Molly Austin
By Mike Sandrock

(Editor's Note: This story was written prior to November 10's Mountain Regional in which CU placed 2nd as a team, advancing to Nationals and Jodie Hughes won individually, with Molly Austin in third.)

Molly Austin competes at the 2001 NCAA Track & Field Championships.
( Photo)

When Molly Austin and Sara Gorton were running stride for stride during the early kilometers of the Oct. 6 Rocky Mountain Shootout on the University of Colorado's home course in Boulder, most of the several hundred fans watching expected Gorton to pull away for the win.

That is because Gorton, a sophomore, had placed eighth in the NCAA Cross Country Championships last fall and was CU's number two runner all of 2000 behind NCAA champion Kara Goucher (nee Grgas-Wheeler). Austin, on the other hand, missed most of 2000 with injuries and was running her first cross country race since 1999.

At two miles, however, it was Austin who began pulling away from Gorton for the win, clocking 20:14 over the difficult Buffalo Ranch course, the fifth-fastest time ever on the 5.8k loop. Austin followed that up the next weekend by setting a course record in winning her race at the NCAA pre-national invitational in Greenville, S.C.

"I am feeling good now," said Austin. "We just have a couple more races (in the 2001 season). I have no expectations. Hopefully I can keep running well and doing well."

Saturday, Austin and her teammates will compete in the NCAA Mountain Region Championships in Provo, Utah. The top two teams in the men's 10k race and the women's 6k will receive automatic bids to the November 19 NCAA Championships. In addition, 13 at-large berths will be handed out Monday, November 12 based on rankings and regional races. Seven ranked teams are entered in the Mountain Region's men's race and four in the women's.

"The purpose of this weekend is to earn our plane tickets (to Greenville)," said head coach Mark Wetmore. "We want to go up there and run a business-like, controlled race, reserve as much energy as we can, and still advance."

The Colorado women are the defending national champions while the Buff men were the national runners-up a year ago in Ames, Iowa.

Austin will head into the NCAA Championships as one of a handful of women with a chance to win the title. She is coming off a win at the October 27 Big 12 meet, a finish that did not surprise Wetmore.

"We were able to tell by Molly's workouts going into pre-nationals that she was very fit," Wetmore said. "We expected a race of that caliber. She has been keeping up with some pretty good people. At Big 12s, I was confident that our men would cover and run a good race. I was a little more nervous about the individual women's race, but Molly has had a great, strong season."

Said Austin, "I didn't know how the race was going to develop. I just ran a comfortable pace and really concentrated on the back stretch knowing that if I got the lead it could be substantial."

In between her setbacks her first three years at CU, which include iliotibial band and Achilles injuries, Austin has shown flashes of her talent. She was the number two runner behind Grgas-Wheeler in the 1998 cross country season before getting injured. Most telling, however, was her fifth-place, All-American finish in the NCAA 10,000 meters this spring in just her second track 10K ever.

"That was a shock," said Austin, who had been a 1,500 meter runner during track. "I was naive going into that race."

Austin credits her roommate, Jodie Hughes, the NCAA indoor 5,000 meter champion, with keeping her training on schedule. "My mom describes me by saying, 'anything worth doing is worth overdoing,'" said Austin. "Jodie is smart and patient, and looking at how calm she stays has helped a lot. And Mark has been great, too."

Austin, a junior in eligibility, also credits her recovery from injuries to massage therapist Al Kupczak, who was recommended by former CU star Adam Goucher. "Al has been my savior," she said.

Wetmore was the reason Austin decided to stay in-state after winning the Colorado prep 800 meter title as a junior for Mullen High School. "I am so fortunate, because Mark has a really good program."

The CU cross country team is fortunate as well, in that Austin decided not to stick with her first sport, basketball. She played guard and forward on the Colorado Hoopsters girls team for five years, but became burned out on basketball. She started running when her mother urged her and her older bother to jump in a race on the Highline Canal when she was "maybe 8 or 10 years old." Also in the race was Lesley Higgins, one of CU's top

Austin ran the Bolder Boulder for fun several times before becoming more serious about running when she entered Mullen. Giving up basketball, she said, "was definitely the right choice. I am having a blast. From here on out, I want to go into the races and do what I can do."

Wetmore said Austin is one of the most popular runners on his team. "Molly leads by example," he said. "She trains hard and she is careful in helping maintain the team chemistry."

Fans should be looking for Austin to challenge for the NCAA title in Greenville, Wetmore said. While he is not overlooking Saturday's regionals, he said CU's focus every year is the NCAA Championships. "I think it is reasonable for Molly to be fairly confident of a top 10 finish (at NCAAs). With a hard month of training and a well-executed race plan, she has a chance at the title."

Goucher agreed with Wetmore, saying she is not surprised at Austin's success this fall. "I knew how well Molly could run two years ago. She ran some amazing times in high school, but has been hindered by injury and anemia. This is just the tip of the iceberg; she had not even had a year of training when she got fifth (in the NCAA 10,000 meters). Molly is going to be big. She knows what it takes to be at the highest level, and she has the desire, not just to be All American, but to be a champion."

GORTON TO REDSHIRT: Sophomore Sara Gorton will redshirt this cross country season. She is recovering from mononucleosis. Wetmore said Gorton would likely place in the top-10 if she ran in the NCAA Championships, but that he would rather she had three more "uncompromised" years competing for CU.

GOUCHER HAS OPERATION: Kara Goucher had an operation two weeks ago to fix a recurring knee problem. Roughly 25 percent of her pateller tendon was taken out, along with a little bit of bone. She will not be able to run the USATF Cross Country Championships in February as planned, but said she wants to get healthy for track and run a personal best in the 5,000 meters at a late-season meet.

Goucher injured her knee during the 2000 cross country season. She sat out indoor track and competed outdoors. She took time off after track nationals this summer, but the knee kept hurting.

The operation, performed in Denver, "went really well," said Goucher. "The bad news is that there was a lot more damage than we thought. The good news is that the doctor told me it would never have gotten better without the operation."

"It stinks," Goucher said of being on crutches. "It will be a slow process of recovery, but it will be worth it."

Michael Sandrock is the author of Running with the Legends and Running Tough. He lives in Boulder and is a sports writer with the Daily Camera newspaper.

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