This year, the women’s cross country team’s success has nothing and everything to do with race times.
By Molly Korzenowski
On a breezy autumn day, 20 girls on the women’s cross country team stand on the starting line at the Chile Pepper Festival held at the University of Arkansas, shoulder to shoulder. Their hands sweat. A million thoughts of doubt run through their minds as they wait for the gun to fire.
This is the feeling that comes on competition day. Races don’t get redos. The women’s cross country team has made improvement this year, ranked number seven in the MIAC and with 10 runners beating their personal best 5K times.
According to Coach Joseph Stephens, the cross country team’s coach of three years, this improvement is a product of the competitiveness and consistent dedication of the girls.
“There’s been a growth and an increase of competitiveness, of dedication to be the best you can, of hunger for success and for development,” Stephens said.
Along with that moral, motivation to succeed is found through fellow teammates. According to Stephens, individual strength can be improved by the uplifting heart of teammates. The unity in the team brings joy to an otherwise strenuous process, helping to keep the persistence of all the girls at a high.
“I’m reminded of a scripture in the book of Proverbs,” Stephens said. “It says ‘as iron sharpens iron one sharpens the other’ and that’s what’s happened to the women’s team over the last three years.”
The faith-based program is a significant contributing factor to the team’s accomplishments, as it stresses the idea that all the girls are uniquely talented as runners. This year, three of the five top runners on the team are from the freshman class.
Freshman Ellie Nelson, who ran her fastest 5K at 18 minutes and 43 seconds at the Arkansas race on Sept. 30, finds her motivation and persistence through a positive mental state and a visual picture of all she has done to get to that race. Her favorite moment comes after the finish line.
“It’s always fun finishing and there’s always a ton of people at the finish line, so it’s always a cool feeling,” Nelson said.
During the race, Nelson quotes Bible verses to herself that she uses to get in the zone and never give up. One of her favorite verses, Ezra 10:4 (NIV), reads, “Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”
Another freshman runner, Anna Hage, with her personal best 5K at 18 minutes and 20 seconds, believes in the value of mental strength as well. Hage relies on the power of goal-oriented thinking and looking forward, as well as the power of the team.
“At those points when you get tired, you just have to think of the team because the team matters, you matter, everyone matters,” Hage said. “I just think, ‘I’m doing this for my teammates’ and that gets you through.”
Both girls have been in cross country since seventh grade, the first year it was offered at their high schools. They fell in love with running: the feeling it brings and the people they meet through it.
Although running can serve as an escape, both girls agree that crossing the finish line always feels good. Hage says that no matter how the race turns out, good or bad, she always can say she left it all out on the course, something that gives her great relief after a rough competition.
For the cross country team, it is much more than a time on a stopwatch (a factor Stephens calls ‘the icing on the cake’).
“It is that moment of truth and also that moment of triumph, when you do push yourself to the limits… that’s probably the most enjoyable part of coaching,” he said.
The team has put forth its best efforts this season through mental, physical and spiritual strength. The positivity and dedication of the runners has clearly paid off, based on the rewarding results of their races. Even as an individual sport, teamwork and relationships are key.
Hage says of running: “My favorite thing is the team community that you get, just having a group of people that get you and go through the same thing. It really brings you close together.”