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Natalia Hawthorn is a competitive 1500m and 5000m distance runner, who will be seeking a Tokyo Olympic qualifying time for Canada this spring and summer. As it turns out, the postponement of the Games was a blessing as the extra year allowed her to clear any sign of injury, she was experiencing during 2019 and 2020.

The 26-year-old lives in North Vancouver. Originally from Bracebridge, Ontario, she made her way to the West Coast as a teenager to study kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. She ran for the Thunderbirds who compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) (since graduation, they switched to U Sport for cross-country).

Post collegiately, she continues to focus on the two distances with her former Thunderbirds coach Chris “CJ” Johnson. 

Two weeks ago, Hawthorn ran a new 10km personal best in an official time of 32:38. The race included one of Canada’s top 3000m steeplechasers Regan Yee and Kelowna’s Malindi Elmore who holds the national record in the marathon at 2:24:50 from Houston 2020.

No stranger to international competition, Hawthorn competed in the 2013 and 2019 World Cross Country Championships which took place in Bydgoszcz, Poland and Aarhus, Denmark, respectively.

To be considered for nomination to the Canadian team for the Tokyo Olympics she will need to run the 1500m event faster than 4:04.20 and the 5000m event under 15:10 as well as be one of the three fastest Canadians.

See here 28-minute video interview here>>

Personal bests

1500m — 4:07.28 (unofficial), 4:13.65 (official)
5000m — 15:30 (unofficial), 15:49.15 (official)
10K road — 32:38

The interview

Christopher Kelsall: You ran a terrific 10km road effort last week with Regan Yee and Malindi Elmore. Apparently, you are focussing on the 5000m distance this spring, but did that road effort change your perspective on the 10,000m? 

Natalia Hawthorn: Thank you, Chris! The 10km road race that Malindi organized was really a fun event to be part of. It’s not every day a race aligns with both track and marathoner’s competition schedules, to compete against one another. It just so happened to work for us all and our tight-knit running community here on the West Coast was able to make it happen — thank you again to all those individuals!

Yes, the plan is to focus on the 5000m and test myself in the 1500m as well. I’ve always loved the endurance side of running. Those who know me, know, this has always been reflected in my brisk weekly long runs — one of my favourite workouts of the week! Due to injuries in the past, however, I always struggled to get enough mileage in to really be confident in my fitness to compete in these longer events. The last couple of years, however, CJ and I have gradually been increasing my running in a way that’s working. Competing and enjoying this longer distance definitely gets me thinking about the 10km in the future, but it doesn’t question what event I’d like to focus on right now — the 5000m. I’m happy with the aerobic endurance CJ and I have built the past few months and hope it will help with my strength in both the 1500m and the 5000m this year.

Natalia Hawthorn at 2020 Prairie Inn Harriers’ Pioneer 8km in Victoria, BC. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

CK: How would you describe CJ’s training method to a prospective athlete?

Before getting into the training, I would touch on CJ’s amazing dedication to bringing out the best in his athletes both on and off-track — he wants us all to be happy, healthy and successful in life. He is focussed on the long-term development of each athlete and encourages open dialogue to welcome any feedback to improve, together.

CJ does not have a go-to cookie-cutter approach. I always tell people he “sneaks us into shape” because of his diverse repertoire of workouts that constantly evolves based on his most recent findings. As an athlete, you’ll always be excited for his workouts because they’re always new — you rarely repeat the same one in a season. I would say CJ’s training is quite strength-aerobic focussed, building a strong aerobic base is key. We have a short group (800m/1500m) and a long group (>1500m). Both groups typically have two workouts a week, one that is primarily aerobic in nature (tempo or long intervals at 10km pace) and another that always keeps speed in development and race pace in play. Additionally, we have one long run a week, two strength days and either running or cross-training in between. Mileage and amount of cross-training are adapted for everyone based on where they’re at and how their body is responding.

CK: You moved out to Vancouver from Southern Ontario and competed for the UBC Thunderbirds. Post-grad, you are still on the coast. Is Vancouver your permanent home now? 

NH: Yes, I moved out west in 2013 from my hometown, Bracebridge, ON, to attend the University of British Columbia where I ran track and field and cross-country and studied kinesiology. Since then, I’ve stayed out west and moved to North Vancouver with my fiancé which is where we now call home. We both love being close to the mountains, water and trails, while still being in close proximity to both the city and UBC where I train with the Vancouver Thunderbirds TP Track Club twice a week.

CK: Which sports did you play growing up in Bracebridge?

