Second Wind

Mindy Sawtelle might have won the NCAA Division II cross country championship, if only she hadn’t run so fast.

Call it a paradox, if you will. Better yet, call it the best performance in IUP history.

Sawtelle earned runner-up honors at the national meet in Cary, N.C., by completing the 6,000-meter course in 20:59.0, a time eclipsed only by Chelsea Smith of BYU-Hawaii (20:33.9). Had she not bolted from the starting line like a frightened gazelle, Sawtelle might have challenged Smith for the title. She finished the first mile in 5:04, well ahead of both the pack and the pace typically set by IUP’s men.

“I went out way too fast,” said Sawtelle, a thirty-year-old mother of two who gained All-America honors in her first season of cross country. “I was very excited, very enthusiastic. The adrenaline was flowing, and I went out too hard. I got caught at the mile-and-a-half marker by the girl who won it. I tried to stay with her, but when I got to mile two, my first mile caught up with me. I was pretty tired.”

Sawtelle eventually dropped back to third. She then rallied, calling on some deep reserve of determination to pass Janet Kogo of Harding (Ark.) in the final 200 yards and claim second place.

“Mindy knew she had the girl from Harding beat because she told me she tested her on the next-to-last hill and she [Kogo] didn’t respond,” said IUP coach Ed Fry. “So she waited until the last hill and just sailed by her. At first it looked like she was going to settle for third after the two girls passed her, but Mindy’s a fighter. She fought back.”

Mindy Sawtelle

Mindy Sawtelle

Her finish was the highest ever at nationals by an IUP runner, surpassing Elisa Benzoni’s third-place performance in 1987. Sawtelle views her achievement with pride and, at the same time, regret.

“I wish I would’ve gone out slower,” she said. “It would’ve helped me, I think. Everyone says I probably wouldn’t have won it, but I don’t know. If it would’ve been close, I think I could’ve gutted it out more to win.”

Sawtelle’s runner-up effort capped a sensational year of running, although her first race of 2003 was as forgettable as a Pauly Shore movie. Twelve weeks after giving birth to a son, Kylen—Sawtelle and her husband, Scott, also have a nine-year-old daughter, Kirsten—she entered a 3,000 at Susquehanna University’s indoor Orange and Maroon Track and Field Classic, with humbling results. Sawtelle finished sixth in a plodding 11:07.21, more than forty seconds behind the winner.

“I went into it with an I-can-win attitude,” she recalled. “I thought I was in better shape than I was. I went out so fast that I died on the fourth lap. I barely could make it to the finish line. Those were the longest eleven minutes of my life. It felt like an eternity. I’ve run marathons that didn’t seem that long.”

By the time track season ended fifteen weeks later, Sawtelle had regained her pre-pregnancy fitness level. She won Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference titles in the 3,000 and 5,000 and then ran the 10,000 in 35:50.56 at the NCAA Division II meet, good for fourth place and All-America honors.

“I always go out fast. I run to win, and however it gets me there I’m going to do it. At nationals I screwed it up—I know that. It should have been a win. I just went out too fast.”

Cross country season brought additional honors. Sawtelle was named the PSAC Runner of the Year—no surprise in that she clocked a 21:35 at Bloomsburg to win the conference race by fifty seconds and obliterate the course record by 1:44. Sawtelle also won the East Region title at Lock Haven, demolishing both the field and the course record with a time of 21:05.

Even her only defeat prior to nationals was a victory of sorts. Sawtelle placed fifth at the Penn State National Cross Country Meet, the leading performance by a Division II competitor. Spurred by runners from big-time schools, she ran her best 6K ever (20:57.01). 

“Two of the girls that beat her, from Providence, finished second and fifth at the Division I meet,” said Fry, “so you knew she was beaten by somebody really good. I wasn’t too worried then about how she’d do at nationals.”

Sawtelle, on the other hand, wasn’t all that confident before the race. Seeded fourth based on qualifying times, she doubted she’d finish that high.

“I thought I was going to be fifth,” Sawtelle said. “That’s what I told myself: If you get fifth, don’t worry about it. Obviously I always go for the win. Everyone does. But I placed myself fifth. When I got second, I couldn’t believe it.”

The odds against Sawtelle’s earning runner-up honors seemed as long as a Siberian winter once Kogo passed her with 1,200 meters to go.

“I thought, Oh, no, I’m gonna get third. I didn’t want third. I wanted to be second if I wasn’t gonna win it,” Sawtelle said. “There was a guy in the crowd who must have been from IUP. He made eye contact with me. He said, ‘Don’t settle for third.’ That’s what I was doing, I was settling. I knew I had more left to give.”

So Sawtelle shifted into another gear and fairly flew past a startled Kogo, beating her to the finish line by 6.5 seconds. Second was better than third, Sawtelle discovered, but first would’ve been preferable. Fact is, she’s still nagged by the suspicion that her early breakneck pace cost her a national title.

“I’ve got to run a little smarter in the beginning,” Sawtelle said. “I don’t run smart. I always go out fast. I run to win, and however it gets me there I’m going to do it. At nationals I screwed it up—I know that. It should have been a win. I just went out too fast.”

Of course, that’s a problem she hopes to correct at the 2004 meet.  Call it a paradox, but Mindy Sawtelle might just finish first next fall—if only she can slow down.