After a historic cross country season that culminated in Northwestern’s first national championship berth since 2002, the ‘Cats have enjoyed a winter full of personal bests across the board on the track. As she has throughout the past four years, Rachel McCardell led the way, setting a Northwestern all-time best in the mile on Jan. 17 and in the 3,000 meters on Friday.
Capitalizing on her peak fitness window having prepared for the NCAA Cross Country Championship just two weeks earlier, McCardell kicked off her indoor season by heading to Boston University’s lightning-fast track on Dec. 3 to run the 5,000 meters in the Sharon Colyear-Danville Season Opener. At a meet that featured multiple professionals and collegiate cross country champion Katelyn Tuohy of North Carolina State, McCardell ran a 15:58, a 24-second personal best from her 16:22 at the Mt. Sac Relays last April, according to her TFRRS profile.
After rebuilding and reloading over the holidays, the Wildcats traveled to Allendale, Michigan for the Bob Eubanks Open on Jan. 14. Katherine Hessler had the performance of the day, winning a 34-runner mile field and breaking the five-minute barrier with a 4:58. Maddy Whitman and Serena Frolli were close behind her, finishing third and fifth with times of 5:02 and 5:08, respectively. It was the same story in the 3,000, where NU took the first five spots, led by McCardell’s seven-second PR in 9:26.
The Wildcats kept it up six days later a few miles down Sheridan Road at DePaul’s Blue Demon Alumni Invite. McCardell won the mile race with a 4:40, which beat Aubrey Roberts’ 4:43 in 2019 as the fastest mile in Northwestern history. Anna Hightower also excelled, running a 4:59 mile before doubling just over an hour later to win the 800 meters by a whopping seven seconds in 2:16.
The next week, five of the team’s top runners — McCardell, Hightower, Ava Earl, Kalea Bartolotto and Olivia Verbeke — flew across the country to Seattle to face stiffer competition in the Washington Indoor Invitational on Jan. 27. In the 3,000, Earl set a massive 20-second personal best, finishing in 9:27 to place 11th in a 77-athlete field littered with PAC-12 runners. McCardell improved on her mark two weeks prior by nine seconds, while Bartolotto finished eighth in the 5,000, smashing the 17-minute mark with a 16:42.
Following another solid race at Notre Dame in the Meyo Invitational last weekend featuring a 17:08 5,000 PR from Emily Casaclang, the ‘Cats shipped back up to Boston for the Valentine’s Invitational on Friday. This wasn’t just any meet: hundreds of the nation’s top athletes were looking to take advantage of their mid-winter strength to run fast times at arguably the fastest indoor track on Earth. Dozens of professionals were hoping to do the same, setting the framework for a great atmosphere where Northwestern’s best runners had almost zero chance of getting trapped in a slow, tactical race.
The ‘Cats didn’t disappoint at all. Not only did McCardell shatter Roberts’ 9:13 school record in the 3,000 by 11 seconds, but she also negative-split the race. The fact that she did this in a heat where almost everyone chased a fast time (instead of prioritizing a win by starting slow and finishing hard) was especially impressive. The grad student ran the first 1,600 meters of the race (just under a mile) in 4:53, yet ran the final 1,600 in 4:46 — closing with a 68-second 400. To put that into perspective, McCardell probably split the third-fastest mile of any Northwestern runner ever in a race almost double the length.
Her 9:02.90 is now the third-fastest 3K time in the Big Ten this season. It is faster than the all-time record at Ohio State, and would’ve placed her on the all-time top 10 lists of distance running powerhouses like North Carolina State, Oregon and BYU. And it was the 10th-fastest collegiate time in a field of almost 300 runners. Again, just to hammer home how stacked this meet was, Alabama’s Hilda Olemomoi was the fastest collegian and ran the third-fastest 3,000 in NCAA history... And came in third place.
McCardell wasn’t the only one who thrived, though. Earl and Hightower also put up personal bests in the same event, finishing in 9:25 and 9:31, respectively. Earl, a sophomore, now holds the fifth-fastest 3K mark in NU history — and faster than anyone besides McCardell and Roberts. Hightower’s 9:31 was also good enough to crack Northwestern’s all-time top 10. Building off their success in the fall as key back scorers on the grass, both members of the sophomore duo have developed into program cornerstones.
In the seeded 5,000, Bartolotto and Hessler also set new PRs in 16:36 and 16:56. First-year Mia Mraz also won the unseeded 5,000 with a 17:13, taking the lead with about 600 meters to go and holding off some strong kicks from her competitors to take the victory by less than a second.
The ‘Cats will close out their indoor season next Saturday at the University of Chicago, where they will participate in the Margaret Bradley Invitational.