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Student to run in U.S. Olympic trials

A lifelong runner, Laura Paulsen, MBA ’16, knew from an early age that she wanted to “break a seven-minute mile.”

She trained hard—playing tag at recess—and ran a mile in 6 minutes 59 seconds. Or so her teachers told her. She was six.

Paulsen, now 25, never stopped running. On Dec. 7, 2014, she ran the California International Marathon in Sacramento and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials with a time of 2:39:54. It was her first marathon. The time elevated Paulsen into the stratosphere of elite female runners like Shalane Flanagan, who won the bronze medal in the women’s 10,000-meter race at the 2008 Olympic games. Flanagan’s best marathon time is 2:21:14.

Paulsen ran cross-country and track and field in high school, college, and graduate school. She was a four-time All-American and three-time Centennial Conference Runner of the Year while she attended Johns Hopkins University, where she received a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering. She earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Duke University, where she also competed in indoor track and field. Today, she runs with the Greater Boston Track Club.

She planned to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon by running a half-marathon, but the qualifying standard for the half-marathon is 1:15:00. Paulsen made two half-marathon attempts, but her best time was 1:17:15. With time running out, she conceded that it might be easier to qualify for the trials by running a full marathon, so she adjusted her training and planned to run 26.2 miles in under 2:43:00.

All of Paulsen’s preparation still didn’t prepare her for some of the rigors—or the pleasant surprises—of her first marathon. She was amazed and encouraged by the robust crowds that turned out early on a Sunday morning to cheer on the runners.

“The other thing that surprised me was how easy it felt … in the beginning … but the final surprise occurred at mile 20,” Paulsen said. “I’d heard that’s where you hit the wall. I felt it first in my right calf. Then it went to my left calf. It’s such a bizarre feeling of your body running out of fuel … If you let any negative thoughts come into your head, you’re going to stop. And, if you stop, you aren’t going to start again.”

Fortified by the exuberant crowds, Paulsen finished with a time that qualified her for the U.S. Olympic Trials and the chance to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But, Paulsen said she’s sure she won’t be going to the Olympics. “There’s … no chance of me going,” she said, as she ticked off the names of some of the world’s fastest female runners, including Flanagan, who she will be competing against at the trials on Feb. 13, 2016 in Los Angeles. There are just three slots for the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon team.

“Flukes happen, so I’m still going to try,” Paulsen said.

She’s philosophical about how she fits running between 70 and 80 miles per week into an intense schedule at MIT Sloan. “I think everyone has to make compromises,” she said. “One thing running has taught me is how to be regimented. Some people like to play video games or watch TV. I like to run. I find it to be very meditative.”

Paulsen is encouraged by the support her classmates, particularly the members of her cohort, have shown her while she’s been training. “You know, you make it work. I’ve shown up to class a little sweaty,” she admitted. Paulsen is also on the MIT Sloan Student Senate, and, as a member of the Sloan Experience committee, helped assemble the annual charity auctions in December, where nearly $49,000 was pledged for various charities.

In addition to this, she’s an assistant coach for the MIT men’s and women’s varsity cross-country and track and field teams. In coaching at MIT, she met director of track and field Halston Taylor, who helped coach Paulsen for her marathon. He was not surprised she qualified for the trials.

“I had little doubt she would accomplish it, as her workouts were a good predictor that she would succeed. She ran a smart race and got the job done,” Taylor said.

He also appreciated Paulsen’s support of the MIT women’s cross-country team. “Laura was a tremendous help with the women’s team with regard to counseling them in the sport,” Taylor said.

Eventually, Paulsen wants to start a medical device company. She recently completed a prestigious fellowship jointly administered by LifeScience Alley and the University of Minnesota Medical Devices Center. She predicts her MBA will bolster her engineering background.

In the meantime, she’s getting back into racing—having just won a 10-mile race as part of the USA Track & Field New England Grand Prix road race series—and is enjoying her time at MIT Sloan. “From day one, the atmosphere has been contagious. You have so much thrown at you, and it’s all so cool.”

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