The Joy of Running: Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino Lets Her Running Do the Talking

Friday, June 07, 2013
Legs churning, lungs burning, arms pumping, she moves with powerful determination, running down the field in front of her. Following a carefully laid out plan, she strikes silently and confidently, with a lethal burst of speed.

The first time you know she’s there, she’s past you. And the next time you see her, she has broken the tape at the finish line — many times breaking a record in the process.

Proud, but humble, she congratulates her opponents on their effort and then — with little commotion — accepts her honors and leaves the stadium — a job well done. Just another successful day in the track life of Dartmouth College distance runner Abbey D’Agostino.

D’Agostino has it all. And she has the times and records to prove it.

The first Big Green woman ever to win an individual NCAA title in any event and the only Ivy League woman ever to win a distance event crown, D’Agostino won the 5,000 meters last June in Des Moines, Iowa, at the 2012 championship meet. She followed that with titles in the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters during this past indoor season, becoming the first American woman ever to win the two events in a career, let alone one weekend during the same championship meet.

Tonight, the Dartmouth junior from Topsfield, Mass., gets to put her startling talent back on the national stage when she runs in the 5,000 meters at the 2013 NCAA outdoor track & field championships at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Race time is 9:15 p.m.

Through it all, D’Agostino has keep her focus and her head, no matter the stakes.

“I try not to take this race any differently than any other,” said D’Agostino in a phone interview earlier this week while on her way to the airport for her flight to Oregon and the national championships.

“I have the confidence in my training and my ability. I try to treat (the race) like just any another 5K.”

But where Abbey D’Agostino is concerned, nothing is run-of-the mill. In fact, every time her shoes hit the track, she has the ability to make history.

For instance, back in April at the Mt. Sac Relays in Walnut, Calif., D’Agostino ran a 15:11.35 to break her own Dartmouth record by eight seconds.

Not only that, but it was the third-fastest time by a college woman ... ever. And, at the time, it was the fastest clocking in the world this year.

Yet as dominant a runner the 21-year-old D’Agostino is today, she was just another member of the incoming freshmen class when she landed on the Hanover campus in the fall of 2010.

Abbey D’Agostino was never much for team sports.

Oh, her father did the daddy thing when she was young and drove her around to soccer practice, but the game never appealed to her. And her parents did little to push her in that direction.

Then one day, as freshman year in high school drew nearer, her mother had a suggestion. A former collegiate runner, Donna D’Agostino urged young Abbey to give running a try. “You have a great time growing up; there’s a camaraderie and friendship that grows out of it. I thought she might enjoy it,” recounted her mother.

While the parents thought it was a good idea, Abbey was not so sure. “I drove her to the first practice, and she didn’t want to get out of the car,” said her father, Eric D’Agostino. “She was anxious, but I calmed her and told her just to try it. In the end, she had a ball, and has been having fun running ever since.”

But having fun is one thing; being a world-class runner is another. And neither parent, both with running backgrounds, saw this one coming.

Following one practice session, the high school cross country coach sidled over to Eric D’Agostino and told him that his daughter was doing pretty well. “So I said, ‘Great.’ Let’s see what happens.”

What happened was that at an early-season meet, the coach told Abbey to run right along with the team’s No. 1 runner. Abbey followed directions to the letter, finishing right behind the top girl.

“I said, ‘Wow, she can really do this,’ ” said her father.

As Abbey grew into the sport, it became apparent that she was physically growing into the sport. Her legs were toned and her lung power was increasing, plus she had two critical elements in her running makeup. First, she had an incredible natural ability. And second, she was extremely coachable.

What she didn’t have was a lot of self-confidence.

Not to worry. Dartmouth was about to come calling.

Maribel Souther knows a little bit about running.

A four-time All-American track and cross country athlete at Dartmouth, Souther was in her role as head coach of the women’s cross country team, pounding the recruiting trail for potential Big Green athletes. One in particular caught her eye — a talented, though undertrained, distance runner from Masconomet Regional High School named Abbey D’Agostino.

“She really wasn’t our top recruit that year,” said Barry Harwick, Dartmouth’s head track & field coach. “She may have been our third or fourth recruit. She had maybe a 5:02 time for the mile, while the No. 1 runner that year came in with a 4:50. But Maribel thought she would be good, so we went on her word.”

It was hard at first, however, to get a true reading on just what this freshman could do. An ankle injury in the first race of the cross country season knocked D’Agostino out of action. It was eerily similar to her high school career, where a breakout sophomore year was followed by an injury that kept her from competing and impressing college coaches.

“I think, actually, the (Dartmouth) injury was a blessing,” said Donna D’Agostino. “Freshman year in any college is so difficult. The injury acted in our favor, because it gave Abbey a few months’ transition to focus on academics.”

D’Agostino eventually made it back to compete in the indoor season, but was not an impact runner. However, as her training workload rose and her running times fell, the Dartmouth coaches began to take notice.

“Abbey is a special kid. You could see how she trained in the morning. Her times were trending up. You could just see she had something,” said women’s cross country coach Mark Coogan, who knows a little bit about elite runners, having been a professional long-distance runner representing the U.S. in the 1996 Olympic marathon.

“The injury made me more motivated,” said D’Agostino. “I really wanted to contribute to the team. I felt it was a transitional year, but I was sure good things were coming.”

