Cayla Hatton didn’t know she was going to run the mixed-gender 10,000 meters on Saturday in the Snowflake Classic at Tufts University until three days before the race. She’d never run that distance before, so she and her coach made a conservative guess and marked “37 minutes” for her entry time.
For twenty-five laps through the chilly, damp air in Somerville, Mass., the senior from Phillips Academy (Andover, Mass.) maintained contact with a group of male runners and crossed the finish line in 33:17.28 – second fastest in U.S. prep history.
In just over half an hour, Hatton became one of the most intriguing runners in the country.
“I honestly had no expectation in terms of time,” she said. “I was running (the race) because I wanted to try out a 10K. Since I’d been injured for so long, I had no idea what distance would be my best. I wanted to try everything from the 800 to the 10K.”
Hatton has resurfaced as a major talent after two years of injury and physical therapy wiped out her sophomore and junior seasons. As an eighth grader, she won the USATF Youth Outdoor title in the 3,000 meters and as a high school freshman ran 4:38.30 for 1500.
In the fall of her sophomore year (2009), Hatton was playing for the Phillips Academy soccer team when she began to notice pain and inflammation in her right glute. She played through it and tried to heal the injury with some rest.
“The first track meet I did (in 2010) was a 3,000 and it hurt again,” she said. The injury cut short her sophomore season and then an injury to her left hip kept her out of the 2011 track season.
Hatton said that her doctor told her there was a structural problem, that she had “retroverted cups” in her hip joint. The doctor adviser her that running would only lead to more pain and injury.
That news took Hatton to a new low.
“I went through all the phases of mourning,” she said. “I remember being so upset, so angry at (the doctor). I was in denial. But I also think the whole experience made me realize how much I love running. Before, it was soccer, and running was just a hobby. When (running) was taken away I realized how much I missed it.”
Entering the ‘torture chamber’
Hatton and her parents sought out a second opinion from a physical therapist who saw something else: Imbalances and weaknesses in her muscles causing problems with her running mechanics, leading to the injuries.
Hatton began daily physical therapy sessions to build up the strength in her quads.
“The exercises are easy, but mentally it’s very hard to do them because they are so repetitive, these boring exercises you do every day,” she said. “There was this sign on the door that said ‘Torture Chamber,’ but when I look back now it was so worth it.”
By last summer, Hatton was running pain free. On Sept. 5, she ran the Stratton Faxon New Haven 5K road race and covered the distance in 17:24. In a race with more than 3,200 runners, she was 17th overall and was the first female to finish (by more than two minutes).
“That was a big moment for me, because I hadn’t been in a race for so long,” she said.
Hatton began running with the Andover Phillips cross country team, but her physical therapy sessions made it difficult to stay in sync with the team’s schedule. It quickly became apparent that she would be better off training independently.
Hatton considered entering the Nike Northeast regional meet, but then had second thoughts.
“All fall I went by feel,” she said. “My goal was to stay healthy.”
Hatton works with Boston Running Center coach Joe McConkey. Over the winter, her mother drove up from Connecticut and made the two-hour drive to pick her daughter up from the private boarding school and take her to Boston for indoor workouts with her coach.
On Feb. 4, Hatton entered the mile at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston. She went head-to-head with some of the nation’s elite runners, pushing out to a big early lead and then finished second in 4:51.37. (She was passed late by Delaware’s Haley Pierce).
A week later, Hatton arrived in St. Louis, Mo. and entered the open women’s 8,000-meter race at the USATF Cross Country Championships. She placed a respectable 13th overall as the youngest athlete in the field, running 28:26.
Why not run the junior race instead?
“Well, I wanted to have some really strong competition and I wanted to have the experience of racing Molly Huddle and Sara Hall,” Hatton said. “It was not even about winning, but I just wanted that experience of running with these women. Someday I’d like to be like them.”
Preparing for Stanford
Until last Saturday, the 8K was the longest race Hatton had ever attempted. She runs 50-60 miles a week under the supervision of McConkey, and does long runs of 13-15 miles.
“She’s been doing freshman Division I-type training,” said McConkey. “She does most of her training by herself; she’s doing the long stuff on her own.”
It is also preparing her for the leap to college training. Hatton has signed with Stanford and will join one of the country's top programs in the fall. (Andover Phillips Academy, founded in 1778, routinely sends graduates to Harvard, Yale and other top-tier universities).
Hatton had it in mind to find a 5,000 meters and try to chase the B qualifying standard for the Olympic Trials when the opportunity for the 10K popped up.
The 10,000 meters is not a common distance at the high school level, but it is the longest contested race on the track at the Olympic Games. Top high school talents in the U.S. normally don’t even attempt it until they reach college.
The national record prep record, held by North Carolina’s Mary Shea since 1979, is 32:52.5. In the 33 years since then, no one has run it faster than Hatton – though the all-time list behind her includes prep legends like Cathy Schiro, Lesley Welch, Erin Davis, and Melody Fairchild. She also earned the Olympic Trials B standard, meaning there is a chance she could compete at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. against the best women in the country.
Hatton split nearly identical 16:38s back-to-back.
“I know my first lap was 82 (seconds) and maybe two other (82s) were sprinkled in,” she said. “I found myself dropping down to 79, and felt good, so I decided to go with it. I think (my coach) thought I was making a big mistake.”
McConkey was wondering if running faster-than-prescribed laps near the start would come back and haunt Hatton later on, but by the fourth mile she was still running smoothly.
“We certainly had seen hints of what’s possible, but we’ve not catered her training specifically to the 10K,” he said. “(The 10K) was such an unknown thing for us because she’s still running on the strength she gained from cross country.”
Incidentally, as Hatton lined up on the starting line with a group of small-college men and women, she didn’t know anybody in the race. And it was obvious that no one knew her, either.
“It was funny,” she said. “The starter said at the beginning, ‘You (women) stay together for me so the lap counting is easy.’” She had no idea how fast she would go, but she knew she wasn’t going to hang back to make life easier for the lap-counter.
Over the course of 25 laps, Hatton passed every woman in the race at least five times. She managed to stay on the lead lap with the men to the very end.
Hatton said her successful debut at 10K won’t change the way she views her running, or her goals.
“I can’t wait to run shorter distances again, though I have no idea how I’ll do at them,” she said. “I’d say my goal in the 5K is (Trials B standard) 15:50.”
After two years of disappointment and the fear that she would never run competitively again, Hatton is still processing her 25-lap breakthrough at the Snowflake Invitational.
"It's still sinking in," she said.