Her Bones on the Line: Hannah Oechsle

By Cassidy Thornburg

In a 25-yard long, 6-lane pool in Lakeville, Minn., Hannah Oechsle can be found swimming laps at the local Lifetime Fitness.

It’s 5:30 a.m. CDT and Oechsle overcomes the voice in her head, tempting her to return to her warm bed, and instead, she drops into the cold, still water and heads for the opposite wall— a snapshot into the disciplined athlete Hannah Oechsle is on the cross country course. Swimming is only cross-training for her true passion— running, and the only way she can stay in shape without putting too much stress on her fickle, injury-prone bones. 

Hannah started running in middle school, in large part due to her mom who lovingly swayed her quiet, introverted daughter to join the team. Tammy Oechsle ran cross country when she was in high school and hoped that her daughter would too fall in love with the sport and especially find some close friends through it just as she had. 

“Hannah joined the cross country run group in 7th grade,” Her mom, Tammy Oechsle shared. “Sadly, she developed really painful shin splints and was not able to continue running that season. But, being the determined and driven person she is, Hannah returned to cross country the summer before 8th grade with quality running shoes and has continued to run every season through High School and now College.”

Oechsle admitted that she wasn’t sold on running from the get-go and it took her a little while for her to see what her mom did in the sport. 

“It was definitely a developed love. It was not immediate. There were many times, I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t have a natural desire to do athletics,” Oechsle shared laughing, shaking her head as she continued during my recent in-depth interview with her.

“I never even considered running in college until at least halfway through my senior cross country season. Compared to all my other years of running, I took a big leap in how I was performing. So, discovering that I had more potential than I realized, got me considering running in college.”

Joining the team

As Oechsle started looking at colleges, she established that wherever she went she would also try to run on the team on the side of her academics. In January, she settled on Wheaton College deciding to study anthropology and join the Thunder cross country team. It was at Wheaton where Oechsle experienced cross country in the ways her mom had, as both a place where she found her close friends and where she could continue to increase her love and knowledge of the sport. 

“Even looking back at how much I always felt on the outside socially, which was discouraging at different points; I really see God’s hand in getting me involved,” Oechsle shared. 

Throughout nine years of competitive running, Hannah believes that running is one of the areas God has used the most to provide for her through friendships and success on the course, but also to teach her about herself, others, and Him through various setbacks along the way.

Grit and God

In college, Oechsle has adopted an “open hands” mentality that she applies to all life situations, including running, relationships, and academics— a mantra that has not gone unnoticed by those around her, including her coach, David Walford.    

“What I have seen in Hannah over the course of four years is her strong desire to be the best runner that she can be while continually seeking to submit herself to God. Hannah has had very high-highs and also very low-lows, some coming within days of each other,” Walford said.

In those moments, Oechsle shared that with a Bible on her left knee, eyes closed, and her hands facing upward, directly in front of her, she has sat on the yellow coach in the sunroom of her house, physically and spiritually holding running loosely both in the successes and setbacks that have come. 

“Hannah has been quick to hold out the palms of her hands and praise God through her story,” Walford said, “Her mental approach has been to find freedom in the pursuit of excellence knowing that her worth as a runner comes not in her times, but as a beloved child of God.”

In four years of college running, Hannah has broken five bones—her left foot, her right shin, her left femur, her left foot, and her right foot—all while being named Rookie of the Year, 2nd team All-American, 11th all-time in the school record list in the 5K, and leading her team to four-straight conference championship titles. For Oechsle, collegiate running has been a cycle of racing, getting injured, R & R, racing again, getting injured all over again only to come back and race some more— a series that began in 2016, her freshman cross country season. 

2016-17

Oechsle’s freshman year she dropped significant time from the first half of the season to the conference championship meet in October where she ran a time of 24:04.8 in the 6K and finished first for the Thunder—5th place overall—much to everyone’s surprise. In weeks prior, Oechsle had been finishing  sixth or seventh on the team. With her stunning performance, Oechsle led the Thunder to its first conference title since 2008 and was named Freshman of the Year. 

Anna Trujillo, a senior at the time, finished just five seconds behind Oechsle in sixth place.

