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Doug Robinson: A dream mile and a dream season

Published: Tuesday, June 24 2014 4:48 p.m. MDT

Ogden's Sarah Feeny won the 4A 1,600-meter final with a state record during the state high school track meet in Provo Friday, May 16, 2014.

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.

Later in the day Feeny won the 800-meter run in 2:10.40, the sixth fastest ever run by a Utahn on Utah soil, and 45 minutes later, she rallied her medley relay team from a 50-meter deficit to win the medley relay, clocking a split of 2:10.8. That gave her a career total of nine state championships, including one in cross country.

Great Southwest Classic

Three weeks after the state meet, Feeny competed in the 800-meter run in Albuquerque against top athletes from around the country. She broke a 25-year-old meet record with a time of 2:09.83 despite windy conditions, earning herself athlete-of-the-meet honors. She also ran a leg on Utah’s winning 4 x 800 relay team.

Adidas Dream Mile

The Dream Mile has become a feature event in the Adidas Grand Prix track and field meet in New York. A dozen or so of the top male and female high school milers in the nation are invited to compete in a meet that otherwise consists mostly of professionals and Olympians. Three Utah athletes have been invited to compete in each of the last two Dream Mile races, which is remarkable when considered on a per-capita basis. Last year Park City’s Ben Saarel ran away with the boys’ race. This year it was Feeny’s turn to do the same.

She did it the hard way again. Expecting her rivals to run a fast early pace, Feeny was content to let them lead. They went through the first lap in 71 seconds — three seconds slower than her target time. She took the lead about midway through the second lap — “I thought if none of these girls are going to do it, then I’m going to have to do it,” she says — and then was immediately tripped and almost fell to the track. Once again, she won from the front, running negative splits. She covered the first half-mile in 2:23.88 and the second half-mile in 2:15.35 to finish in 4:39.23 — the fastest in the nation this year. She beat her nearest rival by 3½ seconds. Her time converts to 3:37.61 for 1,600 meters — about eight seconds faster than the Utah state record she set five weeks earlier.

Brooks PR Invitational

A week later, Feeny flew to the other coast for another mile race, this time in the Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle. It was a replay of the New York race — she ran from the front, won by three seconds and clocked a nearly identical time of 4:39.42 — a meet record.

“I was hoping to get closer to 4:35,” she says, “but it was windy and I think I was tired from all the racing and traveling and staying up late.”

That race will mark the end of Feeny’s high school running career. She plans to take some time off and then start preparing for her freshman season at the University of Utah. A 4.0 student, she will study engineering and compete in track and cross country.

For Barton, a former Weber State runner, this marks the end of a long, productive partnership. Barton started a youth track club about a decade ago and 8-year-old Feeny signed up. She was a prodigy and had early success in youth track meets, but she was dividing her time with club soccer, which coaxes athletes to devote themselves year round to that sport. She quit soccer when she was a ninth-grader.

“I told her she could keep playing soccer but she’d have more opportunities with track,” says Barton. “She’s not a big girl — 5-7, 115 pounds. I told her she could be a superstar in track. I’m very grateful she didn’t play soccer.”

In Feeny, she found a dedicated, coachable athlete. Barton told her she needed more sleep; she sleeps 8-9 hours a day. She told her she needed to eat well. She eats fruits and vegetables and packs her own lunches of carrots and apples.

“She listens and trusts what coaches tell her,” says Barton.

Now she will pass her on to the Utes. “The coolest thing about Sarah is her personality,” says Barton. “Everyone loves her. Usually when you have someone who is that talented, others become jealous, but she cares so much about the team and other people that everybody likes her.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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