One year ago, Josette Norris’s goal for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials was just to make the final for the 5,000 meters.
The first-year pro, now 25, had struggled with fluke injuries during her college career at the University of North Carolina and Georgetown—rolling her ankle, getting attacked by a dog that led to compensation issues in her stride and a stress reaction in her femur. But she finally broke through as a fifth-year senior, placing fourth in the 2019 NCAA Championships 5K in 15:29.3. Suddenly, she was good enough to sign a professional contract with the Reebok Boston Track Club.
But if 2019 brought the consistency and results that had been missing from her college resume, then 2020 brought the forced solitude of the pandemic year—a unique opportunity to sit back and train hard without needing to taper or race for a full year. In a way, 2020 provided the perfect adjustment period for Norris to adapt to the rigors of training at the professional level under coach Chris Fox in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The results this year have been swift, highlighted by a massive, nearly 30-second personal best in the 5K to run 14:51.42 at Sound Running’s Track Meet in May to obliterate the Tokyo Olympic standard of 15:10. That run ranks her No. 10 on the U.S. all-time performer list Norris was no longer just happy to be in the 5,000, she was officially a contender to make the Olympic team.
Runner’s World caught up with the emerging star to talk about the challenges and transitions of the past two years as well as her engagement to fellow New Jersey track star, Olympian Robby Andrews.
Runner’s World: Can you describe some of the differences between your training now as a professional from when you were in college?
I just wasn’t healthy a lot in college. I hadn’t had a healthy, consistent year of training until my fifth year at Georgetown, and that was my breakout season. My volume was pretty low for someone who was in their fifth year as a 5K runner; I was only running 45 miles a week that entire year and I needed to take off every Wednesday. We had to hold myself back because I just didn’t have any foundation in me from [being injured] the few years before. Coming to Coach Fox with Reebok, he knew my background and what I was coming from, and so the volume has gone up only a little bit, but the intensity has really increased.
I don’t think in college I was doing consistent long runs. My longest run in college was 12 miles and all of last year, my first year as a pro, we only got up to 13 miles but I finally was consistently doing it every week. And now, this year, it’s been 14 miles and they’re progression long runs and they’re higher quality and they’re faster. I was running 45 miles a week in college and now I’m in my second year as a pro and I run 60 to 65 miles, and we worked up to it—last year was probably around 55 to 60. He’s been slowly increasing the mileage and volume, but the intensity and the quality of the workouts have gone up significantly and I was struggling doing them last year. But this year, I’ve handled them well and I’ve been able to nail every workout since this fall buildup. Training has gone as well as you could expect going into an Olympic year.
Through all those challenges in college, was professional running still a dream for you?
I always wanted to be able to run professionally. I was heavily recruited out of high school and I always had the dream of, one day I want to be a professional runner, I want to go to the Olympics. I always had the dream of being a professional and seeing how far I can go in this sport. I still wanted to do it all through college, but it was so scary to even say it out loud to anyone because I was so far away from even signing a contract or being able to pursue it. But I never stopped believing that I could do it. It was more a matter of, will I even be able to keep running? Will I have the support and foundation to pursue pro running? It felt so far away but I still had the dream of being able to do it, and I think that’s what knocked some sense into me my fifth year. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m running out of time, this is now or never,’ and I was really dialed into my running and just making sure I was taking care of my body, eating right. So yeah, the dream was always there.
What was your mindset like last year when everything shut down and the Olympics got pushed back a year?
To be honest, I was very relieved. I was relieved because at least this gives me another year to keep training and to get stronger and to be able to compete with the best women in the U.S. I really just needed more time. When I saw that the Olympics were postponed and the Trials weren’t happening, I just felt like I could take a deep breath and know that it’s okay, I have more time. I felt all this pressure going into my first year as a professional in an Olympic year. I wasn’t even qualified for the Trials… The extra time has been huge for me.
Can you describe your mindset going into the Track Meet, where you ran 14:51?
I was so excited when I heard that Emma Coburn was pacing us, because I was like, who gets to have Emma Coburn pace your 5K? I thought that was awesome and I knew that she would get the job done for us because she could handle such a quick pace. I was not concerned at all about pacing and whether or not we were going to run the time [15:10 is the Olympic standard] because I knew if I was just focused on competing against the field, that would be enough to get the time.
I looked at the clock once and it was at 3K, and I saw that we went through in 9:01 and, for reference, my PR was 8:58 from the season before. Coach Fox, before the race, was like, ‘Just try not to go out faster than nine minutes,’ and I saw 9:01 and was like, ‘okay, great.’ I felt really good in the race at that point, I wasn’t scared or nervous… then the focus just became, staying with Emily [Sisson] and staying with Rachel [Schneider], and I remember with 1200 meters to go, a tiny little gap formed between me and Rachel—like two steps—and I was like, ‘If I don’t close these two steps right now, I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I just need to do it and commit to it. I went back up to her and was just riding the train. Once she made her move —I’ve raced Rachel a few times this season, so if she’s going, there’s no reason why I’m not going—so I just copied her move and I tried to go around her with 200 to go and she didn’t let me. I waited and waited and I gave it my all that last 100 meters, really went to my arms and focused on closing. I knew I was going to run the time [but] I had no idea how far under 15:10 I was.
My face was just in shock because I didn’t realize how fast we were going. It’s really rare to have a race where it’s perfectly paced, the weather is perfect, you’re in a field with the best runners in the world. I had the best opportunity in that race that I could have set myself up for, and I was so happy that I took advantage of it and it paid off.
I have loved being in these races and feeling like I belonged as a professional. All of last year, I kept getting put in the B heat and I had no reason to even be in the A heat, but I always wanted to be… This was the first year where I feel like I’ve proven myself and it’s really validating going into these races feeling like I belong in these races. I love having the pressure to perform.
Now I’m contending to make an Olympic team, where last year, the goal was to make the Olympic Trials final—which felt like such a far goal in that moment. It’s crazy how much my mindset has shifted.
Congratulations on your engagement with Robby Andrews! I feel like you guys are the power couple of New Jersey distance running. Do you ever get race pointers from him, or what kind of support do you get from him in this running journey to where you are now?
Yes, definitely. I respect him so much and we care about each other so much, and I look up to him for everything that he’s done. He’s helped me so much navigating what it’s like to be a professional runner and how to handle the emotions of racing and what it takes to get to that next level.
When we first started dating in my fifth year [of college] and when I got that dog bite, which led to the femur injury, to think that in that moment when we started dating, that one day I’d be running professionally with Robbie and we’d get to travel the world and do races together, I would have laughed so much.
He’s in his 10th year as a professional runne,r and I’m in my second, and he’s been doing this for so long and knows exactly what it takes to get to that next level. He’s helped me so much navigating my journey so far and we have a really great system of supporting each other and we have so much fun. We get to hang out all day because we’re both just running. It’s a really unique time in both our lives and it’s really cool and really precious and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, honestly.
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