* North Rockland's Katelyn Tuohy fights to the line; Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
- - -
"It would have been an easy spot to hold up the tent, pack it in and say "Today's not my day. I don't feel great.' Then she showed the heart of a champion."
- - -
PORTLAND, OREGON -- On the final weekend of her high school cross country career, Katelyn Tuohy's first move was to listen.
Time had given the North Rockland High School senior perspective, in a way that no one else could really understand but her. Success had shown her what was possible. And the hundreds of miles she had run, over the months and months of training in preparation for this weekend, had proved that she was ready to make history again, that she could win her third straight Nike Cross Nationals title.
But it wasn't so much about earning another victory. She needed to feel it in her heart.
She had long known that words wouldn't build your reputation in this sport. Results would. And if you took the time to prepare -- if you really dug in and leaned on all the little things -- you could achieve anything you wanted.
She was here, in her fifth and final appearance at Nike Cross Nationals, and history was possible.
On Thursday, two days before the championship race, she sat down inside Nike's assembly room, next to teammate Haleigh Morales. She listened closer than usual.
Former Christian Brothers Academy coach Chris Bennett, whose team won a national title in 2011, was tasked to speak. By now, he was a Global Run Coach for Nike, in a position to speak to eager young minds about the ways of running. He had just 10 minutes. But instead of talking about what it would take to win, he focused instead on the fleeting moments of this experience.
"I'm going to give you a little bit of advice," he said, looking across the room. "Slow down.
"Not on race day. But slow down the entire time leading up to the race. Because guess what? Eventually you leave and go home."
Time would pass. He would again emphasis the larger point.
"I'm not trying to be a downer," he said. "What I'm telling you is this. Do not wait to realize until you're gone to realize just how extraordinary this is."
Tuohy would later say the speech was moving. And perhaps it was there where she was given a different sense of the experience, the one she would hold on to after her high school career was all said and done. She shared a look with Morales.
"We were kind of just saying, 'This is it. This is the last ride,'" Tuohy said.
And then it was on to race day.
- - -
* Katelyn Tuohy reflected on her third and final NXN title
- - -
This season had been important for Tuohy for a lot of different reasons. There were the stresses of school and college visits and winning races. By Saturday, she had visited five schools officially and had narrowed it down to three.
Publicly, she wasn't giving anyone answers. There was no doubt, the process of deciding her future was weighing on her. The oncoming race was welcome, in that she knew what the purpose and outcome could be.
But there was also, for the first time it seemed, a sense of doubt. Everything had always come so easy. Saturday, she believed, would be a fight.
After missing a month of training over the summer, some part of her never felt like she caught up. Even as she completed all the same workouts and hit all the same marks on the track, she always wanted an ounce more. Excellence, if you've driven enough by it, constantly chases after you.
"My training hasn't .. It's been good," she said. "My workouts have been the same as the last year. But it's hard to be confident in your training when you had to take a whole month running in the middle of it. That messed with my confidence a little bit."
And yet, perfection was still possible.
Leading into Saturday, her season was one race away from it, for the third straight year. She won nine straight races, including her third straight New York Class A championship, her second straight Federation title and her third straight Nike Cross Nationals New York Regional. In fact, she hadn't lost a cross country race since December of 2016.
Few athletes have ever had a career that distinguished, even those who had gone on to turn pro before graduation. She'll finish her career with the fastest 5K run in high school history, her 16:06.87 performance from the Ocean State Invitational in 2018.
But this day wasn't about that, all those prior wins, those records. Tuohy knew that. Her next move, an important one, was to remember why she was here in the first place. And Brian Diglio knew that, too. He snapped a picture of Tuohy and Morales before they walked out of the Athlete's Village. A memento, one to potentially hold for a lifetime.
"It just struck me watching the two of them, who were so important to our team, what they've been doing all these years," he said. "To seem them, it was emotional."
Moments passed and the gun shot into the air, smoke billowing around it.
Controlling the race was easy enough. That's what Tuohy did best, rolling out to the front, moving the pace forward at speeds seemingly only she could handle.
She pulled along the field through the first mile in 5:15.5; it was just one second faster than second-place Sydney Thorvaldson. That may have worried her. She took a glance back before the exchange -- something she rarely has done in races.
"I wanted to go out a little slower, because the last two years I've been going out in 5:05," she said. "Just trying to calm down in the first mile."
Even if she could prepare her body for excellence, Tuohy was constantly reminded on Saturday that were things you just couldn't predict. The conditions were imperfect. The coldness of the day had clamped down like a printing press. The rain, which started the night prior, continued to pour on. It made the course slick and muddy and slow, a condition that for most would lead to plodding times. This race would be her hardest yet.
But she wasn't deterred.
After going through the mile slightly ahead, she surged in the second mile, forming a six second gap.
"Once I hit about 2K, I tried to push up the hill and the downhill," she said.
* Photo by Bobby Reyes
- - -
During that stretch she saw a familiar face. Michelle Rauber, the mother of close friend and Tully junior Brooke Rauber, who was just a few places back in the field. Michelle screamed.
"LOOKING GOOD, KATELYN!"
"I made a little bit of a surge there," Tuohy said.
The race didn't get any easier, though. A little into the third mile, Tuohy's form buckled just slightly, those arms wincing. She couldn't feel her hands or her feet; her shoes slushed into the ground with every step.
"I have pretty bad circulation," she said later. "When it gets cold to a certain point. I feel it in my hands and feet. I really didn't know where I was placing my feet for most of the race. So it was a crazy ride I guess."
Tuohy powered through the intermediate hills, though she sensed the gap was closing. She surged again at 4K trying to break away for good. By this point, Thorvaldson and Beavercreek's Taylor Ewert were holding on, forming their own sort of battle.
And then the hill came. A series of steep grades, so late in the race, which either serve to validate or break athletes who try to cross them.
Thorvaldson and Ewert were nearly even.
"It really seemed like everyone was struggling, everyone next to me, Katelyn and me too," Thorvaldson said.
And it was at that point, a position she had never encountered in cross country, that Tuohy was forced to finally see what she was made of.
"It would have been an easy spot to hold up the tent, pack it in and say "Today's not my day. I don't feel great,'" Diglio said. "Then she showed the heart of a champion."
A sprint to the line ensued.
And while you couldn't hear what she was thinking, couldn't image what her legs were going through, you could see it. Her face showed the machinations of desire. She showed the will to win, unlike anything we've ever seen from her.
It was Tuohy, the unbeaten who was unwilling to be beaten. A three-time champion.
She fell to the ground, all for a moment, then was brought to medical, where Diglio, in those fleeting seconds, couldn't help but admire what she had just done.
"This is the race everyone is going to be talking about," he said. "When you win and you're right there, it gets kind of easy to coast across the line, but now you feel what lots of other people feel."
- - -
There remained one final step.
Tuohy walked back out to the stage, humbled, still cold, shivering.
She slipped in between Ewert and Thorvaldson. She accepted the third and final trophy of her high school career. She said few words.
And in doing so, closed an incredible chapter in her high school career. She walked back up the hill, over to her teammate, on to the next season.
"This one was definitely the hardest of the three and the most meaningful, just because it was my last high school race."
Coda: Tuohy's prep cross country career isn't over just yet. While her last race for North Rockland came at NXN, she will continue on with her first 6K this weekend in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the USATF Club Cross Country Championships. It's a race Tuohy says she's looking forward to.