Track season has come to an end, leaving Katie Ward satisfied with a new PB and eager for a big year of running. After years of injuries and setbacks, Katie's recent 5000m PB of 20:15 proved her best is still yet to come.

Katie is a regular at race meets and a genuine fan of running, and her story is an incredible and inspiring one. Enjoy. 

Tell us about yourself: 
I’m Melbourne born and bred with no plans to leave, full time cat mum on the spectrum. I do centre a lot of my life around running - typical case of all the gear, shit all idea as to what I’m actually doing.

Outside running I spend too much money on coffee, I’m a passionate Geelong supporter, and can often be found wearing a sheet mask and pink fluffy robe.

Talk to us a little about your running journey: 
As a child I hated sport as my hand eye coordination is so poor due to my Autism and Dyspraxia which I’ll touch on later. 

I initially started jogging at 20 to get into shape and did that for two years. I also found it helped my mental health. 

Mum is a runner and I watched her run the Sydney Host City Marathon in 2000 so I always thought if I ever did an extreme sport that’s what I’d do. 

In early 2015 I saw an ad for Run for the Kids 15km and I saw it as an opportunity to give back to a place that helped me as a child. Mum wrote me a training program and I trained my ass off. After the race I decided 15km wasn’t enough and signed up for a half marathon as soon as I got home and the rest is history. I did some running with Nike run club and found running to be so inclusive and it didn’t matter that I had Autism.  

A year later after Run for the Kids 2016 I ran a fast(ish) time and I was encouraged to look into some coaching as I had potential. Nike Run Club folded so I joined Vigor which I initially didn’t enjoy as I was so intimidated by the faster runners and struggled a bit socially with new people. I was introduced to the mud of cross country and track which terrified me (and still does). I have been through many vicious cycles of injury but I love running so kept coming back.

Running and Autism and Dyspraxia plus mental health and a spiral out of control:
I find the social side of running and races much more exhausting than running due to my difficulties understanding social cues and communication. Because of this I can come across as strange or unfriendly, however, I have found the running community very accepting of me and it's a social situation I feel much safer in than others but I still struggle.

Another challenge is I also have Dyspraxia which is a neurological condition often associated with autism resulting in difficulty in activities requiring coordination and movement. In short, I have poor muscle memory and have to concentrate so much harder on everything. 

It makes technique work and speed work more difficult along with strength and mobility. It has made rehabilitating niggles and injuries harder, taking longer to bounce back and very frustrating as gaining muscle activation was and still is exceptionally hard. I’ve had to do lots of supervised 1:1 sessions with a Physio/Osteo and strength coach and there have been tears of frustration. 

I find the topic of running for mental health an interesting one. For me I have found running helps a lot with my anxiety racing and even workouts can bring a lot of anxiety.

Mid 2018 I was struggling with the difficulties autism brings but not realising I needed more help and I made silly decisions to run too hard, too far, too often with no easy runs because I was anxious, stressed, depressed. I kind of knew it wasn’t good but I saw it as an acceptable form of self torture. I then broke down big time which made my mental health a lot worse. By the end of 2018 I hated running and wanted nothing to do with it because of what it had done to me. Whilst it was one of the hardest times in my life I did learn that running doesn’t fix everything and I needed to accept additional professional help. 

The Resurgence:
Restarting running in mid 2019 was the last thing I wanted to do. Whilst my training partners were encouraging I felt it as pressure (part of my Autism) and I resented everyone who I ran with even though they were trying to help me. I eventually started running again in secret but word got out I was doing a bit of running again. It was a huge step to come to a group session then racing. I was just starting to hit good form when the pandemic hit.

As it was for many people, running kept me sane during 2020 but I also got injured as a result of no strength training and not as much recovery.

If there is anything I’ve learnt from my experiences it is that running doesn’t fix everything and looking after mental health is as important as healing a physical injury.
After all the hard times, a PB at Box Hill must have been satisfying? 
I went into Box Hill Burn with it being my first track race in over a year so naturally I was extremely nervous.

I thought a PB was possible but I was going to be happy with anything below 20:30 given no recent tack races. Most of the race was on my own from about 1500m and my glutes started hurting at 2km so I thought I was in a bit of trouble. I find track plays with my mind doing all those circles and there is no hiding. To come away with a 20:15, 4 second PB was pretty sweet after years of vicious cycles of injury, poor mental health, a pandemic and getting injured coming out of lockdowns.

The following week I ran a 20:49 at Tiger 5 in 30 degree heat and hated it, leaving me very anxious leading into the Box Hill Classic. That morning I was almost in tears and not wanting to race. I wrote a few things reminding myself it’s only a f**king run and I love running. The result was my best 3km since 2017 and I felt strong.

I finished out my track season with another solid 5km at Collingwood Classic.

What's next for you? Any goal races this year?
I desperately want to break 20 minutes for 5km which will have to be at Parkrun with the track season finished and run a 10km PB. For 10km I’d like to get as close to 40 as possible. I don’t like planning too far ahead as it triggers my anxiety and makes everything a grind. Another big thing is to continue working on my strength and mobility under the watchful eye of my trainer Sam. 

Favourite wine/beer?
I do enjoy the occasional Sauvignon Blanc or Rosé and a G&T.