Last summer, redshirt sophomore Kaitlyn Peale was just another member of the women’s cross country team.

Now, she’s an All-American.

Peale says that at the beginning of the season, she would have laughed at the idea of being one of the top cross country runners in the nation by November. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday at the NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

She finished 32nd overall (20:38) in her first national race.

After discovering she had food allergies before the season, Peale changed her diet and found she had lot more energy.

She started the 2009 season in grand fashion, with fourth-place, seventh-place, fourth-place and first-place finishes. Peale placed in the top 4 four times this season.

A year ago, her best race was a seventh-place finish at the Michigan Open.

“I’ve slowly gotten better throughout the season, so it’s just kind of been like a growing goal,” Peale said of how she has raised her expectations. “I feel like each week, you’ve improved this much, so this is possible for Big Tens. And then after that, maybe this (is possible) for Regionals. It’s been a growing thing all season.

“But I definitely did not expect any of this back in August. It’s a great surprise.”

Michigan coach Mike McGuire made sure Peale was focused on finishing in the top 40 at NCAAs. The strategy was to get out to a fast start, maintain her pace and aggressively try to pass people.

Peale was the lone bright spot for Michigan, as it finished 27th out of 31 teams competing at the NCAA Championships. But this was an odd year for McGuire and the Wolverines.

None of the seven girls competing in the race had ever run in the NCAAs before.

“We just didn’t have the personnel this year that we’ve had in the past that we could really get in there and knock it out of the park,” McGuire said. “I think a lot of people thought on paper that this might be the year that we didn’t go.

“We battled through some things. We’ve got good kids here. They’ve got to get this one under their belt. And you can learn a lot just being at this (meet).”

The other Wolverine runners to score finished within nine seconds of each other: freshman Kaitlyn Patterson (176th overall), redshirt junior Rachel White (189th), freshman Rebecca Addison (192nd) and redshirt junior Rachel Severin (192nd).

Michigan’s inexperience led to a poor start for most of the Wolverine runners and, outside of Peale, they lacked the poise to get back into the race. McGuire preached to the team about the importance of not paying attention to their individual places.

Even with 30 runners around her rather than the usual handful, Peale was not overwhelmed. She executed her game plan and exuded the focus that McGuire wanted for his whole team.

“They take it back as a learning experience,” McGuire said. “You come to the line the next time … you know what is required to get out at this level of a meet. And you have 255 athletes that are pretty darn good. We’ve been in meets with good athletes. We’ve just never been in a meet with this many good athletes.”

Yesterday’s race could pay dividends down the road.

“It was a great experience for everyone,” Peale said. “Everyone will grow from this. I learned a lot from the race and I’m pretty sure everyone else did, too. I’m really excited for next year.”

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