You can measure a runner’s stride, but you can’t measure a runner’s heart. And the competitive drive that separates D’Agostino from the rest of the field, began to reap rewards.

That spring, she finished third at the NCAA Championships in the 5,000 meters, earning All-American honors.

“Running became a different priority in my life,” she said. “I never took my running so seriously before. I started taking care of my body. I realized, ‘I can do this.’ ”

As a sophomore, D’Agostino made up for lost time on the cross country trails. She became the first Dartmouth woman to win the Heptagonal championships since 1997. She then finished third in the NCAAs and earned All-American honors.

“I realized I could compete with other top runners,” said D’Agostino. “That first time I went to nationals, I really felt like I belonged.”

During the following outdoor season, she won the 5,000-meter individual NCAA championship. It was the first national title for Dartmouth track and field for either men or women since 1997, and the first women’s national championship ever.

Later that month, at the 2012 Olympic trials, D’Agostino stamped her name on the world stage when she finished fourth in the 5,000 meters — beaten out of a Olympic berth by three one-hundredths of a second, or one step. “I don’t think about it,” said D’Agostino. “I’d love to go back to the trials, but that’s down the road. I’m just looking forward to my last year at Dartmouth.”

This past fall, D’Agostino won every cross country race she entered except for the national championship — where she finished second by less than a second.

Then came the indoor NCAAs in March of her junior year, where D’Agostino outdid herself.

At the University of Arkansas , D’Agostino won the 5,000 and the 3,000. No American woman had ever won both races in her career … and D’Agostino won both on consecutive days.

Harwick, now in his 22nd year at Dartmouth, just shakes his head in admiration: “Abbey is the most successful athlete we’ve ever had. And she’s only a junior. For all his successes, Adam Nelson only won one NCAA title. Abbey has won tons.

“I’ve coached guys like (Olympian) Bob Kempainen, (All-Americans) Jim Sapienza, Ben True. … None of them did what Abbey has done.”

According to her coaches, D’Agostino does not let her success go to her head. “With all the individual success she has had, I think she enjoys cross country the most because there she can feel a part of a team,” said Coogan. “And that means so much to her.”

That is a sentiment not lost on her teammates. “Abbey is more than an incredible runner — she’s an exceptional person,” said junior teammate Arianna Vailas. “Her high-level performances and her work ethic have inspired the rest of us to strive for greater success, and have shown us that the seemingly impossible is indeed possible.

“Abbey is so much more than her achievements. She is constantly thinking about what she can do to make the team better. Although her training is of utmost importance to her, Abbey is willing to sacrifice her time and energy to do what she can for her teammates.”

The D’Agostinos smile knowingly at those comments. “Wherever we would go, when she would be given a trophy, she’d cringe and ask us to take it,” said Eric D’Agostino, laughing at the memory.

“She’s always been very modest, never liked the limelight,” said her mother. “But no matter how good she has done, we are more proud of how she carries herself. Her running has always been second to who she is.”

Coaching isn’t always about Xs and Os. Sometimes it’s about fruits and vegetables.

“Mark is so good at reiterating to the girls about getting enough sleep and eating properly,” said Donna D’Agostino. “They’re always discussing recovery or pre-race nutrition. So when they go on the road, wherever they are staying, Mark makes sure there is a health store or a natural food store near by.”

Coogan and D’Agostino have developed a bond of trust over the years, one that her parents believe to be a secret to their daughter’s success.

“They are just so compatible,” said Donna D’Agostino. “When Mark told us he thought Abbey would be able to run the 5,000, we really weren’t sure.

“But Mark threw out a time and Abbey did it. It was like, ‘Wow.’ He tells her what she can do, and she believes him and does it.”

While Donna can be heard whistling for her daughter during a race, and Eric will be yelling at the top of his lungs (“I don’t care who hears me!”), it is Coogan who is the critical communicator.

He and his star runner assess the race beforehand and decide on strategy. Sometimes they will decide to go to the front and let everyone else in the race know they are running for second place. Other times — especially in a race with the quality of competition of tonight’s field — the plan will be to stay close with the pack, but safely out of trouble, and see how things develop as she readies her final kick toward the finish line.

“She trusts me; that’s such a big thing,” said Coogan. “We’ve done all our pre-race strategy. During a race, I’ve got maybe five seconds to coach. I give my advice as quickly as possible. But really, it’s all up to Abbey.”

D’Agostino tries to relax during the race, “Over-thinking anything is not good,” she said. “I don’t worry. I just try to be aware of what is happening around me as the race develops. I have the confidence that if I run my race, it will be up to the others to try and beat me.”

Tonight, a stellar field of 24 distance runners, headed up by Jordan Hasay, the most-decorated track athlete in Oregon’s history, will do just that. Coogan will be down on the track coaching and cheering on his runner.

“You watch her and you see she does more and works harder than everyone else. She’s got the classic build for a runner — she’s lean and mean,” said Coogan of his 5-foot-2 dynamo. “She’s got big lungs and a big heart. Her running economy is beautiful. She’s mentally tough and believes in herself.

“I don’t believe I’ll get another one like her. She’s just special.”

Don Mahler can be reached at (603)-727-3225 or

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