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 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 star | kelsey lakowske
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

You hear a few stories like it every year, especially on the girls side, but it never ceases to amaze – normal, “average” kids who discover cross-country and rise in 1-2 years time to become national class performers.  In many cases, they’ve dabbled in or even pushed themselves to excel in other sports without significant success – then when they start distance running it’s like they’ve been handed the keys to a new Porsche.  Different than seeing kids who start early and work up the youth ranks into HS running, it’s amazing to see how teens handle this new talent they didn’t know they had.

Kelsey Lakowske says had never really “competed” in sports before her sophomore year at Boulder HS – just playing soccer for fun, some training in ai-kido, some ultimate Frisbee.  Then upon transferring to her current school, she went out for XC and found herself very quickly going from wondering if she could finish hill runs to motoring under 20:00, under 19:00, then finally 18:09 at her first Liberty Bell, taking 4th.  She went on to take 3rd in the Colorado 5A meet, then went the USATF JO route for the post-season, going all the way to Virginia for nationals where she won the Intermediate Girls race.

Her 2009 track season was also a first, and it concluded with her dramatic 3200 win in 5A state as she passed two in the final lap to win in 10:49.18.  Add a lot of confidence and a super summer of training, and Lakowske has now become the dominant force in talent-rich Colorado.  She’s unbeaten, with big wins at St. Vrain, Liberty Bell, and 5A state last weekend, getting down to 17:19 at regional and 17:28 at state for 5k.  Now she’s getting ready to go “swimming with the big fish,” at Foot Locker Midwest later this month.

1) Congratulations on the state meet victory.  I’m guessing by the day of the race, you probably were pretty confident based on how the season had gone and it looks like it unfolded like most would have predicted.  What were your expectations before the meet and how did you feel afterward?

I had to go into the race with confidence, but toe the line with fair consideration of every other runner out there, because I couldn't know how fast anybody else would run - only myself. There was obviously a part of me that expected to finish first, and part of me that had to be a little bit scared. Afterwards, I think I mostly felt very relieved.

2) Please talk a little bit about the season so far … the early win over Kaitlin from Classical … Liberty Bell … the period between there and the lead up to state … how have the different stages of the season gone for you?  What have been the biggest challenges and what so far has pleased you the most?

I went into this season with a very fresh perspective. I was genuinely excited. I had worked to reach my current fitness level and I was getting to experiment with how to use it. Last year, I ran a race to finish, but now I got to consider strategy. Every race leading up to state was a different experience, and I felt I got to learn progressively from each performance. The greatest satisfaction came from the workouts and moments in a race where I met a new challenge, but found a way to push through. 

3) I understand that you’re into just your second year of running.  How did you discover the sport?  Were you active in another sport at the time and became a convert into running somehow?  Please describe how that unfolded?

I used to do a variety of activities, from soccer to ai-kido, but never really did a competitive sport. My freshman year I spent at a high school that had no sports (with the exception of maybe ultimate frisbee), so when I switched schools for my sophomore year I got to jump into a new sport - I decided to try cross country. The first runs with the team, I was convinced that just making it to the top of the hill would be amazing. The first race opened my eyes to opportunity, I suppose.   

4) I read a little bit about the big kick you had in the state 3200 last spring that capped off the track season.  Was that victory somewhat transformational for you?  Did it give you a different perspective on training this summer and aspirations of what you could do beyond the state level?

I ran very conservatively, even in track. I wasn't used to trying to lead a race. The 3200 was an amazing race for me -- and it would have been even if I hadn't won. I let myself go, if only for the last 200 meters - but I really got a taste of running for the prize.

I had been ready to settle for third, but the last stretch I found a little fight in me. I drove after it and, before I knew it, I was in second -- but still accelerating.  Suddenly, I realized 'wait! she's right there!' and I went for it. I felt invigorated. It got me hooked, and it certainly opened up dreams for my future races and the XC season to come.   

5) Tell me about your coaching/training situation.  I understand Coach Guidry works with you at Bolder, but Coach Fairchild works with you … just in the post-season?  Can you share more about how you met Coach Fairchild and how this has all developed and works out for you?

