Daily Egyptian

Player profile: Cross country runner Megan Krolak leads the pack

Junior+cross+country+runner+Megan+Krolak+runs+Tuesday%2C+Sept.+19%2C+2017%2C+before+practice+at+the+Lew+Hartzog+Track+and+Field+Complex.+%28Athena+Chrysanthou+%7C+%40Chrysant1Athena%29
Junior cross country runner Megan Krolak runs Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, before practice at the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex. (Athena Chrysanthou | @Chrysant1Athena)

Junior cross country runner Megan Krolak runs Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, before practice at the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex. (Athena Chrysanthou | @Chrysant1Athena)

Junior cross country runner Megan Krolak runs Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, before practice at the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex. (Athena Chrysanthou | @Chrysant1Athena)

By Dillon Gilliland

A self-proclaimed tomboy, you can find third-year sophomore cross country runner Megan Krolak in the forest and out by the lake more often than the concrete-laced streets of the city. She is even easier to find on race day — she will be at the front of the pack.

Born in Spring Valley and raised in Peru, Illinois, she credits her love of nature to being the middle child between two brothers.

“I like to do outdoor things,” Krolak said. “Fishing, hiking, hunting and hanging out with my two brothers.” 

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Krolak competed primarily in track & field throughout middle school and into LaSalle-Peru Township High School.

As a part of the high school track & field squad, she found success in several events including the high jump. Krolak volunteered for the high jump program because the team lacked people willing to compete — and placed first at two separate meets.

“I had no form, no flexibility,” she said. “I just jumped as high as I could and I guess I got lucky so it was kind of funny.”

Krolak discovered cross country in her sophomore year at LaSalle-Peru. She was unfamiliar with the sport other than recognizing it gave her a chance to compete outdoors in nature.

“I started as a sophomore and I had no idea what it was,” the Saluki runner said. “I didn’t take it too seriously until probably my junior year.”

With her parents having never competed in cross country, and her two brothers only participating in baseball and football, the Peru native had no prior inspiration to spark an interest in the sport.

Krolak dabbled in basketball for a year in high school, but soon realized the more traditional team sports were not her calling. And while she enjoyed track & field, the young runner found more excitement in cross country because it was scored by the team as a whole rather than the individual.

Junior cross country runner Megan Krolak runs Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, before practice at the Lew Hartzog Track and Field Complex. (Athena Chrysanthou | @Chrysant1Athena)

Her junior year saw Krolak competing in her second IHSA Class 2A State XC Championship in two years. Halfway through the three-mile event, an asthma attack almost forced her to withdraw from the competition — but she persevered and finished with a time of 19:20.0. She was officially diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma a few weeks after the meet.

“I take medication to manage it,” Krolak said. “Environment and weather changes on race day are a big factor, but I have learned when I need to take my medication prior to a race so I don’t suffer from it while I compete.”

With her asthma under control in her senior year, Krolak’s first place finish in the Class 2A Morris Regional and sixth place run at the East Peoria Sectional helped the Lady Cavaliers earn their first state berth since 1979.

She finished off her senior season with a third-consecutive visit to the IHSA Class 2A State XC Championship, placing 20th overall with a personal-best time of 17:55.0 in the 3-mile course — her first time breaking the 18-minute barrier.

Krolak made two official visits to state universities following her senior season, one to Illinois State University and the other to SIU. She received scholarship offers from both institutions, and chose Illinois State due to the university offering a degree in exercise science while being “only an hour away” from her home.

During her freshman year at Illinois State, Krolak found immediate success in the cross country program — placing top-25 in two out of her first five meets. She finished her first collegiate season placing 51st out of 79 runners at the 2015 MVC championship meet as the only freshman on ISU’s conference team.

“It was just awesome to be a part of that team,” Krolak said. “It was cool to be able to get that experience under my belt and learn from it.”

Although Krolak expected a “transition year” in her first season at ISU, she felt that she exceeded her own expectations while setting several personal records in indoor running.

The Saluki runner says she learned early on running in college is more challenging as a whole compared to high school, noting there are more intense workouts and that she found herself surrounded by more girls that are dedicated to the sport. She credits the competitive atmosphere for helping her to succeed from day one.

The former Redbird transferred to SIU after her freshman year to join the Physical Therapy Assistant Program offered through the School of Allied Health while still pursuing her major in Exercise Science.

As the transfer from ISU to SIU was an in-conference transfer, Krolak was forced under NCAA transfer rules to sit out the 2016 competitive season. She entered the first meet of the 2017 season — her first as a Saluki — with a bang, placing first overall at the Golden Eagle Invitational in Cookeville, Tennessee.

“I spent a whole year waiting to get out there and run,” Krolak said. “After my first meet, I got to see that whole year of training pay off. It was cool.”

Krolak says her goals for the rest of the season are to continue hitting fast marks and “just keep placing high” at the meets to help the team. She believes if she and the rest of the team stay healthy and on-track with goals this year, Southern is primed to surprise a lot of people.

“I think teams don’t see us ranked very high,” the Saluki runner said. “I think we can prove everyone wrong and place top five in conference.”

Aside from competition while at SIU, Krolak is considering a minor in coaching to broaden her career opportunities to work hand-in-hand with athletes. She credits her high school cross country coach, John Beatty, with passing his passion for the sport down to her and would like the opportunity to do the same for prospective runners in the future.

She also plans on running being a part of her life for the foreseeable future, be it competitively or for pure enjoyment and self-challenge.

“As far as running post-collegiately goes, I’ll definitely run a few marathons before I’m too far out of shape,” Krolak said.

For now, Krolak is focused on leading the veteran women’s cross country squad to their first MVC Championship since 2013, and then on to the first NCAA Championship in program history.

It’s her competitiveness and commitment that separates her from the competition,” said cross country coach Kevin Cataldo. “She wants to win.”

Sports reporter Dillon Gilliland can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DillonGilliland.

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