Oct. 24, 2011
SEATTLE - In her first race of her senior season, Christine Babcock tumbled forward to the ground at the head of maybe forty runners.
"That's the first time I've ever fallen in a race so it was kind of more mentally challenging than anything else, just getting back up and knowing that you were with the front group and now you're behind," said Babcock, unintentionally summing up her past two years. "I was worried I was going to get trampled but Justine (Johnson) was behind me. She said she hurdled me and I think after that I was clear. So I was lucky I didn't get stepped on."
Leave it to Babcock to find the positives in a fall.
An All-American as a freshman and sophomore, Babcock led the Husky women's cross country team to the NCAA title in 2008, placing seventh overall. Now the Irvine, California native is the only Husky left who stood on the starting line for the first national title in school history, along with UW's historic sweep of the Pac-10 Championships.
But this year the Huskies are more a reflection of Babcock's influence than ever before.
After hitting the ground at the Roy Griak Invitational last month, Babcock got back up and finished her run. It was one of a handful of mishaps on the day for the Huskies, who wound up sixth overall. The national polls dropped Washington from 11th to 20th after the race, and then without even running, UW dropped again down to 24th. Meanwhile Washington kept grinding away in practice, and waited for another shot.
Babcock has taken to sending out an email every Sunday to all the women on the team containing "anything we need to address and an inspirational quote to focus on for the week." Before Washington's next race, at Adidas Wisconsin Invitational, she sent her teammates the following from Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking
"Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The way you think about a fact may defeat you before you ever do anything about it. You are overcome by the fact because you think you are."
The general consensus of the field at Wisconsin was that it was the largest and most competitive regular season meet in NCAA history, with 18 of the 30 ranked teams on hand, including seven Top-10 squads. After the Roy Griak race, a Top-10 finish for the Huskies would have been a positive result, but UW was thinking bigger. Led by sophomore Katie Flood's seventh-place finish in her first race, the Huskies were the winners with 199 points, a surprise to just about everyone except themselves. Babcock was 50th overall as Washington's number four finisher.
As the only senior in Washington's top-seven runners, Babcock thinks she plays a "motherly" role on the team. And that goes well beyond the fresh baked goods that she provides for every road trip. She is a role model for the team in terms of personal investment. Babcock does not do things half-heartedly. Her long list of academic honors (rewarded with a free iPad2 as documented here) provide evidence of her work ethic in the classroom, as she pursues her passion of working with children with disabilities.
After the Wisconsin victory, Babcock's next email contained an important reminder from basketball coach Pat Riley: "There are only two options regarding commitment; you're either in or you're out. There is no such thing as life in-between."
This season is really a second comeback for Babcock, coming quickly on the heels of last season's initial return. As Gregg Bell detailed on GoHuskies.com last year, Babcock returned to racing in the fall of 2010 after a year of injury mystery and misery. Severe foot pain was not properly diagnosed despite a long line of doctors and experts weighing in. Finally the inflammation of a tendon sheath in her right foot was found to be the cause, and at long last Babcock began to run again, after not having run a step in over six months.
She could have redshirted the 2010 cross country season; she had missed all of the previous track campaign and nearly the entire summer, but Babcock thought she could help the team and more importantly, help her senior teammates Mel Lawrence and Kailey Campbell return to Nationals in their final seasons.
Her first race back was right into the fire at the Pac-10 Championships, where UW nearly stole a third straight title, tying for third in the closest race in conference history. Despite not having competed in a year, and having just a few weeks of training under her belt, Babcock still willed herself to a 19th-place finish.
After the race she stood behind the finish line entirely spent physically, just breathing wordlessly and accepting a cup of water but not having the energy to drink it yet. She was far from her best, but her mere presence had sparked the Huskies again, and two weeks later they would upset higher-ranked Stanford, Arizona, and Oregon squads to win NCAA West Regionals for a third straight year and make that return trip to NCAAs.
But the storybook comeback detoured one more time, and the occasionally painful realities of distance running set in again during track season, as Babcock began to be hampered by an achilles tendon problem. She missed a second track season, but this time the recovery was a faster and straighter road.
Christine went home for the summer and actually got to run. Mile after mile her stamina returned. She got her legs back under her once again, and is currently putting in fifty miles a week, still a modest amount for most collegiate distance runners. "I'm feeling pretty good," she said after Wisconsin. "This is the best few months of training I've had in a long time."
When asked if it is hard not to worry about another setback given what she's missed out on so far, Babcock is typically honest and introspective.
"I think there's a temptation to walk in fear after you've been injured a lot," she says, "but I know that if I do that I won't appreciate what I have at the time and I might eventually blow something small out of proportion because I'm so worried about getting injured. So I'm trying to see every day as a blessing and do the little things to hopefully stay healthy.
"There's part of it that's beyond your control as I've learned, so I'm not too worried about it because I know that worrying doesn't really help the cause much."
While she was injured she found support in the team environment that she helped to foster. When she talks about the support of her teammates, it's easy to see why she came back so quickly last year.
"Kailey was really big, and Mel obviously," Babcock says. "Kailey, she kind of seems like my mother, you know?" and laughs at how Campbell would react to that sentiment. "She'd always check in and say, `How are you doing today?' The friendships and relationships that I have here have really given me strength and I know that if I ever needed anything I could go to any of the girls on the team and they would be willing to help in an instant. And that's the type of team that you want to be on. We have much more of a family here. It's unique, for sure."
Now there is a simple matter of races to be won. Washington's goal of a fifth-straight NCAA Championship appearance is less than a month away. The first ever Pac-12 Championships are this coming Saturday in Tempe, Arizona, where the Huskies head six Top-20 conference teams, having jumped from 24th to 2nd in the polls after the Wisconsin win.
"The one thing that we've tried to stress is that Wisconsin was just a stepping stone. It was an exciting win but obviously not what our season was meant to end on--a high note at Wisconsin," she says. "So we're getting back to work and we know that our main goals are still coming. We can't take anything for granted or accept where we are and not keep working hard. So just get back to work and keep gearing up for what matters in November."
Over the next few weeks, Babcock says she needs to work on bringing her speed up to match her endurance. That's where the lack of a track season is felt the most. The national high school record-holder in the mile, Babcock is looking to find that one extra gear that will carry her past people down the home stretch.
"I still always feel like I have the racing instinct, but because I haven't raced in so long, I don't have as much of the speed. So when people start passing me it's kind of hard mentally just because I'm not used to that," she says. "I'm probably a little bit behind where people are that have run track, but five weeks is still a lot of time to hopefully build some of that back up."
Track and cross country are rare sports that allow athletes to compare one's self against the past with ease, and when you set the bar as high as Babcock did so early in her career, that can be tricky mentally. But Babcock thinks a poor memory serves "as a blessing in disguise. I can't remember workouts from the past and also I can kind of forget about the bad things that have happened over the last two years. So that's kind of good," she says, joking just a bit.
As Babcock was making her first comeback last fall, the website Flotrack.org talked to her at length about her perseverance. Head Coach Greg Metcalf said he did not believe that Christine had already run the best race she would run. Babcock would likely never think in black and white terms like that; she is just happy to be reconnected to the sport that she loves.
"When you're injured you realize how much you enjoy it. Because when something is taken away you see how it was bringing you joy. So I know that I've definitely come to appreciate it more than I ever did when I was running healthfully because I always felt, `oh it's easy' but now I realize it's a lot harder to string together good workouts and races and years of training without injury after going through those things.
It makes me more appreciative of what I have and the season ahead of us."