Helena marathoner launches running career

Heather Lieberg

By Jesse Zentz

The 2013 Governor’s Cup in Helena was going to be Heather Lieberg’s last marathon, but it instead reinvigorated a runner who continues to surprise herself and astound others.

Heading into the race, the Miles City native and longtime Helena resident thought she had peaked in the 26.2-mile event with a personal best of 2 hours, 47 minutes, 13 seconds. She felt she was in a bit of a standstill and was set to move on after navigating the roads from Marysville to downtown Helena on June 8, 2013.

“Driving out to the start, I said to my dad, ‘It’s not a big deal if I don’t do well,’ and he said, ‘No, of course not,’” said Lieberg, who ran her very first marathon in the 2007 Governor’s Cup with a victorious time of 3:07:49. “I decided I was going to do what I can and then I was going to be done with marathons.”

But something funny happened on a scenic route into Montana’s Capital City that day.

Despite racing without a watch – something she always does – and stopping twice at aid stations late in the race because she assumed she was crawling to a less-than-satisfactory time, Lieberg smashed a longstanding event record with a winning time of 2:45:59 – a performance that ranks No. 1 all-time for women’s marathon performances on Montana soil.

Only six months after her record-breaking performance in Montana’s oldest marathon, Lieberg then traveled to Sacramento, Calif., and picked up the pace even more with an eighth-place finish at December’s California International Marathon in 2:39:53 – a time that qualified her to run in the 2016 Olympic Trials.

Not too bad for 35-year-old mother of three, who teaches second-graders full time at Jefferson Elementary, recently earned a Master of Science and only started running in her mid-20s after successful stints as a youth swimmer and college basketball player.

“I believe things happen for a reason, and it was kind of a weird path to this point,” she said. “Now I am asking myself, ‘Where am I taking this, have I achieved my goal?’ That’s the constant with running, I guess.”

After the stunning performance at the Governor’s Cup, she developed a friendship with 2013 Governor’s Cup 10K champion and former Helena resident Sarah Kjorstad, who introduced her to Carroll College cross country and assistant track and field coach David Morris. Morris himself was an accomplished marathoner, and the former University of Montana standout began coaching Lieberg to prepare her for the California International Marathon. He introduced a runner accustomed to 50-mile weeks of training to 100-mile weeks of training with speed and interval work – a regimen she has successfully adjusted to.

With Morris as her coach, Lieberg targeted an even faster time and on October 5, 2014, she lowered her personal best again with a time of 2:34:08 (5:53 per-mile pace) to finish second at the Twin Cities Marathon, also the U.S. Championships. That time resulted in a $15,000 pay day, and also met the Olympic Trials “A” standard — qualifying Lieberg for financial support from USA Track and Field to prepare for the trials. And on February 13, 2016, Lieberg placed 16th at those trials with a time of 2:40:36, despite a winter Southern California heatwave that made it tough on all the competitors.

“I never expected running would take me this far,” she said in early 2014.

“I often wonder what she’d be doing if she wasn’t running,” her father, Al Davis, said. “She’d have an hour or two a day of free time on her hands and she’s not the type of person to let grass grow under her feet.”

Growing up in Miles City, Lieberg – then Heather Davis – was a state champion youth swimmer. Her family moved to Helena when she was in seventh grade and she continued to dabble in competitive swimming, but focused on basketball.

Her athleticism on the basketball court eventually caught the attention of Capital track and field coach Shirley Chesterfield, who tried to get Lieberg to join the team as a junior. That experiment didn’t last long.

Heather Lieberg“I tried a sprint workout and was thinking, ‘Uh … no,” Lieberg said. “I think I did a 400 and smoked everyone in the first 100, but then my legs … I couldn’t move. That was the hardest thing I had done.”

Despite her one-workout season as a junior, Lieberg gave it another shot as a senior and competed in the high jump and long jump for the Bruins. She didn’t do too bad, either, finishing sixth in the long jump at the 1997 state meet.

