This past weekend, three members of the NE Distance Women’s Elite Team – Katie Spratford, Obsie Birru, and Rachel Schilkowsky – represented the United States in international competition. After placing 7th, 8th, and 9th, respectively, at the USATF Cross Country Championships back on February 3rd, the three women earned their spots on Team USA. The race, which was held in San Salvador, El Salvador, doubled as both the NACAC Cross Country Championships (North American, Central America and the Caribbean) and the Pan American Cross Country Championships (all nations in the Americas).
With the temperature at race time reaching upwards of 90 degrees and the flat but winding course taking place mostly in the sun, conditions were very tough and times were subsequently a bit slow across the board. In the overall scoring for the Pan American Championships, Katie finished 10th in 36:13, Rachel finished 15th in 36:39, and Obsie finished 17th in 37:02 to help the United States take 3rd place behind Peru and Canada. In the NACAC scoring, Katie finished 6th, Rachel finished 10th, and Obsie finished 11th to help the United States finish second, just one point behind the Canadian team. Full results from the event, including results from the senior men’s, junior women’s, and junior men’s, race can be found here.
Now that the trio has had a few days to settle in and catch up on sleep (they traveled for almost 20 hours on Sunday!), we caught up with them to hear all about their trip and what they gained from their experience abroad.
Obsie and Rachel – How did it feel to compete on Team USA for the first time?
Obsie – Being on team USA for the first time was an amazing experience. I was really honored to be a part of the team and to represent my country. It felt good to wear the red white and blue. Running for Team USA is what most runners work for every day.
Rachel – It felt absolutely amazing to wear that USA uniform and to see the words United States (or in this case, Estados Unidos!) next to my name in the results. Qualifying for and competing on Team USA has been a dream of mine for many years, so to finally have it come to fruition was really exciting. The fact that I was injured for most of this past fall, and was therefore unable to train or race on a consistent basis, made the accomplishment all the more satisfying.
Katie – Contrast this experience, which marked the fourth time you’ve compete on Team USA, with your previous experiences competing at the international level.
Katie – Every time that I have run on a US team has been a huge learning experience. When I made my first team, I was full of nerves and was not super confident that I belonged in that field of women. There is so much to gain from competing internationally, like learning how to travel overseas and how to be really flexible with your normal daily routine. I feel much more comfortable and confident in my travel routine now which allows me to focus more on the race without a ton of outside stressors throwing me off. I am able to go to the start line knowing that I belong there and earned my spot on the team.
What did it mean to you to have two of your NE Distance teammates competing alongside you?
Katie – This was one of the best parts of making the team! Having three NEDistance athletes there together made everything feel a little more familiar and comfortable. We lined up and worked together just like we do in workouts. It was awesome having half of Team USA be NEDistance athletes!
Obsie – It was great to have each other and share the experience.
Rachel – Having Katie and Obsie with me made this already incredible experience even more special. From a logistical standpoint it was great having people on the trip that I knew and could count on. The fact that Katie had previously been on three other US Teams was particularly helpful; I must have asked her at least twenty questions in the days leading up to our trip! But on a deeper level, having all three of us competing there together was really meaningful for the NE Distance organization. It showed that our team – especially our newly grown Women’s Elite Team – is a force to be reckoned with, not just in the New England area but on the National stage as well.
Describe how the race played out for you individually.
Katie – I knew that we would most likely be leading the race since that was my experience from last year’s NACAC Championships. I wanted to keep the race honest but also keep in mind that it was a 10k in extreme heat. I felt relaxed and comfortable through 5k and then I suddenly felt like I hit a wall. I believe it was a fueling and electrolyte error on my end. I tried to keep my focus on a Canadian athlete in front of me to help get me to the end.
Obsie – I personally didn’t have a very good race, but this race wasn’t just about me. This race was about giving all I could for the team and I felt like I did that. Sometimes you have learn to compartmentalize your feelings and celebrate those around you and be a good teammate. I was able to put my race aside and cheer on the rest of my teammates, especially the junior teams which did wonderful job.
Rachel – There’s no way to sugar coat it: this race was extremely challenging. Having been training in Providence all winter, the drastic jump in temperature from 20 degrees to 80 degrees was a complete shock to my system. Early on I put myself up with the leaders hoping that I could just latch on and gut it out, but by the time we hit the first mile I knew I was in over my head. I consciously dropped back at that point and spent the next two or so miles trying to find my rhythm and settle down. Around the 6k mark of our 10k race I was in about 20th and was feeling pretty bad, but then I distinctly remember hearing someone cheer for me “Go USA” and that really woke me up. All of a sudden I felt this responsibility to keep fighting. I moved up really well during the fourth 2k loop, eventually sliding into the fourth and final scoring slot for Team USA by the time I hit 8k. Over the last 2k loop I worked really hard to catch this Canadian woman ahead of me. I managed to cut her lead on me from about 75 meters to only a few meters, but just as I got close to her with a quarter mile left in the race, she took off and I unfortunately just didn’t have anything left to go with her. Though I wish I could have caught her and helped Team USA beat the Canadians, overall I was proud of myself for not giving up despite the rough conditions.
What did you like most about the host country, El Salvador?
Katie – The people were so friendly and welcoming and the parks were so beautiful!
Obsie – El Salvador was such a beautiful country and the people were phenomenal hosts. I loved how green everything was and I definitely loved the weather! It was also such a joy and privilege to be able to experience a different culture.
Rachel – I loved how friendly and welcoming everyone was to our group. As foreigners, it can be a little intimidating going to a new country for the first time, especially one where the primary language is one in which you are not fluent. Everyone we met, from the hotel staff to the event organizers, made us feel right at home, which I greatly appreciated.
What was the most memorable part of the trip?
Katie – The most memorable part of the trip was after the race when I got to exchange some USA gear with athletes from other countries! I made a few new friends and got to practice my Spanish. Experiencing the world through running is a beautiful thing!
Obsie – The most memorable part of the trip for me would be all the amazing people I met from different nations and spending time with my USA teammates and coaches.
Rachel – The most memorable part of the trip was definitely the team dinner the night of the race. We went to this beautiful restaurant called Florence El Volcán which was built right into the side of San Salvador Volcano! The views from the covered patio where we dined were absolutely stunning; we could see the entire city of San Salvador, Lake Ilopango (a massive volcanic crater lake), and a distant mountain range which included another volcano, San Vicente Volcano. With the race over, everyone was able to relax and truly appreciate what an amazing opportunity it was to be on the trip.
What are the most important lessons you will take away from this experience?
Katie – I learned that I need to figure out how to properly fuel for conditions as harsh as we experienced race day. I thought I was prepared but my body said otherwise! This will be a big benefit in the future.
Obsie – My take away was more of an affirmation of a feeling I already had that running is a true international language. Even though we represented different nations and we came from a variety of different cultures, it was amazing to see how quickly all the runners connected with one another. We may live oceans apart, speak different languages, and may eat different foods, but running is one thing that can connect us all.
Rachel – The most important lessons that I learned from this trip are to never underestimate my competition and, as cliché as it sounds, to not judge a book by its cover. Time after time while on the trip I found myself surprised and my views challenged. Whether it was learning something about the country of El Salvador or just learning something about one of my USA teammates, this trip taught me the importance of keeping an open mind during new experiences and when meeting new people.