SOUTH BEND — The scattering of runners around the finish chute at the Notre Dame Invitational looked like the finish at most cross country meets. Red-faced and heavily breathing runners with loose ponytails paced stiffly about, and a few lay on the ground.
Unlike most of the of runners, Michigan fifth-year senior Aly Kohlmeier stood grinning broadly while talking to two friends. She was breathing normally, without a hint of exertion on her face. If you hadn’t seen her cross the line, you might have wondered whether she’d run at all.
After missing six months due to a fractured tibia, Kohlmeier returned to action Friday at the Notre Dame Invitational. She helped the No. 17 Michigan women’s cross country team earn a third place finish at the University of Notre Dame Golf Course with 136 points. The Wolverines finished just 12 points behind No. 7 Princeton, and No. 2 Florida State dominated the course with 88 points.
Kohlmeier, who nervously took extra run outs before the starting gun, finished second for Michigan and 11th overall (17:00).
“I was definitely nervous, but a different kind of nervous,” Kohlmeier said. “I wasn’t feeling pressure, but just that I had not done this in so long.”
Though she said that she didn’t initially expect to place in the meet, Kohlmeier made an immediate impact on the team’s success.
“She’s obviously a tremendous talent,” Michigan coach Mike McGuire said. “I don’t think she would have thought that she’d be 11th coming in, but it didn’t surprise me. That obviously made our team a lot lot better.”
In its best team performance of the year, Michigan ran with a spread of just 49 seconds between its first- and fifth-placed runners. Battling a very strong field, fifth-year senior Nicole Edwards placed fifth overall to lead the Wolverines (16:40). Rounding out Michigan’s scorers were sophomore Danielle Tauro (17:15), and redshirt juniors Geena Gall and Kelly Sampson (17:23 and 17:29).
Michigan will look to tighten its spread to about 40 seconds before the NCAA Pre-Nationals on Oct. 18. This involves keeping the pack together longer, a strategy the team struggled with in South Bend. While Princeton gained positions ahead of the Wolverines after the second mile, McGuire watched as his Michigan pack splintered.
“Some people were getting stuck when other people were making their moves,” Tauro said. “When we’d go around turns, they’d be boxed in, and there would be people throwing their elbows. It’s sometimes hard to get out and make a move when you want to.”
The large number of runners on the course made it difficult for Michigan’s top runners to stay grouped together throughout the race. The course itself made this more challenging with its tight and narrow turns.
“You have to really put yourself in position at the beginning, when it’s wider and really try to use the time when you’re not surrounded by people to attack,” Tauro said.
Edwards accomplished her pre-race goal of a top-five finish, but faced mental challenges throughout the race.
“I was coming around the last corner and (coach McGuire) yelled at me, ‘You can get those two girls in front of you,’ and I just didn’t,” Edwards said. “I think I need to get mental toughness. That takes practice, just like running does. I see where I have to get better.”
The fast course provided an opportunity to get a good five-kilometer time before the team begins running six-kilometer races in the season’s remaining meets.
“There’s definitely a difference between this 5K, which is especially fast, and going to Terre Haute to run the 6K,” Edwards said. “The terrain is just tougher. The grass is longer. It’s not a really nicely groomed golf course. It’s meant for cross country. It’s tougher.”