RALEIGH — Caroline Alcorta finished the 10,000 meters race on Friday night at the Raleigh Relays, walked off the track at the Paul H. Derr Track and Field Facility and threw her hands on her knees in exhaustion.
It was the North Carolina senior’s first time running the event — the longest distance event in track and field — and the toll it took on her body may have caught her by surprise.
“I think she was just happy to have it done, if I’m being honest,” assistant coach Mark VanAlstyne said. “I think it took more out of her then maybe she expected. Just relief is what I saw in her face.”
Alcorta had just etched her name into the UNC record book, but had no idea. The Springfield, Va., native finished the race in second place with a time of 33:54.23 — good for second in the country this season.
It was also the second best time a Tar Heel athlete has recorded in the event in program history. Only Joan Nesbit, who ran a time of 32:54.19 in 1984, had a better performance in the 10,000 meters.
“I had a feeling I was going to break 34, if nothing bad happened,” Alcorta said. “But I wasn’t really aware of where I stacked up against the (all-time) UNC list.”
Alcorta didn’t find out that she made history until several minutes after she finished the race. She felt her cell phone buzz and saw a tweet from the UNC track and field Twitter account that recognized her performance.
“I got like a little notification on my phone that was like, ‘You’ve been tagged in such and such tweet' and I’m like, 'Oh neat,’” Alcorta said.
Then, it began to sink in.
“It was pretty shocking,” Alcorta said. “I didn’t know that’s what our records looked like. It was really kind of humbling to know that the best person has also been an Olympian and is pretty close to a minute faster. So, there’s definitely room for improvement, hopefully.”
That person — Nesbit — was a three-time All-American at UNC. She also represented the United States at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“Joan’s a Tar Heel legend,” VanAlstyne said. “She’s got a couple of USA vests and that was a fantastic run when she was the best in the ACC. So, that’s still a target out there. Like I said, I hope we get back to the 10-k with one of those girls and we can take a real shot at it.”
Alcorta is a distance runner who participates in a variety of events. Although Friday was just her debut in the 10,000 meters, UNC’s coaching staff believes Alcorta is capable of even more in the event.
“I had a chance to talk to her a little bit afterwards,” head coach Harlis Meaders said. “She was a little bit frustrated because she thought she could have done a little better, which is true of all elite-level athletes — they always think they can run a little bit better.”
VanAlstyne said breaking this record, or any record, was not a goal set for Alcorta at the beginning of the season. However, he and Meaders knew the ceiling was high for the senior.
“We don’t target any specific marks like that,” VanAlstyne said. “We just knew she was capable of being one of the best that’s come through Chapel Hill. It's confirmation of that.”
Alcorta was not the only Tar Heel that had a standout performance in Raleigh this past weekend. Junior Morgan Ilse won the 1,500-meter race with a personal-best time of 4:20.57, which was good for second in the ACC and top 20 in the nation.
In the field events, sophomore Daniel McArthur won the men’s shot put for the second time this season. McArthur threw for 17.95 meters on his last attempt — over a meter further than the next best finish.
Even though other UNC athletes had exceptional showings in Raleigh, none shined brighter than Alcorta.
“We can tell what she’s capable of running, even if she’s never run it,” VanAlstyne said. “We knew she was capable of doing that, but she’s equally capable of being one of the best in every event in the record book.”