All ten North girls, decked out in their new team warm-ups, descended from the bus on the first chilly morning of the season. In spite of a lingering cough, Sydnie slipped back into the role of leader for her team. Fellow-senior Ashleigh, done with her last summer obligations, was ready to kick off her farewell season. Lone freshman Cheyenne was sufficiently recovered from mono to make her high school cross-country debut. However, only eight were there to race, with sophomore Calina on the sidelines still recovering from a knee injury alongside newly-limping Vidhi.
As the runners hatched warm-up plans, the coaches plotted out their strategy. For North, this, the Mentor Cardinal Classic was the first race of the season with both a varsity and a JV race. The coaches decided that Cheyenne, Mollee and Caitlin would run in the JV race, so Cheyenne could experience less pressure in her first high school race and Mollee and Caitlin would have an opportunity to race with more runners at their level, rather than mostly alone like last time.
This decision left Sydnie, Natalie, Lydia, Ashleigh and Hannah together on the starting line of the varsity race. On paper, before this season, these five varsity runners would be seeded thusly: Sydnie, Natalie, Ashleigh, Lydia, Hannah. But so far, Natalie and Lydia have been leading the team together with Hannah holding steady behind them. How would the two seniors change the dynamic? Would everyone fall in line?
Early September, 1995
I remember running on the Garfield Park course when I was 16 in Mentor, Ohio (pronounced “Menner” by locals). The course explores the former estate of the 20th President of the United States, with sections that follow the tree lines around soccer fields or take runners crunching across paved paths and roads in their spikes before dipping back into the woods. I always liked this race because it felt like the first really big meet of the season for my team and there was a sizable field of other girls at my level; it’s easy for me to see why the coaches put the back of their team into the JV race.
The North girls set off on their warm-up directly into the early morning sun and, despite expecting to finish more than ten minutes ahead of some of the others, Sydnie ensured the team stayed together as they surveyed the course. Even so, after a mile of jogging, Caitlin felt it imprudent to run so much with hours to go before her race and decided to walk the course behind the rest of the team.
After the course preview, the varsity girls headed to the start. Sydnie was as comfortable with her own teammates as she was talking to the competitors and other team’s coaches who greeted her along the way. Her focus is impressive and she demonstrates poise in the face of pressure better than most adults. Whether her teammates fully comprehend her influence on them is unclear, but after seeing them twice on the starting line without her, there was a noticeable difference. Of course, Sydnie’s presence was not the only change; Ashleigh was also there for the first time this season.
While Syd is cool, Ashleigh is warm; not only do her own pre-race nerves wash away when she flashes the brightest smile on the field, her teammates seem more at ease with her there. One can’t help wonder if all this warmth is a reaction to being so physically cold: while the entire field had long shed warm-ups, Ashleigh kept hers on. And an extra t-shirt, and a hoodie. When officials called the runners over for instructions, the other girls jogged away giggling at her frantically shedding layers in time to make it. She did, but just barely. She was the last girl to join the field, beaming all the while.
Early September, 1995
For most of high school I was the slowest runner on my school’s team by far, always the last to finish (some history here). But at the Mentor meet during my sophomore year, as I turned a corner somewhere in the final mile I found myself directly behind a teammate I’d never even come close to before. She was naturally athletic, and because of her talent I would have expected her to be running at the front of our JV crew. In retrospect I can surmise that she hadn’t trained much over the summer, whereas I had been working hard to build my strength and log miles, and somewhere around the 2.5 mile mark of this 5k, it placed me right on her heels.
In the long run, hard work always trumps talent. But back then, when I saw the unmistakeable school-bus-yellow numbers on the back of my teammate’s blue singlet, all I knew was that I wanted to beat her.
In our last installment of North, we talked about the push/pull relationship of Natalie and Lydia, the team’s 2nd and 3rd runners. “I get really annoyed sometimes,” says Natalie, “because I’ll want to relax and slow down, but I look over and Lydia’s always right there.” She went on to say she’s more concerned about Lydia passing her than their competitors! It would be inaccurate to say the internal competition didn’t generate any friction, but this is also just a different kind of camaraderie.
With Syd back, the pressure is off Natalie to lead the team, but that doesn’t mean Lydia isn’t still looking up to her. “She’s so talented. She didn’t run last year and is second on the team,” Lydia said about her, with a lot of admiration and a little envy. As the fastest underclassman on the team, Lydia is looking forward to claiming her spot as team captain in two years. And as she looks ahead to junior Natalie and senior Sydnie, it might be easy to expect that she will always be running just behind them. Overtaking the older girls might not only feel difficult, it may even seem unnatural.
