The family she babysat for didn’t need her. The cost of living, with no job, in Westchester, N.Y. was crushing. Her team’s funding was gone. So Katy Kunc came home.
With the pandemic squeezing her out of everything else, she ran the same roads and trails where she discovered her talent for running while at Lake Braddock.
“I started running more than I ever had before,” she said. “I figured I might as well take some kind of risk to get better.”
The 12 weeks of at least 80 miles added up to a whole new level of fitness that Kunc hadn’t reached in two years running for the New Jersey New York Track Club after graduating from the University of Kentucky, and she will be racing the finals of the Olympic Trials in the 3,000 meter steeplechase Thursday at 11:47 eastern. She qualfied for the finals with a 9:37.85 finish, a PR, in the first round.
“My workouts went well, but my races weren’t good,” she said of her two years in New York. “I think I was undertrained because I was taking it so easy on my easy days to be ready for those workouts.”
Kunc started running as a junior at Lake Braddock to prepare for soccer, but after running on a state championship team in 2012 and making the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships as a senior with teammate Hannah Christen, her athletic future was set. She became a steeplechaser at Kentucky and qualified for some national meets, but she was never happy with her results.
“I’d drop back after a mile and finish near last,” she said. “I came out of those races disappointed.”
Her fortunes changed at the U.S. Championships in 2018, when she finished ninth, and New Jersey New York, looking for a steeplechaser, came calling. Coach Tom Nohilly knew Kunc because his daughter, Brooke, ran for Kentucky. His other children, Kathryn (George Washington) and Eion (Georgetown) were also collegiate steeplechasers, with Kathryn qualifying for this spring’s NCAA Championships.
“If I had a frustrating career with injuries, I might not have done that, but I’ve been consistently healthy and figured I could train for two more years and try to make the Olympic Trials,” Kunc said. “It was such a cool opportunity, my mom told me I had the rest of my life to work a normal job so I should take this.”
She found jobs babysitting, which allowed her stay off of her feet for the most part.
“I wasn’t used to not having someone tell me what I should be doing every day,” Kunc said. “I was just cautious, and I wound up undertrained.”
She and her teammates came out of altitude training with hopes to capitalize on their fitness right before meets were canceled left and right. Then her babysitting clients found themselves working from home, and she returned to Virginia.
Nohilly kept giving her workouts, and she found that her higher mileage wasn’t cannibalizing her rest for workouts the way she had once feared. And those workouts were happening in markedly hotter conditions.
Her Lake Braddock teammates and coaches held a time trial to help her get an entry time for the limited fall track races.
“She’s made the most out of every bit of the gift that she has,” said Mike Mangan, her coach at Lake Braddock. “She’s so talented that it’s not funny, but she didn’t get there on talent, she got there on grind.”
Kunc also got a look into her more distant running future when she picked up three months of steady babysitting work.
“I was getting up at 5, running, then working 40 hours a week and doubling even when it was 90 degrees in the evenings,” she said. “I was really proud of sticking with that. It showed me that someday when I have a full-time job and I’m doing road races, I’ll still be able to train.”
In the fall, she returned to Kentucky to work as a volunteer assistant and reunite with coach Hakon DeVries. In May, she qualified for the Trials in Kansas City, running 9:44.6, and three weeks later dropped her PR to 9:39.52 in New York.
“It’s all because of what I started last summer,” she said. “I never felt as good as when I raced in KC, but I ran alone for most of the end of the race in New York, so I know I can get faster with competition.”
This fall, she’ll start a masters program in marketing at Kentucky and serve as a graduate assistant for the track team while she figures out her life as a road racer.
“I’m definitely more of a 5k/10k/steepler, rather than a 1,500 meter/steepler,” she said.
Mangan will be in Oregon for her race, fulfilling a promise he made to Kunc when he traveled to Eugene to watch Bruin Kate Murphy race the 1,500 meters in 2016.
“I know I’ll shed a tear when I see her on the track,” Mangan said. For her figure out another way to keep that dream going, for a girl who was really only a part-time runner in high school, is just phenomenal.”