‘Top dog’: How pro runner Lucia Stafford changed her mindset to become a contender

In a matter of minutes, Lucia Stafford began her 2023 track running season indoors with two personal-best times, including a Canadian record in the 1,000 metres.

While the process to achieve this level of success took years, she has witnessed dramatic improvement in her results the past 18 months.

Often consumed by the outcome of her races, Stafford stopped worrying about time or other runners in her 2020 Olympic debut, focusing on each lap and being present in the women’s 1,500.

“If you focus on executing every lap the way you want, feeling strong and making sure you do your best … you should run fast and place high,” Stafford said this week from her Toronto residence before flying to New York to race the women’s indoor mile in her Millrose Games debut on Saturday.

The Tokyo Olympics, delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, was “a huge learning experience” and turning point in Stafford’s athletic career.

“I grew a lot in the mental game, [how to handle] pre-race nerves and anxiety,” said last year’s Canadian champion in the 1,500. “Once the [start] gun went off in my heat and the semifinals, I felt like my body knew what to do.”

Stafford delivered a 4:03.52 PB on Aug. 2, 2021 to qualify seventh for the Olympic semifinals ahead of her older sister, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, who holds a combined seven indoor and outdoor records. Two days later, she ran over a second faster in 4:02.12, 43-100ths of a second shy of Spain’s Marta Perez, who grabbed the last qualifying spot for the final.

‘I was scared of letting myself down’

“I went from a 4:05, 4:06 runner to Olympic semifinalist and almost Olympic finalist,” said Stafford, “and I honestly think it was purely because of my mindset.”

On Saturday, she stayed near the front of the pack throughout the 1,609-metre race and reached the finish in four minutes 22.72 seconds, her second PB in the event in a week after clocking 4:23.52 last Saturday at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston.

Stafford’s fourth-place showing in the field of nine fell 72-100ths of a second short of the 4:22.00 automatic entry standard for the women’s 1,500 at the Aug. 19-27 world championships in Budapest, Hungary. World Athletics is allowing athletes to use mile times to qualify.

Reigning Olympic 1,500 silver medallist Laura Muir of Great Britain won in 4:20.15, followed by American Josette Andrews (4:20.88) and Britain’s Katie Snowden (4:21.19). British indoor mile record-holder Jemma Reekie was last in the field of nine in 4:28.91.

For Stafford, there was a time when she almost felt intimidated by her own drive, competitiveness and expectations that would cause her to dread racing.

“I wanted to do well and knew I could but was so scared of letting myself down,” the 24-year-old recalled. “I’ve changed a lot in many ways in the last year and the approach to racing is definitely a big one. Now, it’s more of an excitement for the opportunity to show off how hard I’ve worked.”

Since returning last March from a four-month stint with Bowerman Track Club in Oregon, Stafford has built confidence, developed more trust in herself and is better prepared for competition.

She trains twice a week at the University of Guelph with Terry Radchenko, her coach since age 12, and at the Athletics Canada East Hub (Toronto Track and Field Centre) at York University.

“She’s continued to improve by adding to her training [as far as] volume and intensity,” said Radchenko, head coach of middle-distance runners and cross-country at Guelph. “[At York] she can see a sports medicine doctor, chiropractor and nutritionist, and get physio and massage treatment, so she’s doing all the things to compete at the highest level.”

She was the best I’ve seen her as far as how strong and confident she looked.— Simon Fraser University track coach Brit Townsend on Stafford setting Canadian record

Stafford has also fulfilled her desire for a balanced life by spending time with friends away from the track and is enrolled in the singer/songwriter program at Seneca College.

Brit Townsend, head coach of track and cross-country at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., was in Boston with her athletes on Jan. 28 and watched Stafford’s record performance in the 1,000.

“She was the best I’ve seen her as far as how strong and confident she looked,” Townsend, who represented Canada in the women’s 1,500 at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, told CBC Sports. “She’s reaping the benefits of having a healthy body and that makes a big difference mentally.”

In high school, Stafford was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks healthy tissue in your thyroid gland at any time for unknown reasons.

“She had some [health] challenges a couple of years ago which is under control now,” said Townsend. “She believes she can achieve everything but is also humble, and that’s a good combination.”

After running ahead of the field for much of the race in Boston and being edged by Heather MacLean of Peabody, Mass., she noted the Millrose field was deeper with more top-end talent.

“I don’t have as much experience being one of the top dogs in a field like that,” Stafford said of the Boston mile. “Coming to these meets as a contender now is very different than what I’m used to, but it’s cool.”

Sister holds Canadian women’s mile mark

DeBues-Stafford holds the Canadian women’s indoor mile record of 4:19.73 from the 2020 Millrose Games.

Sarah Mitton (shot put) and Michelle Harrison (60 hurdles) were the other Canadians competing at the 115th Millrose Games, an iconic track and field meet held at The Armory in Manhattan.

At her fifth event of this indoor season, the 26-year-old Mitton placed 2nd with throw of 19.52 metres, surpassed only by her 19.80 Canadian record performance on Jan. 13 at the Can/Am Classic in Windsor, Ont.

American Chase Ealey, the 2022 world champion who won the Diamond League Trophy in September, prevailed in Saturday’s four-women event with a world-leading and meet record throw of 20.03. She boasts a 20.21 PB.

The 28-year-old also beat Mitton three times on the professional track and field circuit last season.

WATCH | Mitton rides 19.56m throw to 2nd place in Diamond League Final:

Nova Scotia’s Sarah Mitton shot puts to 2nd place at the Diamond League Final

Canadian record-holder Sarah Mitton of Brooklyn, N.S. threw 19.56 metres to finish in second place at the season-ending Diamond League Final in Zurich.

Harrison of Saskatoon was the first Canadian in action Saturday and finished sixth in a field of eight hurdlers. Her time of 8.10 seconds matched last week’s effort in Boston and is 1-100th of a second off her PB from March 19, 2022 in Belgrade, Serbia.

At 29, she experienced a breakthrough last season, clocking a 12.74 PB in the world 100 hurdles semifinal and placing 14th overall in Eugene, Ore. After winning a second straight Canadian title, Harrison finished eighth in the final at Commonwealth Games and fifth at the NACAC Championships in Freeport, Bahamas.

WATCH | Harrison advances to world 100m hurdles semifinals:

Canada’s Michelle Harrison advances to semifinal of women’s 100m hurdles at world championships

Two-time national champion Michelle Harrison moves on to the semifinal of the 100m hurdles competition with a time of 12.95 in Eugene, Ore.