An Athlete's Perspective - Natalie Gray - USA Athletics Scholarships

An Athlete’s Perspective – Natalie Gray

Natalie Gray at the 2010 NCAA XC where she finished 15th

We let Natalie Gray have free reign of editorial rights as she tells us about her experiences in the NCAA – both the highs and the lows. Her Powerof10 profile can be found here

Being a student-athlete at the University of New Mexico has allowed me to have some of the best experiences of my life so far, but has also left me emotionally drained when trying to overcome injury. But life wouldn’t be interesting if it didn’t have high and low points, right?

Prior to arriving at the States

I completed my undergraduate degree at Loughborough University and really was a very ‘average’ runner; I just trained for enjoyment and was running at county standard. Then in my final year at Loughborough I decided to take it a little more seriously and saw rapid improvements, gaining selection for the European Cross-Country U23 team in Dublin and the BUCS Cross-Country team in Canada. Following these championships I started receiving calls and emails from coaches; University of Iowa, University of New Mexico and the University of Florida. They were all offering me the chance to study for a graduate degree and compete in the collegiate running system over there. As much as their offers were very tempting, with them offering to pay all accommodation, maintenance, medical and study costs, I found myself veering away from their offers because I was scared to change my training regime that had been working so well for me over the past year where I had made so much improvement.

Accepting a place at the University of New Mexico

As I was taking my final exams at Loughborough it dawned on me that if I wanted to give running a proper shot, I would have more time to train out in the States, than if I were to train alongside a full time job in the UK. I then called back head coach Joe Franklin at New Mexico (UNM) and asked if his scholarship offer still stood. I chose UNM over the other universities primarily because of the group of girls there who were of similar standard to me and would push me in training. A second reason was that UNM is located in Albuquerque at an elevation of 5,300ft allowing me to gain an altitude training benefit. Thirdly, the head coach was Joe Franklin, who had coached a couple of my friends who attended Butler University (Jennifer Periera and Kate Buchan) a few years earlier and they gave me good reports of his coaching style.

Arriving at New Mexico

I was greeted warmly at the airport by the head and assistant coach before being driven to the apartment where I was to be living with two other girls on the team. The first few weeks were extremely exciting getting used to the New Mexican culture, extremely hot summer temperatures and the new running trails. I found Cross-Country sessions (or  ‘workouts’ here!) very challenging in the first two weeks, with me gasping for air at the end of every rep, but your body soon becomes acclimatized to the thin air and running soon started to feel easy again.

Cross-country season 2010

This season was extremely successful with me becoming the Conference Champion and athlete of the year in mid-October. I then finished the season  with All American honours, placing 15that Nationals in Terre Haute, Indiana helping the New Mexico girls team finish 5th overall in the nation; the university’s best finish ever! During the race in Terre Haute I had extra incentive to finish in the top 20 in order to be considered for pre-selection for the European Great Britain Cross-country team that were travelling to Portugal a couple of weeks later. I did not travel home for the trial in Liverpool since my primary focus was now running in the collegiate system and I believed if I were selected for the GB team it would be an added bonus. I was selected for the European team and was happy with my performance in Portugal finishing 7th.

Standard of Competition

One thing I wish to emphasize is that the standard of competition in the US collegiate system is extremely high, due to international students coming from all over;  Kenya, Canada and Europe. I only realized this fully after racing in the European Cross Country Championships in Portugal where the race seemed a lot easier and less packed with standard than the NCAAs I had run two weeks earlier.

Summer Racing

The track season here starts considerably earlier than in the UK with the indoor season starting in January and Outdoor track starting at the end of March. There are so many good quality races here that it almost makes it effortless to run fast times, such as at the Washington Husky Classic (Seattle), Stanford Invitational and Mt SAC (California) track meets. I reduced my 5k and 10k PBs considerably in 2010 to 15.52 and 33.20 respectively. These races also gave us a chance to meet fellow British runners who had made the flight out from the UK to race in these fast track meets.

Injury and Medical Treatment

But the highs of running fast during cross-country and summer track soon came to an end in April when I sustained a serious ankle injury. The medical treatment in the States is far superior to that a normal domestic runner would have access in the UK, with medical staff out here organizing X-ray and MRI scans within a week (all paid for) and then chiropractic and massage treatment daily. The problem is that when I sustained the ankle injury there was only a couple of weeks left of the season, and due to sport being much more of a business out here creating a pressure on athletes to gain points for the team, I keep running through the injury until the end of the season, making it considerably worse. After the season it then took two months of non-weight bearing exercise to regain enough strength in the injured ankle to be able to run again, and this injury has plagued me ever since, as it became chronic. I still hold hope that I can run faster next track season, with the continued support of the coaching and medical staff at UNM, who really do provide you with the best treatment possible to return back to full fitness.

Eligibility

Eligibility to run in the collegiate system was an area I found hard to understand before coming out to the States. Basically, once you start competing in university races (that’s BUCS events in the UK or collegiate races in the States) you have 5 continuous years of competition in which you are eligible to compete. You are however allowed to ‘red shirt’ one of each of the three seasons (Cross-Country, Indoor track or Outdoor track) which means you do not race that entire season, allowing you to race in the season the following year.

Last Thorts

I feel fortunate that running gave me the opportunity to travel America, seeing many new states whilst travelling to races. The training has also allowed me to improve my track times considerably, but has also left me with a chronic injury. The lesson I have learnt is to only increase training intensity and mileage at steady increments and never run through an injury. I would advise all who get the opportunity to run and study out in the States to consider it seriously and I recommend the University of New Mexico as a great school to have fun and improve your running.

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