Interview: Maria Cicero
By Alison Wade

Maria Cicero on her way to a Junior National title at the 2002 USATF Winter Cross Country Championships.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)

Maria Cicero's recent victory at the USATF Junior Cross Country Nationals continued a string of consistently strong performances by the Boston College freshman. Cicero transitioned smoothly from high school to college, finishing 13th at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals in 2000 and 16th at the 2001 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Her NCAA performance earned her All-American honors and was the highest finish by a freshman. This season she has run PRs in the 3,000 (9:28.24) and the 5,000 (16:13.55), qualifying provisionally for the NCAA Indoor meet in the former and automatically in the latter. On February 9, she ran 21:05 for 6,000 meters to win the USATF Junior Cross Country Nationals by 14 seconds and earned a spot on the U.S. Junior team that will compete at the World Cross Country Championships in Dublin, Ireland March 23-24. Cicero, who turned 19 on January 5, is a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst, IL. Her high school bests include a 4:51.77 1,600m and 10:17.28 3,200m.

You've done really well transitioning from high school to college, do you have any ideas as to why that is?
That's a good question, everyone keeps asking me that. It seems like a lot of runners have some problems. I think I just adjusted really well to the team and the coaching here is very individual. Our coach (Kathy Fleming) knows what's going on with each of us individually so it's easy to judge... At the beginning of the season we sit down and map out where we want to go, what workouts will take us there. It's a lot easier for people not to get injuries. I think that has contributed to the adjustment.

When you sat down at the beginning of this season, what were your goals and what was the plan?
My main objective for indoor is to peak at indoor NCAAs and then peak again for World Cross. Hopefully I'll be able to do that, that was the main objective from the beginning, I knew that those two meets would be the most important.

Has it been hard to switch back and forth between cross country and indoor track?
A little bit, yeah. I didn't think it would be but it was just so hard to get into the rhythm when I was on the cross country course because I was just so used to track. Especially out here in the East where you've got the amazing banked tracks and then you go on that uneven cross country surface... It wasn't difficult, just different.

And then you ran at Big East this past weekend. Were you tired at all from Nationals?
Oh, I was exhausted. I probably shouldn't have even raced, I kind of raced just to be there with the team. I just felt so wiped from that flight though!

Is it hard travelling like that for your meets? I imagine there's a lot more of that in college than in high school.
Luckily we haven't really gone that far. The farthest we've gone with the team was South Carolina for cross country. We drive a lot of places, even just for Big East this weekend we drove, we didn't have to get on a plane, which was nice.

Will you race again indoors before NCAAs?
I don't think so. The only time I would would be ECACs, but it's like five days before the (NCAA) 5,000, and I don't think I'm going to do that.

Are you planning on just doing the 5,000 at NCAAs?
Yeah, that obviously will be my main focus, but I might possibly do the 3,000. My main focus is the five.

And then you'll have two weeks before World Cross. What will you do inbetween to peak again for that?
I haven't even talked to Kathy about that. We're focusing right now on NCAAs and then we'll probably sit down and talk about it. Obviously I'm going to probably take some rest days after that and recuperate. NCAAs should be a really hard race and I'm judging that's going to take a lot out of me. I'll probably just try to hold that taper for two weeks, which I did numerous times in high school so I know it works. You just kind of have to rest and trust that your fitness will hold for two weeks.

Do you have a time goal for NCAAs?
I'd want to break 16 for the five. The winner's going to have to be under 16 or at least be at the fitness level to run 16 minutes, even if it doesn't happen in that race.

Do you have any specific goals for the World Cross Country Championships?
I think that's just going to be such an experience in itself. Obviously I just want to go in there and try to run the race of my life and keep up with those girls. I'm trying to anticipate it being harder than it is, and that's kind of hard to do (laughs). It's going to be as hard as I think it is, I just can't imagine the talent that's going to be there. I'd like to not be too intimidated by the race. I think that was one of the main problems with the U.S. junior women in the last few years. I think people go in way too intimidated and they immediately put themselves on a lower level than the Kenyans. I think that the girls that are going this year can compete relatively well. I'm kind of just going to go into it and run as hard as I can for 3-3/4 miles and see what happens.

Do you miss a lot of school when you for events like Nationals and Worlds?
Yeah. It's actually going to be a problem, I haven't even talked to my teachers yet. I'm waiting until after spring break to sit down with them (laughs) but that's like a week and a half of school right there (for Worlds). For college, it's a lot of classes to miss. I'm judging that it won't be that big of a problem but... I'm here to go to school too.

So what classes are you taking?
Right now I'm in all my core classes, a biology, a history, a philosophy, a theology and an english. After this year I should have almost all my cores done, then I can just focus on my major, which I haven't decided on yet.

Are you leaning towards any particular subject?
Either theology or psychology, those are my two main interests.

How have you found school to be academically so far?
It's definitely challenging for me but I'm just trying to keep up... There seem to be a lot of people who are very intense about school here, as at probably any college. Keeping up is the main goal, like at any school. Otherwise, I love it.

The way that BC has shot up in the rankings over the past couple years is really impressive. And then you finished 6th at NCAAs without your top runner...
The reason I came here had to do with seeing them [improve so rapidly], every year there's more and more improvement. I saw that and was like, "I want to be on that team."

