Running through the foothills of Portland, Ore., on an unseasonably warm late September afternoon, Lisa Koll is reflecting on the year-long journey that led her to begin her professional running career. The wide gravel road on which she and I are running, just 9 minutes from her apartment in the suburbs of northwest Portland, is generously shaded and climbs gradually above the city for the first half of our out-and-back 50-minute run.

“The day I stop enjoying running is the day I won’t do it anymore,” Koll tells me. “I’ve always run because I love doing it, and I enjoy seeing myself progress. And I think a lot of times when people go professional, they think, ‘Now it’s my job.’ And you do have to look at it like that because it is your job and you have to make more sacrifices. But I never want it to be, ‘I need to go run today because I need to race well so I can go get my paycheck.'”

Her step is light and effortless, powerful and purposeful despite the 80-minute run she clipped off earlier in the morning. I remind her several times that she’s free to pull ahead if she’d like to go faster, but she insists the pace is on target. I ask her how she’s adjusting to her fresh surroundings. “I miss my teammates,” she says after a long pause. “But I’m surprised how quickly this place has started to feel like home.”

A year ago, her prospects for being here and training professionally — 2,000 miles from her roots in Iowa — seemed much dimmer, if not unlikely. Koll had returned to Iowa State University for her final cross country and track seasons and her second year of veterinary school after spending the summer training in Boulder, Colo. But recovering from an injury limited her preparation, and although she raced that season, she ended up a disappointing 12th place at last November’s NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Ind. “She was frustrated because it wasn’t coming along,” her college coach, Corey Ihmels, recalls. “In the summertime, she was contemplating her place — whether this was really what she wanted to do. We talked about it, and I told her, ‘This is your one shot to see if you can do this for the next 10 years.'”

Read the rest of my cover story on Lisa Koll’s start to her professional running career on Running Times Magazine’s website.