Alexa Westley has taken an amazing and improbable journey to become one of the best distance runners in the country.
Two years ago when she was a sophomore preparing for her first cross-country season at Warren Hills, you couldn't find anyone outside of Warren County who knew much about Westley.
But that all changed on November, 16, 2016 when Westley shocked herself and everyone else at Holmdel Park by finishing fourth at the NJ XC Meet of Champions in 18:48. That was 27 seconds faster than the 19:15 that she ran to place seventh at the state Group 3 meet the week before at Holmdel. And the 18:48 was representsed the first time Westley ever broke 19 minutes on any course!
A star was born.
Westley, wo plays basketball in the winter, proved that her performance wasn't a fluke when she won the 3,200 at the 2017 Outdoor Meet of Champions in 10:35.41.
Then as a junior last year, she smashed the course record at Greystone Park with a time of 17:23 when she captured the North Jersey, Sec. 2 Group 3 title. Despite illness at the State Group 3 and M of C races, Westley still placed sixth at the M of C in a Holmdel PR of 18:31, and capped her campaign by placing 11th at the Nike Northeast Regional
Last spring, Westley won her second straight 3,200 at the M of C in a PR of 10:30.06, ran a PR of 4:59.05 in the 1,600, and earned All American honors by placing third in the 5K at the New Balance Nationals in 17:03.95.
Now Westley is heading into her senior XC season hungry to win her first M of C title on the trails and qualify for Nike Nationals.
Check out this in depth Q and A interview with Westley, which ranges from her summer training, goals for this season, how and why she got into running, college plans, her passionate fan club, and her meteoric rise from unknown to superstar.
Q&A with Alexa Westley of Warren Hills
Tell me about your summer training. How many miles a week have you been running? Where have you been running and what did you do differently in your summer training compared to last year?
After New Balance Nationals, my coaches gave me about two weeks off to relax and recover from the season. After my break, the month of July I started building up again, doing light runs and about 30-40 miles a week. For the most part, I would run either at my high school track, or on our XC course behind my school. Some days, our team would meet at the Columbia Trail, which is a flat trail that is super easy and perfect for longer distance runs. I have always been a big believer in cross training. I have seen the benefits it has provided and know it will continue to give me throughout my career.
Did you go to a running camp? Which camp and when, and what did you take away from your experience at the camp?
Yes, for the last two summers, I attended High Peaks Elite Distance Camp in Lake Placid NY. My uncle found this camp last year, and suggested I attend. At first I was very hesitant about going since it was so far away and I wouldn't know anyone there. I decided to go and had the most amazing time, both years. I met great athletes and motivating counselors who made this camp such an great experience. In addition, the camp is held at the US Olympic Training Center which made for a pretty awesome week! We hiked some of the highest mountains, and training at high altitude which was very challenging, but useful. I learned the importance of altitude training, importance of recovery, and what I could do to improve my running bio-mechanics to help me run more efficiently. Next year, the camp director, Rick Guido, has asked me to come back as a camp leader to help the campers, and teach a class of my own. I encourage every runner to attend a running camp, the opportunity to run, have fun, meet new people and learn all at the same time, is completely worth it.
After finishing fourth as a sophomore and sixth last year at the XC Meet of Champions, how hungry and motivated are you to finish first this season?
This season, I am more hungry and motivated than ever to win. I didn't have the finish last fall I had hoped for. I was so excited with my time and race at sectionals, and then unfortunately was sick at groups. By the time MoC hit, I was still very weak which made it difficult to have the strength necessary to race your best especially a course like Holmdel. I know I can do much better and I am determined to to show how fast I can really run at Holmdel for the last time my senior year. I am more driven than ever and would love to bring Warren Hills its first individual cross country state champion. Our school holds only one team title from 1967, so to be the first individual XC state champion is a goal I would love to achieve this fall.
