By Caroline Kurdej
Amanda Macuiba sits perched on a high chair at Chicago’s Native Foods Café. Her outfit is as lively as her personality: her tan coat is patterned with abstract floral prints, her beige sweater accentuated with chunky silver jewelry. Her hair and makeup look flawless, with not a single blonde curl out of place. You wouldn’t guess that this former college soccer star is shooting for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in February.
To qualify, she needs to shave five minutes off her 2:50 personal best, with a personal goal to do it by the end of 2019. So far, 350 women have already run 2:45 or faster.
Before she switched to long distances, 25-year-old Macuiba was the starting goalkeeper for the Illinois Wesleyan University soccer team.
But she butted heads with the soccer coach. She didn’t feel like she was getting the experience she wanted from the team, nor did she see improvement in her performance. “I wanted close relationships and camaraderie,” Macuiba said. She quit.
Macuiba texted her mom, sharing the devastating feeling of losing a sport she loved. “I feel like it defines who I am,” she texted.
“Amanda, soccer doesn’t define who you are,” her mom replied. “It’s what you did.”
She walked across the hall into the cross country and track office. Coach Greg Huffaker offered her a spot on the condition that she would run steeplechase. She had no clue what it was.
“I just agreed in a heartbeat because I wanted to be on the team so bad,” she said. “I told Huff that I always wanted to try it.”
As soon as she walked out Huff’s office, she pulled out her phone to Google “steeplechase.” Essentially, it’s a human horse race: jumping over water barriers in circles around a track.
Macuiba didn’t realize what she was missing from soccer until she found it in the cross country team. “That’s not to say we were some perfect utopia of a team—we had our own issues there as well, but damn, did everyone at least really care about each other,” Macuiba says.
She soon found herself collecting accolades and improving her running times. In 2013, Macuiba earned the top newcomer award and in 2015 earned the women’s cross country hardest worker for the Titans.
In 2016, the Titans sent 16 people to track nationals, and took home the Division III Nationals title as a team. When asked if she won the individual steeple event, Macuiba replied, “I actually can’t remember what place I came in,” Macuiba says. “I was too focused on the team.”
That year, Macuiba walked across the stage to pick up two Illinois Wesleyan University bachelor’s degree diplomas for psychology and gender studies. Although she had a season of eligibility left to compete in collegiate athletics, she chose to instead become a graduate assistant for DePaul University’s cross country and track teams.
Aside from cheering louder than any other spectator or coach at Division I meets (“better together!”), Macuiba created rigorous core and strengthening exercises to build stronger athletes, and stronger people.
Now, after earning her master’s degree in human resources and completing a graduate assistantship for DePaul’s cross country and track teams, Macuiba squeezes in an easy six mile runs before her full-time job as a compensation analyst at IDEX Corp. After work, she adds in another eight miles to 15 miles a day, averaging 90-to 100-mile weeks. Her background as a former graduate assistant and assistant coach trained her well, she said, for a career in advising companies on advising, motivating and training top talent. Macuiba works out of IDEX’s Lake Forest branch twice a week and trains with her teammates after work.
Over the years, Macuiba’s 5-foot-6-inch, broad-shouldered, 150-pound frame transformed into a lean runner’s body. Her racing weight now hovers around 129 pounds, and the only bulges are her iron calf muscles.
Most families pop open champagne bottles for New Year’s celebrations, but the Macuibas drive from their home in Gurnee, Illinois, to Waukegan, where they plunge into the arctic Waukegan beach water. Every year, the family wakes up on New Year’s Day with a reason for freezin’: The Polar Bear Plunge. Macuiba has kept up the tradition since she was 7, and she continued it for years.
A few days later, the family typically ventures out for the S-NO-W Fun Run, a five-mile race that takes place in sub-zero temperatures or shine. It’s safe to say running… runs in the family.
“A lot of our family vacations were race-based,” said Macuiba’s mom, Tracy Macuiba. “We would spend 10 days in Hawaii. Why? Because her dad was competing in the Ironman.”
Carl Macuiba, her dad, has finished the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships six times—a 2.36-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, topped off with a 26.2-mile race.
Amanda Macuiba started logging miles in a baby jogger, pushed by her mom. Later, she and her younger brother, Dustin, biked along. (Dustin, who represents the Fighting Irish on the cross country and track teams, is finishing up his senior year at Notre Dame.)
“She’s got the endurance, she’s got the body strength and she’s got the mindset,” Tracy said.
What will the celebration look like if Amanda makes it? After a short shakeout run late in the morning and sleeping in for the first time in months, she’ll venture out to Sonoma for “lots of wine.” And then?
“This sounds stupid, but there’s this tea kettle I realllllllly want,” Macuiba shared. “It’s kinda expensive, but I would probably buy it for myself.”