By Joanna Harper
Kirsten Leetch, Club National XC Champs, December 2012.
Kirsten Leetch placed fourth overall, and first in the W45 category, in the master’s women’s race at the recent Club National Cross Country Championships, held in Lexington Kentucky. Ten months earlier she had delivered her second child, a daughter named Quinn Kaari, at the age of 46. This is a remarkable turnaround, but is only the most recent of a lifetime of outstanding achievement.
Kirsten O’Hara was born into an athletic and affluent family living in the ocean side community of Palos Verdes Estates in greater Los Angeles. Her father is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, and a former Notre Dame football player. She has two older brothers, one younger brother, and a fraternal twin sister, and amazingly enough all five of them wound up playing division 1 sports; astoundingly the five O’Hara siblings lettered in five different sports – football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and track.
Kirsten grew up playing tennis and soccer, skiing, and riding horses. She describes herself as being a lost and chunky teenager, who took up jogging to help lose weight. In her junior year at Palos Verdes high school, the track coach found out that she had run a 10K road race, and convinced her to come out for the team. Her football playing brothers made fun of cross country as a sport, but Kirsten knew she had found her niche almost immediately.
She had a fine inaugural season as a junior, and then exploded onto the national scene the following year. In the fall of her senior year, she broke course records every time she laced up her spikes, up until the Kinney (now Footlocker) regional championships. She won the regional and then placed fifth at the national Kinney race. In the spring of 1984, she was undefeated over 3200 meters, running 10:11 to win the state title.
Recruiters, of course, beat a path to her door. She quickly winnowed the choices down to four of the Pac 10 schools, and eventually chose the University of California Berkeley, largely for its respected coach, Tony Sandoval, who had been a half miler at the University of Albuquerque, and much to my surprise, was not the former marathon star of the same name. Kirsten speaks very highly of him and of their coach-athlete relationship.
Once at Cal, the upward trajectory of her running continued unabated. In the 1985 track season, as a college freshman, she ran 15:46 for 5000 meters, placing sixth at the NCAA championships, and then two weeks later ran 32:40 for second place at the TAC (the forerunner to USATF) nationals. Both marks were school records that would last for 27 years, and the latter was a freshman NCAA record, and only four seconds off of the collegiate record. And this was only her third year of competitive distance running. The sky seemed to be the limit for her running future, but soon her world would come crashing down around her.
But before I get to the next chapter of Kristen’s life, I want to talk about two uncomfortable truths. The first of these truths is that distance runners need to be thin to be successful. Women, especially, struggle with this, as they do not possess the testosterone fueled metabolism that men do. In order for women to achieve optimum racing weight, they almost all need to practice a certain amount of caloric deprivation. Some talk about healthy eating, or use other euphemisms, but one simply cannot eat everything that one would like, and be a champion.
The second uncomfortable truth is that almost all successful distance runners are obsessive compulsive, at least to a degree. Even if one is not born with this mentality, one tends to acquire it, in the day after day grind that is training. I have found that the trick is to use the obsessiveness to push yourself in training, but not let it take over your life.
This trick is often difficult to achieve. If one becomes obsessive about one’s weight, and dieting, then one has a surefire recipe for disaster. At first everything is good; as one gets thinner, one gets faster, and what obsessive person could not take this to the logical conclusion. If thin is fast, then thinner is faster, and thinnest is fastest. And this is how the nightmares begin.
Kirsten had started to diet after her freshman year of high school. She says she was tired of the way she looked. By the time she was a senior, she was down to 126 pounds on her 5’ 9” frame, but was still so terrified of gaining weight, that she would go out running after dinner, so she could burn off the evil calories. She said that her weight spiraled downward during her freshman year at Cal. In her case the freshman ten, meant losing ten pounds.
She ran more miles than Tony set for her, reaching 100 miles per week, jumping rope, lifting weights and more out of her fear of gaining weight. By the spring of her wondrous freshman year she was down to 115 pounds. Dave Frank, now a high school coach in Portland, and then a runner at Stanford, described her as scary skinny.
Kirsten says that it was difficult to be away from home and she felt the pressure of being a scholarship athlete at a major university. Her response was to exercise continuously, and restrict her diet more and more. She ate only salads, and cut out all fat. At one point she even stopped using toothpaste “in fear of the calories it might have in it”. Despite her success, she calls this a sad time of her life.
As a sophomore, she qualified for the NCAA cross country race as an individual, but found herself unable to cut down on her mileage before the meet. She ran 100 miles in the week leading up to the race, was in sixth place with 400 to go, but faded badly at the finish to wind up 20th. After the race, she ran an hour warm down in the snow as her parents waited. It was at this point that Tony and her folks forced her into rehab.
On December 31st, 1985, she entered an inpatient facility, weighing 100 pounds, and wearing a heart monitor, in case she coded. She had reached bottom, in more ways than one. She spent ten weeks in that program (six weeks was standard), and was not allowed to do any running until her weight got above 110 pounds. She did not return to Cal until the spring of 1987.
