Natalie Cook won the 2021 UIL 6A State Cross Country Championship
The UIL State Cross Country Championships on November 5th and 6th was the culmination of three and a half years of joys and pains of high level competing for Natalie Cook. The joyous occasions began when she was a freshman earning all-state honors in both cross country and track and field. This year, the joy was due to winning her first UIL state championship.
In between those freshman joys and last week's state title, the pains were legitimate.
Cook has intermittently experienced slight nagging injuries, that although nothing significant, they have been enough to cause her to miss time competing.
With a non-traditional running form, the nagging injuries result from Cook's foot strike on the ground when she runs. "I'm sure you've noticed, I run really weirdly," she comically noted. "I'm always on my toes, so we try to get me to land more mid-foot which helps a lot, but my form has improved quite a bit," Cook said.
In fact, the Flower Mound senior missed the entire 2021 track season and wasn't able to compete until late April for the championship season. "I was bummed about sitting out last track season," she said. Cook watched as the 2021 girls track and field season was fast on a historic level in her events (800m, 1,600m, 3,200m)
To make matters worse, this was the second consecutive track and field season Cook would lose during high school. Her sophomore season was a wipe out due to COVID ending the 2020 season. Last Saturday, Cook won the UIL 6A Cross Country Championship, but by her own admission, her heart belongs to track.
Her love for the sport was too much to allow her to just sit back and let it go. "It was really hard to watch the season, I was really upset during track season; I was in tears at one point."
"I'm really low mileage. "I'm around 15-20 mile a week, before Woodbridge I was around 10 miles a week."
Natalie Cook, Flower Mound senior
So, When Cook was cleared to compete, she hit the track racing in the 1,600m and 3,200m. Her first race wasn't until April first, a tune up for championship season.
Texas' UIL track and field scene is very tough. It's one of the most challenging state championships to qualify for with several preliminary rounds before the state meet. Racing only once before it starts is neither ideal nor realistic.
Nevertheless, she ran 4:57 and 10:26.67 and was able to qualify for state in the 3,200m, eventually placing fourth. "I didn't make it out in the mile and that was my main event. Sadly, I couldn't come back that fast (after the 3,200m), but I was really happy how I placed in the 2 mile based on my fitness."
So, how was Cook able to gain enough fitness to navigate the track and field championship season and qualify for state, when she was hardly able to run?
That question was perhaps answered during this cross country season. Cook competed just four times this cross country season. Her first race wasn't until the third weekend in September at the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic followed up by the three races throughout the championship season (district, regionals, and state).
The minimal racing could have been by design and more of a controlled situation. "Spikes can bother my feet sometimes, so it helps whenever I run less races," Cook said.
Not only was it racing less, but in a sense running less altogether was the plan.
A cross country state champion who is on one of the best teams in the country and who runs the type of times that Cook does has to be cranking out 50, 60, or more miles per week, right?
Cook likes to compete and she is the daughter of two former collegiate runners and her father is the USTFCCCA Texas Coach of the Year. But, her form causes injuries, so that has led to a lighter running load for Cook, "I'm really low mileage. "I'm around 15-20 mile a week, before Woodbridge I was around 10 miles a week."
"It was really hard to watch the season, I was really upset during track season; I was in tears at one point."
Natalie Cook, Flower Mound senior
When she competed, she was nothing short of impressive. At Woodbridge, she ran 15:56.30 for 3 miles, 17:25.80 in the 5K at District, 16:39.90 at regionals in 3 miles, and 16:32.40 in the 5K at state.
"I don't really do that much in terms of workouts and I've been doing this since the beginning of the season. All of my training comes from either the elliptical every single day or swimming. My daily runs with the ladies are at like 7:15 a mile or we're doing mile repeats," Cook said.
"We are trying to increase my mileage and see how it goes from there, but right now what's working is working; I feel fresh and I feel really fit at the moment."
The adapted workouts has been a nice change. Cook was healthy all season long and she was confident in her fitness. "It feels good, it feels nice, you have to train your butt off; if you want it then you have to train for it, you have to work hard. If you can't run you have to elliptical or you have to find some type of way because everyone else is training, everyone else is running. My dad has always told me you have to figure it out. If you can't run the miles you have to figure it out with something else."
Cook figured it out as she has been cooking on the cross country courses in each of her races. She won district by over a minute, regionals by nearly a minute and a half and in a meet record, and then her margin of victory at state was by 56 seconds. She says, "I feel smooth and always in a rhythm, my goal is to always go out and crush it."
She feels racing less and the amendments to her training has really helped, "I feel way smoother. I feel like I improved my form quite a bit, that was our goal during the summer to improve my form to help with injuries."
It didn't matter that Cook didn't have a lot of races under her belt or many miles generating her fitness, but she was the best runner in Texas this year and she proved it at the UIL state meet. That was the plan she went into the season with, "I was very motivated, I really wanted to get out after it. This was my last UIL race and I didn't want have anything left in the tank."
Having nothing left in the tank is what kept her pushing during the state meet race when she was all alone. When out in front all alone, some athletes have trouble staying mentally engaged. That happens to Cook at times, she said, "sometimes I get a little bit out of it in the middle of the race; I felt better in the middle miles and I feel like I can hammer it in the middle miles," she said. "I felt like I finish better towards the end, and that's what I need to work on."
Despite the disparity in the margin of victory at the state meet, becoming the state champion didn't set in as she ran across Old Settlers Park with a huge lead. "It wasn't until I crossed the line that it set in I won. It was like oh my goodness I did it. I was so happy and when I turned around and saw Nicole pass the line as well and all of my other teammates. I was like wow and I was so happy for everyone that we we won a team championship as well because we really do work hard and we push each other and we are a really motivated team and we really want to win."
After committing to Oklahoma State University last month and then winning both an individual state championship and another team championship, Cook will soon begin to shift her focus to track season. Having figured things out about how to stay healthy the spring could be just a huge as the fall was for Cook.
I felt really motivated coming into this cross country season, it was my last cross country season, it's been a dream to go win state, I'm glad I got to achieve it this year and I'm really happy about my team as well. Now, I can't wait to see what next track season has in store," Cook concluded.