Growing up, I was really fortunate to play many different sports including gymnastics, karate, dance, soccer, snowboarding, basketball and other sports. Running was always in my life as well. I joined my first track club in Grade 6, the Newmarket Huskies, and began taking the sport pretty competitively from there on out. Come high school, I was focussing primarily on competing in both cross-country skiing and running at a competitive level. In the end, I chose to pursue running and couldn’t be happier with everything it has led me to today in my life. When my training allows, I still love doing all different types of outdoor sports and pushing myself to improve.

Natalia Hawthorn at 2017 Vikes Invitational at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

CK: Regarding cross-country skiing, do you feel the skiing prepared you for or helped your running?

NH: Most definitely! Growing up cross-country skiing definitely developed my aerobic system and mental toughness. Similar to running, it’s a sport that exhausts your whole entire body in both short and long distances. I grew up mostly classic skiing, which is the technique that is more closely related to running motion. Being an individual sport, definitely helped me learn how to prepare for competition, manage my nerves and execute in races. I still enjoy cross-country skiing to this day and resort to it for cross-training during the year when the time is right.

CK: The pandemic era has seen what appears to be a high number of new personal bests, national and meet records as well as world records. Supershoes are being credited for the improvements. However, do you think that perhaps racing fewer times has given athletes a chance to focus as well as be more fresh on the start line?

I really do think having this time and racing less has allowed many athletes to reset and focus on an aspect of themselves, or training, they previously haven’t been able to do. I find athletes are approaching the start line with more confidence in their fitness, in themselves as a whole and showing more excitement for the opportunity to be competitive and race. 

For me personally, this time has allowed me to steadily build my fitness and be more in tune with my body which has allowed me to train smarter than I ever have before. Coming into this season, I have more confidence in fitness given our long consistent build and feel more excited to race than ever! 

CK: Any designs on the national record of 31:41.59?

NH: Right now, I can’t even wrap my head around racing 25 laps of the track! I get excited running up to 5000m, past that has never been something I’ve really thought about on the track, only roads. So, in answer to your question, no there are no designs currently on Natasha’s (Wodak) national record.

CK: You mentioned being able to train consistently. Is that safe to say consistency almost seems to be more important in the overall scheme of training than anything else like hitting times in workouts or weekly volume?

NH: I would say it definitely depends on the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. Based on my experience, if you’re running your workouts honestly and adjusting your mileage accordingly, consistency is key. Consistency including not just training but sleep and recovery as well. Looking back to when I was younger and experienced quite a few injuries, whenever I was able to run again, I’d be so keen to get back in shape to race. I would push myself too hard in workouts which got me fit quickly but didn’t allow my body enough time to work out the kinks that had gotten me injured in the first place — something CJ can definitely attest to. He’s really helped me over the years to take a step back and look at the bigger picture to help guide me in what I need to do to be successful long-term. This included being patient with my training, listening to my body, managing my work-life balance to get the optimal recovery and aligning my therapy and strength support team.

CK: Living near the North Shore mountains, do you have to restrain yourself from hitting the slopes on your snowboard?

Yes, I love snowboarding and all the other activities the North Shore has to offer — mountain biking, kite-boarding, hiking, paddle-boarding, cross-country skiing etc. As I’ve gotten older and more serious about running, it hasn’t been as challenging to restrain myself because I realize some of these activities are counterintuitive to what I am trying to achieve with my daily physio exercises. Although I wasn’t getting injured directly from these sports, they tense up my upper body which has a huge impact on my lower body — aka running injuries. You’ll find me out and about enjoying these activities during my few weeks off at the end of the season, but other than that I’m happy waiting until the time is right to enjoy that next chapter of my life. 

CK: It’s an Olympic year and one that is greatly anticipated due to the postponement and uncertainty. What are your goals for this spring?

NH: Yes, an Olympic year and a very difficult year for all us athletes to decide when is the right time to race, where we choose to race and if we go to the States and planning the logistics of that two-week quarantine. 

For me, the postponement of the Olympics was kind of a blessing in disguise because I was steadily improving last year and have definitely benefitted from the extra year of training. My goal this spring is to run as fast as I can to try and hit that Olympic standard. I’m sure you know, the criteria outlined to qualify is quite a puzzle — weighing Olympics qualifying standards with world ranking points and Olympic trials, which are up in the air.

CK: So, any concrete racing plans for this spring?

NH: Yes, I’ve got a 5000m on the calendar at the end of March in Victoria. We’re fortunate to have Vic City Elite putting on a series of twilight meets here out west to allow athletes to run close to home — this will be the third one they’ve hosted. Mid-April, the plan is to drive to Spokane, Washington with my fiancé, set up a base at his parent’s and find some solid opportunities to see what I can do in the 1500m and 5000m.

See here 28-minute video interview here>>