The Longest Run
Oct. 25, 2005
The path to a Big Ten Conference crown in women's cross country is a six kilometer course, but for Minnesota senior Lauren Williams, the journey has been full of immeasurable twists and turns.
As a freshman, gastrointestinal problems ended her track season before it began, and Williams decided to redshirt. During her sophomore of cross country, she was blacking out in the middle of races and discovered she was suffering from iron deficiency anemia. During track that same year, she took six weeks off with planter fasciitis - an inflammation of a tendon in the foot - only to endure two season-ending stress factures in her foot upon her return. An injury-free and quite successful cross country season her junior year was followed with another injury laden track season. In her first practice, she suffered from a couple partially herniated disks in her upper back that later resulted in a pinched sciatic nerve in her right leg - a combination that kept her out for three months.
All of this in a journey that Williams began as a walk-on. The Edina, Minn., native had always been a swimmer first. She started swimming competitively at age 8, and didn't start running until her sophomore year in high school. Coming into her high school cross country program with zero miles and little racing knowledge, Williams didn't consider collegiate running until Minnesota coach Gary Wilson gave her a call.
Wilson said runners like Williams are typical for his program. He doesn't look for the most highly recruited athletes but for smart runners who come from genuine families. While Williams was recruited by smaller Division I programs for big scholarship dollars, she chose to take her academic scholarships at Minnesota and join the team as a walk-on.
"When she came in, I said, `You know it's going to get a little bent out of shape your first year. The freshman year can be a little overwhelming at this level, but if you'll just keep your wits about you and just realize that everything will come in time, you'll be fine,'" Wilson said.
"Obviously that was a very devastating thing in her life, and a lesser person would have crumbled," Wilson said. "She's got that inner fire, that inner strength that just keeps her going through all kinds of adversity. That's something that you can't coach. She was born with it. She comes from such good stock and good genetics and good fiber that she's going to succeed at whatever she does. There's no such thing as, `I can't get this done' or `I can't persevere' or `I can't survive this.' It's `I'm going to get this done no matter what.' And she does."
Williams started the season with the goal of landing a spot on the Gophers' traveling team. She started as Minnesota's 12th runner, but by the end of the season, she was sixth. The transition was not easy, but looking at where she is now, an observer would never guess what she endured to get there.
"I'm the type of person where I don't settle for just being mediocre and OK. I've strived to be the best at everything and won't stop until I achieve that," she said. "No one had expectations for me and didn't really know what to expect. I didn't really feel any added pressure to succeed. It was more me wanting to do it for myself and doing it because that's something that I am passionate about and setting higher goals each year."
The same survival instincts helped Williams rebound from injury after injury. And her remarkable perseverance through her physical obstacles, earned her a role as the team's primary leader. While she prepares for her final Big Ten Championship race, Williams plays a part much different than the one she thought she would be playing as a freshman. She started as a shy follower, looking up to the upperclassmen on the team with whom she never thought she would be able to compete.
But during preparation for her junior year in 2004, all that changed. She was recovering from a tumultuous second season during which she suffered injuries in both cross country and track that kept her from competing most of both seasons. During cross country, Williams only competed in four meets before her anemia ended hopes of a championship run. Despite those setbacks, she realized it was her turn to step up, and did so with a vengeance. Williams finished as the top runner for the Gophers in all six meets, earning team Most Valuable Player honors and All-Big Ten status.
"Going into that season, I kind of looked at myself to be a leader, and knowing how I felt as a freshman coming in, there would be many girls feeling like that about me as an upper classmen, and took that role and initiative to take that and go after that No. 1 spot and know that because of my abilities that I was able to achieve that which I never thought could happen," she said. "My body obviously couldn't handle whatever it was that kept making me injured, but I cross-trained a couple hours a day and I kept pushing because I found out how much running meant to me when I was away from it. I knew that I wanted to succeed and I knew what goals I wanted to accomplish within collegiate running and I had not yet accomplished those."
The success was welcome but not satisfying. If anything, it encouraged her to reach for more: a spot in the NCAA Championships. But with more ambition came more obstacles. Williams saw three months on the sidelines - the most she spent during college - with back problems that also severely affected her right leg.
