Karisa Nelson, photo courtesy of Samford University
Cait Chock finds stories for our readers that inspire us. Such is the story of Karisa Nelson, who won her schools’ first NCAA title with her indoor NCAA Division 1 title over one mile! Cait Chock provides us with the background of Karisa Nelson, her training, her coaching and her motivation. It is a fun read. We hope that you enjoy it.
The Secret’s Out: Karisa Nelson bursts onto the scene inspiring us all to dream a little bigger
By: Cait Chock
Karisa Nelson stepped to the starting line of the 1500m at the NCAA Indoor Championships inconspicuously; going unnoticed, but she had a secret. Both she and coach, Pat McGregor, had a secret actually. They both knew she was going to win.
Flash-forward exactly 4:31.24 seconds and the stands were in an uproar, the online media was in a frenzy, jaws were still agape after watching this 12th seeded Junior from Samford University make herself an NCAA Champion.
“It proves that it doesn’t matter how big or small the colleges are, champions can come from anywhere,” states the sweetly humble Nelson. But don’t ever confuse humble with a lack of confidence.
Nelson is confident, she believed in herself in the beautiful way that only comes from ‘youth and ignorance is bliss’. She once walked into her coach’s office to tell him she would be a professional runner, despite being nearly a minute away from an elite miler’s time. But Nelson was a dreamer with the self-motivation of a workhorse.
Which is exactly the makings for a dark horse victory story no one can resist. Watching Nelson break the tape in victory was a straight shot of adrenaline to the heart of everyone in attendance, anyone who’s ever met the harrier, and thousands of runners who are each brave enough to dream a dream of their own. And braver still, to believe in it even when some may call it far-fetched.
In an instant, well technically 4:31.24 instants, Nelson went from an unknown to the woman to beat come outdoor season and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It is such a great feeling [to win]! Especially that I could do it wearing the name of a school that I really love and that I know it means a lot to them because we are a really small school.”
The ‘smallness’ of Samford is one of the things that attracted Nelson to the school. Welcome to the city of Birmingham, Alabama which, to listen to Nelson describe the beautiful city with all of its delicious restaurants, you can’t help but hear the theme song to “Cheers” running through your mind. “It reminds me of my hometown, Brewton [Alabama]. It’s nice to see familiar faces every day.”
Her Freshman year, Nelson was only running five to six days a week, actually sometimes only four because she wanted to experience the ‘non-running’ side of college. “I think I needed to experience the social side of college so I could know what I was missing out on, and be completely fine with it, when I fully dedicated myself to running.” She’d gotten a taste of ‘normal life’ and was ready to dedicate herself to the fully abnormal life that is being a runner.
The quintessential small school, in the three years Nelson has been there they’ve churned through three different coaches. Her freshman year was Lori Strand, who’s more laid back approach was befitting to where Nelson was herself. Come sophomore year and the change of coaching to Kevin Ondrasek, was like going to the complete other side of the spectrum.
Ondrasek was a science man, methodical in his training, and form-focused. Gone were the days of four days a week of training and Nelson was filling out log sheets, getting her lactic acid tested during workouts, and having her form filmed by a drone during runs. All this, but never once did Ondrasek force Nelson to take things more seriously than she was willing to. “My favorite thing about him though was that he never tried to force me to be an elite athlete. All he did was he took me into his office one day in the fall of 2015 and told me he thought I could be an elite athlete. I remember telling him that I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted, he didn’t get mad or anything. He just told me that’s okay and that it’s a big decision to dedicate your life to running like that. Three months later I walked into his office and told him I wanted to do everything I could to be a professional runner. Then he helped me turn my career around.”
By the next year, and change of hand to current Coach Patrick McGregor, Nelson was fully dedicated and fully hungry to prove how great she could be. Coach McGregor’s training style falls somewhere between Strand’s and Ondrasek’s, with the special kind of passion that comes from a young, first year coach. But just because he’s only 26 and it’s his first year coaching, Nelson has no pause to trust that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Trusting your coach is more important than anything else, if you don’t trust your coach that means you don’t believe in what you’re doing, which usually doesn’t end well.” Believe, trust, work hard, and you’re going to succeed.
Anyone who may still be on the edge about trusting a first year coach need only look to the finishing reel of Nelson’s NCAA victory for cement-affixing evidence. That kick we witnessed was all thanks to McGregor’s tutelage. “He taught me that frequency is most important at the end of the race and not to over-stride.”
Coming into the season, Nelson was fresh off of her first uninterrupted cross country season. Straight away she was reaping the benefits of her longest stretch of healthy training time; the 4:38 she ran in early February at the JDL fast track converted to a 4:35 and left her sitting ranked number four in the nation. That’s when she knew she could be one of the best.
“At that point I still didn’t think I could win, but then Arsene [Guillorel, boyfriend and teammate] told me he thought I could win…Arsene doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean, so I knew he really believed I could win the National Championship. It started to make sense to me too. I had taken 13 seconds over two months off of my 1500m time last outdoor season, so why wouldn’t I be able to take up to six seconds off of my mile time in six weeks?”
Nelson’s goal had been set.
“I came into this season wanting to win Nationals, that’s really all I thought about. I wanted to run under 4:35 but wasn’t really thinking of any specific time.” She’d long ago found contentment in the ‘abnormality’ of embracing the runner life, and got down to work. Food, recovery, and workouts were of paramount importance.
“Breakfast is very important to me, it is the most important part of my day. I will be late to class before I skip breakfast,” laughs Nelson. Though, she isn’t joking. Classes, then lunch, a quick nap, homework before a snack, and then practice.
The team has hard workouts on Tuesdays and Fridays, medium progression runs on Wednesdays, a long progression run on Sundays with intense weight sessions three days a week after their easy runs. Nelson also gets in doses of light core work and flexible mobility work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “I do drills before every run and stretch after every run. I also do strides after my easy runs. I try to do core six days a week and if I’m running low on time I just do as much core as I can within 10 minutes.”
Nelson counts a 6×400 meter workout as her favorite and gives her the most confidence when she steps away having nailed it. In-season she cuts out the junk food, but come the off-season she makes sure to go full board.
It’s not an overly complex formula; it’s hard work, discipline, and drive. Nelson and Coach McGregor’s secret may be out of the bag, but the beautiful thing is that the shocks from Nelson are far from over. She’s only been working out consistently for barely over a year…read as: she’s still barely scraping the surface of her capabilities.
She’ll line up for the outdoor season with eyes on her, and she’s not shy in stating she’s looking to bring back another NCAA Championship victory in the 1500m. Adding to it, “I would really like to make it to the final USA’s this year and my major goal for beyond college is to make it to 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
Karisa Nelson wasn’t afraid to dream bigger than anything on paper would seem to suggest. She also wasn’t afraid to unabashedly believe in that dream, herself, and her coach. And isn’t that the beautiful ‘insanity’ of chasing your dreams?
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and went on to run professionally for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and comedian in Los Angeles, you can see more of her work on her website, Instagram @caitchock, and Twitter @caitlinchock.
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