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Central Valley grad Layman eyes 800 prize

Anna Layman came to Washington State with ambitions that seemed, well, as small as she is.

“I sat in the coaches’ office and saw the posters with all the athletes on them,” she remembered, “and that was my first goal: I wanted to be on the poster. I wanted to maybe be in a highlight video. That was my thinking.”

Turns out she had another think coming.

One of Washington State’s most improbable track stories reaches its final chapter this week when Layman and the Cougars compete at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Twice an All-American at 800 meters, the senior from Spokane Valley seeks her first title – she’s the fifth fastest among the 24 runners who reached the semis through regional qualifying two weeks ago, though a mere second separates the top five.

She also, at last, has a legitimate big-time victory in her resume – she won the Pacific-10 Conference final last month in Tucson, holding off Arizona’s Christina Rodgers by just .04 of a second with a courageous stretch run.

“It was nerve-wracking to say the least,” admitted Layman, who lowered her best to 2 minutes, 3.48 seconds. “Physically, she’s stronger and if I’d given up for one second, she would have won.

“Definitely it was a shock. We had a plan to stay at the front and whatever happens, happens – but I didn’t expect that to happen.”

Grasping what’s possible has always been among the least of Layman’s gifts. But then, everything about her story has been at least a little counter-intuitive.

Her best high school time – 2:13.6 – was run as a sophomore. Injury wiped out her junior year, and she nearly bagged the sport as a senior, having lost her taste for any sort of mileage training. At WSU, more health issues struck – including an appendectomy and stress reactions in her legs – and she was quickly written off as high maintenance by Jason Drake, the distance coach at the time. Instead, she was turned over to hurdles coach Mark Macdonald, who found a way to coax the promise from her by having her run high-intensity 200- and 300-meter repeats – cutting her mileage to virtually nothing.

An eighth-place finish at NCAAs resulted her redshirt freshman year, but more injuries slowed her in 2009 and 2010, though she did return to the NCAAs and placed 14th as a junior.

This spring was mostly uneventful – in more ways that one. Only a minor hip issue flared on the health side, but after running 2:05.93 indoors, she didn’t do anything special outdoors until the Pac-10 win – more than a full-second improvement on her 2008 best.

That’s given her the motivation to stay in Pullman next year and train under Macdonald for a postgraduate stab at running.

Only eight Cougars women from the state of Washington have won Pac-10 titles; of those Layman has been perhaps the longest shot, her best time as a high schooler only 49th on the state’s all-time list when she graduated.

“I think I’ve proved to myself than I’m a better runner than I portray myself to be,” she said. “I didn’t come here thinking I’d be an All-American or Pac-10 champ, but as time went on coach Mac made me believe in myself and I’ve reached all these goals.

“I’m very proud of my five years here. They weren’t easy, but I did a lot more than I thought I could do.”

Bell lap

The Cougars will send their men’s 4x100 relay team and five individuals to Des Moines – Layman, two-time 400 hurdles champion Jeshua Anderson, half-miler Joe Abbott and javelin throwers Marissa Tschida and Courtney Kirkwood. … Beyond Pullman, the Inland Northwest will be represented by Idaho shot putter Eugenio Mannucci, Washington javelin thrower Joe Zimmerman (Lewis and Clark) and Oregon women’s pole vaulter Jordan Roskelley (Mt. Spokane). … WSU jumps coach Matt McGee resigned last week after six years as a full-time assistant. … Ex-Cougs competing professionally had a pretty good weekend. Bernard Lagat won the 2 mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, while Blessing Ufodiama continued her rise in the women’s triple jump – reaching a lifetime best and national-leading 46-11/2 for second … And in San Diego, former Cougar Drew Polley finished second in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in 1:05.38. Polley qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials with a fifth-place finish among Americans at the 2010 Boston Marathon. … Former Idaho thrower Russ Winger reached a lifetime best 209-5 in the discus at a Memorial Day weekend competition in Chula Vista, Calif. – 8 inches behind ex-Coug Ian Waltz.