Asked when he first knew Janelle Kraus could be a great runner, her high school cross country coach didn’t pause for even a second.
“The very first workout of her freshman year,” recalled former Shelter Island cross country coach Cliff Clark.
He remembers it as if it were yesterday.
Months earlier, Kraus had approached Clark to ask him how she should train during the summer leading up to her first season with the team.
His advice was simple, and the same thing he’d tell anyone: Run between two to three miles, five days a week and you’ll be just fine come fall workouts.
While the eager young freshman oozed potential, Clark’s focus at the time was on another runner he projected to lead the Shelter Island-Pierson team in 1992.
When that first workout finally arrived in September, Clark’s eyes were set firmly on the other runner as the team went for its first run at Mashomack Preserve.
The coach never expected to see someone else in the picture.
“The other girl was no doubt expected to be our top runner,” Clark said in a recent interview. “But there was Janelle, running right alongside her.”
She hasn’t slowed down much since.
Kraus is without a doubt the most outstanding female athlete in Shelter Island High School history. In fact, you could strike the word female from that previous sentence and it would ring no less true.
But to understand how she got to that level, you’d have to see that freshman practice through her eyes.
“I don’t remember that at all,” she says after hearing Clark’s story of how she hung with the teams pre-ordained star.
Here’s how Kraus remembers that first run:
She was nervous, filled with anxiety as she showed up to practice. She wanted to do her best, but more than anything else she just wanted to finish the run.
“All I could think about was ‘Get through these three miles without stopping,’ ” she recalled. “The thing I remember about being a freshman was being very nervous and wanting to make sure I was prepared.”
From the fear came a motivation to excel, to always push herself to the next level.
Speaking of her career in a telephone interview from her home in Madison, Conn. this week, Kraus continually spoke of that desire for constant improvement.
As a freshman at Shelter Island, her goal at first might have been to just get through the workouts. As the season moved on though, it was clear Kraus had her eye on bigger and better things.
She would go on to win her very first cross country meet that season and never look back. In her four seasons at Shelter Island, she never lost a League VIII race.
By the time she reached the 1992 county championship race at Sunken Meadow, the freshman had emerged as a favorite in Class C.
To get there, Clark told The Suffolk Times that he had his young phenom “imaging.”
About two weeks before the race, Clark told Kraus to picture herself running at Sunken Meadow.
“Visualize yourself at key points on the course,” he told her. “See yourself actually winning the race.”
Kraus made those images come true.
The freshman was just behind the leaders when she approached the famed “Cardiac Hill,” but passed them on the way up and left them in the distance as she gained momentum heading down.
Kraus would end up finishing in 20:59.6, 13 seconds ahead of second place finisher Melissa Lingle of Stony Brook. She became the first-ever Shelter Island female runner to crack 21 minutes at Sunken Meadow that day.
Kraus would establish a lot of firsts for Shelter Island runners in her years there.
She accomplished all these milestones by never being satisfied.
At first she learned she was the best cross country runner in the league, but what about the county? Then when she won that first county title, she began to question her ability at the state level. It was a never-ending cycle of testing personal limits that helped Kraus achieve so much in high school.
“At Shelter Island, I was a big fish in a small pond,” Kraus said. “I was always pushing myself to do more and to not settle.”
She would go on to win the league and county title all four years. She also earned all-state honors three times from her sophomore to her senior year.
Running during her senior season at Indian Island, she set the course record at 18:43.9, besting the previous standard by 45 seconds. The mark also stands as the girls cross country standard at Shelter Island, which no longer has a running program.
During the spring, Kraus also set school records at 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and as one leg of the 4 x 800 meter relay team. In her senior season, she claimed the Class A-B-C Suffolk County title in the 3,000 meter. At 10:06, she’d boast the top time on Long Island in the event that year.
There was, however, one race she couldn’t conquer in her first few years of high school.
Kraus shaved three seconds off her county-title winning time at the state meet her freshman year, but it was only good enough for 33rd place. She improved so much during her sophomore season that she placed ninth out of 156 Class C runners in 1993.
With a strong finishing kick in the final 200 meters Kraus would move up six spots in the state cross country finals in 1994 to claim third place at 18:56.8. She finished 13 seconds behind the leader.
Come senior year, Kraus had just one chance left to win a state title.
On the Monday before the meet, she was in gym class when she was asked to climb a rope as part of the curriculum. After the drill, she felt a slight pain in her hip. She attempted to shrug it off with runs Monday and Tuesday, but come Wednesday she was in so much pain she needed to seek help from a physical therapist.
Kraus had a slight muscle tear in her left hip.
Physical therapist Mark Mensch told her she could continue to run without too much risk of aggravating the injury.
A bump in the road was nothing new for Kraus. She competed in the cross country finals her junior year with a sore quadriceps.
And that track season she struggled at times with a bronchial problem.
But this was it. There would be no more opportunities to win a state championship in cross country.
She knew she had to put the injury behind her and persevere.
Kraus showed patience in her first mile on the muddy course at Corning Community College, running her pace. She’d reach the mile-marker in 6:05, just where she wanted to be.
By the two-mile marker, the race was down to Kraus and Karen Scozzafava of upstate Nazareth High, who had pulled a few steps ahead of the Shelter Island runner.
