Savannah Carnahan’s time running track and cross country at South Forsyth stands out for its success – leading the War Eagles’ girls program to state prominence, earning All-County Athlete of the Year three times, qualifying for the Foot Locker National Championships – but also for what it lacked. Carnahan never won an individual state championship race, and she was the runner-up six times.
So as Carnahan headed to Furman University to begin her college career, that hole in her resume was her main motivation. She admits that she overtrained during the summer after she graduated from South.
But that motivation soon faded from Carnahan’s mind, replaced by something much more significant.
“It’s easy to let go of that when (you have) something good, something much better, honestly, to replace it,” Carnahan said.
Carnahan said those words as an All-American, an honor she earned by finishing 15th in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last Saturday. And that’s only the latest honor in a college career already full of them: Carnahan has twice won the 5,000 at the Southern Conference Indoor Championships; she finished second in the 1,500 and 5,000 at the SoCon Outdoor Championships this spring; and this past fall, she was the second finisher for a Paladins cross country team that finished seventh in the country.
“Whether it was in cross country, indoor track or outdoor track, she’s always had her very best race at the biggest meet of the year, and man, that’s incredible,” Furman assistant coach Rita Gary said. “It’s just an incredible gift she’s given herself, to be a gamer. It’s huge.”
Carnahan has built her career, both athletically and academically, off data. Furman is a program with a strong analytical bent, measuring athletes’ oxygen uptake to determine the best pace for them in practice and performing gait analysis to identify potential corrections to an athletes’ form. And Carnahan herself is majoring in chemistry and applied mathematics, two of the school’s most demanding majors. She’s already doing full-time lab work, less than a week after her season ended.
During the time when Carnahan’s class and running schedules coincided, the former could actually work to the benefit of the latter. She had one particularly demanding class this spring that demanded up to 20 hours per week of lab work on top of class time and homework, and while the stress of school caused Carnahan made some adjustments to her workload on the track, it also served as a useful distraction.
“I was actually in that class when I ran a lot of my PRs,” Carnahan said. “It was kind of nice in a way, because I didn’t have time to think about the racing. I just kind of went out and raced, and it worked out okay.”
Carnahan ran a time of 16:17.59 in the NCAA prelims to qualify for the national meet, which checked off one of her major goals for the season. But it also threw her into minor panic: She qualified for nationals, but now she would have to actually run in nationals. What if blew it in front of a packed stadium and a national TV audience?
The first week of training after the regional meet was far from ideal. Carnahan wasn’t eating and hydrating like she should have been, and she had two rough workouts. Her classes were over by then, so Carnahan didn’t have that to stop her mind from wandering around running-related topics, sometimes to her detriment.
“It was definitely not the easiest two weeks before I ran,” Carnahan said. “Mentally, anyway.”
But introspection and analysis are two of Carnahan’s greatest strengths as an athlete, and she turned to those to get out of the pre-meet rut. She talked with her coaches, saw a sports psychologist, and decided to focus on what she could control in the moment, rather than the spotlight and potential chaos of the national meet.
When she toed the line at Hayward Field on the cool, damp evening of the race, Carnahan’s mind was calm. She saw athletes next to her that she’d seen race on TV before, and the atmosphere at Hayward Field, on the campus of the University of Oregon, reminded her of a football game. When the race started, Carnahan rose to the occasion again, outrunning her seed time and finishing in 15:57.42.
While Carnahan said that she’s put her high school results in the past, Gary has a slightly different take. Because Carnahan wasn’t always the best, because she was always competing with more people than just herself, she has a particular keenness for working towards something more.
“In some ways, I really think it’s served her in terms of her hunger,” Gary said. “…I think it serves her in terms of her open mind, and just saying, ‘Hey, I wasn’t able to do it all in high school, so you just tell me, how am I supposed to do it out here?’ She’s just so darn coachable.”
Carnahan, now a rising junior, could have plenty more wins and All-American honors in her career. But while her career has been and will be defined by results, those will never be her strongest drive.
“Everyone in sports is competitive and wants to win,” Carnahan said. “But I like to run because I enjoy running, not because I enjoy winning.”