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Allie Ostrander raises the bar for young Alaska distance runners

  • Author: Doyle Woody
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 24, 2015

SOLDOTNA -- On a living room wall of the Soldotna family home, hard by the kitchen where Allie Ostrander loves to cook, hangs a photo that invites the eye.

The picture, shot head-on, captures Ostrander approaching the end of 5 kilometers of cross-country racing at the Nike Cross Nationals last year in Portland, Oregon, where the country's best high school runners gathered. Floating before her is the finish-line ribbon that only the winner of the 3.1-mile race breaks.

Her blond ponytail bobs behind her left shoulder. Her eyes are slits, the cords of her neck taut. Specks of mud dab her shoulders and neck. Her thinly muscled arms churn.

Yet it is her face that particularly draws attention -- mouth stretched open, upper teeth bared, cheeks drawn into vertical lines tracing from the sides of her nose down to her lips. The photo has been mistaken for a portrait of the pain a long-distance runner endures, and it is easy, though incorrect, to read anguish in Ostrander's expression.

"It looks like I'm in pain," Ostrander says.

She sits upright on a couch, feet tucked beneath her, a Kenai High senior and co-valedictorian in her last week of high school. Ostrander, 18, is arguably the best girl distance runner to come out of Alaska and a towering figure on the national prep stage. She glances across the living room and nods toward the photo.

"This is actually the point I'm starting to cry," she says with a quick smile. "It's not a grimace. It's me crying with joy."

The tears fell frequently and hard that December morning. Allie cried. So did her parents, Teri and Paul, and so did her older sister and best friend, Taylor, on hand from nearby Willamette University to cheer on her sibling.

The Ostranders cried a river that day.

Their youngest had conquered the country.

Allie Ostrander: national champion.

Early hints of speed

Clues that marked Allison Ostrander as a running prodigy appeared as early as elementary school.

The girl everyone calls Allie, or Allie O, tagged along when Taylor, who is 2 1/2 years older and a champion distance runner at Willamette, began running cross-country in middle school.

"And she was right behind her sister," Teri said.

Allie was just 11 when she finished seventh among girls 11-12 years old in the 800 meters -- two laps around a conventional track -- at the Hershey Track & Field Games North America Final in Pennsylvania. She finished sixth the next year.

"I thought, 'Wow,' " Teri said.

The middle school running records Allie seized raised her dad's eyebrows.

"I was like, 'Man, she's really, really good,' " Paul said.

That was about the same time Allie turned the junior race at Mount Marathon into her Fourth of July domain.

She was just 12 when she first won the girls division, for runners 17 and younger, in the punishing race halfway up the steep 3,022-foot slab of dirt, rock and shale overlooking Seward, and back down into town. That was the first of Allie's six consecutive titles, and last summer she capped her junior Mount Marathon career by not only obliterating her own girls record, but by also beating all of the boys in the mixed-gender race.

No girl had ever captured the junior race outright since it debuted roughly half a century earlier. Allie not only clocked 28 minutes, 54 seconds, to improve her record by 1:38, she finished 42 seconds clear of the field.

"I never even expected that going in," she said, "and I don't think anyone did. It was special, especially for my last junior race."

In high school, Allie ran cross-country and track, but she also played soccer and basketball, sometimes making soccer a priority over track in the spring. By playing multiple sports, she developed her athleticism, strengthened muscles that running didn't particularly service and enhanced what Mike Janecek, the former Palmer High running coach and longtime Alaska running observer, calls her extraordinary "go-power."

As a freshman, Allie was roundly expected to win the state cross-country title because she won every race leading up to the state championship. But she faltered about two-thirds of the way through the 3.1-mile race -- an iron deficiency was eventually pegged as the culprit -- and required medical treatment.

She rebounded strongly, winning consecutive state titles as a sophomore, junior and senior. Last fall, Allie won the championship by 98 seconds.

In spring 2014, she announced her arrival on the national landscape with a signature performance in a loaded 3,200 field at the Arcadia Invitational track meet in California. She finished second in 10:03.66. The winner, fellow junior Alexa Efraimson, of Camas, Washington, ran 9:55.92. Efraimson signed a contract with Nike and turned pro for her senior year.

"I think that's when I realized I could run with the really fast girls," Allie said. "There were bigshots in that race, and I hung with the bigshots.

"It definitely inspires you to go faster."

At the state track meet last May, Allie threw down a 10:13.87 in the 3,200 meters to destroy the 1986 standard of Kodiak's Kristi Waythomas (nee Klinnert) by a whopping 24 seconds -- an average of three seconds faster per lap. She won by 58 seconds.

Waythomas, the four-time state cross-country champ who went on to an All-American career at Northern Arizona and the Olympic Trials, and is an Anchorage teacher these days, said seeing her record broken was bittersweet. She looks back and wonders if she could have run faster, yet simply marvels at Allie's feats.

