Caroline Austin’s entire life is centered around running. She’s a high school track and field coach who works at a running store in Portland, Oregon, and runs anywhere from 6 to 15 miles per day.
But what’s most impressive for the 2009 W.F. West graduate and former Washington State University athlete is — at 30 years old — she’s still one of the premier long-distance runners in the nation.
Austin’s journey has taken her from her family’s 350-acre farm in Chehalis to now competing in the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials, where she placed 10th in her heat and 20th overall in the women’s steeplechase on June 20.
Austin’s running career began at W.F. West High School, where she earned four varsity letters in track and two in cross country. She was the 2A Evergreen Conference cross country champion as a senior during the 2008-09 season, eventually placing third at state. In track and field, she placed second in the 800-meter run and fourth in the 1600 as a senior at state.
She went on to run track and cross country at Washington State University, where she was finally able to compete in the steeplechase, an event she was first introduced to at a high school camp but was never available to her in high school.
As a freshman during the 2009-10 season, she placed 80th in cross country and 12th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Pac-10 championships. As a sophomore in 2010-11, she continued to improve, placing 48th in cross country and eighth in the steeplechase at the Pac-10 championships.
Her junior year, she led all Cougar women in the Pac-12 cross country championships, finishing 39th, and led the team with a 40th-place finish at the NCAA West Regionals.
During her senior season in 2012-13, she was named the women’s cross country team captain, leading the team with a 34th-place finish at the Pac-12 championships and was 53rd at the NCAA West Regional.
After graduating with a dual bachelor’s in kinesiology and psychology, Austin stuck around Pullman to help out as a volunteer coach at WSU.
Soon after, a friend and colleague asked if she could help out as an assistant coach for Seattle University’s mens and womens cross country and track and field teams. Austin jumped at the opportunity, and would stay there for the next three years, also working part-time at a running store, Fleet Feet, in Seattle.
While in Seattle, Austin began venturing into new types of long-distance running. It was there she began competing in her first series of road and trail races. She entered a couple road 5ks, which was the next logical jump in distance, and also some 10ks.
“That area in the community I became a part of is more the average runner, in a sense,” Austin said. “It felt really welcoming and laid back to be doing some different distances. Kind of took a more relaxed approach to the competition for a while.”
Austin briefly made the jump up to a 50k trail competition before exploring marathon races. In 2017, a running friend convinced her to run her first marathon, The Foot Traffic Flat Marathon in Portland, Oregon, in 2017.
She ran so well she qualified for the Boston Marathon, an event she would go on to run in 2018. Battling rain, wind and 30-degree temperatures, she finished 23rd out of 11,628 women runners at the Boston Marathon with an official time of 2:55:28 — 13 minutes behind the winner.
On Jan. 20, 2019, she ran in the Houston Marathon, finishing 35th in a time of 2:44.55, which qualified her for the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon trials by five seconds.
At the trials in Atlanta, the top three runners advanced to the Olympics. Austin would go on to finish 118th out of 513 runners in the 26.2-mile race with a mark of 2:44:45.
During this time, she was also competing in the steeplechase in post-collegiate invitationals. It all came to a head at the Stumptown Twilight Meet in early June 2021 in Portland, Oregon, where Austin ran a 9:46, qualifying her for the 2021 U.S. Olympic steeplechase trials.
Austin had just 10 days from the end of that race to prepare for the 3,000-meter race at the trials. She would go on to place 20th overall at the Olympic trials in a time of 9:56.08. The cutoff to advance to the finals was in the 9:30 range.
“I was excited because I finished higher than I was ranked coming into the event,” Austin said. “So that was cool. This was probably one of the more competitive, probably fastest years. So the depth was really there, which was great.”
Austin’s accomplishments are a testament to her rigorous training schedule, which consists of running 6 to 7 miles per day on average. When she’s really pushing it, such as training for a competition, she’ll reach up to 15 miles in one day.
But a typical day consists of waking up early, eating breakfast and training for one hour before working on strength conditioning.
She’ll then eat a second breakfast — which Pippin from “Lord of the Rings” would be jealous of — and then head to the running store she works at for the next four or five hours.
“It’s a lot of moving and eating,” Austin said.
Austin, who has been living in Portland for the past three years, will then travel to Catlin Gabel School on the west side of town, where she is the cross country coach. Being able to compete and coach at the same time has created a harmonious balance in her life.
“It’s fun to be able to interact with a variety of different ability levels, both with competing and seeing people at races, but also just working with people that are just trying running for the first time,” Austin said.
Looking forward, she plans to take a bit of time off to visit friends and family. She then aims to go full bore again and see what she can accomplish during the next couple seasons of steeplechase, and possibly enter some longer races. Over time, her motivations have become less about winning and more about the enjoyment of being able to do what she loves.
“It’s become easier at this point because I’ve been running or playing sports most of my life,” Austin said. “I kind of really just enjoy it. There’s definitely some days where I’m not as excited to get out the door, but there have been things recently that are keeping me humble and reminded that, ‘hey, you have this ability, and it’s something you enjoy doing and are kind of good at.’
“And my family really supports me and are always excited to hear about what crazy thing I’m doing next. That definitely keeps me going.
“I’ve been able to find a really cool and welcoming community through running. My running, in summary, is kind of my life. I just feel lucky.”