AUSTIN, Texas -- The cost was a bit higher than Caitlin Comfort had hoped for, but there was no denying she still got a good deal.
The Wisconsin senior had to work for her result Thursday at the 2013 NCAA West Preliminary Round, but the investment paid off with an eighth-place finish that has Comfort headed back to the NCAA championships for a second-straight season.
In a race where the objective was simply to finish among the top 12, Comfort crossed the line eighth in the 10,000 meters by clocking a time of 35 minutes, 3.91 seconds. Her teammate, redshirt freshman Gabrielle Anzalone, was 35th in 37:11.70.
Comfort's time -- much slower than the 34:09.99 she ran to finish ninth in 2012 -- was indicative of a much different race than the one run on the same Mike A. Myers Stadium track a year earlier.
“It’s hard because you never know how this race is going to play out,” Comfort said. “At last year’s regional it went out fast and all I had to do was hang on.
“This year was really different. It went out really slow and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I panicked a little bit a few times, tried to get around some people and fell.
In a 25-lap race, however, those brief moments of panic weren’t what defined her effort as a whole.
“I just remained calm and tried to stay composed,” said Comfort, two weeks removed from winning the Big Ten title in the event.
She worked her way to the front only to see the 48-woman field fan out into a long, single-file line. Eventually, around the race’s midway point, the pace picked up and a group of 16 leaders pulled away.
“The race took off at about halfway and I just tried to go when they went,” Comfort said of Iowa State’s Betsy Saina and Wichita State’s Alphine Tuliamuk-Bolton.
Saina won in 34:52.34, with Tuliamuk-Bolton -- the defending race winner -- second in 34:52.71.
“Coach (Jim Stintzi) told me before the race, ‘Don’t do too much work,’” Comfort said. “Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for the first 5K. After the race went, I just tucked in and tried to let some of those girls carry me through.”
After riding around in sixth for most of the race’s second half, Comfort was forced to pick up the pace and protect her qualifying spot when she felt pressure coming up from behind over the final 200 meters. She responded with a strong finish that has her headed back to the NCAA championships.
“I’m just happy to make it to Eugene,” Comfort said. “I want to end on a really high note.”
After coming so close to an All-America finish a year ago when she took ninth, that means cracking the top eight this time around.
“I was one off from scoring a point for my team,” she said. “I’m really going to go for it this year and I’m not going to leave anything behind.”
Comfort’s NCAA bid gives the Badgers at least three athletes headed to Eugene, along with senior Dorcas Akinniyi and junior Deanna Latham in the heptathlon.
Latham looked to qualify in the long jump, as well, but was unable to advance after posting a mark of 19 feet, 1/2 inch in the preliminary round Thursday. She still has a first-round race in the 100 hurdles set for Friday as she looks to add to her itinerary for the NCAA championships.
Also Thursday, a trio of Badgers competed in the hammer throw, with sophomore Angela Boushea leading the way at 187 feet, 9 inches to take 27th overall. Junior Abby Lueck was just a centimeter behind to take 28th, though the official conversion lists her at the same 187-9 mark. Senior Taylor Smith was 34th with an effort of 184-11.