By Christopher Hunt
The last time I’d seen Aisling Cuffe lose a big race was at New Balance Outdoor Nationals last June when she finished runner-up to Meghan Goethals in the 2-mile. It was a race that she could have won but not one that anyone expected to. There’s a difference.
Since then, the only time she failed to cross the finish line first in a top-level race was a 17th place finish at the World Cross Country Championships in March. But her senior campaign has cemented her as the best distance runner in the country. There was no argument in that.
And then under the night lights of Franklin Field, Haley Pierce of Tatnell dropped Cuffe on the bell lap in the 3,000 meter championship to win in 9:16.36, the fastest time in the country at Penn Relays last Thursday. Cuffe finished in 9:19.24.
She broke her own state record in the most disappointing race of the Stanford-bound Cuffe’s senior season. But record or not, Cuffe didn’t win. And that was a major blow. I gave her a call earlier this week and asked simply what happened.
Cuffe will run the 1,500 at the Crusader Relays this weekend where she plans to take down the Section 9 record of 4:25.65 set by Monroe-Woodbury’s Meghan Patrignelli in 2009.
I decided to print a transcript of our interview. If you ever wanted to get into the mind of an elite athlete here it is. This is what she said:
Well, I don’t really have any funny story or anything interesting. I guess it was just an off-day. I wouldn’t call it an extremely off day because I ran 9:19. But it was a slightly off-day and it happened to be the same exact day of Haley Pierce’s breakout day of her life. Those two together didn’t’ really mix well.
I didn’t run the smartest race. I mean, going back, it would have been nice to know that she was capable of running that time. But, for a tactical race, I didn’t run a very smart race. I was leading for four and a half laps, and all I was doing was getting myself tired because I was trying to hit splits and I wasn’t hitting them. I was trying to get to the mile before 5:00. Hit some 73’s in there maybe. My second lap was like 76 and then 77. I was like, “Great, what’s happening?”
That was the part that was my bad. It was not realizing that A) Get out of the lead if your feeling that way or B) fight through it and get the splits and maybe it’ll all come together magically at the end. I don’t know, I stayed in the lead running 76’s. The mile was a little slow and I almost had a breather because Waverly Neer (Culver, Ind.) took the lead. So a little gap opened up. But, the way I run, I don’t like tailgating runners. If I’m not in the lead, I’m usually not right up on the girl’s shoulder. I need to work on that. Just get up on them and make them realize I’m right behind them instead of giving them a foot of space. That’s something I’m not good with but I’ll work on it.
(Neer) took the lead at like five laps. Then Haley Pierce took the lead with two laps to go. I still wasn’t feeling any better and I thought I would be because I didn’t have to lead anymore. I said “It’s now or never” with 400 to go and then I went with 400 to go. Then I realized, “You’re still tired.”
Only go with 400 to go if you can crack the race wide open. If it’s not 400 to go then it’s 200 or 300 but 400 to go, you have to be feeling amazing. I thought I was and it was one of those moments where I was like, “You’re doing it. You’re doing it.” Then I looked up at the video and she was right there and it was like, “I’m not doing it.” She passed me and I tried to get her back but the second she passed me she was gone. I mean, it wasn’t an Emily Lipari situation (where Cuffe lost the race in the last 100 meters last year) but kind of similar.
You seemed so invincible this year. I felt like most of the time I saw you this year, I could see it in your eyes. It wasn’t’ really a matter of if you were going to win but how fast you were going to run.
And that’s how I went into Penn. I knew that Waverly Neer was there. I mean, I knew Haley Pierce was there. But the main concern in my mind was Waverly. Haley just came out of nowhere. I think she PR’d by like 25 seconds or something. I mean, she would have beat her old self by over a straight away. She just had an amazing race. So I went into the race like, “Yeah Waverly might be with me.” But my plan was to run a fast time because I fast time wins every race. That’s been my motto this year. Go out there and run a fast time because that’s what will win the race. My downfall in that is that I didn’t expect it to become a three-person race. Maybe a two-person race would have been good. Maybe.
But just the fact that I wasn’t feeling good. Or maybe I was feeling fine and the splits got to my head. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out. OK, I was feeling kind of bad, but it wasn’t as magical a day as nationals at been (where Cuffe became the second high school girl in U.S. history to break 10 minutes for 2 miles). I felt amazing that day. Maybe I thought going intot he race that I’d feel that good again and I didn’t. Maybe it was that. Or maybe it was the fact that Haley ran and amazing race. Or maybe those two together.
It’s going to be more motivation at practice.
Did you feel like, ‘Wow, I lost,’ or did you just feel human?
When I finished the race, I was expecting the time to be a little slower just because the earlier times had been slower. Then I saw the clock. First I was in disbelief. I think that was one of the fastest races ever for 3,000. (Pierce’s 9:16.36 is US #8 while Cuffe’s 9:19.24 is US #11.) I wish it wasn’t me that got second. But, I don’t know if I would have believe that anyone ran those times this early in the season if I had been at home waiting for the results. So at first I was like, “How did we run these times?” Then I was like, “How did Haley run that time?” Then, “Aw, how did I lose?”
It was a lot of – not disbelief –I didn’t know what to think. I was like what just happened?
Penn was like the one chip that wasn’t in your hat.
To be honest, I form relationships with every track I run on. I’ve never liked the Penn track. I don’t know why. It’s something about running in Lane 5. I don’t know if it’s the right distance but it makes you feel like you’re running longer and the turns are endless. Maybe I’m not a straightaway runner but I’ve just never felt comfortable on that track. It didn’t come into play but I never thought that would matter that much. I thought I’d just be going for 9:14 and hit my splits perfectly. But everything just started unfolding. I definitely wasn’t enjoying the way I felt over the last six laps.
Looking back at it. I’m not mad that I lost Penn. I’m just mad that I lost. I’m fine with never having won Penn because in my memory, I don’t like that track. So it’s perfectly fine in my head. It’s just the knowledge that someone beat me and that implies that they’re better than me and it’s like “No they’re not,“ and I have to fight them again. So it wasn’t about losing Penn.
Do you feel like anything has changed after this? Do you look at the rest of your season differently?
I guess if I had never lost at Penn I would have continued on my season the normal way and tried to break more records and things like that. But now there’s like this sense of urgency. But now there’s this sense of urgency where I feel like I have to re-prove myself. It’s given me a new, well not motivation, because I was motivated before. But it’s like a dire urgency kind-of-motivation. This is it. You only have so many races left to try to beat her time again or try to get back on top.