Junior Molly Seidel enters tonight's NCAA 10,000 meters championship with the nation's top qualifying time, and she's aiming to carve out her place in NCAA track history.

Irish Extra: Seidel Blazing A Trail In Pursuit Of A Title

June 11, 2015

It is a 4.7-mile path covered mostly in wood chips.

Winding along the north side of the Willamette River in Alton Baker Park in Eugene, Oregon, it may be the most venerated running trail in America.

Pre’s Trail, named for American distance running legend Steve Prefontaine, will be where University of Notre Dame long-distance star Molly Seidel prepares this week before pursuing the national title in the 10,000-meter run at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Seidel will go for NCAA gold on the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, a track held in equal esteem.

“I will probably have to hold myself back from kissing the track,” Seidel admitted about stepping into the historic venue. “You read about it growing up. I’m a huge running nerd. You hear about Pre and (former Oregon coach Bill) Bowerman, all the history that is at Hayward Field.

“I’m so excited just to be there,” she added. “This is a place that is so steeped in running history. They run the Olympic Trials there, they run the NCAA Championships there.”

Seidel will be running there onThursday, aiming to carve out her place in NCAA track history.

Notre Dame associate head coach Matt Sparks said that focus is a critical element for success in a setting that can be overwhelming.

“This is the Mecca for distance runners in America,” Sparks said of Eugene. “We talk about not going to a meet and being a tourist. This is a business trip. They have a job to do when the gun goes off.

“I know in Molly’s case, at the (NCAA) indoor meet, the focus wasn’t there that she has now,” Sparks noted. “She does know that there is the business side of things, and with a longer race, the challenge is to not be overwhelmed with the allure that’s Oregon in the first couple of miles. You need to be relaxed and calm and peaceful and keep grinding away at the last two, three four miles. She also needs to recognize where the leaders are and be able to cover those moves when they do happen, but it is a long enough race that she can cover moves slowly over the course of a 32-minute race.”

Strategy and focus weren’t priorities for Seidel when she finished sixth in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships back in March in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

“We went into the indoor national meet without a very specific plan,” Sparks said. “It was more, `Let’s take in the experience.’ Molly hadn’t been at that level before, a track championship at the collegiate level. We just wanted to see how it would shake out. We didn’t give a specific, `Do this if this happens.’ We didn’t have a lot of contingency plans other than to just go race. The indoor championships were to go out and have fun. The outdoor championships are to go out and make more of an impact.”

Seidel made more of an impact at last month’s NCAA East Preliminary Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Jacksonville, Florida. She placed first in 33:38.38, earning the right to wear Irish colors in Eugene. She will enter the race with the nation’s top qualifying time.

A junior, Seidel has overcome tremendous adversity (illness and injury) in her first two seasons to thrive under Sparks, who is completing his first year on the Irish staff, working closely with Notre Dame’s distance runners. Under her new coach’s guidance, Seidel has followed a stringent regimen to earn her trip to the finals.

“I run 70 miles a week, 90 in peak training,” Seidel said. “I run in rain, snow. Winter is a little bit tough, but coming from Wisconsin, it’s not that bad. At least the roads are plowed.

“Running issomething that I love to do, but it’s really hard,” she admitted. “You have to make sure that you’re getting sleep and eating well. You’re sacrificing things that normal college kids get to do. Going out and hanging out until 3 a.m. is not an option. When you’re up at 3 a.m., it’s to have another bowl of yogurt.

“There are times when you’re wondering why you’re getting up when it’s still dark out and it’s snowing and it’s freezing cold, and you have to do your morning run,” Seidel added. “Those are the times you have to think about prepping for the NCAA Championships. There will be a time when you’re feeling so glad you did that.”

Seidel’s emergence on the national scene after fighting through several stress fractures has been a shining moment during an exceptional Irish track and field season. It’s been a story that is capturing the attention of high school recruits across the nation.

“A lot of high school girls have injury issues, and Molly kind of disappeared with some injury things and issues that slowed her down the first two years,” Sparks said. “I think it puts us in the position that we’re given some respect for rebuilding kids into national-caliber people. It helps athletes all over recognize that things can happen to you at the elite level, and you might disappear for a time, but you can come back and be better than before.

“I think it’s a feather in not just the cap of the athletic program and the track and field program, but the Notre Dame community and all of the people that help, from the athletic training staff, to the nutritionist, to the team doctors that all of our athletes work with to help build people back.”

Sparks thinks that Seidel can place in the top three in the NCAA finals, while Seidel is optimistic her trip to Eugene is the first of many.

“I definitely hope that this is a jumping-off point going into my senior season, and hopefully into my fifth year as well,” Seidel said. “I think this year has really been big for helping me realize that I can run at a higher level. I definitely want to be up there, racing to my full potential. Coach Sparks has been great about helping me realize that and get to that point.”

— By Curt Rallo, special correspondent