Feature Friday: Tilly O'Connor Is Ready To Rip Up The Trails

With the start of NJ XC season less than a month away, NJ MileSplit will be hitting you with lots of previews and content over the next few weeks to get all of you fired up for what promises to be another red hot season on the trails!

As part of our build up to the season, Feature Friday makes it returns today, and what better way to kick off the start of that series than by shining the spotlight on the great Tilly O'Connor of St. Rose.

O'Connor is coming off a remarkable junior year!!!

She placed fourth at the XC Meet of Champions in 18:12, making O'Connor the top returning finisher in the state, and she captured eight state titles last year!!!! That's right, she won eight state titles in the three seasons combined, the most by any athlete in the state last year. How awesome is that!!!

O'Connor captured the Non-Public B State XC title for the second straight time last fall. She followed that up indoors by completing an amazing quad, winning the 400, 800, 1,600 and 3,200 at the State Non-Public B Indoor Championships, and placing second in the 3,200 at the Meet of Champions. Then in the spring, O'Connor finished first in the 800, 1,600, 3200, and placed second in the 400 at the State Non-Public B Outdoor Championships, placed third in the 1,600 at the Meet of Champions, and blasted big PR's of 1:01.28 in the 400, 2:12.17 in the 800, 4:48.16 in the 1,600, and 10:28.32 in the 3,200.

Now O'Connor, riding the momentum of her sensational junior year, is super fit and extremely motivated to have the best XC season of her life this fall as she heads into the season as one of the favorites to win the coveted Meet of Champions title.       

NJ MileSplit recently caught up with O'Connor in between training, trips to the beach, and waiting on tables for an in depth Q and A. We learned a lot about her, including how she got involved in the sport, her best summer of training, her big goals for this season, and a whole lot more.  

So lean back in your recliner or beach chair and enjoy our latest installment of Feature Friday as we shine the spotlight on St. Rose rising senior star Tilly O'Connor.

NJM: First of all, congrats on all your remarkable accomplishments on the trails and on the track. You have really put together an amazing career over your first three years at St. Rose!!! How surprised are you by all your success or is this something you saw coming?

I know that in the sport of running you can't take anything for granted, especially in a very competitive state like NJ! So, I am not surprised, but I do feel very fortunate last year to have had a full year of running, and to have reached many of my goals. 

Your junior year was simply amazing! You dropped a big PR at Holmdel with your 18:12, and PR's at every distance from 400-3200, and you won eight state titles (one in XC, four indoors and 3 outdoors)! What are your thoughts and feelings as you look back on your junior year? What was different about the way you raced and trained that enabled you to drop your times so much?

Looking back on junior year, I am super pleased with my progress that I have made. I was more motivated and focused during training, racing, and recovery than previous years. This included taking care of the little things, such as getting proper rest, hydration, and nutrition, which can often be overlooked. 

You won the state Non-Public B title last year, and your fourth-place finish in 18:12 at the Meet of Champions makes you the top returning finisher in the state. So, I imagine trying to win another state Non-Public B title and winning your first Meet of Champions title are big goals for you?  What are your thoughts on your chances of winning the M of C title, and what would that mean to you, Tilly.

Winning my group and then MOCs are definitely some of my big goals for this upcoming xc season. New Jersey has many super talented girls, which would make this an incredible accomplishment. I'd say that I have a realistic chance of winning MOCs, but it will require all the pieces coming together at the right time. 

How about your goal as far as time at Holmdel? I am guessing that getting under 18 is a huge goal for you after getting close to that last year? 

You may remember last year in an interview following groups, I expressed that running sub 18 was the time goal for MOC the following week. It was a big goal and although I still had a big PR, I didn't quite make it in the 17s. So sub 18 is for sure a goal for this season. That is definitely the first time barrier I am hoping to break. 

Take me through what summer training has been like for you, Tilly? How many miles a week have you been running, where have you been doing your long runs, who have you been running with, and did you go to any XC camps etc?

Summer training has been awesome! I have been steadily building my mileage up. Currently, I am around 45 miles as I prepare for the Running Works camp next week in the Poconos. Every long run so far has been at the Manasquan Reservoir with my dad. But, the majority of my runs are with my St. Rose teammates at the reservoir, Holmdel, Ocean County Park, and the Belmar boardwalk. 

What's been the biggest difference in your training this summer compared to last summer? Increased mileage? Different workouts? More quality stuff in terms of faster pace etc?

The biggest difference this year is that I am not recovering from mono. Last year at the end of track season, I had a really bad case, which made the summer training difficult. I hardly ran in July at all and spent August slowly building a base. This year, I am running more and feeling 10x better during the runs. I also would like to thank my coaches at St. Rose (Kaitlyn Lavender, Pete Casagrande and Marissa Lavender-Godynick). They are really great coaches, and very dedicated with their time. 

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 runs are afternoon boardwalk runs. These are usually easier runs where I can socialize with my team. My favorite XC workouts are top loop repeats at Holmdel, which are very beneficial to my training. 

When is your first race of the season, and what's your goal for that race? 

My first race will most likely be The Battle of Ocean County Park, which can be a very competitive race. I definitely hope to start the season off on the right foot. 

How do you feel heading into this season? Is this the most fit you've ever been heading into an XC season, and what are your biggest goals as far as times you'd like to run at Holmdel, Ocean County Park, Darlington Park, and some of the other courses you'll race on? 