“I remember feeling relieved when Hannah passed me and took off,” Trujillo shared. “I was able to see Hannah for the rest of the race, and I felt really proud, especially as she sprinted to the line. She ran a very courageous race. Seeing her push hard for the team and find that extra gear made winning the conference even more special.” 

The following week, Oechsle posted a season-best of 23:24 and again led her team to a 15th place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional meet. 

Oechsle started the track season, but wasn’t able to finish it due to a pain in her left foot. After getting an x-ray, she discovered that it was broken. This injury sidelined Oechsle for the rest of the track season and into the summer, sending her to the pool for early morning sessions as she tried to maintain fitness throughout the healing process.

2017-18

Oechsle’s bones took a while to heal, and thoughshe debuted in several cross country races her sophomore year, proving that she still had the fitness to run a 6K in just over 24 minutes, it wasn’t until the 2018 outdoor track season that she was able to consistently race again. Oechsle decided to stick around after school got out for summer break for a last chance meet with senior Megan Bailey and race the outdoor 5K one more time. 

At the North Central Last Chance meet, Oechsle and Bailey pushed each other to the finish and broke 18 minutes, landing Bailey in the 10thspot on the all-time list and Hannah X just milliseconds behind her. 

“It was awesome,” Oechsle shared laughing with an added gleam in her bright blue eyes. “We would race the whole race together and then she always outkicked me in the end. We both ran 17:55 that race, but she was a millisecond ahead of me. She’s still convinced to this day that I let her get on the Top-10 list. I didn’t. She just has more of a kick than I did.”

2018-19

Following Oechsle’s ground-breaking track race, she took two weeks off and then began cross-training a ton, ready to hit the ground running, literally. 

“Going into the summer, I talked with my coach about where I was in relation to other female runners in our conference and in our region. We knew that if I was able to be at that same level during cross as I was during track, that I’d be able to have some success. So, we set a couple of goals heading into the summer.” 

Oechsle’s three goals for her junior cross country season were: being top-35 in the region, top-25 in conference, and qualifying for Nationals. In order to reach these goals, she quickly realized at the start of the summer that she’d have to commit more time in the pool. 

“I took about two weeks off of running after track ended,” Oechsle shared. “The third week, I started cross training for a good majority of the summer, primarily through swimming. I had been having some pretty bad IT band issues during that track season and also my shins were kind of bothering me.”

When Oechsle returned early to school in August for the start of cross country season, she began training on a whole other level, determined to reach the goals her and Walford had set. 

“All throughout the fall I was just pursuing these goals with a ton of intensity,” Oechsle said. “I was really fixated on them and would even say that I idolized them and prioritized running over a lot of other areas of my life.

“It definitely wasn’t all bad but there were definitely some unhealthy patterns in my training and in my habits and in how I was approaching it.”

Amidst a disciplined and rigorous training schedule, about two weeks out from the Division III Cross Country Nationals meet, Oechsle began to feel a pain in her thigh. She went to the trainer and after doing tests, they uncovered a stress reaction in her right femur. Rather than sideline Oechsle two weeks before Nationals, the one race she had been training for the entire summer and fall, they came up with an alternative.

“We came up with a plan that if I used crutches around campus and didn’t run, but instead cross-trained so there was no impact,” Oechsle shared. “I would still be able to race.”

And she did. Oechsle practically crutched to the starting line, but once there, finished third for the Thunder, behind All-Americans Hannah Roeske and Aryn Embretson in a time of 22:45.9. Overall, she finished in 129thplace in the 279-women field. 

Given the stress reaction in her femur, Oechsle took added time off during the ensuing track season to fully heal for her final cross country season the following fall. 

2019-20

Oechsle’s final college cross country season and last race was all-grit. After a healthy season of consistent races, she placed 13th at the CCIW Championships in Rock Island, IL. Oeschle’s 23:16.3 6K earned her a spot on the second-team All-CCIW list and was vital in securing her team’s fourth-straight conference title. The most impressive part? She ran her best 6K time with a broken right foot though she didn’t know it until after the race. 

