U.S. runner trains in the mountains with a podium climb in mind

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Reporting from Mammoth Lakes -- It’s been more than two years since Morgan Uceny’s first visit to the high altitude of Mammoth Lakes. But that impression still lingers.

“Just walking up the stairs was really tiring,” remembers Uceny, who immediately began questioning her fitness and her sanity.

But she stuck it out and was rewarded last summer with one of the best seasons by a U.S. middle-distance runner in nearly three decades, setting lifetime bests of 4:00.06 at 1,500 meters — best in the world in 2011 and making her the sixth-fastest American of all-time — and 1:58.37 at 800 meters.

That stamps her as one of the favorites heading into June’s Olympic track and field trials, and for that she credits Mammoth Lakes and training partner Anna Pierce, who urged her to move here.

“I basically came because she said it was great,” Uceny says. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

Uceny, who chopped nearly 10 seconds off her 1,500-meter best time since moving to the mountains, says there’s no doubt the camaraderie and the coaching she got from Mammoth Track Club founder Terrence Mahon has made a difference.

“There’s something special about this group,” says Uceny, 27, who trained in Indiana, south-central New York state, San Diego and Ann Arbor, Mich., among other places, before settling in Mammoth in the fall of 2009. “If you don’t have a knowledgeable coach that can take that kind of training and make it work, then it’s pointless. Just being at altitude isn’t going to do anything. You have to know how to use it.”

And if her success helps raise the profile of U.S. track and field, great. But Uceny would be even happier if her decision to climb the mountain helps her scale something no American female 1,500-meter runner has ever negotiated: the Olympic medal platform.

“Honestly, I think it’s great for American middle-distance running to be where it’s at,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a selfish person. I want to be on the podium, and I don’t really care about other Americans getting [there].

“I just know that’s where I want to be.”