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse in middle school, but migrated to cross country in high school.
Schneider ran cross country for all four years at Saint Michael’s. In her senior year in 2008, she outdueled Division I, II and III competitors to win the Vermont state 5K championship before suffering a stress fracture in her right foot and missing out on a chance to race in the NCAA national meet.
“She was just tough,” Saint Michael’s cross country coach Molly Peters said. “It didn’t really matter what the course was. If the plan was the plan, that’s what she did. I specifically remember that Vermont state meet because she was back-and-forth with this Middlebury runner the entire race, and I think she just really wanted to win. So she did everything in her power to win that race, and I think a lot of it was just mental toughness, which is what you need when you’re a marathoner.”
After the injury, however, Schneider hung up her running shoes to attend law school at the University of Baltimore and work in the Harford County state’s attorney’s office specializing in domestic violence for three years and then the Baltimore County state’s attorney’s office specializing in general prosecution for another three years.
“It was a nice break honestly, and then all of a sudden, six years had gone by,” she said. “So I got back into it in September of 2015. I did a marathon, and I ran a 3:03 at [the] Lehigh Valley [Health Network Via Marathon, where she was the top female finisher]. From there, that’s what started this whole journey.”
After racing at the California International Marathon in December 2018 and missing the Olympic Trials qualifying time of 2:45 by three minutes, Schneider — who had already moved to San Diego — hired Klastava as her coach. Klastava said while his initial work centered on adapting her training to marathon standards, he also sought to lift his student’s morale.
“She’s always been very talented,” he said. “I think the one thing she was lacking was just the belief in herself as a marathon runner. For whatever reason, she kind of always had fueling issues or nerves or bad weather — things that caused her to lose a lot of positivity about herself. I think she knew that she was fit and fast to run shorter races, In halfs and 5Ks, she was always positive that she could run really fast, and she was confident in those races. At that point, the marathon was just a mental block, I think. So we worked together to run hundreds and hundreds of marathon-based miles in different types of workouts to have her be more confident. As the year went on, she got more and more confident.”
Schneider credited Klastava with developing her into a marathon runner.
“I honestly know that I would not have made it to the Olympic Trials without his guidance,” she said. “Before then, I was just mostly doing it on my own. People would offer advice on workouts, and I’d follow it, but to have someone writing workouts specifically for you and where your training is, it makes a huge difference.”
To prepare for the Olympic Trials, Schneider and Klastava mapped a route that featured elevation changes of more than 1,300 feet, which mirrored the course in Atlanta.
“The hills were harder, they were longer, they were steeper, and I just made myself do all of my workouts on it,” she said. “So I was prepared for the terrain, and I honestly believe that was why I was able to run a personal best on that course.”
As uplifting as her time was, Schneider had improved from her pre-race rank of 189th to 51st.
“I realistically did not have a chance of making the [U.S. Olympic] team because they only take the top three,” she said. “So for me, my goals going in were to enjoy that I set this long-term goal for myself and achieved it. It took several attempts for me to be able to do it. So I really appreciated setting a long-term goal and achieving it and being resilient and overcoming a ton to be there.”
After participating in five marathons in 14 months to qualify for the Olympic Trials, Schneider said she intends to some time off before searching for a marathon in the fall. But she said her objective of representing the United States at the Olympics or another international competition in the marathon, cross country or trail running is very much a priority.
“I plan to continue to pursue competitive running, and I’m very optimistic about my future,” she said. “I’m someone who continues to get faster as I get older. So I believe I have another four- and eight-year cycle in me.”
Peters, her college cross country coach, said she does not doubt Schneider’s will.
“She is mentally tough,” Peters said. “I feel like whatever she sets her mind to, she’s going to go out and do her best to achieve that goal. … She absolutely has that capability.”