Natalie Cook Felt Good, So She Made A Title-Winning Move

* Natalie Cook crosses the finish after running the second-fastest 2-mile time ever on Friday at New Balance Nationals Indoor

Photo Credit: Joe Swift/MileSplit

"Just shocked. Just mind blown. It's crazy to be here again." -- Natalie Cook

By Dan Beck - MileSplit 

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK -- Natalie Cook remembers her last trip to The Armory well.

That was three years ago, and Cook, then a freshman, was in the second of three sections of the girls 2-mile championship. She ended up 12th overall, running a time of 10:31.26.

She stuck around to watch the third and fastest section of the event later in the day, cheering on stars Katelyn Tuohy and Katelynne Hart as the two battled to a pair of sub-10 times. 

That was three years ago and also the last time the Flower Mound (TX) senior raced indoors.

Flash forward to Friday.

Cook's next indoor race would turn out to be her best.

She turned on the burners in the second half of the race to run away with the 2-mile championship, earning a coveted national title and an almost unbelievable 9:44.44, the second-fastest indoor time in high school history.

It surpassed Tuohy's facility record of 9:51.05, from that same 2019 year. 

"Just shocked," Cook said of her winning performance. "Just mind blown. It's crazy to be here again."

Much has happened over the last two years. A broken foot during her sophomore year and a junior year stripped of opportunity to compete indoors impacted Cook.

And so she made her return to the Armory and New Balance Nationals Indoor a triumphant one, picking up right where she left off after a cross country season that saw her win a pair of national championship races. She opted against competing in a 5K at the University of Washington in February in favor of this. 

"I was excited to get after it and see what I could do," she said. "I feel like I'm better on the track than I am in cross country. I felt really smooth. I got in my groove of things during this race."

Cook nestled herself behind Angelina Perez of New Jersey and Ellie Shea of Massachusetts for the first mile of the race before making a move to the front. Her second half mile was 4:47, a full 10 seconds faster than her first half. 

"My dad was saying that if I felt smooth coming into the mile to just go for it," Cook said. "I went for it and I just tried to keep ramping up the pace and get that sub-10."

It was also getting a little too cramped up front for her liking.

"We were hitting our heels a little bit in the first mile and I was like 'I have to get around,'" she added.

From there, Cook progressively widened the gap between her and Perez and Shea. She tried looking at the big screen above the center of the track, but it was hard to tell if she was gaining on her competitors. But she knew that she was feeling really good.

So she pushed on.

"My dad was saying that if I felt smooth coming into the mile to just go for it. I went for it and I just tried to keep ramping up the pace and get that sub-10."

After running 37-second 200m splits for most of the first mile, Cook dropped the pace once she moved to the front. She clicked off 36-second splits before closing in a 68-second last 400m.

Despite her impressive closing speed, Cook said she hasn't done any speed work this winter.

Instead, it's been mostly tempos, pointing to a confidence-boosting four-mile tempo she did with the Flower Mound High School boys at 5:15 mile pace.

Cook's performance on Friday was a major statement by the Oklahoma State signee. 

A 4:44-2:12 double at the Coppell Relays in Texas last week was Cook's first appearance since the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in December, when she pulled away for the victory, toward her second national title in as many weeks.

That came on the heels of her win at the Garmin RunningLane XC Championships the previous week.

Her cross country accolades from the fall have put her squarely in the spotlight of girls high school distance running. She won Gatorade's National Player of the Year honor recently, too.

And yet, Cook just keeps impressing.

"I've dealt with some pressure lately," she said. "But I try and just say, 'Hey, it's just a race. Just go out there and have fun.' That's what my parents tell me and I've just been saying that to myself lately and it's been working."

On Friday, Cook was well under her goal of sub-10 and finished in 9:44.44 to move her all the way up to US No. 2 all-time for a full two miles indoors.

Only Mary Cain's 9:38.68 from 2013 stands above Cook's time.

She moved past Hart. She moved past Tuohy.

"Seeing that that's me crossing that finish line this time," Cook said. "It's just crazy."

A lot can change in three years.