The Art Of The Breakthrough

Oct. 21, 2009

By Joe Darda

Though the expression is rarely applied to distance runners, the Washington women's cross country team has star power. Before arriving in Seattle, Kendra Schaaf had already competed in two junior world championships. Christine Babcock came in as the high school national record-holder in the 1500- and 1600-meters. Mel Lawrence was a four-time Foot Locker All-American and one of the most recognizable names on the prep circuit.

Babcock, Schaaf and Lawrence were a big reason the Washington women won their first national championship last November; the trio finished 7th, 12th and 25th overall, respectively. They were great high school runners, who are now even better college runners. Yet, winning team championships takes more than three athletes. This is where runners like Kailey Campbell and Allison Linnell come in.

Campbell, a redshirt junior from Seattle, and Linnell, a redshirt freshman from Colts Neck, New Jersey, were not big names in high school. Campbell, in fact, had never run a cross country race before arriving at UW. In Colts Neck, Linnell had split her time between running and the triathlon (even winning a state title in the event). Nevertheless, Campbell and Linnell have been crucial to the Huskies' success in'09, and are two big reasons why Washington has remained undefeated and a unanimous No. 1.

Entering Pre-Nationals in Terre Haute, Indiana this past weekend, the women's team was, for once, maybe a little vulnerable. They would be facing a loaded field without the help of juniors Lawrence and Lauren Saylor.

'Obviously, we had a target on our backs,' senior Katie Follett says of Pre-Nationals, 'but we weren't worried. Even without Mel and Lauren, we were confident. We have great depth.'

Follett was right not to worry. With Lawrence and Saylor resting, Campbell and Linnell stepped up and ensured UW would be leaving Indiana with a win--and a fairly comfortable one at that. After Schaaf, Follett and Babcock finished 2-4-5 up front, Campbell and Linnell rounded out the scoring in 15th- and 33rd-place, as Washington claimed a 30-point win over 9th-ranked Florida with No. 5 Princeton and No. 8 Minnesota further back.

Campbell, who improved 36 spots from a year ago, never doubted that she and her teammates would run well at Pre-Nationals. 'Just with how this team operates, I don't think anyone was stressed. We went out there knowing what we had to go do,' she says. 'The bottom line is we have the fire power and the capability to go win a race, even when we're not perfect.'

Although they are now significant varsity contributors, neither Campbell nor Linnell were on the Pre-Nationals start line as freshmen. However, both runners had what is becoming a rite of passage at Washington: the breakthrough sophomore season.

Linnell's improvement from year one to year two was immediately apparent this fall. At the season-opening Sundodger Invitational, she ran more than a minute faster than she had at the same meet a year earlier, moving from 40th in 2008 to 7th place overall.

'I did a lot of summer training and upped my mileage a bit,' Linnell explains, 'but more than anything it helped to go home and come back knowing what to expect at practice and in races.'

As a sophomore, Campbell shaved several seconds off her best times, but really took off between years two and three. As a junior in track Campbell dropped an astonishing 15 seconds off her mile PR to run 4:38.51, the third-fastest in school history, and went on to cut 11 seconds off her 1500 PR, clocking a 4:18.43. She qualified for NCAAs in both events.

Campbell and Linnell are hardly alone. While the timing may differ from runner to runner, most of UW's top runners have had a revelatory season where they jumped a few rungs on the typical ladder of progression. Among others, Lawrence, Saylor and Follett all made marked progress between their first and second years at Washington. Follett, for instance, went from 82nd in the region as a freshman to 19th in the nation as a sophomore. She, like Linnell, sees it as a matter of acclimation.

'There have been a lot of cases on this team of girls making huge progress their second year,' Follett says. 'There are a lot of factors and each individual is different, but it definitely helps having the ropes figured out. The competitive atmosphere in college is a little different and racing takes some getting used to.'

For Campbell, one factor was simply a big step up in mileage and fitness. At Ballard High School, though she was among the state's best middle-distance runners, Campbell only ran regularly during the spring track season, playing soccer in the fall. Transitioning to college-level training, Campbell says, was not easy: 'As a freshman, the idea of running forty miles a week absolutely blew my mind. It definitely took awhile for my body to catch up.'

Still, it takes more than 40 miles a week to clock a 4:38 mile, which she credits to head coach Greg Metcalf as well as her own personal conviction. 'Succeeding here is a matter of talking to Coach Metcalf, buying into his system, and then buying into yourself,' Campbell says. 'You have to believe you can run with these girls before you're going to go out and do it.'

Pre-Nationals is evidence that Campbell and Linnell need no more convincing.

With Lawrence and Saylor potentially back in the lineup for next week's Pac-10 Championships, the Washington women should get even better over the next month. This has been the plan all along; the NCAA Championships on Nov. 23 is what matters. And, though only seven girls will toe the line on that day, Follett emphasizes that win or lose it will be a collective effort: 'Cross country is a team sport. It's not just about having four great girls. You need five girls, six girls, all the girls training back home. It starts from the bottom up.'

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