April 27, 2009

Women’s distance running coach Cathy Casey buys 60 pairs of running shoes each August. She knows that each SMU distance runner will log 3,000 to 5,000 miles during her yearlong season and wear out three to four pairs of running shoes.

“Distance running is rigorous; to compete in Division I you have to really love it,”says Casey, who ran cross country for the University of Texas.


Practicing at White Rock Lake in Dallas are distance runners (from left) Rachael Forish, Jessa Simmons, Celeste Sullivan and Kathleen Hoogland.

Only long-distance student-athletes compete year-round, says Dave Wollman, director of track and field at SMU. Fall cross country is followed by indoor track and field in the winter, then by outdoor track and field in spring. “Distance athletes tend to be extreme in everything they do,” says Wollman, Mustang track and field coach since 1988. “They are organized, disciplined and great students. Their drive to excel, however, can become overwhelming. Finding a balance between academics and training is necessary to progress as an athlete.”

Mustang runners found that balance this year, winning the Conference USA title for the first time last fall and earning one of 31 slots at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship in November in Terre Haute, Indiana. The team finished 20th against cross country strongholds such as Oregon, Colorado and Stanford.

To compete successfully on a national scale, distance runners must lead a life of consistency both in training and as a student, says senior runner Rachael Forish, 2006 NCAA South Central Region cross country champion and Athlete of the Year.

Her typical day begins with a 10- to 15-mile team workout at 6:30 a.m. near White Rock Lake in Dallas, followed by classes, a second workout, study time, then bedtime by 11 p.m. She prepares many of her own meals to meet the nutritional demands of workouts that burn hundreds of calories daily.

“I don’t drink energy drinks or pull all-nighters,” Forish says. “I’d crash at workout the next day if I did.“

For distance runners, the weekend falls on Tuesday night – Wednesday is the only day off from their training regimen. Their hardest training day is Sunday when they run up to two hours.

Instead of bonding over pizza and late-night talk sessions, distance runners form friendships through shared challenges and the opportunity to follow their passions, Forish says.

“It’s not just the running, it’s being part of the team. We’re all going through the same thing.”

Women’s cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field were created in 1987 at SMU. Wollman arrived in 1988 to lead the men’s and women’s teams to consistent top-10 finishes in the NCAA indoor and outdoor track and field championships. Most recently, women’s cross country won its first NCAA South Central Regional title and finished in the top five at the 2006 NCAA South Central Regional Championships.

The team’s future also looks bright with runners such as sophomore Silje Fjortoft of Norway. She was named C-USA Cross Country Athlete of the Year last fall and to the All-South Central Region team. She has continued to excel in indoor track and field, breaking the C-USA record in the 5,000-meter run with a time of 16:19.42 at the C-USA championship in February in Houston. She broke her own record in March with a time of 16:18.80 at the NCAA Indoor National Championship.

For distance runners, the weekend falls on Tuesday night – Wednesday is the only day off from their training regimen. Their hardest training day is Sunday when they run up to two hours.

In addition, Fjortoft won the 3,000-meter steeplechase in March at the Stanford Invitational. Her time – 9:56.73 – was the fastest time by a woman this year in the world. The time also was the second-fastest ever run by a Mustang, about a second off of her own school record.

Fjortoft also excels in the classroom. She earned All-Academic honors from the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. She and teammate Jessa Simmons, an advertising major, were named in December to the Conference USA All-Academic Team.

Wollman, who recruits athletes from Texas to Eastern Europe to Africa, has found that they quickly build camaraderie as athletes and students in a setting he says is unique to SMU.

“The University creates an environment that is ideal for my sport,” he says. “Individualists flourish here. SMU takes a student and academically and developmentally makes a difference in her life. As a coach, that allows me to make the same difference for them as an athlete.”

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– Nancy Lowell George ’79