When St. Olaf Cross Country coach Chris Daymont asked Jorden Johnson about joining the team last January, neither coach nor runner dreamed about the way the 2012 season turned out for the Oles sophomore.
Johnson, a 2011 Blaine graduate and three-sport captain, decided to play soccer at St. Olaf.
After one season on the field, Johnson decided she needed to try something new and that’s how the story began. Fast forward 11 months to Terra Haute, Ind., site of the NCAA Division III National Cross Country Championships and Johnson found herself in elite running company.
She finished ninth overall in 21:25.4 to earn All-American status in only her seventh cross country meet ever. St. Olaf finished eighth on the LaVern Gibson Course while teammate Emma Lee placed fifth to lead the team.
Johnson, a chemistry major, earned Academic All-American honors with her 3.85 grade-point average in addition to All-NCAA Division III Region and All-MIAC honors.
“I had no idea what to expect going into it,” Johnson said, going into her first season as a competitive runner. “The only running I did was for soccer, lacrosse and hockey. I didn’t realize the intensity of the training that goes into practices. I was used to 10 miles of running at the same pace.”
Blaine hockey coach Steve Guider knew Johnson would succeed at the next level, no matter the sport.
“I think it’s incredible. To pick up another sport like that is amazing and it’s a testimate to how kids specialize on one sport now. We tell them to try out as many things as possible because who knows what you’re going to be good at,” he said.
That transition worked well for Johnson who puts in the work to get the results.
“She’s one of the most driven individuals I’ve seen in my life,” he said. “Academically and the hours she puts into everything is incredible. She’s a bit of a perfectionist and its scary how much she puts into things.”
Johnson had an idea of her future success after the first conference race and that continued through nationals.
She finished second to teammate Emma Lee in the first race of the season, which was a 4-kilometer time trial against Macelester Sept. 1. Two weeks later Johnson was the top Ole at the St. Olaf Invitational with a third-place finish in 22:13.5, her first regular season race. Johnson was again the top Ole runner (22:36.4) as the team finished third in the 29-team Maroon NCAA Division III Roy Griak Invite Sept. 29.
“Our region is very strong so I knew if I could stay with [the leaders] I had a good chance of moving on,” she said.
Strategies went out the window at nationals where the intensity is ratcheted up a few notches by the level of competition and crowd surrounding the course. Johnson apparently excelled under pressure as she lowered her personal best by 29 seconds. “After I saw the clock I was in tears and didn’t remember the last 400 meters,” she said of the emotional peak of the season. “It was quite the adrenaline rush and a lot more cheering that what we were used to, the course was open and the other teams had crazy fans out there. There were at least a couple thousand fans screaming and yelling and going nets. You didn’t have to think about the pain, you couldn’t hear yourself think which helps out a lot.”
Johnson reached nationals with a seventh place performance at the NCAA Central Region Championship and was second in the MIAC Championships, ran on her home course in Northfield. Her conference race success earned her a second MIAC Athlete of the Week honor this fall.
That success didn’t come overnight as Johnson put in a lot of time and effort to build herself up running up to 10-12 miles a day three times per week.
Training began with three mile warm ups followed by intervals like 1,000 meters at race pace followed by another distance at a slower pace.
The first day of practice included a 1.5 mile time trial to set the team up with a reward of running with the top girls on the team for a 12 mile training run. Naturally, Johnson earned a place on the longer run. “By the seventh mile I started to question my decision and now seven miles feels like a warm-up to me.”
Many runners now wear headphones to spice things up. Johnson chooses to wear them on runs by herself but not while training with the team. “That was a weird thing, not if I could do it without them but to not have them in the first couple runs was different.”
Her first race was a conference preview hosted by Macalester College in St. Paul on a four-kilometer course. She returned home to the St. Olaf course for the first meet a bit on edge.
“That was my first 6K at home and I was extremely nervous not really knowing what to do,” she said. “I was most nervous about the start.”
Runners were grouped in seven feet wide boxes and had to funnel down to a narrow first run. “It was a full-out sprint to get to the first turn and I was concerned about tripping [over the other runners] and the idea of racing, which I had no idea about. My plan was to get out and go.”
Jumping out early and holding worked well this season.
“Since I was so nervous I went out extremely fast and got ahead of everyone which worked but then I was hanging on for dear life by the end,” she said. “I didn’t realize the strategy going in and still have a ton to learn about racing.”
This success shouldn’t be anything new as Johnson earned 13 letters between soccer, hockey and lacrosse and also captained each team as a senior at Blaine High School.
After her freshman season on the soccer field, Johnson realized her heart wasn’t in it anymore but she really enjoyed running.
“Summer after my senior year [at Blaine] I started running to get into shape for the soccer season,” she said. “Soccer wasn’t fun anymore and [Daymont] saw me running on the cross country course.”
She made the move in January to prepare for the following season and the results couldn’t have gone better. She was St. Olaf’s No. 2 runner consistently this fall.
As much as cross country is an individual sport, Johnson said the camaraderie among the team makes it special. Anytime a neon-green St. Olaf jersey comes by on the course, they feel compelled to cheer, no matter who it is. “Because you want everyone to do well. It’s always really great when somebody [personal bests] and we have a lot of team spirit,” she said. The captains drew a purple heart on each runner’s ankle to symbolize how everyone is part of the team.
Now that she’s in the best shape of her life, Johnson plans to keep the success going into the spring track season, which starts formal practice in January.