Jaci Smith’s profile reads like that of the classic overachiever one might expect from the best female distance runner Air Force has produced.
She majored in astronautical engineering because she heard it had the reputation as the most difficult option available at the academy. She didn’t just jump out of a plane, she went on to earn her Jump Wings. She read the Harry Potter series. Then she read it six more times.
Smith has served as an Element Leader, public affairs officer and is a regular on the dean’s and athletic director’s lists for her academic achievements.
“Sometimes that’s a good approach,” she said. “Sometimes you start spreading yourself too thin.”
This face-all-takers approach has made Smith Air Force’s most decorated cross country runner in 50 years and record-holder in the 10,000- and 5,000-meter runs at the school that probably least lends itself to those events because of the altitude and lack of time to thoroughly prepare for workouts or recover from them.
Try running a mile in 5 minutes, 14 seconds under enormous stress and on little sleep. Now keep that pace for 6.2 miles. That’s what Smith does.
As for the 5K, the event she’ll run Saturday at NCAA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Austin, Texas (4:30 p.m. on ESPN2) — “I like to call it speed work,” Smith said.
The 2018-19 Most Valuable Air Force Female Athlete is not being flippant or arrogant. She’s being funny.
She does that.
Smith’s list of achievements leave out the fact that this recently graduated dynamo is hilarious.
After she’s had a career as a development engineer (“Maybe I’ll be a pioneer in the Space Force?”), she wants to settle down as a barista and beekeeper.
“I’m not entirely kidding about that,” she deadpanned. “I’m very passionate about coffee, and I always put honey and cream in my coffee. I would be set if I knew how to make my own coffee and make my own honey. I wouldn’t need anything else in life.
“I have some other things I want to do first.”
As the public affairs officer she wrote a newsletter for her squadron complete with regular riddles and jokes.
Among the interests she lists in her Air Force athletic profile is “mutton busting.”
Does she really enjoy riding sheep? Doubtful, but then there’s a little bit of uncertainty.
She knows how to keep you from knowing exactly what’s going on in a mind that can close like a steel trap in races and focus on nothing but split times and goals. But she does it with a smile.
Was it difficult maintaining a sense of humor while navigating the rigors of the academy?
“I think this kind of lifestyle forces you to keep a sense of humor,” Smith said. “It makes it so much better if you try to have fun with it. There are really so many positives that can be taken out of, really, any situation.”
Smith needed a sense of humor in recent months. Because of what she called an “unfortunate medical situation with commissioning requirements,” she couldn’t train or compete with the team for several weeks and wasn’t able to record a qualifying time in the 10,000 — her primary event. She declined to elaborate on the situation.
The academy also declined comment, saying only during her layoff that, “for privacy reasons we cannot comment on a cadet’s health or injury status.”
Smith has run a personal best of 32:28.15 in the 10K. On Thursday, New Mexico’s Weini Kelati won the national title in 33:10.84.
“You’ve got to play the cards you’ve been dealt,” Smith said, “and regardless of what event I’m running I have a really cool opportunity ahead of me that not many people get. So I’m excited about it.”
Smith’s shot at nationals will come in the 5,000, where she posted the country’s fifth-best qualifying time (15:28.07), which was 21 seconds better than her (and the Air Force record book’s) previous top time.
How does one knock 21 seconds off a top time after competing at an elite level for this long?
“I had it in my mind what I wanted to run and I knew what splits I needed to hit,” Smith said, “so I just went out and did it.”
That’s how Smith does everything. In high school she was probably a better tennis player than runner, and for a while she sought a college where she could do both. Once she decided on the academy and one sport, she decided to excel.
Pending approval, she plans to continue running this year as part of the World Class Athlete Program. In doing so she would join other past Falcons like Hannah Everson, Carina Gillespie and Lindy Long in remaining in Colorado Springs and preparing for a possible shot on the U.S. Olympic team for Tokyo 2020.
“I think what I love most about running is it’s really the only period of time during the day when I don’t think about anything,” Smith said.
“I think about running. As absurd as that is, and as miserable as that honestly sounds, it’s a time to zone out and just be in the moment, be in the run. Sometimes I feel like I have things I feel like I need to work through in my head, and I’ll be like, ‘I need to think about this on my run today.’ And then I get out on my run and I realize that I can’t really focus on anything else. I’m just in the zone. I think that’s really good for me.”
This analysis seems complex. And funny.
No wonder it fits.