Cross-Country Team Finds Its Mojo at First Full Team Meet of the Season
Ask any cross-country runner and they’ll tell you: there’s no better feeling — none — than reaching the end of a race. Crossing the finish line, flopping down in the shade among teammates, finishing what feels like half a bottle of water in one large gulp…it’s the essence of cross country, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
So during the 2020 season, when Greenhills Cross-Country runners donned masks and maintained social distance as soon as races ended, it didn’t feel exactly right. It wasn’t quite cross country.
“We felt less prepared last year,” said senior captain Georgina Branch. “It was a completely different structure. We had to have masks on the line, there were zero spectators, everything was very set in stone.”
“There was more spacing at the start,” echoed head coach Sara LeBlanc, “which made for a little less authentic experience.”
But fast forward a year, and the team has regained its normalcy — and its mojo. At the Gryphons’ first full team meet of the season on Sept. 2, 2021, Greenhills runners celebrated a return not to not-quite normalcy, but at least something that looks a little more like it. They cheered on their teammates ferociously. They sat in the shade to guzzle post-race waters. And to top it all off, some runners shaved several minutes off their previous race times.
Held on a course that wound back and forth through Pioneer High School’s campus, it wasn’t the team’s first official meet of the season. But because of summer activities, scheduling issues, and SATs, it was the first meet that the full team attended.
“I would argue this was our real first big season opener,” LeBlanc said. “It was super exciting to finally see everyone’s training in action and give them a chance to trust the process.”
The team, LeBlanc said, has not only been trusting the process; they’ve been savoring it. After their 2020 season, the Gryphon runners understand that things could be a lot worse, and they can change any time. So they’re giving their all at every practice and pouring themselves wholeheartedly into training.
“There’s been a different level of enthusiasm and care for what we get to do each day,” LeBlanc said, “because we realize that it could shift at any minute.”
This year’s team is a young one. The team had double-digit senior classes for the past three seasons, but this year, the Gryphons are mostly driven by freshmen and sophomores. On the boys’ team, sophomore Lincoln Cha is the team’s only varsity runner returning from last season. Of the team’s 29 members, 19 are freshmen or sophomores. For almost half the team, the race at Pioneer was their first high school race ever.
It’s still near the beginning of the season, but the team has already started putting in the hard work necessary to compete as cross-country runners. Even before the season began, the Gryphons jumped into training. It started with a four-day cross-country camp in Harrisville, on the shore of Lake Huron. The team slept in tents for three nights, in what LeBlanc called “a formative experience.” Camp helped create trust among the team, which in turn helped fuel the team’s training sessions — which has propelled the team in competition.
While the team is still young, at the Pioneer meet, improvement was already visible. Freshman Ayaan Ahmed dropped almost four minutes from his previous race time in what LeBlanc called “a huge mental breakthrough.” Zara Mian, another freshman, ran the first race of her high school career. Cha, getting his first experience leading the pack on race day, finished seventh overall, coming in at 19:39 with an average mile time of less than six and a half minutes. On the girls’ side, sophomore Anika Berry, new to the cross-country team, led the pack with a 14th overall finish and an average mile time of around seven and a half minutes, which, seeing as this was Berry’s first race, should only continue to improve.
“As the competitive atmosphere increases, which it did with this being a varsity race, people were more compelled to push faster,” Branch said.
Now the team continues its training: running endless laps around the track, or running the streets and cross-country trails around Greenhills. They know things can change at any second, which makes every ordinary practice mean even more. They’ll continue to shave seconds or minutes off their race times, getting stronger and building stamina as they go. All cross-country runners know: when you cross the finish line and stagger to the shade, exhausted, energy spent, and muster the strength to gulp down some water before flopping back down to recover your breath and savor the post-race calm, all the hard work is worth it, and then some.
By James Schapiro, Communications and Athletics Information Coordinator