“I had been having issues with my foot going into the race and wondered a week or two before if I had a bone injury,” she said. “I’ve had multiple so I kind of know what they feel like and the pain I was feeling in my foot kind of felt like that. Going into the conference race, I still had that pain, but thought it was fine.”

More focused on the task at hand than the pain in her foot, Oeschle took the line with her six other teammates, prepared to fight for one another on the course, an undertaking that proved more difficult with an accompanying pain in every step.

“You know you just keep going and usually the pain kind of fizzles or dissipates but it didn’t, it kept hurting. I kept running and after a while was like ‘oh my goodness’ this still hurts I thought this would have stopped by now.” 

Through the persisting pain in her foot, Oeschle finished the race and was quickly preoccupied with her team’s performance. 

“I was kind of limping around while we were there, but it wasn’t until we got back on campus that night where the excitement settled down and I really started to feel my foot. I was like ‘oh my goodness this is really painful’ and then waited like two days and went and got an x-ray and it was broken,” Hannah shared.  

A broken foot meant Oechsle could not race at Regionals the following week, or at Nationals the subsequent one, like the year before. A boot enclosed around her right foot wrapped up her final college cross country season.

Friday, she stepped out on the track for the first time since breaking her right foot four months before and raced the indoor 5K. Oechsle delighted at the opportunity to run. 

“It was amazing. I felt very excited, I also felt very emotional,” Oechsle shared after her race. “I hadn’t really thought about it. It was a big deal because I didn’t run track last season at all so really it was my first race back.

“Being able to run track at this point in the season was just a huge blessing and a cool moment to look back on where the Lord has brought me. It was also special because my foot was healed. God has really showed up for me in both of these track seasons— this spring after breaking my foot and two seasons ago when I broke 18 minutes in the 5k.”  

Oechsle’s indoor track race was bittersweet—it ended up not only being her first of the season, but also her last. A couple days later, Oechsle went and saw the trainers who after having her get x-rays, informed her that she again broke her foot, this time her left one, officially ending her college running career. 

Through both the sport and community of running, Oechsle has embraced what has come, realized strength that her eighth grade self never knew she had, and uncovered a more confident, social, and people-loving woman.

Running has done more for Hannah than her eighth grade self could have imagined and Oechsle has done more for the Thunder cross country team than her coaches ever expected—a reason her team calls her “X Factor.” 

The Genesis of “X-Factor”

“To explain how Hannah embodies her nickname, it is important to know the genesis of ‘X Factor,’ at least as we know it,” Coach Walford shared. “Entering her freshman year, Hannah had just come off of wilderness passage, and therefore, out of shape.  At the first meet, she was our eighth runner, about a minute behind our number one runner.”

Both Coach Walford and Coach Bradley, the assistant cross country coach, didn’t quite know Oechsle as a runner yet because she was new to the team, so they were pleased with her placement in races and effort on the course, until they saw her times during workouts at practice.     

“We started seeing workouts from her before they transpired in races, and therefore before the world ‘discovered’ Hannah.  During those workouts, Coach Bradley kept saying that Hannah was our ‘X-Factor.’ Then, once conference rolled around, Hannah ended up being our number one runner there and at Regionals.”

Oechsle came out of nowhere and took the Thunder coaches by surprise with her speed her freshman year. Her ability to drop significant time from one race to another became a recurring experience throughout her four years.   

“Since Hannah has had her share of injuries, the fall and rise of the phoenix has happened many times. Hannah has come from very far behind in her fitness to rise up to high athletic heights. She embodies her nickname as someone who puts in hard work regardless if it is on the bike, AlterG, pool or ripping miles on the prairie path,” Walford said. 

Coach Walford explained that her nickname evolved throughout her running career, but is evident on and off the course including the way she cares for her teammates as a team captain. 

“The X-Factor stays faithful to her calling regardless of her work bearing worldly fruit [fast times], or not. Hannah has made an impact on our team athletically, but the far greater impact that she has made goes beyond athletic performance, and focuses much more on the eternal in the ways that she has loved and cared for her teammates and friends regardless of what the clock says.” 

No matter what place she ends up coming in or time she runs, Hannah “X-Factor” Oechsle puts her bones on the line for her teammates, her eighth-grade self, and her God. 

#grit #mentality #openhands #running