The Wildcats may be running on flat outdoor tracks now, but they just continue to climb. Rachel McCardell now owns Northwestern’s outdoor 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter records, as well as its indoor mile and 3,000-meter all-time bests. Also, in each of Northwestern’s four outdoor meets, at least one runner moved into a top-four position on NU’s all-time leaderboard.
I’ll repeat that: in four straight meets, at least one Wildcat (and three different ones!) eclipsed a top-four runner in the cross country program’s decade-plus history of running track.
I’ve already harped about the potential historical impact of Northwestern’s success on the grass, but following that up by rewriting the record books this swiftly makes the fact that NU doesn’t have an official women’s track and field team more confusing by the week.
The Raleigh Relays from March 22 through March 25 set the season in motion. Rachel McCardell and Kalea Bartolotto were set to square off against a loaded 10,000-meter field with over 30 runners. Given it was McCardell’s first time running a 10K track race and Bartolotto’s second in their collegiate careers per TFRRS — not to mention their first race in over a month after the indoor season ended — this was quite the reintroduction to competition.
The duo did a great job of staying composed early, working together near the back of the field to go out in 10:48 for the first two miles. From there, McCardell settled into running about 82 seconds per 400-meter lap, while Bartolotto clipped off 84 and 85-second splits for the remainder of the race. Although both runners didn’t unleash huge kicks near the end, McCardell and Bartolotto managed to post times of 33:52 and 34:36, respectively, around the 5:30-per-mile ballpark. And McCardell didn’t just break the 34-minute barrier in her first attempt, she smashed Aubrey Roberts’ 2017 school record by 25 seconds.
In the 5,000, Ava Earl put herself in contention to win the third-fastest heat of a field that nearly totaled 200 runners. Given most of the heat’s runners came into the race with personal bests around 16:30 and the leaders went through 3,000 meters in just under 9:50, the race didn’t go out especially slow. However, 12 of the 19 runners, including Earl, were still in contention to win. Likely anticipating a fast finish or starting to hit a wall, the leaders went from dropping 79-second 400s to 81s and 82s across the board.
With at least 10 runners still in the mix with three laps to go, jockeying for good position to unleash a fast final lap became a top priority. Earl responded by placing herself in the front with a 78, sharing the lead with 800 meters to go. In most distance races that come down to a final lap, it’s typically pretty bold to take the lead with that much distance left because it allows the rest of the contenders to gauge their effort off the leader’s. However, given Earl seemed to be establishing position with her move instead of trying to take the reins and expending energy to create a gap, it made sense.
Doing what would make every good track coach who ever lived smile, Earl committed to her move, holding second position behind North Carolina’s Carlee Hansen with another 78-second lap before the bell. But even though the Northwestern sophomore accelerated with a 76, Hansen dropped an overpowering 67 to take the win while two others passed Earl. Regardless, she finished with a 16:25, which made her the fourth-fastest 5K runner in NU history.
Two weeks later, the ‘Cats took on the Illini Challenge in Champaign. Even though Earl raced in the 1,500, the star of the weekend was Anna Hightower. Most of her 15-runner heat was bunched together throughout the race, as 10 runners went into the final lap within a second of each other. Hightower, who was in ninth place with 400 meters left, put up a lap just under 67 seconds to seize the lead and hold off three other sub-70 kicks. It gave her the win and a 4:27 time, which converts to about a 4:52 mile (a significant personal best). Oh, and the number-four athlete slot on Northwestern’s 1,500-record list. No big deal.
In the 5,000, Katherine Hessler took an impressive win in a field of 25 runners. For the first 3,000, she worked off Hightower and Olivia Verbeke at the front before the two runners dropped out (their primary objective for “racing” may have been to pace Hessler or the field early on, which is commonplace). From there, Hessler led the rest of the way to put up a 17:02.
That gave way to two huge meets in Southern California the following weekend: the Bryan Clay Invitational and the Mt. SAC Relays. Both meets offered nationally competitive fields that gave the ‘Cats a prime chance to put up more personal bests.
Looking at McCardell’s 5,000-meter invite heat, this couldn’t have been more clear. In the 29-runner heat, there were two pros, four cross country All-Americans (top 25 in the National Championship last fall) and six more runners who placed top 100 at that meet. With light wind, a designated pacer and the temperature just under 60 degrees, the meet’s all-time 15:21 best was in serious jeopardy.
Per the FloTrack broadcast, Utah’s Emily Venters, who paced the race, was instructed to run 74-second laps, or about 15:25 pace. Venters did this perfectly through a mile, but the leaders struggled to keep up with her. That set forth a chain reaction. Since the front runners had to push harder to stay with Venters, trailing runners like McCardell who were gunning for times in the high-15s focused on maintaining contact with each other in a strung-out field by taking the race out quickly. If they could hold on, that start would set them up for huge performances.
The Northwestern star managed to stay in a decently-sized pack for the better part of the race, and rode that to a 15th-place finish and a 15:50 PR. That gave McCardell NU’s outdoor 5,000-meter record, her fourth school-best mark. Hightower was not too far behind in a different heat with a 16:22, which was good for fifth in a competitive 27-runner heat. In other sections, first-year Mia Mraz also dipped under 17 minutes with a 16:59, and Fiona Lenth threw down a huge personal best with a 17:03.
At Mt. SAC, Earl was smack in the middle of another crowded 5K field. She started off conservatively, locked into running 78 and 79-second laps through the middle of the race to pick off to competitors who faltered around the 1.5-mile mark, and gradually accelerated through the final mile to put up a 16:19. The six-second personal best moved Earl up to number-three on the all-time 5,000 list, while Hightower now sits at fifth.
With an average 5K personal best of 16:23 between Mraz, McCardell, Hightower and Earl, the ‘Cats were ranked by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association as the nation’s No. 18-best quartet in that event. It’s easily the highest ranking any Northwestern track unit has had in the program’s history.
Again, it’s worth noting that three of these runners are either first-years or sophomores. While McCardell will leave after a legendary fifth year, this success is far from over if Jill Miller can continue developing more depth pieces in her lineup.
Northwestern still has more track to tear up. It has three more meets remaining, the first of which will be the Gary Wieneke Memorial in Champaign on Friday.