Q&A with NCAA Champion Karissa Schweizer on the 5,000m, Injuries and Career Outlook
University of Missouri senior and three-time NCAA Champion Karissa Schweizer is currently the world leader in the 5000 meters (15:17.31) and most recently dropped the fourth fastest mile in NCAA history at the Columbia Challenge in New York, breaking the Armory Collegiate Record (4:27.54). Schweizer took some time to chat with Citius Mag about those experiences and share her plans for the future.
CM: Okay, so first off let’s talk about last weekend. You went out to the Columbia Challenge in New York and dropped a ridiculous 4:27.54 against professional level competition in the Dr. Sander Invitational Mile. Explain what you and Coach [Marc] Burns had planned strategically going into that race?
KS: Going into the race I hadn’t really ran an elite mile where it was a really fast pace from the start. There wasn’t really too much pressure going into it. Coach Burns kind of just talked to me and said, ‘hey I think off of your workouts you should be really close to breaking that 4:30 barrier.’ But as the race came closer we decided to focus less on going for a specific time because the race was already set to be paced through the 800 [meters] in 2:12. That was way faster than my PR, so the plan became to simply stay in the mix. I kind of just raced the whole thing and honestly had no idea what pace we were at for most of it. When I crossed the line I just looked up right away and thought, ‘oh my gosh.’
CM: So did the race actually end up going out that fast?
KS : Yes. I went through the 800 in 2:13, so I was pretty even throughout the whole race.
CM: Does that make you think that you might have even more in you? I’m sure you know the current college record is held by Jenny Simpson from the 2009 Big 12 Indoor Championships in a time of 4:25.91.
KS: (Laughs) That’s what I keep getting asked. Of course the race played out really well in my favor. I’d like to think that I can maybe even go faster, but who knows.
CM: Needless to say, your time also broke a [University of Missouri] school record that was previously held by Laura Roxberg, a great miler in her own right. Have you guys talked since the race?
KS: Yeah she actually messaged me on Instagram afterwards and I thought that was pretty cool ‘cause I’d been looking at her record for a while. It was a tough record up there, and just having her congratulate me and say that she had been following me for a while, that was really awesome.
CM: So how does this change your approach to the indoor postseason? Are you thinking of doing the 3000m/5000m double again?
KS: (Laughs) So everyone keeps asking me what the plan is but we’re not even sure what the plan is ourselves just yet. Right now I’m focusing on the 3k, obviously. This weekend I’ll be racing at the Millrose Games. After that I’m focusing on trying to get our DMR in, and then on to SECs.
CM: Let’s rewind back to cross country. You took 11th at NCAAs, but then you responded with a 15:17.31 5000m at the BU Opener just two weeks later. You seem like that kind of runner that always shakes things off. So between cross and going into the BU race, what was your mindset like?
KS: After cross country had ended, [Coach] Burns wanted to reassess and see if I still wanted to do the [BU Opener]. I had a little bit of an ankle thing that was bothering me, so I think he was leaning towards shutting me down. I was leaning the other way, though. I convinced him that I still wanted to do Boston, that I just wanted to get a qualifier in and kind of do the same routine as last year.
He was cool with it, but in order for that to happen I had to take 4 days completely off of running. I had to decompress from everything. [NCAAs] was big emotionally, and physically I also just needed a break. I actually only did a single short workout that week and another easy effort the following week. So I kind of just coasted into BU.
Going into it, Burns told me, ‘just trust your fitness. We’re not trying to do anything crazy. If it’s there it’s there, and with 800 to go if you feel really good just hit the hammer.’ I really just wanted to kind of get my mind right again. I just told myself, ‘okay, this is my event. Forget everything that happened in the past. You can’t change it.’
CM: And obviously that race went about as well as it could have. It’s probably a good confidence boost, just knowing that you can maintain fitness like that.
KS: Yeah, it’s really a confidence booster. Just to know that that fitness is still there even if you have bad workouts, or if you have a bad week.
CM: One more thing about that race, because I actually just remembered that your 5000m is actually holding up as a world leading time…
KS: I guess it is, yeah. (Laughs) I think I just heard that, too.
CM: How does that feel?
KS: Very exciting! I did not think I’d have a world lead for as long I do right now. Of course, I know that there are a lot of really fast 5000m runners who are probably going to be running it soon, but it’s really cool to have it while I still do.
CM: You beat (2017 NCAA XC Champ) Edna Kurgat at BU. Did you end up kicking her down?
KS: Yeah, it came down to just me and her, as I assumed it would.
CM: So how did the end of that race unfold for you?
KS: It started off with a pretty slow pace, we began the race hitting splits that would put us at around 15:37 pace. When the pacer stepped off, [Kurgat] took the lead and started hammering it. I just went with her and tried to stay relaxed. I knew that, when it came to 800 to go, I had a kick and I was gonna use it.
CM: You’ve been pretty durable throughout your career as well. You said you had a small ankle problem before BU, but why do you think you’re able to fight off major injuries so well? What is your secret to staying healthy?
KS: Knock on wood, but I’ve never been injured before. It really helps just being able to build that consistency and to not have to take that time off for injuries. I think a lot of it has to do with eating right, sleeping well – all those little things that you need to do. And when you have something little, like when I rolled my ankle, I’m in the training room right away trying to fix it. Not waiting to tell somebody that it hurts two weeks later. Get on top of those little things right away.
CM: With body image and eating disorder issues being as prevalent as they are for collegiate track and field athletes, especially female distance runners, I think people look at you and they see somebody who does things the right way for themselves on an individual basis. Does it ever occur to you that there are probably a ton of high school and college athletes who are following you and look to you as a role model?
KS: Yeah, just thinking about that is awesome, to know that people can look up to me and, hopefully, I can help influence them to make the right decisions for themselves. What’s worked for me for so long is to not really focus on what other people are doing, to focus on what I need to do and how much I need to fuel. Just know that skinny is not always the answer, and that sometimes you just need to eat what you’re craving and have fun with life!
CM: Being from Iowa yourself, I’m sure you know there’s a ton of current professional runners from Iowa on the women’s side. Now that you’re inspiring people yourself, are there any professional runners that you would say are or were big inspirations to you when you were a young runner?
KS: All of them are really big inspirations, obviously, but Jenny Simpson especially has been a huge one for me, being an Iowan herself. I followed her career for so long and it’s really cool because now I’ve raced against her before. It’s crazy to think that when I was younger I would’ve never imagined anything like that.
CM: Okay, last question. With your recent performance in the mile, I’ve seen people argue that you are now better, on paper at least, as a 1500 meter runner. Does that mean we will see more of Karissa Schweizer in the shorter distances going forward?
KS: My teammates were actually joking with me about that the other day! They were like, ‘yeah, you can’t really call yourself a 5k runner anymore, you’re a miler now.’ It’s exciting to see that I’ve gotten my time down in the mile, but it just gives me more confidence to drop my 3k and 5k times even more. I mean, those are the events that I truly do love and of course I like the mile a lot, too, but my only focus is on the 3k this weekend at Millrose and we’ll see what happens from there.
Schweizer and Kurgat will have a rematch in the 3,000m at the Millrose Games on Saturday.