When Katie Mackey, a professional runner for the Brooks Beasts, turned 30 last November, she had earned some impressive accolades: she’s a U.S. road mile champion and a Diamond League 3,000-meter winner, and has multiple podium finishes on the national stage.
But her résumé lacked one of the most coveted achievements in Olympic sports: a spot on a national team. That changed a few weeks ago, when Mackey placed second in the 3,000 meters at the U.S. Track and Field indoor championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The result qualified her for Team USA, to compete this month at the world championships in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Mackey just nipped Emma Coburn, the reigning steeplechase world champion, at the finish to place second in 9:01.68, behind Shelby Houlihan, a 2016 Olympian in the 5,000 meters.
Up until that point, at some of the biggest races of her career, Mackey always seemed to come up just shy of that breakthrough. Three separate times, she’s been an alternate for national teams—possibly the most disappointing position to be in. After she set her sights on making the 2017 world outdoor track and field championships in London last summer, she became injured with a sacral stress reaction before she ever had the chance to qualify.
She almost walked away from the sport entirely. But then Mackey decided to spend her forced break from running trying to figure out what was keeping her from breaking into the top tier. While her primary coach is her husband, Danny Mackey, she enlisted the outside consultation of Dan Pfaff, head coach at Altis, an elite athlete training center in Phoenix. “Talking to him is like talking to Yoda,” she says. Pfaff has been a high-level coach for more than 40 years, leading multiple athletes to world records and Olympic medals. Here’s what Mackey learned from him about changing her head game.
It’s OK to Divert from What You Know
As Mackey was coming back from her first bone-related injury during the fall, she couldn’t maintain the high mileage she always had in the past. She had to incorporate cross-training and more rest into the plan, which left her wondering if she would be prepared to compete at the highest level.
“I think athletes think that they do X and Y, then Z happens. Like, I run 100 miles per week, do certain workouts, and then I have a good season,” Mackey said. “This forced me to realize that the human body is not a math equation. Just because I throw a different variable in there, it doesn’t mean that I won’t still get a really good result. Being open-minded and flexible in my approach after all these years was beneficial.”
You Can Write a Bad Story. Or a Good One.
After a series of disappointing results over the past few years, Mackey realized that she had a novel of negative experiences. Her recollection of the positive outcomes looked more like a brief outline, she said. “When you’re in the last 200 meters of a race, where I’ve had so many negative outcomes before, how do you expect that you’re not going to think about the novel?” she said.
So, anything that Mackey did well in practice throughout the fall and winter, she wrote down in her training journal, making sure to find a little good in every day.
“I just recently went back to a written log instead of the one we had been using online,” she said. “There’s just something about writing things down and flipping through the pages—you can go back four weeks so easily and remember when Danny said, ‘You’re going to be one of the most dangerous athletes in the last 50 meters of the race.’”
Build a Weapon You’re Ready to Use in the Race
This is different for everybody, but for Mackey, her faith invokes courage in a racing situation. She wrote down Bible verses that made her feel hopeful and empowered—then memorized them. Non-religious quotes and mantras can serve the same purpose. One that came to Mackey’s mind in the last 200 meters of the national championships was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“It wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t done all the work this fall, preparing for that moment,” she said. “In the moment it meant that just because I hadn’t had this outcome before, it didn’t mean I didn’t have the strength right now to do it. It was a hopeful feeling.”
Embrace High-Caliber Competition
When the field is fierce, like it was in the Albuquerque race, Mackey tries not to fear it—instead she lets it fuel her. In the end, after Houlihan had unleashed her ferocious kick, Mackey and Coburn were battling for the final spot for the world championships.
“It was great that I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh man. There’s three of us. Am I going to miss making this team by one spot again?’” Mackey said. “Instead I was thinking, ‘No. I’m going to make this team.’ I had very positive, confident thoughts.”
When going head-to-head with a world champion like Coburn, Mackey says she can’t think about those kinds of achievements in the moment.
“When I line up to race [Coburn] and others, there are a few things I say to ground myself. They might sound stupid and simple,” Mackey said. “But I remind myself that we all wake up, we all put on our shoes, we all go for a run. We all train really hard. Nobody deserves anything more than anybody else once we’re all out on that track.”
Put the Race Into Perspective
The women’s 3,000 meters in Birmingham was one of the most stacked races in the entire meet. It featured Genzebe Dibaba, the world record holder from Ethiopia, for one, plus a host of other women who already have global medals to their names. But just because it was the world championships—and Mackey’s first one at that—didn’t make it scarier than other races. “This is my first world championships race, but it’s not my first time racing these women,” she said. “It’s similar to Diamond League races I’ve been in.”
In a tactical affair with a slow start, Mackey finished eighth out of a field of 14 athletes, but she didn’t arrive on the track counting herself out just because she lacked some of the experience of her competitors on the world stage. Instead she tried to embrace the opportunity to gain experience and see where her preparation could take her.
“Anything can happen once you step onto a starting line,” Mackey said. “I always try to be excited about lining up against the best, to see what I can do.”