The first day of Oklahoma Christian University’s cross-country practice was mass confusion.
Returning runners enthusiastically greeting each other with inside jokes and loud laughter, coaches gathering around papers and athletes with paperwork issues, and the new freshmen class awkwardly standing to the side.
Thunder Mountain High School alumna Katharine Jones (2013) was weighing her possibilities of success verses failure and how to have, not a good season, but a great one.
Jones wasn’t considered an elite athlete when recruited last season.
“I am a walk-on who ended up running really well,” Jones said. “Hopefully in the future I can ask my coach for some scholarship money if I continue to improve.”
For the time being her college experience is not bartered in exchange for giving her physical self for the privilege of following a new mascot (Eagles) with a new set of team colors (Maroon and Silver).
Jones does that on her own. She earns her way on academic merit, and she loves to run. Where most athletes struggle to keep their grades up to par, Jones has always been a great student and works to improve her physical potentials.
“Fortunately, I didn’t melt from the heat and humidity on the first day or even the first couple of weeks, like I expected,” Jones said. “And I didn’t have to run away from any tornadoes. My goals coming here were simple: to prove I am worthy of running on a varsity collegiate team and to continue obtaining PRs throughout the season.”
Those goals have been reached, and then some. Her Alaska high school state championship meet times of 23:51 (2012), 24:30 (2011) and 22:54 (2010) have now fallen by the side of the road, track or path she chases.
“I feel like I am an asset to the team now,” Jones said. “I have trained at the collegiate level and have proved week after week that I can run as well as the girls on full-ride scholarships.”
Jones’ biggest obstacle in the first three weeks of fall practice was being a functional human at 6 a.m. when coach Wade Miller clapped his hands and said, “Alright, practice has officially started, let’s get to work.”
An agreement made between Jones and Miller before she flew to Oklahoma involved her running outside during the morning practices, and staying indoors to ride the stationary bike or elliptical during the 80-degree afternoons.
“I realized how privileged I had been to stay inside for the first two weeks of practice once I started to run outside every afternoon,” Jones said. “Every local company that activated their lawn sprinklers in the afternoon quickly became my best friend as the days became hotter and the runs were almost bearable if accompanied with the joy of refreshing cold water sprayed onto me by a dozen sprinklers. This was an experience I did not have, or need, in Alaska, and I would smile at the thought of how my former teammates would call me crazy for proclaiming sprinklers a necessity.”
At the first race of the season on Sept. 7, Jones harkened back to her TMHS senior year and her personal key for a successful race.
“I had to be completely calm when the starting gun went off,” Jones said. “When warming up for my first collegiate cross country race, it took all of my mental power to stay calm and not give in to the panic and intimidation that swelled inside of me as the 95 female runners that made up my competition swarmed around me.”
Jones said she imagined the runners were friends and competitors from Thunder Mountain, Juneau-Douglas, Petersburg, Sitka, Haines, Wrangell, Skagway, Thorne Bay and Ketchikan.
Jones notched a personal best time (at the time) of 21:20.
“I remember laughing over the phone as my parents asked me how I was able to run a PR during my very first race, especially since it was much earlier and much hotter than what I run in during high school,” Jones said. “The only answer I could give them was the truth: hard work, belief in training, personal potential and teammates and determination to do great things can get anyone anywhere they set their mind to.”
Jones’ average college weekday consists of 5:30 a.m. wake ups, morning practice at 6, classes from 8-11 a.m., required chapel from 11-11:30, lunch at 11:30, homework sessions, free time, or classes until afternoon practice at 4 p.m., dinner at 5:30 or 6 depending on how long practice was and more homework.
“Then I pass out on my bed anywhere from midnight to 3 a.m.,” Jones said.
The team raced in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, and Ohio and traveled in two 15-passenger vans, boys in one and girls in another. Departure was on Friday with a stop at Olive Garden, or another pasta place along the way for dinner, and then continuing on to a hotel. Girls’ races were 8 a.m., so wake-up was 5. After competing, the teams loaded into the vans, took one lunch stop, and drove 3-8 hours back to campus.
“Having the opportunity to travel to another state blew my mind,” Jones said. “Car rides were painful though. There was an agreement between everyone on appropriate times to talk and sleep. I missed the ferry rides where you are able to get up and walk around.”
Jones learned how to compensate for cafeteria food and adapted to high temperature training and sleep.
“I think I ate more salad during the first three months than I have in my 18 years of being alive,” Jones said. “Unfortunately it is one of the only foods offered by my school’s cafeteria that doesn’t make me sick, so I might turn vegetarian during the next couple of years.”
The sleep portion was the most difficult part. Juggling classes, homework, social life, meals, cross-country, track and sleep takes up more hours in a day than are available. Jones often gets just 3-4 hours of sleep.
“Needless to say, I did not have time for a social life until after the first month and a half had gone by simply because I didn’t have time for it,” Jones said. “My definition of having a social life was sitting with a group of people I kind of knew during lunch and dinner, so it didn’t count as a priority at the time.”
The Heartland Conference Championship was held in Mansfield, Texas. The only quirk with the race was the fact that it was a 6k, while all the other races had been 5k’s.
“At the starting line my coach told us freshmen that we wouldn’t feel the extra thousand meters, and there was no need to worry about it,” Jones said. “24 minutes and 11 seconds later, I crossed the finish line, found my coach, and told him he lied to us. My mental breaking point was at the 5k mark and then I realized I had 1,000 meters to go.”
The National Christian College Athletic Association’s (NCCAA) National Championship was a 5k race. After a 16-hour bus ride to Cedarville, Ohio, Jones found herself among 31 teams, 226 fellow runners, their parents and other supporters.
Jones ended her my first collegiate cross-country season with her third PR in three months in a time of 20:36.
Jones is currently in the battle of her first indoor track and field season under the guidance of coach Randy Heath.
Indoor track will transition immediately into outdoor track and field on March 13 where Jones is shooting for sub-20 minutes in the 5K at season’s end.
She plans on studying abroad in Europe next fall and then continuing to run.
“Through all the emotional, physical, and mental flows that came with entering a new environment, leaving every familiar face behind, and taking cross-country to a whole new level, the most important thing I learned was to stay true and strong to my core values,” Jones said. “Never give up, keep moving forward, and take one step at a time because life is too great to handle in just one day. Cross-country gave me motivation, something to strive for when I felt like giving up, and it was the piece of Juneau that I will gladly carry with me for the rest of my life. To all who support, inspire, coach, and believe in the cross-country programs in Juneau and across the nation, I sincerely thank you.”
On Saturday, Jones ran her last indoor 5000, needing to hit a 20:10 to qualify for the National Christian College Athletic Association Championships on Friday and Saturday in Bourbonnais, Ill.
She finished in 19:50.27, placing 12th in the 18-woman field. It was the first time Jones has ever ran a sub-20.
“It was kind of cool,” Jones said. “I never thought I would ever do that. It was the hardest mental race I have ever run.”
Katharine Jones is an elite athlete.