The night before their 1500-meter race at the Mid-American Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships on May 12, University of Toledo senior distance runners Janelle Noe and Petronela Simiuc came to coach Linh Nguyen with a plan.
“The night before, [Noe] and Petronela came to me to talk race strategy,” Nguyen said. “They said, ‘We want to make this a good, hard race.’
“I wasn’t really on board with it at first. I thought you kind of sacrifice yourself sometimes when you do that. But I finally said, ‘I trust you, and you can do what you want to do.’ ”
UT runner Janelle Noe leads the pack during the 1500-meter race at the MAC championships with teammate Petronela Simiuc right behind.
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Before the race, Nguyen heard the MAC record time rattled off at the track and thought to himself there would be no way it would go down that day based on how he expected the race to play out.
But 4 minutes, 17.01 seconds later, Noe finished the race in a MAC record time, followed closely in second place by Simiuc in 4:18.73, which also broke the previous meet record of 4:21.11 established by Akron’s Beata Rudzinska in 2004.
“It was a classic case of the coach getting out of the athletes’ way and letting them do what they know,” Nguyen said. “Very rarely in any sport do you have things work out perfectly, and that race really worked out perfectly for us. It was super exciting.”
The performances helped UT finish third at the MAC meet, its second-best finish in program history.
For Noe, it was the culmination of an excellent senior season and a significant achievement after working her way back from a horrific accident in January, 2016, when she was severely burned from head to toe at an off-campus house party.
Last year, in her first full year back from the incident, Noe labored in the 1500 MAC final with a time of 4:47.35, which was second to last in the final heat.
With a full year of consistent training, however, Noe lowered her 1500 time by 30 seconds and smashed a conference record in the process.
“The 1500 is such a competitive event, and especially at the MAC meet, it’s not usually run that fast,” said Noe, a Sylvania native and Northview graduate. “It was such an old record because a lot of the times the 1500 turns out to be a tactical race and the first couple of laps are slow.
“Through the entire race I felt strong and I was just waiting for someone to come up behind me because that’s what normally happens. But I felt really good and tried each lap to push myself to go faster.”
Sophomore Athena Welsh said she was on the team bus during the 1500 race. When she heard that Noe broke the record, she teared up because she was so excited.
“There’s no one that deserves that accomplishment more than Janelle,” Welsh said. “That was just amazing, and it got me pumped up for my race.”
Nguyen and Noe each credit the ability to train consistently in significantly lowering Noe’s time from last year to this year.
“She had a lot of lower leg and foot injuries early in her career,” Nguyen said. “She never was never able to string together a solid section of training. Last year she was getting back into shape, and I know she was getting frustrated by a lot of her results. She wanted to be further along than she was. I was trying to preach patience with her.
“She put together over a year of solid training, and combining that with her talent level, you get what you’ve seen this year.”
Noe’s MAC championship time is good enough to qualify as the 11th seed in the 1500 at the NCAA East prelims, while Simiuc’s time is good for the 14th seed.
All season long, Toledo has had one of the best distance groups in the conference, and that shows with six distance runners qualifying for the NCAA prelims, beginning Thursday in Tampa.
UT steeplechase athletes Athena Welsh, left, and Stephanie Barlow compete at the MAC championship meet. Each has posted a top-100 national time this year and will compete at the NCAA preliminary meet.
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Aside from Noe and Simiuc, Welsh and Stephanie Barlow qualified in the steeplechase, and Jennifer Lichter and Joan Jepkirui qualified in the 10,000 meters.
Joining the distance runners in Tampa will be Yana Khabina in the 400 hurdles.
The distance group spends a lot of time together and has developed a close bond through training and working toward a similar goal.
“These are the girls that I train with for all cross country and all indoor track and all outdoor track,” Welsh said. “We all work so hard, and every single one of these girls deserves it. It’s really cool to be able to go [to Tampa] with them and they definitely keep me motivated.”
Lichter, who qualified for NCAA prelims her freshman season, said it will be nice to have such a large group of teammates competing together in Tampa at one of the two regional meets across the country.
“I think last time I went, we only had like four girls total,” Lichter said. “So having all these girls with me, a lot of them are really close to me, it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be awesome.”
Twelve competitors from each event qualify for the NCAA championship meet June 8-11 in Eugene, Ore.
“With prelims, you have to focus on the first day and trying to make it to the second day, and then from there you try and qualify for nationals in Oregon,” Noe said. “Really it’s just focusing on running the best I can. You never know what’s going to happen with the 1500, but of course it would be awesome to make it out to the finals.”
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