Interview with Kate O'Neill
by Alison Wade

Kate O'Neill wins the 2003 Mayor's Cup cross country race.
(Both photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
O'Neill finishes second at the 2002 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

Kate O'Neill graduated from Yale in 2003 as a three-time NCAA runner-up, and her first year out of college has been nothing short of spectacular. Highlights include a 15th-place finish in the 8K race at the 2004 World Cross Country Championships and, most recently, a 31:34.37 10,000m at the Cardinal Invitational, which put her under the Olympic "A" standard. This means that if O'Neill finishes in the top three in the 10,000m at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 16, she will qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.

Upon graduating from Yale, O'Neill opted to stick with what was working and remained in New Haven, training under her college coaches, Mark Young and Christi Ireland. She lives with her identical twin sister, Laura, who's also a professional runner, and works in the Yale development office approximately 30 hours per week.

O'Neill, a former standout runner for Milton (MA) High School, has quietly positioned herself as a strong contender to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. First, however, she will line up with some of America's best distance runners at the Circle of Friends New York Mini 10K in New York City's Central Park on June 12.

(See our past interviews with O'Neill: October 2003 | January 2003.) Last fall when we talked to you, you mentioned qualifying for the Olympic Trials as a goal. Now you've run under the Olympic "A" standard. At what point did you shift from wanting to get under 32:45 to thinking about taking a shot at 31:45?
Kate O'Neill:
I think sometime this winter. I just had never really thought it was approachable, and then my manager thought it was possible. I started to think about it more and realized, "Yeah, I might as well go for it." [At the Cardinal Invitational at Stanford], they said that they were going to have rabbits going out at that pace, so I tried to stay with them as long as possible. I kept expecting to die, but luckily that didn't happen!

FW: How did the race feel? Did you run a pretty even pace? Did you have more left at the end?
No, I was pretty tired at the end! It was a pretty even pace, they did a really good job putting together rabbits for us. After the rabbits finished, I was really lucky that there was a group running exactly the pace that we wanted to run. I felt very fortunate to be running with Marie Davenport at the end. She was very encouraging, because we were both going for the same thing.

FW: Now that you have the "A" standard, does that change anything for you in terms of your goals or your training plan?
Not really, because I probably wouldn't have done another 10,000 [on the track] before the Trials. It's nice to have the time, but I feel like it's only [a small part] of the process [of qualifying for the Olympic team], because now I have to go compete at the Trials. There are so many other American women who have an excellent shot at getting the "A" time. I've been training for that, and I think I would have been approaching it the same way no matter what.

FW: How many more races will you run before the Trials?
I'm going to do a 5,000 at Bentley College [in Waltham, Massachusetts] on May 29, the Mini, and probably one other [track] race at the end of June, but I'm not sure what. It was going to be the Maine Distance Festival [which has been canceled].

FW: So the Mini will probably be your only road race this spring?
Yes. I'm really excited about it. It's going to be really fun.

FW: Why did you choose this particular race, and how does it fit into your schedule?
[Laura and I] didn't want to think about what races we would run until after we had gotten a little ways into the track season. When we heard about [the Mini], we thought it sounded like a really fun opportunity. I remember watching it on TV when I was younger. I think the first year I watched it, Anne Marie Letko [now Lauck] won. I thought it looked fun back then, and now it's exciting to be included in it.

FW: Between the 5,000 in Waltham and the Mini, you're going to have several opportunities to race against your Trials competition. Does it help to race against them a lot?
I feel really lucky that it looks like this is going to be a competitive field. I think the more people there are in a race, helping to run a fast pace, the better it is.

FW: For a lot of people the 5,000 in Boston is going to be an attempt at the Olympic "A" standard of 15:08.00. Is that something you're shooting for?
That would be nice, but I feel like I'm really focusing on the 10K. It would be really great, but I wouldn't do the 5K at the Trials anyway... Maybe if the 10K were first, I would. But since the 5K is first, the 10K is really my goal for this season.

FW: You've raced cross country, on the roads, and on the track this year. How have you laid out the year? You clearly had a fall cross country season, but how have you approached 2004?
The big focus of the first part of the year was the World Cross Country Trials, and then the World Cross Country Championships. That was sort of one season. After that, we just focused on our first two track races.

FW: Did you peak for your 31:34?
I don't think so. It was definitely my big goal, but the biggest goal for the whole year has really been looking toward the Olympic Trials, and I feel like I haven't done that much speedwork yet... I mean, I hope I didn't peak for it! My training has really been geared toward something later on.

