Bailey Kowalczyk overcomes 'toxic' coaches, injury to flourish
After souring on running due to a toxic experience, Bailey Kowalczyk fled to Colorado where she her re-ignited her passion for the sport, found joy on the trails and recently set back-to-back FKTs.
“When I first came out here, I wrote off running even though it's always been the first love of my life,” says Kowalczyk, who started running at age 8. “I kind of wrote it off because I started to hate it so much. And the relationship that I had with it was so unhealthy that it wasn't bringing me joy anymore. That was definitely discouraging. I really didn't think I would ever be competitive again.”
It was the “toxic” coaches at Clemson University and the “cutthroat nature” of Division I running that led her to the verge of quitting the sport.
“What kept that love there was that I still loved the mountains, I loved to get outside, I loved to move,” she says. “Just being outside and being in an active population in Boulder kept me motivated to get back out there myself. Seeing the running community here, and how so many athletes out here support each other, train with each other, and have a great time together made me realize that I can bring running back into my life in a healthy way, and I really wanted to make that happen.”
Kowalczyk started back on the roads but in a few years transitioned to trails in 2019.
“I’ve never felt this way about running in my life,” she says. “Even in high school and elementary school. It’s just a raw, true love and passion. And it brings me so much more joy than I could ever imagine.”
From super fun to broken sacrum
Andy Wacker, her then coach, challenged Kowalczyk to run some trails during a base-building phase.
“I realized, wow, this is super fun and I'm actually not bad at it,” she recalls. “Then we progressed to doing some workouts on the trails, mostly just to keep it fun in the offseason. It was then that I discovered what a FKT (Fastest Known Time) was. Those first few trail runs really hooked me and a lot of people still comment on how fast the transition was. I fell in love so quickly and so hard that I don't regret a single thing. I kind of turned my back on strict road running and changed to the trails pretty quickly.”
Due to the pandemic canceling most races in 2020, Kowalczyk has had few experiences in trail races. She’s also been dealing with an injury.
“The good thing is that I was able to race a few times, but the negative is that I ended up getting injured kind of right in best time of trail season,” she says. “Not the best thing to happen before the pandemic, but I was able to run the Barr Trail Race here in Colorado. It's like half of Pike's Peak Marathon. And I also ran the Spartan Trail Championships in California.”
Kowalczyk suffered a broken sacrum at Barr Trail, a race that is 6.5 miles up, then 6.5 miles back down.
“It's a bit of a funny story. I had no prior issues with anything in my pelvis area,” she explains. “Halfway up the climb, I started feeling this weird pain, and it was pretty persistent through the climb, but I'd never done a trail race before. So I thought maybe this is normal. Maybe people just run in pain the entire time. And then we turned around to start running down the mountain, my leg kept giving out, because apparently it had broken and was hitting my sciatic nerve. So my leg kept giving out and causing me to fall and roll the entire way down.”
Not even a broken sacrum, 25 stitches in her knees and a three-month recovery could dissuade Kowalczyk from trail running.
“It was a very traumatizing first trail race. But I'm still here, and I still love it. I definitely had a hard time coming back from that,” she says. “Once I got the diagnosis two weeks after that race, I decided to try to change things up with my training.”
Enter coach David Roche.
“I tried to change my perspective, and who I was training with, and really go all in on trails, and see if maybe a different training method would serve me better,” she recalls. “David helped so much with coming back to running from that. I feel like I came back stronger than I went into the injury, which is really hard to do. It was definitely another blessing in disguise. But really a bummer given that I had more hopes for that first trail season.”
Right coach. Right time.
I am also coached by Roche, who is a master at getting athletes ready in the training sense, but also the mental game.
“For me, the mental side is the most important part of running at this point in my life,” Kowalczyk says. “I have nothing but good things to say about him. He has been so great. I definitely went into him with a few trust issues with coaches and male coaches in general. Finding him and then starting with him and developing that relationship was really hard. And he made it so seamless. Within a few months, I knew that he had my best interest at heart. He's motivating, and he's always just so kind and so positive and really keeps me focused on self love, embracing the process and really treating my body with respect.”
Previously Kowalczyk had been told to lose weight and break down her body to be better.
“It's nice that David really takes on that self-love perspective and attitude, because it's been so helpful for me mentally and physically,” she says. “That leads into the physical component. As you know, he has a strong emphasis on the easy days being easy and then layering in the intervals, the cross training and the long runs.”
That’s another stark change since her road running days.
“Tapping into a real easy effort has been so important for me,” she says. “In the road culture, easy runs are run in the gray zone. So they're a little bit too hard, not easy enough. So you are never fully recovering. I never took a day off, ever. And now I have a forced day off every single week, and it doesn't feel forced anymore. It feels necessary and helpful. So I feel like all of that has helped me and hopefully will help my injury risk moving forward.”
That approach paid off recently when Kowalczyk nailed back to back FKTs.
The two trail races energized her and motivated her to find a challenge (or two) as the pandemic continued. “The races were enough to really make me hungry for more. The pandemic was a little bit of a blessing in disguise because it gave me a lot of time to really challenge myself with all of these FKTs. See where I stand, compared to some of these Boulder greats and really see if this is for me.”
Kowalczyk and her boyfriend, Johnny Luna Lima, went on a training trip to Northern California for two weeks. On her agenda: the FKTs at Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tam.
”I was really excited about those two climbs.”
First up was Mt. Diablo, which was a six-mile climb with 4,000 feet of gain.
