Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
No Utah athlete has been on a bigger hot streak than Sarah Feeny, the University of Utah-bound distance runner out of Ogden High. All she has done, in the span of five weeks, is run the fastest mile in the nation, win three postseason races against the best preps in the nation — including the prestigious Dream Mile in New York City — set four meet records, claim four state championships, set two all-class state records and become arguably the greatest female track and field athlete in the history of Utah.
And yet five weeks before the state championships, she was facing athletic disaster.
In April she went to California to face the nation’s best in the Arcadia Invitational 3,200-meter run (the metric two-mile). She averaged 76 seconds for the first four laps and then fell apart in the last four laps, unable even to break 80 seconds. She finished 18th.
“I couldn’t push myself after the first mile,” she recalls. “Everyone passed me in the end. I had no kick.”
Alydia Barton, who has coached Feeny since the latter was in the third grade, knew something was wrong. Ever since breaking a 14-year-old meet record in the 1,600 at the Simplot Games indoors in March (with a time of 4:46.97), Feeny had been struggling in workouts and complaining of soreness and fatigue.
Barton sent her to the doctor. Feeny was diagnosed with severe anemia. It’s a fairly common problem in female runners. They lose iron through menstruation, as well as foot-strike hemolysis, the destruction of red blood cells that occurs with the repeated impact of the foot against the ground. Iron and red blood cells are critical for the transportation of oxygen to the muscles. They are the literal life-blood of endurance sports.
Feeny was given a prescription of iron supplements and hoped to recover in time for the state meet. By the time the championship season rolled around in mid-May, she was uncertain whether she was ready. What happened next is the greatest streak of distance running ever by a Utah female athlete.
Utah State Championships
Records in track and field are broken by tenths of a second or maybe even a full second in the longer races; Feeny broke one of the records by double digits, and she did it the hard way — by running from the front, virtually alone, and by running negative splits (the last half of the race is faster than the first half).
On Day 1 of the state meet, she broke her own all-classes state record in the 1,600-meter run (the metric version of the mile) by almost five seconds, clocking 4:45.13. Second place was 13½ seconds behind her. She ran the first two laps in 2:24.58, the second two laps in 2:20.55.
On Day 2, she decided to attack the state record for the eight-lap 3,200. Barton stood by the track with a flip chart that showed Feeny her time for the previous lap to ensure that she stayed on record pace. Only later did she confess to Feeny that on some of the laps she opened the flip chart to a time that was a second slower than she actually ran as a way to make her run faster.
Feeny ran the first four laps (1,600 meters) in 5:11.93, a slow time by her standards. “This was my first 3,200 since Arcadia and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel,” she says. Remarkably, she ran the second half of the race in 5:01.93 — which would have beaten all but two girls in the open 1,600 the previous day in the 5A, 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A finals. Her final time for the full 3,200 meters was 10:13.86, which was 42 seconds faster than her nearest rival.
To appreciate how fast that is, consider this: Natalie Shields' previous all-class record of 10:22.88 in the 3,200 was considered by some to be the greatest single performance in any event by a Utah track athlete, based on event equivalency scoring tables. Feeny beat it by a whopping nine seconds. Undoubtedly, if she had run the race at sea level and/or against better competition, she would have run much faster — easily under 10 minutes.