Three Schools And Two Sports Led Grayson Murphy To The Top Of NCAA XC
Murphy, a college sophomore at the time, was on the drive to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park where the Santa Clara team was about to race. The experience marked a first in a series of pivotal firsts for the talented rookie.
She's come a long way since then.
Three years later, Murphy is an All-American for the University of Utah and just averaged 5:16 per mile at her latest cross country race, in which she finished second to No. 1-ranked Ednah Kurgat at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational.
Just a few months before that 2014 race in San Francisco, Murphy had starred as a striker for the Sweet Briar College soccer team. She was used to playing 90-minute games and had no concept of how cross country races began. Remembering this, her coach looked at his new walk-on in disbelief and told her to simply follow her teammates. When the race started, Murphy did just that. But as her team approached the first mile in 5:50, Murphy was overcome with excitement. The only timed mile she had ever run before was the 9th grade P.E. test, in which she ran 6:10 with no training. Knowing this, Murphy made a comment that she now looks back on with a slight cringe.
"I remember in the race saying out loud, 'Wow! I've never broken six minutes in the mile before!' And everyone around me was like, 'What?'" Murphy recalled with a laugh. "Looking back, I would hate me if I was around and heard that."
She eventually placed 23rd in the race and became the first of her Santa Clara teammates to cross the finish line.
At 6 years old, Murphy found her identity as a soccer player. With natural speed and endurance, she played in the positions that required constant movement -- forward and midfield.
Murphy never considered that her natural speed on the soccer field would translate to the track, even though there were several signs early on. After the promise shown from the 9th grade mile, Murphy and her twin sister were convinced to compete in one track meet during their senior year at West High School in Salt Lake City.
In her very first track meet, Murphy clocked 1:00.50 in the 400m and 2:24.40 in the 800m. Both performances qualified her for the Utah state meet, but Murphy had no interest in starting a track career at that point. She was a soccer player, after all.
"At my school, track was the sport that people did if they couldn't do anything else," she said. "I thought it was some lame thing."
Murphy eventually took her soccer talents to Sweet Briar College, a Division III school in Virginia. But she quickly realized that the team wasn't a good fit based on her own personal goals. As Murphy described it, she was very intense when it came to training, but at Sweet Briar academics came first and sports were secondary.
"I think I had a lot of expectations for it because that was what I was," she said. "I was a soccer player. My goal was to play in college and when I got there it wasn't all that I built it up to be. I kind of had an identity crisis.
"I was not the best version of myself that I wanted to be. I was just getting really stressed out, getting hung up on things, and not having fun with it. I think that was the biggest thing, I just realized that I wasn't having fun anymore so why would I keep putting all of this time and energy into this thing that I'm not enjoying?"
The decision to quit soccer and leave Sweet Briar was a difficult one, but once Murphy made the choice, she was all in. Searching for a good engineering program, she found Santa Clara University, a Division I private school in Northern California. She transferred in the fall of 2014 and immediately looked for ways to get involved on campus.
"I joined the track team at Santa Clara because I didn't want to be in a sorority," Murphy said. "I was done with soccer, just really burnt out, but I still wanted to be in athletics -- so I asked if I could walk on. It was more of a social thing, and I really didn't like it very much at first because it was really hard. But it's slowly grown to where I truly enjoy it."
She was done with soccer, but her competitive spirit still gravitated toward athletics. Drawing confidence from that 9th-grade mile, Murphy believed she could pick up cross country fairly easily. It was a turning point that directed her to the sport she had rejected for so many years.
Her introduction to cross country training was a rude awakening. In the summer, Murphy had worked her way up to running 20 miles a week, but found herself as the slowest runner on the Santa Clara team. In the first month of training, she couldn't finish an 80-minute long run, which at that point was four miles longer than she had ever run before. She may have been the slowest runner on the team, but she was even more stubborn.
"I'm pretty stubborn," she said. "I'm not satisfied with being bad or mediocre. It was my own stubbornness that got me over the hump."
Murphy kept chipping away in training and eventually started to see big results in races. By November 2014, she was 36th in the West Coast conference championships. In the spring of 2015, Murphy made her debut in the steeplechase with a time of 11:03 and eventually cut it down to 10:41 by the end of the track season.
During the 2015 fall cross country season, she finished 15th at conference and 64th at the NCAA West region championships. By the spring of 2016, Murphy dropped nearly 20 seconds in the steeplechase and almost a minute and half in the 5K.
The progression inspired her and added to the growing enjoyment of running. Soon Murphy realized that she wanted to compete for a school where she could excel even more as a runner in a strong team environment.
She finally found the perfect academic and athletic fit in her hometown of Salt Lake City at the University of Utah.
With momentum gained from a breakthrough 2016 track season, Murphy earned a 53rd-place finish in her first NCAA cross country championship last fall. She experienced another breakthrough during the 2017 indoor season when she ran a massive personal best of 15:53 in the 5K and qualified for the NCAA indoor championships. During the outdoor season, she blasted a 9:53 steeplechase PR and finished fifth in the NCAA outdoor final.
This fall marks Murphy's fourth cross country season of her career, and she is already off to a stunning start with a fourth-place finish at the Notre Dame Invitational and a runner-up finish in Wisconsin. Looking back at the girl who was excited to run 5:50 in her first race, Murphy can't help but appreciate the process and the strides she has made in a relatively short amount of time, but she still realizes that the progress has been a war of attrition.
"There's a good quote," she said, "and I think it's from Alexi Pappas. It goes, 'We're building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.' You can't just expect to build this beach all at once. It has to be really slow and steady, but if you take the time to be slow and steady, you'll get the results that you want."