#10. Race of the Day -- McArthur vs. Murphy Rivalry Heats up Again in 6A Girls 800 -- the Back Story behind the Rematch
At last spring's 5A/6A state final, there was little question as to which race was the most exciting, with most observers citing the 6A girls' 3200 duel between Patriot's Rachel McArthur and Lake Braddock's Kate Murphy -- one that ended with an all-out sprint to the finish, a lean by both runners and a .04 second difference between the two. In the end, McArthur won with a 10:19.91 to Murphy's 10:19.95.
As the state meet concluded this year, famed Yankee catcher and butcher of the human language, Yogi Berra, may have called the rematch on Saturday "déjà vu all over again." Once again, McArthur and Murphy competed in arguably the most exciting race of the day, and once again, McArthur won by the slimmest of margins.
Yet two facts remain certain. The race itself was not the same, and the two athletes' paths to this day were remarkably unparallel.
June 6, 2015
Minutes after their historic showdown at Todd Stadium, both Kate Murphy and Rachel McArthur are talking to several reporters next to the Gatorade stand at the far end of the straightaway. They agreed that theirs was one heck of a race, and yes, they were somewhat surprised by the fast time of 10:19. One question emerged -- "Both of you are sophomores. Do you think you two can break 10 minutes in the 3200?"
There was a pause. Eventually, McArthur spoke. "It should be interesting."
It wasn't going to happen that summer. McArthur went on to compete in the Golden South Classic, where she won the open mile in 4:48.65, before tapering off three weeks later with a 4:58.12 at the Adidas Grand Prix.
On the other hand, Murphy soared to new levels. First, she won the USATF Junior Nationals with an astounding time of 4:16.98. A month later, she added the title of Pan-American Junior Athletic champion to her resume.
To hear McArthur describe her injury makes it sound like a small deal. "I had a quad injury, and missed a few weeks of cross-country." In fact, the quad "injury" was a tear, and after winning the Conference 6A championship with an 18:22, she missed both the 6A North regional and the 6A state meet. However, she did come back a month after the conference meet to place fifth in the Nike Cross Nationals with a 17:32.90, 32 seconds behind Murphy, who won in just a shade over 17 minutes flat.
Both runners had a rougher go of things at the Nike Cross Nationals, with Murphy placing 16th (17:27.40), and McArthur 41st (18:04.10). However, Murphy finished the season injury-free, an aspect of her young career, which has proven to be a unique blessing. For McArthur, the worst was yet to come.
McArthur entered the indoor season feeling that her previously torn quad was fine, and that she was ready to roar again.
What she didn't expect was that her running career would almost be placed on long-term hold because of a freakish accident.
She is cautious to describe the circumstances. "I had an accident that caused lower back pains -- a fractured sacrum." After gathering her thoughts, McArthur spills the beans. "OK, we were playing around, and my friend jumped on my back."
The sacrum is a triangular bone at the base of the spine that joins to a hipbone on each side. It also forms part of the pelvis. It consists of five fused vertebrae, and to break it is extremely painful.
What may have been more painful was the prognosis of the first doctor she went to see. "He said that I should take ALL of track off, and not to run for a few months. He asked if that would be alright, and I told him, no, I run, that's what I do."
Not satisfied with the first opinion, Rachel and mother Lisa went for a second opinion, and this time the news was better.
"Dr. Moriarty at Haymarket Physical Therapy did a lot to help me," said McArthur. "I couldn't ride a bike because I couldn't use the seat. But I could aqua jog, so the cross-training helped."
However, even running laps in the pool for two months couldn't help to overcome the mental aspect of being out of competition.
"Seeing Kate running great times and just watching was hard. The mental part was the worst thing.
Indeed, Murphy tore up tracks up and down the East Coast, from the Armory and Ocean Breeze facilities in New York City, where she won the Millrose Games girls' high school mile (Armory), while busting out a 2:45.36 in the 1000 on Staten Island, to Virginia, where she blazed to a 4:50.18 win in the 6A North Region 1600.
Nevertheless, McArthur was determined to return and did make it back before the end of indoor season. She made it back for the 6A Conference 8 meet, winning the mile, but in a very uncharacteristic time of 5:26.91.
There was more to the mental aspect than simply coming back.
"I was a little worried," said McArthur. "If there was a little pain at all, I would be back to Square One."
She did improve tremendously in the three weeks leading up to the State meet, and at Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, she placed second to Murphy (by .35 seconds), with a 4:51.96 in the 1600.
But the race that may have proved her fitness level was the girls 4x800, where McArthur, running the final leg and starting in sixth place and 80-meters off the lead, strategically picked off one runner after another, and then finally chased down the final three in the final 100-meters to clinch the unthinkable win for Patriot. Her split of "about 2:10" proved that her leg speed was back to form, even if her endurance was not quite 100%.
