WVU's Harrison Trekking Upward
On Monday afternoon, Harrison hopes her Mountaineer cross country career will end at its highest point at the 2011 NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Ind. The women's 6K race is scheduled to get underway at 12:58 pm. ET.
Harrison, now a fifth-year senior, has put a lot of time and effort into the sport.
"I'm really excited," she says. "I redshirted last year so it's been a couple of years since I've been there. I'm really looking forward to going back and seeing what I can do with a couple more years under my belt."
This will be Harrison's third appearance at NCAAs were she helped WVU to a fourth place finish in 2008 and a sixth place finish in 2009. Individually, Harrison placed 69th in the race as a sophomore in 2008 and 94th as a junior in 2009 after coming off a 19th place finish at NCAA regionals.
Harrison and the entire senior class have been able to maintain the elite status the program has enjoyed since Clara Grandt, Keri Bland and Marie-Louise Asselin really put Mountaineer cross country on the map a few years ago.
Something similar actually happened in men's cross country in the early 1980s with Steve Taylor, Jean-Pierre Ndayisenga and Mike Connelly, but Taylor and Ndayisenga transferred to other schools and the athletes recruited after them were not able to sustain the success for one reason or another.
That's not been the case with this current crop of West Virginia women and Harrison is extremely proud of that.
"The girls who are seniors now came in when those girls were running and we really looked up to them," said Harrison. "They were winning all these meets; they were All-Americans and it just seemed like, wow, to be at their level and continue on their tradition it's been really exciting."
Harrison wasn't the top runner in her province during her scholastic career in Toronto, that distinction going to defending NCAA champion Shelia Reid of Villanova, but through hard work and determination Harrison has since developed herself into a national caliber distance runner during her five years at WVU. Last spring, she qualified for the NCAA outdoor 10K for he first time in her college career and nearly won the race, placing second.
On Monday, Harrison has a shot of topping Megan Metcalfe's school-best ninth place finish at the 2002 NCAA cross country championships. Metcalfe is still the only WVU runner to ever crack the top 10 in the national race.
Actually, gains similar to what Harrison has achieved during her running career are fairly typical in coach Sean Cleary's WVU distance program.
"I think it's just a huge learning curve how to be a D-I athlete," Harrison explained. "You come in as a freshman and you don't really have an idea, or at least I didn't, I guess. You think you just have to run every day and that's all it takes, and then you kind of go through it and you learn from older athletes and other people who have been successful in the NCAAs and you realize there is so much more to it.
"You have to sleep, eat right and get your rest as well as just doing your training," Harrison added. "So I think just learning those lessons and getting a little bit more mature and making better decisions like that really pays off big time. For me, it kind of took a few years to figure out what exactly the formula was to be a successful D-I athlete and now it's coming along really nicely."
Indeed it has.
Harrison placed fifth at last week's Mid-Atlantic Regional race at Maryland Eastern Shore and she's hopeful of a big finish on Monday afternoon to get the Mountaineers back near the top of the national standings.
"I think there is a lot of motivation from just proving we're not the underdogs anymore because I think we've kind of earned our spot at the top, in terms of tradition and reputation," Harrison said. "Working towards that level really motivates us.
"We all believe in ourselves and the girls that come from West Virginia have this really proud history of distance running, and it has kind of spread throughout the entire team," said Harrison. "Everybody is excited about our program and our teammates are really excited about each other and we believe in each other. We know we're really good and hopefully we can prove that on Monday."
Harrison has a diverse and unique athletic background that includes hockey, which is not all that surprising considering she's Canadian.
"I played a ton of sports as a kid and I played a lot of hockey," she said. "I played soccer as a kid as well, and I like to snowboard and golf, swim and do a bunch of things.
"For runners, we don't normally start at a very young age anyway, so I kind got started in high school and over my high school career I just kind of gradually got more into it," Harrison said. "I think my background in a variety of sports was good because it kept me active as a kid, plus, running is not the most interesting thing in elementary school anyway."
Genetics and God-given ability are certainly two important ingredients in becoming a great distance runner, but there's a lot more to the deal than just talent, says Harrison.
"You've got to put in the work and the training," she said. "That's another huge aspect, and then just the mental part of it - getting emotionally ready and knowing your strategy. All of that has to come together if you want to win a race or do well. There are a lot of components to it for sure, and it takes a while to figure them all out in order to be successful."
Strategy will play a big role in Monday's race. The NCAA championship field is made up of some of the best cross country runners in the world and the runner who is the most alert and attentive to the changing conditions and circumstances will likely win the race.
"I know a lot of times the NCAA race will go out really hard from the gun, but then there will be a year like last year when it went out really slowly and our girls were out front leading it and pushing the pace," Harrison explained. "You kind of have to be ready for anything. You have to run an honest pace, for sure, but you just have to stay relaxed and kind of feel it out as the race goes on and kind of rely on your instincts to tell you when to make your move."
Harrison is hopeful a strong team performance at the Mid-Atlantic Regional, finishing third behind top-ranked Villanova and Georgetown, will give the Mountaineers much-needed momentum on Monday. The turnaround time for nationals is only nine days instead of the customary two weeks between regular season meets.
"We made a huge step up and performed well (at regionals)," said Harrison. "It was definitely our best race of the season and if everybody has that same race we're going to achieve our goals."
Goal No. 1 for the team is another top 10 finish, which would be the fourth time in the last five years for the program if that happens.
"We're just going to go out and run as well as we can," Harrison said. "It's a huge challenge to have five or seven girls ready to go, healthy, fit and on their game on the right day, so if you can accomplish that you may be more successful than you thought as a team."
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