Catholic's Gonzalez runs to her own playlist

When Catholic's Ellie Gonzalez was 10 years old, her dad took her to run laps at the track for the first time.

"At the end, he said, 'Let's race,'" Gonzalez said. "And I was faster without shoes, so I took my shoes off, and I raced him and I beat him."

The senior has gotten even more used to winning since that day, building an impressive running resume that grew last month when she won the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland cross country championship by one minute and 12 seconds over runner-up Kristen Kohles of John Carroll.

Gonzalez had already established herself as the best female long-distance runner in the Baltimore area. In the last year, she was named the Gatorade Maryland Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year and The Baltimore Sun's Girls Athlete of the Year.

Anibal Gonzalez has remained part of the story along the way — both as father, and coach.

When Ellie Gonzalez started her freshman year in cross country Anibal, who ran track at Mount St. Mary's, was content with watching from the sideline. But when she came home from practice the first week and didn't feel challenged, he felt the need to do something — Anibal wanted to coach his daughter.

"We had to make a decision," he said. "If we're really going to have a decent go at this, I want to be able to help."

Cathy Kerns was only in her second year as Catholic's coach at the time. She wanted to have an "old school" approach, like her coach when she attended Catholic from 2001 to 2005, and was conflicted when Anibal Gonzalez approached her.

"It was difficult, to be honest," said Kerns, who ran cross country and played tennis at Stevenson before graduating in 2009.

The school and coach were reluctant, but eventually let Anibal coach Ellie.

The transition was difficult for everyone involved. Kerns, who said she was happy for Ellie Gonzalez's success, worries about the "weird dynamic" of having a runner separated from the team.

Ellie, meanwhile, said she joined cross country to represent her school and be part of a team, but her teammates were the ones who questioned her most.

"It's been a journey. At first, people didn't really understand why I was getting different treatment," she said. "But it has gotten better over the years."

The decision panned out in competition. Ellie Gonzalez, who has only been running regularly for three and a half years, broke the five-minute mile as a freshman and last year won her section at the 2013 New Balance Indoor Championships.

Her quick ascent might seem surprising, but her dad sees it as the result of quantifiable work.

"The plan is to improve between 1 and 3 percent every year. It's not terribly complicated, it's not very sophisticated," he said. "Her running times correlated with the training we were doing."

The plan includes two "hard days" a week, usually involving repeat 800-yard or 1,000-yard sprints. It involves running longer distances in between hard days, with a day off from running once every two weeks. The plan doesn't take a break for holidays or summer vacation.

Most importantly, the plan is a constant dialogue between a coach and his daughter.

"I'm not married to a workout," Anibal said. "There have been days when we had something specific in the workout planned and Ellie has gone to me and said, 'Dad, I don't have it in me today.' And I said, 'OK,' and we'll change it."

The plan has led to numerous awards, but the many medals and trophies, are in a box stored unceremoniously under Ellie's bed. Even in her IAAM championship win this year, the ultra-competitive runner was disappointed because her time was 27 seconds off last year's championship pace.

"I'd rather get second and run a good time any day, than get first," said Gonzalez, whose mother, Carol, also ran track at Mount St. Mary's. "Every race I'm in, even when I race by myself, I'm racing the clock."

"We don't run for rewards," Anibal Gonzalez said. "We don't run for recognition. We run because we love running."

With a 4.36 GPA going into her senior year, Ellie has already drawn interest for both her athletic and academic prowess. She has official visits set for Brown and Cornell, and hopes to add Georgetown to that list.

"Because my high school career has been disjointed with coaching, I want to find a coach who I can build a relationship with," she said. "I want to be able to connect with the people on my team."

For now though, Ellie is enjoying her senior season. Her younger sister, Bridget, is a sophomore on the team. When they were younger, they would play tag and race in the street.

"I never wanted to because she would always beat me," Bridget said.

Ellie Gonzalez beats most, of course, even her father that day as a 10-year-old. Right?

"I guess he probably let me win," Ellie Gonzalez said, as if considering that possibility for the first time. "But, it was still fun."

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