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By Lincoln Shryack
Thirty-year-old Katie Mackey will step to the line in the 5000m at the 2018 Payton Jordan Invitational on Thursday evening in Palo Alto, California, for her first track race since finishing eighth in the 3,000m at the 2018 World Indoor Championships on March 1. This year has already been huge for Mackey simply because of that appearance—her first on such a stage—and the narrative following the Brooks athlete now seems to have shifted. With that glaring hole from her career resume finally filled, the perception is that Mackey has suddenly shed the self-doubt borne from years of close calls at USAs.
But reality isn’t quite so convenient. More accurately, the transformation of Katie Mackey began well before she qualified for her first world team in February. It started after perhaps the lowest point in her career—in the wake of the 2016 Olympic Trials.
“A couple people that I know texted me after the race [2018 USAs] and they were like, ‘Do you feel like a monkey is off your back now?’” Mackey told FloTrack. “My initial thought to that was, ‘Well no. I think that I figured out how to get the monkey off my back and that’s why I finally did it.’”
Qualifying for that final in Birmingham, England, was the culmination of years of heartbreak at the U.S. championships, the weight of which nearly caused Mackey to leave the sport for good. Among her 12 previous misses with world or Olympic teams on the line, none had been more disheartening than the 2016 Olympic Trials, where she finished a spot away from making the team in the 5000m. That result could’ve been a career-ending experience for her, as Mackey felt dejected for months afterward and wondered if the sacrifices of being a professional runner were still worth it.
Retirement seemed like a logical next step for an athlete who had never previously had trouble motivating herself in the grind of training.
“That’s what I was thinking: ‘I don’t know if I can make all the sacrifices that I know that I need to make to get the best out of myself and compete against the best if my motivation doesn’t come back and I can’t figure out how to have fun again,’” Mackey said.
In a lengthy conversation with friend and Altis head coach Dan Pfaff months after the Olympic Trials disappointment—and still in her so-called “funk”—Mackey was challenged to simply explain why she runs. After producing a few less-than-satisfactory reasons to Pfaff, Mackey came to a revelation.
“Then I was like, ‘The main reason why I started running is because I feel like it just gives you a platform,’” she said. “‘You’re able to really help people and you can pour into other people and you can help them learn’… I feel like that’s why God has given me this gift of running, because I can use it to help other people.
“I felt like I had kind of lost my way a little bit because of all the emphasis I had put on making world teams, on making Olympic teams. I’d come to think that that was my purpose in running, that was my goal.”
Upon her realization that career success to her didn’t solely hinge on making or missing a global championship team, Mackey followed through on her word to help others. Her camp for high school girls in the Seattle area, called “Kickin’ with Katie,” started in late 2016, and, for Mackey, being able to pass on the lessons and skills developed from a lifetime of running to a younger generation proved mutually beneficial. This new added purpose took the negativity surrounding Mackey’s failures on the track and turned them into a positive for both her and her campers.
“I feel like I have a lot of useful skills that I’ve learned that I can pass along,” Mackey said. “It was a lot of freedom and I feel like this weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t need to judge my career by if I ever made a team.”
Of course, a shift in mindset for Mackey didn’t make her any less hungry to qualify for the world championships. A stress reaction in her sacrum forced her to miss the 2017 U.S. Outdoor Championships, yet another qualifying opportunity gone, and she had to adopt a rigorous cross-training routine in the fall to stay in shape while the bone healed—certainly not the ideal situation with yet another world championship qualifier just a handful of months away.
Even with a return to health and a solid build-up before U.S. indoors in February, doubts about whether or not she was good enough crept back in the days before the pivotal race. Mackey had shown she was fit by running an 8:43 3K PR two weeks earlier at the Millrose Games, but she couldn’t be sure that she was prepared to handle another near-miss. The wounds of the past had just started to heal, and the residual negativity from them was trying its best to wiggle back into her mind.
“The Wednesday night before that race, I was sitting on the couch and I was crying,” Mackey said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again.’ I don’t know if I can have all of this training and hard work and build up and put myself in that situation, and I know that there’s a possibility that it might not happen this time.”
When it came to the race, however, Mackey proved she was ready for the moment this time. While still suffering from lingering doubts beforehand, she knew she was much better equipped to handle the demons that pop up for her during crunch time. In tough workouts during the fall, Mackey would simulate facing those self-doubt demons at the end of a race. It was a mental exercise to get herself to answer “yes” to the question of whether she was good enough after years of saying “no.”
“I would be like, ‘OK, this workout I’m going to take a risk here,’” Mackey said. “And when I start thinking these thoughts, ‘Oh man, this is where it hurts, this is when it’s going to feel like at the end of the race, this is where it’s all going to fall apart.’ I would really take the time to sit down and break that down and examine that.”
It’s no coincidence that that mental clarity came after Mackey finally allowed herself to step back from the intense pressure she was putting on herself to make a team. While her goals for herself remained the same as before, Mackey was now working to stifle the self-doubt by reminding herself of the mental mountains she had already climbed in training.
After an all-out 400m closed out a session right before USA’s, Mackey’s husband and Brooks Beasts head coach Danny Mackey commented that her speed was going to make her incredibly tough to beat in the upcoming race. Not wanting to let that sentiment go to waste, Mackey wrote it down and didn’t forget it as she narrowly beat out Emma Coburn for the final spot in the World Championships on February 17.
“It was just so awesome to get into the race and into that last 200m and face my fears and feel bulletproof and have really strong, positive thoughts and finally overcome that personal barrier,” she said.
Even with her breakthrough, Mackey knows that she hasn’t completely rid herself of all negativity when it comes to racing, and she acknowledges that her emotions sometimes alternate between a strength and a weakness, depending on her ability in the race to manage them.
“When I turn on my emotions at the end of a race, that’s like a fire,” Mackey said. “A huge fuel. But emotions, they can be a huge fuel, or they can burn your house down.”
The charred remains of burnt houses dot Katie Mackey’s championship resume, with the one exception seeming to be the hose that put out those fires for good. But in actuality, Mackey had already been working behind the scenes to stoke a new flame well before she arrived at USAs, taking the heat burning inside her and allowing it to keep pushing her forward.
Don’t forget to tune into the 2018 Payton Jordan Invitational on Thursday night to catch Mackey in action.