Stanford's Molly McNamara continues to prove that even a fifth-year senior can have a breakout season.
After years on a performance plateau, McNamara has set lifetime bests in each of her first three outdoor track and field meets this season, including a huge five-second drop in her specialty, the 1,500 meters, on Friday at the inaugural Stanford Twilight at Cobb Track and Angell Field.
McNamara finished second to Annemarie Schwanz, who broke her own Fresno State record with a 4:14.89 to McNamara's 4:15.22. The race was so fast that three of the year's top five collegiate times came out of it. McNamara sits at No. 4.
Of Stanford's six runners in that event, four ran lifetime bests, including fourth-place Claudia Saunders (4:15.52) and Section Two winner Vanessa Fraser (4:19.45), who was seventh overall. McNamara and Saunders broke into Stanford's all-time top-10 performers' list, at Nos. 9 and 10.
The Twilight meet was meant to showcase three distance events the 800, 1,500, and 5,000 among the 13 schools taking part. The result was excellent racing, including the 3:40.11 1,500 by Penn State's Brannon Kidder, making him the third-fastest collegian this year, to best Stanford's Sean McGorty (third, 3:42.22) and freshman Grant Fisher (3:42.85), who was fifth in a lifetime best on his 19th birthday.
The meet also marked the return of Aisling Cuffe, a two-time NCAA 5,000 runner-up, who was competing in her first outdoor track race in nearly two years after injuries. Cuffe was third in the women's 5,000 in 16:16.02.
The women's 1,500 meanwhile, capped a career month for McNamara. At the Stanford Invitational on April 2, McNamara broke an 800 best by nearly three seconds that had stood since high school a span of five years to win her section in 2:06.56. On April 19, McNamara won the Big Meet 1,500 with a strong kick, shedding nearly a half-second off her lifetime best. On Friday, McNamara was at it again, staying patient early and then pushing hard on the final laps.
She credited head coach Chris Miltenberg and assistant Liz DeBole with her improvement because they never ceased to believe in her.
"I just had to trust that it was going to happen at some point," McNamara said. "People keep asking, 'What did you do differently?' I was this way in cross country, and in my junior year when I couldn't crack 4:30. I've stuck with it, and they were the ones who encouraged me when I wasn't sure if I was cut out for this anymore.
"The first thing Coach Milt said to me when he got here (in fall, 2012) was, 'I'm not going to forget about you. I'm not going to put you on a shelf.' He has held true to that every step of the way. I only regret that I don't have more time. I'm OK with the fact that it's happening in my last season. Some people don't even get it at all. I'm grateful."
Saunders led for much of the race before being overtaken on the final lap. The final result wasn't entirely what she wanted, but Saunders placed a higher priority on being aggressive early and seeing how her body would react.
"I'm going to practice being tough and putting myself in it," she said. "The rest will take care of itself."
Cranny was fifth in a season-best 4:16.37 while continuing to draw closer to her top fitness after a back injury prevented her from racing in cross country.
"I feel like our whole program this year has taken a huge step forward," Cranny said. "it's inspiring so many other people to step up. Everyone's running fast and feeding off each other."
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Fisher, in his collegiate home track debut, was third on the final turn just off McGorty's shoulder. But neither was able to get the push necessary to match the decisive move of Kidder.
"I was right behind Kidder," McGorty said. "But when he went with 250 left, he flew by everyone.
"What you have to keep in perspective is it's only April and we're both trying to run late into June or July. It's hard to come out here and not be able do what Kidder did. But if you look at our training, it's not the easiest thing to do at this point. But we're competitive. We want to be the ones making that move. Obviously, that's frustrating."
Fisher, in his second collegiate track race, said he's learning something each time.
"I got caught in the back of the pack about 500 in," Fisher said. "I made a big move on the backstretch and maybe wasted a bit of energy. If I can make a more relaxed move in the future, find my pace, and figure out the race early on, I'll be a step ahead."
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Sophomore Tai Dinger is the Stanford men's version of McNamara setting a third lifetime best in as many meets this season.
Dinger dropped two seconds off his 1,500 best, running 3:48.23 to finish second in his section. At the Big Meet two weeks ago, he dipped under 1:50 in the 800 for the first time in a second-place finish.
"It's a combination of things," Dinger said. "I feel a lot more comfortable this year working out with the older guys and they've really helped me. Also, I didn't run cross and indoors I was injured a little, so I had a long stretch of hard training, and was able to get that strength."
When he arrived from St. Alban's School in Washington, D.C., Dinger said he wasn't completely bought in as a collegiate racer. But coaches convinced him that if he stayed wholly committed for 18, he would see the rewards.
"I'm about at that now," Dinger said. "They were true to their word. I'm just glad I could carry out and fulfill that promise."
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Cuffe also feels she is making progress. That's what Friday's race was all about getting the feel back. Unlike most of her teammates, she will not race at the Payton Jordan Invitational on May 9. Rather, she will go back into training mode as she prepares to be at her best for the postseason and, hopefully, the Olympic trials.
"I still have a lot of work to do, but it was great," Cuffe said. "Physically, I think I'm getting very close. And mentally, I need to sharpen up a little bit too. I've got five weeks to Pac-12's."