Told at 25 she’d probably never run again, NZ middle distance champion Laura Nagel is enjoying the summer of her career, and has Paris Olympics 2024 in her sights.
Thirty, fit as, and smashing her personal best times, Laura Nagel is in the running form of her life.
New Zealand’s dominant female middle distance runner, Nagel has this season broken personal bests she set eight years ago as a college student in the United States.
Not just over one distance either – the 1500, mile and 3000m. And she’s unbeaten throughout this New Zealand summer season of athletics.
She’s in a much healthier place than she was – at one point as a student she weighed only 47kg and was battling to overcome RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport). And she’s fought back from a knee injury that almost ended her career prematurely.
“I really didn’t know if I could get to that form again,” Nagel says. “So I’ve absolutely loved this season.”
Nagel returns home to the Hawkes Bay this weekend for the national track and field championships and will line up in the 1500m and 5000m, favourite for the double title. At the recent Sir Graeme Douglas International meet in Auckland, she shaved more than four-and-a-half seconds off her personal best 1500m time – leaving the rest of the field well in her wake.
With a laugh, Nagel remembers how she stared running at home on her parents’ apple orchard while she was in Year 8 at school. Thinking she was putting on weight, she decided she would run around the orchard once a day.
What began with a six minute loop around the apple trees soon turned into breaking the Taradale High School 3km record by one minute.
The school’s sports coordinator, Mick Cull, then asked her if she wanted to come along to some athletics trainings, and her love of running began with Cull as her coach.
“By going to training twice a week, running with other people and learning a few drills, I had some success after two years,” Nagel says. She then gave up playing badminton to focus on the track.
In her final year of high school, she qualified for the 2010 world junior championships in Canada – her qualifying time also confirmed a scholarship offer at Providence University in Rhode Island.
Her collegiate experience she says was amazing, but it was also fraught with challenges in the first few years as she worked to overcome RED-S.
Leaving to the States Nagel’s weight had dropped to 47kg and Cull, clearly worried, instructed her not to lose any more weight.
On the eve of the US collegiate championships in her freshman year, Nagel was at breaking point.
“I found out had a stress fracture in my foot and I was in tears I couldn’t run,” she recalls.
“Looking back, I didn’t have my period for two years prior, I wasn’t eating enough, training hard… I was the typical story with what happens with RED-S.”
It took a year for Nagel’s period to return with the help of medical experts.
Her unhealthy mentality around food required huge amounts of energy to correct, but she knows now about how much she needs to eat and the timing of when to fuel.
Nagel can see how easy it is for young athletes to fall into the RED-S trap. “They’re in a rush to get fast quick,” she says.
She’s now working as a coach at Femmi, alongside fellow Kiwi runners Lydia O’Donnell and Esther Keown.
Femmi aims to empower other female runners to look after their own menstrual cycles around their training programme.
“It’s amazing to work with these young female athletes. I really wish I’d had this when I was younger to know about the risks and be able to be healthy with an eye on the future,” says Nagel.
Young women, she says, aren’t thinking about the potential impact of training on their fertility. “Now I say to young athletes, ‘Do you want to have kids when you’re older? At least give yourself the option’.”
Returning to New Zealand in 2016 following a successful college career (in her senior year she was co-captain of the cross-country team which won the NCAA title), Nagel was conscious of continuing to progress her running.
“I was scared to come home and my running would go to crap, because that’s the perception I had when you leave the US as a college athlete,” she says.
“I found it hard doing it alone because in the States we had such a great group of women to train with. When I got back to the Hawkes Bay, people weren’t really wanting to train with me.”
To add to the difficult transition, Nagel suffered a year-long knee injury which frustratingly went undiagnosed for months.
She was told during this time it was highly likely she had arthritis in her knee and probably wouldn’t run again.
“I was 25 and I felt like everyone had given up,” she remembers.
Determined to find a solution, Nagel had key-hole surgery to her knee in May 2020, and slowly got back into her running. She moved to Auckland, too.
Once her rehab was complete, she joined Paul Hamblyn’s training group, now named the “Bays Babes” (pictured below) – who are on a mission to run fast and support each other in their running journeys.
Nagel laments New Zealand women’s distance running hasn’t really grown on the international stage in recent years, despite the success of Tokyo Olympian and world championship finalist Camille Buscombe.
“Younger girls looking at Olympics and championship events only seeing one person in the women’s category, to me that’s not a good pathway,” she says.
“Having a good bunch of girls who’ve committed to saying ‘Hey we actually want to be good, let’s all help each other out’ is working.”
Nagel is working as the digital and events manager for Hockey New Zealand and she’s firmly focused on qualifying for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024.
Two years out, she knows there’s a lot of work to do but feels like there’s a whole lot of life in her legs yet.
“I feel very fortunate and I don’t take my running for granted as much as I used to,” she says. “Every run I go on, I feel I’m lucky to do it.”
* You can watch live coverage of the action at the 2022 Jennian Homes NZ track and field championships in Hastings (March 3-6) for free on Sky Sport Next.