North: The Lone Ranger

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It always comes down to Sydnie.

For four seasons, she has led North Rangers Girls Cross Country, this small team of underdogs who could always count on her to make them proud. When other teams dismissed them, Sydnie was there passing their fastest runners. When her teammates focused on keeping up and competing with each other, Sydnie was there claiming North’s place among schools with larger, faster teams. When her teammates looked to her for when to warm up, what to wear, what drill to do next, Sydnie was there, relying on herself to know and lead them. And when the season turned into the post-season, Sydnie was there, the lone Ranger, taking North to Regionals and, she desperately hoped, the State Championship.

After captaining her teammates for her last season, Sydnie traveled 80 miles to race without them at the Youngstown Regional Cross Country Tournament. It was her fourth chance to compete for a spot at the state meet and, as she was very aware, her final shot.


EXCEPTIONAL

Sure it’s great to win ribbons, hear your name on the announcements, have other runners know who you are. But being exceptional can be very lonely, especially in high school.

Of course Syd has friends on her team who she cares about and who care about her, but none can pace her in workouts. None can commiserate about how to compete with other schools’ runners, let alone run as a pack with her to help the cause. They don’t understand how it feels when top runners from other schools scoff at the idea that a girl from North could beat them. And not one of them can challenge her to be better or know what it feels like to have the weight of an entire team, even an entire school on her shoulders. And when you’re exceptional, it can feel like everyone always expects you to effortlessly succeed.

Sydnie handles all this pressure very well. But she’s only human, and barely seventeen; we can’t expect any more from her than what any seventeen year old, even an exceptional one, could achieve in her circumstance. Of course we always hope for miracles, but we can’t expect them; not only is it unfair to her, it would be a set-up for disappointment.

Sydnie and Coach James before Regionals

Coach James keeps Sydnie’s spirits high before the start of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Cross Country Tournament in Youngstown, Ohio.

READY

Early in the season, Syd gave a talk to her team, reaffirming her belief that the entire North girls team could advance to Regionals. And if the team could do that, then Sydnie certainly could make it to State. To believe her team could achieve that miracle, she had to believe that getting to State was as close to an inevitability as she could believe it to be. With each passing season of high school cross country, the hope for Syd’s State Championship race burned brighter, every year feeling more and more like destiny. By now, her senior year, that hope had grown so big and so strong that it began to take on the shape of an expectation.

If the post-season went exactly as it had in previous years, going to State would be well within Sydnie’s grasp. In previous years the state split the teams into four Regional Tournaments, each with approximately the same number of teams and runners. From each Region, the top four teams and any individual runners in the top 16 overall advanced to State. But that system meant sending some teams from the populous Northeast to the Northwest Region.

But this year Ohio’s high school athletics officials loaded up North’s District and Regional Tournaments with more of the state’s best teams. Instead of making some Northeastern teams travel so far away, the state decided to consolidate all the Northeast Ohio teams in one Region and advance more teams and more runners to balance things out. That meant in Sydnie’s race, the top eight teams and any individuals in the top 32 runners would advance to state.

Now, knowing that Sydnie came in 27th at Regionals last year, you might think this is great news! But while there were 16 more spots to go to State this year than last, there were at least twice as many speedy girls heading to Youngstown to snatch them up, the vast majority competing with full teams.

And if you look at the results from Regional races on any given year, you’ll see that very few individuals, girls racing without any teammates, advance. The vast majority of those that do qualify for State compete with their team, or at least alongside a teammate or two.

Sydnie (784) deep in the middle of the pack near the start of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament. Sydnie (784) deep in the middle of the pack near the start of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament.

Another thing to consider is how competitive Sydnie would be on her best day. On her best day, yes, she has a shot. On a day she feels confident and relaxed, on a day with good weather, on a day when everything lines up, yes, Sydnie could make it, as she could have any of the four years she raced there. But the hope all along this season was that Sydnie would have a breakthrough and race significantly faster than the year before. If she could do that, getting to State would be far less of a miracle.

But the fact is, there was no breakthrough. With a late start to her season and several setbacks along the way, she came within nine seconds of matching her 19:28 PR from last year, but didn’t quite beat it.

