The final 200 meters or so of the NAIA cross-country national course in Vancouver, Washington, is an uphill climb that spills into the finish line.
When University of Montana Western junior Eireann O’Connor reached the base of that hill last Friday, she was in 31st place, one spot out of earning All-American honors with the 5-kilometer course quickly closing out.
But by the time the former Jackson Hole High School runner clipped the finish line on rubbery legs, she had passed six athletes, finishing 25th to become just the college’s second cross-country All-American.
The final jolt came with an added piece of motivation, when O’Connor passed fellow Frontier Conference runner Reghan Worley of Carroll College. The Helena, Montana, runner had passed O’Connor at the finish two weeks previous at the conference meet. This time the tables turned.
“When I was able to get her, it really helped with being like, ‘Oh I can do this,” O’Connor said. “The whole time I was like this hurts, this hurts. But then I was like ‘No, you can do this. You can be All-American.’ ”
The All-American accolade was sweet enough, but it also came with a new personal record of 18 minutes, 31 seconds.
O’Connor had raced the course before, the last time was at nationals in Washington her freshman year. She said the emphasis has to be on getting out uncomfortably quick because a wide start quickly becomes tight turns where a less aggressive runner gets swallowed up by the large field.
“I got out really fast and ended up having a really quick mile that I think really saved me,” she said. “It got me up to the spot that I needed to stay at a steady pace throughout the race.”
Her All-American honors mark the second consecutive year the Bulldogs have had a runner take the award. Last year, Alta native Mindy Kaufman finished 25th at nationals to become the first All-American for Montana Western.
The cross-country season may be over, but O’Connor is not yet packing it in. She said nationals proved that her summer of diligent training has paid off and she’s currently in the best shape of her life. She’ll try to stretch that shape into the indoor season, where she’ll run the mile Dec. 7 in Bozeman, Montana, before taking a short between-seasons break.
“This season I’ve had so much growth, and I feel like a completely different runner than I was last year,” she said. “Hitting that goal has kind of set in, but I’m not settling.”