Becoming a world-class athlete in six races

Makenna Fitzgerald to represent Canada at World Championships next week in just her sixth race ever

Makenna Fitzgerald at the 2018 U Sports National Championships.
Makenna Fitzgerald at the 2018 U Sports National Championships.
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Makenna Fitzgerald looked around, trying not to let the imposter syndrome take over—“What am I doing here?” she thought to herself.
 
She took in Trinidad and Tobago’s landscape—it was the first time she’d ever been outside North America. Around her were six of Canada’s best senior female cross country runners, including two past Olympians, alongside six of the country’s strongest under-20 runners. 
 
Soon, the under-20 racers would be called to the start line for the North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Cross Country Championships. With six career cross country races to her name, Fitzgerald was one of them.
 
Fitzgerald, ArtSci ’21, finished the race in third place. Next Saturday, she’ll represent the Canadian under-20 team at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, the biggest cross country race in the world.
But seven months ago, the reality of making the travel squad, seemed like a pipe dream for Fitzgerald. 
 
Fitzgerald entered Queen’s in fall of 2017 with little athletic direction. After spending her entire childhood playing Single A hockey in her hometown of Kamloops, B.C., she tried joining the cycling club before she came across Cross Country Assistant Coach Brant Stachel’s development group after a few months into her first year. Her initial approach to running was fairly relaxed, considering it was her first time maintaining a consistent training schedule.
 
Running was just something to do, she told The Journal. But as her enthusiasm for the sport picked up, she began setting goals. In the summer of 2018, Fitzgerald signed up for a half marathon in Kamloops—securing a time under an hour and 30 minutes would secure her a spot on Queen’s varsity team.
 
She ran it in 1:26:26.
 
“I was trying to control my excitement, but I wasn’t sure [if I made it],” she recalled following the race. Fitzgerald called Stachel from the finish line—he congratulated her on making the team.
 
The next few months were a whirlwind. In August, Queen’s cross country Head Coach Steve Boyd sent her the summer training schedule—it included seven days of running a week, with two-a-days sprinkled in. “I’m not going to be able to do this,” she remembered thinking. Running more volume than she’d ever posted, her season began at the Queen’s Invitational in mid-September.
 
The results poured in.
 
In the fall at the Queen’s and Western Invitationals, she finished in third place. At the OUA Championships—the fourth race of her career—she finished fourth, helping Queen’s to its second straight provincial banner.
 
“It was definitely surprising,” Fitzgerald said. “I knew a couple of the other girls I was racing against, but I wasn’t sure what I was going up against—I didn’t have a lot of data to go off of.”
 
Had it not been for fellow rookie Brogan MacDougall’s first-place finish, Fitzgerald would’ve been the top-ranked rookie in the province by a near two-minute margin. 
 
Weeks later at the U Sports Championships, Fitzgerald placed 13th, with Queen’s finishing second overall. Finally, in late November, Fitzgerald capped her 2018 season with a fifth-place finish at the under-20 Canadian National Championships—securing a spot on Canada’s under-20 team.
 
“It’s interesting how my goals have shifted throughout the year,” Fitzgerald said, adding that making the national team was out of the question when she began running for Queen’s in the fall. “[Stachel] told me the whole way through: ‘You can make [the national] team. You can. You just gotta run.’”
 
Fitzgerald’s success could be tied to any one reason—proper development, strong cross training, among others. Her childhood career in hockey, however, is something she credits for having immense impact.
 
“In hockey, I found I played a lot better under pressure,” she said. “My team mentality definitely carried over. When I go for a run today, it’s not just affecting me—it’s affecting the team in competition.”
 
When Fitzgerald jets off for Aarhus next Wednesday for the World Championships, it’ll be her first time in Europe, and her first lining up against the world’s best. But it won’t be the first time she’s left the odds in the dust.
 
Recently, Fitzgerald read an interview with Brogan MacDougall. With World Championships and another big season with Queen’s on the horizon, she’s putting a hold on setting goals—and taking a bit of her teammate’s advice.
 
“[MacDougall] said, ‘Enjoying the process and being in the moment is the key to enjoying the sport,’” Fitzgerald said. “[That] really resonated with me.”
 

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