“‘WHOA! WHAT IS THIS?” That’s what Natalie Cook (Flower Mound, Texas) thought the first time she broke 5:00 for the 1600 as an 8th-grader. But now, as a senior she could easily be talking about her latest exploit, a record-smashing 15:25.93 in the Stanford Invitational 5000.
Now 18, Cook has been enjoying a banner year that has vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations. Certainly no one outside of her circle would have forecast it after her junior year, during which she ran bests of 4:57.1 (1600) and 10:26.67 (3200), ultimately finishing 4th in the Texas-6A 3200. The previous fall, she had placed 7th in the cross country race.
In contrast, her senior year has been one non-stop romp through the record books. After placing 3rd in California’s prestigious Woodbridge XC Invitational (15:56 for 3M), she won the Texas title over 5K in 16:32.4, then captured the RunningLane crown in 16:04 on a superfast course before taking the Eastbay Nationals (formerly Foot Locker) in 17:15.
This winter her lone meet was the New Balance Indoor Nationals, where on the Friday she produced huge negative splits (4:57.77/4:46.67) to capture the 2M in 9:44.44, the No. 2 performance in history.
“It was really fun,” she says. “We didn’t really know what I could run, so my goal was to break 10:00 because I had never done that. I knew I could probably go faster than that. I ran the first mile pretty comfortably. And I felt really good, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to pick things up.’ I was enjoying it. I love the crowd there, and hearing them while I race. It’s just fun to hear everyone screaming. My teammates were cheering me on at the 200m mark. It was just great.”
The next day she came back with her teammates to win the 4 x Mile in a national record 19:37.78; she anchored in 4:43.72. “It was so much fun to have all the ladies there, just racing. We had a countdown before we went to New Balance, like, ’10 more days, 9 more days…’ We just really wanted to get that record and we have the dream team this year. It was really fun to share that accomplishment with everyone.”
She adds, “I feel like we can definitely lower it [further] now,” noting that several of her teammates have scored big PRs in the last few weeks. “We have five girls under 5:00 at the moment.”
The credit, she says, goes to her dad, Flower Mound coach Andrew Cook. “He’s very passionate about what he does. He’s always reading books, stuff like how to be a better coach and all that.”
The Stanford race, on April 01, saw Cook slash more than 8 seconds off the national record 15:34.47 that had been set by Tennessee prep Jenna Hutchins two years ago. Cook admits, “That was a big surprise. Coming into the race, I wanted to get the national record and based on my workouts, I knew I could probably do it.”
She describes a workout a week before, where she ran a mile in 5:00, took a minute rest, then 2M in 10:05, and then 2:00 rest before finishing up with a 4:55: “That pretty much proved that I could do it. My parents were like, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s fly you to Stanford.” It was really fun. I got to see my old coach there, and my new coaches, Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith and [assistant] Anna [Boyert-Thorp].”
During the Friday night race, Cook surprised some observers by taking the lead in the latter stages after passing 8 laps in about 9:55. “I took it with a mile to go because I’m bad at pacing. My dad was like, ‘If you feel good, go ahead.’ I felt like we were slowing down a little bit. I definitely was not comfortable with taking the lead, but I wanted to get the record. So I was just like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll take the lead.’ After two laps I started struggling a little bit, but I hung in there. I was really proud of how I finished. It was really, really fun.” Her final 1600 took just 4:53.10.
On the one hand, some explain Cook’s emergence by noting that both her parents were excellent runners. Her mom, Melissa Gulli-Cook, was a Foot Locker finalist who was the ’04 NCAA 5K runner-up for Texas A&M and competed in two Olympic Trials. Her PRs of 15:34.41 & 32:31.85 came in ’07. Dad also ran for A&M, took 2nd in the Big 12’s 10K and was later a 3-time winner of the San Francisco Marathon.
Sure, genetics help, but Cook’s road to the top involved a lot more than that. She says, “I started out as a little sprinter. I was on the summer track team and I would do some relays and the high jump. That’s how I got into it. I ran at some USATF meets that my dad took me to; we had a lot of bonding time there. In eighth grade I finally clicked and broke 5:00.”
High school started promisingly. As a frosh she hit 4:51.49+ and 10:28.59+. But she faced two struggles: anxiety and injuries. “I’ve dealt with race anxiety ever since freshman track: I still have it now. I talk to a sports psychologist, which helps a lot. I have a lot of sleeping issues and a lot of stress. I put a lot of pressure on myself. But I enjoy running. I love it to death. I’m here to have fun. This shouldn’t be stressful. And some people talk about you, like how you’re gonna do and all that, but I don’t pay attention to it. I just go with the flow.”
A string of persistent injuries also had to be dealt with. “I always got injured real easily and I missed most of my junior year. I didn’t make it in the mile out of my district. That was really devastating.” Not a high mileage runner to begin with — 30-40mpw was causing her problems — she devised a low mileage plan with her dad. Now she hits 15-20M of actual running “with a lot of cross training, which isn’t fun, but it works out in the end.”
Her long run? She laughs, “Umm, probably just 5M? Yeah, I don’t do long runs. I elliptical a lot. I’m pretty crazy on ellipticals.”
Working with her father as her coach, she says, “The first couple years were interesting. Sometimes you have a hard time, with dad being a dad and a coach being a coach. Once we figured that out, it’s awesome to have him here. I just talk to him all the time.”
Mom, she says, despite her extensive running background, focuses more on momming. “Sometimes my dad wants to make my mileage a little bit higher one day, and my mom’s like, ‘How about we don’t do that. Let’s just keep it here.’ She sometimes keeps him in control.”
The key to the vast improvement this year, says Cook, is motivation. “I know my goals. I feel like I’ve matured a lot as a runner and as a person. I listed out my goals and asked myself, ‘Do you want to achieve them? Or do you want to slack off?’ I slacked off a lot last year because I was so mentally drained from being injured.”
Looking ahead, she says, “I just want to enjoy the rest of my season and I want to see if I can get the 2M record and the mile record. But we’ll see. I just like being able to run. It’s amazing. I love the feeling that running gives me and I love sharing the feeling with all my teammates.”