MADISON, Wis. -- Molly Hanson doesn’t hear voices when she runs. But there are some important sounding boards in her life, some influential people who have voiced their support.
The inner circle includes a former All-American in cross country at Wisconsin, a high school cross country and track coach, and a former All-American in track at Marquette.
“I do have a lot of help,” said Hanson, a 20-year old UW sophomore.
Because of their advice and encouragement, Hanson will not be running alone Friday when she competes in the 1,500 meters final at the 2014 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. In a sense, she will be fueled by what she has taken from each of her family mentors.
“This meet is the first time I’ve lined up with girls with big names,” said Hanson before Thursday's semifinal heat. Her time of 4 minutes, 21.28 seconds was good for fourth in the heat, which featured the two fastest runners in the field entering the meet, Villanova’s Emily Lipari (4:14.64) and Kentucky’s Allison Peare (4:14.91).
“I’m going to have to get over the feeling that I’m not as good [as the top runners] because it’s not true,” said Hanson with a burst of self-assurance. “This whole year, I’ve come out feeling more confident with each race. I’ve already exceeded my own expectations.”
And those of Mick Byrne, the director of cross country and track and field at Wisconsin.
“Molly’s improvement from September and the cross country season through the indoor and the outdoor season has been just remarkable,” Byrne said. “It’s a testimony to her hard work, particularly in the fall.
“A lot of 1500 meters runners don’t like to do a lot of the long, hard work, all the strength work. Hopefully going forward she’ll see that she’s reaping the benefits of that hard fall. Her times have been dropping every time she runs.”
On May 18, Hanson placed third in the Big Ten meet with a career-best time of 4:15.55.
It was the 10th-fastest clocking for 1,500 meters in school history.
“If you would have said back in September she’d run 4:15 I probably would have said, ‘That’s a tough one, that’s a tough one [to pull off],’” Byrne admitted. “It’s great to see an athlete doing the work but also taking confidence from the work they’ve done because that’s what great athletes do.
“They train hard, they take confidence from their training and they come out and race. What Molly is doing now is learning that, ‘I can run with these guys. I can run with the best.’“
Byrne noted that Hanson was within striking distance of the lead in the Big Ten meet with a little more than 200 meters to go when she got caught in traffic behind a slower runner, which allowed Michigan’s Leah O’Connor and Penn State’s Marta Kiebe to get separation. They finished 1-2.
“Molly’s learning every time she gets into a race that you have to take the confidence from your training,” Byrne said, “but you’ve also got to stay alert. Tactically, she’s become better every race. The very fact that she was able to get through the preliminary rounds and advance to Eugene is great.”
A year ago, Hanson was finalizing her transfer from Marquette to Wisconsin. “It was such a tough call, it was such a big decision,” Hanson said. “But I just realized I would regret not knowing what would happen if I didn’t transfer more than if I had stayed and finished out there.”
In 2012, Hanson was Marquette’s top runner in five of six cross country meets. During the indoor track season, she broke the school’s freshman record in the 800 and mile. Outdoors, she ran the fifth-fastest 1,500 meters in school history while earning Big East All-Academic recognition.
Coming out of Dodgeville High School, Hanson was attracted to Marquette for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the success of her older sister, Michaela Courtney, who was an All-America runner with the Golden Eagles.
In an ironic twist, Courtney started her career at Wisconsin before transferring to Marquette. As a freshman, Courtney was a member of the UW’s distance medley relay team. Molly Hanson reversed the process and made the transition collegiately and socially from Milwaukee to Madison.
Meanwhile, Michaela’s and Molly’s mother, the former Ann Mulrooney, was a cross country All-American for the Badgers in 1976. Mulrooney was a four-time state champion in the mile at Prairie du Chien High School. She also won three other state titles.
“I knew that she ran at Wisconsin and I knew that she had done some road races after college, but I really didn’t know the specifics of her career here,” said Molly Hanson, who credited her mom with having the right things to say at the right time.
“Mostly after I have a bad race, or I just need some advice, she’ll always point back to when she was racing,” she said.
What bit of advice has she received from her mom that still applies today?
“There’s always going to be another race,” Hanson said. “You have to put everything into perspective. Don’t get too wrapped up about the early races [in the season]. She’d just say, ‘Listen, it’s a long season and you have to stick with it the entire time … you have months and months to go.’
“It has definitely kept me grounded and calm throughout the season.”
She can relate to her dad in many of the same areas. Joe Hanson was also a competitive college runner, a very successful one. He had so much success as a distance runner at Wisconsin-La Crosse -- three conference titles in the mile -- that he was named to the WIAC All-Time Men’s Track and Field Team as the conference celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013.
As a high school coach, Joe Hanson has had a hand in developing some good cross country and track teams for Dodgeville-Mineral Point. Molly Hanson, in fact, led the Dodgers to a couple of state cross country championships. As a senior, she became the program’s third individual state champion.
Michaela Courtney had been the first 10 years earlier.
“It was a tough adjustment seeing him as my coach and my dad,” Molly Hanson said. “I don’t think he gave me as much attention maybe as he did others. He didn’t want to over-do it. So he went the other way with that, at least during practice. We’d always talk racing tactics and stuff at home.
“It was nice to know what my workouts were going to be ahead of time. Like my mom, he was always good about giving me advice or calming my nerves before races. When I’m lining up for a race, he wanted me to know that I’m just as good as the competition that I’m lining up against.”
It’s something that she’s still working on, a mental barrier, especially when she gets into races and “I know there are all of these decorated athletes” whereas “I haven’t done much in comparison.”
Not yet, at least, on the national stage. But a strong showing on Friday could change all of that.