Running the Field
From speed sprints to long miles, these women run this town
Three Wilmington women are taking the sport of running to new levels. ANN MARIE PIERCE is an elite runner who will be competing in the 2024 Olympic Time Trials. BRYNN SHEFFIELD is one of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s fastest runners and is making a name for herself and the school. And KARYN OETTING is an avid runner who is building on the area’s ultramarathon scene.
Each of these women has overcome challenges and/or forged new paths in running. Their stories can inspire everyone who is pursuing a goal, whether it be in running, another sport, the arts, a hobby, or their profession.
Up to Speed
One of the tenets ANN MARIE PIERCE lives by is that people should use their gifts and help others to do the same. Guided by that philosophy, Pierce has pursued her talent for running with discipline and passion, and that has led to her latest success: qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials in February 2024.
“I believe everyone has a reason for who they are, and if they hone their focus on what they are good at and put effort into it, they can’t go wrong,” Pierce says.
To reach her level of success, Pierce has persevered when others would have given up.
She has overcome multiple stress fractures and tendonitis as well as an eating disorder that impacted her health.
Pierce also had to conquer her belief that she wasn’t good enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials. In fact, though Pierce trains intensely and regularly competes, the trials weren’t even on her radar.
That changed four years ago when Pierce’s time in the 2019 Wilmington Marathon was just 10 seconds shy of the Olympic Trials qualifying time. Pierce, at the urging of her coach, decided to aim for the 2024 Olympic Trials. Then, the Olympic officials lowered the qualifying threshold to 2 hours and 37 minutes for the women’s marathon, 8 minutes faster than what was needed to qualify in the 2020 trials.
“It was crazy to think I could run that much faster,” Pierce says.
Nevertheless, Pierce decided to go for it, and her time of 2:36:17 at the Wilmington Marathon in February put her in the running for the upcoming Olympic Trials (and only 2 seconds behind the top overall finisher at the Wilmington Marathon).
As a mother with two children and a full-time teaching job, Pierce made some major life changes to prepare for this latest challenge. Though she still coaches the student running club she founded, Pierce gave up teaching to work at home. Even so, her days start at 4 a.m., so she can run and do strength training. When necessary, she pushes her kids in a double stroller to get all her runs in. To ensure she’ll be in top form for the 2024 trials, Pierce’s workout schedule will get even more intense in July.
“I had to make changes for it to work for my family,” she says.
Pierce’s goals for the Olympic trials are to finish as one of the top fifty runners and to run as well as she possibly can.
“I am excited to represent all the moms out there, and I’ll do my best,” Pierce says. “That’s all you can do. The people who give their best effort are as admirable as the first-place winners.”
In the Long Run
KARYN OETTING loves trail running and ultramarathons. While trail running brings her that sense of peace and serenity that can only be found in nature, ultramarathons challenge her grit–does she have what it takes to complete those 32, 50, or 100 or more miles? At the same time, ultramarathons give Oetting a sense of camaraderie and fun.
Unfortunately, Oetting often has to travel to South Carolina or Virginia to participate in those extra-long races. To remedy that situation, she and her partner, Tony McCarty, decided to bring more ultramarathons to the Port City.
“We’re trying to provide an alternative to other running options in Wilmington, one that compliments the running community,” says Oetting, who also has participated in another long-haul local race, the Southern Tour Ultra, which started in 2016.
Now, through their organization, Punk Rock Ultra, Oetting and McCarty are hosting a timed race that is open to runners of all abilities.
The first one takes place in November, and quickly sold out when registration opened earlier this year. Runners complete a 4.5-mile loop winding through Carolina Beach State Park as many times as they wish over 16 hours. Competitive runners can rack up the miles by running the course multiple times; the more laid-back runners can mosey along, enjoy the scenery, chat with their fellow runners, and take a snack break along the way.
The 16-hour finish time is long enough to ensure runners will not face the dreaded “Did Not Finish” designation, and everyone who completes even one loop, whether they run, walk, or crawl it, is a finisher, says Oetting.
There are patches for those who complete the race and prizes for those who run the most miles.
For Oetting and McCarty, both of whom work full-time jobs, putting the ultramarathon together has been a labor of love. In addition to setting up logistics and marketing, they had to get the necessary permits for the race. One of their hardest jobs was convincing wary park rangers that the runners would take proper care of the park, according to Oetting.
Oetting hopes this will be the first of four ultramarathons that Punk Rock Ultras will host annually.
“This style of race will make the concept of the ultra, which is popular nationwide, more accessible to the average, everyday runner in Wilmington,” Oetting says. “It’s geared to the runners who don’t fit in elsewhere. It’s irreverent and fun. … It’ll be nice to have that in our own backyard.”
The Fast Track
For BRYNN SHEFFIELD, UNCW was the perfect place. By signing with the UNCW track and field team, she could participate in a sport she loved while pursuing her major of marine biology.
“I signed with UNCW, and it was the best decision I ever made,” says Sheffield, a graduate student.
Events beyond her control, however, derailed Sheffield’s running career. In her freshman year, UNCW students were sent home for four months when Hurricane Florence hit. That knocked her out of competitions.
Then, in Sheffield’s sophomore year, COVID came along. UNCW students were sent home, and Sheffield was sidelined again. She couldn’t even train properly. As the only track available to Sheffield was made of concrete, speedwork was out of the question. The sprinter’s workouts were confined to jogging. And, Sheffield admits, she wasn’t as disciplined as she could have been.
With her running seasons put on hold for two years, Sheffield was allowed to compete as a graduate student. It’s an opportunity she plans to take full advantage of.
“In the past three years I had a taste of what I’m capable of doing,” she says. “I want to see what I can do with another full year.”
Now Sheffield is facing another challenge – the need to prove her mettle in the short time she has left to compete. As a result, Sheffield puts a lot of pressure on herself, striving for personal bests in every race.
To reach that goal, Sheffield maintains a grueling schedule. She works out with her coach for an hour, then attends two-hour practice sessions, and finishes off with an hour of weightlifting. The next day, Sheffield does it all again.
As a result, Sheffield is sweeping up wins in her specialties, the 200- and 400-meter dash and 4 x 100 relay. This April, Sheffield, with her 4 x 100 relay team, also broke UNCW’s record for the race, and she is on UNCW’s list of top 10 fastest athletes for both its indoor and outdoor track seasons.
As much as Sheffield is personally driven to succeed, she also wants to win in homage to her friends and family who have supported her and because it benefits UNCW’s running program. When she scores big in meets, it attracts donors and trainers, and the team gets better facilities, Sheffield says.
“I like to go to every meet,” she says, “and show that UNCW has a really good track and field program.” W
To view more of photographer Daria Amato’s work, go to dariaphoto.com.
To view more of photographer Madeline Gray’s work, go to madelinegrayphoto.com.
To view more of photographer Terah Hoobler’s work, go to terahhoobler.com.
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