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Saugus Cross Country Athlete Katie Dunn Next Front Runner
November, 2007 - Issue #37
The seeds of Katie Dunn's success may be bearing fruit now that she's a senior, but they were sown two years ago, during the last mile of a race in the summer before her sophomore year.

Dunn was running the cross country course at College of the Canyons. So was her coach, Rene Paragas. They ran the last mile together - Dunn pushing against a wall with her feet and her legs, Paragas pushing against Dunn with his words.

Step after step, Paragas shouted encouragement. He told her she could do it. He challenged her to push harder. He insisted on a greater effort.

Dunn responded.

What she had struggled to accomplish on her own, she and her coach accomplished together. She didn't win that race. But you could argue she won a career.

Dunn achieved a personal best by one minute, 20 seconds - light years in the world of cross country.

"I remember that race," Dunn says. "It was a good one for me. Anytime you have someone telling you, 'You can do it,' it helps you mentally, especially when you're hurting."

Paragas pushed because he knew she had it in her.

"You could tell that summer that she was going to be really good," Paragas says. "She just went to another level."

From there she never looked back. Her summer breakthrough vaulted her into the realm of the Foothill League elite - sort of.

Running in the same league with 2003 CIF-Southern Section Division I champion Brooke Russell of Hart and 2005 state champion and teammate Shannon Murakami, Dunn rarely grabbed the spotlight.

But she didn't need to. With Murakami anchoring Saugus' team state title last year, Dunn remained the Centurions' quiet Number 2. She made a little noise as a junior, beating Murakami and the rest of the pack in the second league race of the season. But even then, running aficionados dismissed it as an anomaly.

Everyone, that is, except for Paragas.

"I knew if she could put it all together she could be special," he says. "She ran really well in track last spring. In the back of my mind I thought she was a dark horse to win the state meet."

So much for dark horses. Five weeks into her senior season, and Dunn is now one of the favorites.

In her first four races, she shattered four course records. She broke the COC course record over the summer, then proceeded to set records at Woodbridge, Seaside and, in the season's first Foothill League meet, Central Park.

"I'm never expecting to break course records," she says. "They've been set by phenomenal people and I'm shocked to be able to surpass that. Did I really run that fast? I don't ever feel like I did."

Paragas, on the other hand, saw it coming. Between Dunn's freshman and sophomore years, it was his voice that pushed her to another level. This time around, it was circumstance as well.
"She made another breakthrough," Paragas says. "I think knowing we needed a big front runner motivated her. I told her, 'This is what you need to do. You need to change your diet. You need to run to practice. You need to run home from practice.'"

You can almost hear the coach, chasing her down the last mile, pushing her again with his words.

But Paragas doesn't want the credit. That belongs with his new star.

"You can say, 'Do this and do that,'" he says. "But she's the one who did it. She's accomplishing it because of her hard work."
She's also had to overcome constant pain. Rather, she overcomes it still.

Dunn suffers from Osgood-Schlatter disease, a condition that causes inflammation in the knee. It's something she's learned to ignore.

"Nothing bothers her," Paragas says. "She made a choice. She could sit out and still feel the pain or she could gut it out. It's not going to cause permanent damage. It doesn't affect her stride."
But that's not to say it doesn't make an impact. Dunn's courageous approach inspires her teammates. Paragas calls it "a calming effect," but it could be more than that.

Pain is germane to the sport. Success rises and falls on how athletes respond when that pain becomes intense - when it begs them to quit. Most runners don't face that decision until the last mile or so. It's a question Dunn must answer from stride one.

Her answer pushes her team, much the way her coach has pushed her.

"Her approach is contagious," Paragas says.

Says Dunn: "I hope I inspire [my teammates]. I hope I leave them knowing that if you don't give up - if you push harder - you can succeed."

Clearly, her team is following suit. Saugus is ranked number one in the state and number three in the nation. Collectively, the team's times are well ahead of last year, when Saugus captured the team state championship.

"We can do better than last year," Dunn says. "We keep telling ourselves we're the state champions. We know we've worked hard for it. We just keep repeating this to ourselves: 'The hard work is going to get us there.'"

It's no surprise that Dunn's success has generated interest on the next level. She's had visits from coaches in programs such as the University of Washington. More attention is sure to come.

"A lot of college coaches don't yet realize what they'd be getting in Katie," Paragas says. "She ran so long in the shadow of Shannon."
Then there's the issue of her knees, though she's surely answered those questions by now. She also runs with an unorthodox style.

"Because of her height, she can be deceptive," Paragas says. "She's 5-feet-8 and she has long legs, so she doesn't have to lift her knees very high. It doesn't look like she's running hard, but she is. She's just very efficient. She's not going to generate a lot of speed, but she's very good over long distances. She's like a marathoner."

As such, her career has played out like a marathon. There was no sprint to the front of the pack for Katie Dunn, no shortcuts to the finish line.

Dunn has climbed the ladder one gutsy rung at a time. She's been consistent, even stubborn.

And she's been pushed, it seems, at just the right times.

"Coach Paragas has been a huge inspiration to me," she says. "He pushes me so hard, treats me like one of the guys. 'You girls run another mile,' he'll say. 'Katie, you run two.' I told him he needed to be a professor at whatever college I go to. That way, I can have him as a coach again."

Paragas may not always be in her ear.

But you get the sense he'll never leave her head.
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