By STEPHEN MAZZONE
The size of a runner’s heart is often easy to measure. All one needs to do is witness how that person performs during the most adverse situations; when the stars are not always aligned.
On more than a few occasions Molly Grabill, a senior from Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, has shown that her heart may often seem as big as her home state of California.
As a tenth-grader, Grabill came down with a severe case of the flu only weeks before her state championship meet. Despite being limited to no training, Grabill mustered enough internal strength to win her league title and sectionals and then placed a courageous sixth at the states.
Forward to 2010 and once again Grabill was zapped by an ill-timed sickness, a stomach flu at the start of her fall campaign. No problem, though. The determined runner won a tight race over Torrey Pines High senior Billmeyer on Sept. 18 to defend her title at the Mount Carmel/Movin’ Shoes Invitational at Balboa Park, breaking her own course record with a time of 14 minutes, 36 seconds for 2.7 miles. Billmeyer also smashed the previous record of 14:55, taking second at 14:43.
(Photo left by Gabriel Santana; Grabill at the Mt. Carmel Invitational)
A week later, Grabill copped the top prize at the Nike Pre-Nationals in Portland Meadows, Oregon, holding off junior Sarah Reiter of Lindbergh (Wash.) High with a fast, early-season time of 17:42.84 for 5K.
“I would say one of her strengths is she is just so tough,” said head coach Terry Dockery. “She doesn’t break down. She’s pretty determined.”
Healthy or not, Grabill has consistently put herself on the national radar since her freshman year in 2007. Dockery, who has coached for 20-plus years, including the last few at Rancho Bernardo, already knew the potential star he would have before she even began her high school career.
“She ran at the middle school right near the high school and I could see it,” he said. “They would be out running and she was ahead of all the boys.”
Grabill continues to run with the boys at the high school, only this time it’s for training purposes at the San Diego school. She generally averages about 40-50 miles per week, running a pace in the seven-minute range.
“She handles it well,” Dockery said. “She’s pretty competitive out there.”
Grabill comes into her final season at Rancho Bernardo after a stellar junior year where she captured her first individual title at the CIF California Cross-Country State Meet and then capped off her school year by winning the 3,200-meter run at the outdoor championships, running a PB of 10:27.97.
With her eyes now firmly set on the uneven terrain, she’s looking for a suitable farewell in cross country, one that will include another state crown and an improvement on her finish from last year’s Foot Locker Nationals, where the fleet-footed harrier placed 12th overall. She won the West Regionals six days earlier.
(Photo right by Margot Kelly; Grabill crossing the finish line at Foot Locker Nationals)
“I was kind of bummed with my performance at Foot Locker,” she admitted. “Hopefully this year I can do better. I just want to be able to stay consistent with training and racing, especially when it gets to the states. I just want to be able to compete.”
Grabill couldn’t have asked for a better start this fall with her dual wins at Mount Carmel and the Nike Pre-Nationals. She ran head-to-head with Billmeyer at Mount Carmel before pulling away in the late stages of the race.
“It was definitely a confidence-booster, especially after the sickness,” Grabill stated. “Before every race I get nervous. I guess I just thrive off the pressure.”
At Nike Pre-Nationals, Grabill posted a nearly 18-second win over Reiter.
“I was able to keep a low profile at Nike,” she admitted. “That meet I wasn’t really too concerned. I just wanted to get into the swing of things.”
Dockery feels Grabill has made a steady progression since her freshman year. He’s watched her mature into a more powerful runner, despite only increasing her mileage base by about 15 miles per week.
“She looks stronger. She’s a different type of runner,” he said. “(As a freshman) she was just really light and quick on her feet. By her sophomore year, she was still quick only with more power. She also has amazing aerobic capacity.”
Grabill doesn’t have to look too far when it comes to competition. California boasts four runners among the top 18 on the Milesplit national rankings. Grabill is currently No. 3 on the list. Billmeyer ranks No. 7, Acardia High senior Catrina McAlister is No. 8 and Palos Verdes High junior Rebecca Mehra stands at No. 18.
“The competition is always good in California,” Grabill said. “It keeps me on my toes.”
Dockery believes his young harrier can crack 17-minutes at the state meet, which takes place at Woodward Park in Fresno on Nov. 27. In last year’s meet, Grabill clocked a best of 17:06. California has only had two runners dip under the magical mark in its history.
“I think it would be an honor to be on that list,” she said.
Following states is the Foot Locker West Regional on Dec. 4 at Mount Sac Stadium in Walnut, Calif., and then the Foot Locker Nationals on Dec. 11 at Balboa Park, a mere 25-minute drive from her high school. It’s a course she estimates she has run on at least nine different occasions, including at Mount Carmel last month.
“I have raced it multiple times. I know where to pick it up and where to work the hills,” Grabill said. “I’m thinking definitely a top-three finish.”