A two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, 16 marathons completed, running 100 miles a week — and a full-time job in art production. New York City’s Caitlin Phillips is a standard.
Caitlin Phillips walked onto McCarren Park track in a pair of flip-flops wanting to run after a five-year hiatus from the sport. Somewhere between leaving her former life as a standout Division-I cross country and track athlete and moving to New York City in 2007, she got rid of her running shoes. And she couldn’t afford to buy a pair on her minimum wage job while working at a photography studio.
“I must have been at a breaking point,” Phillips recalls of that day in 2009. She slid her feet from the flip-flops and set off on a two-mile run, barefoot. The distance was all that she could manage, both mentally and physically. But as her toes pressed onto the rubber surface with each stride, something began to stick. A thought. She still wanted to do this.
As in running, a part of her life since age 10, when she was enticed into the sport after seeing a school advertisement to join the athletics team. Despite that Phillips’s father prefaced that cross country would be really hard, she retorted, “challenged accepted.”
By high school, Phillips had developed into one of the best runners not just in Cleveland, where she grew up, but in the entire state of Ohio. The seven-time All State honoree accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky, part of arguably the toughest conference in the country for athletics.
There, Phillips experienced an outstanding athletic career that included being a high-point scorer along with several personal bests, ranging from the 800- to 3,000-meters. As much as running was of interest, so was her pursuit of art. Phillips graduated with a degree in studio art, after which she stayed at Kentucky as an assistant coach in cross country and track for a year. Coaching at the college level though had left Phillips burnt out from running. She took a pause entirely, as a coach and as a runner, when she moved to New York City in 2007 to pursue her master’s at the School of Visual Arts.
“I wanted to live my life, party and hang out with my school friends, meet new people and have the flexibility to do that and be out of such a rigid training regimen,” Phillips says of her transition from collegiate athletics to living in New York City.
Phillips’s career aspirations took a slight pivot though. She left the master’s program shy of a degree when she took a job at Pier59 Studios, a multimedia fashion studio in Chelsea, home to designer shows during New York Fashion Week. In other words, it’s a hub for the fashion and photo industry.
Phillips’s opportunity started with working the front desk and eventually she was promoted to managing studio bookings. As her career began to bud, she revived her interest in running.
As Phillips gradually got back into the sport, starting with running two miles barefoot on the McCarren Park track, her ambitions remained mostly diluted. First, she had to find joy before she could figure out what exactly she wanted from running. “Once I started getting a little bit in shape, your brain starts getting back into the old patterns,” Phillips says. Rather than easing into running, she opted to attempt her first marathon — and do it in less than three hours.
“I was always interested in the marathon,” says Phillips, who once as a middle schooler wrote a school report on two-time New York City Marathon champion Germán Silva of Mexico. (A couple of decades later, Phillips met Silva during a training camp in Mexico).
Phillips got a bib for the 2010 New York City Marathon, the largest and one of the most prestigious marathons in the world. “I went into it pretty blindly with big ambitions,” she admits. Phillips dropped out at mile 18, citing dehydration and nutrition issues. “Rough,” she described of the experience.
Of course, that would only fuel rather than deter her from pursuing running, especially the marathon. Phillips became increasingly serious. She joined the New York Athletic Club (NYAC), among the most competitive running teams in the city, and aimed to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the marathon. Box checked. Phillips finished 84th overall.
Once again though, she was ready for a change. After moving to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, she left NYAC in exchange for the urban running crew Black Roses. “It was a healthy shift in terms of keeping things interesting,” says Phillips.
Joining Black Roses brought her into a much different running scene — less post-collegiate byproducts working toward elite competitions and more so a collective of creative types of various athletic abilities. Running wasn’t simply about reps and numbers. There was a whole social element that came with the urban running crew culture she’d tapped into. Running and partying and partying and running. The change was refreshing and allowed her to “do things differently within the context of running,” as Phillips puts it. That part has been a driving force, she says, in staying invested in the sport.
Not only was Phillips enjoying and finding another appreciation for running, simultaneously she was escalating her performances. Working with longtime coach Terrance Shea, she shaped herself to place among the top-20 women at the prestigious Berlin Marathon in 2017. Phillips went back to the German capital twice more and finished in the top-20 women in 2018 and 2019, besting her performance to 2 hours and 34 minutes. The mark qualified Phillips for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the Marathon for the second time.
Impressive is one way to put it, especially considering that the elite runner works full time and doesn’t run for her profession. Phillips is the executive director of art production for MAC Cosmetics, a role full of long hours, upwards of 12 on set on occasions. And yet, Phillips finds time to log 100 miles a week, tallying between 10 to 20 miles in the morning during heavy training blocks before heading into her office.
Having turned 40 in July, Phillips will participate in the Berlin Marathon for the fourth occasion on Sunday, September 25, this time in the Masters category. It will be her 17th marathon overall. “Berlin is a special race,” she says of her favorite marathon. If she runs well, perhaps she’ll think more about another goal somewhere on her agenda. While it’s not her No. 1 priority, Phillips would like to qualify for the U.S. Team Trials for the marathon for 2024.
As she continues to mature, so too does her perspective on running. The sport, Phillips says, has taught her what’s important in life. “Learn to appreciate the journey and believe in that more so than the result on one day,” she advises.
“You’re going to have the ebb and flow, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Embrace the journey and have gratitude for all the moments that make up the holistic experience.”