On Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind., Michelle Clark will compete in the 2012 NCAA Division III Cross Country Championship.
Heading into the season, Clark might have been glossed over by many of the coaches in the region. After spending her first two seasons at Denison saddled with a variety of injuries, 2011 marked the first complete season of cross country for Clark since high school. That season also saw her progress into a solid scorer for the Big Red.
Despite scoring well and even placing 22nd in last year's North Coast Athletic Conference Championship, Clark knew she was capable of much more. Her coaches were aware of that as well.
"Michelle is extremely demanding of herself," noted assistant cross country coach and head track & field coach, Mark FitzPatrick. "She knew she had the ability, she just needed to get healthy to give it her best shot."
Clark's athletic career at Denison started with a stress fracture as a first-year which eventually led to surgery. Clark rehabbed the injury throughout her sophomore year and was healthy enough by spring to take part in outdoor track & field season. Midway through the season, more injuries would creep into the picture, ending her year prematurely.
Last fall marked the first year Clark entered a season injury-free and she showed steady growth and improvement. After the 22nd place finish at last year's NCAC Championship and a 71st place finish at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional, she continued to build momentum throughout Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field season.
"We talked in the offseason and I knew her goal was to be all-region," said FitzPatrick. "After dealing with all of the injuries I knew that would be difficult but I give her all of the credit. Something changed in her from last year. She figured it out, has persevered, and is having a great season."
Michelle Clark, version 2.0, got started with a seventh-place finish at the Franklin Invitational which helped her team place first overall for the first time since 2005. She would return with a solid 12th place finish among Division III runners at the All-Ohio Championship. That finish would build to a career-high sixth place showing at the NCAC Championship in Wooster, Ohio. Her all-conference showing helped the team place fifth at the conference meet.
When Clark reflects on this season the team is at the forefront of the conversation.
"Coming in to this season there was some concern about team dynamic just because we were so young," stated Clark. "It has turned out to be a great team. The younger runners have meshed well with the veterans and we have been able to bring them along."
Last week at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Clark posted a time of 21:59.46 that resulted in a 10th place finish. That race was a cumlination of her four years of perserverence.
"I went in knowing that I had to start out and put myself in a position where I need to be from the start. I did not know if I could hold on to my pace and my spot the entire race, but if I was going to try, this was the race to do it in," said Clark.
"I wanted to finish knowing that in my last race I gave everything and I wanted it to be a race I could be proud of. I'm not sure I will ever fully understand how I got through the final 2K of the race. I just remember telling myself that you are 2K away from something you have wanted for four years. It's now or never."
After running the regional like it was her final race, Clark has been awarded with the ultimate prize for a college runner. The chance to actually run in the final race. That will happen Saturday (Nov. 17) at noon from the Laverne Gibson Course. The NCAA will provide video coverage of the championship. You can also follow along with live results.