At first, Mackenzie Caldwell wasn’t all that thrilled about Colorado’s decision to redshirt her last cross-country season.
As it turned out, the plan couldn’t have worked much better.
The three-time All-State selection in both cross-country and track at Columbus North added another honor last month after finishing 39th in the NCAA Championships — All-American.
“When they told me (about redshirting), I didn’t feel like at that point, I had run well enough to deserve a spot on the team, so I expected it,” Caldwell said. “It made sense to me to take some time and get better at running. I’m pretty all right with it now because it turned out pretty well.”
Following a record-setting career at North, Caldwell didn’t run varsity for most of her freshman year at Colorado. She earned a spot late in the season and finished 195th at the NCAA meet at Terre Haute’s Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, the same venue that hosts the Indiana high school meet.
But then at the beginning of last season, Caldwell was in the mix with a few other girls for the last couple of varsity spots. Figuring she probably wasn’t going to be among the five girls who score for the team, head coach Mark Wetmore and associate head coach Heather Burroughs decided to redshirt her.
Caldwell continued to train with the team during her redshirt season and then was a full member for indoor and outdoor track last spring.
Burroughs said the turning point for Caldwell came in February, when she won the 5,000 meters in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation indoor meet. In the absence of a Pac-12 indoor meet, the MPSF event, which features most of the Pac-12 teams and a few others, becomes the defacto indoor conference meet.
Then in the spring, Caldwell qualified for the NCAA outdoor championships in the 10,000 meters. She finished 22nd.
“She just went to a whole different level last spring,” Burroughs said. “We didn’t know if that would translate to cross-country, but it did. It’s been 2½ years of consistent, head-down, focused hard work.”
Those indoor and outdoor track season served as a huge confidence booster for Caldwell going into the cross-country season. She ended up as the Buffaloes No. 3 runner in the NCAA meet.
In that NCAA event, which was back on the rolling hills at Lavern Gibson, Caldwell ran 20 minutes, 23.8 seconds for 6,000 meters (3.8 miles). That was less than three seconds off the personal best of 20:21.0 on a much flatter course at the Mountain Regional in Logan, Utah.
The top 40 at the NCAA meet earn All-American honors. Caldwell went in thinking she might finish somewhere in the 60s. Burroughs felt she could finish in the top 50.
So during the race, when coaches and spectators were yelling “43rd” or “42nd” at Caldwell to let her know what place she was running, she was a little surprised. She was even more shocked after she finished in the top 40
“I totally wasn’t expecting it, especially at the beginning of the season,” Caldwell said. “When I made it to nationals in my outdoor season in track, I realized it was possibility, but I didn’t think it would be for me, definitely not in cross.”
The individual finish was somewhat bittersweet for Caldwell. Colorado went into the NCAA meet ranked No. 1 but finished third as a team.
Caldwell, who was named to the Pac-12 All-Academic team earlier this week, is now looking to make it back to nationals again in track and this time, make All-American.
Then, with their top six girls — all of which finished in the top 43 in the NCAA meet — returning next cross-country season, Caldwell is hoping to help lead the Buffaloes to a national title.
“She’s a total sweetheart,” Burroughs said. “She’s not a talker. She’s never going to brag about herself. But she’s turned into a wonderful runner.”
Name: Mackenzie Caldwell
High School: Columbus North
Sports: Cross-country, track
Year: Redshirt sophomore
Family: Parents Gary and the late Renee Caldwell, older brothers Quinton and Raleigh Caldwell