Steeplechase battle wounds
June 21, 2012
The lifespan of Marshall and Lynne Parks' relationship as a couple has now been bookended by a pair of running-based spectator events set more than three decades and 300 miles apart. In between they managed to rear Montana's next great women's steeplechaser.
It all began when he, a senior at Davenport (Iowa) West High School, and she, a sophomore, on their first date took in the 1979 movie "Running," a film so forgettable that even Amazon.com with all its powers can only track down leftover Spanish-speaking versions.
Somehow the relationship survived two hours watching a young Michael Douglas play a runner whose heart is set on representing his country at the Olympics, and both went on to collegiate running careers, he at Augustana (Ill.), she at Iowa.
Years later -- Friday night in Bloomington, Ind., to be exact -- the couple sat in the stands at Indiana's Robert C. Haugh Track and Field Complex and had a date night that was a bit more memorable.
Their daughter Allie, who recently completed her freshman year at Montana, competed in the steeplechase at the 2012 USA Track and Field Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She finished eighth, posting her third-fastest time of the season in an event she had never raced before March.
Parks, by her own admission, is a cross country runner first, a track distance runner second, with track being second only until the Muddy Buddy race series becomes a recognized NCAA event.
Her results through her first six months as a Grizzly bore this out. She was Montana's top finisher in the cross country team's final two races of the season (i.e. The Big Ones, otherwise known as the Big Sky Conference and NCAA Mountain Region championships).
At the Big Sky meet at Pocatello, Idaho, Parks finished 12th overall and came up just five seconds shy of earning All-Big Sky Conference honors, which go to finishers in the top 10.
Parks finished 10th in both the 3,000 and 5,000 meters at the Big Sky indoor championships at Flagstaff, Ariz., in February. But for a runner with an adventurous inclination who finds even outdoor 400-meter tracks akin to torture by repeated lap, indoor was even worse: tinier ovals and even more laps.
She needed to find something that was a better fit before the outdoor season, and she did in the steeplechase, even though her truncated torso has first-time spectators worried Parks is going chest-deep with an off landing over the water barrier.
"I've always been better in cross country than track," Parks says. "But with the water jump and hurdles, the steeplechase gives you something on the track that isn't just running laps."
If you're looking for the source of Parks' running-in-straight-lines angst and her need for something more, someone with a couch and an Existentialist bent might look back to Parks' upbringing and point to the thousands of miles she spent being locked in and moving straight ahead in a jog stroller.
Running continued as a way of life for Marshall and Lynne after marriage, and Allie's first taste of running came not through her own experience but getting pushed in that stroller, for mile after mile after mile after mile after mile after mile ...
Marshall, not previously presented with this theory, unknowingly backs it up when he says, "Allie has always loved cross country, but she never really found a track event that suited her. I think they were too monotonous for her." Calling Dr. Kierkegaard, Dr. Soren Kierkegaard.
"The uniqueness of cross country running seems to line up with the uniqueness of the steeplechase. I think they are both more in line with how she likes to race."
She took to the steeplechase like Michael Douglas abandoned movies about running and later took to scripts of psychological thrillers, though Allie was none too fond of starting a new tradition at Montana prior to the Al Manuel Invitational in late March.
"I told Allie we used to sneak into the track the night before a meet and put goldfish in the water jump," Marshall says. "As a vegetarian, she didn't go for it. I guess she was worried about stepping on the goldfish."
Parks, understandably nervous before her first attempt at the event at the Al Manuel, won the race with an altitude-adjusted time of 11:12.08. Crossing the line, she did not say to herself -- as most would have -- I'm NEVER doing that race again. Instead, "I thought to myself, I think I've found my event," she recalls.
She won again two weeks later at Montana State in a time of 11:06.41.
Her times remained in the low 11s and her raw times (the USATF does not recognize altitude adjustments) had her coming up just short -- 11:12.24 at Washington State, so close! -- of the USATF qualifying standard for junior nationals of 11:12.14.
She broke through at the Big Sky Conference championships when she ran a 10:52.90 to finish fourth. Her altitude-adjusted time from that race of 10:36.98 is even more impressive when it's put into big-picture context.
Kara DeWalt, the queen of the event in Montana's annals, did not break 10:50 during her freshman season in 2007, even with the benefit of altitude adjustments. She would go on to run a UM-record 10:11.44 her senior season, win the Big Sky title and make both NCAA nationals and the USA Track and Field Championships.
DeWalt made that jump in her steeplechase career without having the first-year experience Parks has enjoyed the last six weeks. After racing at the conference meet, Parks earned the 48th and final spot to the NCAA West Regional and finished 41st at Austin, Texas, in late May, once again cracking 11 minutes.
Last Friday she added to her experience at junior nationals in Indiana. Parks ran an 11:02.63 despite getting spiked in one of her water landings and came through the line just seven seconds behind third and with some lower-leg battle wounds to show for her efforts.
"(Regionals and junior nationals) were huge eye-openers," Parks says. "It's so much different being in a crowd when you're going over the hurdles compared to races when there are just a couple of athletes running.
"It was great to get that type of big-meet experience. It's going to make me a smarter racer."
Not that Parks needs an edge in racing savvy. It's likely embedded deep in her DNA, courtesy of her dad, who would move on from Davenport West and run cross country and track for the Augustana Vikings, and her mom, who two years later did the same thing for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Not unexpectedly, their running careers did not end upon graduation, and Allie was the beneficiary, thanks to that worn-out stroller.
"Allie put in a lot of time in that thing. Probably several thousand miles," Marshall says.
Instead of taking a page from the increasingly popular parenting manual "Forcing Your Interests on Your Children and Living Vicariously Through Their Experiences," the Parks never even bothered cracking the book's cover.
"We really took a hands-off, lead-by-example approach with Allie," Marshall says. "We just always encouraged her to do what she liked and allowed her to make her own decisions.
"Ball sports were never her specialty, but she definitely showed an aptitude for running."
Multiple All-Big Sky Conference cross country finishes are likely in Allie's future. Same with the steeplechase at upcoming outdoor championships, and book tickets now for annual trips to regionals.
But for Marshall, what he points to first -- and what every good parent would as well -- is that his daughter, who came through her first year with a 3.66 grade point average as an environmental studies major, has found a place where she fits in.
"Both Lynne and I have fond memories from our time as college runners," he says. "Those teammates are still some of our best friends to this day.
"It's really rewarding to see your kids in the same type of situation, somewhere they really fit in both academically and athletically and are able to have a really positive experience."
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