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Running an inspired race

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With the familiar bang of the starter pistol, Cassie Peller took off, a common occurrence for the Marquette track star. But this time it was different.

During her warm-up Friday, Peller took in the sights and sounds of Hayward Field, the legendary University of Oregon track, the former home of Steve Prefontaine and a mecca for runners.

At the site for the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, 2004 Olympians and next year's hopefuls tried to prepare themselves for the international competition. But this was not why this race meant a little more to Peller.

Late Thursday afternoon, 24 hours before embarking on that first lap, Peller received a phone call from her mother. Her grandfather — her father's father — had passed away that afternoon. The devastating news sat her down. She then consoled her younger sister in another phone call.

In his 77 years of life, Tom Peller Sr. fulfilled his duties as a cop, train engineer and father, but not necessarily in that order. A man who loved athletics, he never refused to play catch with his grandchildren.

When Cassie's father was growing up, the elder Tom hung a tire swing from a tree branch for his son to throw spirals through. Wouldn't you know it: The younger Tom played quarterback in college.

Back in Eugene, Ore., Cassie's 1,500-meter race started out fast. Knowing a time of 4:27.8 would qualify her for the NCAA Regional, she finished the first lap in 68 seconds.

However this time, the usual questions — Where am I? How am I feeling? Who's in front? What are my splits? — did not cross her mind.

Rather, this race, for these 1,500 meters, her grandfather occupied her thoughts. Peller remembered when her grandpa, quite proud of his 100 percent Greek heritage, taught her the Greek national anthem in second grade.

It was hard for Peller to believe that just 10 hours before her race, she had discussed his funeral arrangements with her father. Not exactly the way to get psyched up for a run.

Completing the second lap in 74 seconds, Peller, then in third place, felt the slowness of the race.

"The pace didn't bother me because I knew I had a lot left," she said reflectively. "I try not to run for time. I'm a racer, not a pacer."

Peller's thoughts turned to morning workouts the summer before seventh grade, when her grandfather would shuttle her to the practice field.

"Grandpa would be in the driveway every day at 6 a.m. to pick me up," Peller said. "I remember one time I slept in and felt awful because I knew he was out there waiting."

The driving roles reversed a few years later when the elder Tom developed macular degeneration, a condition that results in loss of central vision, the inability to see fine details and difficulty reading or recognizing faces.

Within a few months of the diagnosis, he could not see well enough to drive. Only half-jokingly, he always admonished his granddaughter, a physiological sciences major, to hurry up and find a cure for him.

When Cassie got her driving permit, she became the chauffeur.

"He couldn't see but was still licensed so it was perfectly legal," Peller said of those drives around town. "He was so patient, and it was just our thing."

The drives always seemed to find their way to a convenience store, where Tom would buy a treat for Cassie and a lottery ticket for himself.

Closing in on the final lap last Friday, Peller yearned for that final push that had deserted her of late.

Earlier this month, Peller led the 1,500m at Duke with 300 meters to go, but her trademark home-stretch kick abandoned her and she finished fifth. Attempting to qualify for indoor nationals at Notre Dame last month, the junior was on pace to meet her goal until the final 200 meters, where she ran out of gas and faded back.

"I tried not to think about it too much," she said. "I wanted to focus on the race and not hitting the wall at the end."

This time around in Oregon, when Peller heard the final lap bell, she found her kick and took the lead.

"I hadn't had a finish like that since indoor season," she said. "I asked Grandpa to help me out with that last lap, and I believe he did."

Giving back one spot, Peller finished second in her heat and seventh overall. The top six finishers ran professionally or for a club, so Peller's strong finish topped all other collegians. Her 4:24 also bettered her previous best 1,500 by a second.

After the elder Tom lost his eyesight, he still loved to talk about his grandchildren and their on-field accomplishments at the Broadway Cafe in Valparaiso, Ind., sometimes to the point where they were embarrassed.

With a Pacific Northwest sunset complemented by the Oregon pep band drums for the perfect home-stretch setting, Tom surely watched his granddaughter race to the finish for the first time in seven years.

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