At a smaller Division I school like Marist College, it’s not difficult to put a name to the face of the many athletes competing for the school. After walking around campus for four years with their bright red backpacks and constant Marist Athletics apparel, these athletes have established themselves as just that — athletes. As they round the corner to graduation, the question remains: who are they outside of their sport?
The following story is a part of Center Field’s 19 for ‘19: Stories of the Senior Class series.
For those who run, going back to walking might seem like a step backwards. For Katie Miale, a senior on the Marist Cross Country team, walking offered her a unique opportunity to cut ahead of the competition.
Not quite running, not quite walking — somewhere in the middle you’ll find race walking. Yes, it’s a competitive event, even contested in the Olympics.
“When I got to high school they told us about this event, race walk, that no one wanted to do because it looked kind of funny, kind of embarrassing, but I saw that as ‘ok this is my way into the county meet,’” said Katie Miale, senior race walker in Marist’s Cross Country and Track and Field program. “That’s how I can reach the next level on this team.”
She’s not wrong. When you see Katie training on and around campus — and considering her main event is a 20k walk, she’s training a lot — she walks very differently than you or I do.
Needless to say, race walking is very niche. “I took it up and as I started to learn more about it I was like, ‘hey maybe I can make it to the state meet doing this.’” Given the nature of the competition, Katie knew if she could make it to the state meet, she could make it as far as nationals.
Like soccer is popular in Europe and football in America, race walking is more competitive in Asia. But for Katie, you could look at that competitiveness in two ways: that it’s not as serious in the States, or that it could take you so much further than track and field ever could. “My first love was definitely cross country, but I was always just an average runner,” she said. “As a runner I never would have had the opportunity to toe the line with Olympians every weekend, or travel all over the country. I probably wouldn’t even be doing Division I track at Marist if it wasn’t for race walk.”
In fact, Marist is the only Division I school in the country that financially supports race walkers and supports them in traveling to big meets. “I think from a standpoint of visibility for the school it’s great for our institution to see these girls compete in national championship events, wearing their Marist gear,” said Chuck Williams, Associate Head Coach of Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field. Williams, a Marist graduate of the class of ‘99, had only seen one other race walker in the program’s history prior to Katie. This semester, the program increased to three race walkers: Katie, Lauren Harris and Kayla Shapiro. As a unit, the girls now have a greater sense of camaraderie and competition, while at the same time having some companionship during their long walks in training.
Running can become a very solitary sport. Before Katie had other race walkers on the team, Coach Williams or Coach Pete Colaizzo would frequently bike or jog next to her during her long walks. This one-on-one dedication to their athlete helped the coaches get to know Katie well, and watch her grow physically and mentally in her sport. “One of the biggest things we see as coaches is not just her growth physically through training, like her paces are better and her times and [personal records] are much faster than they were a couple years ago, but I’ve also seen a lot of personal growth from the mental side of the sport,” Williams said.
“Where before she would get really nervous and freaked out before big races and kind of psych herself out, now she’s not doing that because she really believes in herself much more.”
Over the years, Katie has struggled with some of the challenges that, unfortunately, many runners face. “Growing up I was always small, I kind of ate whatever I wanted. And then I guess when I moved on to the next level in college I became very hyper aware of what everyone else was eating, how my teammates behaved. And I thought maybe I would be as good as them if I ate a little bit less at dinner or skipped dessert.”
For a long time, Katie struggled with finding and accepting her “race weight,” a number that should be built on the racer’s strength, endurance and conditioning training. “Also moving onto a higher level in college where I was lining up with professionals every weekend, I think I just found myself comparing my body to women in their late 20s early 30s [and] how they look,” Katie said. “It took me a couple years to realize that the reason they look the way they do is because of years and years of training and mileage and working very hard… I didn’t realize that that was gonna come to me, but it wasn’t gonna come to me through restriction. It would come to me through doing it the right way.”
Although it’s impossible to fully escape it, her race weight is no longer at the forefront of her mind while training or eating. “Honestly, I think I have a lot healthier relationship with food and body image now, but it’s still something that’s in the back of my mind,” Katie said.
For a time, these personal issues, coupled with the difficult transition to higher level athletics, challenged Katie on whether or not she wanted to stay with the track and cross country program. “The adjustment to college athletics is really hard, especially when you were used to being the top of the field in high school. You come in here and you go from the big fish in the little pond to the little fish in the big pond. And it’s really intimidating,” she said. “I think the learning curve to the intensity of training at Marist… took probably like a year and a half to two years for me to adjust. But I’m grateful everyday that I stuck with it because it really paid off the past two years.”
Katie again displayed her personal growth through her interest in expanding her performance into other, more challenging race walk events. At Marist, Katie has trained with and participated in a handful of cross country meets each season to stay in shape, as well as running in one track meet in her four years. However, now that she feels comfortable with her showing in the race walk 20k event, she is entertaining the idea of competing in the 50k event.
“It’s a true ultra event, and she’s expressed possibly doing the event. That’s something we’ve talked about that would take a lot of time and training and gradual progression,” Williams said. “But again, two years ago she never would have brought that up. And now she’s like ‘I think I could do the 50k, and I could hit that standard pretty easily,’ because she believes if she trains for it, she’s got the will power to really roll those paces. The other girls wouldn’t even bring that up.”
Katie has decided to return to Marist for a fifth year to finish up her dual degree in Public Relations and Fashion Merchandising, as well as to train, hopefully, for the Olympic qualifiers in race walking. It won’t be the first time Katie toes the line with such high level competition; she’s previously competed in the USA Track & Field Championships, as well as the junior-level version of the competition. “Being surrounded by all those pro athletes was pretty overwhelming. I was really happy just to get there,” Katie said. “This year I came back and I felt like I matured a lot as an athlete. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to this year either, but I improved like three minutes from my time at indoors last year. So for that to be a bad race for me now I think says a lot about how far I’ve come in the past year, which is empowering.”
When she does break a personal record, Katie knows how satisfying it can be. “When you cross the line and you have a PR, it’s kind of the culmination of months and years of hard work coming together, so it’s gratifying,” she said. “Running is a bit different than other sports because how you perform is so subjective. I think track can be really brutal because there’s no question if it was a good or bad race because your time speaks for itself.”
With the Olympic trials looming in the distance in June of 2020, Katie will soon have a couple opportunities to qualify for that cutthroat competition. No matter the result of those upcoming races, Katie sees walking and running playing a significant role in her life beyond Marist. “My career definitely comes first for me and running will hopefully fit into that, or walking. I’ve looked into a couple training groups post grad, but nothing set in stone. It’s definitely something I want to continue for as long as I possible can, competing at the highest level I can.”
Edited by the Center Field Editorial Team.
Header image by Kristin Flanigan. Photos courtesy of Katie Miale.