Runner Justyn Knight on the Value of Unrealistic Goals

Be Orange

Good as gold. That’s what Justyn Knight ’18 aspires to be every time he steps to the starting line for a race. #BeOrange

Knight, the 2018 NCAA 5,000-meter indoor champion, poses on the indoor track at Manley Field House

As the greatest distance runner in Syracuse University cross country and track and field program history, Knight realizes the enormous hard work, dedication, training, and tactical skills required to compete and win. 

Syracuse Career Highlights

  • Won two individual NCAA titles his senior year (cross country, and 5,000-meter indoor)
  • Finished in fourth-place as a sophomore in the NCAA cross country meet, helping lead the Orange to the 2015 national team championship
  • Collected 11 individual ACC titles
  • Earned All-America honors 10 times
  • Excelled on the world stage, winning the 2015 Pan Am Games Junior Cross Country title and placing ninth in the 5K at the 2017 IAAF World Championships.

In July, Knight entered the professional ranks, becoming the first runner to sign with the new Reebok Boston Track Club. “For me to open a new chapter in my life is really fulfilling,” says Knight, a native of Toronto, Ontario. “I’m enjoying it.”

Putting in the Effort

For Knight, developing into an elite, world-class runner began almost by accident. As a high school sophomore, he was athletic and competitive, playing on the volleyball and basketball teams, but a gym teacher gave Knight a midterm grade that didn’t meet his expectations, telling him he wanted to see more effort. Knight responded when the class ran a 5-kilometer race, leaving his classmates in the dust and teachers in disbelief. Effort hasn’t been an issue since then. He discovered the beauty of going on runs and enjoying the outdoors, and fell in love with running. “I accepted the fact that if I wanted to be good at what I was doing, I had to keep doing it. And the more I did it, the easier it got,” Knight says. “Once I started getting used to practice every day and going on runs, I really found a joy in running fast and improving.”

I accepted the fact that if I wanted to be good at what I was doing, I had to keep doing it.

By the time Knight arrived at Syracuse, he had racked up Ontario provincial titles and the Canadian Junior Cross Country Championship and was a highly touted recruit. He saw Syracuse as the best team for himself and wanted to compete and contribute immediately, but knew he had a lot to learn. From training runs in the hills of southern Onondaga County to gathering advice from his teammates and coaches, he constantly sought to improve and set high expectations for himself—“unrealistic goals,” he says, knowing that even if he came up short, he’d still in the range of where he wanted to be. As Knight points out, rare are the perfect race days when weather conditions, physical and mental readiness, and strategy align. One of his greatest motivations was a disappointing 143rd-place finish in the NCAA cross country championship his freshman year. Like any competitor, he enjoys winning and dislikes losing, but looks to gain from the experience. “I remember races I’ve lost in great detail,” he says. “I try to understand why I lost and how I can do better. Then I try to put that in my game heading forward.”

Over the next three years, he upped his game, claiming fourth- and second-place finishes at the NCAA cross country meets before winning the title last fall. In 2018, along with being the NCAA 5,000-meter indoor champion, he was national runner-up in both the 3,000-meter indoor and the 5,000-meter outdoor. Add to that, second- and third-place outings in the 3,000 at the NCAA indoors (2017 and 2016) and a third-place finish in the 2017 NCAA 5,000-meter outdoor race. “Syracuse helped me become a complete, better athlete,” he says. “That grit I have in me now was truly brought out of me because of Syracuse. The reason why our team did so well and I did so well is because I know, rain or shine, snow or nice weather, I have a job to get done. It’s not going to be easy, and not everything will go my way. I won’t be comfortable all the time, but I still have to go to work.”

Focusing on the Future

Knight running ahead of a competitor during a NCAA cross country meet
Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics

That work ethic held true for Knight in the classroom, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. On choosing his major, Knight says, “Social work is one of those majors where various options are open to you—guidance counselor was one of them for me; you could also use those skills to become a teacher or a coach. It opens various windows and I am considering all those options when my athletic career is over.”

He believes he benefited from juggling his academic and athletic responsibilities and became a more balanced individual. “From an academic standpoint, they push you to be the best student and the best person you can be,” he says. “It was really stressful at times, but at the end of the day, Syracuse is just preparing us for life.” He wants to help others on their life journeys as well and enjoys offering advice to young athletes and being a positive influence. “That’s something I love to do,” he says. “I’ve had many people mentor me and help me become a great person, so I feel like I owe it to society to help others.”

For now, Knight is focused on his professional running career, aiming for the 2019 IAAF World Championships and the 2020 Olympics. In the 5K at the Canadian national championships in July, he crossed the line in second and was selected to represent Team Canada in August at the North American Central American Caribbean Athletics Association Championships in Toronto. Running before his hometown fans, he placed third. Knight is also happy to remain under the guidance of Coach Chris Fox, who retired from coaching SU after 13 years to accept the head coaching position of the Reebok team. “It’s going to be a great run for both of us,” Knight says. Stride after stride, mile after mile, race after race, he will continue his quest for gathering gold.

Jay Cox

This story was first published on August 31, 2018 and last updated on .


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