The two-mile run isn’t as physically taxing as, say, the 400 meters. It’s not as likely as the quarter mile to leave runners hyperventilating and heaving on the infield turf alongside the track. But it is the longest and because of that the most mentally taxing.
When most talk of the race requiring great endurance, they mean physically, yet mental endurance is the true key. It can break even elite milers, send them walking away swearing it off for life.
Good luck trying to break Free State High senior Hayley Francis, so much tougher than her gentle smile suggests.
Running the 3,200 meters for what she said was just the fourth time Friday night on her home track in the regional meet, Francis appeared to be struggling most of the way, running from the second lane instead of settling into a spot on the inside of the track, her head bobbing too much. She hung in there near the front, but exerted so much effort an obvious question hung in the air throughout the race: Would she have enough strength left to kick past the competition and win?
She took the lead during the final of the eight laps, and with 200 meters left, something inside her triggered, and as she kicked down the home stretch, her lead widening with every stride — a bit like Secretariat in the Belmont, not quite, but a bit — more than just Free State backers in the crowd erupted.
The ovation grew out of respect for a little girl showing such a big heart in what qualified as a moment as special as any in a night packed with them.
Francis shattered her personal best with a time of 11:37.83, a remarkable performance sandwiched between running legs of the 4X800 and 4X400 relays.
“To be honest, I was kind of done on the third lap,” Francis said of her two-mile run.
Feeling done physically, she was far from finished competing.
“With 200 to go, I was like, ‘All right, let’s just do this.’ I figured the faster I run, the faster it would be over with,” she said. “It was a pleasant surprise.”
She said she didn’t recall just what it was that triggered her kick.
“I’m guessing someone was standing there and told me to sprint, so I just did,” Francis said. “It was probably my crazy mother.”
Francis spent most of her career as a half-miler and miler and didn’t find out the two mile suited her so well until Firebirds coach Steve Heffernan put her in the race five weeks ago in Wichita in the K.T. Woodman Track Classic.
“I find it’s easier to focus on a longer race because I like to pace,” Francis said. “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing, so it’s just fun to just go and do my thing. I don’t really have a strategy with it. I think that’s why I like it.”
Francis said she has no clue who will be the runners to beat in the two mile. She was enjoying the moment, made all the richer because it happened at home, too much to look that far ahead.
“So nice,” she said of Friday’s meet taking place at Free State. “It was a really good treat and made us all feel a lot more comfortable and just really proud and really got us to do our best because we wanted to show off on our home track and show everyone what we’ve got.”