Lowell’s running machine slashes records

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Leung racing at the California International Federation state meet on Nov. 28. She medaled in fifth place and broke San Francisco records for her race time (17:35.9). Photo courtesy of Tim Wood

“You can see that focus when she runs! She runs with a mission.”

Deafening shouts bellow from the crowds. Intimidating opponents match her every move, catching up to her. Fatigue lingers. None of this could thwart the concentration of The Lowell Athlete of the Season Kristen Leung as she raced in the California Interscholastic Federation state meet. The senior cross country and track runner told herself to ignore the pain and focus on strategy and endurance, drawing motivation from her teammates’ encouraging words and her own drive to achieve her goal: the finish line. The moment Leung finished the race, her first thought was not to celebrate her accomplishments but instead to congratulate and thank the runners who had, just seconds ago, been her opponents on the course.

With unrivaled dedication to running and an amiable personality, Leung has experienced a four-year high school athletic career filled with awards, honors, admiration and most importantly, she says, life-changing friendships and experiences.

Senior cross country and track runner Kristen Leung races in the 2015 Lowell Invitational on Sept. 12. Leung is The Lowell’s Fall Athlete of the Season. Photo by Ciara Kosai

Being a captain of the cross country team this past season is an honor that Leung values even more than the records she has set.

Leung’s rank at the CIF cross country state meet on Nov. 28 was the deemed the best finish ever by a San Francisco Section runner, male or female. Leung’s time (17:35.9) is a Lowell and San Francisco section record that surpasses the former record (18:32) set by Jennifer Akana, two-time state medalist in 1996 and 1997. Leung’s time also beats the previous all-time San Francisco high school record (17:52) that two-time Olympian runner Shannon Rowbury set in 2000.

In 2012, Leung was The Lowell Athlete of the Month as a freshman, and, at the time, cross country head coach Michael Prutz said that she stood out from the crowd of new runners at the Lowell Invitational. Since then, Leung has gone on to hold the record for the Lowell, Woodward Park and Crystal Springs course. In cross country, she holds the 5000-meter record (17:35.9) and was chosen as Most Valuable Player in 2012. For track, Leung was named Most Outstanding Distance Runner from 2013–2015 and holds the 1600-meter record (4:55.35).

Serving as a captain of the cross country team this past season was an honor that Leung values even more than the records she has set. “At first, it was crazy to think that I would be filling their [previous team captains’] shoes as a senior,” she said. “But I loved having the opportunity to pass on what I’ve learned from them and from my own experiences.”

Fellow cross country runner junior Sierra Brill, who has run three cross country seasons with Leung, said that Leung has always been a “powerful force” on the team. “Not only does Kristen push herself, but she also pushes others to test their limits and be the best that they can,” Brill said. “I really admire her ambition and passion.”

Leung races at All-City on Nov. 18. Photo by Aida Irving

“When I run poorly, I remind myself, ‘you can only get better from this.’”

Leung’s fierce mentality toward her sport catches the eyes of the entire team. Prutz noted that Leung has especially improved this season with her new and intense determination. “You can see that focus when she runs! She runs with a mission,” he said.

Besides leading by example, Leung also is a key component in keeping morale up. “Every meet she would lead the girls in a tight circle and talk to us. She would tell us not to give up and when to push the most,” Sophomore Natalie Ewe said. “She encourages us to do things that you would normally forget about, like to have team spirit, come up with team cheers or even make intricate team ribbons.”

Although Leung has achieved a lot throughout her running career, she has felt discouraged by bad races in the past. “I had to learn to be okay with not always being able to achieve what I set out to do, and to value the journey of my experiences more than just the end result of them,” Leung said. “You have your wins, and you have your losses, but what’s most important is that you don’t dwell on the negative for too long and look at losses as opportunities to do better. When I run poorly, I remind myself, ‘you can only get better from this.’”

As Leung reflected on the past four years, she decided that the 2013 cross country trip to Oregon for the Nike Pre-nationals was one of her most memorable experiences. The team got to tour the Nike campus, meet distance runner Jordan Hasay and explore downtown Portland when they were not competing against a storm during the race. “It was windy and pouring rain, which turned the dirt horse-track the race was on into sludge,” Leung said. “We had to jump over hay bales and these extremely steep man-made hills. It was one of the most intense races I have ever run.”

Although her high school career ends next semester, Leung’s running career is anything but over. “After seeing how much improvement I’ve been able to make continually throughout my high school career, especially with my past year of more serious training, I think I have a lot of potential for a college career,” Leung said. “I’m excited to see where I can go on the collegiate level.”

Originally published on January 12, 2016