St. John's athlete Julia Howley is enjoying great success early in the cross-country running season. 

The Simon Fraser University standout didn't take the sport very seriously until she hit Grade 11 at Holy Heart high school.

' I'm definitely not going to close any doors ... I'd like to see how far I can go.' - Julia Howley

She made up her mind to put more of a focus on her training to try and see how far running could take her, and Howley's gone far — about 7,000 kilometres west to British Columbia.

"St. John's and Newfoundland actually have a pretty long history with Simon Fraser at this point," Howley said.

"I am the fourth runner from this province to end up out west."

Julia Howley

Howley runs cross-country in the fall before the team moves to the track for the spring. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Simon Fraser University bills itself as Canada's NCAA team, the only university north of the border to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation, which represents hundreds of thousands of university athletes across the United States.

"It's awesome," the 21-year-old sustainable business student said.
 
"It's one of the things that I was really interested in when I decided I wanted to go away to school was the travel opportunities and get to go to these places that I've never been and would have never had the opportunity to. It's been fantastic. Racing against the best possible competition is just icing on the cake."

Julia Howley's running season off to a great start1:51

With the SFU crew running its third race of the season Saturday, Howley has already hit the podium three times in her cross-country competitions.

She posted a first-place finish at the Ash Creek Invitiation in Monmouth, Oregon putting up a time of 16:24.6 in the 4.6- kilometre race. She followed that up with a third-place finish Sept. 16 at the Sundodger Invitational in Seattle, Washington, running the six-kilometre course in 21:22:86. On Saturday, she finished second with a 6K time of 22:42.4 at the Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota.

Coaching connection

Howley and her teammates have won three straight meets, pushing the women's cross-country team from SFU up the NCAA Division II Cross Country rankings from 14th to 5th — the first Top 5 ranking in program history, according to SFU.

"I'm really excited about how strong our entire team is running this early in the season," Howley said.

"I think that if this early success is indicative of our capabilities, then I don't think we need to place any limits on what we can achieve."

Brit Townsend

Two-time Olympian Brit Townsend has been the head coach at SFU for over 20 years. (SFU)

The connecting link between this province and Simon Fraser is legendary running coach Ray Will, who has been involved in the sport in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1977.

Will met Howley's coach, Brit Townsend, when he was involved with the national cross-country team in the 1980s.

"Ray has a great insight into what might, potentially, turn into a great athlete," Townsend said.

"[Howley] came out very young, and excited, pretty raw." 

Simon Fraser University Cross-Country Running Team

With wins in the the first two meets, the SFU women's cross-country team made it into the Top 5 of the NCAA Division II rankings. (SFU)

Townsend calls Howley a gritty type of runner whose skill level in the middle distances has "skyrocketed" since she joined the Simon Fraser crew three years ago.  

Prior to Howley's arrival, Townsend mentored Marystown's Ryan Brockerville, who still trains with her, Mount Pearl's Daniel Kelloway and Julia Howard Kawamoto, who's from St. John's . All three have enjoyed success during their time at SFU, have competed on the world's stage and were recommended by Will. 

Howley's career at SFU still has two more seasons left.  

"Last year was a big breakthrough for [Howley] on the track," Townsend said.

"She's got more things that she wants to do this year."

SFU was set to travel to the Roy Griak Invitational in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Saturday, Sept. 23. 

Julia Howley

Howley has competed at the Canada Games twice for Newfoundland and Labrador. (SFU)

Howley, who is in her fourth year of her studies, knows her schedule for this season but she isn't so sure what her future holds after that. 

"I'm not sure yet, I'm definitely not going to close any doors. I'm going to see where I am with running when I am done in the NCAA," she said.

"I have no intentions of stopping right now when I finish college. As a middle distance runner I definitely have a lot to work on and improve and you really don't peak until you're late 20s. Not sure if I will stay until then, but I'd like to see how far I can go."