Racing Ahead: Sophomore distance runner Katie Rainsberger leads the way for Oregon cross-country
Katie Rainsberger crossed the finish line at the Bill Dellinger Invitational demolishing the course record by 37 seconds last September. But she didn’t leave the finish line right away. She stood in the chute, her black Oregon singlet soaked, and her spikes covered in mud, shouting as her teammates kicked to the finish line — congratulating them on a great race.
Rainsberger is just a sophomore, yet she is already one of the best runners Oregon has had in years. She is a five-time All-American, last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, a top distance runner on the cross country and track and field teams, and she has even competed on the international stage at the Pan American Games and World Junior Championships. She comes from an athletic family; her mother won the Boston Marathon and her father is a former collegiate football player. Throughout all her success, she still insists there is room to improve every single day.
Starting Strong at Oregon
During Rainsberger’s freshman year, she was on the cusp of being the team’s No. 1 runner each race. This cross-country season, Rainsberger took her racing up another notch, and with the exception of the NCAA Championship, she finished in the top five of every race. So what is the difference between Rainsberger this year and last year? Head coach Robert Johnson believes she is wiser.
“Of course, every year you try to get bigger, faster and stronger, which is the case with her and what she has been able to do,” Johnson said. “But what we’ll see is a maturation process from being a high school senior to a college freshman. Now you’re seeing her as a college sophomore, so that process is just natural.”
Before she ever donned an Oregon singlet, Rainsberger was already famous in Eugene. She competed at Hayward Field against international talent in April 2016 as a senior from Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She won her first race at Hayward — a 1500-meter — in four minutes, 17 seconds.
When she competed again at Hayward in the Oregon Twilight meet in May 2016, she finished second in the 1500-meter, running 4:14. She was only one second behind the winner, 36-year-old professional Nike athlete Treniere Moser, a five-time USA Track and Field Outdoor Champion in the 1500-meter and one of the most successful American distance runners in history. Rainsberger’s time was the fifth fastest 1500-meter by a high school girl in history.
Rainsberger’s success is a long path that stems from her parents’ athletic history, the development of team chemistry at Oregon and her relationship with the city of Eugene.
Rainsberger wasn’t always a runner. What began as a way to stay in shape and make friends eventually transformed her athletic career.
“She was 24/7 soccer,” Rainsberger’s mother, Lisa Rainsberger, said. “She had been playing since she was 3 years old.”
Until the start of her junior year of high school, she played left striker for her high school soccer team. But Rainsberger showed serious running ability, placing sixth at Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon. As a sophomore, she faced a choice: either continue with her lifelong soccer passion, or pursue a running career. Choosing to run not only helped her get into colleges, but, as her mother explained, it was a way for her to stay away from torn ACLs and concussions that were becoming more frequent among her soccer teammates.
At the end of her sophomore year, Rainsberger made the decision to quit soccer and focus on running.
Rainsberger was named the 2015-16 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year after her senior season. It was the first time someone from Colorado had won the award and one of the reasons Oregon offered her a scholarship.
In 2015, Rainsberger took her official visit to Oregon, where she met assistant coach Maurica Powell and toured the campus. She called her mother later that day.
“I’ve had my ‘aha’ moment,” Rainsberger said. “I’m going to be a Duck.”
Before her visit, Rainsberger received some words of wisdom from her father.
He told her, “Stand next to that coach. Picture yourself having an intellectual relationship with that person for the next four years.” Powell and Rainsberger’s relationship, though still relatively young, has been successful thus far. Last season, the team won the triple crown: national titles for cross-country, indoor and outdoor track.
Rainsberger’s family is familiar with the daily routine and challenges that come with the life of a student-athlete. Lisa ran for the University of Michigan and was the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 1985. Lisa coached her daughter for years while Rainsberger’s talents grew.
“She knows how I’m feeling about a workout, or that I want to eat that cookie. She’s been amazing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Rainsberger told USA Today.
Her father, Ellis Rainsberger, played football at Kansas State. Both parents bring different perspectives for competing.
“My dad is more of a, ‘Go get ‘em kiddo!’ just super supportive,” Rainsberger explained. “But my mom brings in the knowledgeable side of running, and knows it’s hard; running is not an easy thing.”
Lisa describes the coaching relationship with her daugher as an unspoken rule in which Rainsberger “initiates all questions and dialogue.” That makes it easier for Lisa to step back and respond to Rainsberger, rather than interject or simply set her to task.
The spotlight is on Rainsberger when she is in season, but that doesn’t stop her from having a good time at home. At the house she shares with teammates Lilli Burdon and Carmela Cardama Baez, the trio like to eat, cook and play copious amounts of the video game Just Dance.
When she brought home an Australian Shepard named Lola last spring after the indoor track season, she knew Lola was going to be more than just a dog to come home to. They often go on runs together if it is under six miles.
“She actually gets me through my secondaries and the runs I don’t really want to go out for,” Rainsberger said. “She’s actually one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever met.”
After her collegiate career, Rainsberger wants to be a professional runner, following in the footsteps of many Oregon runners. To get there, she regularly takes the time to write down her weekly, seasonal and year-long goals.
“It’s cool because you could have a goal that’s five years down the road, but you have to have steps and goals along the way to check your progress and adjust,” Rainsberger said.
From the start of the season, Powell has drilled in mantras to the team such as “keep the blinders on” and “be a better version of yourself every day.”
The philosophies Powell instills in her Oregon runners resonate with Rainsberger.
“I have become more process-oriented, and I think that has been a huge key to all of our successes,” Rainsberger said.
Taking care of controllable variables such as attitude and effort have made a serious difference, she says. Powell’s ideology helps her enjoy the process in the moment.
While Rainsberger consistently places highest for the team and knows she must do her part — she doesn’t stray from her team identity.
“We aren’t out there to beat each other. We’re in it together,” Rainsberger said.
She says the sport of cross country is never about just one runner; it’s a team sport.
“Katie has put together some unbelievable performances so far,” Burdon said. “It’s great having such a competitive group of girls, but then we are all there for each other at the same time.”
In a sport that sometimes has trouble connecting with a broader audience, Rainsberger believes the best way to gain more viewership is by setting an example. She pays attention to other races, whether it’s national or international.
“As runners, we owe it to the sport to be knowledgeable about what is going on,” Rainsberger said. “How can we expect viewers to pay attention to running if runners don’t even pay attention to it?”
She went on to name some of her idols like Emma Coburn, the 2017 World Champion in the steeplechase, and Shalane Flanagan, winner of the 2017 NYC Marathon — the first American woman to win since 1977. It’s a tricky balance for competitive runners like Rainsberger, who follow in the footsteps of their heroes yet must keep the blinders on and stick with what works for them.
“She respects all that goes into greatness. … She’s a great fan,” Lisa said.
Cross-country season is over, and soon most of the Oregon athletes will transition to indoor track and field. After graduating three seniors who were integral to the team’s success last season — including aiding in setting the collegiate record in the distance medley relay — Rainsberger and the team will once again need big performances to win.
Last season, Rainsberger set a personal best in every distance she ran. This can be typical in the first year of college because of the increased competition, but Rainsberger was either winning or very close to winning in almost every race. After a phenomenal cross country season, she is striving to run even faster times.
Living in a place that consumes and supports running as much as Eugene does can be overwhelming for athletes at times. But it’s a reason why Rainsberger loves the city so much.
“Eugene is TrackTown USA,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it. To have a full stadium at Hayward, or to have people come out and cheer for the Dellinger Invitational for cross country — it’s unheard of.”