Monique Guidry is my coach in running with the Boulder High team, and she has a real talent for working with people – which is great for the team. I heard about Melody from my teammate Sam Lewis in my sophomore year, because she was being coached by Melody at the time.

After the state meet, Sam invited me to try Junior Olympics with her, and so I joined in with her training group - the Fairchild Flyers. That was the first time I started working with her. She is a very inspirational person, but so humble that it’s easy to forget all that she's gone through when talking to her.

6) Your team has had a great fall, capped off so far by the state meet runner-up showing.  What has it been like working toward the individual goals you surely must have, especially since state last spring, but yet really engaging in the team energy and success, too?  Though you’re “just” a junior and in your second year of running, have you found yourself in a leadership role with the team, not just by example but also in relating to your teammates?  If so, has that been an enjoyable and smooth transition for you??

The team aspect is what got me hooked to cross country to begin with, and it was once again what got me through the hard workouts all season long. The atmosphere everybody gives is like an antidote after a tiring day of tests and lectures, and the girls got me pumped when I didn't have the motivation.

Similarly, I tried to inspire my teammates. We had no seniors on our varsity, so the role kind of fell on the next in line. I think we have a mutual respect for each other, and the girls all have so much potential; it's very exciting for me, at least.  I want them to really understand how far they can go if they put their heart into it.   

7) From a few things I’ve read and heard about you, it seems like you’re a fairly thoughtful and analytical person – but at the same time, looking at your pictures in photos, you seem to really relish the competition, the joy of victory, and maybe even a way to really put your personality out there on the course.  True?  How are you finding competitive racing at this level, in this sport you’ve grown so fast in, compliments who you are inside as a person?

Haha, I try to take a learning perspective, I guess. Running is a brutal sport, and the competition can make you crazy. I often remind myself why I started running - because I love it. It’s hard to remember when you're doing repeats, chewing up hills or choking through a really tough workout.

But a crisp morning run through the hills with the Rockies at my back and dirt trails zipping under my feet - nothing is so soul-soothing. I love that taste. I think I have both a love and hate relationship with competition. It’s the nature of the beast – I can't find satisfaction without pushing myself to do something I don't want to do.   

8) Please talk a little more specifically about the training.  What are some of the workouts you enjoy the most and what have you specifically done that you think has really helped accelerate the improvement?

I love hill workouts - they're very gritty, but they make you dig deep. I feel strong after beasting it over a hill, while track and speed workouts make me feel sharp and accurate.

I think the most important element to my improvement is actually the recovery. It's like music. All you would have is a bunch of noise without the rests, right? I think runners develop an ability to convince themselves they love the pain- otherwise why would we punish ourselves so much - but I find I have trouble really stressing the rest just as much as the hard workouts. My coaches have guided me well, and the recovery that I sometimes didn't want to take really was necessary to my better health. 

9) Now you’ve got the post-season ahead … are you considering both NXN and Foot Locker?  From Colorado, of course, you can do both.  Or … have you chosen one or the other?  What are you goals, in either case?

I think I'm headed to Foot Locker - but next year I have hopes for getting our team to NXN. We had some freshman on our team this year, so I really think it’s almost better we aren't jumping in so soon, but it gets me excited for the potential our team has. I'm going into the competition with no expectation - I'll be swimming with the big fish now! It’s thrilling to think of running with the class of the nation, and I'm excited to learn from experience.

10) Finally, can you tell us a little about support from your family and what you’re like and what you like to do when you’re not running?  Favorite subject in school?  If the people who know you best were asked what is Kelsey Lakowske like, besides being a runner, what would they say?

My family has been very supportive, especially my mother. Sometimes she is my mental doctor, because its simple enough to fix the sore legs but when your mind starts hurting, the cure isn't so easy to find.

I was an artist before I was an athlete, so I still draw and paint. I'm also a musician - alto saxophone in my school's jazz band with whom I went to Norway with last year to study jazz!

I suppose my favorite subject in school would be science, though I can't say I'm enthused with physics at the moment. I love reptiles, and am interested in becoming a herpetologist if I get the chance. My two snakes, Nectar and Allegro, are my faithful and silent 'sidekicks.'

Photos: First photo from 5A state meet by Chris Heiny; bottom three photos submitted by Steve Lakowske