Williams' credo was built on fortitude and perseverance, so she simply pushed harder. For the first time since she was 16, Williams didn't get a summer job. She studied for the MCATs, slept in, and paid close attention to her nutrition regimen. She also worked out with fellow sidelined senior Harper McConnell who was suffering from a torn Achilles tendon. They became training partners, motivating each other for a remarkable senior send-off.
"There were many difficult times that we both wanted to cash in our shoes and say this is done, this isn't getting any better, but I think both of us kept each other positive and thinking that we could and we would come back from these injuries," Williams said.
Williams solidified her comeback at the Oz Memorial Run on Oct. 15, leading the Gophers to a perfect-score meet win. She defended her individual title with a 22 minutes, 22.8 second-finish and earned co-Big Ten Runner of the Week honors. Her 13th place run at the Roy Griak Invitational helped the Gophers to a second place finish and a leap in the national rankings. They jumped to 11th and a week later moved into the top 10 for the first time since 2000.
While Williams' success is critical for the Gophers to meet those goals, Wilson said the impact of her leadership has been invaluable. Her teammates see her toiling through bike workouts, and she plans team pasta parties and emails her teammates frequently just to make sure they are sleeping right, wearing the right uniforms, and know what's going on in practice. But more than that, Wilson said Williams' running triumphs have all come without the slightest hint of ego.
"She's a very good leader verbally, but like we always say, showing is better than telling," Wilson said. "She's had one little thing after another that just kind of always slows her down for a month or two or three and then she's always persevered. That's a tremendous learning tool. You never like your role models to have to do that because it's frustrating for them, but in terms of what the team sees and what the kids see, they go, `OK, this is pretty special that a kid can do this, maybe I can do it.'"
Williams' example-setting is paying off for Minnesota.
"From day one we wanted to make the national meet, and year after year it didn't happen," she said. "Going into this year, after our first race, we just knew we had something special going on."
The group of girls had not changed, but the mentality was completely different.
"Our abilities, our way of thinking - not thinking of ourselves as the 30th team in the country, now thinking of ourselves as a top-15, top-10 team in the country," Williams said. "Each meet that we have our team seems to be coming together. We've had now three No.1 runners in the three meets of the season, and I don't think that we're going to have a consistent order the rest of the season. That's just how much depth we have and how much fight people are giving to each race. They never settle for their position from the last meet. It's going to be very interesting."
The 10th-ranked Gophers showed every ounce of that depth in what Williams called their first true test of the season - the Pre-NCAA meet on October 15th. Not only was the team up for the challenge, but three runners demolished the old school record for a 6-kilometer course. Junior Emily Brown set the course on fire, besting the record by more than 10 seconds with her 13th-place finish. Brown's time (20 minutes, 37.2 seconds) edged sophomore Ladia Albertson-Junkans by a little more than a second. Albertson-Junkans crossed the finish line at 20:38.6, and finished 17th overall. Williams notched a career best time, finishing at 20:53.3 with the fourth-fastest race in Gopher history.
As a team, the Gophers finished in sixth place, close behind the rest of the country's top-10 teams, including conference foes Michigan and Illinois. Wilson was pleased with the finish, but he said it won't limit his team's expectations for the upcoming Big Ten Championship, which the Gophers host October 30.
"We're going to go after them. They're both ahead of us, but we're not going to take a back seat," Wilson said. "Our goal is to be a nationally qualifying team, and I think we will, and to do the very best we can nationally. The thing with any team like this, is just to hold everyone together emotionally and look at the whole, the next three meets as a conglomerate, not just `OK, this is our goal at Big Tens, this is our goal at regionals.' We're going to go out there every single day and do what we need to do on a daily basis in terms of preparation and compete as hard as we can, and then good things will happen for us."
While Williams has survived unprecedented circumstances on her road from unheralded talent to unlimited potential, her selfless evolution is familiar for Wilson. He said he recognizes it day-in and day-out in an ego-less team full of friends who have their sights set on a team championship.
"They don't talk about individual goals. It's `We're going to do this for Minnesota,'" Wilson said. "I think the biggest thing with this group and the group we had last year - and you hear it with every World Series champion, every Super Bowl championship team, every Big Ten Championship team - is that these kids really love each other. All the way up and down the line, they've got great team chemistry.
"When you've got that as a coach, heck, I just get in the bus and they tell me where to go."