This Washington Distance Standout Has Turned It Up A Notch

* Eastlake junior Emily Van Valkenburg has made a giant leap over the past year

Photo Credit: John Hays/Arizona MileSplit

"She's got good physiological talent, but I'd say her biggest asset is really her mental strength and guts, that grit, especially when the gun goes off." -- Troy Anderson, Eastlake Head Coach

By Ashley Tysiac - MileSplit Correspondent

Eastlake (WA) High School cross country coach Troy Anderson knew early on that Emily Van Valkenburg had the makings of an elite runner.

Anderson vividly remembers a moment when Van Valkenburg was a freshman, running in the junior varsity race at the league championships. Right from the gun she took off, leading the entire race and gapping the field by around 20 seconds to take the win.

The teenager pushed herself so hard, in fact, that just after the breakout performance she began vomiting just outside of the finishing chute.

Anderson knew then that his runner possessed the mentality and talent of a special competitor.

"That really opened our eyes as coaches where it was like 'Wow, (Van Valkenburg has the) ability to really push themself that hard, really what I would almost say was outside of where her current fitness was at at that point," he said. "You can cultivate it, but if somebody has that already like she does, it was pretty amazing."

Read: How This DII Runner Began Breaking NCAA Recods

Perhaps it's no wonder why, then, that the Eastlake High School (WA) junior hasn't let the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic get in her way.

Now a junior, Van Valkenburg has developed from a jayvee star into one of the best distance runners in Washington -- maybe among the best in the country, too.

She has dropped her 5,000-meter cross country personal record by over three minutes since 2018 and was ranked No. 28 nationally for 5K during the 2020 cross country season.

"I've just seen a lot of improvement and it's been very motivating," Van Valkenburg said.

Yet competing and posting times has been difficult for athletes across the country, especially in Washington state, where high school sports seasons and activities have remained suspended or canceled since early March of last year.

Still, Van Valkenburg did not let that stop her.

"Once it shut down, there was basically nothing," Van Valkenburg said. "I think after shutdown we did one workout as a team, but that was it, and everything I just did by myself."

Occasionally, Van Valkenburg would also train with sophomore middle distance teammate Ava Hagwell, but most of her training relied solely on her own efforts and motivation.

"I took all of my energy and put it into running," Van Valkenburg said. "It was kind of like my treat of the day."

Washington remains a state with some of the tightest restrictions on high school sports due to COVID-19.

No athletes have taken part in official state high school competition since March of last year. While Anderson and other coaches can now work with athletes after having to stay on the sidelines during most of the pandemic, those coach-led practices are limited to two, one-hour practices a week.

Again, though, that didn't stop Van Valkenburg from reaching new goals. Over the summer she continued to follow workouts that Anderson and other coaches mapped out for her. Soon enough, she began testing herself in solo time trials.

"We knew the trend was going really well for her at that point," Anderson said.

She ran several 3,200-meter time trials in the spring with the support of her mother Amy, who filmed the races on her phone.

During summer training, when officials allowed high school runners to practice together in small groups, Van Valkenburg trained with a small pod of teammates. In the fall, with no competitions in Washington or anywhere else on the Pacific Coast, she traveled all the way to Arizona to compete unattached at the Desert Twilight XC Festival with a handful of teammates.

Van Valkenburg went on to win the elite, unattached sweepstakes race in 17:15.48, a huge improvement for someone who had finished 13th at the WIAA State Championship for cross country a year prior -- in fact, it was just over 90 seconds faster than her previous 5K best the previous season. 

And how about this? In doing so, she also defeated a Nike Cross Nationals All-American and three other NXN qualifiers.

"She's really been developing that mental game and just getting more confidence as a racer," Anderson said. "That's where that 17:15 came from."

So Van Valkenburg set her sights on running more cross country races and time trials before the end of 2020. However, her plans were cut short when she dropped a kettlebell on her foot during a strength training session shortly after the Desert Twilight XC Festival.

While she thought nothing of it at first, it became a larger problem in the weeks following the accident.

"It didn't hurt that bad," Van Valkenburg said. "It was a little bit bruised, but I just kept running on it and it ended up being broken."

Van Valkenburg did not find out about her fractured foot until January after a doctor's visit. Yet even with an unknown broken foot, she closed out her 2020 season with a wildly impressive 16:57 5K PR on the track in late October, which shocked her and Anderson once she found out she had been running on a broken foot for some time.

"I took all of my energy and put it into running," Van Valkenburg said. "It was kind of like my treat of the day."

That time, if official, would have been among only five other girls who had broken 17 minutes for the distance that fall. 

"I thought it was not a big deal," Van Valkenburg said.

Over the past few months, though, the Washington-based athlete has slowly built up her strength during the long healing process. She practically lives on the stationary bike and trains with her strength coach each week. While she still can't run, Van Valkenburg has dialed in on getting stronger in the weight room and improving the smaller things that runners may often let go unnoticed.

"I've been shooting that for my goal, to just get stronger during this time," she said.

Van Valkenburg looks to being running again in a couple of weeks. But going into the spring, she plans to focus not on running PRs necessarily, but rather on healing properly and getting back into a running groove. Especially with her potential, bright future, Anderson said he wants her to slowly build up to a full training load to prepare for her senior year.

Van Valkenburg also hopes to prepare for a potential collegiate running career, as she has also begun the recruiting process. While having limited racing opportunities due to COVID-19 and developing an injury has made it challenging for her to post times for college coaches to analyze, her extra efforts in time trials on her own already started turning heads. 

"Some DI coaches were already like 'Wow, you did that completely by yourself in the middle of COVID?'" Anderson said. "They were very impressed by that. That shows her resilience, that shows her guts, that shows her work ethic."

Van Valkenburg saw strong progress in 2020 and hopes that continues into her senior season, despite the challenges presented to her by the pandemic and her injured foot.

"Before I got injured, I was seeing a lot of improvement in my races," Van Valkenburg said. "Even though my last time trial I knew something didn't feel right, it was still motivating to see the time and I'm excited to get back out there. I think that will really help with how my next seasons go."

Anderson described Van Valkenburg as an athlete comparable to Jessica Tebo, former Eastlake distance star that went on to compete at Colorado University and for Nike as a professional.

"Emily is definitely the full package that we've ever seen, next to Jessica Tebo, with that guts in racing and that fire that really comes on," Anderson said. "It wouldn't surprise me, if Emily can stay healthy, that we see her at the Olympic trials one of these days."

But Van Valkenburg still has some high school running ahead of her, with Washington planning for a high school cross country season beginning in March and an outdoor track season following it.

From pushing her body beyond its limits as a young high schooler, to training on her own during the difficult pandemic, and to running personal bests on a broken foot, it is no surprise Van Valkenburg has the toughness and talent to put her in position for a bright future.

"She's got good physiological talent, but I'd say her biggest asset is really her mental strength and guts, that grit, especially when the gun goes off," Anderson said.

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