What would it mean to you to win the XC Meet of Champions title? You already have 2 outdoor M of C titles, so I would think winning it all in XC is something you've been thinking about for a while and something that's probably your No. 1 goal?
To win an XC state title would mean everything to me. I know that sounds cliche to say, but it is 100% true. It is one of, if not my top goal the season and yes, something I have thought about for a while. Winning back to back outdoor M of C titles in the 3200 is so unbelievably rewarding I worked so hard to achieve those titles. Every time I race I want to be the best I can be. So without a doubt earning a XC title would be awesome! I would love to win the title this year as a senior! I will need to put everything together both physically and mentally and truly leave all I have out on that course.
How satisfying and how awesome was it to end your outdoor season with such a great performance at New Balance Nationals with that 17:03 to place third and earn All-American?
The end of track season was truly indescribable. Still thinking back to it now, gives me goosebumps and a feeling unlike no other. Sometimes I like to look back at the photos and relive parts of the race. That day was a whirlwind of emotions. I had never ever raced at a race that big or at NBNO. In fact, this race was only my second 5k on the track. I had a huge PR of 32 seconds running a 17:03. Now I want to break 17 so badly. That final lap I was in 7th place. I heard the bell and knew I wanted to be standing on that All-American podium more than anything. I hit a gear that I've been training to use all year. I passed two girls at the 300m mark, then kicked even more to pass two more on the final 100m. Crossing that finish and looking over to see both my parents crying, screaming, and beaming from ear to ear is a sight and feeling I will never forget!
What did the 17:03 and third place finish tell you about yourself? I think it proved you can run with anyone in the country, and it must have been a huge confidence builder heading into this season?
That time of 17:03 and 3rd place finish proved to me that all the hard work and dedication each and every day can truly pay off. Coaches, friends, and family tell me my hard working nature, drive for success and attention to details will set you apart. Pushing yourself through on the days when your workout isn't going 100% or the mornings your dragging. I believe training your hardest at all times, eating right and proper rest, truly committing to all aspects of running will make the difference in the end. To be top in the country gives me a sense of pride and confidence that's hard to explain. That night after I finished the 5k, I couldn't fall asleep for hours. My heart was still racing, and I remember laying in my hotel just playing my race over and over. Yes, this race, out of all the races I have raced in, proved to me I can run with the fastest girls from across the country. It is a confidence builder but I do know how very hard I will need to continue to work this fall because our NJ roster of runners is super talented.
What are some of your biggest goals for this season besides winning M of C? Are you targeting any course records? Trying to lower your course record at Greystone? What is your time goal for Holmdel Park? How about Nike Nationals. You were 11th at the Nike Regional last year, so I would think making to Nike Nationals is a huge goal for you?
This XC season I have many goals I am hoping to accomplish. First, I definitely want to lower my Greystone time significantly. I want to get to 17:05 or so, maybe even under 17? Who knows what's possible to achieve! As for Holmdel, I ran an 18:31 last season after being sick which I was very proud of, but my goal this year is to run under 18:10. That time has always been a Holmdel time that I wanted to attain. Absolutely, making it to NXN is way up at the top along with my goal for an XC state title. After being so close last year, I would love the opportunity to be able to run at Nike Nationals with the nation's best female XC runners from across the country.
Same plan as last year for you? Run XC, play hoops, and run outdoors? Or are you planning to run indoors in your senior year?
Most people thought I would have given up playing basketball either my junior or senior season. However, I want to finish my winter sports high school career playing basketball with my team. We have such a talented and truly amazing girls program with super high expectations we are hoping to achieve this year. I am confident and very proud of my decision to play basketball all four years. I have a role on my team, and I do not want to let my teammates, or my coaches down by not being able to fill that role in my senior year.
Most great runners give up other sports at some point in high school to focus on running. But you have stuck with hoops and it has worked out great for you. Tell me about that decision. Do you keep playing hoops because it gives you a good mental break between running seasons? Or is it just your pure love for the game of basketball?
