IT HASN’T ALWAYS been love. Parker Valby’s relationship with running, that is. There were times when the bond got complicated, she admits. For instance, there was the first year she got serious about it, as a junior at East Lake High (Tarpon Springs, Florida). She ended the season with a State Meet 3200 win in 10:10.45. That was love.
The next year COVID spread, and the love affair ended. “It was quite disappointing,” she concedes. “I didn’t run a whole lot during the pandemic because we didn’t know what was happening. I was just like, ‘There’s nothing to be training for.’ I came into college not really in love with running.”
Indeed, Valby’s first year at Florida was nothing to crow about. She DNFed her first cross country race and placed 72nd in the next. Coaches only raced her once on the track, and she finished 8th in a home meet in the 5000, clocking 17:14.57. She was leaning toward being done with running at that point.
Then, she says, “I was convinced to come back to the team my sophomore year during cross country and then I started listening to what my coach said, and lo and behold, it worked very well and I ended up placing 27th at that Nationals in cross country.”
All fired up, she trained hard through the winter and opened with a big breakthrough, an 8:53.89 win at 3000 at the ’22 McCravy Memorial in Kentucky the day after anchoring a collegiate leader in the distance medley. Then things got complicated again.
“I was probably in the best shape of my life that winter, and then, yeah, I ended up fracturing my foot.” That was the year she met cross-training. “I learned how to cross-train for the first time and actually cross-trained really hard for three months while I was on crutches and in a boot, mostly in a pool. You’re still getting the aerobic fitness,” she explains. “It’s just a little bit of a shock to the legs when you come back.
“So I ran SECs off… I think like three times running on the ground. I ended up running 15:32. Everyone was like, ‘Where the heck did that come from?’ And I was like, ‘It was the shape I was in before, but I just haven’t been able to run.’ And then, yeah, I was surprised to run 15:20 and place 2nd at Nationals that year.”
The next fall she came back stronger than ever. In cross country she won the SEC and the South Regional. At the NCAA Championships at Oklahoma State, she very nearly stole the crown with her bold frontrunning, sporting a lead that got up to 60m at times. But NC State’s Katelyn Tuohy caught her on the final hill and Valby finished 2nd by 3 seconds.
The following track season, Valby raced sparingly; only once indoors and four times outdoors. She admits that behind the scenes, her relationship with running was again hitting some speed bumps. “Last spring was not so much fun for me,” she admits, “because I was dealing with an unknown injury and running just started to feel like a chore and I was done with it.”
Her doctors, she says, never really figured out the injury. “It was something with my back or nerves,” she explains.
Despite all that, she managed to win the SEC 5000 and came back to capture her first NCAA title. Utilizing the frontrunning strategy that she tried at the XC Nationals, she ignored the heat and humidity and left the field behind, winning by 9 seconds in 15:30.57.
Last fall, Valby recommitted to her relationship with running. “Once I started just having fun with it every single day and embracing the process and trusting my coach [Will Palmer currently coaches the Gator distance crew], it became a lot more fun. And it obviously paid off.” She stormed through the harrier season, winning all four of her races convincingly. She took the NCAA with a blazing 18:55.2 for 6K on the Panorama Farms course in Virginia. That ended her up on our December cover.
Two weeks later, she used that same fitness to smash the Collegiate Record with her 14:56.11 at BU’s indoor track. “I actually surprised myself a lot with that. I was just going to run a qualifier for nationals to help my team.”
Now Valby, a Gator junior, is where she has aspired to be: atop the NCAA distance running heap. She knows there will be challengers, but she has found a way to be comfortable with where she is. “There’s definitely highs and lows, I would say pressure. I have definitely learned over time. Pressure is a privilege, obviously. I have worked super hard to be where I am, but yeah, sometimes it does get to me and get in my head, but I just lean on my coaches and teammates and just trust that everything happens for a reason and it’ll all work out.”
She has also learned how to rise above the negatives that come at her from the Internet. “My sophomore year when I started to become a bigger name, it was definitely really hard on me mentally. It was hard not to read it because I had no idea what it was before.
“I’m like, ‘Why are these people talking so bad about me?’ But over time I’ve learned that it’s people behind a computer screen too scared to show who they are. They’re not affecting my life whatsoever. I’ve learned to just ignore it. It’s just online trolls.”
At 21, she’s come a long way from the little girl who tagged along with her parents to “the run/walk 5K, the local road race.” Starting out in high school, she recalls, “the track coach tried to get me to come out for track and I was like, ‘No, I’m playing lacrosse.’ He was like, ‘Please, just come out and try it.’ I ended up doing track and lacrosse both my freshman year and it ended up being way too much. I would not get home until 8:30 and it was way too much on my body.
“The schedules also overlapped a whole lot. My mom said, ‘You need to choose.’ And then I ended up hurting my ankle playing lacrosse and I was like, ‘You know what, you can’t get hurt running track!’ Little did I know,” she says with a chuckle.
It’s an open question whether Valby’s success in running surprised anyone in her family. She punctuates her explanation in laughter: “Oh gosh, both my parents would claim to be good athletes, but there are no professional or collegiate athletes in my family. My dad does claim that he would be in the NFL if he hadn’t started dating my mom in seventh grade. I don’t believe him one bit, but I definitely think I got my running genes from him, because he’ll randomly go on like 10-mile runs at 7-minute pace. I’m like, ‘Where did you get that from?’”
Valby says that these days, she is laser-focused on doing her best at the NCAA. Being a part of a Florida program which has become one of the nation’s powerhouses under the leadership of Mike Holloway is clearly of paramount importance to her. She says she’s not really thinking ahead to the Olympic Trials yet. “I’m just taking it a day at a time and whatever happens, happens.”
But once Valby leaves the Gators, a whole world of running opportunities is open to her. “It’s all still very new to me,” she says. “I’m still amazed by the idea that I would be able to run after college. The sky’s the limit, just to see what I’m capable of, just to be the best me that I could be.”