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Buff Women Win National Title
Nov. 21, 2000
AMES, Iowa - Heading down the final long straightaway in Monday’s NCAA cross country championships, Kara Grgas-Wheeler allowed herself a quick look over her shoulder.
Seeing nothing by the frozen alfalfa and soybean fields of the Iowa State cross country course behind her, Grgas-Wheeler knew the NCAA title was hers. The Colorado senior powered across the line and raised her arms in triumph, finishing the 6-kilometer race in 20:30.5, 7.3 seconds ahead of runner-up Sabrina Monro of Montana.
Like most of the runners in the race, Grgas-Wheeler’s skin was beet-red and her fingers numb, as the temperature was 17 degrees with a wind chill of minus-19 at the start.
A few minutes after finishing Grgas-Wheeler and her Colorado teammates discovered they had won the school’s first NCAA team championship in the sport, scoring 117 points to defeat rivals Brigham Young (167) and Stanford (198). The 31 top teams fro nine regional races were entered.
Grgas-Wheeler is the second CU woman to win a national cross country title, joining Mary Decker, who won an AIAW crown in 1978.
Colorado now has won 18 NCAA team titles, including 16 in skiing and one in football.
Freshman Sara Gorton placed eighth, followed by Jodie Hughes (30th, 23rd in the team scoring), Lesley Higgins (52nd, 38th) and Tera Moody (71st, 48th) to round out CU’s scoring, as all five Buff runners notched their highest NCAA finish.
“This feels very good, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said head coach Mark Wetmore. “Maybe it will after the cold wears off. The key today was that everybody contributed. You can’t win with just one runner out front. It was a real team effort, and we are all sharing in it.”
It was an emotional win for Grgas-Wheeler, who collapsed in the arms of her mother, Patty, and grandfather, Cal Horworth, after the race.
“You did it, you did!” her mother said.
What Grgas-Wheeler did was show she is the best collegiate runner in the nation with a dominating win in harsh conditions. It was so cold that the bottled water available in the finishing chute froze, and spectators and runners alike scrambled to find any kind of shelter from the wind.
“This is one of the best courses in the country,” Wetmore said. “It would be perfect if they built a 30-foot wall to the west.”
“With the weather and this being the national championship, the key was to be patient, letting people go out a little hard, letting them set the pace so I wouldn’t have to work hard the whole time,” Grgas-Wheeler said. “My plan was to take the lead between 3K and 4K.
Grgas-Wheeler’s plan worked to perfection. A large pack went through the first kilometer in 3:27, with Grgas-Wheeler four seconds behind. Defending champ Erica Palmer and Berthany Brewster of Wisconsin led through the mile, passed in 5:31, followed by Grgas-Wheeler six seconds back.
“They went out hard and looked good. I just wanted to stay in contact,” Grgas-Wheeler said. “I did not want to let them get more than 10 seconds ahead. I tried to focus and not panic.”
By two miles, the bitter, biting cold began getting to Palmer and Brewster, and the leaders slowed. Grgas-Wheeler then followed Monro and bridged the gap to the front-runners. Grgas-Wheeler took the lead and immediately opened a gap that she extended until the finish.
“I looked back, which I never do. I am so against that, but I just had to check, and I saw that even if I walk, I think I have it. That was a relief. I just wanted to be patient today,” Grgas-Wheeler said. “It took me that long (2 miles) to catch the leaders. I was worried about the distance they had on me, but I knew they would be suffering from going out hard.”
Said Monro, who ended up second, “Kara is always tough. You really can’t keep up with her; she is an amazing runner. Once she got ahead of us, she kept that lead of 50 meters.”
Palmer, who placed third, said she went out in the lead to try and get away from Grgas-Wheeler. “I knew that Kara is good at holding on and likes to kick by you.”
Grgas Wheeler said that once she was in front, she had no problem running alone into the wind.
“When I took the lead, I began squeezing it down and squeezing it down,” she said. “I did not want it to come down to a sprint finish.”
No need to worry about that, as Grgas-Wheeler continued running strongly past the ISU dairy farm, back past the starting line until she reached the final straightaway and the sprint for the tape.
“I was very emotional the last mile,” Grgas-Wheeler said. “I was very nervous, but I felt confident.”
Monday’s victory, Grgas-Wheeler said, was better than her two NCAA track titles picked up last spring. “The track wins were huge and were a big starting step for me, but this is everyone in one race. People with speed, people with endurance; it’s all one big show. And this is my favorite; this is what it is all about.”
Grgas-Wheeler’s performance up front gave her teammates confidence, said Gorton, the second freshman in after Shalane Flanagan (fourth) of North Carolina, daughter of former Boulder elite runners Steve and Cheryl Flanagan.
“It was awesome seeing Kara in the front,” Gorton said. “This is the coldest race I have ever run.”
Wetmore praised all his runners afterwards.
“Sara went from having mono and a possible redshirt (year) to being seventh in the nation,” he said of Gorton. “And Jodie Hughes ran the best race she’s had at CU. She is from Houston and is not used to weather like this. At the start, she looked like she had just seen a bus wreck. But she ran great. We needed to hit on all five cylinders, and we did.”
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