Veronika Fagan races during the UBC Okanagan Invitational at Mission Creek Regional Park in Kelowna on Sept. 29, 2018. Fagan, a fourth-year nursing student, was the top female Heat in the race, finishing first in the team’s first U SPORTS race they hosted. (Greystoke Photo)

Kelowna close-up: The making of a great cross country runner

UBC Okanagan nursing student has become a national class runner

By Marissa Tiel

With a yip, the starting gun goes off and she moves to the front. In her blue UBC Okanagan Heat running singlet and shorts, Veronika Fagan sets the pace for the rest of the pack at the 2017 CCAA Cross Country National Championships. Her hair is pulled back into a high pony-tail, ears protected against the sub-zero wind chill by a headband. Fagan fights for the lead on the Quebec course with the local favourite: Jade Bérubé. They take turns pushing the pace, challenging each other to keep up.

About one kilometre remaining in the 6K race, Fagan pulls ahead and Bérubé has no answer. There’s a kick of adrenaline and Fagan pushes further ahead, crossing the finish line. A minute-and-a-half later, teammate Camille Galloway crosses the finish line.

“Did you win,” she asks.

“Yeah I won,” says Fagan. “I guess I did.”

It was her first victory at the national level and one that nearly a year later she calls surreal.

Running hasn’t always been easy for Fagan. The 21-year-old UBC Okanagan nursing student took Grade 12 off from running. When she started university in the fall of 2015, there were questions whether the school would even offer a cross-country running team.

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A former athlete stepped up to coach and Fagan began to race once again.

Her rise in the sport has been steady. In her first year, she finished 19th at the CCAA National Championship, helping the Heat win a silver medal in the team competition. She continued to build in her second year, winning the first ACAC Grand Prix race, and would post the top result at the CCAA National Championship helping the Heat to a team national championship.

In 2017, she had a breakout season. “I think the two years before were more building seasons for me since my Grade 12 year wasn’t the best,” she says. “I felt like my body was trying to get back to the place that it was before.”

After two years training with the team, she was performing at a level not just on par with her high school career, but better. Last fall, Fagan cruised to victory at the 2017 CCAA National Championship, besting the hometown favourite, and helped her team win a bronze medal.

It would be the final race for the Heat cross-country athletes at the CCAA level. Just as Fagan’s running career was on the rise, so too was UBC Okanagan’s. This summer, the team began competing under the U SPORTS banner. “It’s a big jump. It’s a good jump for us though,” says Fagan. “I think it was a lot of different people pulling for us to move up. Everybody wanted to move up. I think we were all ready.”

The jump from racing against colleges to competing against universities means bigger schools and stiffer competition.

Fagan experienced that for the first time at the University of Victoria Vikes Invitational this fall.

In a pack of runners and on the receiving end of a few elbows, she thought her old race strategy of just running ahead would work, but against these girls, she realized, she would need to tough it out in a sea of arms and legs, biding her time to make a move.

“I’ve kind of lost that experience of running with people. I’ve kind of been running ahead and it’s easier mentally for me to just keep going ahead instead of having someone right there with me,” she says. “I have to get used to not leading and having people right there and having to push right at the end when I have nothing left.”

The oldest child in a family of five, Fagan grew up on a steady diet of team and individual sports: swimming, soccer, volleyball and running.

She was introduced to cross-country running in elementary school. On lunch breaks she’d join her team at Rose Valley Elementary School to run outside. All through middle school, she kept running.

She was good. “I kind of had that endurance already from swimming, so I think that helped me a lot starting to run,” Fagan says.

At races, she finished in the top three consistently. It buoyed her efforts and in Grade 8, she joined the Okanagan Athletics Club.

READ ALSO: SPOTLIGHT SHINES ON HEAT ATHLETES

Fagan kept up multiple sports until high school. Running was becoming a full-time passion. It was decision time. Fagan dropped the other sports and became a full-time runner.

Since joining forces with coach John Machuga, who took the helm of the UBC Okanagan Heat cross-country team last fall, Fagan’s training has gotten an injection of volume. Along with the other members of the team, she trains six days a week, sometimes twice a day, and always around her nursing studies.

Machuga has noticed a difference in her running. “She’s grown a lot in terms of her confidence as well as her physical abilities,” he says. It’s not just on the trail that there’s been a difference. Under Machuga’s guidance, Fagan has also honed her mental game: goal-setting and visualizing the results she wants.

Fagan says Machuga played a major role in her breakout season in third-year. “He made me think of goals of what I wanted to do at nationals and my goal was to come top three. And he told me, ‘No, you’re going to go for the win.’

“I think it really helped me mentally to prepare for that because I like to visualize things before it actually happens.”

Now one of the most successful Heat runners is gearing up for the final race of her university career. On November 10, Fagan will face off against the country’s best at the U SPORTS National Championship in Kingston. It’s a notoriously tough, slippery course and Fagan is up to the challenge.

The bump to U SPORTS also means that the women will have two extra kilometres to race. U SPORTS nationals is contested on an 8K course rather than 6K. “I feel like I got used to racing the 6K because I raced it for the past three years. It’s nice to move up and I like the challenge of racing an extra 2K,” says Fagan. “That extra two kilometres and that extra push, sometimes people can drop and if they’re going too fast, they’re going to feel it the last 2K for sure.”

Fagan’s goal for the race has been a moving target all season.

After a gutsy top-10 performance in the tough senior women category at B.C. Provincials, she’ll be looking for another top-10 finish at nationals, this time against her university athlete peers.

“It’s an ever-changing goal, but I think either way I’ll be happy with myself just running with girls,” she says. “I’d be happy if I can mentally hang on to the people I’m meant to hang on to.”

READ ALSO: HEAT AT HOME

Also making the trip out east will be teammates Brittany Webster, Michael Mitchell, Owen Harris and Turner Woodroff.

With Fagan graduating in the spring, her running career is up in the air. She’d love to keep going, see how far she can push herself. “I feel like there’s always the potential to get better, so you’re never at your peak and you never get to a place where you can only go this high and that’s it,” she says. “You can always get better and I think I just keep striving to get better and there’s always pushing past my potential every year.”

But there’s also her work career to think of. Over the summer she got a taste of working on a maternity ward and it’s an area she’d like to explore further in her nursing career. She likes the rush of adrenaline that comes with being on the labour and delivery floor.

If she chooses, coach Machuga will have a spot for her training with the Heat team next year as a graduate. He says she’s growing as an athlete and is still “several years away from being her fastest.”

“It’s always encouraging just to get better and see how you’re doing,” says Fagan. “I think it would be unmotivating if I wasn’t getting better, but at the same time, I’d still be motivated because I’d still think that I could get better.”

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