Cross-country is a different kind of sport.
Members of the cross-country team ran an improvised dirt road course set up by coach Stuart Holmes on Thursday 5 miles northwest of Hillsboro. When the four members of the girls team crested the first hill, they came across a small turtle sitting in the middle of the roadway. Momentarily flustered, Karyn Leihy kicked the reptile to right embankment.
“Don’t do that,” teammate Samantha Ens exclaimed.
Leihy quickly ran to the side of the road and turned the turtle on to its stomach, and returned to the pack smiling. The turtle had not suffered any injuries.
Four miles worth of hilly running later, Amy Bartel prepared to run her third leg of the course. However, she was perplexed; on her previous lap her foot fell asleep while she was running, an uncomfortable and slowing experience.
Holmes’ response was merely, “Strange things happen.”
For freshmen runners Leihy and Emily Sechrist, what has been strange, or at least unexpected, has been their unprecedented success.
The two runners have combined to set girls cross-country record the past four meets.
Most recently, Sept. 20 at Southeast of Saline, Sechrist ran a new personal best time of 15 minutes, 23.18 seconds, which was good enough for a third-place finish at the meet. The time was more than 2:30 better than the record of 18:03 set before the 2011 season by Heidi Schroeder in 2008.
“My goal was to break it before I graduated,” Sechirst said. “I was really surprised.”
Adding to Sechrist’s recent success is Leihy, who has also broken the previous record in every meet this season. She ran a time of 16:25.41 at SES. Leihy started the run of record-breaking performances Sept. 3 at the J.K. Gold Classic in Augusta. She ran a time of 17:25, still a substantial margin over the previous record.
“I was happy to get it,” Leihy said. “It was a cool achievement.”
One of the tasks that Holmes stresses to all of his runners is to improve in every meet and in every practice. He does not expect his runners to set personal bests at every meet but small improvements in running form or effort are noted and praised.
However, Sechrist and Leihy have set new personal bests in nearly every meet this season.
“It’s great to coach these quality kids because they work at it,” Holmes said of his entire team. “Whether they’re middle of the pack, front, or in the back, they will see improvement and that’s what makes it fun.”
Leihy improved her time by a full minute from Sept. 6 to Sept. 20, moving from 17:25 to 17:03, Sept. 15 at Peabody, and finally 16:25.
Sechrist started with a shocking performance at Wamego, setting a time of 16:23.29. Most runners’ times are much slower at the steep course. She then improved to 15:46 at Peabody and finished at 15:23 at SES.
“To show how well she is running, the two girls that beat her both ran under the Southeast of Saline course record of 15:18,” Holmes said.
While the success of Sechrist and Leihy has been unexpected, it has not happened by accident.
“They’re very dedicated,” Holmes said. “These kids running this summer, it takes a lot of dedication and self discipline.”
Having been teammates and friends on the Hillsboro Middle School track team, Sechrist and Leihy ran together in the offseason, often twice a day, in the early morning and evening.
Leihy wanted to run 100 miles so she could travel with the team for its camp near Puebla, Colo. Both runners ran more than that; Sechrist ended up with 173 miles but she did not travel to Colorado because of a conflict.
Holmes said the motivation of the trip helped his team condition this summer. While the Trojans did run at a higher altitude in the mornings, they also participated in outdoor activities and climbed Pike’s Peak.
The trip was one example of team building exercises Holmes has fostered throughout the season. Leihy remembers after an especially hot practice that the team ran through sprinklers.
“He wants us to push ourselves, but he lets us run our speed,” Leihy said. “Coach is really lenient.”
Cross-country is an individual sport defined by personal achievement. It is one of the aspects of the sport that appeals to Sechrist.
“The feeling you get after a race: you did it, you didn’t have to depend on anyone else,” she said.
However, Sechrist and Leihy are still part of a team, and they need each other. They said they help push each other, although it does not always seem that way to Leihy who is often lagging behind.
“I’d say she’s just a bit more competitive,” Leihy said. “Well Emily, I don’t feel like I’m pushing you that much; you’re way ahead of me.”
Sechrist and Leihy might be ushering in a change in Hillsboro cross-country.
While she said she has had nine female teammates over her four-year career, Ens was the only runner on the team her sophomore year and was one of two runners last year.
Ens said it has been nice having more girls on the team this year; that it has pushed her to run faster. She is also excited at the chance see her freshmen teammates compete for a spot at the state meet Oct. 29 in Lawrence.
“The nice thing about cross-country is that they all root for each other,” Holmes said.
Many people focus on the negative aspects of cross-country. There is no question that the sport is grueling, requiring a lot of hard work.
“Cross-country is not the most glamorous sport,” Sechrist said.
However, Sechrist and Leihy have focused on the positives. Like their encounter with the turtle Thursday, they enjoy the scenery, the setting of cross-country.
“You don’t just run in a circle,” Leihy said.
There is the freedom, open practices, where runners can chose to push them or take it easier to let their body recover.
There is also the companionship of teammates who push one another to excel.
“You grow a lot with your teammates,” Sechrist said.
If they keep up this pace, Sechrist and Leihy will push Hillsboro girls cross-country to new heights.
Results from SES meet Sept. 20
9. Bret Mueller, 18:33.31; 11. Josh Richert, 18:35.90; 35. Dylan Hill, 19:54.67; 57. Daniel Gray, 20:50.60; 59. Jordan Bezdek, 20:51.53