"You're like, 'Oh, gosh,' " Waythomas said. "That's amazing, so cool. I wonder how fast she can go?'

"It's so cool to see her run so well and continue the legacy. It's really fun to see a new generation coming up. It's refreshing."

In that same state meet, Allie covered the 1,600 meters in a state record 4:49.48, lopping more than six seconds off the 2003 standard of West's Kris Smith. She also won the 800 and was voted the outstanding girls competitor of the meet.

In Alaska, Allie races against herself and the clock. No other girl threatens her in races of 1,600 meters or longer -- she owned a 10-meter lead after just 100 meters in this month's 3,200 at the Colony Invite in Palmer. Consequently, she trains with the boys who run on her Kenai High team.

Earlier this spring, Allie competed in a mixed-gender 3,200 inside The Dome in Anchorage. The boys furnished competition she usually lacks in Alaska. Coupled with an insatiable quest to improve -- "I don't know anyone who trains harder," said her sister -- Allie clocked 9:59.33. Through mid-May, her mark ranked as the fastest high school girls time in the nation this season.

"Sooner or later, an Allie O comes along and blows our mind," Janecek said. "With the numbers she's put down, she's the best (Alaska) distance-running woman we've seen."

‘Just brutal’

Word around the Ostrander household is that Allie's competitive streak is not limited to sports. She stands just an inch or two above 5 feet and is soft-spoken, yet she looms like a roaring giant when it comes to board games and cards.

"She is just brutal," Teri said. "She's pretty cutthroat."

No dispute from the accused.

"That's maybe an understatement," Allie said.

Older sister Taylor recalls a rare time as kids when she beat Allie in a board game called Settlers of Catan. The outcome did not go over well with little sis.

"She was so mad," Taylor recalled. "She stood up and said, 'That was all luck, Taylor, no skill at all.' "

That fiery competitiveness translates to running.

"Her ability to really push herself to another level is off the charts," said Boise State cross-country and track coach Corey Ihmels, who in the fall will begin guiding Allie's career. "She's a pretty mature and obviously driven kid."

She's also a kid with diverse interests beyond running.

For several years, Allie organized a series of summer footraces to benefit the Kenai Watershed Forum. She was the Kenai High representative to the Kenai City Council this school year and has been active in student government. She has volunteered at the local food bank.

And she's a regular Julia Child in the Ostrander household.

"As early as elementary school, she started reading cooking magazines and watching cooking shows," Taylor said.

When Taylor returns home from college in summers -- the older sister is a standout runner, too, and has qualified for the NCAA Division II nationals in the steeplechase for three seasons -- the sisters decree "Pancake Fridays." They take over the kitchen after sharing a morning run.

Among Allie's signature breakfasts are pineapple-coconut-banana pancakes topped with macadamia nuts.

Allie intends to study kinesiology and nutrition at Boise State, with an eye on becoming a dietitian and working with elite athletes. That's one reason she's always experimenting in the kitchen.

"As a runner, I've always wondered what I need to put in my body for maximum performance," she said.

Allie's parents say she cooks most of the family meals. Teri said she often hands Allie her credit card and lets her youngest do the grocery shopping. She laughs and said she's had to temper her daughter's love of high-end ingredients -- $29 worth of saffron was a bit much.

Allie said she likes to try new spices and herbs and introduce her active parents -- Teri and Paul both run -- to healthy ingredients, even if Paul occasionally balks.

"He doesn't think Greek yogurt is an appropriate substitute for butter," Allie said, deadpan.

Allie and Taylor share recipes and a love of cooking, another bond between sisters who have long doubled as best friends and talk on the phone, text or Snapchat virtually every day.

"Most of the things I've gotten into were because of Taylor," Allie said. "I always wanted to follow in her footsteps. She ran cross-country, so I ran cross-country. She ran track, so I ran track.

"I've looked up to her literally and figuratively."

Allie spent her spring break visiting Taylor in Oregon.

Taylor said the hardest thing about being away at college is missing her sister.

"She's my person," said Taylor, 20, who studies exercise science. "She's the person in the world that, if something big happened, I would want to talk to.

"She's the person I trust with anything in my life. We've never not got along."

Well, there was the rake incident when Taylor and Allie were kids. Neither can recall precisely what sparked their dispute, only that Allie, brandishing a metal rake and threatening to make her point with it, chased Taylor around the outside of the house. Allie's pretty sure she wouldn't have actually used the rake had she caught her sister.

"That was so terrifying," Taylor recalled, laughing. "I don't remember what I did to make her so mad. I'm sure I must have done something to antagonize her."

Tough decision

When Allie visited Taylor in Oregon during Kenai High's spring break in March, the sisters were driving home from Taylor's track practice one day when Allie announced her college intentions.

