DURHAM, N.C. - Duke middle distance runners Patricia Loughlin and Molly Lehman didn’t do a single workout together during the 2009 track season, but they were fueled through every practice by a common objective.
When Lehman finished sixth in the 1,500 meters and Loughlin eighth in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the 2008 NCAA regionals, the two fell tantalizingly short of the top-five placements needed to qualify for nationals. Both took the frustration of their near-misses to heart, using it to drive them through the 2009 season with the singular purpose of making the NCAA championship meet.
Last week their common objective became another shared experience. The two seniors competed in the final college meet of the season in Fayetteville, Ark., and turned in outstanding performances. Both made the finals in their events and both placed in the top 10.
Lehman ran the 1,500 in a career-best 4:15.19 and finished seventh to become Duke’s newest track All-America with an automatic honor (top-eight finish). Loughlin turned in a time of 10:15.56 in the steeple to finish 10th and later learned she, too, had earned All-America honors due to the fact that two foreign-born athletes finished ahead of her. All-America honors are given to the top eight American athletes.
“After last year, both of us had it in our heads that we were going to be there together this year. It’s really nice that it worked out for both of us in the end,” said Loughlin. “I couldn’t have imagined it without her. It’s really nice having another senior there to enjoy regionals and nationals together.”
The two road roommates ran so well down the stretch of the season that they can now look forward to sharing their traditional pre-race cup of coffee one more time before they relinquish their Duke uniforms. They’ve qualified for the USA Outdoor Championships meet coming up June 25-28 in Eugene, Ore.
Loughlin already had secured her ticket to the USA national championships before heading to NCAAs, after turning in her two best races of the season in May. She clocked 10:09.77 at the ECAC championships, where she placed second, and ran 10:10.61 at the NCAA regionals to place second. The qualifying standard for the USA meet is 10:12.
So she’s been looking forward to the trip to Eugene for the past month as the perfect bookend to her college career. A native of Portland, she closed her high school career on the same storied Hayward Field track by competing in the Oregon state championships.
The fact that her good friend Lehman now can join her is a bonus that was not determined until the NCAA meet, which Lehman almost missed in a close call for the second straight year. After being tripped down the home stretch of her race at regionals, she placed 11th and had to rely on her previous fastest time of the season to earn her one of seven at-large bids to Fayetteville. That mark wasn’t fast enough to meet the USA nationals standard (4:16), but her time in the NCAA final was. It was also less than a second off the Duke school record in the 1,500 that is held by former NCAA champ and 2008 Olympian Shannon Rowbury.
Lehman and Loughlin both blossomed as college runners during their senior year after making similar commitments to see how far they could go in their respective specialties. Each enjoyed steady progress throughout their first three years and had just enough of a taste of success as juniors to fuel their competitive fires to excel at a higher level in their final year.
“Last year was a huge breakthrough for me to start competing at the ACC level and the regional level,” Loughlin explained. “This year it’s been more about not just getting to those meets but trying to do well at those meets.
“Collegiate athletics is such a finite period of time that I don’t think it’s worth it unless you put in 100 percent. I hit that point where I was either going to do it and put everything I had into it, or I wasn’t. Luckily, it worked out for me.
“I think I started taking on more of the lifestyle of an elite athlete,” she continued. “I planned everything around running. I started eating well and sleeping well and mentally coming to practice prepared for whatever the workout was that day. If you do enough of the right things for long enough, they’ll all come together. On top of that there is a little bit of luck, and those things all came together for me.”
Loughlin has an older brother who ran at Stanford and an older sister who ran at Brown, but she was more into soccer than track as a high school athlete. She feels the overall athleticism she developed playing other sports aided her transition to the steeplechase, one of track’s most peculiar events with its 28 barrier-hurdles and seven water hazards over seven-and-a-half laps around the oval.
“It’s pretty bizarre, but that makes it fun,” said Loughlin. “Not many states have it in high school...but I wanted to try it and Kevin (Jermyn, Duke’s coach) thought it would be a good event for me. I guess I fit a lot of the attributes. I run a lot of miles but I also have some speed and I’m a little stronger than a lot of distance runners.”
Loughlin finished last at the ACC meet her freshman year but progressed to 12th as a sophomore, seventh as a junior and third this season. “This year has been really fun and really exciting. It’s such a totally new mindset and totally new level that I still have to pinch myself sometimes.”
Loughlin’s event coach, Liz Wort, is not surprised to see her protégé competing so well this season — but she’s also not surprised that it took this long for her to get there. The event is so unique, said Wort, that it usually requires a couple of years for newcomers to develop all the tools needed to succeed. Juniors and seniors typically dominate the race results — seven of the top 10 finishers at NCAAs were in those two classes.
“It’s definitely an event where experience pays off,” said Wort, who set the school record in the event during a Blue Devil career in which she won ACC and NCAA regional championships and twice brought home steeplechase All-America honors. “As you get older you learn how to race it. There’s a different kind of pain than you’re used to. You learn how to run through those hard laps when you feel like you might not be able to jump over the hurdles. You learn how to break the race down. The most important thing is just getting confidence in yourself as a runner, learning how to run hard between the hurdles and getting your overall fitness better.”
Blending the skills of hurdling with the stamina to run distance and the ability to change pace frequently differentiates the steeple from all other races because the competitors cannot settle into a comfortable running rhythm.
“Your first few years, there are so many overwhelming obstacles in the race itself,” Wort said. “You’re focusing on getting over the hurdle or getting over the water jump or getting through the next lap. When you develop that confidence that you’re going to be able to do all those little things, then you can just focus on competing against the people in the race and that makes it more like any other race. That’s when you are going to run fast between the hurdles because you’re trying to catch someone or pass someone. That’s a big transition...you have to get to the point where you are comfortable with everything so it becomes second nature.”
Though Wort has been bothered by a chronic hamstring problem, she can step in a do a lot of the steeple workouts with Loughlin. Last summer Wort ran the event in Eugene at the U.S. Olympic Trials and stayed with Loughlin on the trip. Next week she’ll head back with Loughlin and Lehman to perhaps the most famous track in the country. It’s an ideal situation for Loughlin, who will be surrounded by family and friends from home along with her coach and one of her closest teammates in Lehman.
“It’s been very inspirational to me to watch and see how well Molly’s done,” Loughlin said. “Especially when she races before me and I see how well she’s done, it gives me the confidence that, hey, this training is working and I know I’m going to run well too. I feel like whenever she runs well, I know I’m going to run well too.”
So Loughlin should like the schedule at USA nationals — the women’s 1,500 begins on June 25 and the steeple starts the next day.
• Two fifth-year seniors from the Duke men’s team also competed at the NCAA meet. Tyler Clarke took 18th place in the decathlon with a total of 7,285 points, while Jade Ellis was 15th in the long jump...
• Sophomore 1,500-meter runner Cory Nanni didn’t make the NCAA field but he’s qualified for the USA Outdoor Championships in Eugene. He clocked a personal best 3:43.02 in taking fourth place at the Indiana Invaders High Performance Series in Indianapolis last week...
• Alum Shannon Rowbury made her 2009 outdoor season debut at the Prefontaine Classic on June 7 in Eugene. She placed sixth in the 1,500 with a time of 4:03.92. She is qualified for the USA Outdoor meet.