Katie Follett, photo from KatieFollett.com
This feature on Katie Follett is the second of three pieces by Caitlin Chock. Katie Follett was one of the original Brooks Beasts, and she came oh so close to making several US teams. Katie made the 2018 World Indoor Champs at the 3000m, placing 8th in the final.
Caitlin Chock writes about the amazing changes and challenges that have happened to Katie, and how she has dealt with what was put in front of her. Caitlin wrote this amazing story about one of my favorite athletes, Katie Follett.
Katie Follett and a New Kind of Redemption
By: Cait Chock
Katie Follett entered the last 100 meters of the Women’s 5,000m final at the 2016 US Olympic Track Trials digging down deeper than she ever had. She gave everything that was in her body that day and crossed the line one spot out of qualifying for the Olympics.
Her heart burned far more than her lactic acid riddled legs.
In her mind, her career had become a string of near misses. The feeling was too familiar. So when she got back to her hotel room, she called her long-time mentor and biomechanics genius, Dan Pfaff, “That’s it, I’m gonna quit…I feel like a horse that’s always running after a carrot on a stick that’s just always out of reach.”
A brief pause before Pfaff simply stated, “That’s some dark shit.” Then he asked her a very straight-forward question, “Why did you start running?
The answer to that question is what ultimately led to Follett doing an entire overhaul on the way she talked to herself and changing the narrative she spent years writing, constantly berating herself. “My mind was a garden and the negative thoughts were weeds and I needed to pull that out.”
Those words, that conversation, the relationship with a coach who had already built her back up physically after chronic injuries from a hip imbalance, is what paved the way for building Follett back up mentally. Not only as an athlete, but as a person.
To know Follett today, the genuine smile that radiates through her voice as she talks, is to fully appreciate just how far she’s come and the amount of personal strength it took to get here.
Going beyond her perception of herself, the past two years she has undergone literally every change imaginable. In 2019 She left Seattle to move back to her home state of Colorado, joined a new training team, Elevated Performance, under the tutelage of a new coach, Jeff Boele, and then, she got pregnant.
For the type-A, planner, during the Olympic year that was supposed to be her ‘redemption year’ for the 2016 Trials, the sudden loss of control over everything, at first, made her nervous. But then, she embraced it and that’s when something truly magical happened.
“It gave me the opportunity to just let go of a lot of the things I had been carrying around with me,” explains Follett. Having been an elite runner for well over a decade, she had accumulated a long list of things she felt she HAD to do in order to succeed. However, along with those ‘must do’s’ came an excessive amount of stress, “that’s a key thing this pregnancy allowed me to do. Just to let go, try new things and be more open-minded.”
Not to mention the excitement that comes with being a new mother and venturing into this new life chapter. Where Follett of the past’s entire life and identity revolved around workouts and being a ‘recovery hermit,’ she never fully allowed herself to consider being a ‘full person.’ “I just feel whole and healthier in all the ways. Mentally and spiritually.”
By adding fluidity to the hyper-focus that propelled her to being one of the best runners, she has sharpened the blade, saving it for when it counts and allowing her mind and body to breathe. She found a balance and fulfillment she never knew existed.
We are also living in a time when becoming a mother is not the career-ender it has been stigmatized as, even as recent as five years ago. With a bevy of women like Allyson Felix, Melissa Bishop-Nriagru, and Sarah Vaughn (just to name a few) proving that stigma is BS, as they are just as lethal competitors after baby. Perhaps even more lethal given the strength of mind it takes to manage training alongside family and the strength of heart that comes from being fulfilled on a whole other level.
“There are so many moms that are showing it’s possible to do this and I just really look up to all the women that are doing that,” while too modest to cite herself among them, it’s a simple fact that Follett is one of those pioneers. “I feel like I can come back from this and be a better athlete and be a better person and a better version of myself; which, means I can be a better athlete.”
Take the 32-second 200 that Follett busted out at 33 weeks pregnant in a pair of Adrenaline trainers, AND having not been running during her pregnancy. That’s right, she hadn’t been able to run without aggravating her hips, so instead, had been diligently doing what she should: skips, dribbles, and drills. Maintaining the neuromuscular element of running fast clearly worked wonders.
So on the day she was curious what she could run a 200 in, she shocked even herself. Not to mention a woman who happened to be at the track watching who yelled, “I had a baby a year ago, I just PR’ed in the marathon, you’ll be back in no time!”
While well-meaning and supportive, this woman clearly had no idea the kind of athlete Follett is, for if she had, there would have been no question she would be back in no time.
Running is a cruel mistress, doling out heartbreaking failures, even strings of them, without any care for hopes, dreams, feelings, or ‘what one deserves.’ It’s crushed and mentally broken many an athlete. While others have caved, have tossed it in, or enveloped themselves in the darkness that is the ‘dark shit,’ Follett has not.
She rose after the gut-wrenching near miss of the 2016 Trials. She looked her mental demons in the eye and, rather than let them shirk away in darkness, she turned the lights on and chased them out. She uprooted and overhauled her entire life and came out more resilient, powerful, and ultimately, happier, than 2016 Follett could have ever imagined. “[Pregnancy is] an experience where I gained so much more than I imagined…God sometimes knows what you need more than you do.”
Follett is like a diamond, unbreakable, tough as shit, and with all the shimmer.
That 2016 conversation with Pfaff also planted the seeds for what is a second passion for Follett, to help others with their own mindsets and she’s back in school getting her masters in counseling. “The mental aspect is so important and we don’t look at it as a skill to be developed over time.” As with any other skill, it needs to be learned, nurtured, intentionally developed with the right tools, and not only addressed when there is a glaring issue.
Thus sparked the ‘Kickin It With Katie’ camps where she hosts and mentors harriers during the summer. “I want to be able to go back to high schools and colleges and use running as a way to teach people you’re learning these life skills and [how to] work through these highs, lows, and failure and disappointment.” Having led two camps while back in Seattle, she had the extra delight of hosting her third on her family’s land in Colorado, the very same place she attended her own cross-country camps growing up. She took this year off because she was plenty busy being pregnant and getting ready for motherhood, but has full plans to resume them in 2022.
Failing to punch her ticket to Olympic dreams in 2016 turned out to be the catalyst for the most wildly fulfilling, and unexpected, journey for Follett. “I sometimes think failure is the best thing that can happen to you because so many beautiful things come out of failure and it forces you to look at things you never would if you just breezed over it with a success.”
Savoring every moment of motherhood, (and somehow blessed with a baby who is already giving her some four hour stretches of sleep!!) Follett is loving deeper than she previously knew possible. It’s also giving her continual tests to ensure she stays flexible and true to adjusting her inborne hyper-focus. “There’s no better way than being a mom and having a baby to ensure that my routine is going to change and I’m going to have to practice new skills…I won’t be hyper focused on [training] all the time and I think that’s going to be very helpful to me as an athlete.”
Follett is many things: a mom, one of the top US runners, a mentor, an advocate, a student, a philanthropist. But above all else, she is, at last, quite simply, authentically happy on every level.
Cait Chock (www.caitchock.com) set the then National High School record for 5k (15:52.88) in 2004, ran professionally for Nike, and is just as addicted to running today as it keeps her sane(r). She is a freelance writer and mental health advocate. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @caitchock.
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