Interview with Zoe Nelson
by Erik Heinonen

Zoe Nelson heads to victory at the 2002 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego, California.
Nelson poses with boys' champion Chris Solinsky.
Both Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners

Last December, Zoe Nelson became just the second sophomore to win the Kinney or Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, joining 1994 champion Julia Stamps. Nelson, who attends Flathead High School in Kalispell, Montana, posted a time of 17:30 on the hilly Balboa Park course in San Diego, California to finish 13 seconds ahead of runner-up Kathleen Trotter of New Jersey. Also a winner at the Montana state meet and and Foot Locker West Regional, Nelson owned the nation's top four times over three miles, despite running all four at an altitude of 3,000 feet or higher in her home state. During the spring track season, the five-foot sophomore set personal bests of 4:56 in the mile (at altitude) and 10:25 in the 3,200m. She recorded the later time in winning the prestigious Golden West Invitational in Sacramento, California. While Nelson will be favored to capture a second-straight Foot Locker title just over three months from now, she should have plenty of competition as seven other members of last year's top ten return. You start school tomorrow. Had someone told you a year ago that you would win Foot Locker nationals by 75 meters and run one of the fastest 3,200 times during the track season, would you have been surprised?
Zoe Nelson:
I don't know. I would have been surprised probably. Those were all kind of my goals, so I would have been really happy. But I went in to the year not really knowing what was going to happen. I definitely wanted to win Foot Locker, but I really didn't know how it was going to turn out.

FW: Was winning at Golden West against a top field a big confidence boost given that you'd fall on the strength end of the distance running spectrum?
Yeah it was. I usually just think of myself as more of a cross country runner and track is something that's just in between cross country season for me. So it's nice to know that I can do really well in track as well, because I don't really think of myself as being one of the best at all in track. It definitely helped boost my confidence.

FW: You closed down pretty fast in that race too, under 70 second for the last lap. Did you know you had that kind of kick in you?
I didn't. I'm not a kicker at all, so I didn't really know I could do that. In my best mile my last lap was 71 seconds, so I didn't realize I could do that. But I think if I just have someone in front of me and I really want to win, it can happen.

FW: How has your training gone this summer?
It's going really well. I've been doing about 50 miles a week and taking one day off a week just to make sure I'm having some rest (laughs) and my mom makes me do that. I've been doing one speed workout a week too, and it's been going really well. I haven't had any injuries at all, so hopefully I'll have a good season.

FW: Going in to last year you said that you wanted to go undefeated, set a course record in every race and do well at the regional and national meets. Are you approaching this fall the same way?
That's how I want to do it this year too. I just want to improve on all my times throughout the year and then hopefully at the end I can repeat the win at Foot Locker regionals and nationals.

FW: With so many of last years top runners returning and several other girls having breakthrough track seasons, do you feel like that sort of takes the pressure of you as far as being 'the favorite' or do you feel that it's still squarely on your shoulders?
I'm just planning on going into the races like everyone else, not being overconfident at all and just kind of with a clean slate, because there are a lot of girls who could definitely take it this year. I have to go in like I haven't done anything special, so I can be humble and still do well.

FW: How much better do you think you'll need to be to repeat?
I don't really know how much I'll have to improve. I'll guess I'll have to wait and see how much all the other girls have improved. Last year I improved quite a bit over all my times from my freshman year. I had quite a big gap, I think about 40 seconds at each race, so I'm not expecting quite as much as improvement as that, but hopefully it will be enough that I can win.

FW: You also qualified for Foot Locker nationals as a freshman (she finished 20th). What was it like being a ninth grader at the meet and how did that affect your second trip?
I think it helped my second trip a lot. It helped me be used to what was going on and be a little more aware of how I should handle things. [I realized] that I should relax a little more and not get so caught up in the excitement. My freshman year, it was really cool. But I wasn't being too serious about it because I knew I didn't have a chance of winning or anything. Amber Trotter was running and a lot of other really good girls were there so I was pretty laid back about it. I didn't really care very much about how I did.

FW: Not very many athletes have raced at the national meet in both Orlando and San Diego. Do you have a preference as far as the venue for the final?
I prefer San Diego a lot. I like the course a lot better and I didn't like the humidity in Florida — that was kind of hard. San Diego was a lot better all the way around.

FW: Going back a bit, how did you first get into running?
ZN: My parents were runners. They both went to Oregon, and they were there when Pre was running. My Dad was really into it and did some marathons. They got me into it, and we would go out once in a while — not very often — and do road races and small things like that.

FW: In middle school your coach was Jeannie Jorgensen, whose husband Paul is the coach at Flathead High School. How much training were you doing at that time?
I wasn't doing a lot. Her main goal is to get kids excited about running. She does things like ice cream runs and lots of other fun stuff. I think that's good for kids at that age to get kids excited about it for high school. I don't remember how much I was training. We didn't keep track of miles or anything like that.

FW: Flathead has produced several top runners over the last several years, including four Foot Locker finalists, and either the boys' or girls' team always seems to be ranked nationally. What do you think have been the keys to that success?
We have a really great coach, Paul Jorgensen. He's kind of a quiet guy. He just gives you the workouts and lets you decide whether you want to be good, whether you'll do them. He's not the kind of guy who stands on the track and screams at you. He doesn't do any of that. If a kid wants to be good, he'll help them a lot, but he's not going to force you to do a lot of stuff if you're not into it.

FW: How big is running in Kalispell?
It's gotten pretty big over the last couple of years. People have gotten excited about it, seeing it in the newspapers and stuff. I don't think it's quite as big as football, but there are a lot of people who come to the meets now. It's nice.

FW: What's your schedule look like for cross country? Are you doing any meets outside of Montana prior to the regional meet or are you sticking around the area?
We're trying to get [permission] to go to the Sunfair [Invitational in Yakima, Washington] but we're not sure if our athletic director is going to let us. We want to do that instead of a meet in Montana, so we can have more competition. I think we are going to a meet in Spokane, but other than that will we just be in Montana

FW: Is it difficult going from running on a more local level where you don't have much competition to racing at a big meet?
ZN: Yeah, it is a little bit. It's a lot more exciting to go to the big meets sometimes, just because there are so many more people. It gets people more motivated to do well when they see all the other people who are in the running. For me, I pretty much run the same whether there are a lot of people around or not.

FW: What do you think of having your state meet so early in the fall (October 18)? Is it tough having that big gap or do you think it's a good thing because it gives you a long stretch of training without worrying about racing?
I think it's a good thing. Like you said, there aren't many interruptions. And we have a lot of kids training for regionals, usually about 10 to 15 or so. It's not like it's lonely really, but it can get a little hard training in the snow. And you have to peak twice, so that's kind of hard, whereas most people maintain their peaks because they have state a lot closer to regionals and nationals.

FW: Last question. I'm sure everyone who has been to the Foot Locker meet or watched the meet on TV has wondered this. How do you get that first-place trophy home? Do you carry it on the plane or risk checking it with the rest of your luggage?
Well, I gave it to my parents and they had some trouble. The people at the airport had them open their bags, they were kind of curious about it. But it wasn't too bad.

(Interview conducted August 27, 2003, Posted September 2, 2003)

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