I'm feeling super excited for this upcoming season. This is by far the best I've felt before all of my high school cross-country seasons. My biggest time goals are breaking 18 minutes at Holmdel and breaking 17 minutes at OCP.

What are your thoughts on how loaded NJ is with distance running talent? Ten of the top 15 finishers from the M of C last fall return this season. How much does the amount of talent in the state push you to work even harder?

The incredible competition in NJ is a huge motivating factor for me this summer. I've spoken with multiple college coaches who are really impressed with the NJ talent coming into this season. I know I will have to be on top of my game and do everything right to win. 

And how about the strength of Monmouth County? You, Cate DeSousa, and Emma Zawatski all finished in the top 12 at the M of C last year, and last spring you three went 1-2-3 in the 1,600 at the M of C. What can you say about how awesome Monmouth County distance running is, and how much it makes you train harder and motivates you knowing there's so much talent in the county?

Monmouth County is amazing! I've been running with and competing against Cate and Emma since elementary school, and I love seeing us all where we are right now. I think it's going to be something special!

Not too many distance runners compete in the open 400, but you do all the time at the state meets. Can you explain what that's like? How hard is it for a distance runner to switch gears and run something much shorter and faster? Do you like running the 400?

Running the 400 is great! It is much different than races that I'm used to, but it is always fun to see where my speed is at. Surprisingly, it's not that difficult to transition into shorter, quicker races as long as you're warmed up, but the lactic burn in the last 100 is tough. 

Can you explain to other distance runners what the difference in the pain level is from running a 3,200 compared to a 400?

I'd say that the biggest difference is that the pain just comes on much quicker and more intensely in the 400 than the 3200. The pain level itself is not stronger, but it just happens faster. 

Let's rewind the clock. How and why did you get involved in running? How did this all start? 

Grammar school was the start of my involvement with running. St. Catharine School in Spring Lake had a great program for younger kids. I competed in the MOPTL (Monmouth,-Ocean, Parochial Track League) for cross country and spring track. I had awesome coaches (Coach Sean Woodrow and Coach Steve Theobald), who kept running fun but taught me valuable lessons as well. My parents are both runners also, and I've seen them running and racing my whole life. 

When was your first big breakthrough race when you realized that you had a special talent in this sport?

I always thought I was pretty good at the sport, but I'd say my breakthrough race was XC MOCs last year. 

What do you love the most about running XC?

I love running cross country with my St. Rose teammates. We have a lot of fun and they are great friends. We travel together to train all over Monmouth and Ocean County to train in beautiful parks. We have fun, but push each other to get the work in. 

Now that you are entering your senior year (I can't believe how fast the time has gone), what are your thoughts on college? Have you chosen any schools yet for your official visits, what are you looking to study in college, and what are the types of things you are looking for in a college?

Picking the right college is a little overwhelming but I am super grateful to be in the position I am. I just recently narrowed down my options for official visits for this fall (all east coast schools). I plan on studying something in the health field or engineering. The two key factors that I've been looking for is a school with a strong academic program and a strong cross country program. After that the next question is whether the campus culture and environment is a good fit. 

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

I would choose Ellie Purrier, Molly Seidel, Steve Prefontaine, and Joan Benoit-Samuelson. I love watching Ellie and Molly compete for America on a world stage. Steve Prefontaine is a running icon and I love his fearless frontrunning style, and Joan Samuelson was a groundbreaker for women in running. 

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

Watching Katelyn Tuohy run at the STCA Holmdel race was incredible (course record 16:21 in 2018). For a NJ runner, Angelina Perez's cross-country season last year was amazing. 

Running shoes: What type of shoes do you train in and race in and why are they your shoes of choice?

I train in New Balance 880s, I run some workouts in Nike Vaporflies, and I race in Nike Dragonflies. New balance has always been my go to and the 880s have worked for a while so I've just stuck with it. Some of my teammates got me interested in Vaporflies after I watched them workout with them for a lot of the spring season, so I just decided I'd try them out. My racing spikes (Nike Dragonflies) fit my narrow foot super well and they also look so cool!

Favorite running season and why? 

To paraphrase George Sheehan, my favorite season is the one that I am in right now, and right now that's cross country! I love the change of venues and training between all the seasons. 

Favorite subject in school and why?

My favorite subject is biology. I prefer sciences and life sciences are my favorite. 

What did you do this summer when you weren't out there training? 

When I'm not running, I'm either working at my waitress job in downtown Spring Lake, or I'm at the beach with my friends.

The NJSIAA is considering a proposal for the future that would cut down the number of teams that qualify for the cross-country Meet of Champions, which would make it much more difficult for smaller schools like St. Rose to qualify. What are your thoughts on that? 

I appreciate all that the NJSIAA does, but I think this would be unfortunate for the smaller schools. We have a great running culture at St. Rose and being able to compete in the small school division to qualify for MOCs is a very motivating aspect of the season.

What types of things did you do to try to beat the heat this summer? Train early in the a.m. Run early at night? Anything else?

The heat doesn't bother me too much, but the three biggest things that I do is staying hydrated before and after runs, running closer to the ocean where there's a nice breeze, and getting lots of sleep at night to recover. 

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

I would either be swimming or playing softball. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I'd like to run through college, get a good degree, and continue to run competitively after college. I'd like to achieve as much as I can with running before getting a job with my degree. 

What advice would you give to younger runners who are first starting out in the sport?

I would say if you like great and fair competition then running could be a great sport for you. It isn't easy and can have setbacks, but it's a sport where you almost directly get out of it what you are willing to put in.