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Incarnate graduate chases dream as a professional runner

Incarnate graduate chases dream as a professional runner

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Julia Kohnen figures it’s time to take her shot.

A distance runner who placed 10th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta in February with a personal-best time of 2 hours, 30 minutes and 43 seconds, Kohnen recently signed to run professionally with HOKA One One North Arizona Elite in Flagstaff, Arizona.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to chase my dream and do what I love to do,” said Kohnen, a 28-year-old Incarnate Word Academy graduate. “I feel like I have a lot of untapped potential and I want to see where running can take me.”

But ...

“This wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Kohnen continued. “I’m leaving my family, my friends, a corporate job I’ve been at for five years. I’m taking a huge risk, putting all my stuff in a car and going across the country to join a professional team.”

At least Kohnen will have company. She was joined on the trip to Arizona by her fiancé, Tyler Griffey, a basketball star from Lafayette High who went on to play at the University of Illinois and professionally for a couple of seasons in Austria.

And then there’s her new running coach, Ben Rosario, who ran for St. Louis University High, at Truman State University and in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. He co-founded the Big River Running Company in St. Louis.

“I had some recruiting interest after the Olympic Trials, but then COVID hit and everything went to the back burner,” Kohnen said. “Once travel was allowed again, Tyler and I made a few visits. The team in Flagstaff, it just felt like the right fit. Ben’s from St. Louis and seems like a great guy who really knows what he’s doing. And the team is one of the best distance teams in the whole country. The girls are so high caliber, they’re going to push me to be the best I can be. I’m going to have to work my butt off to keep up with them.”

Kohnen, it turns out, is not your typical runner. In high school, she played both soccer and basketball on state championship teams for the powerful Red Knights, earning a soccer scholarship to the University of Southern Indiana. After her college soccer eligibility ran out, she was running on campus when the Screaming Eagles’ cross country coach Mike Hillyard asked if she’d ever thought of running.

After a run with the team and finding out that running could help her pay for a master’s degree, Kohnen began her running career. Competing in two events that spring, she placed first in the mile in a meet in Indianapolis.

The next year, Kohnen earned All-American honors in cross country (10th), in the 5,000 meters (eighth) during the indoor track season and in the 5,000 (fifth) and 10,000 (second) during outdoor track.

Kohnen, who joined Big River Racing in the spring of 2016, took a job as a field technology advocate with Panera Bread in 2015 and also worked for the St. Louis Cardinals as a member of Team Fredbird until stepping down after last season.

She remains with Panera, helping out on some projects as a part-timer. But her main focus now is running.

“My story is definitely unique,” she said. “I haven’t taken the normal path, but I’m hopeful it’s the right path for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see what I can do as a runner. Before, I was running in the morning, going for a quick shower and then heading to work. And then I’d try to run again at lunch or after work.

“But now, I’m able to give running my full focus. I train with the team every morning, but we also have lifting, massage, a chiropractor and a sports psychologist. We have team meetings. This allows me time to recover and rest and to be around a team of outstanding runners who can hopefully push me to become an even better runner.”

Kohnen, who considers her win at last year’s Twin Cities Marathon as a career highlight, also enjoyed her experience at the Olympic Trials. That is, until she got hurt.

“Early on, it was pretty awesome, getting a chance to run with some of the top female competitors in the country,” she recalled. “But around Mile 18, my hamstring tightened up and really slowed me down. For a time, I thought about dropping out, but I was able to keep my focus and managed to get through the end of the race.”

Because of the coronavirus, traditional running events have been put on hold. With that in mind, Rosario and Josh Cox, an agent for many of the sport’s top runners, are teaming up to hold The Marathon Project on Dec. 20 at the Gila River Indian Reservation in Chandler, Arizona.

“It’s been crazy with so many events being canceled,” Kohnen said. “It’s really forced coaches to get creative. I think we’re all excited about The Marathon Project, which will give us something to look forward to.”

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