This story appears in the Crookston Times' May 27 Community Connections issue.

Amy Boll knew something about her star runner wasn’t right.

But the state championships were just a few weeks away, and the Crookston track and field coach knew there was no way in hell that Katherine Geist was going to stop now.

In March 2019, two months earlier, she began her junior track season by running the fastest indoor 1600 in Crookston history. She won that race by 24 seconds, and won the 800 by 13, coming within a second of breaking that record too. She broke it the next week anyway. And her own 1600 record, for good measure.

She broke Crookston’s 3200 record in the first outdoor meet at Park Rapids, winning the race by nearly two minutes. She swept the distance events in East Grand Forks and Warren. At the state True Team meet in May, Geist won gold in the 3200 by over a minute.

But Boll noticed some of Geist’s times were a bit off. She and distance coach Wes Knutson checked in with Geist to see if everything was okay. Geist told them that things were fine, but the truth was that she was in a bit of pain. Her left big toe was hurting. Looking back on it, she thinks she was probably dealing with a stress fracture, but it wasn’t hurting badly enough to call it quits.

The Wednesday before the section meet, Geist did one last speed workout on the track. The pain only got worse. She didn’t know it at the time, but during the workout she had cracked her big toe in two places.

Geist never gave a thought to not running. She had worked too hard to come this far; set goals too grand to give up on when they were nearly in her grasp. She stepped onto the track in East Grand Forks and stared down the four laps that separated her from yet another berth at state.

“I don’t know if it was lap one or two,” said Geist’s cross country coach, Kirk Misialek. “But I could tell, ‘Oh, boy, she’s hurt.’ ”

Going into the final lap, Geist was leading. But Boll noticed that her stride was different and her splits were slowing down. The repeated collisions of her injured toe and the track were taking their toll.

Geist was passed with 200 meters to go. Then again. And again. Only the top two runners at section could qualify for state. At this point, she knew she was in too much pain to run the 3200 later. Her championship dreams started fading, replaced by something more primal.

“It wouldn’t feel right to end my junior season on an unfinished race,” she said. “I just had to finish.”

She came through in fourth place, 11 seconds slower than her best time that season.

“Why? I’ve worked so hard, why?” Boll remembers Geist crying.

“In my mind, I was gonna be able to finish and the pain wouldn’t bother me, but it really did,” Geist said. “ … I had run every day for the last three years, probably, and then all of a sudden I couldn’t.”

When Geist runs, Boll says, “she shines. It’s a sparkle in her eyes, a spring in her step.” She often comes across the finish line with a smile. It’s a pure expression of unbridled happiness. Running gives her strength, power and positivity. She goes out and runs if she’s having a good day. She goes out and runs if she’s having a bad day.

“She has to run just like she has to breathe,” Misialek said.

Geist wasn’t just missing out on a couple podium finishes at state. She was missing a part of herself.

***

Running always came naturally to Katherine Geist. It’s an independent sport, conquered by independent people with plenty of internal motivation. That was, and is, Katherine. Her older sister, Marietta, remembers how as a child, she preferred to go outside and play by herself instead of others.

Her independence carried over to the athletic realm. Katherine had run from an early age, but only began cross country in 2014, as a seventh-grader. Crookston doesn’t offer a cross country program, but Misialek, the head coach at East Grand Forks, allowed Geist to train with the Green Wave while competing independently for Crookston.

Geist had no expectations of qualifying for state that year, or even coming close. But a great performance at the section meet sent her through. She was one of just eight seventh-graders to make it to state.

The meet was on Nov. 1. The night before, she just wanted to go trick-or-treating.

It’s not that Geist wasn’t taking things seriously, but the mood of the trip was very relaxed. So Geist and a teammate put on costumes, and Misialek chaperoned them around the neighborhoods of Minneapolis as they filled their bags with candy.

“We still laugh about that trip,” Misialek said. “You don’t realize how young kids are.”

The next day, Geist could have fooled Misialek again. She finished 61st out of 171 — the best of any seventh-grader in the field.