Given how the season unfolded, that is an accomplishment, and there’s no denying Sydnie is a great athlete. But at best, going into this Regionals, she had a slightly better shot at making it than she had her previous three years, based mostly on her experience and how badly she wanted it, rather than on improved ability. So, yes, making it to State was possible, but not even close to a sure thing.

On the starting line at the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament, Sydnie was one of 100 girls who had a shot at finishing in the top 32. Of those 100, it would come down to who had everything line up for her during the race.

Youngstown cross country regionals field with Sydnie, center

BEYOND THE BULLSEYE

Obviously, making it to State would be a huge success, but for a State berth to be considered the only marker of Syd’s success would be cruel given her odds of achieving it were approaching miracle-level. In fact, just being there, just having a shot at State — not that we have to tell you this by now — for the fourth straight year is an incredible accomplishment.

Speaking of accomplishments, no matter how her season ended, Sydnie is leaving behind a much stronger group of runners on the North team than that which started the season. She inspired her younger teammates so much, especially sophomore Lydia, who, on her sixteenth birthday, boarded a bus at 9:30 a.m. to head across the state to warm-up with and cheer for Sydnie at her 3:00 p.m. race. Vidhi, Lydia, Calina, and Caitlin wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Cross country fans cheering

Sydnie’s North teammates cheering for her at the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament in Youngstown, Ohio. From left: Vidhi, Lydia, Calina, Caitlin, and Nick A.

AIM

As Sydnie went through her prerace routine with Lydia by her side she seemed nervous, but her bright smile broke through her usual stoicism far more than it had before Districts. Everyone else – her dad, her teammates, her coaches – seemed more anxious than she was. She wanted it bad, but, perhaps more than anyone around her, also seemed realistic in her expectations. If anyone knew how much the stars would have to align for this to happen, it was her.

At Districts last week, Sydnie employed the strategy she had practiced in the preceding races of going out at a controlled pace for the first mile and then working to pick runners off the second two miles, but this strategy only paid off with 18th place and barely advanced her to Regionals. Here, she and her coaches decided to try a more aggressive first mile, trying to stay in contact with 32nd place. Her goal was to be somewhere in the 40s through the mile before patiently moving up over the rest of the race. This risky strategy put Syd at the mercy of how fast those other girls ran the first mile. If it went too fast like in Strongsville she risked blowing up, but if she could hang on, it could pay off with a ticket to State.

The sun burned bright in the sky as Lydia wished her good luck and jogged away toward the team’s cheer spot. Mid-seventies and no cloud cover on October 22 came as quite a shock to runners who raced and trained during the previous week in mid-40s, rain, and wind. This race would favor those who run well in the heat.

Sydnie did a stride and shook out her legs while she stood on the line, alone. Then came the gun.

 

Syd powers up a steep hill in the first mile

Sydnie charges up a hill during the first mile of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament.

FIRE

To execute the plan, she had to fight from the moment the gun sounded, but Sydnie was all in.

At about the half mile mark and she roared up a hill, passing girl after girl as she hunted for that 32nd place. She was right where she planned to be at the mile mark, but there was barely any room for error in a giant pack of runners vying for the same thirty-two spots. By halfway through the race, reality set in. The fast pace was taking its toll, perhaps some of the pressure too. She knew.

Near the two mile mark Vidhi, Lydia, Caitlin and Calina craned their necks toward the cascade of runners flying down the same steep hill Sydnie had eaten alive earlier. Calina, in charge of counting, shook her head as girl after girl flew by them. Then there she was, wrestling with a disappointment that registered on her face.

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But soon, with only three-quarters of a mile to go, realizing it was her last chance to race cross country as a Ranger, she dug deep and began to fight.

Now it wasn’t about the thirty-second spot; now it was for herself, to prove who she really is. Sydnie is not a quitter. Sydnie is not a choker. She’s a young woman, a runner, a warrior. Here, at the end of her cross country career at North, Sydnie refused to let the moment be about fixating on the failure. Instead, she made the moment a fight for every last bit of success.

At the finish line, girl after girl hurdled herself over, some even lay on it, spent. Sydnie pushed herself as hard as she could in a tight pack of girls and teetered on her feet as she stepped over others lying on the ground. Then she succumbed, too, crumpling to her knees. Kneeling, but completely vertical, she looked at once exhausted and shell shocked.

