Feature Friday: Wassell Continues Great Family Legacy

Grace Wassell was born with running in her blood, she's resilient, as tough mentally as they come, extremely driven, and is loaded with talent. 

When you add all that up, you get one of the best distance runners in the state!

The junior at Highland Regional added to her remarkable resume last Saturday when she ran 18:05, the second fastest time in Dream Park history, to win her third straight South Jersey, Group 3 titles. Wassell is just the 11th girl to win three straight SJ sectional titles, and the first from Camden County to pull it off since 1985! 

Running is a way of life in the Wassell family, and Grace is carrying on the great family tradition with another sizzling season on the trails. 

Grace's 3-peat gives the Wassell family six sectional XC titles! Grace's dad, Jay, won the South Jersey, Group 4 titles for Highland in 1994 and '95, and her brother, Cole, won the SJ Group 3 title last year. Grace and Cole (now a freshman at St. Joseph's) became the first brother-sister combination to ever win sectional XC titles in state history.

And Grace's brother, Mason, is a freshman on the XC team at Highland, and her mother (Cherie) also ran at Highland. 

In addition to her great success on the trails, Wassell is also a star on the track. She ran a PR of 2:15.18 to place fifth in the 800m at the Meet of Champions last spring, and has a PR of 5:04.85 in the 1600m, and has also run 62 point in the 400!    
NJ MileSplit caught up with Wassell this week as she prepared for Saturday's State Group Championships at Holmdel Park.

Wassell gave her thoughts on the remarkable season she's having, how much her family has impacted her career, her goals for the State Group 3 race, how she's refused to let injuries keep her from reaching her goals, and a whole lot more. So kick back and enjoy our latest installment of Feature Friday as we shine the spotlight on Highland Regional star Grace Wassell.

NJM: What are your thoughts on becoming a 3-time champion, Grace. Not many runners in state history can say they pulled off the sectional 3-peat. It must mean a lot to you?

 Ever since I won my first sectional title my freshman year, my coaches and parents have engraved in my mind that this was possible. So that definitely gave me a lot of confidence going into the race each year. And for me to slowly make that possibility a reality is so exciting. Winning 3 years in a row has not come easy, but I'm very proud with how far I have come and the amount of success this race has brought me. 

Next year you will have a chance to become just the 12th girl in state history to win 4 sectionals titles!! What would that mean to you, Grace? And how much of a goal is that for you? 

It means so much to me to be able to win these past 3 years and to make it 4 would be crazy. It's been a goal of mine for a while now, and I definitely think I can do it. Sectionals has taught me a lot about the kind of racer and competitor I am, it has shown me what mental toughness and pure determination looks like. Each year I come back and relive the excitement, it definitely leaves me hungry for next year's race and season. 

How about your time of 18:05, Grace!! What does it mean to you to run such a big PR and become the second fastest runner in Dream Park course history?   

Coming across the line I was just so overwhelmed with the excitement of the win that I didn't know what time I ran for a good 5 minutes after the race. I knew that I was capable of running a fast time, but when I heard that I PR'd and ran the second fastest all-time was awesome. Next year I definitely want to try and take down the course record and see how much more I can push myself!

How about the state Group 3 race, Grace.  There are obviously lots of great runners in the race, including yourself. What are your goals for the race as far as time and place?  

 My coaches and I believe I have a chance at top 3, and to fill in one of those places would just be the icing on the cake for a great race as well as a great race performance at MOC. I also want to try for a new PR for the course. I don't think I have had a great race on the course yet so far in my career, so hopefully I can make that happen on Saturday. 

What about after the Meet of Champions? Are you planning to race at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional?

Yes! I've always looked forward to the Foot Locker race and the course. I really like Van Cortlandt and how much the race itself has to offer. I'm hoping for a good performance and to run a race that I'm happy with.

Your times have come down quite a bit in your last two races, so I'm wondering what your training has been like in order to help you keep dropping your PR's? Have you been doing anything different in your training this season?

