The promised land for big-time college track athletes is about a four-hour drive down Interstate 5 from Orting, Wash.
Montana distance runner Katrina Drennen knows the way. She and her family used to trek from tiny Orting to bustling Eugene, Ore., so she could run in the Junior Olympics.
This week's visit to Hayward Field will be altogether different for the sophomore. She'll make her first appearance in the NCAA Division I Track and Field championships on Thursday, competing in the 1,500-meter run.
Could it be all those long trips as a little girl were a prelude to something great?
"It kind of feels like I'm going to a home track because I've raced there so many times," said Drennen, who will vie for a spot in Saturday's finals on the University of Oregon campus. "Every time I raced there, the fast times came.
"The track is awesome, and I know exactly where I'll be warming up and icing my legs, so that's kind of nice. Maybe it's the nostalgia that goes with Hayward Field, but I'm very excited to give it all I have."
While the venue is familiar, there's a place in Katrina's competitive psyche she hopes to visit for the first time. A place that can scare even the best of runners.
It's the crossroads where pain and common sense collide. Drennen knows it well.
She broke an 11-year-old Grizzly record in April when she pushed hard to post a time of 4 minutes, 24.23 seconds at the Montana Open. She topped it 12 days ago in making the West Region finals, then shattered it again three days later, running 4:19.36 to punch her ticket to Eugene.
How hard will she push at nationals? Teammate Kesslee Payne has an idea.
"She's never afraid to take the risk to get where she wants," said Payne, who narrowly missed out on joining Drennen in Eugene. "There are points in a race when you don't know if you can take that amount of pain that comes with that speed. You don't know until you try it.
"When it comes to these higher competitions, those risks are a must to reach the top. To be honest I expect her to be in the finals of the NCAA championships and to be going for All-American."
To do that, Drennen would have to finish among the top eight Americans in Saturday morning's final. It's a rarity at Montana - Shelly Smathers is the only woman to reach the pinnacle outdoors, finishing fifth in the 10,000 in 1994 and sixth in the 5,000 in 1993.
But Drennen's qualifying time is less than four seconds off the best in the nation, a 4:15.98 recorded by Lauren Bonds of Kansas. Considering Katrina shaved almost four seconds off her personal best in the finals of the West Region preliminary meet, anything seems possible.
"She believes she'll be All-American and she has that capability," Montana coach Brian Schweyen said. "She's got the mental game. She can be anything she wants to be."
A qualifier in cross-country nationals last fall, Drennen is quick to credit others when it comes to her success. She trains consistently in the offseason with her father, Scott Drennen, a distance runner for the Grizzlies from 1983-86.
Then there are Katrina's teammates on the cross country and track teams. She can't say enough about their influence.
"We have a great synergy that we're able to push each other in practice," she said. "That's been one of the big differences this year, having teammates who are capable of running fast times."
When she's not training, Drennen is soaking up priceless advice from Grizzly cross country/distance coach Courtney Babcock. The former Canadian Olympian and national champion at Michigan has a way of treating her athletes that's conducive to success.
"When she came two years ago it was an instantaneous change in the program," Drennen said. "She has great credentials, so it really inspires us.
"She lets me know all the time that, ‘Hey, these are the times I was running in college and look where I got.' It lets me see the future maybe."
Because she's been in the same position herself, Babcock knows when to push her runners and when to back off. Drennen came into the indoor season with a foot injury that might have become worse if not for Babcock's instincts, knowing which events to skip and which to enter.
"I gained momentum through indoor and it led smoothly into outdoor," Drennen said. "Our plan the entire time was to peak toward regionals and nationals, knowing that was more my goal.
"The biggest thing that helps with (Babcock) as coach is she listens to us and lets us listen to our bodies. She's strict in her ways, but in certain ways flexible. She views us more as a person and not a number."
From their first season together, Babcock saw in Drennen a confident athlete willing to put in hard work. Same goes for Payne, who has been training with Drennen since 2007.
"Her level of confidence going into a race or a workout, she knows she's going to put her best out there because it's what she loves to do," Payne said. "That confidence just overflows."
Drennen's confidence was boosted last fall when she became Montana's first athlete in four years to compete at cross country nationals. It was a significant breakthrough for a runner who battled injuries the year before.
Drennen finished 174th, covering the six-kilometer course in 21:51. But more importantly, she learned about herself.
"(At regionals) when I was watching the 10,000 meters, I noticed a lot of the girls that were in the lead were also the girls I was competing with at nationals and regionals in cross country," Drennen said. "It gave me a boost of confidence knowing my competition is to that level, reminding me when I go to these national championships I am meant to be there.
"On a given day any one of us could win."
Drennen, who took sixth in the 5,000 at the Oregon Relays in Eugene last spring, is keeping her goals to herself for this week. Of the 23 others headed to nationals for the women's 1,500, 16 had better qualifying times than the Grizzly sophomore.
But Drennen has come on like gangbusters. If she keeps improving at the same rate as the last two months, she may have a good story to share with the home folks in Orting.
"She knows how good she is and she's not afraid," Schweyen said. "She has seen herself as being a top runner."
Bill Speltz may be reached at 523-5255 or email@example.com.