December is the time of year when all Fall courses come to a close, capped off with a daunting finals week. A never ending string of exams, papers, and group projects quickly bombard students as deadlines lurk around the corner.
Imagine if during the stress of tackling all of the end of semester assessments, a group member backed out of a project last minute or a professor changed the length of a paper to double what it was supposed to be.
That immediate and overwhelming feeling of shock is what senior captain of the women’s cross country team, Katherine Cook ’18, experienced as she travelled to Elsah, Illinois without her teammates on November 19 to compete at the NCAA DIII Championships.
Cook finished fourth at the NCAA Regional Championship meet in Gorham, Maine, earning her an automatic bid to the national championships. Even though the team finished fifth overall, a place that has sent cross country teams to NCAAs multiple times in years past, they did not earn a nationals bid and what was one of their most successful seasons to date came to a surprising and abrupt finish.
Cook faced this upset in the best possible way, representing Bates in Elsah and placing 16th overall to earn her first-career All-America honors. Her impressive finish was the fifth time in Bates history that a woman has earned the title of All-America.
I, a teammate of Cook’s, had the opportunity to interview her about her NCAA experience.
Sarah Rothmann (SR): What was it like traveling alone after you found out that the team did not also get an NCAA bid? How did that shocking moment influence your training for nationals?
Katherine Cook (KC): I felt really sad about the team not being there with me because I knew that they 100 percent should have been there. The whole time I felt this gaping absence and I did not really know what to think. The days leading up to the race I was just so anxious. I could not relax at all because I felt all this pressure, not that Jay put on me, but pressure I put on myself because it was weird doing this whole big trip just for me to run and it was all somehow coming to some kind of climax that I did not feel prepared for. The lack of preparation was probably just a feeling of anxiety and loneliness. That being said, Coach Jay and I did get to spend some good time together and she was great. It was just my own anxiety and feeling like I wanted to have the team with me.
SR: The cross country team travelled to Saratoga, New York in October, but since then all of the meets have been in Maine. What was it like going from taking a bus to a meet at most 45 minutes away to flying on a plane to a meet several hours away?
KC: The travel was actually quick and pretty easy. We left at five in the morning on Thursday November 16. It was very smooth on the way over. We ran into my family on the way over and some of the other teams on the way out. I recognized RPI’s men’s team because they were wearing their uniforms and had their hair dyed bright orange which was funny and comforting. That all being said, the planes were small and there was horrible turbulence! At one point I thought I was going to die! It was really scary but we got there. On Thursday we arrived at the hotel and went to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. All of the days kind of merged together because there was so much going on.
SR: How did you approach warming up and racing all by yourself?
KC: That part was scary. On Friday I previewed and ran the course. It was a really nice course: two loops with hills and a cornfield. My race anxiety actually started on Wednesday before we left so after two day of feeling so worried and panicked I ran in silence to try and relax. The day of the race we got there kind of late so I had to warm up basically 15 minutes after arriving and it was terrifying. I felt rushed and kind of unprepared. The hardest part of being alone on race day is the warm up and the drills because you are left to judge that on your own and to be fully ready by the time the gun goes off. But I just remembered that everyone was doing the same thing so I spewed off of other teams and my sister. My sister actually came into the field and did some drills with me. She could tell that I was about to jump out of my skin so she just did all that with me and acted as my little support. The race was also very cold and fast. It was windy, 40 degrees, drizzly and felt like a wind tunnel. I definitely felt like I was racing against the weather. However, by the time that the race started I started to feel more in my element and snapped out of the anxiety right in time.
SR: You keep on mentioning that you felt both pressured and nervous. How did you snap out of your anxiety and channel your confidence to compete? Can you remember any specific thoughts that went through your head as you ran?
KC: The race immediately began uphill and I felt like I had to fight my way out into the front. I wanted to position myself within the top 40 at the beginning of the race. At first I was nervous because I was very boxed in so I cut to the outside. There was definitely a brief moment when I was like “oh my gosh I won’t do this.” Then, I felt a sense of relief when I was able to cut around some people and find a group in the top 10. I sat between number 7 and number 12 for most of the race. And then there was also a moment of panic when I was like “wow I am too far up right now.” I recognized some of the runners so that was comforting. I tend to be over zealous at the beginning and sometimes get nervous that I will be overtaken by a sea of women at the end of the race. After the first lap I was still feeling good which was reassuring. Once I started and was able to find my way to the front, I actually felt very calm. At nationals there is always so much noise and my mind gets mentally riled and very overwhelmed. It is such a fast moving race and only lasts roughly 20 minutes. It is always just a fight to stay focused so it was kind of a blessing that I was able to stay calm. At the very end it was a fight to get to the finish and I had no idea what place I came in.
