There is a simple strategy behind Elizabeth Donnelly’s racing success.
She keeps pace with the girl in front of her when she runs the 800-meter and longer one-mile races, then passes them on the final stretch. There was little reason for the Langley 14-year-old to change after winning two Cascade League titles and qualifying for the USA Track and Field Junior national championship, set for later this month in Houston.
Donnelly, a tall, slender girl with freckles on her face and a long auburn ponytail, finished in second place in the 800 and in the 1,500-meter races [there is no one-mile event at the youth championship]. She qualified in both events for the national championship held in Houston, Texas from July 21-27.
“I’m kind of nervous, but I’m excited to be racing against faster people,” she said.
Donnelly will be a high school student next year after two years of running cross country and track and field for Langley Middle School. She set the school’s girls 800-meter record, though she only found out after the season ended.
Her training, however, continued. Long ago, she had already decided on racing in the competitions, starting with a late June qualifier in Kent. She finished in second place in the 800 in 2:22 and fourth in the 1,500 in 5:05. Both times meant she moved on to the regional round during the Independence Day weekend in Spokane.
At the regional championship from July 3-6, Donnelly saw athletes from Washington, Oregon and Alaska all vying for spots in the national championship.
Racing this summer has been a solitary activity for her, as she has competed without having a team or club behind her; just her family.
Ahead of the races, Donnelly admitted she researched her competition online. As people signed up to race, she would look up their times and compare them to her own.
“Now I’m obsessively checking who’s going to nationals,” she said.
That kind of fiery competitive nature is what gives her an edge, said her middle school coach. Don Zisette, the head track and field coach at Langley Middle School, credited Donnelly’s ability to push herself through the discomfort of essentially sprinting two laps and pacing four.
“What I remember most is her desire to compete and be successful,” he said.
“She’s a natural distance runner,” he later added.
Running the mid-distance and true distance races was not always natural for her. Donnelly recalled running cross country in seventh grade, a fall sport, playing basketball, then joining track and field. Because she had experience with 3.2-mile races, she was lumped in with the distance racers for the 800 and 1,600 events.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said. “Of course, I do now.”
One person who knew what Donnelly was in for was her mother, Rosie Donnelly. She raced the same events in college, and laughed when her daughter recited her best times. Elizabeth’s best time in the 800 this summer was 2:22 in the 800 — only two seconds off her mom’s best time in college — and 4:59.43 in the 1,500 — nine seconds off her mom’s best mile time.
“She’s only in eighth grade,” her mom said, laughing.
Come July 21, Donnelly wants a rematch. In Spokane, Donnelly’s second-place 800 time of 2:23.16 was bested by 0.02 seconds, essentially a partial stride or a strong lunge at the finish line.
“I’m excited that I qualified,” she said. “I hope the girl that beat me by two-tenths of a second goes so I can have a chance at beating her.”