Cross-country star Josephine Thestrup rediscovers running without fear

Josephine Thestrup in action at the Butler Twilight. Thestrup finished ninth in the Big East Championships on Oct. 27. Collegian file photo.

DREW FAVAKEH | STAFF REPORTER | dfavakeh@butler.edu

Butler cross-country star Josephine Thestrup used to run stupid, even fearless. But then she found herself running cautious, even timid.

She’s working to get back to her old ways.

On Oct. 27, she finished ninth in the Big East Championships – a 21:06 in the 6K – and this season earned All-Big East First Team honors. Consider it a start to getting back.

In total, she has won three races and placed at least top 20 five times since moving to Indianapolis from Denmark two years ago.

Yet despite all that success, she craves improvement.

She has craved improvement ever since stepping foot on Butler’s campus. Two weeks into her first year, she realized college wasn’t so much the “vacation” she expected.

When she was a freshman, the seniors on the team alleviated the transition to a new home. When Thestrup was with her cross-country team, she could be herself.

“When you become a part of a team you become part of a circle,” Thestrup said. “You could feel comfortable around campus, which made it easier.”

Now, Thestrup is one of only four upperclassmen on the roster and pressure is on to provide the same leadership she received when she was a freshman.

“She’s got a running pedigree, so she’s immediately respected,” Butler head coach Matt Roe said. “She’s universally liked and universally respected by how she carries herself.”

But most of the pressure she applies to herself.

“If I could race as fearlessly, or stupidly, from my first race, then I would be running much faster than I am now,” Thestrup said, “because I am holding myself back at the moment.”

She certainly didn’t seem to hold herself back in the Big East Championships. It may have helped that her mother and two sisters were there to cheer on her on.

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If you listened to the people close to her, you’d be surprised Josephine had been struggling.

“She did a great job. She’s really improved,” Thestrup’s mother, Mercy Røder, said after the Big East Championships. “She’s much faster and more determined and very focused… she’s changed in just three years and developed for the better.”

Røder receives calls from her daughter telling her how happy she is. There are never signs of homesickness or unhappiness.

“She has so much more confidence, she feels in charge, which is really important,” Røder said. “She’s happier to be here. The atmosphere and everything about it suits her.”

Before running at Butler, Thestrup and her mom used to run together at home.

“After a year, I couldn’t keep up with her,” Røder said. “And everyone thinks I’m a professional. She wouldn’t even let me come [to race].”

Thestrup said there is no competition.

“My mom likes to run to keep herself in shape. She just does yoga.”

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When she was 15, Thestrup wasn’t thinking about piecing together an acceptable outfit for her first official race. She simply threw on a pair of heavy, purple Nike Trainers and a T-shirt. That would do. Running her fastest was the only thing on her mind.

The only real running she had done prior to this was beating the 60 boys in her physical education class in a 3K competition. Thestrup played handball, she never considered running.

“It was actually funny because I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I showed up without a competition vest and didn’t have the spikes. I just went out and ran it.”

Thestrup struggled to gain traction as she slipped through the mud-sloshed course. The steep hills proved challenging to overcome, the puddles unavoidable.

Midway through the race, she thought it was pretty cool that she held her own in the front pack. Her strides relied only on bodily movement and her mind blanked of any internal fear.

Then she heard a voice from the crowd. “Run faster!” Thestrup, on auto-pilot, flew forward.

She was running stupid, even fearless.

Throughout the race, three runners held the lead, each of them clad in shining spikes and club uniforms. And when the race was over, they stood at the podium to collect their medals.

Thestrup was just happy she could relax.

Finally.

“We finished the competition and I’m like, ‘I gave everything I had out there,’” she said. “I wasn’t that upset. I remember asking myself why I chose to do this because it was the hardest I had ever run.”

What slipped her mind was that the race was staggered with different age groups. She had been the youngest of the top finishers.

“I became the regional champion without even knowing,” Thestrup said. “It was super cool because I never had won anything, so getting my own gold medal got me to believe I could be really good.”

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Røder recalled a conversation she had with coach Roe before a training session during Thestrup’s freshman year.

“He said he would prefer I made visits just before Josephine was about to take part in a race,” Røder said. “He didn’t think it was necessary to just make a visit.”

Mercy Røder has a background in psychology — she was a psychology major at George Mason University — and she took note of Coach Roe’s tactic.

“Research has actually proven visiting a loved one can actually help stimulate them just before a performance,” Røder said. “And I called my ex-husband and I said, ‘Hmm, that’s very interesting.’”

Fast forward two years, to the Big East Championships in Carmel, Indiana, where Mercy Røder and Thestrup’s sisters were in the crowd cheering at the top of their lungs.

The family traveled approximately 4,303 miles to Carmel. The feelings of nerves and pressure gravitated from start to finish. Thestrup exploded from the gates aggressively, causing her to be sandwiched between two groups, slowing her pace by the end.

Every lunge, every step seemed spurred by her family’s cheers.

“It was great having my family out there cheering for me,” Thestrup said. “I appreciate them being so supportive of my running.”

For Roe, things were simply going according to plan.

“Whether it’s our coaching staff, training staff, her teammates, we try to wrap our arms around our athletes and make them feel like they’re supported,” he said. “If an athlete knows they’re supported, parents are paramount to that, then potential for great performances and great experiences become exponential.”

Her family and Roe were satisfied with the results, but Thestrup still felt she left something out there on the course.

“I am content with finishing ninth but not satisfied,” Thestrup said. “I made some errors in the race and fell short of my goal of finishing in the top six. I did learn some helpful stuff that will set me even better up for regionals.”

The purple Nike Trainers and a T-shirt used to be enough. How is she trying to get back to her old ways?

“I speak with a sports psychologist [now],” Thestrup said. “The [sports psychologist] talks about just letting go of frustrations. I’ve been frustrated because I haven’t improved much over the past four years. [I am] trying to change the mindset at the middle of the race, at the 4K of the race, just having confidence in my abilities.

“It’s a mindset, going back to enjoying running hard instead of fearing of doing what people expect me to do.”

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