Pat Casey

Laurel's Patrick Casey, right, wins the third heat of the men's 1,500-meter run on Thursday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. Casey, who is two years removed from foot surgery, will race in Saturday's final. 

BILLINGS – Navigating the road to recovery has not been an easy one for Patrick Casey.

Two years ago as an Olympic hopeful, Casey underwent foot surgery to fix chronic plantar fasciitis that had been bothering him for a few years. It cut short a goal of Casey’s — to run at the Olympic Trials — and he knew the road back would be a long one.

His journey back has not come full circle quite yet, but on Thursday Casey took one more step in that direction.

Casey, a Laurel native, advanced to the finals of the USA Track & Field Championships after winning the third heat of the first round on Thursday. The top three finishers from all three heats plus the next three fastest times advanced to the finals. In all, 12 of the original 30 runners moved on to Saturday’s final.

Casey clocked a time of 3 minutes, 43.48 seconds to win the final heat, edging out the second-, third- and fourth-place runners by .01, .03 and .05 seconds respectively.

Casey’s time was the eighth-fastest in the field and making the finals was his biggest goal since coming back from injury.

“I’m going to be honest, the prelims are always the most stressful thing,” Casey said over the phone on Friday. “So much can happen and one or two mistakes and you’re out. So getting through those felt good.

“I was expecting to get through them but it was a big weight off of my shoulders to get through and it should be a lot of fun on Saturday. It’s more of a nervous excitement for Saturday rather than just nervous.”

Casey said the confidence boost the race gave him was a tremendous one.

“I haven’t won a race in so long that it felt really good to actually finish first in something,” Casey said. “I think I’m going to be able to use that to my advantage going into Saturday with a little more confidence and stuff.”

The second heat was the fastest one, as the top seven runners ahead of Casey all competed in it, including 2015 Montana State graduate Cristian Soratos. Soratos finished fifth in the heat — and overall — with a time of 3:41.12 and will be joining Casey in Saturday’s race.

Casey, who was warming up on the track during the first two heats, said he knew he would have to finish in the top three in his heat to advance after seeing how fast the second group went. Seeing those results unfold changed Casey’s strategy heading into the race.

“It kind of changes your mentality when you know it’s going to be tactical and not fast from the gun,” Casey said. “It kind of shifted my thinking from, ‘This is going to hurt for 1,500 meters’ to ‘This is going to be tactical and I need to just worry about position for 1,500 meters.’ Two separate kinds of races.”

Casey, who graduated from Laurel High School in 2008, raced in college at both Montana State and the University of Oklahoma. He was a three-time All-American with the Bobcats and still holds school records for the indoor 800 (1:47.08) and mile (3:54.49).

He said he’s raced Soratos a lot before and that he’s followed his progress from his time at MSU to now. The two have never ran a final together at the USATF Championships, though. Casey finished second in 2014 while Soratos competed in 2015 and made the finals in 2017, where he finished fifth.

“It will be cool to have two guys with Montana connections in the final,” Casey said. “I saw him this morning and we talked just briefly. I’m looking forward to lining up against him. I’m glad there’s going to be some Montana representation in the final. I think that’s kind of cool.”

As for his road back, Casey said, “It’s been a long two years.”

Casey underwent the surgery to make sure the plantar fasciitis would completely go away. It did, he said, but he took the next seven months off of running completely to let it heal.

“It was very disappointing that that fell on an Olympic year but at the same time I was like, ‘This is just a bump in the road. I’m going to get through this and I’m going to get back to running,’” Casey said.

Small goals along the way have helped Casey get back to form. He said in his first run back, his workout consisted of two minutes on of hard running five different times, making 10 minutes.

“Which is absolutely nothing compared to where I’m training at now,” he said with a laugh. “Now, I’m finally back to the point where I can compete with the best guys in the U.S. and that’s been a year-and-a-half process of getting back to this point.”

Mentally, the challenge was tougher. Being out of shape in that first workout was “disheartening” but Casey knew he needed to just chip away each day. By doing so, the bigger goals became attainable much quicker.

“I honestly feel like I came back mentally stronger just because, when I was injured, I ran for a year on a foot that was just pain every day to run on,” Casey said. “So now that I’m back with my foot not hurting, it’s like, if I could deal with that pain in my foot every day, I can deal with the pain of racing hard and stuff. It doesn’t seem so hard.

“At the end of the day, being injured is coming around to help me grow as an athlete.”

The injury added perspective that this could end at any point for reasons out of Casey's control. Casey said that he feels he has a greater appreciation for where he’s at now than he did before.

Saturday will have its pressures. But Casey is just happy to get back to where he was two years ago.

“This will be an enjoyable experience,” he said. “I’ve gotten back to where I know I can be and now I know I’m ready to have a good performance on Saturday. I don’t feel like there’s a ton of nerves or anything. I’m just ready to go get it.”

Email Kyle Hansen at kyle.hansen@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @khansen406

Prep sports reporter at the Billings Gazette

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