LINCOLN — Nebraska senior distance runner Jessica Furlan knows just how hard it is to fill the shoes of Husker star Ashley Miller, the three-time All-American and four-time conference champion who graduated last year.
As Miller’s training partner, Furlan sees those shoes every day. Miller lived with Furlan for the first semester. They ran together, cooked together, talked shop together.
“We had really similar personalities,” Furlan said. “We kind of work off of each other’s strengths in training. It’s nice. We’ve become really close.”
Furlan would love to have similar results at this weekend’s Drake Relays in Des Moines when she competes Saturday in the 1,500-meter race. Miller set the Drake Relays record last year in the 1,500.
“Hopefully, I can repeat,” Furlan said.
Her specialty, though, is the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the obstacle-dotted race that combines distance running, cross country and hurdling to make for a grueling experience. Her time of nine minutes, 58.52 seconds at the Mt. Sac Relays last weekend moved her to first in the Big Ten, third in the NCAAs and No. 2 all-time at Nebraska.
It also won her Big Ten Track Athlete of the Week honors. She found out, she said, on Twitter.
NU’s No. 1 all-time steeplechase runner, Ann Gaffigan, played a key role in Furlan, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan, competing at NU. Furlan chose to run the steeplechase early in her high school career, and given the tough, interdisciplinary nature of it, “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. So her mom, Kerry Avery, looked for some tips on the Internet.
They found a website — SteepleChics.com — that Gaffigan helped create. Gaffigan, whose time of 9:39.35 set a then-American record in 2004, offered some hurdle exercises to get Furlan started. Eventually, Furlan picked Nebraska.
She’s made dramatic improvements on her times in the last year. At the 2012 Big Ten Championships, she finished 21st after running the race in 10:52.25. She’s sliced nearly a minute off already, and the Mt. Sac race was her first steeplechase of the year.
“Usually your first race is pretty slow,” she said. That gives her confidence that faster times are to come at the Big Ten and NCAA meets. Then, she hopes to qualify for the 2013 World Championships.
To do it, she’ll have to run at least the “B standard” of 9:48. She fell short of qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics in part, she said, because she didn’t keep good enough track of her iron levels. Women’s runners, Furlan said, lose a bit of iron with each step they run, and eating foods rich in the supplement — like red meat and dark greens — helps resolve the problem.
“I don’t think I really fully thought I could do it,” Furlan said of qualifying last year. “I tried hard, but there were things I needed to be on top of if I had really wanted to make it.”
Furlan’s locked in now, she said. And food is on her brain. Thursday before she left for the Relays, she had to present her senior thesis in environmental studies. Her topic: The labeling requirements of organic foods.
“It’s pretty interesting to me,” Furlan said with a laugh. It would be, considering her goals.
Notes: Most of the NU men (ranked No. 15 nationally) and women will compete at the Drake Relays, which begin the main part of events Friday. Husker throwers will travel to the Triton Invitational in San Diego.
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