“It was long. It was a pretty long climb for me, but it was super fun, and I really enjoyed it. I love testing myself, and I really love those solo efforts because it just reminds me why I do what I do,” she says. “It brings a passion back. Competition, it can be great, but it can also kind of block out why you're doing what you're doing. So that was really nice and I really enjoyed it, and it was definitely super fun.”
After getting the FKT at Mt. Diablo, Kowalczyk planned to do Mt. Tam four days later. Just a little way into it, she changed plans.
“I made it eight minutes before taking a wrong turn on the road portion of it,” she admits. “I had to turn around and go back to the car and decide to do it Thursday instead. My navigational skills are not super great, unfortunately.”
On the next attempt, Kowalczyk red-lined it from the start, which is rare for her.
“I feel like a lot of the time it's a little too long to really red line it,” she says. “You have to plan it out, and think. Pace yourself. But for this one, it's a 3.3 mile climb with 2,500 feet. So in the grand scheme of things, it's short. But it's super steep, and it's pretty ruthless. So it just felt like I was going all out the entire time, and it felt like it was never going to end.”
Kowalczyk figured it would be close. She might barely beat the FKT or miss it by 5 seconds.
“That definitely put the pressure on,” she remembers. “The last section is a really steep scramble. So you can't really move too quickly. So I felt really limited by that. And it was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was incredibly fun. And I was so surprised to have gotten it by 50 seconds instead of 5. So my math while I was running was clearly off, but it was really fun. And it's really great to be able to share that ‘stage’ with Jim, because he obviously has a big name in the sport, but yeah, it was a really fun effort.”
Mt. Tam offers a little bit of everything. It starts in town and runners go up this absurdly steep pavement section for the first mile and a half before hitting the trail. The trail is a washed-out, messy, single track with about a mile of tight switchbacks.
“It was super intense at the end, because your legs are just filled with lactic acid by that point. You're trying so hard to scramble super fast up this rock. I could not physically go any faster, so I was kind of panicking. It’s tricky terrain because it's really niche. And I feel like the more you run it, the better sense you get of the terrain, and the tactical piece of it. So it'd be interesting to run it a few more times and see how my times compared to each other.”
Creating a better future
Looking ahead Kowalczyk would like to enter the international scene a bit more.
“I really want to try the Golden Trail Series, that's the top priority this year, alongside running U.S. mountain championships, and hoping that I make the worlds team,” she says. “Those are the two main objectives for the year, as far as racing. And then the FKT schedule kind of depends on whether or not races happen, but there's some around the mountains that we live in. The High Lonesome Loop and Pawnee-Buchanan Loop are two that are pretty well known here in Colorado. But then I've also had some strong desires to go run Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.”
Whether she is competing against other top runners or testing herself with an FKT attempt, Kowalczyk aims to inspire young women to pursue trail and ultra running.
“That’s something that I'm really passionate about, because I think the collegiate atmosphere can be so discouraging for women in particular,” she says. “I'm not entirely sure why that is, but it can be really frustrating because a lot of people that I ran with in college quit before they even gave themselves a chance to get to the trail world or to get to a post-collegiate career.”
Kowalczyk recommends adding trail running as an NCAA sport.
“I loved it for so long, but I just think that the trail community has brought me so much, and it has a stronger sense of comraderie in my mind, that I think if we could bring some trail running camps or just youth running events into the picture, then I think more kids would get interested at a younger age and kind of lean towards that side of the sport.”
Creating a “chain reaction” is a goal for Kowalczyk. She has communicated with high school coaches and shared her story with young female runners.
“That’s been something that also interests me is just sharing my story and hoping that it catches on to even one girl. Because if one girl does it, then maybe it'll be another girl. It's kind of that chain effect that I hope will happen.”
And that’s part of what inspires Kowalczyk.
"One of the things that inspires me is my history,” she says. “Just knowing that I've come so far, and I feel like I've hit my rock bottom in the past, and I've gotten to this point, and love what I'm doing, and I'm super passionate about it. And having that in my mind, along with the fact that there are so many girls still going through that, I want to do this for them. I want to do this so that they can have hope that there's a future in front of them and that they can get through what they're going through, whatever that is. That's part of what inspires me on a daily basis. And the other part is just my support system. David, my family, my boyfriend, who's also a Salomon runner. They're all so amazing, and so supportive, just make me super happy and super inspired to keep doing what I'm doing.”
Name: Bailey Kowalczyk
Hometown: Clifton Park, N.Y. Number of years running: 15+ (competitively since fifth grade, but found every chance I could to run and race people in the years leading up to that). How many miles a week do you typically run: 60-65 plus two to four hours of cross training! Point of pride: Competing in the Golden Trail World Championship stage race three months after recovering from my second broken sacrum in one year. I didn't think I could qualify for this race, let alone be competitive and walk away in one piece! All 3 happened and I am so proud! Who inspires you: My whole family (dogs included) and partner, Johnny. I thrive on making them proud and feel so good knowing that I have their support through all of life's journeys! Johnny is a rockstar athlete that inspires me to run downhill like a banshee! Favorite race distance: Pending :) Right now, I love racing the half marathon (ish) distance on the trails but am planning to explore many longer races this year (30-50K)! 15K is my favorite road distance Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Banana with PB and oatmeal!!!! Favorite piece of gear: Salomon s/lab Sense Ultra 5 set (hydration vest). The first vest I have found that is not noticeable at all and doesn't chafe off my collarbones! So amazing for long runs! Favorite or inspirational song to run to: BANG! by AJR Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "YOU ARE A BEAST!" Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @baileykowalczyk
• Website: www.baileykowalczyk.com