You're right. Pretty much everyone in the running community has asked me if I will give up basketball, or tell me why I should be running indoor. I made the decision to play on my own, and I am happy with my choice. I am passionate about basketball and I have played with some of my teammates since 5th grade. My family and friends have always supported whatever choice I wanted to make. College coaches that are recruiting me, love that I play basketball. They have all brought it up and stated various reasons why, stating it shows I am a well rounded athlete, that it gives me a mental break from running and physically the cross training aspect. And they look forward to training me all year round once I'm in college to see what I can achieve. Physically, I work on sprinting and endurance on the court, lateral motions, and muscles that I normally never use. Mentally, it does give me a bit of a break from the stress or nervousness that running can bring. In addition to high school ball, I also have been playing on the AAU circuit for the NJ Blaze, playing travel for many years. In fact, I was able to play mid summer with my team in Washington D.C. at US Junior Nationals. What a great experience! Obviously I can't play during my running seasons so being back on the court in the summer helping my team make it to the championship round that week was truly rewarding. Basketball also gives me a chance to play with a team, pushing and supporting each other on the court together. For the most part my running career was individual, so it is super fun to get to really compete within a team setting.
Many people would see it as a disadvantage for a runner to play basketball while most other runners are competing indoors. The feeling is that you'd fall behind the runners who competed indoors. But that hasn't been the case for you. Why do you think that is?
My sophomore year was definitely eye opening to me. It showed me and those around me that I had made the correct choice in playing basketball. Going into outdoor season, I was nervous that I would be behind my main competition. After running workouts in the beginning of the season, after all the snow finally melted, I saw that I was running the same times I was running at the end of XC or faster. Throughout basketball season, I cross train and run on the side. So I am still getting great workouts in, just without all the heavy pounding on my feet and legs. I use that time to get stronger for the grueling track season that is coming ahead. Also, once basketball season is coming to an end, I get more excited to finally start full time running again. It makes me more hungry to train harder, and I feel I am able to perform better because I am well rested and recovered from the long XC season.
When is your first race this season and what is your schedule like? Are you racing at the Bowdoin Classic and Shore Coaches? Any other big invitationals?
My XC will be quite different than it has ever been before. Between racing, official visits, and training, my coaches and I made the decision to limit what meets I would run at. They want me to take as many visits as I need, and not worry about missing meets. For now, my first race will be at Bowdoin, but it may be at Shore Coaches; we haven't made that final choice yet. I will still be racing the same races at the end of the year. I want to make sure I am ready for my first race, so we will decide what's best at that time.
Have you lined up any official college visits yet? If so, where and when?
The recruitment process has been overwhelming, exciting and fun! I am extremely grateful running has given me the opportunity to be recruited by colleges all over the country. I'm honored to have spoken to so many of the Ivy League Colleges, and overall so many terrific schools. I have enjoyed the process of getting to know so many wonderful coaches and learn about their programs. I have taken a lot of unofficials to get a feel for the campus. I have already had to make tough decisions along the way. In doing so I have three officials lined up so far. My criteria in making choices are: a strong health/sports science department, a top distance program in the country, and a connection to the coach. So far, I am planning to visit Penn State, Wisconsin, and Furman. I am currently talking to Syracuse, Oregon and others right now as I continue to narrow down my decisions. I am still deciding which other schools I will take officials to. I am really looking forward to my visits so I can get the overall feel for the environment and the dynamics of the team. That will eventually help lead me to my final selection.
What do you love the most about running? And what do you love the most about running in NJ?
