A different view: New Prairie's Zelasko acclimating well to being the area's frontrunner
NEW CARLISLE -- The view is different for Lilly Zelasko this season, and the New Prairie senior is not hatin' it.
After chasing the likes of Karina James, Kaylie Politza and a Bailey Ranta for most of her high school career, Zelasko now has the field in her rear view mirror as she ascends the ranks to front runner in races.
"I've definitely looked at that, the opportunity I have, and I obviously want to achieve those goals," Zelasko said. "I always had Karina in front of me to push me. Now need to go out there and try to take over that role, be the person that pushes the race."
With that comes the challenge of often competing against herself, as was the case once again Tuesday in the Cougar Kickoff Classic, where Zelasko's time of 18:44.6 was over two-and-a-half minutes ahead of runner-up Cassandra Cohen, a Hobart freshman.
"It feels a little bit weird," Zelasko said. "When I'm by myself, I don't have that push, all I can do is focus on form things, think of everything I can do to keep pushing myself forward; I can put in 10 hard steps on this corner, I can feel myself swaying back and forth. It makes you grateful for those opportunities when you do have competition. Everybody fears competition, I think, but when I get that, that's exciting. I feel like it brings a new energy to me."
Weekday races are the exception rather than the norm, so Zelasko tried to ease back on the gas pedal, three days after running a personal-best 18:10 in Saturday's Harrison Invitational in West Lafayette.
"It would be easy to be like, oh, I don't want to go out and run a race, I don't feel like it," she said. "It's easy to get in that mindset and start taking something for granted. I was trying to run sub-18 (Saturday), but it was still a PR, so I was happy about that. I just tried to go out a little more conservative (in this race) the first mile and see what I can do the last two miles, just a different kind of race strategy to see if it worked better for me. It was still fast, a little too fast."
Zelasko certainly was none the worse for wear as she continues to chart her path toward another memorable finish.
"I was top 10 last year, so I'm looking at top five this year," she said. "I'm pleased. I'm running faster than last year. I've just got to keep pushing it forward."
The success wasn't a given after a bumpy off-season that started with Zelasko competing through illness in the 3,200 at the state track meet.
"I was really sick," she said. "I just went there and raced."
Back in the spring, Zelasko began to experience some discomfort in her foot that turned out to be some tendon inflammation in her ankle.
"It was stopping before something turned into an injury," she said. "I got a few weeks in, then I was aching, my foot's swelling up, so I took a few weeks off. Injuries give you opportunities to improve yourself in different ways. It was a different summer of training. I put in a ton of biking. I feel like it really helped my cardio fitness a lot. I used to have a super high heart rate all the time, even when it felt like something easy. I came back and running felt easier. It's like, I love this, this is what I miss."
Along with new orthotics and more cushion-y shoes for recovery days on the road, Zelasko is icing and doing strength exercises to help with her ankle.
"The main thing is try to keep her healthy until the end goal," assistant coach Neal Hackett said. "She just likes to run. We almost have to rein her in on certain days. She's gotten a lot better with listening to her body more. We're easing her back in. She's doing a lot of extra exercises. (The injury) broke up her daily routine. Different muscles being worked has helped a lot, too. She's doing great. She's where we want her."
Zelasko's college plans are 'completely undecided with a mix of Division I and Division II schools, including Grand Valley State, coached by New Prairie alum Jerry Baltes, on her list. She looks to major in Biology and go into the medical field, ultimately becoming a physician's assistant.
"She had a goal last year, and she got to where she wanted to be," Hackett said. "She wants to improve, but she
New Prairie's Lilly Zelasko won Tuesday's
Cougar Kickoff Classic in 18:44.6.
understands the process a lot more. She's more relaxed. It's hard running by yourself, but she's been staying focused. She's put up times, she's improving each week. That's what the goal is."
Hobart freshman Cassandra Cohen took second in Tuesday's Cougar Kickoff Classic at New Prairie.