I have struggled a lot with injuries throughout the past year and a half, so my training has been all over the place. My coaches, parents, doctors, and I have taken steps to adjust my training, mileage, as well as where I do my runs, so that I can become less injury prone, and become more consistent. My current mileage is about 35 miles a week with a solid workout once a week, basic runs, and recovery runs. My mileage may come up a little bit these next couple of weeks, but I am mainly just trying to get back into feeling healthy and being happy with my running overall. 

What were the injuries you had to overcome?

In the winter of my freshman year, I had to take time off because I had what doctors call "runners knee", it was basically just growing pains but it lasted a while. At the end of summer last year in about August, I started having some shin and calf pain. My mom eventually took me to get an MRI and I found out I had bone marrow edema in both of my tibias, so I took 5 weeks off from that and it ended up bothering me again a little bit at the end of the XC season last year, so I missed all of indoor track!
Then this year at the end of August/early September, I took 2 weeks off because of some ankle and shin pain which just came from the way I land on my feet and it creates a lot of stress in those areas. But since then, I've been staying on top of strength training, cross training, and I've recently started doing pilates, which has been really cool to learn about.''

Take me through what summer training was like for you? How many miles a week did you run, where did you do your long runs, who did you run with, and did you go to any XC camps etc?

I had a very successful summer this year. I definitely felt my strongest I ever have and was really enjoying running. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the entire month of July in Boulder, CO! It was an absolutely amazing experience, not only being able to train at altitude there, but the change in scenery and atmosphere there was very enjoyable. I put in the bulk of my summer training there, running about 45-50 miles a week mainly with my dad. Cole flew in for the last 2 weeks so I ran with him occasionally, as well as my younger brother Mason, who is a freshman this year. When I came back home I ran everyday with my team and put in a lot of work mostly with my teammates Princess and Vanessa. And to cap off my summer,  I also went to the RunningWorks camp at the end of August.  That is where I met and got a lot closer with some NJ girls, I had so much fun!

What is your favorite long run  (distance, place, and time) during the summer, and what is your favorite workout during the XC season?

My favorite long run this summer was definitely in Boulder. Me and my dad made up a loop around the Boulder Reservoir that was about 10 miles long. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not the biggest fan of long runs, but that loop made me start to enjoy them a lot more. My favorite workout this summer was at Holmdel, it was 3xmile. We started at the start line, ran until about 800m, then made a sharp right and finished the last 800m of the course. I felt really good that day and it got me excited to race there this season. 

I know you come from a running family, so tell me how much of an impact your dad and Cole have had on your running career, and in what ways they've helped you along the way.

My dad and Cole definitely made a mark in Highland's program. And I strive to do the same. It's also not common either that you get to train with your dad or brother. It definitely makes me feel very grateful that I have them to not only train with, but talk to them and have them completely understand what I'm saying and where I'm coming from. I know they always want to see me be the best I can be, and I'm lucky to be able to call them my dad and brother.

When did you start running, Grace? And did you fall in love with the sport right away?

My family is filled with runners, my parents are both alumni of Highland and actually met through running. So obviously, when they had me and my brothers, they knew they were going to try and put us in running first. And thankfully it worked out and we all enjoyed it! I started running when I was about nine for a rec club in Marlton during the spring. I got hooked on the competitive aspect of it and competing. I didn't always love training, but I always knew at the end of the week on Saturday morning there would be a meet where I could win a blue ribbon! I ran 4x400s and 100s for a long time before in 5th grade when I joined my middle school cross country team, that's when I learned to love the 800 and mile too. I soon figured out I was good at it, so I knew I wanted to continue to do it.   

What do you consider your first big breakthrough race when you started to realize that you had the potential to be a great runner? 

 Definitely sectionals my freshman year. I went into the race knowing I had a shot at winning and I just let that take me through. Being young and inexperienced, I was just along for the ride until about the last mile or so I just decided to take off, beating the 2nd place finisher by 30 seconds or so. That's when I knew I had something really special, and I was going to put in all the work I needed to be able to cross a finish line again feeling the same way I did that day. 

I assume you ran before high school? If so, what are some of your greatest accomplishments as a distance runner before you got to high school?

