The high school record books continue to be rewritten and at an unprecedented pace. This weekend it was Natalie Cook’s turn at the Stanford Invitational with a 5000m. Her time of 15:25.93 shaved nine seconds off Jenna Hutchins mark of 15:34.47 from 2020. The Oklahoma State-bound senior from Flower Mound, Texas, has been at the top of her game all year. She won both the Running Lane and Eastbay XC National Championships this fall. She ran 9:44 for the indoor two-mile, good for US #2 all-time. But it’s probably safe to say she’s currently sharp enough to best that mark — on Saturday, Cook’s final 3200 meters were covered in 9:54.
One difficult aspect of being a prodigy within the prep ranks is that most efforts have to be done solo. Fortunately, Cook had the benefit of racing against some seasoned pros like eventual race winner Molly Grabill (15:22.97). However, Cook was not content to just sit in the back and let the more experienced racers tow her to a nice PR. With just over a mile left in the race, Cook took the lead after sitting in a pack of six and ramped up the tempo before eventually finishing third.
It isn’t uncommon for high school athletes to find their way into pro fields or the US Championships and to hold their own among established elites in the middle distances. (Look at what’s happening in the girl’s 800m right now!) But it is rare to see a younger athlete step up at the 5000m distance and remain competitive. In fact, it’s even rare for college freshmen to be this good. The last one to run quicker than Cook was Weini Kelati, who went 15:22.71 during her rookie season at New Mexico.
Of course, the 5000m is not a regularly contended event in high school, so the opportunities to race are sparse. But despite that, it’s safe to say Cook’s new record is hardly a soft one. This was a truly special performance. Aerobic strength takes years to develop and can’t be rushed. And the farther you’re racing, the more relevant lifetime mileage becomes — something most high schoolers, and especially Natalie, are lacking. While it’s not fair to speculate about the long-term prospects of a talented young athlete who is just enjoying her senior year, we can look to the present, where professional 5000m runners will have to really work to fend off a high schooler. If they need any advice from someone who can relate, may I suggest talking to the milers — they’re used to this.
The Lap Count is a weekly newsletter delivered on Wednesday mornings that recap all the fun action from the world of track & field. It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the sport. There is a lot happening and this newsletter is a great way to stay up to date with all the fun. Subscribe today.