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Utah runner puts student in student-athlete; helps research degenerative eye disease

University of Utah runner Caitlin Faust leads a pack during the Utah Spring Classic on April 6, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
Steve C. Wilson, University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — In most circumstances, the one-word text message University of Utah track and field/cross-country coach Kyle Kepler has occasionally gotten on Saturday mornings would be at the very least random, but perhaps closer to creepy.

When “Eyeballs” has popped up on his phone from senior Caitlin Faust during cross-country season, however, he hasn’t thought twice about it, instead continuing to prepare for his team’s weekly trip to Park City to get a long run in.

That’s because in addition to her academic and athletic pursuits, Faust, who hails from Stone Mountain, Georgia, has spent the past three years working with Dr. Greg Hageman at University of Utah Health’s Moran Eye Center on a study to find a cure for age-related macular degeneration, an incurable disease that is the leading cause of blindness in the United States.

As part of Faust’s responsibilities, she’s been on “eye call” on weekends, meaning she could be needed to go to the Utah Lions Eye Bank in Murray to get tissue from donated eyes after a person has died. She would then perform detailed dissections of the eye tissue.

Sometimes that “any moment” would be in the middle of the night, meaning Faust couldn’t get proper sleep, making going to practice or with her team to Park City unrealistic. Her work, athletic and academic endeavors have become a balancing act, but an act Faust has ultimately excelled at.

Athletically, she was an All-Pac-12 selection in 2018 and her name is prominent in the school record books. She ranks in the top 10 in Utes history in three individual events (fourth in the 600 meters, seventh in the outdoor 800 meters and ninth in the indoor 800 meters) and was a member of two relay teams that rank in the top five (second in the distance medley relay and third in the indoor 4x400 medley relay).

University of Utah runners Caitlin Faust, left, and Sarah Newton at the Utah Spring Classic in Salt Lake City on April 6, 2018.
Steven Earl, Utah Athletics

In her job, Hageman says Faust is in “the top 2%” of students he’s had work for him during his approximately 30-year career. Meanwhile, Faust has received all-academic honors in each year she’s competed (she took a planned redshirt year in 2019, and part of garnering academic honors is participating in a certain number of competitions).

“It’s been awesome for her,” Kepler said of Faust’s unique job. “You just see her light up when she talks about it. It’s been something that’s been important to her and her development not only professionally, but as a person, too. I think she really takes it seriously and really enjoys being part of that program and working for that doctor, so we want to promote that.

“We want to make sure that she has every chance to do that, and if that means that her long run doesn’t happen Saturday morning with the team and it has to happen later in the day or the next day or whatever, then that’s what we do.”

Faust, for her part, has tried to compensate for times when she’s had to attend to her job by making a special effort to ensure she eats well, gets good sleep and maximizes her training time, whenever it may be.

“I couldn’t have done anything without him, because he really allowed me in a way to do this,” she said of Kepler. “He really allowed me that opportunity, because a lot of coaches would say no. I just feel like I balanced it in a positive way, and it was fun for me. Sometimes it was hard, but it’s worth it.”

With the goal of one day becoming a physician, Faust progressed to the point that last summer, she started doing more than just eye call. Now, her responsibilities include clinical research, working with patients who are in the study and data analysis.

A few months ago, Hageman recalled, Faust came into his office and brought up the fact she will be graduating soon and would miss the job. Just a few hours later, she had a formal offer from Hageman to continue working for him full time.

“She is one of my superstars,” Hageman said. “Incredible. ... I can count on her 100%. She’s a joy to have. The team, they all love her to death. She’s so enthusiastic and she just never misses a beat and the quality of her work is superb.”

Moving forward, the coronavirus pandemic has made Faust’s future a bit more unsettled. She was planning to work for Hageman after graduation in May, but now that spring sport seniors have been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, she’s considering that option.

“I’m still a little on the fence,” she said, “but if I can come back for another year, I’m definitely wanting to.”

Ultimately, Kepler is supportive of whatever decision Faust makes.

“She’s done an amazing job for us,” he said. “If that time’s supposed to end now then it’ll end, and if it’s supposed to continue on one more outdoor season, then we would love to have her back.”