While her teammates were running the streets and trails of Boise, redshirt junior Marisa Howard spent her winter in the last place she wanted: the pool.
Following a successful 2013 cross country season, Howard entered her winter post-season break excited about the possibilities of the upcoming track season.
While visiting her parents in mid-January earlier this year, Howard began to notice pain in her knee while running. After consulting with the team trainer, Howard took several days off to avoid further injury. After returning to Boise, several days turned to 10 days, and 10 days turned to six weeks.
Over those six weeks, Howard had two MRIs, consulted with two doctors and two physical therapists, and received two cortisone shots, all the while trying to remain confident in the fact that she would be able to compete again.
“I was crying every week it was so awful,” Howard said.
To remain in shape, Howard cross-trained relentlessly, pool running and lap swimming for one to two hours every day.
Her coach, Corey Ihmels, who had dealt with his own set of injuries in his running career empathized with Howard and the frustrations of not being able to do something they loved.
“I tell them when they’re injured, ‘When you drive down the street and see someone running, do you want to get out and punch them in the face?’” Ihmels said. “I don’t want them to go through the things that I’ve gone through.”
With six weeks of treatment and still no improvement, Howard elected to start running again in March in order to not lose her entire outdoor season.
“At first it hurt a lot; I still deal with it today,” Howard said. “To this day we still have no clue what was wrong.”
Despite the pain Howard felt, she continued to train with the goal of qualifying for the national championships— regardless of the setback from her injury.
“I think on my side there was a lot of doubt but everyone else kept reassuring me it would work out,” Howard said.
The confidence from those around her carried Howard through the season, giving her a victory in the steeplechase at the MWC Championships and a runner-up finish in the 5,000-meter.
The NCAA steeplechase final played out perfectly for Howard. A controlled pace that slowly strung out competitors put Howard in fifth place with 500 meters to go.
Going over the water pit with 150 meters remaining, Howard was able to pass Rachel Johnson and Rachel Sorna to take second place – a feat she never could have thought imaginable.
“I tried to get to the finish line as fast as I could,” Howard said. “Afterwards, talking to a lot of people, they said ‘Look at where you came from.’ It was so surreal to get there after not running for six weeks.”
Her second place finish has only added to Howard and Ihmels’ excitement for the future. With both her and NCAA Champion Emma Bates returning for their senior seasons, expectations are high for the Broncos’ cross country team.
For Howard, she now has the confidence and belief that she can be an elite runner. With this confidence, she hopes she can qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.