Log In

Reset Password
Sports Youth Sports Professional Sports More Sports College Sports High School Sports

Fort Lewis' Katie Heck running toward end of incredible career

Heck begins her senior year of track and field on Saturday
Katie Heck of Fort Lewis College competes in a track and field event. (Courtesy FLC Athletics)

It was a punishment in middle school that changed the course of Katie Heck’s athletic career.

Heck grew up in Lyons and is the youngest of three sisters. After seeing her older sisters take up pole vaulting, Heck had it planned out for her to run track and do pole vaulting in high school. She sprinted in track in middle school but in eighth grade, Heck forgot to sign up for some events and was punished.

“In eighth grade track, I actually got in trouble,” Heck said. “I was told to run the mile as my punishment and it totally backfired because I loved it. I did pretty well in it. Then I went off to cross country the following year in eighth grade.”

Fast forward almost a decade. Heck is coming off a cross country season where she earned All-American honors after finishing 22nd in the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships.

It was her second All-American honor for cross country and her third overall, not bad for someone who thought they were going to quit cross country in high school to focus on whitewater kayaking.

Heck started competing in whitewater kayaking and track and field in sixth grade after she realized she was “bad at literally anything with a ball.” She ran track and cross country in high school but trained for whitewater kayaking in the summer.

Heck took her whitewater kayaking training so seriously that once she got her driver’s license, she left home for 32 days, slept in her car and trained in the Arkansas Valley.

She became so good that she was able to compete around the world in whitewater kayaking, including the world championships in Argentina during her sophomore year.

“I had gotten back from the world championships in the fall of my sophomore year,” Heck said. “I was just super invested in the kayaking and I was not in running shape at all. I came back to race in that first meet of the season, my junior year, and I was so out of shape. And I had this little freshman who had just joined the team and she was so amazing.”

That little freshman was Quin Gregg, who is currently a distance runner at Colorado Mesa. Gregg and Heck are good friends now but Heck got so discouraged by how Gregg was able to talk to her while Heck was struggling to maintain that pace that Heck told her to run ahead and Gregg did.

“By the end of the season, I had gotten in the car and I said, ‘Mom, I'm quitting, I hate running, this is so stupid,” Heck said. “She basically just laughed and said ‘OK, well, you can quit once you cool down and you still want to make that decision in a few days, then I'll support you.’ Sure enough, a few days later, I cooled off and I wanted to be a mentor and I want to see both of us get better. By the end of by the end of that season, we went one-two at state. I was the state champion and she was runner-up.”

Despite Heck’s success in cross country in high school, Fort Lewis was the only college that was recruiting her for cross country, and not track. Pole vault was Heck’s main focus. She wanted to run track as well, but she wanted to go to Utah State and walk onto its pole vault team.

However, because of COVID-19, Heck’s senior track season got canceled and she hit the marks she needed in pole vault. Heck then decided to change her plans and go to Fort Lewis, primarily because of its affordability with in-state tuition.

“I didn't love cross country, either,” Heck said. “It was kind of a financial decision because I had the opportunity, and it was such a beautiful place and they have really great kayaking in Durango. So that was a factor of my decision, plus the skiing, the climbing, and it had everything that I wanted in Durango. So I just picked the school more for the location than anything else. The location, the affordability and then just fell in love with it completely when I got here.”

Heck’s love for cross country grew once she arrived at Fort Lewis. She realized she enjoyed the team aspect of it and the opportunity to lead a team to nationals.

After competing solo in the 2022 NCAA Division II national championships by way of an at-large bid, she led the Skyhawks’ whole team to the big dance in November.

“It became really surreal when I was actually there, and I was on the line and had that excitement and nervousness and anxiety and all the feelings on the line of nationals but then to have my team there with me. It was completely incredible,” Heck said.

Now Heck is entering her final season of track and field after she was national runner-up, RMAC champion and All-American in the 1,500-meter race. She also holds the school record in the 800 meters.

Once again, it was an unconventional route for Heck to reach that accomplishment.

In high school, Heck viewed herself as a sprinter and thought she’d only do the 400- or 800-meter races in college. But halfway through her sophomore year, after her coaches said she’d be better off in the 1,500-meter race. After some pushback, Heck ran the 1,500 meters and was one-tenth of a second off the school record in her first meet.

However, a mysterious back injury this past February halted her progress. She got so discouraged by the injury and lack of training that she stopped following competitors from other schools on Instagram because she couldn’t compare herself to them.

So Heck and Skyhawks coach Shawn Jakubowski, in his first season at the time, decided that she would focus on her training and the RMAC championships instead of nationals. It paid off, as she qualified for both the 800-meter and 1500-meter for nationals, but she only ran in the 1500-meter due to her injury.

“She's very coachable,” Jakubowski said. “She trusted the process throughout the years that I've coached her and she never doubts me. She knows at the end of the day it's going to make her better. She's just probably one of the most coachable athletes I've ever had.”

Jakubowski raved about Heck’s versatility and how it’s very rare to see an athlete like Heck who’s good at high and low distances.

After finishing second overall in the 1500-meter race last season, Heck wants to be a national champion in either the 800-meter or 1,500-meter race, but she recognizes it won’t be easy at the ultracompetitive Division II level.

Collegiate runners are different from other college athletes because they don’t get breaks like other athletes do, according to Heck. They’re always training or running races. Heck says she usually takes two weeks off after both cross country and track season.

The weekend after track nationals, Heck got married in June. She changed her last name from Fankhauser to Heck after marrying Caleb Heck.

Heck credits her husband with providing a great support system as she’s dealt with her injuries, and also helping her see the bigger picture.

She plans on furthering her dog training business, Durango Dog, after graduating from Fort Lewis. She hopes to get a facility and more certifications after graduation, translating her speed on the trails and track into quickly training someone’s dog.


Reader Comments