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Gators record-setter Parker Valby sets sights on 6th NCAA title in final race

GAINESVILLE — The starter’s gun sounds, beginning Florida distance runner Parker Valby’s relentless pursuit of another title, another record and another helpless competitor.

As she crosses the finish line, Valby — a blonde-haired, pony-tailed Secretariat relative to her peers — has usually completed the trifecta.

Consider her performance Thursday night at the NCAA Championships: Valby’s 10,000-meter run ended with a meet record 31:46.09, a litany of lapped runners and her fifth individual national championship in 12 months.

“It’s been very surreal,” she said. “I worked really hard for it, but am super grateful for everything.”

Incredibly, Valby’s title-winning effort was just her second race at the distance. In April, she bettered the collegiate record by 31 seconds during her 10,000 debut turning in 30:50.43 — 11th on the U.S. all-time list.

“You could write down any goal that any distance runner in the world could dream of accomplishing, and she’s capable of it,” Gators assistant coach Will Palmer marveled recently. “There’s nothing she couldn’t do.”

Valby plans to save her best at UF for last.

The 21-year-old from Tampa will return to her comfort zone Saturday as she defends the 5,000 national title during her final collegiate race.

Expect the scene at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore, to ring familiar during one of the most dominant stretches in her sport.

Valby’s winning 5,000-meter run May 11 at the SEC Championships ended with a meet record 15:07.86 having lapped 21 of 34 entrants.

This, even though Palmer charged a teammate to serve as a pacesetter, or “rabbit,” to keep Valby in check.

“There’s a lot more in the tank,” coach Mike Holloway said after the race.

When Palmer arrived from Alabama during the summer of 2023, he quickly discovered Valby was an outlier.

“My first meeting with her she said, ‘There’s nothing normal about me,'” he recalled.

Valby went on to win the NCAA cross-country championship and second SEC crown in the fall. During the indoor season, she captured the NCAA 3,000 and 5,000, breaking a record that had stood for 15 years.

This assault on the record book, which includes UF marks in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000, requires considerable talent and dedication, but also a degree of ruthlessness.

Elite distance running is a single-minded, solitary, take-no-prisoners pursuit.

“If people finish too close to her she’s going to be pissed,” Palmer said.

Valby has left everyone in the dust with a singular training regimen.

While others pound the pavement or hit the trails to accrue mileage, Valby stays in a 30- to 35-mile weekly range while also attacking the Arc trainer — a cardiovascular machine ubiquitous at local health clubs — for stretches of up to two hours.

The unorthodox approach has proved to be a winning formula, helping her through injuries while elevating her to unforeseen heights.

At Tampa’s East Lake High School, Valby became a state cross-country champion and record-holder in the 3,200 (10:10.45), but was no phenom.

Valby’s UF career started slowly — she ran just one race as a freshman — and then hit a snag with a broken foot as a sophomore during the 2022 indoor season. But she persevered and served notice three months later at NCAA outdoor meet, finishing runner-up in the 5,000.

Valby has not lost a big race since, a streak expected to continue Saturday night.

Bigger moments remain, including the with U.S. Olympic Trials June 21-30 back at Hayward Field.

“I’m focused on the NCAA season right now,” Valby said last month.

Whatever lies ahead, she has time. Distance runners do not peak until their mid to late 20s.

“The sky’s the limit,” she said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com