(Photo by Dave Broberg)
It’s getting late. The sun is dropping below the horizon in Des Moines, Iowa, concluding another humid summer day in the Midwest city. But the day is not over at Drake University, where hundreds of the top track and field athletes in the NCAA have gathered to compete in the 2011 National Championships. One race remains on the schedule and it’s the longest race of the meet.
Morgan Haws has prepared for this moment all season. The junior at Brigham Young University competed as little as possible during the regular NCAA track and field season, hoping to maintain strength and energy for the National meet. A 10,000-meter specialist, Haws focused on her personal goals as she mentally prepared for the race.
“Going into the race my goal was to finish in the top eight because I’ve always wanted to be an All-American,” Haws said. “I was really well hydrated and didn’t warm up for too long. I had preserved my energy and my body throughout the season for this race.”
When the gun sounded to begin the 10,000, the runners took off at a slower-than-usual pace. The temperature had topped out at 92 degrees that day and the air felt thick and humid. Warm weather and humidity have little effect on sprinters and jumpers, but distance runners must deal with the heat for a much longer period of time. The 10,000 meter race is 25 laps around a 400-meter track, a grueling prospect in the face of temperatures hovering in the 90’s.
Haws stayed with the pack of runners throughout the early parts of the race. The 24 best runners from across the country were competing in the race, which is contested in a timed final format, meaning there were no separate preliminary and final heats. All 24 runners competed on the track at once, making it difficult to gain advantageous position on the inner track.
“When Morgan got started in the race she established really good position,” BYU high jumper Ada Robinson said. “She got on the inside part of the track and maintained a spot between fourth and eighth place for most of the early laps.”
Robinson, also a junior, finished ninth in the high jump at the 2011 National Championships. She and her teammates had looked forward to watching Morgan compete in the 10,000, due to the fact that she had run sparingly during the regular season. They all knew what she was capable of and hoped they would witness the effort she had been preserving all season.
With a little less than a mile remaining in the race, Haws provided Robinson and the rest of her teammates a glimpse of her elite racing ability. The pace of the race leaders had picked up considerably and Haws was able to sustain her energy and form as she moved into third place.
“She looked great for the entire race,” BYU women’s head coach Patrick Shane said. “We set the goal for her to finish in the top eight and earn All-America honors and she was in great position to do so. She had prepared all season for this moment.”
Haws transferred to BYU in 2010 after competing at Weber State University for two seasons. Three years ago, in 2008, she represented WSU in the 10,000 meter race at the National Championships in Des Moines. She had dealt with the Midwest heat and humidity before, and had also felt the immense pressure that comes with competing at the National Championships.
With just over two laps to go, Haws willed herself forward. She could feel the end of the race approaching as the leaders continued to pick up the pace and the stragglers continued to compete. All of the heat, humidity and pressure were nothing compared to her desire to reach All-American status.
If there was anything that Haws did not prepare for, it was tussling with another runner for position with two laps remaining in the race. Getting inside is normally a battle that occurs near the beginning of the 10,000 but dies down as the race continues and the runners spread out. But with 600 meters remaining Haws was in a battle to keep her spot on the track.
“With about one and a half laps left in the race, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I got tripped,” Haws said. “I was just laying flat out on the track and was really confused. After I got up, it felt like I had been sitting for a long time and then stood up really fast. I felt dizzy and lost when I tried to start running.”
A few runners passed Haws after she tripped, but not many. She had maintained her spot in the top eight spots and was still on pace to meet her All-American goal. But something wasn’t right. As she forged onward toward the final lap her legs wobbled and she struggled to pick up her feet and continue to run. Then, with about 150 meters remaining, she started to falter.
“When she first started to stumble, it was truly heart wrenching,” Robinson said. “She had come so far and I thought she had recovered after she tripped. But something didn’t look right. She tried to stay up, but just didn’t have the strength.”
Haws jogged and stumbled for 50 meters as she tried to keep upright but her legs gave out with just 100 meters left in the race. It looked like she had nothing left as her body folded on the straightaway and it looked like her race was over, with just 1% of the race remaining.
“It sounds so cliché, collapsing with 100 meters left, but I had nothing left in my legs,” Haws said. “When I collapsed, I was so frustrated. There was only 100 meters left! I had run over six miles and suddenly didn’t think I could take another step.”
Coaches and teammates watched in horror from the infield and the stands. Shane, a distance coach with over 30 years of experience, debated helping her off the track after she collapsed, but hesitated, knowing that once he touched her, her race would officially end.
“I wanted to help her so badly, it was so hard to watch,” Shane said. “But I knew that the moment I touched her she would be disqualified. She hadn’t passed out and I gave her a second to see if she could finish.”
Just seconds after collapsing to the track, Haws pushed herself back to her feet. She struggled to regain her form and seemed to exert more energy to just stand than she had to run the previous 24 laps. She moved forward tentatively, still preserving her top eight spot in the race, before falling to the track again.
“It was never a thought in my mind to quit,” Haws said. “It would have been so much less painful to just not finish. It actually never occurred to me that I could just stop. I had to finish.”
As Haws continued to battle the final 100 meters of the track, tears filled the eyes of many watching. This was an athlete who had given everything and was still trying to give more. She could have easily rolled off the track after the first fall but instead fought against her body to finish.
“I was full-on sobbing as she tried to finish,” BYU teammate Katie Palmer said. “I couldn’t imagine the pain she was going through at that moment. I was honestly scared for her life.”
With 50 meters remaining, the eighth place runner passed Haws on the track. With her hopes of becoming an All-American drifting away, Haws determination did not falter. At some point in the last 50 meters, she realized she could no longer stand. She collapsed a final time within 10 meters of the finish line, within feet of finishing a race that seemed much longer than 10,000 meters.
That’s when she started to crawl. On hands and knees, working just to keep herself moving slowly along the track, Haws crawled toward the finish. Just minutes after collapsing at the beginning of the straightaway, Haws lifted herself one final time, just enough to get her torso over the finish line, and fell hard to the ground.
“It was the most inspiring performance I have ever witnessed from one of my athletes,” Shane said. “I have never been so proud. As soon as she crossed that finish line, I raced over to her as fast as possible.”
Shane scooped Haws off the track before other runners came across the line and ran over to the training cart. The trainers drove her back across the field toward the training tent and began covering her in ice and cold towels. Her body temperature had risen immensely during the race and she had to be cooled down. As the trainers were working to lower her core body temperature, Haws experienced periodic black outs.
Trainers connected several IVs to Haws in hopes of getting more liquid into her body, but the black outs caused enough concern to send her to the hospital.
“It was very emotional for all of us (teammates) as we waited up that night while she was at the hospital,” Robinson said. “At times we heard she was doing better, then 10 seconds later we would hear she had gotten worse. It was such an incredible relief to see her the next morning, laughing, talking and walking around without any problem.”
Haws was in the hospital until the early morning hours, when the doctors determined she was healthy enough to be released. As she was taken back to the hotel, she learned she had finished 12th, which earned her Second Team All-America honors.
“Morgan’s performance rang true to the phrase ‘never give up’ in a way that I never thought possible,” Palmer said. “She showed me what it means to give every last ounce of strength your body possesses. In my eyes Morgan Haws is a National Champion.”