Melissa Uhrich '16 knows the sidewalks and roads of Fargo-Moorhead like the back of her hand. Their relationship is one of a mutual understanding.
She knows all about them, and they know all about her.
On this particular day, she blares rap music in her earbuds. Uhrich admits that putting on mileage is not always easy when Mother Nature can be as brutal as it is in the Red River Valley. Today is one of those days, so she needs a little extra push to reach her goal for the day.
Uhrich started the 2015 season by making a statement. She claimed individual honors at the season-opening Jamestown Dual Meet. She crossed the finish line in a time of 19:54.44 over the 5K course and won the meet by over 6 seconds. Leading a contingent of three Concordia runners that finished in the top four, Uhrich's push to the finish line helped the Cobbers beat Jamestown 21-40 to start the season.
Before one can understand the significance of the victory for the Bismarck Century graduate, it's important to go back to where it all started: the capital city of North Dakota – Bismarck.
Driven by her father and an innate competitive spirit, Uhrich began racing as early as fourth grade. She competed and participated in road races with her father, Melvin. Her first road race ever was the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving in Bismarck. It would be the first of many 5Ks with her father and her passion for the road would only continue to grow. They continued to participate in holiday 5Ks together and when she got into middle school, Uhrich took the next step by competing on the cross country team.
Uhrich's cross country career really took off when she got to her freshman year in high school at Century High. She was selected to the Western Dakota Association All-Conference team and garnered All-State honors in North Dakota in 2008. Uhrich's body began to mature and her times decreased as she progressed through high school. She still received All-Conference honors as a sophomore and junior, but unfortunate circumstances prevented her from collecting any honors her senior year at Century.
Uhrich was also active in other sports while in high school. In addition to cross country, she played basketball and participated in track and field (which she also does at Concordia in the spring). In 2011, she completely tore her ACL and damaged her meniscus during a drill in basketball practice forcing her to sit on the sidelines for the rest of the basketball season as well as the track and field season.
She had an entirely reconstructed ligament derived from her left hamstring and began the rehab process immediately. She came back for her senior season and performed below her expectations, but considering the injury it was a successful season.
Uhrich was a late addition to Head Coach Marv Roeske's recruiting class, as she did not decide to don maroon and gold until mid-May of her senior year of high school. She came to Concordia just three months later and had a decent freshman season. The mileage was different and the competition level increased, but she held her own.
Heading into the spring, and her first track and field season, she noticed an issue that continued to get worse. Her stamina was at an all-time low. She ran an 800-meter dash in 3 minutes. "It was awful," Uhrich said. "It was like a tortoise trying to catch the hare."
Uhrich continued to train in preparation for the upcoming season, but each workout became increasingly more difficult. She decided to try and wait out the stamina situation and see what would happen in the summer. She even noticed it while working as a car detailer that summer in Bismarck, feeling exhausted after waxing vehicles. She decided it was time to make a trip to see the doctor.
The results she received were staggering. Uhrich's iron levels were incredibly low, showing approximately half of what was considered healthy. Her iron was so low she was past the point where doctors would recommend blood transfusions.
After being diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, she was given iron pills and other various forms of medication and suddenly her stamina improved and she was able to train normally.
Fall came around and so did cross-country season. Feeling fresh and rejuvenated, she did not know what to expect. In the first meet of her sophomore season at Park Rapids, she suddenly found herself near the front of the pack. The success continued throughout the season as she was named MIAC Honorable Mention and was selected to the Midwest All-Region team as she led the Cobbers at the NCAA Regional Meet. Uhrich posted a 23:28 in her first regional competition and was the first Cobber since 2008 to earn the honors.
She was finally healthy for the first time since her junior year of high school going into spring 2013. Uhrich came into track and field riding a personal high, but another crushing injury jettisoned that quickly.
Uhrich was convinced to participate in the steeplechase, an event in which a runner must clear hurdles and water jumps throughout the race.
Midway through the season, the team trekked to take part in the Gustavus invite and she decided to partake in the steeplechase. She had just 600 meters left in the 3K race when she hurdled a steeplechase barrier and felt her knee give out. Uhrich remembered the feeling from the first time in high school and knew instantly she had torn her ACL for a second time.
Completely submerged in the water, Uhrich got up and continued to race, determined to finish. There were two more dry barriers as obstacles and one more water barrier. With a chuckle and a wry smile, she said, "I think I just sat on it and slid right down into the water."
She finished the race despite friends and spectators telling her to stop running. Luckily, her valiant effort did not do any further damage to her knee, but it was back to the drawing board – and back to rehab.
The first time she sustained the injury, there was a lot of self-doubt because she had no idea what to expect. The second time she tore the ligament, Uhrich knew what the injury entailed and the mentality was different. Rather than feeling sorry for herself, it was time to rehab and return to the road.
The second time around, the doctors utilized a craft made of the middle third of her left patellar tendon. She went into the summer unable to work her regular job as a car detailer and had to settle for working as a secretary at the hospital, which made her restless. Not only was it less money, but also her active lifestyle was drawn to a halt.
More importantly, she had to miss her entire junior season of cross country. For Uhrich, the road is a means to peace and tranquility in her mind. No matter what is going on that day, the sound of her shoes pounding whatever terrain she chooses to navigate that day, along with the blaring music that fuels her spirit, is the perfect anthem to fix any issue.
The first time she suffered the injury, it took her six months to return. The second time around it took another eight months. Uhrich slowly returned during track and field season as she returned to running and even competed in a couple of races.
Upon the completion of last year's academic year, Uhrich stayed in Fargo-Moorhead and began to immediately train for her last season of competitive cross country.
Many people have asked why she keeps running. Uhrich continues to break down what little cartilage is left in her knee by the constant pounding it endures. What left does she have to prove? Her answer is "everything."
She has everything to prove to herself. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I just stopped," she said. "It may sound foolish because it's just Division III athletics, but after the second tear I was determined to be back."
And back she is.
She's back to prove to her friends, family, Concordia, the MIAC and the world she can still run. But, more importantly, she is out to prove to herself there aren't any barriers she can't tear down. Uhrich is a woman of faith and it gives her the belief and assurance that she can, and will, overcome any obstacle that stands in her way.
Uhrich has set a goal – get back to earning All-Region and All-MIAC honors in her last season of competitive running.
Once her time at Concordia is done she will keep running for her health, her mind and her spirit. It's more than just running; it's a lifetime hobby.
The good news for her is that it's a big world, and she is going to keep running it.