Monday, December 03, 2012

Keller Demonstrates "What a Country Girl Can Do"

The University of Minnesota Morris women's  2012 XC team.  Linda Keller is fourth
from the left in the top row.  Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Morris
University of Minnesota Morris senior Linda Keller and her coach, Jeremy Karger-Gatzow, began Keller's final cross country season at the school with lofty goals.  They coined a slogan: "In it to win it."  The it being the NCAA Division III individual title.  The season didn't have a storybook ending as Keller placed 18th at the NCAA meet in Terre Haute, good enough to be selected as an All American for the third straight year, but not her goal of climbing to the top of the podium.

She described the NCAA experience in almost clinical terms.  Starting with the long drive from Minnesota to Indiana with her coaches and culminating with crossing the finish line and collapsing: "everything went black," Keller said.  The next thing she remembers is someone picking her up, holding her upright with something of a "bear hug" that made it difficult to breathe, and getting transported that way to the medical tent.

Laying on the cot, the next thing she remembers is a woman touching her face, tapping her cheeks with her fingers, an action, that in Keller's still disoriented state, "felt like she was slapping my face," Keller said.  When Keller opened her eyes and began to get her bearings, the woman said, "You need to get up and walk around," and helped Keller up and held onto her as they walked around the tent.  Things began to return to normal and Keller looked out the "doorway" of the tent and saw Karger-Gatzow and her family waiting anxiously by the fence separating the spectators from the finish area.

At that point, she said, "it hit me.  This was my last college cross country race."  The tears started to come, so she turned away so that those outside couldn't see her.  She collected herself and left the medical tent to greet her coach and family.  Her sister was the first person she went to and they hugged. Keller held onto her  whispered in her ear: "You can't move.  I don't want people to see me crying."

The tears were not for her performance, but rather because this was another ending.  Endings are emotional for her, said Keller, noting that during her senior year of high school, "I cried at the end of every (season ending) meet."  In all likelihood, even if she had won, Keller would still have had the tears flowing because this was the end of something she valued, enjoyed.  The team.  The coaches. The comaraderie of the group.

Sports are a selfish endeavor when it comes to training, racing, and performance, but they also have a strong social component, which is what Keller values over the individual pursuits, the goal setting, the planning, the execution.  She and her coaches had prepared for the race like all the others.  When they got to Terre Haute, they ran over the course, checking out things like the start, the terrain, anything that might factor into the race.

As planned when the gun went off at the start of the race, Keller went to the front.  Her starting position in box 44 allowed her a pretty straight shot to the first turn and she arrived there "in first or second," she said, all going according to plan.  She goes to the front in races because she doesn't like pack running, the jostling, physical contact that is common in a group.  It is a mental thing that can often push her to go out too fast or use up energy too early in a race just to avoid  the pack more than any for any strategic value.

In her first NCAA championship race in 2009, there was a narrow bridge about 800 meters from the start where the entire field had to crunch onto the bridge, pushing, and jostling to get through the wave of bodies trying to navigate the tiny space.  She didn't cope well with it then, panicking a bit and finishing 86th.  Karger-Gatzow recognized Keller's trouble adapting to top level pack running, and to allow Keller to get used to those conditions, he had her train with the men's team.  Had them intentionally jostle her during training.  The practice helped, but didn't totally eliminate Keller's pack phobia.

From her subsequent NCAA races, Keller got more accustomed to being in a lead pack, so she expected that to be the conditions this year as the race progressed.  All was well until 3K of the 6K race, Keller said, when her legs "started burning.  I tried to pick up my knees," but she began to lose contact with the leaders.  She says she still doesn't know why she couldn't go when she had to, whether it was the fast early pace, loss of energy from pre-race nerves, but she couldn't hold on and kept drifting back.  "I tried to push toward the finish, but it seemed to take forever," Keller said.  " I started seeing little red dots."  Finally the finish came, the spent blackness of the collapse.

It was a more extreme replay of the NCAA regional meet at St. Olaf, where she had used the last bits of her energy to sprint to victory and fell into the arms of two finish chute workers, who had to keep her upright as she walked off the fatigue, all the time apologizing to her companions for having to use them as human crutches.  It is part of Keller's DNA to have more concern for others than herself, to be aware of their feelings as much as her own.

She had encountered her family, who had traveled separately to Indiana to watch the meet prior to the race. Keller was by herself near the start area, when she heard a familiar voice: "Hey lady, mind if we join you," her sister said.  "How did you know where to find me?"  Keller asked.  "We knew to look for the poor lost girl by herself,"  her sister joked.  As Keller was finishing her warm up run, she bumped into members of the men's and women's team who also made the journey to Indiana to see their captain(Keller was team captain for both the men's and women's team this year).

They survived a flat tire and not remembering that there was a time zone change to arrive five minutes before the start.  Her sister also hadn't had an easy journey, as she had to arrange child care for her daughter and didn't get much sleep the night before, so she was operating on "three hours of sleep and a lot of caffeine," in order to make the long drive to the race on time, said Keller.  After the race, the awards ceremony was delayed for over an hour because of a protest of the results in one of the races and one of the team members said: "Linda, you'll still love us if we have to leave right after the awards ceremony, won't you?"

"After the race you can just kind of joke about (things like that)," Keller said, somewhat overwhelmed by the show of support from her family and team.  It is there because Keller has fufiled her desire to "lead by example."  She notes that as overall team captain this year she has seen a closer bond forming between the combined team as instead of doing activities in gender groups, they do them together.  Bringing the teams together is as valuable to Keller as anything she has accomplished as an individual.

Asked what she had learned from her athletic experience thus far, she replied; "patience."  A skill/virtue that has served her well in her field, education, as she says her professors have taken note that she has applied that to her classroom student teaching, not rushing, but rather taking time to help her students understand things better, helping them develop patience as well, that everything doesn't have to happen right away.

In the end, she's following the "motivational speech" her coach started giving her in her sophomore year.  "You're just a country girl from Hawick,"  Karger-Gatzow said.  "Show all these people what a country girl can do."

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