A couple of months ago, when UAA junior Mariah Burroughs raced her first 3,000-meter steeplechase of the season, she hoped to clock something in the range of 10 minutes, 50 seconds.
Such a mark seemed like an ambitious goal – it would significantly lower her personal-best of 11:03.38. Yet Burroughs had only taken up the steeplechase last season, and had all of six races of experience in the event of nearly eight laps that each lap requires athletes to negotiate a water jump and sturdy barriers. She counted on two-plus years of elevated training, both in volume and quality, to finally furnish the dividends Seawolves coach Michael Friess assured her it eventually would.
Before Burroughs raced that day in 2016 at the San Francisco Distance Carnival, Friess pulled her aside and offered encouragement: "Don't sell yourself short.''
With about 200 meters to go in the race, Burroughs said, assistant coach T.J. Garlatz implored her from trackside to hammer it to the finish line – "If you go now, you can run under 10:40!''
"I thought, 'Really?' " Burroughs recalled.
Yes, really. She clocked 10:39.44 to demolish her personal-record (PR) by 24 seconds, deliver a breakthrough and eventually qualify for this week's NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Bradenton, Florida.
" 'Wait, I actually just ran that?' " Burroughs remembers thinking immediately after the race. "It felt so good. I had a runner's high for hours after that.
"It was probably the most enjoyable race I've ever had.''
Friess said Burroughs validated her PR by twice clocking times of 10:40 later in the season.
"Sometimes, there are peaks and valleys in track,'' Friess said. "Sometimes, what you're doing (in training) your freshman and sophomore years doesn't show up until you're a junior or senior.
"Part of it is trust in your coach and part of it is trust in yourself.''
Friess said Burroughs embraced her increased training this season, a notion Burroughs seconded.
"If you have to do a 5-mile run at 8 o'clock at night, you do it,'' Burroughs said. "Mentally, you have to stay positive — and real-positive, not fake-positive.''
Burroughs, 21, is majoring in social work with a minor in legal studies and made the Great Northwest Athletic Conference All-Academic Team with a 3.42 grade-point average. As a senior at Wasilla High, she finished fifth in the state Class 4A cross-country running championships. She took second in the 1,600, and sixth in the 800, at state track her final season with the Warriors.
At the start of her college career, Burroughs thought of herself as more of a middle-distance runner – 800 meters and 1,500 meters. The steeplechase, though, interested her. She participated in gymnastics, soccer and dance as a youth, athletic endeavors that fit the steeplechase, which requires strength and athleticism. UAA coaches early in her college career dangled the notion of running the steeplechase and Burroughs, a 5-foot-3, 112-pounder, warmed to the thought of negotiating barriers and a water pit.
"The idea of adding something to a race was very intriguing,'' she said.
Steeplechasers kind of run in the family. Burroughs' cousin, Taylor Ostrander of Soldotna, qualified for NCAA Division III nationals in the event four straight seasons (2013-16) for Willamette University in Oregon. And Taylor's sister, Allie, this season made her debut in the event for Boise State and merely owns the fourth-fastest time in Division I.
But whether Burroughs' PR was good enough to qualify for Division II nationals was somewhat of a mystery because the size of the fields can vary from event to event, year to year. Until she found out earlier this week that she indeed made the field for nationals, albeit narrowly – her time ranks 21st of the 21 runners entered – Burroughs could only wait, and hope.
"I was like, 'Am I in? Am I out? Do I get my hopes up? Do I not?' " she said. "I had one moment where I was like, 'I did all that work, and what if it's already the end of my season?' "
Turns out, though, she has at least one race left this season — Thursday's preliminary heat — and the possibility of two. The steeplechase final is Friday.
"I'm excited, and really, really thankful for the opportunity,'' Burroughs said.