By CATEY McCANN, SPORTS WRITER
“You did it.”
Those were the only words Anne Twombly heard as she laid collapsed on the Boston University track. Her eyes were closed, her mind was blank and her breathing was heavy – but she heard the words.
When she finally opened her eyes, it was her teammate Cassie Kruse who was crouched over Twombly, repeating the words barely above a whisper with tears in her eyes.
Sitting at Young’s restaurant eating breakfast that morning, Twombly asked some of her fellow teammates if they thought anyone would be coming to watch her race the mile at the Boston University Last Chance Meet on March 1.
“No, I don’t think anyone is going,” was their only response. It was a fair enough reply – much of the team had already spent the majority of the weekend in Boston racing at the New England championship.
Of course, that’s not how the University of New Hampshire track and field team operates.
Ten minutes before Twombly was to take to the starting line, she watched her teammates come filing in – all holding signs and wearing team shirts.
“You see those videos where the groom sees his bride come walking down the aisle and the groom cries a little bit,” she said. “That’s what it was like. To just feel their presence was really amazing.”
But prior to their arrival, Twombly did still have someone very important by her side.
Cassie Kruse had already traveled to Boston University twice that weekend. On Friday, Kruse was at the track complex competing in the preliminary round of the 1000-meter race in the New England championship. Her time of 2:54.19 earned her first place that day and qualified her to race again on Saturday in the finals. On Saturday she improved upon that time, running 2:54.06 and claiming second overall in New England.
Racing to a first and second place finish in two days is both mentally and physically exhausting – but Kruse wasn’t done.
The junior distance runner from Illinois had been asked earlier that week by head coach Robert Hoppler if she was willing to be the one to pace senior Anne Twombly to an NCAA-qualifying time at the Last Chance Meet.
“I was just really honored to be the one to pace Anne,” Kruse said. “It was really special – I wanted to be sure I pulled her through to the halfway point right where she needed to be.”
Which she did.
“It was an amazing team gesture for Cassie to do that for Anne,” head coach Robert Hoppler said. “She was sore and tired from her own races but she did it perfectly. She paced Anne to exactly the times that she needed to hit.”
But to Twombly, the gesture meant far more than just hitting a certain pace. She knew she could depend on Kruse 100 percent, and she said that provided relief during what is a “very confusing, chaotic race process.”
“I feel like going through college it’s really hard to depend on people in your life,” Twombly said. “You’re leaving your home and you grow out of friendships and you have heartbreaks throughout college. It’s really important to have people on your team who you can count on no matter what.”
She said Kruse’s attitude was admirable.
“When I was a junior I could not have raced three days in a row without complaining and being a diva and Cassie just put a smile on her face and looked me in the eyes and said ‘Anything for the team, right?’ Even though it was just me doing that race,” she said. “You can always count on Cassie.”
For half of the race Kruse ran just ahead of Twombly, leading her lap by lap to the exact splits she needed to ultimately qualify for the NCAA indoor track championship.
But for the second half of the race, it was all Twombly. At that point she was far ahead of the pack of runners, so she only had herself to compete with. She still credits her support system for getting her through the race.
“I had everyone I care about in that room with me and they were all around the track sending their positive energy at me,” she said. “To have them all there supporting me meant more than anything that has ever happened to me. I just felt like they lifted me up.”
She paused after this statement – struggling to articulate her emotions. Words weren’t even necessary as she sat at the table clenching and unclenching her hands, staring at the table with a gripping intensity as she battled back tears. That day, Twombly ran the race to a time of 4 minutes and 38.50 seconds. She claimed first place by a full 10 seconds and improved upon her personal record of 4:44.07 by over five seconds. She also claimed a ticket to Fayetteville, Arkansas to compete at the NCAA indoor track championship as the 12th seed in the nation.
“It was just spectacular – there’s no doubt about that,” Hoppler said. “I am very, very proud of Anne. This season has worked out because of her focus and dedication to the team and the sport. She’s really dedicated herself to improving.”
Runners who compete at the NCAA championship level are often thought to be prodigies – born with a certain level of natural talent and uncanny stamina. Twombly doesn’t believe she falls into this category. At the core, she is a standout runner from Exeter, New Hampshire who has spent the past five years working through success and failure, health and injury. As a fifth-year senior, this was her last and only chance to make it to the NCAA indoor championship – a level that she had never quite been able to reach despite relentless dedication to the sport.
“I never thought I could make it this far – it’s kind of a miracle in the classic sense of the word,” she said. “My teammates have watched me struggle and saw me mess up – I’m a pretty flawed person, we all are – but I think there is this misconception that the only people who get to compete at this level are these perfect, prodigy runners with a natural talent that normal people can’t live up to.”
She said the best part about her success this season is that her teammates could watch her excel and maybe start to think that they are good enough to compete at that level as well.
“It’s amazing – to be able to come to practice every day and train with Anne is such a privilege,” Kruse said. “She’s one of the best milers in the country and I get to practice with her every day – how cool is that? I’m just really lucky.”
Hoppler called her season thus far a “dream senior year.” In the fall, she captained the America East conference winning cross-country team. This season, Twombly is undefeated in preliminary heats and has a total of eight first-place finishes – two in the mile, three in the 800-meter, two in the 3000-meter, and one in the 4 by 800-meter relay. At the America East championship, Twombly broke the UNH school record in the 800-meter. Her time of 2:09.42 broke the 2:11.03 record – which has been held by Leighann Carpenter since 2004. She also earned first place in the mile that day with a time of 4:52.79.
Still, when asked about all of those milestones, she refused to take the spotlight.
“Did I mention Chelsey Serrano broke 17 minutes in the 5k this weekend?” she asked.
Despite her relentless love and devotion to her team, Twombly has set one last personal goal for herself.
“Coach thinks I can make first team All-American,” she said. “And if coach thinks that I can, then I think that I can. So I’m going to try to be top eight and make first team All-American.”
Twombly will don the UNH uniform for the last indoor track meet of her collegiate career this weekend as she represents her beloved team in the women’s mile race at the NCAA championship.