Down to just the final half-mile Scozzafava decided she was going to outkick Kraus the rest of the way. The maneuver worked well enough for her to open up a 10-yard lead, but she couldn’t keep the pace.
Kraus caught her opponent at the top of the final hill and blew right past her down the home stretch.
Running into a stiff wind, her sneakers covered in mud, Janelle Kraus crossed the finish line a state champion at 19:42.7.
To this day, she is the only Shelter Island athlete to hold the distinction of being a state champ.
It’s a fact that still brings a smile to coach Clark’s face when he says it.
“To coach an athlete that wins a state championship and accomplishes all that Janelle has, you just can’t beat that,” he says.
When it came time for Kraus to pick a college, she knew she wanted a challenge.
She wanted to know what it felt like to be a small fish in a big pond. Maybe then she could grow.
“At every level, I felt there was still so much more to do,” she recalled. “In high school I won that state championship, but it was in Class C. There were still other runners with better times than me.”
Kraus would end up choosing Wake Forest, a school that gave her an opportunity to compete against elite runners in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“There were so many talented runners,” she said. “It was a whole new world.”
Once again she was a freshman just trying to find her way on her own team. During the spring track season freshman year, she set a goal of being among the eight members of her team selected to attend a national meet in Arizona. Like she did with so many goals before, she conquered it.
Pretty soon she was even beyond baby steps at the college level, too.
Kraus would go on to be named Wake Forest’s Female Athlete of the Year three times.
She won nine ACC titles during her time with Demon Deacons and was a four-time NCAA Division I All-American.
In her senior season, Kraus won the 5,000 meter at the ACC Indoor Championships and the ACC Outdoor Championships, as well as the 3,000 meter at the ACC Outdoors.
She qualified for the NCAA Championships in both cross country and track and field that year. She would miss the chance to compete in the Olympic Trials for the 5,000 meter by less than two seconds in 2000.
By the time her college career was over, the Wake Forest website referred to Kraus as “the most decorated athlete in Wake Forest women’s cross country/track and field history.”
The success is no surprise to her high school coach.
“She is a very focused, strong athlete,” Clark said. “She always has been.”
A love for running still burns for Kraus more than 10 years after her college career ended.
She remembers first feeling a passion for the sport as a young girl, growing up on Shelter Island. She would hang out at her parents’ place of business and watch all the runners come in during the Shelter Island 5K and 10K races.
From as far back as she can remember, she recalls telling her folks she wanted to run the 5K.
Island running enthusiasts don’t deny that the Rock has a sort of special power that makes people want to lace ‘em up and go for a run.
“A lot has to do with the environment there,” Kraus said. “The fact that it’s so beautiful. You can just get out there and do it on your own.”
She recalls the impression left on her from meeting Olympian Grete Waitz, who ran the 10K in 1992, months before Kraus first made her mark as a freshman runner.
“It’s an amazing opportunity we have on Shelter Island to see all these great runners up close,” she said. “We may not be exposed to NBA players, but you can meet a legend of U.S. running.”
Kraus continued to coach distance runners after her college career was over. She served as a volunteer assistant at Wake Forest for several years, before coaching high school students in Rhode Island and later becoming a full-time coach at Stony Brook University.
But Kraus never stopped competing.
She missed the Olympic Trials in the 10,000 meters in 2004, following a difficult day at the Canadian National Championships.
Kraus then turned her attention to longer distances. Later that year, she would make her marathon debut at the Twin Cities Marathon. Despite never having run that distance before, a story on trackandfieldnews.com labeled her a contender in the race.
Kraus would go on to finish her first marathon in 2 hours, 40 minutes and eight seconds. It was good enough for eight place and it stands today as her personal best.
She would run just one more race at that distance before taking on the famed Boston Marathon in April 2007, which served that year as the national championship.
It was a stormy morning in Boston and the average runner came in about seven minutes off their usual pace that day.
Kraus was never an average runner. She finished just a minute behind her personal best and was 12th place among female finishers. Her time was good enough for sixth place in the National Championship competition. USA Track and Filed named her the New England Athlete of the Month that April.
More importantly to Kraus, she had finally qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon.
She would have a little more than a year to train.
Kraus entered the trials ranked No. 34 out of 171 contenders. Only three runners would qualify for the Beijing games. She needed to trim seconds off every single mile on the 26.2 mile course in Boston to have a shot.
While she was considered a longshot to make it, she took the opportunity seriously.
Just as she had in high school, Kraus approached the trials with the attitude that she needed to do her best. She set a goal of at least placing 10th.
About a month before the trials she felt she was in the best shape of her life.
“That’s when things changed pretty dramatically,” she recalled.
Kraus once again had injured her hip before a big race, and this time her back was ailing, too.
She maintained a six-minute pace until the midway point, but the injuries caught up to the 30-year-old runner. Kraus would finish 57th in a time of 2:45:01.
“I’m still grateful for the experience,” she said. “But it’s a bittersweet memory. Knowing the kind of shape I was in a month earlier, it’s kind of frustrating.”
The 2008 Olympic Trials marked the end of serious competition for Kraus.
These days, she has a new set of priorities. Over the past couple years she’s gotten married and bought a house in Connecticut.
And just five weeks ago, she gave birth to her first child.
But family life doesn’t mean Kraus has completely given up on running.
“I want to try to get back into running,” she said. “I’ll take it as far as my body will let me.”
If history is any indication, she’ll take it pretty far.