However, she had shown her doubters one important thing. "On that last 200, I wanted to prove that I was still mentally in the game," said McArthur.
In Through the Outdoor
McArthur's confidence had improved after the end of indoor season, but she admitted to not being all the way there.
"I went easy and built up through the season. And I have confidence, but I was running easier and as I kept going, I realized it was my mentality," said McArthur, looking back on her mindset in April.
In fact, running in shorter, faster events became more to McArthur's liking. In fact, there would only be two 3200 races this spring (at Gojekian in mid-April and Dogwood in early May). Even Murphy only ran one 3200, at the South County 10-team qualifier.
The thought of a State championship rematch in the 3200 became more remote.
For Murphy, the reason was simple. She had developed into one of America's top high school 1500-meter runners, a point that was validated twice. First, on March 13, she ran 4:39.47 in the full mile to place second at the New Balance Nationals. Then, on May 16th, at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, she torched collegiate and pro competitors, including Marielle Hall, a USA 1500-meter runner at the 2015 World Championships, winning the SWAT Final Qualifier in 4:14.26, the sixth-fastest high school performance of all time.
McArthur's reason for moving out of the 3200 was altering. She had run 10:42, then 10:35 this spring, suggesting that her endurance was close to its peak. However, her speed, shown off by her 2:10 split on the indoor state 4x800 anchor leg, had continued to prosper. She went to Patriot coach Adam Daniels.
"I know that last year's two-mile was hyped up, and that some people think I was trying to avoid running against Kate," said McArthur. "But I wanted to try something new."
Buoyed by a 55-second split on the 1600-meter relay at Southern Track Classic, followed by a 54 at the 6A North regionals, McArthur had a talk with Coach Daniels and asked to run the open 800 at States. With her own 2:10 from earlier in the season, she had met the qualifying time.
"Coach wasn't sure I had the speed for the 800. But I told him I'd prove to him that I did."
Meanwhile, at Lake Braddock, distance coach Mike Mangan was looking to improve his star runner's speed. Murphy's 4:14 in the 1500 at Swarthmore translated to a 4:32-4:33 mile; she was tuning up with some shorter races aimed at improving her leg speed. Murphy clocked a personal best of 2:07.25 for the 800, while winning at the Lake Braddock Hall of Fame meet in mid-April. With the aim being for Murphy to run 4:10 later this summer, the coach and runner opted for the 800 at States.
All of which was unknown to McArthur.
"I wanted to run for fun, and I didn't know that Kate was in it (the 800 race)."
Not that having Murphy in the race took away the fun. But, as McArthur admitted, "Whenever we race, it's always neck and neck. It always comes down to the kick."
But this made for an interesting prospect. With a best time of 2:10, McArthur was now going to find out how fast she could run the 800. With a 54-quarter split speed at her disposal, the margin of improvement was going to be great.
The only question was -- how much greater?
6A Outdoor State Meet -- June 3-4, 2016
The first indicator was due to come on Friday, as the long anticipated girls 4x800 lined up. McArthur and Murphy were running anchor legs for their teams, and Amanda Thomas had the final two laps for Western Branch, setting up a colossal showdown among the three on the final leg.
That matchup never happened in its entirety. Faith Ross helped push the Branch to a huge lead on the second leg, and by the time the baton got to McArthur and Murphy, they were more than a full curve behind Thomas, who pushed through to a new state record of 8:51.61 for Western Branch.
The race for second was active with McArthur outkicking Murphy down the stretch to give Patriot a time of 9:07.86 to Lake Braddock's 9:08.46.
The final splits for the two were in the 2:07 range, lending more anticipation to the open 800 matchup on Saturday, which would become the race of the day.
The 800 race itself was vintage, and mirrored past matchups. Murphy took the lead from the start, and McArthur tucked in behind Murphy's right shoulder. Immediately, the pair separated themselves from the pack, and Murphy pushed the duo through the 400 split in 61-62. McArthur made a move on the backstretch, but Murphy held her off, leaving McArthur to tuck back in to second place and wait until the end of the final turn to make another move.
The sprint down the straightaway was classic, and reminiscent of last year's 3200. Neither runner was willing to give an inch, with Murphy on the inside and McArthur on the outside. All of McArthur's doubt and worry came into play on this final sprint. Would she hold up? Did she think she could carry through?
McArthur recalled the last sprint. "I was in the last 100 meters, and I looked up and saw my Mom (taking pictures for Milestat) on the other side of the finish line. She has supported me all this time, and I wanted to win it for her."
With a final surge, McArthur made a move for the tape, and barely hit it first, out leaning Murphy to win the race in 2:06.55, by far a personal best.
Murphy also beat her best time, running 2:06.70. McArthur was not quite done, running five steps past the line to give Mom a big well-deserved hug.
On this day, McArthur would gain the edge.
Meanwhile, Virginia track fans have one more year to watch one of the most incredible rivalries in high school history.