May 9, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
s the reigning Big Ten women's indoor champion in the 5000 meters, Wisconsin's Caitlin Comfort recognizes that things are different now. "I know people will be gunning for me,'' she said.
Going into this weekend's outdoor conference championships at Ohio State, the 23-year-old Comfort has adjusted her mindset accordingly to compete in the 5K and 10,000 meters.
"I have a target on my back and it's exciting,'' said Comfort, a senior from Peoria, Ill. "I've been the hunter a lot -- especially as a fifth-year senior -- I've been hunting for a long time.''
Comfort is not a complete stranger to expectations. She first dealt with them during her sophomore year at Notre Dame High School when she was forced to choose between soccer and track.
"My first love, I would say, was soccer; I grew up playing travel soccer,'' said Comfort, who ran cross country in the fall and played varsity soccer in the spring of her freshman year.
"The next year, I ended up doing well in cross country (third in the state meet) and our track coach talked to me about coming out. He asked, `Is your future in soccer? Or is it in track?'''
That had to be tough call for someone so young.
"It was and it wasn't,'' Comfort said. "It was because I had to give up something I loved and had been a part of my life for awhile. But I realized running was in my future not soccer.''
Nobody was happier with the choice than her mother.
"I want to say I weighed about 85 pounds as a freshman and I was getting knocked around on the soccer field,'' she said. "My mom would come to my games and see me get tackled or knocked over.
"It made it (the decision) easier. My mom was relieved.''
Comfort's passion for track grew as she enjoyed more and more success. She became a three-time conference champion and her school's record-holder in the 800, 1600 and 3200 meters.
She continued to develop and flourish in cross country, too. As a senior, she won the 2006 Illinois Class AA state title after placing second in the championship meet the year before.
|"I think it did a lot for my confidence knowing I could go out there and throw the hammer down and come out with the win," Comfort said of her indoor Big Ten title.
"After my sophomore year, I realized that this was something I could pursue in college,'' said Comfort, who attended the annual Wisconsin Camp of Champions the summer prior to her junior year in high school.
"Driving around campus, I fell in love with it and I didn't even have to get out of the car,'' she recalled fondly.
Beyond that comfort level, there was just so much more Wisconsin had to offer.
And it all crystallized she said after meeting coach Jim Stintzi and "some of the girls on the team and hearing more about the program and the school's history'' making for an easy decision.
After redshirting as a UW freshman, Comfort hunted titles in both cross country and track. "I have been close,'' she acknowledged. "I've been really close, and it's rough falling short.''
In the 2011 Big Ten cross country meet, Comfort led the race with just over a mile to go but was out-kicked by Penn State's Caitlin Lane, who won her first conference title. Comfort was second.
In 2012, she placed third in the outdoor 10K in Madison and earned second-team All-America honors at the NCAA championships by running a personal-best 33:19.54. But she saved the best for last.
In her final Big Ten indoor meet, she won the 5000 meters with a time of 16:11.84. All things considered, she was asked if it would be fair to say that it was the "breakthrough'' race in her career?
"It kind of was,'' she said. "I didn't run my fastest time in the 5K but, overall, I think it did a lot for my confidence knowing I could go out there and throw the hammer down and come out with the win.''
That's partly why the target is on Comfort's back for this weekend's competition in Columbus. "My coach's expectations have always been high,'' she said, "but they're especially high now.''
|Comfort won her first Big Ten title by running away from the field early in the 5000 meters at the Big Ten indoor championships in February.
During his Monday news conference, Stintzi was quizzed on Comfort doubling in the Big Ten meet and he replied, "I don't want to put a lot of undue pressure on Caitlin ...''
Then he did by confiding, "I think she could win both the 5K and 10K. I think she's the best long distance runner in the conference if you look year-in and year-out ... I think she's ready to go.''
There was a discrepancy, and it was brought to his attention. How could Stintzi explain Comfort being ranked fifth outdoors in the 5K given that she's the reigning indoor champion in the event?
"She's only run it one time (outdoors) and it was a real controlled race,'' he said, citing Comfort's fourth-place finish at the elite Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational on the Stanford track in late April.
"That's one of the gambles we've taken,'' Stintzi went on. "We haven't raced Caitlin very much. It's a really, really long year for a distance runner.''
Comfort admitted that she had "something going on with my foot'' earlier this year.
"Normally, I race at the end of March at Stanford,'' she said. "That's normally a great race to run fast and get a qualifying time for (NCAA) regionals. That was kind of a setback early on.
"But I was able to go back out to Stanford (for Payton Jordan) and run the 5K and get a good time (16:18.05) under my belt to give me a little confident going into the Big Tens.''
On the difference between running the 5K indoors and outdoors, she said, "There might be a difference strategically on how people race, but for the most part it's always going to be a fast race.''
At the Big Ten indoor meet, she didn't hold back. "I just ran,'' she said. "I wanted it to be an honest race and I went out hard and tried to hang on and finish strong, which I did.''
|"You have to be physically fit in the 10K, but a lot of it is mental.You have to be mentally tough and confident in your abilities,'' Comfort said.
Will she take a similar approach outdoors? "I'm just going to race,'' she promised. "I don't really have any certain strategy. I'm going to feel it out. You don't really know until the gun goes off.''
By contrast, there's much more strategy involved with a 10K.
"I've been talking to my coach a little bit,'' she said, "and we're strategizing right now and trying to play out a few different scenarios. You have to be physically fit in the 10K, but a lot of it is mental.
"You have to be mentally tough and confident in your abilities.''
That would play to Comfort's strength. Besides growing up with three brothers, she bussed tables at her dad's restaurant in Peoria. "We're a pretty competitive, hard-working family,'' she said.
Comfort does not know what the distant future might hold competitively. "I've thought of pursuing post-collegiate racing and maybe hopping on with Olympic development groups,'' she said.
Her more immediate future has already been determined. "I've got the opportunity to be a volunteer coach here next year,'' said Comfort, a communications major who will graduate this month. "I want to pursue a career in coaching.''
Before then, she would like to expand her resume. "If I were to win a Big Ten title (outdoors) in the 5K or 10K,'' she said, "it would be icing on the cake.''
More than anything else, she emphasized, "I want to do the best I can individually to score points for my team first and foremost.''
That would be her target for the Big Ten meet. Others will target her.
"I just have to hang tough and be confident,'' she reiterated.