Meet Thea Toochek Youth Runner Blogger. This is her first post and it's a great interview with college runner Courtney Smith.
On February 13, Courtney Smith ran the second fastest 5K time in Harvard University’s history at the University of Washington at the Husky Classic in Seattle. My interest was piqued, not only because her time was the fourth fastest recorded in the Ivy League and the eighth fastest in the country, but because she graduated from my high school, Unionville in Kennett Square, PA, in 2014. Courtney, a sophomore at Harvard, finished third with a personal best time of 15:46.44. At Unionville, Courtney led the cross country team to the state championship as a junior and senior; in 2012, she was the PIAA Cross Country Runner of the Year and the Gatorade Cross Country Student Athlete of the year.
But Courtney is also modest. When I asked her to tell me a little about herself, her reply was short and sweet:
“Running is definitely my passion, but I also really love chemistry and like to read/learn fun facts when I have free time.”
We corresponded over email; Courtney’s answers came two days after I first reached out, and she opened her response by thanking me for being patient with her “slightly delayed response”; after all, she said, “We had our Ivy League Championship meet this weekend so we've been at Cornell for the last few days.”
No big deal, of course.
Courtney was kind enough to pause for a moment in her busy life and share some information with us.
Q: How did you get into running?
A: I participated in lots of sports when I was younger so I was always active and really enjoyed the running aspect of sports. Up until high school, soccer and lacrosse were my main sports and I hadn't even considered track. Since I didn't have a winter sport, I tried indoor track my freshman year and loved the sport and the team so much that I decided to switch to Cross Country and Outdoor Track the next year and was all in from that point on!
Q: What does running mean to you?
A: Running is more than just a hobby to me. Practice is usually what I look forward to/the highlight of my day. It's changed how I live my life, and given me life long friends. It's taught me so many life lessons and how to pursue becoming the best version of myself.
Q: So you go to Harvard; how do you balance schoolwork and athletics?
A: I think in a lot of ways athletics and academics complement each other. Sure I have less time to do my work because I'm at practice a few hours a day and need to make sure I get plenty of sleep, but track has taught me how to manage my time well and stay on top of my work. I've learned really good planning skills and how to prioritize.
Q: Have you ever gotten injured running? If so, how did you recover? If not, what do you do to prevent injury?
A: I had to take some time off in the spring of my senior year in high school, but for the most part I've been really healthy. I think getting lots of sleep, eating well, and taking care of the little things play a huge role in staying healthy. Running is about balancing between beating your body up to get stronger and recovering to stay healthy and perform well. I also think staying on top of foam rolling, core, general strength, hip mobility, foot drills etc on a regular basis makes a big difference. I like to cross train a lot as a way of getting in aerobic volume without the impact of extra mileage. I also really emphasize eating a variety of healthy, unprocessed foods to fuel and recover.
Q: What are your running goals?
A: Something I've learned in college is there's not really a cap or level of fitness you max out at. If you stay committed and train smart then every season should be better than before. So I would say my main long term goal is to stay healthy, keep improving, and keep loving the day in and the day out. I think it is important to have more specific goals though as checkpoints to keep propelling you forward too though so more specifically: get as many All-American finishes at NCAAs as possible, break Harvard's school records in the 3k 5k and 10k, qualify for the Olympic Trials and eventually become an NCAA champion. Team wise I also have a goal of helping to transform Harvard's distance program into a really elite level. Last year we got a new coach and he's been working really hard to get us to the next level and I think every week we are getting closer and closer.
Q: Where do you see yourself in ten years; what will you be doing, and will running factor into that, or is it simply a hobby?
A: I’d love to see myself using chemistry to help make the world a better place by working on developing things like cancer or heart disease drug therapies! I think it would be really neat to be doing a job I love that also contributes to society. I think running and exercise will always be a significant part of my life. After college I will hopefully compete for a few years professionally. Eventually I would like to move up to longer distances like the marathon and can see myself continuing training and racing road races for as long as I can!
Q: Have you seen a difference in the way you're treated, whether in running or in your field of study, because you're a girl?
A: I’ve been really fortunate never to be denied opportunities in school or track because of my gender. I think participating in sports from a young age taught me not to take any of the gender stereotypes seriously and to not let people tell me I can't do something because I'm a girl. I've also had a lot of really good female role models in my life - my mom, my older sister, and lots of female professional athletes.
Q: Do you have any advice for other young runners?
A: Never underestimate the power of your mind. You can make any situation into anything you want it to be. Positive thoughts, confidence, and happiness can be transformative. I think it's important to enjoy the everyday stuff for running, not just the results and the big races. Running is a hard sport with lots of ups and downs but if it's something you love regardless of where you're at on your journey then you'll always make it to where you want to be eventually. I also think it's important to realize how much more things are actually in our control than we think. Sure you can't guarantee anything like not getting sick or having a bad day, but you can definitely swing the probability a lot more in your favor if you take responsibility for your actions.
Courtney’s advice, work ethic, and determination are all great lessons for people everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or an athlete or not; it’s whether you believe in yourself and your goals. Thank you so much, Courtney, for sharing your amazing story with us, and good luck in all your endeavors!