Lauren Grindstaff and Christian Brewer took tortuous routes to an All-American finish.
Grindstaff placed fifth in the 5,000 meters and Brewer finished seventh in the mile at the NAIA indoor nationals (March 6-8) in Geneva, Ohio. They were exceptional feats under any circumstances, but Grindstaff and Brewer had each given up running at various points of their college careers due to injury-fueled frustration.
Brewer, a junior, began at East Tennessee State. He had third-place finishes in the state as a junior at South Doyle in the mile and cross country, but suffered a broken femur his senior year. Aching and exasperated he didn’t run competitively from April 2011 until August of 2012.
Grindstaff, a senior in grad school for occupational therapy, endured chronic foot pain for years before electing to have surgery in March of 2012. She didn’t compete during the 2012-13 season, and didn’t necessarily plan to ever do so again.
“Lauren had given up running,” Milligan coach Chris Layne said. “She’d gone in to OT school, and unbeknownst to me, her passion was gone. When Christian came to us, I mean, he was in the doldrums. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to do it anymore. So just to see these two do this and then do it a high level was just really special.”
Milligan assistant Josiah Leuenberger, a former ETSU graduate assistant, was key in a return to running for Brewer, who’d heard positive things about Layne. And Brewer’s sister Lauren plays soccer at Milligan.
Still, Brewer second-guessed himself – seemingly every painful stride through mediocrity at times – during his first year back in 2012-13. He was accustomed to 50-mile weeks and early morning hours, but now there was no payoff competitively in terms of results.
“The whole first year getting back in to it was just so hard … physically and mentally,” Brewer said. “I didn’t expect it to be that hard. … I spent the whole first year at a high school level, pretty much.
“The workouts were just killing me (physically), and mentally that made it a lot harder. … I told myself numerous times if I find another scholarship I’m quitting, because this is … too much for me to handle.”
More than a year after her surgery, Grindstaff decided last April that she wanted to return to the sport she began when she was eight.
“She went all in to come back,” Layne said, “and then she did things outside of the sport with her body, her diet, her rest … that’s put her ahead of where we thought she would’ve been.”
Not that it was initially a comfortable dash to glory after surgery.
“It was still a long process,” said Grindstaff, a Dobyns-Bennett alum. “I still had foot pain.”
But there was obvious improvement from prior to surgery when “my body was always working against me.” Grindstaff steadily trimmed times and ended up breaking Marta Zimon’s school record in 5,000 (17:22.49) at nationals, which was the seventh-fastest time among all collegiate runners in Tennessee this year.
“It took a little bit for it to sink in after the race,” Grindstaff said, “but it was really neat … knowing I was All-American and that we had worked so hard to reach those goals and I was going to be able to get my plaque and had the school record. All of that together was kind of overwhelming.”
Watching Grindstaff’s national preliminary run inspired Brewer. And he finished seventh (4:11.68) thanks to clipping nearly five seconds from his previous best. Brewer is now within 2.52 seconds of Philip Rotich’s school record.
“I didn’t expect to get this close at all to it,” Brewer said. “So being 4:11 is phenomenal. … I know if I can keep continuing this I’ll get it (Rotich’s record). I’d like to get that record and some others ones. I think records are meant to be broken. … I’ll expect (Taylor Tafelsky) to break my records as soon as I leave. That’s just how it goes, and it’s so good for the program when these records just keep getting lower and lower.”
Brewer ran a faster indoor mile this year than any Tennessee Volunteer – and any runner in the state other than Middle Tennessee’s Eliud Rutto and Belmont’s Marcus Bridger-Wilkinson.
“To think that I could run at the SEC championships is definitely a weird feeling,” Brewer said.
Brewer is quick to note that he has a big-time coach in Layne, who is also an agent who works with Olympic-caliber clients. Brewer is majoring in sports management, and wants to make a career of track and field in some capacity.
“I always tell people that Coach Layne, for me, is the perfect balance of pushing us and being tough on us and also being smart with us and … knowing what our body needs,” Brewer said. “I couldn’t think of anyone better than him to get me back into it. … He knew when to rest me. He knew when to push me hard.”
You’d be correct in guessing that the energetic, organized Layne is a coffee drinker.
“He’s been huge for me,” Grindstaff said. “He’s always the one that’s most excited … and really gets you to believe in yourself, which for me is always the hardest part.”
Grindstaff’s husband, Seth, also ran for Layne at Milligan. He couldn’t attend the national championships, but watched online.
“The coolest part was just calling him afterward,” Grindstaff said. “He probably understands the most what I go through, just because he’s with me every day and he ran himself and he’s able to see everything I go through. He’s so supportive and so encouraging … and knows how badly I want it and care for it.”
Grindstaff and Brewer are linked by success, as well as sustaining passion, if not rediscovering it, after adversity.
“It’s been really neat seeing the similarities and the comparisons (with us), and to see how hard he’s worked,” Grindstaff said. “And to see that pay off is really, really cool.”
Layne sees several more records within reach for Brewer, and anticipates Grindstaff continuing to climb toward a 17-minute 5,000 meters while making a run at outdoor All-American.
“I still don’t know if I’ve reached my full potential yet,” Grindstaff said. “I mean, I don’t know if I can achieve it all in the next month and a half … but I’m definitely gonna try to get there. So even if I can’t get there, I’ll get as close as I can.
“I never thought – ever really – I’d run 17:20-something either. So I’ve learned to try not to limit myself and just focus on the process each day of making myself better, and just kind of seeing where that goes.”comments powered by Disqus