Photo: There has never been an NCAA 800 meter final, indoor or outdoor, without Heather Dorniden in her three years at Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Gopher Athletics.
By Sarah Barker
Here’s something middle-distance runner Heather Dorniden has learned about falling: If you have to decide whether or not to get up, it’s already too late. The Gopher track star put on a riveting demonstration of this lesson at the 2008 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championship when she tripped and fell, hard, with 200 meters to go in the 600-meter run. She bounced up without missing a beat and went from flat on her face to a full-out gallop, catching and passing the rest of the field to win by a lean at the tape. “I knew team points were close, so there was never any doubt that I would finish the race,” says Dorniden, a senior who has earned a 3.9 GPA in kinesiology. “Luckily it was a home meet, so my whole team, my parents, and fans gave me so much energy. I heard the announcer say, ‘Watch out for Heather Dorniden.’ I thought, yeah, watch out for Heather.”
Running fans have been watching out for Dorniden since she burst onto the collegiate scene in 2006, winning the indoor 800-meter national championship as a freshman. But even as she racked up accolades—she is Minnesota’s only national champion, a seven-time All-American and the Gophers’ most decorated women’s track athlete—she somehow felt like it had been too easy, that she was just some girl from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, who was the undeserving beneficiary of a great gift. This feeling of being a really lucky interloper stuck even as she qualified to run this past summer in the Olympic Track Trials in Eugene, Oregon, the vetting grounds for the U.S. team. She ran 2:05 in the semifinal of the 800-meter race, placing sixth in her heat. “It wasn’t until afterward that I felt like I could take credit for being there,” she says. “It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I worked for it and I felt like I belonged there. Next time, I’ll run like it.”
Dorniden muses about breaking the elusive two-minute barrier in the 800-meters, which some consider track’s toughest event because it requires the raw speed of a sprint and the endurance to maintain that pace for two circuits of an outdoor track. The cruel truth about this event is that theoretical math doesn’t add up when it comes to actual performance. Dorniden, like most elite practitioners of the middle distances, can run 400 meters in 54 seconds; thus, putting two 59-second 400s together would seem, if not exactly comfortable, at least
doable. But Dorniden’s personal record is 2:01.05. “In retrospect, I could always have run faster. There is always a moment in a race when I have settled—maybe I waited to pass someone on the straight rather than the curve—and that cost a couple of tenths. I would like to run a race where I don’t settle,” she says.
Photo: The U women's cross country team won their second consecutive Big Ten title November 2 with Heather Dorniden, bottom row, far right, as one of their top seven runners. Photo courtesy of Gary Wilson, Big Ten women's corss country coach of the year.
The second daughter of Frank and Connie Dorniden, Dorniden’s strong Christian faith motivates and carries her. “Like getting up from that fall. There’s no way I could have done that on my own,” she says. A natural athlete, she is strong of body and long of leg—attributes she initially put to use in high school gymnastics. Part of her training involved sprinting with the coach down the halls. “I had to give the coach a head start,” Dorniden says. “The gymnastics coach said, ‘You should really give track a try.’ ” While the thought of circling a track was not immediately appealing, Dorniden has learned to appreciate the simplicity of running. “There can be a million things going on around you but when the gun goes off, all you have to do is run. It’s simple but I’ve never gotten bored with it. Our bodies are so amazing; it’s like an experiment. I just want to see what I can do.”
Turns out, she can do a lot. “When [head track coach] Matt Bingle recruited Dorni she only had about the 38th fastest 800 time in the country,” says assistant track coach Gary Wilson. “That was partly because, in every meet, she was running two, three, or four events. Some runners want to save their energy for what they feel is their specialty. Dorni is willing to run wherever she’s needed. If there’s a more unselfish team player around, I’ve yet to meet her.” She prefers to chase the clock rather than chase wins. “Winning depends on how others in the race are feeling that day. Pace is something I can control. A lot of 800 runners like to run easy for a lap-and-a-half and then sprint. I like to keep things honest and run pretty even splits,” Dorniden says.
Dorniden was recruited by a number of top universities but chose the U so that her biggest fans, her parents, could come to her meets, and for the program’s alignment with her own values: family first, then academics, then sports. “I was put on this earth for my family; they’re my foundation. I’m here at the University for a great education. Running is the cherry on top,” Dorniden says.
On track to graduate in December 2009, Dorniden is planning to attend physical therapy school as well as train for the 2012 Olympics post-college. But first she has this year’s indoor and outdoor seasons to look forward to, beginning in January. As badly as she wants to stand on top of the NCAA podium this, her final season, she is determined to focus on time and, she says, “let the championship come to me. I’ve set my goals really high. I intend to go out with a bang.”
Sarah Barker is a St. Paul freelance writer.
- Heather Dorniden
race Heather Dorniden falls and still wins (after 800 coverage
- Dorniden named Big Ten's Most Courageous Athlete
(After football and basketball nominees)