Nov. 20, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Christine Babcock's goal for next week's NCAA cross country championships doesn't include grand hopes of conquering the nation's best runners.
No, the nation's record holder in the mile as a high schooler, its fastest college cross country freshman and one of Washington's biggest running recruits ever, is just happy to have conquered her own foot.
A confounding injury kept the junior from running for 6 ½ months until June, and out of varsity competition until just three weeks ago.
Her return is why the fourth-ranked Huskies' think a top finish in the NCAA finals on Monday in Terre Haute, Ind., is within reach.
Not that Babcock is focused on that.
"My honest goal is just to go stand out there and be excited to run, lay out everything I have on that line and see where that gets me," a smiling, bubbly Babcock said after a six-mile training run through Seattle's chill and wind Thursday morning.
Minutes earlier, she was showing the inside of her right foot is still swollen.
"No matter where I finish, in my mind it's a success. I've given it everything I can," she said. "I mean, 6½ months is a LONG time."
Babcock, from Irvine, Calif., gave UW one its best freshman running seasons ever in the fall of 2008. She became an All-American as the top freshman finisher and seventh overall at the NCAA championships (20:02). Her scintillating run led the Huskies to the team national title.
She continued that excellence in the spring of 2009 with one of the Huskies' best freshman track seasons ever. In the NCAA preliminaries she set her personal record in the 1,500 meters, 4:16. She finished 11th nationally in the 1,500.
Babcock appeared on her way to another national splash in cross country last fall when her right foot started swelling more with each race. She would run through the pain, endure a week of swelling, then race again. She still earned second consecutive selections as All-Pac-10 and All-America, but fell off to a 34th-place finish at the NCAAs.
"It was sort of this never-ending cycle," she said of her season of pain, race, pain. "I was trying to guard my thoughts and not let my teammates know that this is really horrible."
She finally shut herself down in January -- then endured four agonizing months of multiple doctors, cortisone shots and misdiagnoses while still meeting with her team every day.
It was a torn tendon in the central muscle of her leg. No, it was nerve damage. No, it was a stress fracture.
"I heard so many different misdiagnoses in the first four months that it was sort of like, `OK, what's it going to be next?'" she said.
Ultimately, doctors found inflammation of a tendon sheath, the membrane around a tendon on the inside of her right foot from the heel past the arch. The most she could do training wise was 60 solitary minutes on a stationary bike six days a week. It was a halting change from the challenging, 11-mile training runs with teammates.
Yet the all-Academic Pac-10 selection said she never became so discouraged that she considered the end of her competitive days --and the start of a career she eventually wants in occupational therapy for special-needs children, such as those with autism or Down syndrome.
"I would not say there was ever a time that I wanted to throw in the towel," Babcock said. "There were a few really hard days I could remember, where coach (Greg Metcalf) would say I would put myself in time out to remove myself from situations where I would get super frustrated."
She was determined to stay positive. She had seen teammates who were, in her word, "miserable" in negativity as they battled injuries.
"I would look at it as, `If this was the worst thing going on my life, I have a pretty good life,' you know?" she said. "There are people in Haiti who can't eat, and here I am sad that I can't run. I mean, that's sort of ridiculous."
Her long road back from the injury included a humbling trip to Oregon to race against runners from community colleges in mid-October -- on the same weekend the rest of the Huskies were in Terre Haute for pre-nationals.
Picture national player-of-the-year candidate Isaiah Thomas staying back to play in a YMCA-league game while his Huskies basketball team battles in next week's loaded Maui Invitational.
Babcock is used to running cross country races on beautiful golf courses or through picturesque woods.
"This one began in the middle of a track," she said. "It was more high school-esque."
But she was cool with that. Babcock did not grow up in elite racing clubs in her native Orange County. She didn't start running competitively until her freshman year of high school, after getting burned out playing youth soccer for eight years.
"I just looked at it as a test of where I was, because I really didn't know. I wasn't finishing any workouts," she said. "And I feel I sort of had humble beginnings. It wasn't a pride thing at all."
Babcock raced in that lower meet in Oregon while sick. Of course she did.
"Fever, just bad. Everything was going wrong, like `Maybe I'm not supposed to run Coach. Now I'm, sick. It's one thing after the next,'" Babcock said, chuckling.
Whatever. She won that Oregon meet by a whopping 40 seconds.
It was the first time she felt competitive enough to run in the Pac-10 championships. Though she finished 19th there - after a third-place finish as a freshman and fifth last year -- her Huskies were inspired by Babcock's gritty return for her first varsity race in almost a year.
Now, on the eve of her third consecutive NCAA championship, Campbell says she is completing this unusual, three-race season to help send her good friends, seniors Mel Lawrence and Kailey Campbell., off triumphantly in Indiana.
"We have really good momentum," Babcock said. "It's going to be exciting to see where that carries us."