FW: How has this year been different, now that you're out of college? Has it been a big change?
It has been a really big change, I really miss having a team, but I feel really lucky that I haven't had to make a huge transition. I had a great coaching situation as a collegiate runner, with our head coach, Mark Young, and our assistant coach, Christi Ireland. They make a really good team, and they've both given me a lot of advice and encouragement, and taught me a lot about track. They were both kind enough to continue working with us.

FW: Have you had anyone help you through the transition and give you advice in terms of how to become a post-collegiate runner?
[My coaches] have continued giving us advice, and then just meeting people at races. Everyone I've met has been so nice about offering advice. Colleen De Reuck and Elva Dryer have always been really friendly. Everyone I've met has been so nice.

FW: What is your daily schedule like now? How do you fit running in with your work schedule?
We always run after work, but in the morning, I go for a run two mornings a week and pool run two other mornings a week. I do a long run once a week, just about, depending on whether or not there's a race. And we lift two or three times a week.

FW: Has your training changed much this year, compared to last year?
It has, because we have a lot fewer races. In college we would have had a meet almost every Saturday, but now, since we don't, there's more of an opportunity to get in a little more mileage, longer runs, and do the longer intervals in workouts. We don't need to peak as many times during the year, and we haven't had to start tapering for speedwork quite as much.

FW: Do you and Laura train with the Yale team at all?
Well, we're there at the same time as them, but our workouts are pretty different because we're training for such different things. In cross country, we were training for things like the Tufts 10K and they were training for a 6K cross country race, and then we had meets different weekends. We're often there at the same time, but not really doing the same workouts. I'm really lucky, because Laura and I always train together and we're a perfect match in terms of running similar times in practice.

FW: You've improved pretty consistently over the past several years. Do you ever get injured?
I haven't been injured since my freshman year. I think it's because I haven't done a ton of mileage, and when I did increase my mileage, I did it very gradually. Instead of doing a morning run every day of the week, I pool run [a couple days]. I feel like I can get as good of a workout out of that, without the pounding on my legs.

FW: What kind of mileage have you been averaging this year?
I'm averaging about 70 [miles per week].

FW: How does that compare to college?
I added about five miles on every summer, so the summer after my freshman year, I did about 55, the next summer 60, and the next summer 65. But that was only at the end of the summer. Once the season started, I didn't keep my mileage that high for very long, and then during track season, I don't think I was even close to that most of the time. But I've been able to maintain [70 miles per week this year] for almost the whole year, except for approaching really big competitions. I think that's played a large role in my improvement in the 10K.

FW: Obviously the 10,000 is going really well for you right now. Have you given any thought to racing any longer than that, or is 6.2 miles your limit right now?
Well, the longest race I've ever done is Falmouth [approximately 7.1 miles], so that's a little bit longer... Yeah, I would love to do longer stuff, like the New Haven 20K, or the Boston Marathon someday, or another marathon. I would love to do something like that, but for now, I'm just thinking about the 10K.

FW: Have you given any thought to moving to a more traditional training location, like California, or Colorado?
For now, things are working out so well that I don't even want to think about changing anything. It's been a great year and hopefully things will continue to go so well.

FW: Are there good places to run in New Haven? Do you have any trails?
Yeah, there are trails around here, and we've been able to run on them more this year, because we have a car. Neither Laura or I had a car when we were students. We could run to them from campus, but now we can drive to them and spend more of the run on them.

FW: As you may know, the Mini is sponsored by an anti-smoking organization. Obviously you don't smoke now, but was there ever any temptation to, or does anyone close to you smoke?
I've always thought it was the most disgusting habit in the world. Neither of my parents ever smoked, so I feel very lucky to have grown up in a house where that wasn't going on.

FW: You ran a 4:57 mile in high school but never won a state title.
I finished second to Sheela Agrawal [who went on to run for Duke], she ran a 4:46 [which was a state meet record at the time]. I was really lucky because I was on a really fun team that did very well, too. We won our cross country state meet our sophomore and senior year, and we also won the 4x800 at our state meet our senior year, which was really exciting, because I was disappointed not to win the mile. It was so fun to come back with the relay. The 800 is definitely not my event, but we had a fun group that we ran it with. I remember that as a great way to end my high school running career.

FW: When you were in high school did you imagine yourself running on this level someday?
I just wanted to continue competing in college. I don't think that I ever envisioned going this far with it.

FW: Do you have any family members who will be at the Trials cheering you on?
Our parents are both coming. I don't have any other relatives coming, but I have a lot of friends from college who are coming to watch, and some alumni who have been very supportive of our running are planning to come watch, too.

(Interview conducted May 19, 2004, and posted May 24, 2004.)

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