Herald-Whig

Sunday Conversation with Andrea Fischer

Andrea Fischer, a cross country state champion at Hannibal High School and a four-time All-American in cross country and track at the University of Missouri, poses for a photo at her mother's home in Hannibal, Mo. | H-W Photo/David Adam
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 5, 2018 12:01 am

Once Andrea Fischer learned how to run competitively, she never stopped.

Fischer got her start as a runner during her junior year at Hannibal High School when she was a member of the boys cross country team. After a year of intense training, Fischer won the single-class girls state cross country championship as a senior in the fall of 1980 with a time of 18:33.5 -- a mark that still ranks sixth-best in state history.

At the University of Missouri, Fischer was a four-time All-American in cross country and track and set six school records. She went on to excel in triathlon competitions, and she received All-American recognition from the USA Triathlon Federation in 1995 and 1996. She was named the female athlete of the Show-Me Games in 1996, and at the 1996 Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, she placed third in her age group and fourth overall among amateur females. She was inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame in 1997.

Fischer and her daughters, Elizabeth and Ann Marie, live in Columbia, Mo. She works as a radiologist at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital. She came back to visit her mother in Hannibal over the July 4 weekend and also participated in the Hannibal Cannibal.

How did you do?

I was first in my age group, but I won't tell you which age group.

How often do you run these days?

I run as much as I can. When I went to (Washington University) to start medical school, I was in the stage between wanting to run and having to study all the time, so I took a year off. I wanted to explore the options of being an athlete, and I also loved being an artist, so I went to Mizzou to take some art classes, and I also worked for a short time in the Quad Cities. Then I got a job in publications at the University of Missouri with the alumni magazine. That whole time, I was doing triathlons, duathlons, marathons. In the morning, I would run through the downtown (of Columbia). The publications office was right next to the natatorium, so I would swim over my lunch break. After work, I would go on a bike ride. They had a great bike club, and training with those guys and hanging with them was great. It was a privilege. They push you, push you, push you. They were some of the best riders in mid-Missouri. It's so good to have people to push you. That's what happened to me in high school.

Were you the only girl to run cross country when you were in high school?

My junior year, I was. There was no girls team. The next year, my younger sister ran. I was just in the perfect time and era to take advantage of being able to run cross country. There was a meet in the fall of my junior year at the Jefferson City golf course. The girl who won was really, really good. I think we ran two miles. No one could figure out how far a girl could run. As a junior, I qualified for state in the 800 and the 1,600. I think I went on to place fifth and eighth. I was OK. but afterward, I walked into the stands, got my spikes off, and I went to Coach (John) Bringer. I said, "Coach, I want to get faster, but I don't know what to do." He said, "Oh, Andrea, you're going to have to talk to Coach (Frank) Lemons about that." I found Coach Lemons sitting there, and I said, "Coach Lemons, Coach Bringer told me I should ask you about how I could get faster." He said, "Hmm. Well, you're going to have to run twice a day every day." I said OK. He said, "You're going to have to run intervals." I said OK. He said, "You're going to have to do really long runs on the weekends." I said OK. I was really serious about it.

So how did those workouts go?

Coach Lemons had signed up to coach football that fall. He couldn't organize my workouts, so he called Tom Walsh. He lived down by Saverton, and he was a builder and roofer in town. Both of his sons worked for him, and they both got track scholarships. Long story short, the first time I went on the track was mid-June of 1980. He just had to tell me how the workouts were going to be done. I had to do 400 meters four times with 90 seconds rest between, and then a three-minute jog for recovery, and I did three sets of those. We got all ready the first time, and I ran the first lap in like 70 seconds. He said the idea was to start slow, and then you cut off a second or two each week. At the end of the season, you'll run a sub 5-minute mile. This what he did with his sons. Every week, it got a little bit quicker. Week after week, there was a little more time taken up. It was always incremental. Then cross country season started, and I ran with the boys. I was running JV boys races, but I kept pushing past the JV runners, so at some point I went to the varsity. I had no idea how quickly everything would come together. By this very simple program, I ended up winning the state meet.

Did you have any idea beforehand how you might stack up at the state meet?

The last meet was in Kirksville. I placed third overall with the boys. That was pretty cool. Then we went to districts in Jefferson Barracks, and I ran pretty well there. Then I went to state in Jefferson City at Huff Park. There were tons of people, tons of teams. The state meet was the first time I ran against a lot of girls my age. I was really nervous. Coach Lemons just said, "OK, I'm going to have to tell you this. When you're on that big starting line, there's going to be a lot of people there. Use your elbows. You don't have to be a lady." I did that. Everybody takes off like mustangs. I don't know when I got to the front, but I slowly pulled away. It's one of the toughest courses I've ever been on. Only the fittest survive. The hills were so challenging. You know, they eventually took two hills out on that course. I think the coaches complained. A lot of kids didn't make it. I'm like, whatever.

How did you become interested in running?

I had no running at all except for the Lutheran School Relays in Palmyra. It was like a fun day. They had a 100-yard dash and a three-legged race. We just played kickball in grade school. I was still riding horses. That was really my interest, our whole family's interest.

So why did you go out for the track team in high school?

I liked running. I was pretty quick. I just thought, "I want to go out for track." I didn't have a fall sport. I like to run. I wanted to be a hurdler so bad, but I couldn't three-step the hurdles. There were two other girls who already were hurdlers. I was like, "Mom, can I lengthen my legs to be tall enough to do the hurdles?" Track was really fun. It was really laid back. We'd go to all these relays, and it was just so much fun to be on a team in a bus, singing songs on the way home. I remember when we came back from the meet in Kirksville, and they were playing "We Are the Champions." We were all celebrating. It was really sweet.