She had been heavily recruited by running powerhouses like Oregon and Arkansas, as well as up-and-coming Boise State. She visited all three schools, narrowed her choice of suitors to Oregon and Boise State, and received home visits by coaches from both programs.

Oregon offered rich history -- distance legend Steve Prefontaine ran for the Ducks. The Eugene campus has incredible facilities and an ample budget. After all, Nike founder and former Ducks runner Phil Knight is the program's sugar daddy. Being recruited by Oregon is the equivalent of a football player being recruited by Alabama or a women's basketball player being recruited by Connecticut.

Oregon's women finished third at the NCAA Division I outdoor track and field nationals in 2014 while Boise State took eighth. Oregon's women's cross-country team finished sixth at nationals last season and Boise State was 11th.

During the recruiting process, Taylor lent Allie support and, when her sister asked, advice. Taylor told Allie to trust her gut. Teri, who is Kenai's head cross-country coach and assistant track coach, and Paul counseled patience.

"It was her deal," Paul said. They advised Allie to think through the process and be deliberative.

"We wanted a good fit, academically and athletically, and for her to come out of it with the degree she wants, and come out of it with her love for running," Teri said.

In Taylor's car that March day, Allie confided in her best friend.

"She said, 'I think I want to go to Boise, I think that's my school,' " Taylor recalled. "It's a testament to her character.

"It's Oregon, it's a legend, it's Steve Prefontaine's school, Tracktown USA -- people say, 'You gotta go.' At 18, she was mature enough to step back and say, 'What do I want? What will make me happy?' That speaks loads about her."

Besides, Taylor said, her gut told her that Allie would eventually choose Boise State.

Allie said she enjoyed her visits to Oregon and Boise State. She clicked with Ihmels, the Boise State coach, and with the women who run for the Broncos.

"I think it was the coach and the team -- they made me feel comfortable," Allie said. "I couldn't ignore that gut feeling."

Mount Marathon OK

Allie said Ihmels and a coach from Oregon each assured her she could still race Mount Marathon, which is the Super Bowl of running in Alaska but is also a dangerous race, particularly on the treacherous, unforgiving downhill.

"She's passionate about it," Ihmels said. "She loves doing it, and it speaks to who Alaskans are. If the athlete's happy, and enjoying what they do, they'll run fast.

"And she's happy doing that. That's who she is."

Decision made, Allie called Ihmels late one night. He was in bed, awake, when his phone rang and he saw the 907 area code.

"She said, 'If the offer still stands, I want to come to Boise State,' " Ihmels recalled.

He assured her the offer remained good.

Smooth and balanced

On a recent weekday afternoon, with their home track booked for another event, Kenai's runners headed to the track at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna for a speed workout.

The Kardinals went out for a 15-minute warm-up jog on adjacent wooded trails, performed some drills on the track's infield grass, then broke into groups and took to the track.

Allie ran with several boys, as usual. Her group ran a hard 600 meters, followed by a recovery jog of 300 meters, a very hard 200 meters and a recovery jog of 800 meters. The group did three cycles of that workout.

Allie is a relaxed runner, head up, feet landing light and straight, knees raised, arms pumping. She's economy in motion -- what Janecek, the former longtime Palmer coach, calls smooth and balanced.

"I feel productive when I run," Allie said later that night, back at home. "You can relieve your mind. It gives you time to think and it relaxes you.

"It wakes me up. It makes me feel more lively."

She usually runs six days a week, occasionally mixing in an extra, light run before school.

When Kristi Waythomas watched Allie run last fall at the state cross-country championships, she glimpsed a bit of her youth, a girl who loves to run for running's sake.

"She just has the pure heart of a runner," Waythomas said.

Allie's talent is undeniable -- the stopwatch delivers truth. She does not possess blazing natural speed, but she owns a sense of pace her mother calls innate and she can sustain a hard pace for miles. Allie said one of her teammates, Jordan Theisen, ribs her about her "everything pace" no matter the race distance.

Some of that is talent, sure, but much of it is the reward of hard work, sticking to her training schedule and getting the most out of every workout.

"It's not like she wakes up, curls her hair and wins," Teri said.

Taylor has witnessed Allie's love of labor as a teammate and training partner, and she knows her sister doesn't take success for granted.

"Allie's got a God-given talent, but it's a talent she's willing to make the most of," Taylor said. "I don't know anyone who works harder, who is more self-motivated.

"She deserves everything she gets. She's worked for it. She doesn't have to be told to train. She's going to do that on her own."

At the state track meet this week in Anchorage, Allie will be a huge favorite to win the 1,600 and 3,200 going away. In June, she will run invitational races in New York and Seattle. Yet her focus remains on fast times and personal records. Stretch for those goals, she figures, and victories will follow.

"You're measuring yourself against yourself," she said.

For years now, Allie O has measured up, memorably.

Doyle Woody is an Alaska Dispatch News sports reporter and plodding recreational runner.

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