Have you talked about your team goals for cross country next year?
We talk about it every day (laughs). We're already talking about cross country and it's not even outdoor track season yet. Everyone is just so excited. We'll have almost our entire team back, we're losing one runner. If everyone stays healthy, I think we'll have a shot at getting in the top three, or even winning it one of these years.

How did your training change from high school to college?
In high school I still had very high mileage, I just made the mistake of never tapering (laughs). I'd get scared and think I wasn't doing enough before races, so I'd end up going into the big meets exhausted and I'd screw up. That happened every time I went to a national race, I'd just kind of bomb. It would appear as if I was not in shape but it was the exact opposite. I'm realizing that the whole point is that you have to rest before races. I was just kind of in that high school mentality. The main difference, I think, is that I did a lot of fartleks in high school and now my training is so much more intense. I'll have easy days and hard days now, instead of having all medium-intensity days like I did before. We'll be on the track twice a week and do intense, intense workouts, almost like races. And the other days we just do light workouts, which is great and works well. In high school, because there was more racing, it was harder to get quality work in.

What kind of mileage do you do now and what did you do in high school?
The highest I think I ever got in high school was like 75 over the summer. The highest during the season was anywhere from 50 to 70. And now, I probably got up to 85 and now I'm back down to like 60. It's relatively similar but I do different mileage at different times. Plus now I'm trying to peak in March for NCAAs, while in high school there was no indoor season and I didn't have to do anything until May.

The York High School boys team is known for running high mileage, and you ran high mileage as well, did the rest of the girls team do that too?
No, I kind of just did my own thing. No one else did morning runs, but I loved doing them. That's where mostly where all the mileage came from.

Did you run with the boys team at all?
No, never. I just found it so weird that most of the girls on my (current) team did. I guess it was because we were just such separate programs.

And you do morning runs now too?

Is it something that's organized, that the whole team does together?
No, like I said, it's so individual and some people never get above 40 miles a week, and some people are running 80. Sometimes a couple of us will meet in the morning, but otherwise I just tend to do them by myself, just because we run together every day after school.

So you might as well spend some time on your own. And I imagine that everyone's definition of "morning" varies...
Yeah. It works out. I like that the program is very individual. Not individual in the sense that we're not a team, but I know that on some teams, everyone has to do the same exact thing. I don't like that and I don't think it works very well.

Are Maggie and Cate Guiney both injured right now?
They're both healthy now. They just started track workouts and stuff for the outdoor season.

So do you have anyone to do your track workouts with right now?
Not right now but in the next couple weeks, we just talked about this today actually, they're going to be starting actual workouts like the ones I'm doing. It'll be great, finally. I feel like I've been doing so much by myself.

It must make a huge difference having them. And with the way you're running now, you could have gone to a lot of other schools and had no one to push you...
Oh yeah. And here, there are so many people... we all run together, it's great. I'm glad I didn't go to a school like that.

Have you ever had any problems with injuries?
No, I've actually never been injured, knock on wood... I take care of myself, but I think everyone else does too, I guess it's just because I'm lucky.

What do you do to take care of yourself?
I do a lot of stretching, we get massages, I [use the] ice bath every day... I think that contributes.

Do you do any cross training, weight training or anything?
Yeah, I'm a big fan of the weight room. We lift twice a week with the team. I love the elliptical trainer, on the weekends sometimes I'll do that instead of a morning run, just to take some of the stress off my legs. Or I'll get in the pool and do something like that. A lot of the girls on the team, when they're injured, will just go in the pool. They're able to maintain, or even increase, their fitness.

Is it hard getting enough sleep, living in the dorms?
No, I haven't had a hard time at all, I go to bed at like 9:00 (laughs), it's great.

Do you have plans and goals for outdoor track yet, or is it too soon to think about it?
At first I was trying not to think about it, but it's getting closer. I'm so excited to run the 10,000 outdoors and everyone thinks I'm crazy (laughs)... I think I'm going to excel in that event more than anything, not that the 5,000's not long enough but I just have so much more strength the longer the distance.

Have you ever run a 10,000?
No, only on the roads.

Do you think you'd eventually want to run marathons?
Oh yeah, definitely, after college.

Going back a bit, how old were you when you first started running?
I was in sixth grade, 11 years old.

What got you started?
An older friend encouraged me. I was one of those little kids who just loved to run... At that level it's just so much more about making friends, I think that's what kept me in it. I didn't love to run in practice, which was probably about 10 miles a week back then, but the whole thing was just fun. After I stayed with it for about a year, I really started to love it. I loved the competing and I was doing well, so I just kind of kept with it.

When did you really start to train?
I didn't get really serious about it until my junior year of high school, during track season. It was like, do you want to be good or do you want to just kind of slack off in the workouts and just be here for fun? I still wanted to have fun, but I also wanted to take it to the next level. And then I started running my best, so I guess it worked.

Did you ever do any other sports?
I was a big soccer player and my freshman year I had to decide between cross country and soccer. I went with cross country, obviously, but I'd always run past the soccer team and I'd miss it so much. I was such a tomboy. I played basketball and softball competitively for years, and then I finally just dropped it all and concentrated on running.

(Interview conducted 2/19/02, posted 2/20/02)

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