Honestly, there is so much to love about running. At first, I wasn't too sure, but very quickly I completely fell in love with everything the sport has to offer. The difficulty continues to challenge me each day, allows me to meet amazing and talented people who share the same love I do, and getting the chance to travel all over to race. I have never done a sport like running before. Going out on a run clears my head from whatever stress or emotion I might be feeling. And the feeling from having a great workout or race gives you a rush that is unique and only comes from running. I see myself always running in the future. I am so lucky to have come from NJ. Not only do we have some of the best and prettiest places to run, I have had the chance to race some of the best girls. My conference is so difficult, since I am up against teams like Ridge, North Hunterdon, Pingry, and Voorhees all in the same race. Racing against the amazing talent from all of NJ has pushed me to get better, and I am super excited to get racing again this season.
Also, in NJ we get to experience all four seasons while running. XC season is so beautiful because the leaves are changing and the cool fall weather is the best to run in! I have loved getting the opportunity to race at so many gorgeous parks and courses; each one different in its own way. I love racing on new courses, and old ones too, haha. Holmdel, the course of all NJ courses, is one of my favorites. I love the physical challenge of the course and the intensity you feel every race at Holmdel. Some of my other favorite courses/meets I have raced at were Natirar Park, Garrett Mountain, Van Cortlandt, Greystone for XC and then the Holmdel Twilight Meets, the Armory, NBN, and racing at Northern Burlington High School for states (track) both years.
Also, a huge shout out to all the amazing NJ running fans and supporters. The intensity and excitement they bring to each meet is unlike anything I have ever been apart of. NJ running is special, and until you watch a state XC or track meet, you wouldn't understand the thrill of being in a race or the passion the crowds brings for the runners. My school and community have been there the entire way to support me. Community, friends and family always come out to my races to cheer me on. The police/fire/ambulance escorted me home from states, meeting my bus on the highway as we headed back to the school (sirens and all), and had close to 200 students line the parking lot when I got home from states as well. The town invited me to be in the 4th of July Parades with other state champion teams from Warren Hills.
What can you say about the amazing journey you have take to become such a big distance running star? You were a soccer player as a freshman, and only tried track as a freshman to stay in shape for soccer? And now you're one of the best runners in the country! How crazy is it for you when you think about where you were a few years ago and where you are now? And who gets the credit for talking you into trying outdoor track in your freshman year?
My running journey so far has been incredible, and has given me some of the best times of my life. I remember in sophomore XC season when you said (at the M of C) that you didn't know who I was, and how from now on you'll never forget my name.
I wanted to run track in high school, but the middle school coaches, Coach Diveny and Coach Kavcak encouraged me to try it. They said they saw something unique in me, but I didn't really understand. I played soccer and basketball, then decided to run hoping it would get me ready for my midfield position in soccer. I ended up making it to Groups in the 3200, and just missing the school record by less than .5 seconds and 4 seconds in the mile. Something hit me, and I realized that I may actually love this sport and see potential for myself. My high school coaches, Coach Kurpat and Coach Carroll, the jumping coach, Mrs. Potter, and a few of the upperclassmen boys on the team at that time, Brian, Ethan, Scott, and Zach all inspired me to give cross-country running a shot.
So sophomore year I went out for XC. I went through the first month of XC not really sure if I was loving it. We had a scrimmage meet, and then I fell in love. I decided to quit soccer after 10 years of playing at a high level. I was always competitive, and extremely driven. I saw the top girls in the state and the times they ran, and told my coaches, "I want to do that." I have, and continue to train my absolute best each day, doing everything I can to get better and become more successful. My family and friends are the best. I am so fortunate to have such awesome support.
My parents, aunts, uncles, friends, and grandma come to all my races. They have signs, posters and bells to cheer me on. My friends came to my state meets to cheer me on (shoutout to Billy, Will, John, Joey, Taras, Eddie, Brian, Emily, Julia, Lianna, and Nicolette). Also thanks to my best friend Nicole, and boyfriend Sam for their endless support and love. I am so fortunate to have the best cheering section, to support me every step of the way. Looking back to freshman year as a soccer player, I would have never dreamed of being where I am today. Flash forward to junior season as an All American and 2x State Champion. I can't wait for this year, my senior year, and the next chapter of my life at college!''