DURHAM, N.C. -- The top two milers in Duke track history — Bob Wheeler for the men, Shannon Rowbury for the women — set career paces that might never be surpassed by future Blue Devil middle distance runners.
Both won multiple ACC championships — in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. Both won NCAA titles. And both represented the United States in the Olympics. Wheeler’s school records in the indoor mile and outdoor 1,500 meters have stood for over three decades; Rowbury’s marks in the same events were set within the last five years.
Dossiers on Duke’s two best current milers — Cory Nanni for the men, Molly Lehman for the women — don’t contain the rich championship details of their historical forerunners. But when it comes to pure speed in one of track’s most glamorous events, the current Blue Devils measure up quite favorably. Across the history of Duke track, Wheeler and Rowbury are the only two to run the mile faster than Nanni and Lehman.
Wheeler set Duke’s outdoor 1,500 meters record of 3:39 in 1972, the same year he went to the Olympics, and he established the indoor mile record one season later at 4:00.70. Nanni became Duke’s second fastest indoor miler this season with a time of 4:04.21 at Virginia Tech. He posted his best time in the outdoor 1,500 last weekend at 3:43.09, barely four seconds behind Wheeler and fourth all-time at Duke.
On the women’s side, Rowbury clocked the Duke record of 4:34.94 in the indoor mile in 2007, when she won the NCAA title in the event. Her record of 4:14.81 in the outdoor 1,500 was set in 2005, when she won one of her five career ACC championships. Lehman became the second fastest Blue Devil in both events this year, running the mile in 4:41.69 at Notre Dame and going 4:17.84 in the 1,500 in Chapel Hill early last month.
Lehman and Nanni led a contingent of 12 Blue Devils to last weekend’s NCAA East Regionals in Greensboro, each intent on earning their first career spot in an NCAA national championship race. The top five finishers in every event at regionals earned tickets to nationals, but neither Devil was able to place that high. Two days later, however, Lehman was extended an at-large bid so she will be running in the NCAA Championships June 10-13 at Arkansas.
Lehman, who graduated from Duke last month, had a short but agonizing history of coming up just short of nationals. Last year she placed sixth at regionals, missing the automatic berth by mere tenths of a second. The same thing happened during the 2009 indoor season, when her best mile time left her at the top of the list of runners not invited to the NCAAs.
Such results might not have been envisioned for Lehman upon her arrival at Duke from her native Minnesota, as she spent her first two years trying to get adjusted in every area of her life — from increased training mileage and tougher competition in athletics, to finding a new major when she discovered that pre-med was not for her.
She started seeing significant running gains as a junior in 2008, when she was fourth in the ACC in both the 1,500 and the mile, as well as the ECAC 1,500 runnerup and 1,000 meters indoor champ. Then this track season she took off with faster times and victories in invitationals at Duke and UNC as well as the ECACs. She placed a close second in the ACC 1,500.
“She’s really been a different athlete this entire outdoor season, where now she’s mainly winning races,” said women’s track coach Kevin Jermyn. “The ACC was the only time she didn’t win the 1,500. So her mentality has changed, she’s used to finishing at the front of the pack and has confidence.
“In her training, last year we patched it together but this year she has trained like an elite athlete and done the work to be an All-American. That’s resulted in a higher level of confidence.”
“I’m running at a different level than I ever had before,” Lehman noted. “You get used to thinking of yourself as a good runner and you rearrange your goals, set them higher, work harder and make running more of a priority in your life. My goal from the beginning of this indoor season was to make it to outdoor nationals because I was so close last year. I did not want to be caught off guard like at the end of last year. That was my goal for the season, to get there.”
Along with learning to train like an elite athlete, Lehman has become a student of race tactics in the mile/1,500. Due to lack of experience as a lead runner, she classifies herself as a follower who tries to prepare for several different race strategies and then reacts to what other people do. She refers to this year’s ACC championship race in the 1,500 as a pivotal learning experience; she began her closing sprint with about 100 meters to go and took the lead, but she was passed with 50 meters left and had to settle for second place, only .28 seconds behind Florida State’s Pilar McShine.
