Athlete of the Month: Kristen Phillips

Name: Kristen Phillips
Hometown/Currently Living: Olympia, WA
Age: 46
Main Sport, How Long Competed: Competed racing on the track 24 years, Middle Distance, 400 and 800. I also did cross country but wasn’t recruited for that.
Current Occupation: Assistant General Manager at The Valley Athletic Club/The V Spa
Favorite Healthy Food: Beef Tenderloin Steak
Favorite Physical Activity: Speed/Interval Work (Running)
Biggest Sport Honor: All American Division I Athlete
High School: Andrean High School in Gary, Indiana
College & Degree: Two years at University of Pittsburgh (NCAA DI), walk on at Indiana University (NCAA DI), with a degree in Liberal Arts. I wasn’t doing very well at the University of Pittsburgh, and at the time they only offered two-year contracts. I couldn’t afford to go there anymore, so I decided to walk on to my home-state school. The first day, I was slowest runner on the team, but within a year I became All American. I lived with two national champions, so I was always around people better than me. I did the same things they did—ate the same things, ran at the same times. Indiana University was also an Olympic Training Center, so people moved from all over the country, from amateur athletes to those who ran for Nike. I had to fight to be there. I always liked to be an underdog. It’s nice to be on the top, but also stressful. It’s fun because you are always moving up and seeing what you can do.

To this day I really disagree with how some states break up high schools in divisions (like in Washington – 1A, 2A, 3A, etc). Indiana had no divisions. If you were the fourth best runner in state, that’s what you were. If everyone ran in the same meet, there would be more opportunities for athletes to get seen by college coaches and most importantly run faster and increase their chance of scholarships.

Kristen racing for Indiana University, Division 1 National Championships (1991)
Kristen racing for Indiana University, Division 1 National Championships (1991)

How old were you when you started playing sports or exercising?
I was always really physical as a kid. My mom forced us to do swimming, since we all lived on Lake Michigan and she didn’t want us to drown. Swimming is big in Indiana, but the best I ever got in a swim meet was 3rd place. I was always fast sprinting at recess, and could always compete with the boys. I was also always breaking the records for the Presidential Fitness Tests in P.E. for middle distances. That’s when I realized running would be a good sport for me.

How old were you when you started playing your main sport?
I was 13 when I started competing at a high level. I attended the National AAU championships. My mom drove me to the inner city of Gary, Indiana, and I started running in a very racially diverse area. I was the only white person running in what was then the Murder Capital of The World. My mom would be sitting there watching me in the stands, and gunshots could be heard in the distance. That’s how you realize how fair running is, you don’t need money to make it. It’s about how hard you work. None of those other runners had money, support, or food on the table. It was a very humbling experience.

Did you have support throughout your journey?
I had a private coach. In middle school my friends and I would run intervals for fun, and a private coach was at the track training a state finalist. He saw me run, thought I was good, and started coaching me. He trained me historical Swedish Style: speed and endurance and repetition training faster than race pace.

How do you view your health throughout your athletic career?
Grounded. I lived with two individuals who suffered with anorexia. My vision of healthy, however, was big and strong. To sprint you have to have power. I wanted to be fit, and that didn’t mean skinny and boney. If anything was unhealthy, it was probably my anxiety. I left my best times on the practice field because it was care-free and less stressful.

Who was your favorite coach, and what qualities did your favorite coach have?
Sam Bell, my coach at Indiana and also a coach for the Olympic team. He was very wise, straight forward, and honest in his dialogue with you in what you need to do and what others need to do to improve. His lessons weren’t just about track, but about life. He never raised his voice. He was very highly criticized because he was controversial in the way he trained people. He had high incidents of injuries, but sent people from his track team to the Olympics every games. It was a make or break philosophy. He had a low tolerance for riff raff, like forgetting your gear or letting up in the last few strides of a race. You had to earn it. But he was never rash or angry. He used to write a dialogue after every meet, with the good and bad. The key was that his words were intense, but his emotions weren’t. He was stable and patient in his style of communication. A gift.

One of Coach Bell's Post-Meet Letters
One of Coach Bell’s Post-Meet Letters

What issues did you have with your least favorite coach?
It would have to be my coach prior to switching to Indiana. He was a yeller and a screamer, and very critical. He told me when he took my scholarship away that I’m one of those women where my hips were too big, so I can’t run anymore. It was fulfilling a year later to be named All-American.

I also had a coach in high school who really played favorites, so when I got a private coach they didn’t recognize me. I would beat records and they would just send me a letter thanking me for participating. Then I moved to a school that hired my private coach as an assistant. That was one of their more successful programs. What’s interesting is it was a Catholic school, so you think they would have been more strict about rules. Back then I didn’t have to sit out a year for transferring, but my dad had to tell them I would be a nun.

