Feature: Getting to Know Cynthia Kmak and Chris Willis, Fleet Feet Racing Team's New Coaches in Chicago


The Fleet Feet Racing Team powered by New Balance launched its new season over the past few weeks, and with a new year of running, a tone was set for the team reiterating the team's emphasis on inclusivity, diversity, responsibility, safety, and support. To steer these values, we're taking a two-pronged approach. Cynthia Kmak will lead the Fleet Feet Racing Team with help from Chris Willis, who will advise the team's sponsored athletes.

Many of you who are in the Fleet Feet community know Cynthia as a coach for Chicago Endurance Sports while Chris has been a staple of the team for many years. You've probably seen him running shirtless.

To get to know the coaching duo better, we asked them a bunch of questions that range from running philosophy to the last TV show they watched. Get to know Cynthia and Chris below.

Cynthia Kmak Chris Willis

How were you introduced to the sport of running?

Cynthia: I have three sisters. My two older sisters did cross country when I was younger so I wanted to do cross country because that’s what they did. But I was never able to finish a race. I DNF’d every single one because I couldn’t run for more than four minutes. And that’s how I got introduced to running.

Chris: I never remember not being a runner. From being a little kid, foot races with friends in the yard. As I got older and into organized sports, I wasn’t coordinated or good at a lot of the other sports that people were in or I wanted to try. But one thing I was always good at was running and I naturally kind of gravitated towards that and got on the track team in sixth grade. My sixth-grade track coach is still a good friend of mine. He coached me in cross country in high school and he has been a mentor of mine since middle school.

What is your favorite aspect of running?

Cynthia: For me, it definitely was and is a time away from the rest of my life. When I started running after college I didn’t have a great job and had just gotten out of a pretty rough relationship, and I was overweight and I was like “man, how do I get out of this?”

I had always wanted to run and when I was actually able to do more than a mile, it was so freeing for my mind and it calmed me down. It was amazing. And my body felt so much better after I started running. My body and my mind. I was no longer severely depressed. I was so in touch with my body and I was treating it well and my mind well and I was like “man, this is great and I’m never going to stop doing this.”

Chris: My favorite part about running is the community. The really deep relationships that form when you train with someone month after month, year after year, going through the same experiences. With us being apart so much now it’s really driven home how much I miss that. Being around people who understand what training is like also understand that dedication and how important it becomes in your life to the point it gives you structure. The competitive aspect I love and it’s probably a close second.

When you started running after college, did you always gravitate toward a group? Did you run solo at all?

Chris: I ran on teams all throughout middle school and high school and then during my first semester of college I ran a marathon that I trained for completely solo. And then I didn’t run another step for 10 years. There wasn’t really a running community around me when I was training for it. The marathon went well and I thought it was like a bucket list thing and I thought it was something that was behind me but then when I started running with other people again I found out that was a huge part of what running was for me.

What would you tell someone who wants to get faster?

Cynthia: For me, the first marathon was like “I’m going to run a marathon!” and then after that, it was like “this feels good, I’m going to keep doing that.” I would take some time off of my marathon time which each consecutive race but it wasn’t until I added the speed work and added strength training that I was seeing real changes in my running and I just didn’t realize how much I could push myself and I’m still seeing that and I’m in my late 30’s and still getting faster every year. That is something I wish I could have told my younger self and that’s the first thing I’d tell someone that I coach. “The running part is very necessary. You need to build endurance. But if you can back that up with speed work and strength it will lessen the likelihood of you getting injured and it will keep you running happier because your body is just going to feel happier doing that.

Chris: I always tell people to join a group. Find a group that has the kind of runners in it that you want to be and just learn from them and soak it all up. The answers are all out there. Having people to show up for and having people to be accountable to when you start and make a commitment like “hey I’m going to see you Saturday for a run”, you’re going to show up and that is going to foster consistency. It’s going to foster a willingness to try a new workout that you’ve never done before. It’s everything.

Favorite workout?

Cynthia: I have two favorite workouts and I’m sorry I can’t just pick one! I love half-mile repeats. The Yasso. It tells you so much about where you’re at and where you can go. So I like that because it helps me know what I’m capable of. 

My 100% favorite workout is mile repeats. I like doing like, seven-mile repeats. When I’m in good shape and when I’m in the zone, I don’t even look at my watch. It’s like my birthday when I’m done with the workout and I’m like “look at those laps!” I don’t know what it is about it. That mile I’m like “how quick can we make this one?” Yea, I really love mile repeats.

Chris: I’ve had the same favorite workout since high school. Five dollars in quarters. 20 x 400 meters. It would be the workout we build up to at the end of the year. I don’t know why. I like those short reps. I like to go fast. Especially when you’re on a track. There’s a perfect symmetry to it. It’s long so you get that stretch through the 14th lap and you’re like “I don’t know if I can finish this” but you get to lap 17 or 18 and you get a second wind. It’s great. No one shares this belief with me.

What landed you in Chicago?

Cynthia: I came here to study comedy.

Chris: I moved here for law school.

Favorite race you ran, when, and why?

Cynthia: My favorite race was the Colorado Marathon. It was two weeks after Boston 2018 where I got hypothermia. I got a 12-minute negative split on that race, beat my Boston time, and it was gorgeous. I was with friends. No expectations. It was beautiful.

Chris: Chicago Marathon 2018. I have never been better prepared for a race and I had never executed a race better.

What is your current running goal?

Chris: That’s a really good question, Max. (laughs)

Cynthia: My current running goal is to be ready for a 50K trail race by the end of the year. 

Chris: That used to be a much easier question for me to answer. My current running goal is finding a way to keep running sustainable and supporting all the other things going on in my life.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Chicago outside of running?

Cynthia: Currently, playing Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild.

On Nintendo Switch? 

Cynthia: Hell yeah. I’m only 30 hours in. So I’m only at like 5 hearts and one and a half wheels of stamina. But yea, I’ve been training as Link for as much as I run.

Chris: My favorite thing to do in the world is to take my kids to a museum and I’m obviously not doing that. But, spending time with my kids, spending time with my family. 

Show them a Ken Burns documentary.

Chris: (laughs) Yea. “Here kids, let's learn about the Civil War”, and it’s three and a half hours long.

What does your typical Sunday look like?

Cynthia: Sunday, there’s a recovery run in there. My partner’s dad teaches yoga so we usually do an hour and fifteen-minute yoga, which feels so good. Eating a lot of food and going for walks.

Chris: Sunday is my non-running day. Sunday is where I spend more time with my kids and my wife. Sunday is like, sleep in, spend time with family, just kind of hanging out around the house, and being a bum. That hasn’t changed. Every day feels like Sunday.

What do you do for work?

Cynthia: Comedian and running coaches are the two things that paid the rent.

Chris: I’m an attorney

Favorite local spot?

Cynthia: I go to George’s ice cream in Andersonville. They have at least four vegan flavors. My favorite is the Raspberry Nebula.

Chris: Wednesday night tacos at Wells on Wells (laughs). Nothing better. It’s the highlight of my week!

Favorite local brewery?

Cynthia: I quit drinking two years ago. I used to live in Milwaukee, so, when I lived there I was a beer snob.

Chris: Half Acre.

Last thing you read?

Cynthia: Meb for Mortals

Chris: Inside a Marathon by Scott Fauble

Runner’s are so weird.

Chris: We’re such nerds.

Last show you watched?

Cynthia: Seinfeld. Season 2

Chris: Parks & Recreation. Rewatching it.

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