By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – She has been the mark of consistency for NorthWood’s program. And for it, Kaitlin Burden will be running on the biggest stage in Indiana cross country.
Burden qualified as an individual for the IHSAA Cross Country State Finals, the junior posting a career-best time of 19:38 to finish 24th overall at Huntington. Feeling like she is hitting an apex, Burden is reaching the level she’s been after all season.
Burden’s 2020 season has been very consistent. She’s been racing up near the front or leading the whole race herself. Taking total control of NorthWood’s home invite in late August, Burden grabbed the medalist honor and her 2020 was off to a great start. Combined with a third-place finish at the Warsaw Invite the week before, Burden then added a second and fourth in the two Northern Lakes Conference meets in September, the second seeing Burden posting a sub-20 for the first time in her junior season at 19:58.
A 19:42 at the Northern Lakes Conference Championships saw Burden again chasing Northridge’s Haylee Hile, unable to catch the Ridge sophomore sensation in any of the three conference competitions. But, the framework was being established.
“Competing against Haylee was so good for me,” Burden said. “I never beat her, but it was helpful because we were at a lot of the same meets, so I always did my best to keep her in view and do my best to close the distance between us. Sometimes it was frustrating because I would have a lot of plans to run side by side with her for parts of the race, and then she`d end up pulling away really early on.”
Burden again chased Hile in the state tournament, and after the two finished one-two at the sectional, Burden dropped back to ninth at the regional. It was the semi-state round, however, where Burden had to read between the lines. As NorthWood failed to advance to the New Haven Semi-state as a team, Burden had to truly run as a solo act.
And while Burden was 24th overall in the loaded racing field that featured No. 1 Fort Wayne Carroll and perennial contenders from Fishers, Hamilton Southeastern and Penn among others, she posted a career-best 19:38.
“I was really nervous to have to run my best race at a course I’ve only ran once before, especially after running Ox Bow a lot,” Burden said. “My only strategy was to get out extra fast because I didn’t want to get stuck in the pack. I knew my first mile needed to be in the 5:50’s, then I found my pace and settled in. I went all out on the downhills, knowing I`d recover and shortened my stride on the uphills because that’s where most runners tend to slow down.”
The journey now becomes even more unfamiliar, with the trail ending at the LaVern Gibson course in Terre Haute, site of the IHSAA Cross Country State Championships. Burden is a mere one of 208 runners who will toe the line Saturday at 11:30 a.m. While the NorthWood girls program has been well-stocked with quality runners over the years, Burden becomes just the third Panther runner to crack the semi-state code and advance to state. Burden joins Brooke Tobias (1998) and Cynthia Medina (2010) as the state finalists in the team’s history.
And as long as coach Mark Mikel has been involved with the running community, Burden is the first he’s coached to the state finals.
“The plan was to get out behind the lead pack early, and then find a rhythm and a group to run with,” Mikel said of the semi-state strategy. “Don’t give up any position on the uphills and use the downhills to recover and speed up to pass someone. When she passed me at about the two mile marker, I could see she was in good position and looked strong. I started getting a bit emotional at that point because I knew she was going to do it. She executed the plan pretty flawlessly in my opinion, and obviously she did what she needed to do to advance to Terre Haute.
“Kaitlin is one of those student athletes who you would love to claim as your daughter — kind, humble, caring, helping others,” continued Mikel. “But once the gun goes off and it’s race time, she is all business and is willing to go to the levels of effort needed to be one of the best in the region and hopefully, on Saturday, one of the best in the state of Indiana.”