Echols goes the distance, beats Division I runnersBy Jennifer Leovy
Fourth-year Rhaina Echols has a poets eyes. She sees beauty everywherein a Chicago sunset, her familys support and the power of long-distance running.
I am constantly amazed by the experience of running, the people you meet through it and the spirit it brings out in people who support you, said Echols, a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III conference champion who is now competing against NCAA Division I runners and beating their times.
Echols, an English and philosophy concentrator, also loves creative writing and her job as a docent at the Smart Museum, but right now, her grand passion is running.
I go for the most spectacular runs in Chicago. I run through the city streets, and suddenly, this great big lake appears, the wind picks up, and the colors and light in the sky are heartbreakingly beautiful.
Her aesthetic sense is matched by a competitors heart. Last week, the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III conference named Echols the University Athletic Association Athlete of the Week for the eighth time this year. The week before that she won a 5,000-meter race at the University of Notre Dame Invitational, finishing ahead of 18 other runnersall from NCAA Division I schools.
Last fall, Echols was the NCAA Division III individual national champion in cross country by a margin of 22 seconds.
Running is so curious to me. My No. 1 goal this year was to just have fun, said Echols. I feel like Im just doing what my coach told me to do. And my success is something that I dont rely on. It is not why Im running, she said.
Echols began harnessing her talent when her mother enrolled her in a high school summer camp for running. I got a sense early on of what it feels like to push yourself to your limits and then experience the kick that you get from that, said Echols, who ran six miles in the mountains on her first day at camp.
My idea of running has changed a lot since then. Now my love for it is very deep, said Echols. It is a special kind of joy I dont get any other way.
Increasingly, competition has become a process of mind over matter for Echols. I get to a pace my body feels and knows, and then I tell myself, This isnt fast, and I convince my body it can go faster each timebut I can never tell what my actual times are until someone tells me after a run.
Echols views those statistics as a reflection of her ability to get lost in ones passion, in the same way that one becomes enraptured by a bookoblivious to the rest of the world.
In addition to her family, Echols credits her coach and Chicagos athletics department for her success. That is how anybody is going to do their best, in an environment where everyone is so supportive, said Echols.
Rhaina is an amazingly talented runner, but you wouldnt know that if you met her off the field. She is humble and has other interests, said Jim Spivey, Head Coach of Womens Track and Cross Country and a three-time U.S. Olympian. But Rhaina is at a point where she can seriously think about working toward the Olympic trials.
Because distance runners peak in their late 20s, Echols will continue to train with Coach Spivey. After graduation, Echols will compete in a series of 1,500- and 3,000-meter races in New England, where she will attempt to qualify for the Olympic trials in the 5000-meter run. She also plans to pursue a career that will include her other passion, creative writing.
First and foremost, she is committed to enjoying running, in spite of the pressures of competition. We are lucky when we find the way unique to each of us that allows our passions to come out and carry us away.