“Kevin is very into us learning how to race well,” said Lehman, whose favorite training runs are five-milers through Duke Forest. “It’s something I’ve worked on a lot the last four years, and not every one does that. If you watch a race, you can point at people who are good at tactics or bad at tactics. Some of the best girls aren’t always that good at tactics.
“It definitely keeps you focused. Sometimes a race will start slow and you have to be on the edge the whole time waiting for it to take off. You might be running 5:30 mile pace and then all of a sudden it will take off and you’re running 800 pace. It’s very extreme when it happens.”
Jermyn was glad to see Lehman’s newfound confidence rewarded with an NCAA berth and hopes she might also qualify for the USATF nationals later in the month.
“Last year it (NCAA qualification) might have been something she would have liked to do but I don’t think it was driving and itching underneath her skin most days the entire year, whereas this year it has been,” Jermyn said. “When you get that, that’s when things tend to take off to another level because you are training with a purpose and living with a purpose, and you tend to get better results. That’s definitely the case.
“This year, comparing personal bests, she’s five seconds faster, but the honest truth is that she’s much faster than that when you compare her workouts. I wouldn’t be surprised, if she gets in a fast race, that she could get down to the 4:13 or 4:12 range, which is where Shannon was as a senior.”
Lehman, who began running in middle school when her family was living in England, brought mostly an 800-meter background into her Duke career. Her counterpart on the men’s team, Cory Nanni, enjoyed running the mile in middle school but played football his first three years of high school and didn’t start to hone in on track as his specialty until his senior year of high school.
He was the Illinois state champ in the indoor mile.
Duke track coach Norm Ogilvie saw Nanni compete in the Russell Blunt Invitational, held annually on the Wallace Wade Stadium track, the summer prior to his senior year.
“His times in high school were not spectacular...but we liked what we saw in terms of his competitiveness. He showed some potential,” Ogilvie said. “Then in the spring of his senior year he did a fast mile...and when he got here, right off the bat he showed us some toughness as a freshman.
“What we like most about him is that he’s consistent and he’s tough. He doesn’t seem to fear anyone and he seems to run his best in championship races.”
After just missing the NCAA regional qualifying standard for the 1,500 as a freshman, Nanni hit it in almost every race his sophomore year. He was the runnerup in meets at Duke and UNC and took sixth place in the ACC, then broke through with a major championship in winning the IC4A title — the same weekend Lehman won the ECAC crown. Nanni also won the IC4A indoor mile this year, marking the first running championship for a Blue Devil in that meet in 10 years.
“I’ve always loved the mile,” he said. “It’s a good mix of distance and speed, and it’s not too long. It’s definitely one of the most interesting races for me.
“Coming to college it feels good to push yourself and see what your limits are. I haven’t fulfilled my potential yet. I just want to keep working at it and see what I can do.”
Nanni says he feels comfortable with a wide range of race paces and strategies and has enjoyed working with Ogilvie’s training program, which was designed to have him peak for NCAAs. His goals include running under 3:43 in the 1,500 and eventually breaking the four-minute mile.
“That’s definitely a big goal, but the main goal is to get the best times possible and get noticed,” he said. “Some people know about me in the ACC, some people on the East coast. I’d just like to get my name out there and show I’m no average runner.”
When he needs added inspiration, he will occasionally pull out his cell phone and read over a short list of runners he’d like to beat if he ever sees them in a race. Lehman would not be surprised to see Nanni win frequently over the second half of his college career.
“My first two years of adjusting to college running were a mess. Cory is doing this well right off the bat,” she said. “I think that’s great. The next two years there is a lot of time for him develop, so that’s really exciting for him.”
Despite running his career best time at regionals, Nanni placed seventh and just missed an NCAA spot. But he still has time enough to chase down the records of duke’s benchmark miler, Hall of Famer Bob Wheeler.