A flash of hot pink winds around the blacktop track out by Winona Senior High School on Highway 61, quickly followed by another flash, light blue in color. A signal from Ryan Ping and suddenly the two bright bursts increase in speed, blue following pink. As they near the assigned finish line, they flash huge grins, as if the current gloomy weather they are running in is perfect. Like most elite runners, Grace and Lauren Ping schedule consistent practice every week, even if that means going to the track while rain sprinkles lightly on their heads. Even after their workout they show no signs of giving into the cold or exhaustion, which could be attributed to the fact that they have spent the last hour building up endorphins, commonly known as a “runner’s high,”or the fact that at nine and 10, they both have the energy that comes with being that age.
. Grace Ping and her younger brother Jamison at track practice.
As of last Saturday, April 26, 10-year-old Grace holds the international record for girls her age in the 5,000-meter race, which is approximately 3.1 miles, or 12.5 dizzying times around a standard 400-meter track. Her time of 18:02 shattered the previous record set in 2007 by Rebekah Topham of Iowa by 40 seconds. It was also Grace’s first time running 5,000M on a track.
“I was kind of nervous,” Grace says of being on the starting line at the Saint Mary’s University Cardinal Open. “I didn’t know what it would be like to run with all the college kids.”
Those nerves, however, never had a chance, as Grace quickly broke out and claimed a spot in the front right after the gun went off. “I heard someone say, wow that’s no [5,000M] pace—insinuating that she may have been doing what the typical little kid may do in their first race—sprint at the start and blow up,” Ryan remembers. But Grace maintained her steady pace, clocking 77 seconds on the first lap and keeping the next several around 82-85 seconds, then a few at 88 seconds, and finally there was only 800M left. Those final two laps, which Ryan explains are “a guts race,” are known to Grace and her family as “Matt’s and back,” which refers to the half-mile route from where they used to live to their friend Matt’s house. With only Matt’s and back to go, combined with the momentous crowd cheering her on, Grace says she realized that she was going to break the record.
“I knew I was gonna break [the record] within the last laps,” she says. “I hit all my splits. I wasn’t thinking about anything.”
Grace finished the race in first place, 51 seconds ahead of the second place finisher, and “[lapping] three people,” she adds with a smile. She remembers being excited, of course, but she didn’t jump up and down, choosing instead to stay humble and thank her extended family members and friends who came out to see her attempt the record. She was even asked by three college boys if they could get a picture with her. “It was fun. All of the college kids were cheering when I came in.”
The record is another incredible accomplishment that Grace sees as part of a bigger goal, one that she is determined to strive for.
“[Breaking the record] tells me that if I keep up my hard work, I’m on track to being an Olympic medalist,” she says. “I want to set more records and go to the Olympics.”
In seventh grade Grace will be eligible to compete in high school cross country. If she continues on the pace she’s at now, Grace is on track to reaching her dreams, and if Topham’s career is any indication of the one Grace might have, it should be noted that as a high school freshman Topham earned three individual state championships and was named Gatorade Iowa Girls Runner of the Year and Gatorade State Girls Track & Field Athlete of the year.
Until then, Grace says she’ll keep competing in races with her family and training with the best partner possible, Lauren. Even the girls’ younger brother Jamison, 6, comes out to the track with them, spending his time watching them settle into their paces, and even joining them for a lap or two.
Ryan says that he has seen his children become closer because of the time they spend together running. The bond between Grace, Lauren and Jamison is connected by a shared athletic passion, but it’s not limited to that. Lauren can usually figure out what Grace is trying to say if she doesn’t have the right words, while Jamison continues to watch his older sisters in awe, knowing they can do no wrong.