When Saturday’s deep and talented field takes off at the 36th Freihofer’s Run for Women 5K in Albany, N.Y., it will include well-known Maine running standouts Joan Benoit Samuelson and Sheri Piers.
It will also include the Portland area’s newest elite women’s distance runner.
Michelle Lilienthal may not be a household name in Maine yet, but she likely will be the first of the state’s three runners to finish. Just two years ago she was the top American at Freihofer’s, a premier race sponsored by the bakery of the same name.
“In the past, Freihofer’s has served as the U.S. championships for 5K and there are a lot of great Americans who have come through that race,” Lilienthal said. “It’s a fun course and you come home with a lot of good baked goods. When I run well I let myself indulge.”
Lilienthal is also a two-time Olympic marathon trials competitor who already has qualified for the 2016 trials.
This spring, Lilienthal has run well in her new state. She won the Patriots Day 5-miler in Portland, then beat Erica Jesseman of Scarborough at the Patriots 5K in Gray in a solid time of 16 minutes, 35 seconds.
“She’s a very hard competitor,” Jesseman, 25, said. “She beat me by one second at Beach to Beacon last year. It’s going to be really nice to have her running in the area.”
The 2013 Beach to Beacon was significant to Lilienthal for another reason besides her 13th-place finish and time of 34:16.
That’s when Piers introduced Lilienthal to a Falmouth native and former University of Maine runner, Marc Halverson.
“I know Sheri Piers very well just from being on the same road circuit,” Lilienthal said. “As a professional runner you meet all the usual suspects at our races. I got to know Sheri and (she) introduced us with no intention of setting us up.”
It wasn’t long before Halverson and Lilienthal, recently divorced from a one-time Minnesota congressional candidate, Jacob Frey, began dating.
Halverson was in Minnesota last October when Lilienthal ran a personal-best 2:34:50 and finished fourth in the women’s race at the 2013 USA Marathon Championships in St. Paul.
“I can definitely attribute the last two years going really well with being in a much better mental state (and) having my divorce finally be over,” Lilienthal said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve run well. The last two years have been really good running and I’ve been generally very happy, and also kind of found the joy of running again.”
Lilienthal said that she moved to Maine to be closer to Halverson.
“It got to the point where if the relationship was going to go anyplace, we needed to be in the same place,” Lilienthal said. “I can still make money running and training here.”
Lilienthal was a seven-time Iowa high school champion, competing for Iowa City High, and went on to earn all-Big Ten honors at the University of Wisconsin, where she graduated in 2005.
Her professional running career showed significant early promise. She earned a sponsorship deal with a shoe company, Saucony, and began training with Team USA Minnesota, an Olympic development program.
But her three years on Team USA Minnesota were plagued by injuries and her marathon times plateaued. Beset with the foot ailment plantar fascitis at the 2008 Olympic trials, she finished 85th. Lilienthal was 22nd in the 2012 trials.
“I ran a 2:35 high at the U.S. championships in 2006 and after that I finished my grad programs at Drexel, moved to Minneapolis, was injured, and ran a bunch of crappy marathons,” Lilienthal said.
“To run a big PR on my home course this past fall was very rewarding. It was such an overdue PR.”
Lilienthal’s long-term goal is centered on preparing for the 2016 Olympic trials, to be held in February 2016 in Los Angeles.
“I’m 32 and when you look at some of the greatest runners in women’s marathon and long distance, a lot run their best at 36, 38 years old,” Lilienthal said. “I feel I have a few more great years of running left in me.”
In the short term she’ll continue to train and compete.
Lilienthal is on the short list of Americans capable of breaking the top 10 at the Freihofer Run, an event that hasn’t had an American winner since 2004.
Lilienthal finished sixth and was the first American in 2012 in a personal-best 5K time of 16:02, and was 11th (third American) in 2013.
“I’m hoping to run faster this year,” Lilienthal said.
Lilienthal plans to compete in Maine at least a few more times this year. The Beach to Beacon is a definite, she said.
A fall marathon, either Chicago or New York City, is also on the calendar.
So too is getting to know her new home and expanding her connections to the local running community.
Jesseman said she’ll be a welcome addition.
“I didn’t expect after racing her last year at Beach to Beacon she’d be moving here,” Jesseman said.
“I’m excited to have Michelle here to push me.”
Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or at: