It’s not uncommon for kids to attempt to follow in the footsteps of their parents. From the outside looking in, it might seem like Air Academy senior Katie Rainsberger is taking that philosophy a bit literally.
Katie is a runner. In fact, she might be the best high school runner in the country. Gatorade certainly thought so when they named her the national cross country runner of the year this winter. She is on her way to Oregon where she will continue her running career, hopefully reaching new heights along the way.
Heights that her mother has already reached. Lisa Rainsberger (Weidenbach) is the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon, the world’s longest-running annual marathon.
Mother and daughter together will have quite the running résumé built up by the time Katie is done competing.
But that wasn’t the plan. Lisa was determined to have her daughter figure out her own passions in life. Pushing Katie as a runner wasn’t what Lisa wanted to do.
“I tried to keep her from running as long as possible,” Lisa says. “When she was a little girl she played basketball for the [YMCA] and she played club soccer. I wanted her find what she was passionate about.”
Katie’s first taste of the running world came when she tried out for the Cheyenne Mountain Junior High team.
She didn’t try out for the team because her mom was a runner. Katie had her own reasons.
First, Cheyenne Mountain didn’t have a soccer team. That’s what Katie thought she would ultimately play as a she got older.
The second reason?
“She was nervous about starting a new school,” Lisa says. “Cross country practices started the week before school, so she said, ‘Mom, if I go to cross country practices, I’ll meet a bunch of new people before school starts.’”
That was the first step in what appears to be footsteps – as in, Katie following in Lisa’s.
But the passion wasn’t there yet. It would still take some time to manifest. When there’s a former Boston Marathon winner in the family, however, there’s a history that can speed the process along.
It started with a trip to a place where Lisa lives in immortality.
It was in 2010 – the year of Katie’s first season on a cross country team – and Lisa took her daughter to Boston for the 25th anniversary of her win at the Boston Marathon.
For the first time in her life, Katie began to understand just how successful her mom had been at the sport.
“I got to see clips of her winning the Boston Marathon and I got to see the impact she had on other people and I think that was the first glimpse I got into her accomplishments,” says Katie. “That was the first time it really clicked.”
It wasn’t difficult for Lisa to see that her daughter was starting to comprehend the impact of that win in 1985.
She fondly recalls the look on Katie’s face as everything donned on her. As she spoke of the memory, it was as if she had planned to win the most competitive race in the world, just so her daughter could have this revelation.
“She just kind of looked at me and said, ‘Mom, you’re a rock star.’ Just the way she said it, I think that was when it donned on her that I wasn’t just the lady who did the laundry and made meals and went grocery shopping. I’ll never forget that.”
It was about two years after the experience in Boston that Katie decided she was going to be a runner. It wasn’t because of any feeling of obligation to the sport. It wasn’t because her mother was pushing her; she wasn’t.
Katie had played everything. She had developed her own sense of what she loved to do and what she wanted to do going forward.
And she wanted to be a runner.
“I think I decided midway through my freshman year of high school that running was going to be my thing,” Katie says. “I think that I’m very much my own person and I’ve created my own path through running. As inspiring as her accomplishments are, I think though it may seem from an outside perspective that I’m following in her footsteps; I really am trying to create my own path and not be ‘her daughter,’ per se.”
But if it walks like the daughter of an elite distance and talks like the daughter of an elite distance runner, odds are, it is the daughter of an elite distance runner.
In her four years running the state championship cross country race, Katie finished second as a freshman and sophomore. She won the event as a junior and senior. At the state track and field meet, she placed second in the 800- and 1,600-meter races as a freshman and sophomore. Last year as a junior, she won both races and even added a win in the 3,200. Later in May, she’ll try to repeat those feats.
The only runner to ever beat Rainsberger at state was Niwot’s Elise Cranny, who went on to win Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors at Stanford in 2014.
Lisa certainly looks on the wins with pride, but this would be the case even if Katie wasn’t the first one crossing the finish line.
“You would think I’m most proud of the fact that she’s winning and she’s at the top of her game, and that would be the logical thing to think,” Lisa says. “But what I’m most proud of is her pure joy and love for running.”
And Lisa has certainly been a contributing factor through it all. She had played the dual role of mom and coach to Katie, which at times, has made for an interesting dynamic.
“A couple of years ago, Katie came home and we were having a little discussion and I guess it got pretty intense and she says, ‘Okay, are you talking to me right now as my mom or as my coach?’” Lisa recalls. “I stopped and realized that I didn’t know. So we made boundaries. I’ll tell her that I want to talk to her about tomorrow’s workout and ask when’s a good time so I can talk to her as a coach.”
But at her heart, Lisa is a mom. She wants to know what’s going on in her kid’s life. She still gets concerned with motherly things like who might be lucky enough to take her daughter to prom.
Katie will be the first to say that figuring out how to separate those aspects of their relationship took time.
“We have a code phrase – a look – and if I give her the ‘Mom, I’m going to bed, you’re supposed to be my mom, not my coach’ look, then she knows that we’ve talked enough running,” Katie says with a laugh. “There’s a little connection that we have so we know if I’m looking for advice or talking about a workout or a race or if I just want to tell her about my day. At first it was a little difficult, but after a few years of working together, we know each other well enough to know when to talk running and when she’s just ‘Mom.’”
Now that Katie is on the verge of leaving the nest, there is lingering question that consumes those in the know. It’s now been 31 years since an American woman has won the Boston Marathon.
Can the person who takes that title away from Lisa Larsen Weidenbach be her own daughter?
As was the case early on, if that’s an achievement that Katie wants to chase, Lisa is going to let her daughter figure that out on her own.
“For her, that’s a whole lot of pressure,” Lisa says. “Every season of cross country, every season of track, I want her to walk away learning something and improving. It’s the personal improvement piece that keeps it fun.
“When she starts chasing my records, if she’s chasing my performances or finishes, it becomes a job. We don’t talk about her running the Boston Marathon one day or talk about her making the Olympics. What we do talk about is what we can do this week, how can we can be better this week, how can we be better this season.”
But make no mistake, there has been a point in her life where Katie has dreamed of matching her mom’s accomplishment in Boston.
“Each year that I’ve gone into high school, over the summer I create a bulletin board of goals and then I take that bulletin board and I put it on a poster board,” Katie says. “My freshman year, my No. 1 goal was to win the Boston Marathon.”
As she has matured as runner and a person, she’s come to understand that any attempt to win that race is still in the future. She wants to enjoy her experience at Oregon and continue to push herself as an athlete. And if the Boston Marathon one day comes calling, it’s hard to imagine that she wouldn’t take on the challenge.
Regardless, she’ll adopt a stance she’s had her entire life: She won’t use her mom’s accomplishments to drive what she does. That means if she gets into the race, she’ll do her best for herself; she won’t run while taking aim at Lisa’s win all those years ago.
“I don’t go to bed wanting to beat my mom or wanting to surpass her accomplishments,” Katie says. “Those are things that she’s achieved and things that she did such a long time ago.”
As a multiple-time state champion runner and the daughter of a Boston Marathon winner, Katie has grown up to be her own person.
Many will look at her and think that she simply followed in Lisa’s footsteps. But those people only see the end result.
Lisa and Katie Rainsberger may one day cross the same the finish line, but they’ll have taken very different routes to get there.