You had very little exposure to college coaches in high school. How did you end up at Missouri?

I would have it no other way. I didn't waste time burning out going to AAU meets all over the country and having a coach yell at you and clock you. I know that happens now. I had all advanced classes and I was a good student, and I was getting recruitment packets. There were more coaches interested when I ran the cross country race because they finally had a time to match with the person. I went to other places to see what was there. I went to Stanford. They took me on a campus tour. I asked, "Where's your indoor track?" They said, "We don't have an indoor track." They didn't need to worry about one. I mean, it's California. I was so embarrassed. I was such a rube. I just thought it would be too far away from home. I just ended up talking to Coach (Dick) Weis and got a scholarship there to be on the girls track team.

You didn't have a girls cross country team at Hannibal. Was the program at Missouri also in its infancy?

That's kind of right. At that time, women's track was still relatively new in the Midwest. I think Iowa, Minnesota and some of the northern teams had girls races earlier than we did in the Midwest. (The girls on the track team) got to meet each other during the summer welcome, and we ran with each other. We pretty much wore our own sweats from high school. We got issued our team sweats. I think one of the years, for our team sweats, we got the football team's clothes from the fall before. I was probably the fastest person on the team when I first arrived, but when you have faster runners pushing you, the whole team gets better.

What do you remember about your college running career?

We had little groups. We had the cross country runners, the sprinters, the hurdlers, the throwers. We'd all be in the Hearnes Center. We didn't know much about the men's team or the other women. I mean, we knew everybody, but we weren't used to each other. The trips, the singing, the playing of the earliest rap ever. We kind of stayed in the Midwest for most of our meets. I had a lot of injuries my junior year. I ended up redshirting two track seasons. I probably shouldn't have run in the Hearnes Center. It was like running on concrete. I think I had my best times that one year in high school. It was so new. I was just bewildered that if I just did what they told me to do, it worked. It was just a very magical time for me. I didn't know anything about track scholarships, and I'd never seen a track meet on television.

So what did you do after you graduated from Missouri in 1985?

I wanted to go to med school. I got into Wash U. that fall, but I wasn't ready to put away my athletic career. I would run Forest Park in the mornings before classes. I'd see these old men running together. They ran 6 miles at 6 o'clock in the morning. I took some time off and tried to see if running and doing triathlons was going to get me anywhere. I eventually worked in Davenport, Iowa, and I was in running heaven. I joined the Cornbelt Running Club. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we'd have a workout and a run, and we'd eat together afterward. It was just a warm and accepting place. I loved Iowa, but I got a job in the publications department at Missouri as a graphic designer and art director. I eventually decided, "I don't think I can live on this." I wondered if i should take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) again. I did, and I got into med school at Mizzou. When I got out of med school, I went to radiology residency. I was lucky. I wanted to stay in Columbia, and a job came up at the VA hospital. I like the patients. The work isn't bad, and I have decent call schedules. And now I can run.

How did you get into triathlons?

I started triathlons when I was in Davenport. I had been running a lot. I had an old bike, but I didn't know how to change a tire. I took it to this bike shop in Rock Island. They fixed it up for me. Do you ever watch "American Pickers"? Mike (Wolfe, one of the stars of the show) worked in that bike shop. There were a lot of people going for rides, but I didn't have a good bike. I bought one from a guy for $300. It was serviceable. I stuck with the same bike. I was swimming some at that time, and I was riding with the bike club there. The first triathlon was in Kirksville. I had done a pool triathlon in the Quad Cities, but this was in the lake. I had never swum in open water. I was OK with the run, and I could finish the bike, but I was worried about the swim. Long story short, for the first half mile, I thought I was going to die. I could see the shore, and I thought, "I'm going to quit." Then I thought, "Hey, I paid $40 to do this!" I better finish the swim. I just sucked it up. I was way behind. I mean, an old man passed me. But at least I was on dry ground. Then I did my bike, and the run was very hilly. My run was good enough that I was passing a bunch of people, and I won the race. It was crazy. I kept going back every year and ran in a few others.

How did you get to run in an Ironman?

When I was in Columbia, these swimmers kept saying, "You need to come do some triathlons." We eventually went to Panama City, Fla., in 1996. It was super hot. It was an ocean swim, and I had never been in the ocean. I just got through it. It was a pretty short course. I was passing a lot of people on the run, and I passed the first place woman right before the finishing chute. I got a place to go to an Ironman. I thought, "Oh, God, now I have to run an Ironman." It turned out to be so much fun. It was the trip of a lifetime. My whole family went. My sisters and their husbands were relaxing and enjoying Hawaii, while I was getting nervous about finishing. I did finish. It was really hard. I didn't realize how quickly the electrolytes get out of whack. I could kind of tell I was out of it, but I was third in my age group.

So how much do you run these days?

I like to run with the girls after work if I can. I don't swim any more, but I've started to bike ride again. My last triathlon was in Germany in 1999. My dad was in the National Guard for a long time and was a medical officer in the national guard in Stuttgart. He was going to go to Germany to serve his three weeks, and the triathlon was that same October. It was so wonderful. It was cool. The people were so much more vociferous about triathlons. We stayed with a host family, and we got to tour around. Then I got home and went to med school, and I was done having fun.

Why do you enjoy running?

I get out of running what people get out of marijuana. I've never smoked marijuana, but it is just a renewal. If I get grouchy or mad or I don't feel good, I go on a run, I'm always happier than before. I use it as my defuser. If work was hectic or crappy, after I run, it's a non-issue. I like to ride, but it's just a lot harder to bike without a group to do it with. It's just a calming thing that I do. Some people knit. Some people run. Some people do yoga. It's a physical reaction. It's just something I do to chill out. That's pretty much it.