BURLINGTON — Elle Purrier’s second win Sunday in the America East Track & Field Championships didn’t come as easily as her first.
The Montgomery native running for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats ran away from the field in the 1500-meter finals. She led by the length of the 100-meter straightaway before the four-lap race was halfway through, and cruised to first place by more than 5 1/2 seconds.
But Danielle Gajewski, her UNH training partner, made things a bit more difficult less than an hour later in the 800.
Purrier again led midway, but this time by only about a foot with Gajewski close behind and three others runners with a few strides. The UNH duo pulled away and sprinted toward the finish line side by side. Gajewski inched ahead as they closed in, but Purrier leaned past her teammate for the win.
By one one-hundredth of a second. Roughly 2.4 inches.
“She’s my training partner and we planned to work off each other in the race,” Purrier said. “It just came down to … I mean, we all want to win, right?”
No one, perhaps, more than the former Richford H.S. star who has now won a dozen individual NCAA Division I regional, major invitational and conference championships, on top of the 20 high school cross country and track Vermont, New England and Northeast U.S. titles.
Along with a Junior Nationals steeplechase crown, and a spot in July’s Olympic Trials in that event.
At the University of Vermont’s Livak Field, with 20 or so family and friends on hand, Purrier finished her day by anchoring the Wildcats’ 4×800 relay team to another win as they tried in vain to catch Albany to earn a second straight America East women’s team trophy.
UNH coach Robert Hoppler said being challenged by teammates such as Gajewski and Laura Rose Donegan — who won the America East steeplechase Saturday evening — has played a big part in making Purrier the nationally known runner she has become.
“Having talented athletes to train with has been helpful,” Hoppler said Sunday. “Laura last night in the steeple, she ran a 9:49, which is right there with Elle. And Danielle in the eight. So having some good, talented kids, she has strong kids to train with. That’s really helped.”
Scheduled for two America East finals just an hour apart, Purrier cruised to victory in the 1500 without a challenge. After beating the other 11 runners off the start line by half a stride, opening a 4.5-second lead on the opening 3/4-lap. With two laps remaining the rest of the top runners in America East — which includes Maine, Hartford, Stony Brook, Binghamton, UMass-Lowell, New Hampshire and Albany universities — were tightly bunched 13 seconds behind the leader.
Safely in front and knowing she’d be running again in about 55 minutes, Purrier eased off by a couple seconds on each of the final two laps. Her 4:33.32 time was about that margin off the stunning NCAA-best she ran indoors in February, but was still the 24th-fastest time run in 2016 by an American woman at any level, pro or amateur.
Purrier had plenty of experience running multiple races on one day in high school, wining four Vermont championships in the 2011 Division IV state meet and three each in 2010 and 2012.
“Definitely harder than it was in high school. You don’t really pay attention to pace at this point; you just go for place and points. It’s definitely challenging.”
She echoed Hoppler’s feelings about being pushed by teammates who are able to stay with her and, as Gajewski showed in the 800, are capable of beating her.
“It makes it more fun and helps us all get better at the same time,” Purrier said. “We understand the training and the effort and everything that goes into it. Having people with you makes it a lot easier.”
The America East Championships opened track’s equivalent of tournament season. Coming up this weekend are the New England Championships in New Haven, Conn. and the East Coast Athletic Association meet in New Jersey, followed by the three-day NCAA East Regionals that will determine who advances to the NCAA National Championships in June.
After that will be the steeplechase Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., where Purrier won the same event in the U.S. Junior Nationals and then finished ninth in the World Juniors two years ago.
“The first thing we want to do is look at the NCAAs,” Hoppler said. “So you’ve got to qualify in the regional in Jacksonville, Florida. That will be Memorial Day weekend. Go to the NCAA and try to improve on last year, when she was seventh in the NCAAs in the steeple. We’d like to improve on that.”
Coach and runner both said getting to compete against the nation’s best professional runners is what they were after for the summer, looking more toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo than the upcoming 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Having sat out one season each of cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, Purrier will spread her four years of NCAA eligibility out over five years at UNH. Although in her third year of school, athletically she is considered a sophomore in all three sports.
“When we get to the Trials, if she can make the final that would be a huge accomplishment,” said Hoppler, whose former runners include Milton’s Megan Hepp, who finished 12th at the marathon Olympic Trials in 2008, a few years after graduating. “Then we’ll see where she is down the road. She has two more years at UNH. In those two years we’ll continue to develop and see where she ends up.”
Purrier earned a spot in the Trials on April 16 with a 9:47.17 in the 3000-meter steeplechase, a grueling event that includes several hurdles with water-hazard landings on every lap.
She didn’t hesitate when asked when the Olympics moved from abstract notion to reality-based goal.
“Probably this winter when I ran my fast mile, 4:29. I realized I was up against professionals, and those are the type of people that go to the Olympics. The Olympics probably aren’t going to happen this year, but maybe in four years.”