But basketball remained her first love and it paid off. She started at point guard as a sophomore, junior and senior before earning a scholarship to play basketball at Northwest Community College in Powell, Wyo. She played two years there and then transferred on scholarship to Montana State-Northern in Havre. But Lieberg decided to cut her basketball career short after she learned she was pregnant and gave birth to her first child. After one year at MSUN, she transferred to Carroll College and finished her undergraduate degree in the Capital City.

“After my first daughter was born, I started jogging and remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I went 5 miles.’ I thought that was a long ways,” said Lieberg, whose oldest daughter, Taelyr, is now 15. Lieberg and her husband, Jarad, also have an 8-year-old son named Jaxan and a 5-year-old daughter named Lauryn.

Still just a novice who then “made fun of running shorts” and hadn’t competed in a distance race of any kind, Lieberg eventually joined some friends for the Wolf Creek Marathon Relay in 2002 and 2003. She then took part in the Governor’s Cup marathon relay in 2004 in 2005, and helped her team to second- and third-place finishes, respectively, in the women’s division.

A year later, she was watching the finish of the 2006 Governor’s Cup marathon with her dad and made a decision that changed her life.

“I had just had my son and I was watching the runners come across the finish line and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Lieberg said. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to run the marathon next year. Seriously, I’m going to try it.’ I think he just said, ‘OK.’”

“I thought she’d probably go for it, but I didn’t know what sort of success she would experience,” Davis said. “I thought she’d go run the marathon and realize it isn’t like running around the block – there’s a lot more to it. It surprised me when she said she wanted to do it.”

Finally in June 2007, she laced up her running shoes for her first solo effort in the Governor’s Cup marathon and she’s been getting faster ever since.

Here’s a look at her stunning progression, starting with back-to-back Governor’s Cup victories.

  • 2007 Governor’s Cup Marathon, 3:07:49
  • 2008 Governor’s Cup Marathon, 3:00:10
  • 2010 Portland Marathon, 2:54:22
  • 2011 Seattle Marathon, 2:56:46
  • 2011 Montana Marathon in Billings, 2:52:42
  • 2012 Governor’s Cup Half Marathon, 1:20:29
  • 2013 Arizona Rock ’n Roll Marathon, 2:47:13
  • 2013 Governor’s Cup Marathon, 2:45:59 (course record)
  • 2013 California International Marathon, Sacramento, 2:39:53 (Olympic Trials qualifier)
  • 2014 Pittsburgh Half Marathon, 1:15:50
  • 2014 Governor’s Cup Half Marathon, 1:17:25 (course record)
  • 2014 Twin Cities Marathon (U.S. Championships, 2nd place), 2:34:08
  • 2015 Gasparilla Half Marathon, Tampa, 1:13:09
  • 2015 Los Angeles Marathon, 2:35:13
  • 2016 Carlsbad Half Marathon, San Diego, 1:14:16
  • 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, Los Angeles, 2:40:36

But for Lieberg, running isn’t just about recording faster and faster times. She said it brings balance to her life and keeps her healthy.

“It’s helped me build a routine, stay healthy and mentally, it’s a natural release for me. You can be in the worst mood, so crabby, then go out for a run and come back a totally different person. It helps me feel stronger and comfortable in my own skin,” said Lieberg, who added that her husband and kids have been incredibly supportive. She and Jarad, who dated for five years before tying the knot, celebrated their 10th anniversary in June 2014.

“I try to be a good role model,” Lieberg said. “I feel successful because of running. I am healthy because of running. I don’t know what I would do without it.”

She added that stories like hers are possible because of local events like the Governor’s Cup.

“Whether it’s here in Helena at the Governor’s Cup or somewhere else, the runners and other people participating are the same,” Lieberg said. “They’re happy and they’re healthy or making an effort to be healthy. I think the Governor’s Cup was a great place to start.”

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