The Fire Is Lit: Kellyn Taylor’s Three Passions Fuel Her Balancing Act

By Taylor Dutch

Kellyn Taylor remembers the moment she felt a second wind during the 2017 New York City Marathon. While running through one of the city’s sprawling boroughs, the American distance star spotted several firefighters cheering on the runners.

In that moment, Taylor told FloTrack, she lost her composure — because although the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite standout was a professional runner, she was also training to be a firefighter.

“I have so much pride for something that I’m not even technically a part of yet,” Taylor said. “But I admire them so much, and I can’t wait to be one of them.”

A year before the New York City Marathon, Taylor was completing her coursework for her firefighter training class. For an entire semester, she juggled three classes per week with marathon training and — as if her life wasn’t strenuous enough already — motherhood.

She’s still pursuing all three callings with ferocious tenacity in her home of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Three Vocations, One Pursuit

This is what the typical week looked like for Taylor during the fall of 2016: class on Monday and Wednesday from 6-9 PM, and class again on Saturday from 8 AM to 5 PM. And raising a child. And training: 100-plus miles per week.

On Mondays, after a morning run, after dropping her daughter off at school, after weightlifting, massage or physical therapy, and after a second run before class, Taylor sat for three hours in a traditional classroom format learning theory, information, and occasionally engaging in more physical tests.

The same schedule applied to Wednesday: runs, kids, class.

Saturdays were an entirely different challenge. The day started at 5:30 AM with a morning run, and then Taylor went to class from 8 AM to 5 PM.

In these Saturday sessions, the students simulated actual firefighting situations: the kinds of difficult circumstances they’d one day see on the job. The class ran through a fitness test once or twice, and they also practiced carries and drags — meaning the students used a dummy to rehearse the act of dragging a human being out of a burning building or carrying them up and down ladders.

"I admire them so much, and I can't wait to be one of them."

The class took a break for lunch, at which time Taylor didn’t rest but, instead, took off for her second run. If she couldn’t complete the required distance during lunchtime, then she went on a third run after class to complete her mileage for the day.

One of the most intense parts of the class for Taylor was the live-burn simulations. Students in the class were faced with a controlled fire in the training facility, where they were tested on their ability to hit the fire with water and rescue dummies from various levels of flame while wearing oxygen masks the entire time.

Sunday didn’t get easier. That’s when Taylor trained with Northern Arizona Elite, her professional club.

“I think that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Taylor said. “And I’m definitely willing to give it a shot and find the way."

Even with the physical and mental demands of class and training, Taylor preferred the grueling workload of a Saturday.

“Saturday was the fun day, it was really hard but it was really enjoyable,” she said. “It was something that really solidified in my mind that that was something that I wanted to do.”

‘Imagine The Bad’

Not everyone is on board with Taylor’s three-fold pursuit.

In 2016, Taylor came within seconds of making the Olympic team in two events. She was sixth in the Olympic Marathon Trials and finished a narrow fourth in the 10K at the Olympic Trials on the track. She focused solely on her running for the spring of 2017, and placed third at the USATF Cross Country Championships and 13th — with a season best of 2:28:51 — at the London Marathon in April.

Her past accomplishments and her potential in the marathon are some of the reasons why her coach Ben Rosario is hesitant to support Taylor’s pursuit of firefighting at this point in her career.

About six weeks before the New York City Marathon, Taylor applied for a job at a local fire station in Flagstaff. The application included a standard fitness test that measures an applicant's ability to perform the physical demands of the job.

Unfortunately, Taylor did not pass after completing the exam 12 seconds slower than the required seven-minute qualification time. The test took place in the middle of the New York training cycle, but didn’t stop Taylor from training as usual. And her coach Ben Rosario was honest when explaining that he would not adjust her training to account for the exam.

“That’s her choice,” he said. “So I don’t really take that into account when I write the training, and she wouldn’t want me to, either. I think her big test was on a Saturday and the next day we had a 14-miler at marathon effort on Lake Mary Road. So to me, I can’t really change that. I mean, this is her job so she’s the one that has to make that work, not me. That’s how I see it.”

In other words: no special treatment.

“That’s kind of mean, but I think she’s okay with that honestly,” Rosario said.

Not everyone is on board, but Taylor remains undaunted.

In the summer, when Rosario knew Taylor wanted to apply for a job, the coach and his athlete had an open conversation to discuss the reality of balancing the two occupations. If Taylor does get a job as a firefighter, she will have to work three to four days a week on long shifts while also managing marathon training and being a mother.

Instead of thinking about the positives, Rosario encouraged Taylor to weigh the negatives that would come with the decision.

“To me, it seemed like, why can’t we just wait until 2020, get through the Olympics and then become a firefighter?” he said. “But I wasn’t preaching to her. I wasn’t speaking down to her, I was just speaking to her adult to adult. I think she did take what I had to say into consideration.

"I think in life, when you have these kinds of decisions, your tendency is to imagine the good. I told her to imagine the bad. I told her to imagine being exhausted. I told her to imagine being out all night on a call and then running the next day. I told her to imagine some of the things she’s going to have to see and the emotional toll those things will take. I told her to talk to real firefighters, and talk about the difficulty that is being a firefighter.”

If It Hasn’t Been Done, Then Do It

Taylor said that she did take Rosario’s advice into account after their conversation, but the pull of her passion has been too strong to ignore.

“I totally get where he’s [Rosario] coming from,” she said. “Running is such a short career that he wants to maximize all the time that we do have, but he’s also really big on being happy. He used Amy Cragg as an example.

“When [Cragg] earned the bronze medal, he had said that a lot of it was probably because of how happy she is now. She is part of a really great group. She’s married to a great guy and all of these great things had happened in her life. Well, that’s kinda the same thing for me. If I were able to do both of my passions at the same time, then I think I would just be a happier person. I think when you’re happy with what you’re doing then you’re more motivated.”

When Taylor failed the fitness test in the fall, she knew she had to resume more specific firefighter training in order to pass the next test. She met with several former classmates and decided to make her own fitness test simulations. She and her husband constructed a dummy to practice body drags, and they ordered a fire hose online so she could practice hose drags. Taylor plans to use these simulations to practice for the fitness test twice a week, preferably on workout days so she doesn’t experience fatigue on rest days.

“I think that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Taylor said. “And I’m definitely willing to give it a shot and find the way."

She plans to apply again during the next hiring cycle in the spring — around the same time she will be competing in the Boston Marathon.

No matter what happens with her running and firefighting careers, Taylor knows that pursuing both passions won’t be easy. There will be many exhausting days ahead with an unimaginable, demanding schedule, but like every new venture, you will never know the possibilities until you try.

"It’s kind of like the thought that people used to have where they assumed you couldn’t be a mom and a runner,” Taylor said. “Well, we’ve already proven that you can, and you can be very successful. Just because people aren’t doing it now — working demanding jobs and running — doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. If I’m someone who has to help lead the way, then so be it."

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