I recently had the distinct privilege of interviewing Caitlin Chock, or Cait as she prefers to be called. It’s not often I get to interview someone who I could ask about such things as how it feels to break a national record or what’s it like training under Alberto Salazar or to have Kara Goucher as your training partner. Yeah, Cait’s done all of those things. Like Mary Cain, Cait was a high school running phenom. Back in 2004 she set the high school girls’ record in the 5k, running 15:52! She then went on to train with Kara Goucher and the rest of the Nike Oregon Project under coach, Alberto Salazar, until a terrible accident turned her whole world upside down.
Today we’re going beyond the obvious and digging a little deeper about Cait’s life journey and the power of running. (If you want to read about her time training with the Oregon Project, head over to her recent Runner’s World article.) There’s so much more to Cait than amazing PRs and incredible running experiences that most of us can only dream of.
Read on and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Salty: You had a very interesting high school career, breaking the high school girl’s 5k record at the time. You were obviously very fast, but what I found most interesting was that, like Mary Cain is doing today, you decided not to train with your high school teams and instead worked with a coach on your own. How did this come about? Did you still run for your school? Was this a hard decision to make? Would you make it again if given the chance?
Cait: Thanks! For most of high school I trained with and competed for the team. I’d usually run with the guys and they were great in letting a girl join in without letting egos get in the way. During my junior year my mom actually met up with a local running group and during the summer I started training with them. For my senior year of high school track I chose to train full-time with the club team, even though it meant I could not compete in the regular high school season. It was tough watching the State meet go off when I would have liked to be a part of it. But I was improving quite well with my club team and felt that I would be able to run at my best in training with them. Though it was an incredibly hard decision to make because all of my friends were on the high school team and I had an incredible amount of respect for the coach there too.
Salty: After high school you attended the University of Richmond for a very short time before leaving and returning to the West Coast to live and train with Alberto Salazar as part of the Nike Oregon Project. Why did you leave school? How did you mesh with Salazar? Did you thrive in the pro/elite athlete bubble of the Oregon Project?
Cait: I signed [with the University of Richmond] early in my senior year [of high school] and it turned out that Richmond just wasn’t the right coaching fit for me. The team was awesome and I am still friends with a few of them. In moving to Oregon, I can’t tell you how much I feel blessed that I was given the opportunity to train under Alberto and be a part of the Oregon Project. Not just in the access to the best training and experts but on a personal level, Alberto was such a mentor to me and the friendships I formed with my training partners.
Salty: We recently discussed all the hype surrounding Mary Cain and wondered what kind of pressure that level of early success must bring on a teen. Did you feel a lot of pressure to live up to the hype after breaking the high school 5k record? How did you cope with others’ high expectations of you?
Cait: To be honest, I am always my harshest critic so I didn’t ever feel like the pressure from others or expectations that they may have really weighed on me. I was always pretty good at handling the pressure and nerves tied to racing and able to channel them in a positive direction. I always looked forward to racing those that were faster than me and who would push me because I knew in the end that is what would make me better.
Salty: I noticed a gap in information about you between about 2006 and 2010. What were you up to? Were you still competing? Did you take a break? Did you go back to school?
Cait: I started struggling with a few health problems. I found out that my iron levels were extremely low and worked on getting those fixed. I continued to train but didn’t really race. As any athlete can imagine, mentally dealing with watching your running go up and down was perhaps the hardest part. I feel incredibly lucky that Alberto and my training partners were amazingly supportive throughout.
In my heart I really couldn’t envision not being a runner again. So I just kept taking it one day at a time and didn’t stop moving forward and I refused to picture myself not being able to run again.
Salty: The accident. UGH! I was heartbroken to learn about your accident in March 2010. How awful! What exactly happened?
Cait: Thank you. The accident itself was a little crazy. I was running in the middle of the day and hit [by a car] from behind. It was one of those slow-motion type things where I remember thinking, “Oh crap, this is really going to suck.” I flew up into the air and remember landing down and skidding on the road, but I didn’t know it was as bad as it was and what went through my mind was, “Dang, this road rash is going to hurt when I get home. But I’ll pop up, flip this guy the bird, and finish my run.” Then I looked down and realized that wasn’t going to be happening. While the driver who hit me fled the scene I was lucky in that another motorist stopped to help me. From there I had an amazing ambulance crew and surgery team when I eventually made it to the hospital.
Salty: Did the authorities ever find the person who hit you?
