Focused on the Finish: Shelby Houlihan gears up for NCAA Cross Country Nationals
By: Cait Chock
If one were to give Shelby Houlihan a synonym it could be range. Here's a runner flirting with the 2-minute barrier for the 800 meter, was the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Champion for the 1500m, and is now sitting as one of the top contenders to take the NCAA Cross Country Title.
Though, perhaps a more fitting synonym would be tenacity. Amidst the pelting of rain, Houlihan charged her way across the finish line of the Pac-12 meet in first. Her face distinct, one of laser-like focus, "I love running around in the rain so the weather wasn't a factor at all, if anything it made me more excited." Houlihan in motion is a woman on a mission, regardless of the distance, she'll eke out every last bit of herself in getting to that finish line.
Right now her eyes are on the finish line of the NCAA Cross Country Championships. "I don't really have any other goals for the rest of the season but to win the NCAA title," says Houlihan. Winning the 2014 Pac-12 meet was another step in that direction but also had an air of personal redemption for the runner. Finishing 4th place last year, which, even thought it had been her top showing at the meet, she knew she was capable of more. Last year's mistake may have been going out too hard, this year she remained patient until 3k before gradually needling down the pace. "I felt really good about my Pac-12 race...I was really excited I was able to win after being so disappointed with how I did last year at this meet." The aim was to win, nothing more. Eventually leaving the field behind her, Houlihan was fully in control.
Houlihan is certainly one of a unique breed of runners who loves the slow grind kind of pain cross country brings as well as the lactic acid attack from the gun of the 800. That kind of versatility and near seamless transition between the two gears, is what makes her so lethal. After winning her NCAA 1500 meter title, her post-season continued long past that of her collegiate competitors. A post-season which saw Houlihan move onto the final round of the USA Outdoor Championships 800 event and hitting more PR's racing in Canada. Those who didn't know Houlihan may have been surprised by last year's improvements, but for those who did, there was no element of surprise, only the excitement of watching an athlete checking off her goals.
Of course there are never any guarantees in running, so for Houlihan herself, "I had set those goals for myself at the beginning of the season so it was nice to be able to achieve them, but each time I also surprised myself on the things I was able to do even though I knew I could do them." Coming home she boasted new 800 and 1500 PR's, but only had time for a scant week off before turning around and gearing up for cross country. Complete shift of gears, but no sweat for the Arizona State Ace, "I love racing so it's not hard for me to shift my focus from track to cross country. Just taking a few weeks off of racing is enough for me to recharge and be hungry to race again."
And here we are. Next up, Houlihan races the West Regional on November 14th, from there the Championships. Having twice raced the Terre Haute National's course, Houlihan will be in racing mode, prepared to jump on any move her competitors make, "I'll constantly be aware of what is going on around me and respond appropriately. I don't really focus on who my competition is because you never know what is going to happen. My competition is whoever is around me." Cross country is always a race for place, times are meaningless, being a keen tactician is critical.
The kind of strategy and patience that wins a cross country title requires maturity, a trait Houlihan already possessed but which was honed during that long track season. That experience racing against the professionals, the next level of running that awaits her, has taught her perspective. "So far, I've learned to not make meets more than what they are. It's easy to hype things up and make yourself nervous or talk yourself out of the race because it's a 'big race', but at the end of the day, it's still running. Approaching each race like it's just another race has helped me stay calm and relaxed going into it. I'm excited to get to that next level and to keep improving to see how fast I can run."
A lesson which, today, keeps her in the moment, focused on the goal at hand, and remembering that regardless of outcome there will always be another 'big race' to win. In the moment she will demand every last bit from her body and embody that tenacity. Speaking of the different kind of pain cross country demands, Houlihan shares, "I like hurting but still being able to push myself for a longer period of time." Combating that hurt and willing herself to keep ratcheting down that pace, "I try to just keep thinking positive thoughts to keep myself pumped up... Regardless of the race, I try not to focus too much on how I feel and just do what needs to be done."
It's natural for all outside to eagerly anticipate what awaits Houlihan come indoor and outdoor season, where her speed is unbridled and free on the familiar, flat track. It would be just as natural for others to start making bets on which event we'll see her in drawing closer to Rio. Yet true to her nature, the runner herself will get to that when it comes. "I really just want to focus on finishing off my college career well with some more National titles. I'm not sure which event I'll be leaning towards for Rio. I guess I would compete in whichever event I have a better chance in at that time."
Now, there is a race at hand, and Houlihan's focus is right where it should be.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.