The Impossibility of Going from Couch Potato to 4th in the World

by Katie Burnett

In November of 2008 I wasn’t doing a whole lot of anything. I was barely motivated to do my schoolwork, sat around a lot of the day, watched my friends play video games, hardly picking up a controller myself. The previous fall I had walked onto the track team at the University of Arizona to throw the javelin, competing in the spring. I had made some improvements in my marks, but life wasn’t moving in the direction I had hoped it would go. My grades plummeted from the mostly A’s of first semester to failing two classes and getting a D in another (which is the same as failing in terms of college credits). Making friends should have been easy with so many people on campus, but I felt out of place. I had always been very driven, but the few people in Tucson that I called friends were not good influences. I had to get out.

Over the summer of 2008 I made up credits, continued working in the research lab on campus, and met up with my old high school friends who had gone off elsewhere. One of my best friends, Ashley, had come back from Iowa telling me about how much she enjoyed her small school in its tiny town. After more summer adventures and discussions, I decided to apply for the spring semester. In September I visited William Penn University with my dad and eventually convinced him that it was the right decision. 

My last semester at the UA dragged on and although I was hopeful for the change to come, I was no more motivated. I took the minimum credits to keep my academic scholarship, having dropped out of my Chemical Engineering major, enrolling in any general education classes left and available, including Mandarin Chinese and Modern Dance. In the spring I would compete in track. I planned to throw the javelin and start race walking again. Race walking is not part of the NCAA system, but my new college belonged to the NAIA which offers every event in athletics.

To give some more background on my high school race walking career: yes, I had previously race walked, but my training background was, shall we say, very limited. Okay, I never trained. Maybe 2-3 times a year in actual dedicated training sessions. I trained all the time for other events, but I had no race walk coach and no one to train with, so I raced at the Junior Olympics every summer, very painfully, very slowly. I would make it to Nationals only to get my butt kicked every year, which motivated me to want to try again, but being a 3 sport athlete in high school left me wanting a break by summer. The saving grace my last year of JO’s was the decision to move the event distance from 5km to 3km. For someone who primarily threw and jumped, I was so relieved to not have to go far. Lo and behold I got a couple minutes PR at Nationals, placing 2nd in 16:32, during the second day of the heptathlon—the impossibility of me getting into the hep at nationals is a story for another day.

The next summer I watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics on tv, amazed by the opening ceremony, enthralled by the race walks and thought, what if? Vince Peters (the national race walk chairman) had tried to offer me an opportunity to walk at the Olympic Trials if I could post a 20km mark under 2 hours in time.

But how? The farthest I had ever gone was 5km. I had only walked under 30 minutes once and I needed to do that 4 times to be accepted into the race as a collegiate athlete. Even when I did cross country in junior high it was only a 1.5 mile race.

I tried to walk a few times, asked a couple people for help and got no response. I was lost on how to train, even picking up books on distance training I still felt unconvinced and uncertain if I could do it or if it was worth a try. So I gave up after a few mediocre efforts.

And there I sat, waiting for an absolution. Feeling guilty for the mess I was in, feeling like a failure. Hopeful for the change to come. Wanting for me to have made the right decision.

As the semester of 2008 came to its end, I had started making new friends at last. I liked some of the classes I was taking (Chinese, yes, but definitely not Modern Dance). It almost convinced to stay, study Eastern Asian studies or some other obscure major, but I still felt the pull to leave, and I couldn’t ignore it. 

A few days into the new year, Ashley and I hopped into my Beetle and drove from Mesa, Arizona to Oskaloosa, Iowa. It—was—so—cold. I had to wear pants under my pants to keep the midwest wind from taking the life out of me between buildings. Thankfully, everyone was so inviting and warm that I didn’t mind the temperatures outside. My first semester at William Penn was a huge success. I got All-American in the race walks at indoor and outdoor nationals and I was back to my usual high grades. Although my college coach wasn’t a race walk expert by any means, he at least had me training a few times a week.

That first year indoor and outdoor for college was 3km for women. The next year the outdoor distance was moved up to 5km to match the men’s distance. Despite not having to increase my training much more, I made the decision to start working toward longer distances, in the back of my mind hoping to someday make the Olympic Trials for the 20km Race Walk. My first race was the 15km Nationals up in St. Paul, Minnesota; my goal: under 1:30:00. 

The summer in Iowa is just as miserable as the winter. I could barely get more than an hour into training before I had to stop and crawl back home to sit in front of the air conditioner. The only water on my route was 6 miles in and I needed it desperately every day. I worked from 3-11 PM during the week, took a couple classes at WPU that summer, and couldn’t get out the door early enough to avoid the heat (not that the 6 am sweatbox is much better than the rest of the miserable day). I did the best I could with the cards I was dealt and on that humid August morning hit my goal, walking 1:29:21, en route getting a 13 second PR for 5k in 29:11 (not blazing fast by any means, but I was moving up!). The next day my college team left for our soccer team retreat and I forgot all about race walking for the time being.

Then in September I made the most fortuitous decision: to attend a race walk clinic in St. Louis held by Jeff Salvage and 2-time Olympian Tim Seaman.

Vince Peters had suggested I go since it was only a 5 hour drive. I didn’t have a game that weekend so I decided it was worth a shot. By far I was the youngest person there. But like any good student I took many notes and was completely absorbed in knowing more about race walking. Then came track time and technique analysis. As part of the training plan part of the clinic we tried to get a max heart rate estimate by alternating 200 meter and 400 meter race walking sprints. In the middle of soccer season I walked a 45 second 200 meter with legal technique, and that was evidently worth something. To Tim it showed I should be capable of more than 16:32, more than 29:11, more than 1:29:21. That I may be capable of something great.

That belief in me marked the beginning of my real training. 10 years ago this month I started on this journey. I had purpose, a goal to achieve. I haven’t made an Olympic Team yet, but 2 World Championship team berths and a 4th place finish at Worlds isn’t too bad for where I began. When I started in November 2009, my fastest 3km walk was 15:45, or 5:15 per kilometer. In 2017 at the IAAF World Championships I averaged faster than that for 50 kilometers to set the American Record at 4:21:51 (5:14.22/km).

If you have a goal, you have to work to achieve it. Had I never got off the couch and given up, I wouldn’t be competing all over the world, wouldn’t have the friends I’m blessed to know, or the memories to keep me going on the hard days. Life can really get you down, but there are lights of hope out there if you’re willing to look. It’s taken a lot of faith to get me here, enduring not just the training, but the doubts too. If you feel it in your heart, the pull to strive toward a dream, pursue it with everything you have. The end may not be the way you imagined, but the journey is a story worth telling.

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