Karen Bertasso Hughes – Runner of the Decade

                                                                   Karen and Mike at CIM 2023

What is your profession?

I’m a Physician Assistant. I’ve worked in orthopedic surgery primarily over the last 12 years, however, I have spent some time doing neurosurgery and spine as well.

How did you start running and did you pursue other sports in the beginning?

I was an extremely active child. I played soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, dance, lacrosse, you name it! However, I started running mostly to stay fit for soccer. I played soccer competitively growing up with Alleycats, Capital United, Clifton Park Premier, Empire State Games and on the Olympic Development Program. I simultaneously played other school sports during the year including varsity lacrosse. My sophomore year my coach penalized me because I missed a last-minute Saturday practice for soccer. The track coach then approached me and said he would be flexible with my soccer schedule since I was technically running there and therefore, I could miss track practices if I had to. I then officially switched to track! I mostly ran the 400m in high school. In college, I was extremely burnt out from soccer and shifted towards running and the track team where I ran the 800m. I attended graduate school at Boston University School of Medicine where I watched my first ever Boston Marathon and ran my first half marathon. It made more sense to continue running at this point in my life over soccer. Soccer was mostly co-ed and the risk of injury seemed too high for my liking. The laid back and flexible approach that both my high school and college coaches had really contributed to my love and continuation of running.

                         2023 Half Marathon, Austin, TX; came in 3rd

What made you realize that running was your sport?

Even when I was playing soccer and other sports, I always loved running. My athletic trainer in college made us a book highlighting each senior with their own page with a picture of them on the soccer field and a meme. Mine was me in my track uniform running saying “another perimeter to go.” In high school, my group of friends made a shrine with each of us and what we’d be doing in 10-20 years, mine said “will still be going for a run before bed.” I loved that I could be competitive with myself and the clock and there were new distances to try.

                                                                Karen at Olympic Trials

You qualified for the Olympic Trials. Could you please talk about this experience that is the Holy Grail of all runners: training, how you qualified, what the races were like, medals, etc. Did you meet famous runners?

Every 4 years the IAAF and USATF announce the Olympic Standard and the US Olympics Trials Qualifying Standard. This changes every cycle. When they announced the standard for 2016 it was 2:43. In 2013, I ran over a 9-minute PR to run 2:50:01 followed by 2:45:46 in 2014. The quest for sub-2:43 was on! Unfortunately, I didn’t run sub 2:43 at that time. I ran several marathons targeting the OTQ (London, California International, and Houston), but fell apart towards the end. The IAFF and USATF then changed the standard last minute before the 2016 Trials to 2:45, meaning I missed the 2016 OT by 46 seconds and unfortunately paced myself in several races too quickly when I really didn’t need to be running that fast.

In 2017, USATF announced the 2020 Olympic Trials standard was 2:45.

In 2018, I ran 2:43:45 at the Hartford Marathon hitting the 2020 Olympic Trials mark. It was a great day as my family and friends were there to celebrate with me.

The leadup to the actual Olympic Trials was intense. I had emergency surgery at the end of November and couldn’t run at all for 2 weeks. I had some abdominal pain coming back post-op and was really concerned. In January I went to Arizona to train for 3 weeks. Thankfully my fitness came around, but it was a very shortened training cycle. The race itself at the trials did not go well, but I finished, which was an accomplishment in itself that day.

500 women qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials. Surely, we all knew the standard would drop, but no one knew by how much. After a very prolonged announcement, USATF finally announced the new standard would be 2:37. This infuriated, motivated, and confused a lot of people. The mean time for the 2020 trials was 2:42; 250 women ran between 2:42 and 2:45 to qualify! I was hoping it was going to be something close to this number, however, it dropped drastically.

At that point, I felt relieved. I had chased the 2016 trials for years and didn’t find it fun falling short so many times. I thought 2:37 was too much of a drop to even try. Then, towards the end of 2022 I realized I was in fact in the best shape of my life and 2:37 could possibly be achieved on a very good day. Unfortunately, I don’t think I ran up to my potential on marathon day although I PR’ed by over 2 minutes and ran 2:41:27.

