On a warm morning in early August, Heather MacLean laced up her sneakers and did what she usually does: She went for a run. Her time at the Tokyo Olympics was winding down after she had fallen short of qualifying for the final of the women’s 1,500 meters, and as she began to jog, she found herself coping with that hard reality — all the way down to her toes.
“My legs had never felt heavier in my life,” she said.
For many athletes, competing at the Olympics is the stuff of dreams, the product of years of painstaking work. But there is not much of a road map for what comes next, in the days and weeks following the Games. MacLean had heard others describe a sort of post-Olympics crash.
“But I don’t think there was any way for me to prepare for actually experiencing it,” she said in an interview this week.
On Saturday, MacLean will compete in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games, the prestigious indoor meet staged annually at The Armory in Washington Heights. The field for the women’s mile also features Elle Purrier St. Pierre, who set a national record for the event in 2020, and Athing Mu, the reigning Olympic champion in the 800 meters.
It will be MacLean’s first track meet since the Olympics. Mark Coogan, MacLean’s coach with Team New Balance Boston, had advised her to be methodical with her approach back to competition.
“Just because I lived it a little bit myself,” said Coogan, a former Olympic marathoner. “I know there can be a huge letdown after the Olympics, and I think it was important just to be supportive: ‘What an incredible year. No one but us thought you were going to make the Olympic team, and now you’re an Olympian. And once you recharge, we’ll get back at it.’”
MacLean, 26, has had something of a meteoric rise. She did not start running until her junior year of high school in Peabody, Mass., outside of Boston. At the time, she was working at a grocery store with one of her best friends.
“She was my ride to work,” MacLean said. “So when she joined the track team, I figured I might as well join, too, so we could car-pool to work and practice together.”
MacLean quickly revealed herself to be a natural talent who embraced hard work. After breaking a host of records at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, she battled through injuries and adversity at the University of Massachusetts to become an all-American. But it was not until she was a fifth-year senior that she considered the possibility of running professionally.
Armed with a master’s degree and liberated from academic demands, she joined Team New Balance Boston and made steady progress. At the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last June, she made her first national team by placing third in the 1,500 meters behind Purrier St. Pierre and Cory McGee.
MacLean was still riding the high from that experience when, on a flight home from a pre-Olympic meet in Monaco, she watched “The Weight of Gold,” an HBO Sports documentary that details the mental health challenges that some Olympic athletes face: their sacrifices, the outsize expectations they internalize and the inevitable uncertainties that confront them after the Olympics: What now?
She recalled dealing with “immense pressure” even before she arrived in Tokyo.
“I was trying to hold onto my routine for dear life,” she said, “because I’m obviously incredibly excited and so thrilled with everything that’s going on, and I want to talk to everybody. But at the same time, I want to protect my own energy, and I definitely let a lot of people be in my space. So that was hard to navigate.”
At the Olympics, she advanced through her opening heat in 4 minutes 2.4 seconds, just off her personal best, before fading to a 12th-place finish in her semifinal.
She had been planning to compete in a few more races after returning home, she said, but felt drained. She had to remind herself that she did not have anything to prove.
“I made the best decision for myself,” she said.
Before she officially pulled the plug on her season, though, she made a trip out to Cape Cod to run in the Falmouth Road Race with Molly Seidel, who had won the bronze medal in the women’s marathon at the Olympics, and Dana Giordano, a close friend and fellow pro runner. Seidel had entered the race for charity: She would start at the back of the field and raise $1 for each runner she passed.
Seidel had assured MacLean that she was going to jog the seven-mile course, so MacLean took the liberty of meeting up with friends the night before the race. She was not feeling particularly spry at the start line.
“I’m running on three hours of sleep or whatever, and then they just started sprinting,” MacLean said. “And I’m like, ‘Why are we going so fast?’ But it was so much fun.”
Seidel and her crew wound up passing nearly 5,000 runners. For MacLean, Falmouth was a fitting way to close out an extraordinary year. She could not fathom boarding another airplane. She also had some nagging injuries that she needed to address.
“I hadn’t felt fluid in a while,” she said. “So I just wanted to be able to go out for a run and have my body feel good and mentally feel good, and it just took a bit of time for that to happen.”
During her self-imposed hiatus, MacLean moved into a new apartment in the Boston area. She celebrated her birthday. She took long walks and listened to podcasts. She went roller skating. She joined the Peloton craze. She became a regular at The Breakfast Club, her favorite diner. (She loves breakfast.) She made coffee runs for her brother Shawn. And she was the guest of honor at “Heather MacLean Day,” when the mayor of Peabody presented her with a key to the city.
By early December, she was easing her way back with some slow jogs. She spent recent weeks training with her teammates at altitude in Arizona.
“She’s looking really good,” Coogan said.
MacLean has learned to prioritize her mental health, she said, which has only helped her as an athlete. She reads books about mindfulness. She practices yoga. She does a guided meditation before bed. She has worked to detach herself from her phone and limit her time on social media. Her friends are aware of her various routines.
“I think people think I’m sitting in bed with all of these crystals around me,” she said. “Which, OK, I do have some crystals. But it’s not like that!”
Now, ahead of her first track meet in months, she feels like herself again, she said. She is ready to run.