SR: Before you left was the unspoken expectation that you would be All-American?
KC: A personal goal for myself was definitely to be All-American. I talked to Coach Art a little bit about it before and he did not seem to think that it would be an issue. I also talked to Coach Jay and we set two goals. The first goal was to be top 40 which would be All-American and the second was to be top 20. In my head I thought that I could do it but I tend to have the problem of self-doubt. When I have these expectations and goals for myself I get worried that at the end something will go wrong. The race did go well. The only part of the experience that went wrong was not having the rest of the team there because they would have killed it too.
SR: How was seeing your family there and having that support?
KC: Seeing my family there at the race was very helpful. I feel like I am very fortunate to have the family that I do because they all make themselves available and are so incredibly supportive. They knew that I was nervous and they gave me the space that I needed but were also there as my crutches when I needed to freak out to them. Coach Jay was not stressed at all which was also nice. I ended up talking to her in the car for a little while and asked “have you ever had anybody else who has been this overwhelmed?” and she reassured me that she has seen girls who were much more nervous. I also loved having my sister there because she races too and gets the race day anxiety. Coach Jay and I were on our way to the race and everything hit me and all the nerves came out. My sister stayed right with me up until the moment that the gun went off. She even hurt her hip again to be able to do the warm-up with me. I didn’t know that she was hurt but she told me that she did not want me to be alone. She is incredible and I am very thankful to have her in my life.
SR: Last year after nationals you went abroad to Nepal and missed two seasons of track. Even though an entire year went by without competition, you came back and had this incredible season. How did you tackle training abroad and when did you start to train intensively for cross country?
KC: When I was abroad, especially at the beginning, I ran very moderately. I ran about 2-3 times a week and my runs were only at most 4 miles because it was really hard to find time. I would have to go in the morning before sunrise and would have to run with the dust, cars, cattle, and then when I got back take a shower out of a bucket at my host family’s house. Then, as part of my abroad experience, I spent some time in India for a month. I was just trying to keep up with the team and heard that Jess Wilson ’17 broke 17 minutes for a 5K. That was a really impressive and fast time and I wanted to try and reach a similar goal. I started to feel like the cross country season was coming up fast and I wanted it to go well. After that, I started running almost every day and expanded my runs to 60 minutes or so. When I returned home to Burlington I did not skip a day. When I set a goal or expectation for myself I can’t not do it. This drives me crazy most of the time because it makes it really hard to relax. But I just kind of went for it this summer I felt good about my progress.
SR: Cross country just finished and indoor track is already quickly approaching. What are your immediate goals?
KC: I really don’t know what it would take to make nationals for track. I always want to start by breaking some of my old personal records. I have not had a track season since my sophomore year. I want to get back on the track and see where I am time wise. Track is so much more predictable than cross country so I want to have measurable goals for right now. I will cross the later competition bridge down the road when I know how the rest of the season plays out. I am just excited to race on the track again and hopefully see if I can improve from sophomore year.
SR: Overall, what are your thoughts of the season? Do you hope to keep running after you graduate?
KC: There has never been a kinder group of people and I feel blessed that I was able to finish out with them. When I was feeling downtrodden by all the training the team was always there. I am glad I stayed with this team during my four years at Bates and am thankful for all the connections that I have made. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with running and I just want to remember why I do it. I would like to go out and run a marathon as just kind of a cherry on top of a running career. After that I want running to fall nicely into the backdrop of my life. When I want to go on a run then I will do it. I also want to go on hikes and maybe even just lie on my couch! I think I won’t be able to let it go completely but want to strike a balance. Nationals was definitely a good way to end the season. It was more or less a goal of mine to be All-American in either cross country or track since I started Bates. I always thought it was a pretty lofty goal and could not be happier that I was able to achieve it my last cross country season.