 At my middle school we only had a XC team, we had a great group of young boys and girls each year winning our conference race my 7th and 8th grade year. Every race was a mile in a half and my PR in 8th grade was a 9:20, which is still a school record. I also continued with my rec club in the spring up until my 8th grade year when I ran a PR for the mile of about 5:38 at a race they held at the end of the year called the "Medford Mile". Where I came really close to beating Kate Rathman's meet record. Another race from middle school that stands out to me a lot was in 2018 at Footlocker. That's when I placed 10th to be recognized on the all northeast team for 13-14 year old girls. 

 What do you love the most about being a distance runner?

This is a hard question because I love a lot about being a distance runner, but what I can say I love a lot is what it teaches me about myself. I've learned a lot from competing and just running in general. I am able to go on a run to clear my head or make myself feel better. My running career has been a prime example of how dedicated I am to being the best athlete and person I can be. I always want to do the extra things to make me that much stronger.

What do you consider your greatest strength as a distance runner?

My greatest strength is my mindset. Half the battle to this sport is your mindset. If you're not staying positive or you're not doing well mentaly, it really affects your performance. You can't sit and feel sorry for yourself for a bad workout or race, you have to get up, keep moving, and narrow in on the next goal you set for yourself. I'm not saying I'm perfect when it comes to it, but I do think I'm good at staying motivated. I try not to let minor setbacks get to me, when a race or run doesn't go my way, I reflect and learn from it and move on. And that's what you have to do. I'm always aiming for the next big thing.  

What's your favorite XC course to run on and why?

My favorite XC course was definitely the old Delsea course. I loved that most of it was in the woods but it was also fast. Now they don't use the course anymore which is sad but what can you do. But if i had to choose one I currently race on, I would probably choose Holmdel. Holmdel is just a staple XC course. My dad always says about any race held there that "this is a quitters race". The hills and course itself are hard but I like it because it shows you how tough you really are and how much you're willing to put up a fight. 

If you could go for a long run with any 4 pro runners (past or present) who would it be and why?

If I could go for a long run with any 4 pro runners I would most likely choose Colleen Quigley, Emma Coburn, Jenny Simpson, and Elle Purrier. They are all fantastic runners that have made a huge impact in American distance running and I just think it would be cool to run and talk with them. I think they would give good advice and I would learn a lot from them. 

What is the most impressive NJ XC/T&F accomplishment you've ever witnessed, and what made it stand out so much to you?

I never thought I would say one of my favorite races I've watched is a 2 mile...but it is. At the 2020 indoor MOC when Liam Murphy won it by like .3 seconds was crazy. That last 200 meters definitely kept everyone on their toes. 

Favorite running season and why?

Probably spring track because I really get to see my speed and run faster times.   

Favorite subject in school and why?

Math, when I know what I'm doing it can be fun. 

If you weren't a runner, what sport would you be playing?

If I wasn't running I would for sure be doing gymnastics. I did it for a long time from when I was probably 7 up until I was about 12-13. But it was interfering with running so I had to make the choice for myself what sport I wanted to do considering they both take a lot of commitment. I was sad I had to let it go because I enjoyed it a lot and I was good at it, but I still tumble occasionally so it makes up for it.  

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

 In 10 years I hope that I found a career that I'm happy and interested in and maybe have a husband and kid that I can make go on runs with me. 

What advice would you give to other young runners who are first starting out in the sport of XC?

Keep it fun. It's not all about running a certain amount of miles or running a specific time. That's always what my parents told me and it was always fun that way, there was never any pressure. I would also say enjoy it while you can, when you get to high school the 4 years go by so quickly so enjoy the successes and don't dwindle on the failures. 

Anything else you'd like to add, Grace?

I want to thank all of the people who have made an effort into helping me so that I'm healthy and happy. To my coaches, you are always pushing me to be better, and I don't tell you enough how grateful I am for the time and effort you put into my running career. I also want to thank Jim McCrossin and Jill Koshak-Johnson for taking the time to look at me and help nurse me back to health when I felt defeated. They both put together great strength training programs that have  helped me tremendously. And lastly, my parents. You are the backbone to my success and I am so grateful for the unconditional amount of love you show me and the faith you have in me.