After her impressive showing in 2014, she started taking the next steps. Her exposure to early success begot higher aspirations. Running wasn’t just something Geist did for fun anymore. She wanted to lower her times, improve her places and eventually compete for titles.

On the track, Geist’s career followed a similar path. In seventh grade, she ran the second leg on the Pirates’ 4x800 meter relay. The third leg was Marietta, then a junior.

“(Katherine) was very gifted at a young age, both her and her sister were,” Boll said. “Because she had the mental will and the drive to train hard and the dedication to it, that took her talent even further. … If you said one mile, she’d run three.”

The sisters bantered back and forth. Marietta got upset if Katherine’s handoff was shaky; Katherine got upset if Marietta didn’t take off fast enough. But they were sisters, and this was all part of their natural chemistry. They pushed and pushed each other throughout the season — all the way to state.

The Pirates didn’t expect to break the school record, which had stood since the 1980s. But three of them ran personal bests, and their time was good for a seventh-place finish and Geist’s first state medal.

Geist went back to state in cross country each of the next three years, finishing as high as 17th as a freshman. In track, she placed sixth in the 3200 and seventh in the 1600 as a sophomore.

All that, though, was a prelude to Geist’s tour de force of a junior season.

As her body matured, she realized she was better equipped for longer distances, and focused on increasing her mileage. By 2018, she was up to around 45 miles per week during track season, and as many as 55 in the fall.

In practice, Geist trained with the boys to push her pace. In races, she wrote her desired splits on her hand, tuning out all outside noise and focusing on her times and only her times. On her own, she woke up as early as 5:30 a.m., lacing up her shoes and disappearing down the gravel road by her house.

This more challenging training regimen paid off. By the time fall 2018 rolled around, Geist was — in northwest Minnesota, at least — unbeatable. She won 11 straight races, many of them by 30 seconds or more.

The distance between Geist and her competition could have been, for others, a curse in disguise. Nobody to challenge her throne, nobody to hold her accountable. Now more than ever, she had to do that herself.

Of course, that’s what she was tailor-made to do.

“There were a few meets where I don’t really know why she ran it, because she was so far ahead of everybody,” Misialek said. “But I don’t think she ever looked at it that way. She always thought it was a chance to get on the line, and when she got to the line and the gun went off, it was time to run.”

Added Marietta: “Her motivation and her ability to go out and push herself without any coaches or any teammates is really unique. … I’m boggled by how she has continued to do that for so many years.”

This isn’t to say Geist didn’t thrive at bigger meets, when other runners so much as entered her stratosphere. Misialek tried to schedule tougher meets in Duluth and Moorhead and Bemidji, in part so that he could showcase Geist and ensure she was challenged before state. Needless to say, she more than held her own.

“I think I definitely run better and I’m more excited to run at races where I have a bit more competition,” Geist said. “ … (but) I like racing even if it’s not against anybody else. I like to run fast, I guess.”

At the state cross country meet, she placed ninth — one of just three times her entire junior year, counting track, that she didn’t come in first.

But the third of those races resulted in a boot on her foot. Now, Geist had to fight her way back to the top.

***

The immediate aftermath was confusing and sad for Geist. Her family was supportive and encouraging, doing the best they could to distract her from being unable to run. But she still needed some way to fill the void her injury had created.

Two days after sections, she started working out in the pool. She hurt too badly to kick, but could still use a pull buoy. She cross-trained whenever she could, swimming four mornings a week while also cycling, ellipticalling and lifting.

Geist also threw herself into a family passion — flying. Her dad and brother are both pilots, and she probably would have tried to get her pilot’s license anyway at some point. But with plenty of time on her hands, she logged hours studying or flying to prepare for the oral and flight tests —grueling, two-hour ordeals that are typically done back-to-back. She passed them both on Aug. 19, officially earning her license.

“It took my mind off things for sure,” she said.

Her road back to actually running, though, had fits and starts. She was diagnosed with turf toe immediately after the fateful section meet, but when she started running later, her toe still hurt just as badly as it did then. That was when a second doctor’s appointment in July revealed that she had multiple fractures, both of which were still completely unhealed.