She achieved some notable successes in her remaining time at Cal; she was third in the NCAA 10,000 meters in 1988, 11th at cross in 1987, led her harrier team to a ninth place finish in 1988, and finished up as a three time all American in cross, and twice in track, but she never did match her times from 1985. She says it was pretty special to be able to come back from her nightmare, and achieve what she did, but nothing really can top that amazing freshman year she had. She graduated in 1989 with a degree in Philosophy. In 2006 she was inducted in the sports hall of fame at her alma mater.
Kirsten Leetch & her entourage at her induction into the Cal Hall of Fame.
In 1987 she had met Robert Leetch, another SoCal runner who had made a name for himself at Kansas State where he ran a 4:03 mile, and earned all-conference honors. After graduation she moved back home, largely to spend time with Bob, but also because her heart has always been in the region. Without any structured program, her running floundered; she ran on her own, without any specific goals.
She and Bob moved to Kansas in 1993, and they opened a bar and restaurant in Bob’s old college town. They were both working 70-80 hours per week, but she still found time to train with the K-State women, and qualified for the 1996 Olympic marathon trials, running 2:46. She stayed there until 2001, when she again moved back home.
She now knew she needed some structure to help with her running, so she created her own, forming the Jane’s Elite racing team with lifetime friend and former UCLA standout Tania Fischer. The Janes won the 2004 and 2005 club national cross country championships. By this time Bob had also moved back to the city of Angels, and they were married in 2005.
Kirsten was now in her later thirties and very much ready to start a family. The only problem was that her body wasn’t being cooperative. She had no problem getting pregnant, but she suffered the first of three miscarriages before Robert James Leetch III was born in September of 2007. While they had only planned to have one, she says that she loved the little dude so much, they decided to try again. She had two more miscarriages before Quinn was born in January of 2012. She says she has either been pregnant or trying to get pregnant since 2005, so she has found it hard to be consistent with racing, in the last few years.
I had the opportunity to meet both Kirsten and Tania in June of 2009. They flew up to Portland to run in the 3000 meter master’s race that I coordinate as part of the Portland Track Festival. I felt somewhat guilty that I hadn’t reached out to them before they entered, but I was thrilled to see them show up. They decided to fly up from LA on the morning before the evening race, and neither of them ran well, but they both said they’d come back in 2010.
Kirsten had a terrific race that following year running 9:59 for third place in a stellar field. She then ran 16:59 for 5000 meters a few weeks later in San Francisco. This period marked the peak of her master’s racing; before too long she was pregnant with Quinn.
Kirsten started easy running again about six weeks postpartum, but did not get back into racing shape until mid-fall. She ran two local 5K road races and then the Pacific Association Cross country championships in Golden Gate Park on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. This race is extremely competitive, as almost 200 women toe the line, and many fast post collegiate runners are in the field. She finished 23rd overall, and as the third master’s runner, behind Linda Somers Smith and Grace Padilla. She knew she was ready for Club Nationals.
The Janes brought three top runners to Lexington for this year’s championship race; Tania, Kirsten, and Darcy Arreola-Lange, another former star open runner, who is now transitioning to master’s running. The course in Lexington is chock full of rolling hills, and is one of my favorites. The week had been wet, so the course was muddy, but it had been muddy in San Fran too, so Kirsten was ready.
She decided to go out hard, and found herself sharing second place with Lyudmila Vasilyeva, the 2010 champ. Nancy Mecks from the Atlanta Track club held the early lead. Then, two of Lyuda’s CNW teammates passed Kirsten in tandem, first Gwen Lapham, the 2011 runner up, and then Linda Huyck. The two of them caught and passed Nancy, before Gwen pulled away to a commanding win. Linda easily held second, but Nancy started to come back to Kirsten, who, in the end, couldn’t quite close fast enough to nab third. But, still, she was fourth overall, first in the W45 age group, and led her team to the silver medal. All, in all, it was an amazing race for someone who had an infant daughter at home.
Kirsten hopes this race was the start of good things to come. She turned 47 shortly after the race, and now is now done having babies. She and Bob have settled into a comfortable life; he coaches at Redondo Beach high and was the national girl’s coach of the year in the spring of 2012, while she does athletic event planning for Student sports. Bob is her coach, and she runs with his girls once or twice a week. They have a wonderful partnership, and the future looks bright.
And what of her eating problems? She says that, while, it’s something she’ll never get over completely, she has worked her way back to some sense of normality; as opposed to friends of hers who have struggled with it for their entire lives. Anyone who sees her now can clearly see how healthy she looks. She is thin, fit, but hardly emaciated. She is, in fact, a wonderful role model, for both the girls Bob coaches, and her own daughter. And what more could a mother ask for?