You'd be forgiven if you couldn't tell at first which of the runners racing around the Plainfield South High School track is new girls cross-country head coach Kristen Heckert.
Not only could Heckert, a 26-year-old math teacher, easily pass for a student, but she also runs alongside her team, showing a dedication her students say is inspiring.
During a speed workout one recent afternoon, she paced the fastest girls through eight 1,000-meter repeats at a 6-minute-mile pace, then planned to run another nine or 10 miles when she got home to Lisle that evening as part of her training for the Oct. 13 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Heckert was the top Illinois female finisher in last year's marathon, coming in 20th among women, with a time of 2:47:56.
"She's a big role model for running," said senior Sydney Carlberg, 17, co-captain of the cross-country team.
Heckert grew up in Sugar Grove, attended Kaneland High School and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Encouraged by her boyfriend, Michael Lucchesi, she trained hard for a half marathon and did well; she ran her first marathon, in 2011, in 2:51:04.
Her finish in last year's Chicago Marathon earned her an invitation to run the marathon in Osaka, Japan, one of Chicago's Sister Cities, but Heckert declined because it coincides with her team's regional meet. Plus, she hopes to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, which requires her to run a marathon faster than 2:43 and which she has a better chance of doing on familiar territory.
Her incremental goal for next week, Heckert said, is to hit 2:45.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Is coaching girls different from coaching boys? (Heckert was assistant coach to the boys and girls cross-country teams last year; this is her first year as head coach of the girls team.)
A: I like coaching girls. They have a real inner drive and desire, just as boys do, but they really push themselves further. And I think with girls and cross-country, it's so important with feeling good about yourself, because with running it's just you. There's nothing really to hide it; there's no makeup; there's no looking pretty before you run. It makes them feel, I think, more confident in themselves.
Q: How did you get started as a serious runner?
A: I always liked running. I did it because my brother (Jonathan Heckert) did it; he was my inspiration. I ran in college; I was OK, nothing special. (When) I ran my first marathon and got 2:51 … I got really excited about it. And each year I've gotten a little more into it, and my training has gotten a little more intense.
Q: How have you found a balance between teaching and coaching and a personal life of some sort?
A: I really cut out a lot of the personal life. I don't really drink; it's not something I've ever really done. I put a lot of time into teaching; I'm here until 8 p.m. at night after coaching. When I'm not doing that, I'm getting my running in. And my boyfriend and I live together; we have our dogs. And I see my family a lot. That's been my little sanctuary.
Q: How have you made yourself a better runner?
A: I've really been focusing on making sure I give my body enough rest and enough food in order to do what I'm asking of it. Not only with running but with teaching.
Q: What has been your proudest moment?
A: My greatest accomplishment has been to get a job in teaching, because it's tough. I think the one thing I'm proudest of is I had a girl last year in my Algebra 2 class (who) came up to me and said, "Ms. Heckert, you know, I want to become a math teacher because of you."
And she's going to come to one of my classes and help me with the kids. And I'm going to try to have her teach a lesson.
Q: How do you decompress?
A: For me it's always been running. And maybe that's why it's something I've dived into now that I've been getting more into teaching. It completely relieves my stress and my worries and kind of helps me get back to ground zero.
Q: What is your training schedule like?
A: I am on an 18-week training schedule for the actual training program. Over the summer, I did about seven 100-mile weeks. So I was putting in a lot of miles, a lot of 20-plus mile runs. Now that I've been teaching, I have to cut back my mileage to 80 to 90 miles a week.
Q: What advice would you give someone running a marathon for the first time?
A: Don't go out too fast! It's really hard not to, because there are so many people cheering you on. The first half … should feel so easy because you have another half marathon to go after it.
Q: Do you listen to music when you run?
A: I used to all the time, and then I stopped. But my favorite song to listen to is "Ali in the Jungle" by the Hours. It's a great pump-up song.
On your mark … The 2013 Chicago Marathon begins at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 13.; the marathon wheelchair race begins at 7:20 a.m. For more information, go to http://www.chicagomarathon.com.