CHRIS MILTENBERG ANTICIPATED this conversation for months.
It was March 2, and it was time to make a decision.
The subject was what to do with Justine Fedronic, Amy Weissenbach, and Claudia Saunders, who, by the time they graduate, will likely leave as the greatest half-milers in Stanford women’s track and field history. Already they rank 1-2-3 all-time at Stanford indoors.
Fedronic was the local girl, from Belmont. She struggled with injuries for three years before joyfully and determinedly breaking through under new distance coach Miltenberg, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field, and finishing third in the 800 meters at the 2013 NCAA outdoor championships.
Weissenbach, the national high school record holder, was even better than anticipated when she arrived last year. She set a national freshman 800 record and reached the final of the U.S. Championships, vying for a spot on the World Championships team.
Saunders was the newcomer. An Ohio high school state champion in the unique combination of 100-meter hurdles and cross country, Given the choice between hurdles and long distance, Saunders chose … neither. She picked an event, the 800, that she had run only and handful of times with a best of 2:18, yet finished her first full season in the event as the U.S. junior national runner-up.
As sophomores Weissenbach and Saunders are gaining traction on their collegiate ascent, Fedronic, however, has reached her peak. A fifth-year senior with no more outdoor eligibility, Fedronic races for the final time for Stanford, at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships on Friday.
Miltenberg's thoughts wavered. He had the three fastest indoor half-milers in Stanford history, and all three had qualified individually for the NCAA indoors – something only the top 16 runners in the country can accomplish and a feat that ensures All-America status.
The problem, if it can be classified as such, was that as good as they were individually, they were even better together. Joined by 400-meter specialist Kristyn Williams, Fedronic, Weissenbach, and Saunders, comprised the fastest distance medley relay team in the country.
In their one attempt at that event this year, they sailed through a strong field at the Penn State National and won going away. Running virtually by themselves, Stanford ran the 1,200 (Weissenbach), 400 (Williams), 800 (Saunders), and 1,600 (Fedronic) combination in 10:54.04, a school record and the fourth-fastest time in collegiate history.
Now, following the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship meet at University of Washington, a meet which served as the final lead-in to nationals, the NCAA field was taking shape and decision time was at hand.
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“I SEE TWO ways you can go,” Miltenberg told them. “I think we can have three women who are ready to make the final of the 800 and all can score. Or, I think we have a great shot to do something really special in the DMR. The one thing I don’t think we can do is both.”
The 800 heats on Friday were too close to the DMR start. To attempt both, as Weissenbach attempted last year, would be folly. Add the Albuquerque altitude of 5,312 feet, and the longer recovery period that altitude requires, and the choice was clear: Individual glory or team sacrifice.
Though it involved three runners, the choice really would be determined by one – Fedronic.
As the fourth-fastest qualifier in the NCAA 800 field, Fedronic represented Stanford’s best chance to win. And as the lone senior, Fedronic had the most to gain or to lose. What wasn’t expressed, was what Fedronic had endured to get to this point.
Born in Germany and with an early childhood in France, Fedronic learned English from Dr. Seuss books. Though she starred at local running power Carlmont High, Fedronic arrived at Stanford broken.
Her competitiveness didn’t help. She viewed interval splits as "suggestions" and treated the times as barriers to break than paces to meet. That competitive drive and overzealous work ethic put Fedronic on a frustrating cycle of hard training followed by injury, essentially wasting her first two collegiate seasons. Her training chart was remarkably inconsistent, so full of peaks and valleys that she picked up the nickname, “China Doll,” because she was so fragile.
Fedronic can count eight stress injuries that she’s suffered in her lower body, plus numerous sprained ankles and a broken toe. A structural abnormality in her foot didn’t help either.
“I know that once I get on the starting line, I’ll be OK,” she said last spring. “But my issue has always been getting to the starting line.”
The battle finally was lost. Stanford coaches had to shut her down and start from scratch. With no goal other than to stay healthy, Fedronic literally took baby steps to regain her strength, speed, and endurance. First, former distance coach Jason Dunn and finally Miltenberg, knew the benefits of months of easy running were more important than the risks of intense workouts.
“It was character building,” Fedronic said this week. “I think I’m a better racer and probably a better person because I had to struggle through those years.
"I have a greater appreciation for my health and for consistent training and racing. It’s really important going into a race to appreciate what you get to do. I always tell myself when I get on the starting line that I’m so lucky that I’m here.”
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MILTENBERG TURNED TO Fedronic. Weissenbach and Saunders gladly deferred as well.
“I really wanted to make sure we were all on the same page and that everyone’s heart was in it,” Fedronic said. “It’s a big decision to give up your individual events.”
Fedronic needed no more time to answer.
“I’ve got the rest of my career as a professional to run great individual races,” she told them. “This is my last chance to be part of a great relay team.”
Saunders, for one, said she felt some disappointment when Miltenberg first broached the subject of surrendering her first individual NCAA championship race.
“I was definitely looking forward to running it,” she said. “But when he brought it up, I immediately knew that we were going to run the DMR. There’s nothing more rewarding than doing something as a team. It doesn’t compare to what you can accomplish individually. The more I thought about it, I understood that you leave college you don’t get a chance to run relays. And if you do run relays, what are the chances it would be with two others that you’ve been training with and care so much about.”
Weissenbach was all in as well.
"Opportunities like this, to really go for it in a relay, are so rare, and relays are the most fun part of track and field," Weissenbach said. "And as this is Justine's last season, I can't thing of anything I'd rather do than step out onto the track with her and rock it."
In Weissenbach and Saunders, Fedronic had found true comrades. Each, with their own styles and strengths, found pain to be no obstacle. Every runner must discover their pain threshold. It’s the key to becoming great. You not only must find it, but you must shatter it.
Miltenberg preaches intelligent aggressiveness. Competing, regardless of result, is held in utmost reverence. Attack your discomfort. Fight through pain. He didn’t have to convince these three. None are afraid of it. In fact, they embrace it.
Fedronic, Weissenbach, and Saunders are kickers. When others are faltering, they find another gear. It takes strength and determination to be a kicker. And yet, each possesses that skill. The payoff is that however the race will develop – fast or slow – each has the ability to power to the finish and adapt to whatever comes.
"Justine is so talented, driven and self-disciplined, and she has the loudest laugh," Weissenbach said. "It echoes across the track. Workouts with her are a total blast, but she also means business, and she and Claudia hold me accountable every day. She helps us commit to tough workouts when we aren't necessarily feeling our best. I've spent much of the past year and a half imitating her and quietly celebrating when she sends me hints of approval."
Their focus on their craft is not without the pre-race road trip dance parties or the laughs they share between body-numbing speed workouts.
“In the past, I sometimes took myself too seriously,” Fedronic said. “But I realized that track is a game that we have the opportunity to play. Both of these girls enjoy every moment they have. It’s made practice and the process so much more enjoyable. So, ultimately, racing isn’t this huge thing at the end that we have to do. It’s this huge thing that we get to do.”
Those thoughts, she discovered, weren't just her own. Weissenbach and Saunders shared them as well.
“We decided that win or lose, no matter what happens, we would be happy knowing that we went for it," Fedronic said. "We’ve worked together so much every day that it just feels right to go out in the same race together.”
Individual glory or team sacrifice? As it turns out, it wasn’t much of a choice at all.