But it’s far from out of the question. Lydia works hard and is driven. And if she can get around the idea that she will always be right behind the older girls, her hard work will inevitably propel her ahead. If Natalie relies solely on her talent, she could soon find herself following Lydia. But if she pushes herself and tries to hang onto Sydnie, how fast could she be? Could she find herself in the lead? Is that even plausible? Is she using Lydia as a barometer instead of Syd? That seems very plausible. What is Natalie really capable of?
As for Sydnie, it seems lonely at the top. With no one currently challenging her on the team, it’s easy to wonder if she’s lacking for competition of her own. At practice, Syd is either running alone or with the faster boys, but there’s no question that she works hard. Even so, if she had a Lydia of her own chasing her down, would that help her push harder?
With the race underway, the North girls fell in line, for the first time demonstrating their complete varsity lineup. At the first mile mark Sydnie, who had a nasty bronchial coughing fit minutes before the start, already looked frustrated trying to keep contact with the back of the lead pack of at least two dozen girls. Again in front of the middle was Natalie with Lydia right behind, and then not too far back were Ashleigh and Hannah together behind them.
These two are a bit of an odd couple: Ashleigh’s relaxed personality lends her toward running fearlessly, where Hannah runs with the bravery of one pushing herself through fear. Racing together seemed good for them both, but especially Hannah, who had by far her best performance of the season. She hung onto Ashleigh for more than half the race and finished just thirty seconds behind her.
Ashleigh pushes Hannah near the mile mark.
Early September, 1995
After the initial surprise at catching up to one of my teammates for the first time came a flash of hope: can I pass her? I knew I had about half a mile to go and she was still pretty far ahead, but just seeing her meant I had a chance to change the narrative. In the hierarchy of our team, she was supposed to be ahead of me, I was supposed to be the last one through the chute. But here in front of me was an opportunity to remove those assumptions and claim a new place in the hierarchy, and that opportunity was enough to dig up something from inside of me and propel me forward harder and faster than I had ever thought I could.
As the race wore on, the look of frustration on Sydnie’s face deepened. She was running well despite this being her first race in a long time and despite recovering from illness, but with each and every race, Sydnie is ferociously determined to put North and herself on the map. Even with no competitor to pass as she charged into the chute in a gap between the top packs she forced herself to sprint and finish under 21:xx, if for no other reason than to set a slightly better tone for her season than she would if she let those several seconds slip. Even so, her demeanor slumped into disappointment the moment she crossed the line.
We’ve all felt that strange dissatisfaction that comes with doing your best on a day that is not your best day, but when it’s the first race of your senior season and you want to go to State with every fiber of your being, there’s no comfort in 34th place. This is true even if you have a cold, or you’re rusty or when an overwhelming number of the girls ahead of you run for teams that are more than double, sometimes four or five times, the size of your own with multiple girls vying for the top spot. But it’s especially true when you know you’re capable of more.
One minute and 40 seconds later, Natalie flew into the finish with Lydia just three seconds behind her. Both broke 23 minutes, the first time this season for Natalie and the first time ever for Lydia even after taking a tumble with about 1,000 meters to go. One minute later Ashleigh finished her first race of the season with a strong showing, just one minute shy of the PR she’d set at the end of last year and then Hannah about 30 seconds later, with another season’s best performance.
Early September, 1995
I zeroed my vision in on my teammate’s ponytail and forced myself to sprint. More. Faster. I could see the chute up ahead and I was nearly there, almost an arm’s length away, when she saw me and picked up the pace. I could tell she was working to stay ahead of me. My legs burned, my lungs ached and I thought I was at the end of my ability, but just before the chute she faltered and I saw that I might have an opening. The words screamed in my head: “I CAN!” and I shot ahead of her and over the finish line.
Afterward, we hugged and she congratulated me on an excellent race. We were teammates and friends, and a little competition wasn’t going to change that. Still, even though I tried, she started working harder at practice and never let me beat her again. Instead of our competition dividing us, it made us work together so we both improved, and made our whole team stronger.
The varsity squad (from left): Lydia (10), Hannah (11), Natalie (11), Ashleigh (12), Sydnie (12).
As for the JV squad, freshman Cheyenne demonstrated she can compete with Vidhi, almost matching the upper classman’s season best. Mollee chipped further away at that 30 minute goal, and Caitlin once again logged a PR.
Have you ever had a big breakthrough that challenged others’ expectations of you? Have you ever finished ahead of someone you weren’t “supposed” to?
We’ll be back next week with our next installment of North.
For past posts in this series, go here.
You can see the full results of the Mentor Cardinal Classic here.