Were you ever provided with nutritional information during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
Not really. The big focus in the 80s was carb loading. Gatorade gum had just come out, and people were eating a lot of spaghetti. You were burning so many calories it didn’t matter. I grew up eating a lot of meat since I’m from a Polish Family, so I probably had a lot of amino acids in my diet. A nutritionist visited Indiana once to give a lecture, and that was it. No one talked about VO2 max or science, it was all about training. Anorexia was definitely a big issue, and stress fractures. We were weighed every day, and though we were told it was about hydration, I think it was to be thin too. However, it was really hot where we ran, so that’s why it was worrisome. We were running on the border of Kentucky and Indiana, where it was often in the 90s and 100% humidity.

Were you ever provided with exercise information, other than for your sport, during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
No, only if you were injured, then you were put on a bike. There was a coach at Indiana who had the women’s team run in the water once per week, but that was it.

Bell never believed in taking time off. My private coach said to take two weeks off every year, to the point where I wasn’t even thinking about running, so I did that every year. I needed the break. At Indiana, it was emphasized that when we have a hard day, you go hard. When you have an easy day, you take it easy. That’s where the recovery was built in.

Do you feel like this information helped you after you finished competing in your sport?
The dynamic training helped, but I don’t always follow it. I tend to over-train by personality.

Kristen working out in her barn (2014)
Kristen working out in her barn (2014)

How did you feel about your sport immediately after you were no longer competing?
I think I threw all my shoes away and stopped for a while. My first husband was a world-class runner, and it was his job, so I would follow him around and run sometimes. But I didn’t really care. I did get pregnant soon after, and it was a risk pregnancy, so I felt like I could be a normal person. I didn’t have to structure my day around workouts and I could eat whatever I wanted. Then I got back into it after moving to the Pacific Northwest, because you end up being around those who race.

How do you feel about your sport now?
I can’t do it that much because of injuries. I do one long run per week, but I do a lot of weight lifting and mountain biking with my husband. I run twice per week, and then add in other activities. I do mountain bike workouts and Sweat. It’s like Cross Fit but longer and workouts progress with better periodization.

How did you feel about your overall health immediately after you were no longer competing?
I think I thought I was so much further ahead than most people that I wasn’t concerned. You still assume some of that lifestyle. I still ran five days a week because it was easy.

How do you feel about your overall health now?
I think the hardest part for me now is aging. Until you are getting close to 40, you are able to go out and know every workout will build on itself and you will get better. Then at some point you don’t feel that any more. It feels like putting something into a bucket that has a drain. Now I have to do high intensity heavy lifting to keep muscle mass on. I can’t get it from sprinting anymore. I probably have an over ambitious idea of how I should look, but I haven’t really accepted it yet. I also don’t look at my body in the mirror too often or weigh myself. I try to just keep myself feeling like an athlete.

What is your current exercise regiment? Are there any activities you can no longer do?
I can’t race anymore because of my hips and back. To run fast you have to get up tall and open up, and I did too many years of that. I do 5-6 days per week of working out, 3-4 Sweat workouts, and 1-2 days running or mountain biking.

Did you sustain any serious injuries during your career that greatly affected your life then, and may affect you now?
Three weeks before nationals I pulled my hamstring and I didn’t know if I would be able to run. That was the first race I got beat during the whole season. My coach pulled me back to where I was on the stationary bike only for a full week, and then had to run every interval slow before nationals. I was able to crank it out and ran amazing. Other than that I have two discs that are slightly ruptured in my low back because I’m an over-strider. If you did an MRI on most serious runners, you would probably see some slight bulging in their spine.

How would you describe your current diet?
I probably don’t eat enough because I’m so busy at work. On a scale of 1-10, I would say I’m a seven. I eat out a lot but still try to make healthy choices. I don’t eat as much dessert anymore.

Do you include anything in your routine for “mental” health? (i.e. meditation, affirmations, playing logic games)?
I was taking yoga for a while, and that helped. I love that. The meditation in classes was my favorite part. Going for a long run on Sunday is like my church. That is where I do most of my soul searching.

Do you feel like your job allows you to have a good work/life balance?
It’s a catch-22. Fitness, as well as working with people and teams, is my passion. I don’t think I would be living in Olympia if I didn’t work at The Valley. It is a great place for former athletes. I like to see people make changes in their life and achieve things. When I reflect, I probably should have had better work boundaries, but I probably couldn’t have.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Make the most of college—look at the opportunity you are given. I think I just looked at it like a care-free kind of ride. I could have worked harder and more seriously. I look back and it was the time of my life, and I approached it like it was so hard. I should have found a way to deal with the stress of it better.

Last comments:
One thing I came away from competing at that level was I saw a lot of performance enhancing drug use. It is in high schools and colleges and people don’t realize it. It is too bad there is not better way to teach kids not to do it. You look at the Olympics now and it is hard to believe they aren’t doping. The sport is a little tarnished because of it, which is sad.

Kristen after running up a hill in Palm Desert, 2013
Kristen after running up a hill in Palm Desert, 2013

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