I gave it another shot this fall/winter with an intense training cycle but fell short. Although I didn’t make the 2024 Olympic Trials, I am happy I continue to improve, run with friends, and have fun. I have run more miles in the past 2 years than I have in my life. Mileage, consistency, and strength training have been huge aspects of my training. I missed my marathon PR by 4 seconds this December. Although I missed it, I ran the last 7k of the marathon 39 seconds faster than last year when I ran my PR. I count that as a win!

Of course, I have met famous runners over the years, but the goal is to act normal! They are there to race just like everyone else and need to focus. In 2014, I ran in the elite field of the US National 20k Championship. We sang Happy Birthday to Molly Huddle the night before at the tech meeting which was cool. I have had Des sit next to me at tech meetings, walked to the start line with Jordan Hasay, trained in Colorado and Flagstaff where a running celeb is a normal sighting and was coached for several years by 3 time Olympian Jen Rhines. Meb told me in May of 2018 I WOULD qualify for the trials as we sat in an elite tent together after I dropped out of a race. I made sure to tell him the next time I saw him in March of 2019 that I did!

You have won so many races that listing them all might take up pages, but which ones were special to you over the years and why?

A few of the most special wins/performances over the years

• 2023 Prospect Mountain: I did something outside my comfort level (an all uphill race) and missed Nikki Kimball’s 20 year old record by a few seconds. Nikki was an ultra and trail Queen and competed on multiple US National Teams and won Western States in 2004, 2006 and 2007!

• 2022 Stockade-athon: I grew up in Scotia and went to Union College, so this race has always meant a lot to me. I never won until 2022, which meant a lot.

• 2023 Workforce Challenge: I felt like I wasn’t in a position to race this well and felt a lot of pressure. I not only got my 5th win, which I wasn’t expecting, but I ran a course PR. The women’s field was incredible (it was the most competitive women’s field in 43 years of the race) and I truly think the depth of talented women raised the bar.

• 2018 Hartford Marathon: I placed second which was a nice payday and got my OTQ!

                                                     Stockade-athon 2023; Karen came in 2nd

Locally you have dominated certain races like the Stockade-athon and the Corporate Challenge. Was there ever a time locally in the past decade that you did not place in the top three?

I have never run what I have considered well at Freihofer’s. The race comes at a weird time of year for me. I usually am coming off a spring marathon/training cycle and taking some unstructured time before starting my fall marathon cycle. It makes sense my fastest Freihofer’s was the year it took place in the fall (2021), I was 2 weeks out from my fall marathon and had a good training cycle under my belt and was starting my taper. I always run for the team aspect of the race, but haven’t been able to target the race as a goal race to peak for. Regardless, it is a fun event!

Recently you created a running group for women called Crew (Genesis and Goals). Could you please tell us how CREW is doing and what major races the group is preparing for?

CREW is doing great! We have been having a lot of fun together, meeting up for runs and races. We are currently awaiting the 2024 USATF ADK Grand Prix schedule to see what races we will be doing. We do have some athletes tackling the track this spring but should have several of us on the road as well.

Is there anything you are hoping to achieve in your running career in the next decade?

I turn 40 in 5 months! I am extremely excited to be in a new category and go after some big goals. I hope to run some of the National Masters Championships and run in some of the World Major Marathons. I will be running Grandma’s Marathon ½ Marathon in June as my first big race as a masters.

Additionally, I hope to continue with CREW, supporting younger women as they navigate the racing scene post collegiately and help out within the local running community.

                                                   Karen at Berlin Marathon 2017

                   2014 – Brooklyn Half Marathon with Janne Gilligan.
   We both ran big PRs that day. It was my first sub 80, running 1:18:28. 

Click here for all ten pages of Pace Setter articles about and by Karen.

Ed. Note: Thank you for all that you have done to advance running in the Greater Albany area! We look forward to tracking your progress when you enter Masters category.

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