East Marshall senior Melinda Puumala takes 4th in 400 hurdles at Drake Relays

T-R PHOTO BY THORN COMPTON - East Marshall senior Melinda Puumala, center, clears a hurdle and heads into the back stretch during the 400-meter hurdles at the 110th running of the Drake Relays on Saturday. Puumala won her heat and placed fourth overall in the 400 hurdles.

DES MOINES — East Marshall senior Melinda Puumala has already had an outstanding athletic career for the Mustangs, but on Saturday she outdid herself.

Puumala came into the 400-meter hurdles at the 110th running of the Drake Relays as the 15th seed out of 16 qualifiers, and the rainy, windy and cold weather at Drake Stadium on Saturday was not exactly ideal for cutting time in such a grueling race.

But the competition and the conditions did nothing to curtail Puumala’s performance, as she took her 15th seeding and turned it into a fourth-place finish with a career-best time of 1 minute, 5.94 second.

After learning what she had accomplished, Puumala had a smile plastered on her face that won’t dissipate for quite some time.

“A lot of thoughts are going through my head,” she said, still catching her breath from the race. “Just, fourth place in the Drake Relays, fourth place in the state let alone, that’s just, that’s incredible.”

Puumala was slotted in the second lane in the first of two heats, a spot that doesn’t typically produce a top-five performance. When she cleared the final hurdle, she was in a dead heat with Gabbi Bullard from Solon in the sixth lane and Elsie Thorsen from Pella in the first.

Puumala used the last of her strength to just edge out Bullard by one hundredth of a second and Thorsen by five hundredths of a second to win the race.

“I don’t usually look over behind me, but I looked over and I saw [Thorsen] and something sparked in my head,” Puumala said. “I just kind of had to go, if I didn’t I was going to get what my seed was and I didn’t want to get that. I wanted to prove to people that I can be here.”

Puumala did much more than just prove she belongs. Her time of 1:05.94 is now the top spot in Class 2A, up from fifth in the class prior to the race, and she now owns the fourth-fastest time in the state, regardless of class.

It was also the best performance by an East Marshall girl at the Drake Relays in this millennia.

“Before the race I was very nervous, I kept talking to the girls again like I did yesterday, just saying, ‘I’m really nervous, I don’t want to run today,'” Puumala said. “But during the race I just got good and at the end I just started thinking, ‘well what are my next plans?'”

This is the first time Puumala has run at the Drake Relays, but it wasn’t her first race. On Friday she placed 23rd in the 100 hurdles, but she said that experience absolutely helped her prepare for Saturday’s showing.

“There was a warm-up area and I used that today! I just came more comfortable with myself today,” she said. “I told myself, ‘I’m here to run at the Drake Relays. You are too, but this is what I need to focus on,’ and I did it.”

While talking about the race on Friday, Puumala said she actually preferred to be on an inside lane like she was, and that clearly played into her hands.

“I was just trying to catch the girls on the inside lane but then at the 200 meter mark I looked at the video board and saw myself and just kind of smiled to myself and kept running,” she said. “Around the turn I started catching more people because I was in the inside lane and I thought, ‘oh, this is possible.'”

What truly made her performance possible, Puumala said, was just a clean trip through all the hurdles.

“I don’t think I stuttered, and that’s my goal because if you stutter you slow down,” she said. “I don’t think I stuttered, which helped my speed a lot. It was just really good.”

Now that she has the top mark in her class, a fourth-place finish in the Drake Relays and the fourth-best time in the state, Puumala said her next goal is obviously to make it back to the Blue Oval for a repeat performance at state in three weeks.

“I think [coach Trent Taylor] is going to load me up in the 400 hurdles just to keep my time coming down and keep it in me in a sense so I am ready to run at state, should I qualify,” she said.