Nov. 19, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Katie Flood just became the first-ever individual women's champion in the new Pac-12 Conference.
Her upset win late last month at the league's cross country championships in Litchfield Park, Ariz., gave Washington its third-ever individual league title in cross country.
Now the sophomore is leading the third-ranked Huskies into Monday's NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Ind. The conference's newcomer of the year in 2010, a national team member who finished 19th at the 2011 world junior cross country championships, is a leading reason UW is among the favorites to win its second NCAA team title in four years.
The secret to Flood's breakout autumn? It isn't one runners can find in training manuals. It's not even one she - or anyone - would recommend.
It was contracting mononucleosis.
Sure, it wracked her body in September. But ultimately it has liberated Flood's mind on the course, allowing her to run as free and easy as she ever has.
"Just having that road bump early on really put everything in perspective," Flood says now.
After a strong summer of training that had her in peak shape, Flood suddenly felt like she was running in place in mid-September. It was three weeks into team practices for the cross-country season.
"I kind of had a fever. I was exhausted. And every time I went running it kind of felt like my muscles were melting," she said on the eve of leaving for the NCAA championships. "We were doing workouts that were not supposed to be difficult and I was just lagging. I was really falling off the back.
"I went to the doctor, and he told me to take some time off, that I had mono. I took a week off. And I slept a lot."
One week. That should hint at how unique Flood is athletically. She took off just a week from running while battling a virus that knocks some on the couch for months.
She thinks it's because she had unknowingly kept training through almost half her illness.
"I'd actually run through a bit of it, and that's why I'd felt so terrible running," she said, chuckling now. "For some reason, I felt better after a week. Then I got slowly back into it."
She did 30-minute runs for her first week back, around the beginning of October. Her doctor eventually cleared her to resume training with the Huskies about three weeks after she had left the team.
"I felt great running again," she said. "I felt like myself again. I started feeling it coming together."
She went to Madison, Wis., with the Huskies for the Wisconsin Invitational. She wasn't sure if she was ready to make her season debut or not, but coach Greg Metcalf encouraged her saying, "What do we have to lose?"
Turns out, Flood had a conference title to gain.
As accomplished as she had been as a national-champion runner at Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, Iowa, and last year as the Pac-10's top freshman, Flood had calculated everything inside a cluttered mind during races. Who was running next to her. What her prerace routine should be. Then, the course. The conditions. The times. The strategies.
It was enough to exhaust any one - with or without mono.
"Last year I worried about a lot of things I couldn't control during a race," Flood said. "This year I've just tried to focus on what I can control, and realize it's just running. Moving your legs faster than the person next to you, that's all it is."
It was a decisive, championship-winning revelation -- all following that bout with mono.
"I ran without any worry and just went out and competed. Just simply ran," she said of her delayed fall debut at Wisconsin. "It took some of the pressure off.
"I tried to run that same way at Pac-12s, as well. And I think that really helped me."
Flood is getting good at the delayed-season start plan. Last year she didn't debut until the third cross country meet, after a stress fracture she sustained the summer before her freshman year at UW. That year included a 10th-place finish in the 3,000m at the NCAA Indoor Track meet and a 20th-place finish in the 1,500m at the NCAA Outdoor Track championships in her hometown of Des Moines.
Her family was there watching her last spring, just as they will be Monday in Indiana. Father Steve works in the insurance industry. Mother Ann, will be there, too, with Katie's three sisters. Annie is 9, Molly is 12 and Betsy is a standout distance runner as a senior at the University of Iowa.
Katie considered joining her older sister close to home in Iowa City, then realized she wanted to blaze her own running course.
Former Huskies assistant coach Kelly Strong had sent Flood a recruiting letter during her junior year of high school. Once Flood learned how strong a program Washington is, she became intrigued to strike out on her own in Seattle.
"I felt it was a little too much in my comfort zone," Katie said of following her sister to Iowa. "It would have been an easy transition and I know I would have fit. It is a great program. But I wanted to do something different."
Now, as a sophomore, Flood and senior Christine Babcock are leading six teammates to the NCAA championships. The seven Huskies that will run Monday afternoon in Indiana are junior Lindsay Flanagan, sophomores Megan Goethals and Justine Johnson, freshman Eleanor Fulton and either sophomore Liberty Miller or redshirt freshman Chelsea Orr.
That fleet lineup is why any result less than a fourth top-10 national finish in the last five years would be a disappointment for the Huskies.
"I think it's really realistic that as a team we could get a podium spot," Flood said, referring to a finish in the nation's top four as a team. "Going into it, that's our goal.
"Individually, I don't really like number goals or placement goals. I just want to run a race that when I finished I am happy, and that I know I competed as hard as I can."
Reaching that goal has been good enough for championships - ever since mono.