When Frances Koons lists her reasons for running the 2012 Rothman 8K race on Saturday, she points out the same attributes that draw almost every other runner in the Philadelphia area.
"It's close, so we don't need to wake up early and drive somewhere," said Koons, 26, who lives in Ardmore, which is just shy of five miles away from Center City. "It's a nice, flat course."
What Koons leaves out is that she won the women's race in 2009 in 26 minutes, 34 seconds and that this will be her first return to the distance in three years.
Koons, an Allentown native, ran track at Allentown Central Catholic High School and then for Villanova. While at 'Nova, she was named an all-American eight times and racked up a first-place Big East finish in the 1,500 meters in 2006 and the 1,000 and mile indoor titles in 2007, along with first-place finishes in the distance-medley relay and the 4x800 relay.
"She's a very determined individual," said her coach, Marcus O'Sullivan, the director of Villanova's track and field program who still holds the course record for the Rothman 8K. He set the mark in 1997 at 23 minutes, 3 seconds.
"She's incredibly tough and very ambitious," he said.
O'Sullivan added that Koons is also "remarkably positive."
Case in point: When talking about injuries that have hampered her running career, Koons references plantar fasciitis, which is the thickening of tissue on the bottom of the foot followed by a stress fracture, not a 2007 bout with clear-cell renal carcinoma.
A golf-ball-size tumor was removed from her kidney in the summer of 2007. She took six weeks off and was back in running shape in time for the 2008 U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
After graduating in 2009, Koons went right into a master's degree program at Villanova for applied statistics. And she kept running, winning the Rothman 8K in 2009 and the Penn Relays 5K in 2010. She set two personal bests in 2011: a 4:31 mile and a 15:29 5K.
She took time off from her degree to train with the New Jersey-New York Track Club, an elite group of runners based at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J. It's the first track club of its kind on the East Coast and it sent one runner to the Olympics this summer.
But, earlier this year, Koons decided to come back to Pennsylvania to finish her master's while also working as an assistant coach to the men's cross-country team. She also wanted to be coached by O'Sullivan.
This year has been a struggle because of the foot injury, but O'Sullivan said the Rothman 8K has been an excellent training goal for Koons, who considers it a "season opener" for the forthcoming indoor and outdoor track seasons.
"I'd like to someday get into longer races," she said when asked about moving up to the half-marathon or marathon distance. "But for now, the aim next spring will be the 5K again."