It wasn't that Eileen Gehring wanted to run as fast and as far away as she could from Cheese Nation and The Heads, she merely wanted to run fast. Always has. And truth be told, she wasn't that
wild about joining a slew of her high school friends who already had left Madison's Edgewood High School and enrolled (or were about to) across town at the University of Wisconsin.
Said Gehring: "I definitely wanted to get away."
Her getaway became Colorado, which was Wisconsin's loss and CU's gain. She's a freshman sprinter, specializing in the 200 and 400 meters, and she appears to be on the fast track - pun intended - toward something special before she exits Boulder.
Gehring is the type of young runner that makes a coach give thanks that he recruited her. Picture CU sprint coach Drew Morano on his knees with hands folded. He saw Gehring dominate her high school competition, but mulled the typical recruiting questions about her performances standing up when the competition increased tenfold.
After Gehring's arrival at CU, it didn't take long for Morano's mind to be put at ease. He's watching a humble, occasionally nervous, but always steely first-year sprinter sometimes struggle with her starts then finish like she was being chased by demons.
In the Sun Angel Classic earlier this month in Tempe, Ariz., she ran personal bests in the 200 (24.24) and 400 (54.41), winning the collegiate section of the shorter race and placing second in the premier heat of the longer race. Her 400 time was the second fastest in CU history and the 11th fastest this season in the Pac-12 Conference, while her 200 clocking is the league's 25th best in 2012.
For comparison's sake, the Pac-12's best 200 time this season is a 23.24 by Oregon sophomore English Gardner, while the top 400 timing is a 52.73 by UCLA junior Turquoise Thompson. Gehring also runs on CU's 4x400 meter relay team; its top time of 3:45.11 is eighth in the Pac-12, trailing leader Oregon's 3:33.70.
But here's what Morano said blew him away about Gehring's performances at the Sun Angel Classic: "She'll come off the turn and just run away from people. At Arizona State when she had a 'PR,' she was fourth coming out of the turn and then just took everybody down. That's just how she runs. That just shows you right there if, hey, we're not fourth off the turn, if we're first or second, where could (her times) be?"
Gehring is first to acknowledge that with better starts she could sizzle even more. "I can finish out a race pretty well," she said. "I have trouble with my starts, but I can definitely finish strong. It's just a matter of doing it, practicing and making (faster starts) happen."
Added Morano: "I would say the only hiccup we're having right now is her start. If we can keep working on her first 50 meters I think that's going to make a big difference in her races. It's going to help her 200 out that much more and of course that's going to translate to her 400. She's doing a great job of listening to everything I say, changing her form, changing a lot of things. But she just hasn't quite grasped the first 30 meters of a race yet."
The strong finishes, though, speak volumes about Gehring's mental toughness and competitive drive. Running against stronger competition at CU has "toughened me up," she said, and Morano explicitly added, "That's what makes her a good finisher. She doesn't like to lose, she likes to be near the front. It doesn't matter where she comes out of the turn, she's going to go after anybody. If she's in the lead she's just going to keep hammering."
Gehring began her athletic career as a soccer player, then took up track in the sixth or seventh grade after discovering she enjoyed soccer's running element more than the kicking part. She had a "pretty good" freshman track season, slumped a bit as a sophomore, then rebounded the next year. "It took until my junior year to figure out how much harder I had to run and for that to pay off," she said.
Soccer requires stamina as well as bursts of speed, so it might stand to reason that Gehring could have migrated toward distance running. Don't even think it, much less mention it to her. "I've never gone past the 'four' (400 meters) and I don't plan to," she said, grinning. "I'm not a distance person; I like the short sprints. I like the feeling of running, the speed. I like running fast."
Neither of her parents (Mark, Colleen) were runners, and neither is an older sister (Audrey) or a younger half-brother (Nicholas). But her grandfather on her dad's side was a sprinter during his duty in the Marines, and Gehring said he likes to tell her that's where the run-fast gene originated. (And maybe the toughness and determination, too.)
Morano, in his third season on Coach Mark Wetmore's staff, is a primary reason Gehring turned down Wisconsin and Minnesota to enroll at CU. She particularly liked his training methods and said he was "the best of the three coaches (among the schools recruiting her) - the best for me at least. I like his style."
That style is laid back but demanding. And it's about as hands-on as it could be. A 2007 Colorado State graduate who qualified for the NCAA Championships and Olympic trials as a sprinter (200/400m), Morano has a spot-on idea of how his training regimen affects his sprinters because he puts himself through it first.
Morano credits Wetmore with allowing him the flexibility to get to the track about 1 p.m., and "experiment with all the workouts (and) see how my body bounces back. I make changes to their workouts based on that. One time I wrote a workout up, they went through it and it killed them. I said, 'What's going on here? Maybe I should have tried it.'
"It just kind of hit me, and last year I said maybe I'll work out every day before. It helps me because after I stand out there I'm tired and it's tough for me to get to my workout. So I write something up, I go out there and do it and see if I think they can handle it. I might say, 'Wait, that's too easy,' then I can make adjustments by the time they come."
He conceded the run-throughs will stop at some later point in his career: "I'm still in my 20s, that's why I can do it . Ten years from now we won't be talking about this; I'll have the workouts figured out by then."
But for now, noted Gehring, the Morano method is working: "He knows exactly what we're feeling, where we're hurting and how to modify anything if he needs to."
Until the past couple of years, Gehring didn't have any idols in the sprinting world. Now, she admits to keeping close tabs on Olympian Allyson Felix, a two-time silver medalist in the 200 meters and a gold medal winner for the U.S. 4x400 team in 2008. "I've followed everything she's doing," Gehring said.
Following Felix as far as the Olympics would be a dream realized for Gehring, but at this point that's too far out there to even be considered. She has followed the Olympics - especially the track competition - for as long as she can remember, but added, "It's hard think about that with three more years to go (at CU). It's easier to focus on things week-by-week, meet-by-meet."
That short-term itinerary has Gehring and the Buffs competing this weekend at the Mt. SAC Relays, where Morano said CU will run Gehring and its "A" team in the 4x400 in an attempt to get regionally qualified for the NCAAs.
Considering her unpolished starts, Gehring's success thus far in the individual events has been a welcome surprise for Morano. "I won't recruit anybody that I don't believe can be successful here," he said. "But for her to come on so fast by this point, yeah, that's good. What's so encouraging for her and us is how much better she can get.
"She kind of has that 'it' factor as a runner. To see her speed come along so well and if she can get through the first part of the race more comfortably, she can control the race. She just has that 'want' to go after it, and I love that she has that."