Cait: The first officer at the scene was SO adorable and came to visit me at the hospital right before I went into surgery and he promised, “Don’t you worry, I’m going to get this guy.” True to his word they tracked him down. It turned out the guy who hit me was both unlicensed and uninsured.
Salty: You were injured so badly the doctors were concerned you’d never walk normally again, let alone run. How did you keep the faith during your recovery when the doctors were so pessimistic? What was your worst moment during recovery? What did you learn through your recovery period?
You don’t fully appreciate what you have until it’s taken away. It’s that lesson, that nothing is a given, that I am always quick to remind myself. And that goes for running and in many areas of life.
Cait: That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. I felt really lucky to be alive, but at the same time not knowing if I’d be able to even walk normally again was very difficult. To be honest I just pushed it all out of my mind because not ever being able to run again was just not something I was willing to accept or believe. So I took it one day at a time; probably more accurately one hour at a time and didn’t think further than getting through this one moment, this one day. I think in my heart I always knew I’d get back to running. The drive instilled in me from being a runner all those years is what I credit to me being able to come out of this both physically but mostly mentally and with some sanity still intact! I learned a few things: one being that for every one ‘bad’ person who might leave an injured person in the middle of the road, there are dozens more people who will go out of their way to help in any way they can. Along with that, I had a friend visit me every single day I was in the hospital, every day. I will never forget that and I try to be that kind of friend and person. I also tell people that you can achieve things that logically should be deemed impossible.
Salty: How is running going now? Do you have dreams of a comeback? Any race goals on the horizon?
Cait: The day I could call myself a runner again I can’t tell you how amazing that felt. I am just so happy to be able to run period. I vowed I would never take the simple act of running for granted again and I honestly do feel grateful for every mile. I don’t have any plans to race. I say now I run to keep me sane more than anything else!
Salty: What if anything do you miss from your days at the top of the sport?
Cait: Well, I’d hardly say that I was on top myself, but I was surrounded by those who certainly were [and are]! I would say there are two things I miss the most. One, the training partners and the team that I was so fortunate to be a part of. Distance running can be brutal, but it’s those suffering along with you that make it all worth it and even enjoyable. And two, the feeling you get after a race where you know you gave it your all and kicked your own butt in the best kind of way.
Salty: These days, you make your living off of running, albeit in a different way than you might have thought you would way back when. Let’s talk about your business. You now do freelance writing for major running publications, draw adorably hilarious cartoons and design running shirts you sell. How did you get started? What are your goals for your business?
Cait: I have always love to draw and write, and I would be the person constantly doodling. When I was hit by the car I had a ton of free time to fill and to keep myself occupied I relied a lot on writing and art. As I recovered from the injuries I wanted to find a way to help motivate and inspire others to reach for their own goals and dreams, even if those dreams may seem impossible at the moment. So I am now starting my own line of running shirts with my personal artwork and I hope they can inspire others to dream big and run for it! For writing I could talk about running all day so I enjoy covering different topics there and sharing whatever tips and advice I can. When I’m not writing for the bigger outlets I’m always updating my own site and blog with new articles, artwork, and running related cartoons. I enjoy the freedom there because I can choose to write an informative or thought-provoking article or I can just be more humorous and write things that other runners can relate to and laugh about. My biggest goal is to keep adding new shirts to my line and hopefully seeing that get bigger.
Salty: Here at Salty Running we live by our manifesto. I have to do a little shameless self-promotion and ask which tenet do you most identify with and why?
Cait: I love this one: “Come together in competition. Support your competitors; they can be your greatest allies and best friends.” I like this one because I’ve often written the same: do not fear your competitors because they are the ones that will push you to get the best from yourself. I also say that the best runners are the ones who are able to warm-up with their competition and be friendly, be fierce and give it their all after the gun goes off, and then cool-down with their competitors afterwards regardless of place.
Salty: Do you have a favorite motivational quote or tidbit of advice you’d like to share with the Salty Readers?
Cait: One of my biggest mentors would always tell me, “stay the course.” I constantly find myself saying that to myself as a reason to not give up, even if you don’t know exactly what lies ahead or how you’re going to get there – just stay the course and eventually things will work themselves out and you’ll be able to handle it. I’d also like to share that my hope is that the designs and messages relayed on the running shirts I design will inspire others to reach for their own dreams, regardless of how big they may seem, and keep working towards them. I firmly believe that runners are quite capable of forcing into reality what many would consider an impossibility … it’s that runner tenacity.
If you want to read more about Cait, check out more of her awesome cartoons, get some great running advice, hire her or buy a shirt, check out her site: CaitChock.com.
Check out these other Salty Behind the PRs interviews