Rock Chalk Weekly: Running Through the Obstacles of Life

Written by Allan Parker, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant

When an athlete is one of the best performers in their sport, they can start to feel invincible. The state of their health can often be the last thing on their mind because they are too busy trying to achieve personal greatness. When it comes to the sport of cross country, runners are faced with a long, difficult course with many obstacles in their path. They are faced with numerous adverse elements that are out of their control; but somehow, the best runners often persevere and come out on top through it all. Kansas junior cross country and track runner Hannah Richardson has faced her fair share of obstacles. While oftentimes one of the best performers in her sport, she has still had to face and overcome certain obstacles that have been far out of her control.

Growing up in Glendale, Missouri, Richardson initially had no intentions of becoming a cross country or track athlete until she found that she had a special talent in each sport.

“I started running cross country my freshman year in high school,” Richardson said. “I did it solely to train for soccer in the spring, to get more conditioned. After my first season of running cross country, I realized I just fell in love with the sport. I still went and did soccer that same school year, but I decided the next year that I might be able to get a scholarship in track, so I gave up soccer. My high school coach (Pam Harris) was awesome, so that helped out a lot as well.”

Richardson went on to become a three-time Outstanding Girl’s Cross Country runner at Kirkwood High School and placed sixth overall her senior year at the 2011 Missouri 3A State Cross Country Championships. Later that school year, in the spring of 2012, she was also a part of her school’s record-breaking 4×400-meter relay team.

After generating interest from colleges for her excellent performances in high school, the Missouri native was determined not to stay in the Show-Me state, but she wasn’t dead set on attending school in Lawrence either, that is until  Michael Whittlesey, the distance and middle distance coach from Kansas, contacted her asked her to make a visit to Mt. Oread.

“I came here and literally everything about it was perfect,” Richardson said. “The athletic facilities were amazing, the campus was beautiful, the people were awesome and I love my coach. Every other college I went to visit, there seemed to be one aspect that I really didn’t like about it, but I just absolutely loved KU.”

While Richardson had a highly-positive outlook on KU and Whittlesey, the feelings were mutual as Whittlesey was confident that Richardson would be a great fit as a Jayhawk when he was recruiting her.

“I really liked her range,” Whittlesey said. “She can run an 800-meter race all the way to cross country. She has a lot of talent to have that type of range, so we knew that she could handle not only the volume of what we’re trying to do, but also had the foot speed to be successful at the next level. Her range, competitiveness and me watching her at the state meet for cross country really stuck out to me.”

Coming to Kansas with hardly any expectations for herself, Richardson’s first season as a Jayhawk, in the fall of 2012, was an impressive start to her career. She ended up placing in KU’s top-three in the five meets that she competed in, including being the Jayhawks’ second finisher at the NCAA Midwest Regional.

“My freshman year, I was shooting basically to be the in the top-seven runners on the team and just hoped to go to a couple of traveling meets,” Richardson said. “Every day in practice I gave it my all and some girls would make fun of me for trying really hard, being the freshman who was trying to outperform everybody. I wasn’t trying to outperform everybody; I was just trying to do my best. If you go to practice every day trying to do your best, the results showed where it got me.”

After a year of competition in cross country and track for Kansas, Richardson entered her sophomore year even better and became a leader on the cross country team. In the fall of 2013, she was the Jayhawks’ top finisher in each cross country meet she competed in and continued her success on the track in the spring of 2014, setting personal records in every event she competed in. She set personal records in the 1,500 race with a time of 4:22.54 at the Sun Angel Classic and the 800-meter race with a time of 2:08.62 at the Ward Haylett Invitational. She ended the 2014 track season earning All-Big 12 and All-Region accolades.

Toward the end of the outdoor track season in June of 2014, things took a serious turn for the worse as a major obstacle was thrown in Richardson’s path. She had not been feeling well for a while and found out that she had mononucleosis, a viral disease that can affect many different aspects of the body.

“When I found out I had mono, it was in June,” Richardson explained. “I had found out that I had it for a couple of weeks, so it did affect the end of my track season. Over the summer, I was just hoping to get back to normal. I was thinking I could take it easy for a little bit, start training and I would be back in a week or two.”

While Richardson had every intention of being back and stronger than ever for the 2014 cross country season, she still was not seeing any progression in her recovery as the summer passed by. Her health became such an issue that her running career was starting to become jeopardized.

“It was starting to take a toll on me just a little bit,” Richardson said. “But I knew if I could get back to running by the beginning of September, I would be fine for the cross country season. Then August rolled around and I’m not better, September rolls around and I’m still not better and it just kept going on and on. I was really afraid that I wasn’t going to able to run again and that thought came across my mind every day. I wasn’t able to come back until basically January. It was really hard, mentally, to be out of the sport for a while, even going to practice and seeing my teammates doing really well.”

As Richardson’s health started improving, she began to make progress and started running again in November of 2014. Even though Richardson was able to make a full recovery from her sickness by January of 2015, it was still a difficult process of getting back into the necessary condition and competing at the level she was once at before she got sick.

“When I was trying to come back, I would try to run as far as I could without getting really tired and Coach gave me a heart rate monitor so I wouldn’t overwork myself,” Richardson said. “When I started coming back in January to compete for indoor track, I was kind of scared but I knew it was a blessing to be running at that point because a lot of people told me while I was sick that I may have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I was focused on trying to balance getting better, getting fit and getting back to where I should be and not for my mono to relapse and come back.”

With a constant work ethic and perseverance to overcome her illness, Richardson was able to return for the indoor and outdoor track seasons in 2015, including qualifying for the 1,500-meter run at the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon.

The whole process that Richardson went through from coming back from mononucleosis is marked as one of the biggest accomplishments that she has personally achieved, in her opinion.
“My biggest accomplishment was definitely getting to nationals last year in track, but overcoming mono was a big thing as well,” Richardson said. “I didn’t doubt I could overcome it, things just got scary for a while.”

Now that Richardson has recovered fully from the mono, her personal expectations entering the year were just as high as before her health started to decline. With more experience under her belt, she hopes to make nationals this season, which she has never done before in her cross country career at KU.

“The goal every season is to make it to nationals,” Richardson said. “I’m just a little nervous because I didn’t have that cross country season last year, but I don’t doubt I can be a lot better than I was (my) sophomore year. I just don’t remember cross country really well because the last competition I had in this sport was in 2013.”

With the Kansas coaches still cautious in bringing Richardson back too quickly, she has yet to run for the Jayhawks this cross country season. She hopes to return to the Jayhawks’ lineup in the near future which is essential to meet her goal of qualifying for nationals, as the Pre-Nationals meet is scheduled to be run on Saturday, Oct. 17 in Louisville, Kentucky.

With Richardson continuing to battle her way back from injury and overcoming the major obstacle of mononucleosis, she is determined to run through all other uncertainties in her life path. She has been dealt and continues to deal with many different adverse elements during the course of her college career, but has been able to persevere and come out on top through it all. With her constant resiliency, Richardson will forever have the persistence and the heart of a Jayhawk. 

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