Photo by Brandon Miles
In the span of an eleven-month period that has felt much longer than that, so much has changed in our world. It has not quite been a calendar year since the COVID-19 pandemic brought Maryland high school sports (along with the rest of society) to a screeching halt, placing an unforeseeable obstacle in the path of the careers of many aspiring young athletes. For many, the pandemic that still rages within our society has unfortunately served as a barrier between consistent training and racing opportunities.
For some, like Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart junior Katherine Strong, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new opportunities in the face of adversity. A more flexible training schedule. A less demanding school workload. More freedom to take control of her own training, from workouts to nutrition to racing. One year ago Strong was in the midst of what was turning into a breakout sophomore track season. Now, Strong has done more than pick up where she left off; this school year, she has been one of the top distance runners in the DC area.
We caught up with Katherine Strong to talk about her current training, her goals moving forward and simply dealing with the pandemic.
MileSplit: I figured we would kick off this interview by starting with your most recent performances at the Virginia Showcase. 5:00 and 10:46 - both of which are current MD #1 times and big personal bests - did you surprise even yourself with those races?
Katherine Strong: I did kind of expect to run personal bests at the Virginia Showcase because I hadn't run track races in so long and knew I had been improving a lot. Going into the races, my goals were 5:00 and 11:00 and I felt pretty confident, but I was still not completely sure how fast I could go. I was really excited that I met both of my goals and finished among the top three in both races, especially because I wasn't running in the fastest heats.
MS: So, obviously coming off a great fall season you probably knew that you were in position to run those times, but how about the training leading directly up to the Showcase? What's it been like in the past couple of months since the end of the fall - are you running higher mileage, faster workouts, etc. that specifically made you confident that you were ready to run that fast even after such a lengthy track layoff?
KS: I didn't change all that much with my training since the fall. In the spring and summer I had been following my coach's training plans, but since our fall league competitions were cancelled and I've opted to do school virtually, I've mostly been coming up with my own running schedule and running by myself. My typical training since September has been around 35 miles a week, with one workout (mostly tempo runs in XC) and one long run per week. After the 3200 race in November (the MD Elite Two Mile), I took about a week off, then started back and added in one speed workout per week at my local track at Langley High School.
Most of my confidence going into the VA Showcase came from comparing the more consistent training I'm doing now to last indoor season. Last indoor season, I had already started dropping a lot of time, but was running super low mileage and only did a couple track workouts the whole season (when I could get access to a track on my own), so I felt like the better training would pay off with even faster times this indoor season.
Another factor that I believe impacted my times getting faster last indoor season was realizing at the end of the 2019 XC season that I was getting super fatigued at the end of my 5k races. I had my iron levels checked and found out that I was low in ferritin. I started taking iron supplements in November and started feeling stronger in December.
I think my overall mindset while racing has also improved over the last year and I think that has significantly contributed to my confidence.
MS: It's interesting that you credit an improved racing mindset even throughout a calendar year when racing opportunities are sparse. However, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed, in some cases (especially this past fall) for a more open racing schedule when athletes could consistently race against top competition from around the state. Do you think that running races like the ones hosted in Maryland and Virginia during the fall and consistently running against top competition helped foster that development in racing mindset?
When - if you can recall - do you remember noticing your change in racing mindset since last year?
KS: To be honest, a big turning point in my racing mindset was probably all the way back at the ISL Championships during the 2019 XC season. I was coming off of some disappointing races so I went into that race with low expectations and was mostly focused on finishing as high up as possible to help our team score. I ended up breaking 20 minutes in the 5k which had been a big goal of mine. That's also when I started using a strategy of starting slower in races and passing people in the second and third mile, which is something I've been doing more and have seen success with.
In terms of this calendar year, it has been very difficult to not train with my team and coaches and not have regularly scheduled practices and meets. But, I've been able to stay positive throughout the pandemic because I feel lucky to be able to continue my sport on my own and I do have a lot of fun just doing my daily runs. The unexpected opportunity to run in more regional races this fall (I ran in two races in Virginia, one in Indiana, and one in Maryland) and run against new competition really motivated me. Not having races for so long made me appreciate competing so much more and I was super excited to get to race again.
Photo by Brandon Miles
MS: Have you felt that your relationship with the sport has changed over the past year? How has training alone so often changed the way you approach training and the sport of running in general?
And on the topic of changing your race strategy - do you think your increased mileage and focus on aerobic buildup has enabled you to finish stronger during the second half of races? Has the increase in workload come with an increase in confidence in both racing and training?
KS: I've been doing track/XC with my brothers since I was five years old - starting out with McLean Youth Track and then FPYC Running - so I've been running for a very long time and it's been a huge part of my life Running has always been about being around my family, my friends and my teammates. So I do think my relationship with the sport has changed over the past year because without scheduled practices and meets to show up for I've taken more ownership over my training and become more committed. Throughout the pandemic, I've had the mindset that sometime in the future my hard work would pay off when I got the chance to compete.