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She got up and walked further into the finishing area, still stepping over bodies, and found another girl from a neighboring school who was representing her team by herself too. They commiserated about what just happened to them for a moment, before the other girl left Sydnie alone once again, to sit and reflect and make sense of it all. Finally her dad made his way over to check on her and after a brief exchange where she communicated her disappointment succinctly, she grabbed her spikes and walked away. He called after her, caught her up in a hug, and there, finally, she cried.

Who wouldn’t? It was not the miracle, the happiest ending, the justice that it felt like she was due. Sydnie is a great kid, a hard worker, a leader, someone who does everything right and plays by the rules, and succeeds despite … everything. WHY couldn’t she get what she wanted? If anyone should, it’s her.

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But that’s not how running works.

Prize

Last night the team in fancy street clothes assembled in the auditorium to celebrate their season. After the coaches handed out the awards, including the well-earned Legend Award to Sydnie, she took the floor to address the crowd including her teammates, coaches, and families. After thanking everyone for their support she said:

“Running isn’t just running. Running taught me to be the person I am today.”

Sydnie's teammates waiting for her at the tent

The team greets Sydnie with cheers as she returns from the finish of the 2016 Youngstown Regional Tournament race.

***

Don’t fret! Their season may be over, but our series North is not! Stay tuned for another installment soon!

For past posts in this series, go here.

You can see the full results of the 2016 Youngstown Division I Girls Regional Tournament  here

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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8 comments

  1. Every week I look forward to these articles! I don’t think I’ve finished one with a dry eye! I love how you capture the heart and soul of each girl. What a wonderful way to document a memorable year! This team has so much heart and potential. They’ll do great things! I’m happy I’ll still be able to follow their new successes! On a personal note, I’m grateful to have these articles as a documentation of Sydnie’s final season. Running really means the world to her and has truly made her who she is today. I always love reading your perspective on each race. Thank you for this last article. Regionals wasn’t the result she wanted but yes, she really is a winner because of all she has learned from running❤️

  2. Thank you Salty and Cinnamon for your ongoing support this cross country season! You guys did an outstanding job. The girls will always have their entire season to look back on and will be forever grateful! Keep up the awesome work!!

  3. Being a teenager is hard, being a teenager with pressure to succeed is even harder. I have truly enjoyed the North series so far, and felt like I really got to know the girls just through the posts. Sydnie may not have made it to states, but so amazing that she and her teammates can recognize the successes that were still there. I love that they were also there to cheer for her during and after the race, far less of a “lone ranger” that way <3

  4. another wonderful piece in this series! These experiences in the lives of the North girls will stick with them – and shape them through their lives. If running doesn’t end up being what they stick with, I hope they find another path to continue to challenge themselves!

    (ps My 5 year old daughter loved the photos and is inspired to run cross country when she is old enough!)

  5. “And when you’re exceptional, it can feel like everyone always expects you to effortlessly succeed.” Awwww I love this SO much. Disappointment is so hard to swallow. I won the equivalent of this award in music at my high school, and despite my outstanding display of musicianship, I never landed the coveted field commander spot. After representing my school at a district honor band (the band equivalent to regionals) for an unprecedented 4 years, I still couldn’t make it as field commander. I remember when I received the news, I went home and cried. And it wasn’t a “wah, I didn’t get what I want” cry. But a cry exactly as you described above. Of course this disappointment also came BEFORE I won the school-wide award, but it was still so difficult to comprehend as a 17-year-old. I haven’t thought about that moment for years, but I can certainly relate. Much love to the North Rangers and Sydnie! Thank you for sharing your exceptional-ness with us. :)

    1. I think it’s particularly hard as a teenager to keep striving and trying even when you can’t achieve the thing that will impress everyone. Most of the people in a girl’s life don’t know the nuances of cross country and what an achievement making it to Regionals four times is, particularly on your own. But if you could say “I went to State” then it’s an instant “OOOOO!” To go and be your best, as Sydnie did, when it’s not going to lead to that tangible concrete reward, is truly a mark of character and is so inspiring. I hope the other girls on the team see that it’s truly about pushing yourself and doing the best YOU can do in YOUR circumstance, which means mistakes, disappointments, imperfections, and failures intermixed with the achievements, successes, awards, an recognition. You don’t have to be the best at something to be rewarded for being YOUR best.