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Trina Painter’s earliest running memories are of a field day at her elementary school in Phoenix.

“My sister and I came home with lots of blue ribbons,” she told me.

Painter, a member of the Arizona Runners Hall of Fame, “loves to compete.” As a high school senior, she won the state cross country meet and the mile and two-mile distances in track, setting a state record in the latter. In college, her teams (Phoenix College and University of Texas at Austin) won national championships.

Painter’s decades-long pursuit of excellence is rooted in sheer love for running. “I love the physical challenge of it,” she said. Training has been tough recently, due to injuries. “And at this age, it takes months to get back. But I still love that pursuit of excellence, whether it’s in myself as an athlete or as a coach with my team.”

Painter is an award-winning cross country coach whose boys and girls teams, the Flagstaff High Eagles, secured their fourth straight Division II state championships in 2018. In the past few months, she’s received three prestigious coaching awards. But as we talked about Painter’s athletic career—which took her to three different Olympic Trials—I noticed she kept using the word “fun.”

In grammar school, jogging with her mom and a friend, “I was running, jumping and hitting signs and running circles around them, and it wasn’t for training or competition, it was just fun.”

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She praised her middle school and high school coaches (both women, by the way) for “making it fun. We played games, we were silly. One time, my high school coach put balloons on our backs. We had to try to pop the other person’s balloon, to work on speed.”

When Painter started coaching, in graduate school, “Eventually I had five or six assistant coaches and more than 100 people doing three or four workouts a week.” That sounds like tons of work to me, but for Trina, “It was just fun.”

It turns out that for this high-achieving athlete and coach, fun and excellence “go hand in hand.” Though her professional running career is over, she still competes, just “with a less serious mindset.” And as a coach, “I remember my team are still kids. The serious ones will always want to come to practice, but if we make it fun, we keep more kids involved. And they often develop into serious athletes who find their own passion for it as time goes on.”

No matter what your running goals are, it’s good to be reminded that excellence and fun aren’t mutually exclusive. But after talking with Coach Painter, I have to give fun the last word. To her, it’s a philosophy that extends beyond track or trail. “I think at all levels, no matter we are doing — cleaning the house, picking up dog poop, training for a marathon or studying for an exam — it's OK to add an element of fun. Right?”

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Julie Hammonds is coordinating editor for High Country Running. She invites submissions on any aspect of the local running scene. Send tips and ideas to runner@juliehammonds.com or via Twitter @highcountry_run.

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