I think having that long term vision has been super important. In some ways, training alone has made me feel like a stronger runner because it takes a lot of discipline and is challenging mentally at times. Having the flexibility to fit in my runs whenever it works for me is actually a positive of the past year. Although I'm mostly training alone, I know many of my teammates have continued running throughout the pandemic and that motivates me too, because we all look forward to hopefully competing together soon.
Yes, I think that my increased mileage and more consistent training has helped me finish stronger during the second half of races. It has been my high school coaches' philosophy to slowly build up training/mileage over the years, and I think that has been good for me. One thing that has given me a lot of confidence recently has been adding mileage to my long runs and sometimes turning them into progression runs where I run the last few miles pretty fast.
MS: You were on a roll back in March when the pandemic ramped up and forced the cancellation of the 2020 spring season. What were your thoughts when you first heard the news? Did you take some time off before returning? How did you attack training during the summer after a couple of months off and plenty of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming cross country season?
KS: I wanted to keep the momentum going from my indoor season, so I never really took time off running in the spring. For a while I thought there was a chance there would still be some end of season races, but once I knew that wasn't realistic, I turned my attention to a long buildup to what I thought would be a cross country season. Getting outside to run by myself was also a fun way to spend a lot of free time and have some normalcy. I remember being really disappointed in July when I found out our fall ISL season was postponed, especially because in my mind that's what I had been training for since the spring. It was a challenge to know how to go forward from that, so my summer training was mostly relaxed running from then on.
MS: How has the current climate of COVID-19 and distanced learning affected your overall training routine? What are the things you miss most about pre-COVID training and running in general? What's been the biggest obstacle (running or non-running) for you in the midst of everything that has been going on for the past year?
KS: I feel like I've had a lot more time and energy to devote to running during COVID-19 and distance learning. It's been fun to find new running routes in my neighborhood as well as go to the C&O Canal and Scott's Run trails. It's also easier to get enough sleep with a less busy schedule. I definitely miss being around my team the most, whether it be just running together or hanging out after practices, and that's probably been the biggest obstacle during COVID.
MS: Have you set any goals for the rest of the year? Do you have any more big races on the schedule or are you waiting to see if there will be an outdoor and/or cross country season this spring?
KS: I'm grateful I got to run in the VA Showcase, but I think that will be my only indoor race this season. I'm optimistic that some cross country and outdoor track racing opportunities will come up soon and I'm hoping my new PRs will qualify me for some races with top competition. As for goals, I haven't really thought much about time goals yet, but 4:55 and close to 10:30 would be great. I'm also excited to try the 800 more this spring and hopefully drop a lot of time.
MS: What are some of the habits or practices you've picked up or improved upon during the course of the past year that you want to continue once you start training even semi-regularly as a team again?
KS: I've become more focused on nutrition over the past year because I've realized how important eating healthy and eating enough is as an athlete. It's been fun to cook/bake more with the free time I've had during the pandemic (some of my running friends and I love Shalane Flanagan's Run Fast. Eat Slow. cookbooks).
I frequently run in the mornings now, which is a new routine because I used to run mostly after school. I also make sure to eat something before morning runs, something I didn't use to do, and I think that has given me a lot more energy in those workouts. Keeping a running journal and recording my runs has been a real motivator and I think will be fun to look back on.
MS: What are you most looking forward to about more frequent in-person practices and races again?
KS: My teammates and I were really looking forward to competing for the Independent School League (ISL) cross country championship this year. When I was a freshman, we won the ISL XC championship and it was a super fun team bonding experience. The sophomores that were a big part of that team are seniors now, so we're still hoping for a chance to win the ISLs again if we fit in XC this spring. I'm also looking forward to resuming team practices and traditions, like "fro-yo runs" to Bethesda.
MS: You're still only a junior with a lot of time to go in an uncertain climate amid the ongoing pandemic. That being said, have you started looking at colleges? Is collegiate running something you are interested in?
KS: Yes, I am definitely interested in running in college! Running is something I've always enjoyed and I can't imagine not continuing past high school. I've started researching colleges to figure out which might be a good academic and athletic fit. I've also been talking to friends who have been through the recruiting process to find out questions I might ask when looking at schools. My coaches have also been a big help giving me advice about what to look for in a running program.
I previously said I wasn't planning on running another indoor meet, but I decided to sign up for the Adidas Indoor Nationals meet, provided it doesn't conflict with anything my high school team plans.
MS: That's terrific. What events are you planning on running and do you have any goals set for them?
KS: Yes, I am excited! I entered the mile and 2 mile. I am hoping to break 5 in the mile.
Favorite post-race meal?
French toast at McLean Family Restaurant
Favorite place to run?
Science and math
Preferred running shoe?
Brooks Ghost 13