But her cross-training was having clear benefits. She knew she might miss the beginning of the season, but in her mind, and her coaches’ minds, she would be back in time for sections and state.

That wasn’t to be, either. In September, Geist underwent a CAT scan, which revealed that one of her fractures still hadn’t healed. That’s when she knew she wasn’t going to be able to run cross country her senior year at all.

Still, she made the half-hour trip to East Grand Forks for practice as much as she could. She showed up at meets, and the post-season award ceremony, still clad in her boot.

“Some kids get injured and are like, ‘Oh well, I don’t have to go to practice now, I’ll do something else, no big deal,’ ” Misialek said. “But it was a big deal to Katherine.”

Geist wore her boot for another nine weeks, and this time, there were no more setbacks. She entered physical therapy, unable to even move her toe. But gradually, she found her stride. By December, she was jogging 100 meters, walking 200 meters, and repeating. These distances grew, and by the end of December, she ran five miles consecutively for the first time.

On the eve of the indoor track season in March, Geist was somewhat out of running shape. She had been dealing with shin splints, brought on by the resumption of impact training, and managed runs only every other day. But all of her cross-training meant that she was feeling as physically ready as ever.

Initially, her sights were set on Crookston’s indoor 3200 record — held by Marietta, and well within her range. Later on, the goal was first place at state.

But on March 15, the Minnesota State High School League suspended all future activities and athletics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension originally lasted until March 27, but was extended then.

Even before the MSHSL officially cancelled spring sports on April 23, Geist had started realizing that her final season of high school track wasn’t going to happen.

“I’ve always been a pretty goal-oriented person … and all of a sudden, I wasn't training for that first place at state,” Geist said. “I was training for nothing, really.”

***

Maybe Geist’s career, one of the greatest in Crookston history, isn’t as perfectly charmed as it once seemed six years ago. For all of her high school accomplishments, she never got to race when she should have been at her most dominating; never won an individual state title.

But those around her say she’s handled it like a champion.

“To overcome (her injury), push on, heal, start training again and then have this epidemic hit, that takes courage and it takes strength and it takes an inner spirit (to deal with),” Boll said. “Katherine has all that.”

And Geist has plenty of miles left to run. After graduating high school in 2016, Marietta ran cross country and track at Carleton College in Northfield. Katherine came down to visit her now and then, getting to meet some of her sister’s friends and teammates and touring the campus. Katherine fell in love with the school and the women’s program, which placed fifth at last year’s NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. In December, she committed to the Knights.

“It’s just been an unfortunate and heartbreaking journey for her,” Boll said. “ … But I believe in my heart that the thing that’s helping her get through this is that she’s moving on and going to be running in college.”

When Katherine was still recovering from her injury, Marietta stressed patience, the only way to ensure a full recovery and a return to peak condition. Marietta’s also been able to share with Katherine different approaches and healthier attitudes towards running that she learned in college.

Some of these attitudes, Katherine has picked up on her own. Sometimes, now, she thinks that she might have once taken running too seriously, more swayed by results over her passion for the sport. The silver lining of not being able to do the thing you love for a year is that you remember why, exactly, you loved it in the first place.

“I’ve found that running is more than just a meet or more than just a certain time across the finish line,” she said. “ … I’m seeing that more and more each day. It was just racing, and although that was wonderful and I love it, it's also good to see what else life can bring and to do different things.

“I've definitely gained a much greater appreciation for physically being able to run.”

At Carleton, running won’t be the only thing. Next year, Geist will have room for balance. She’ll have a more nuanced perspective, gained from a year that would put anyone’s spirit to the test. She can embrace everything that takes place off the track, while still finding room to compete and push herself to the hardest. Not because she has to, but because she loves to.

She’s running about two days out of three now, doing what Marietta describes only as “crazy” workouts on her off-days. She might be training for nothing, no goals at stake, but that’s not the point anymore. Because her eyes sparkle; her step has a spring. Katherine Geist is whole again.

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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