By: HUNTER DONELSON
I started running cross country in my eighth-grade year. I wasn’t very great to start out, but most people I spoke to said I looked like I was born with the natural ability to run. It took some time, but after a few weeks of practicing everyday, I thought I was great. Our first big meet, the Independence City Championship, was coming up in a couple of weeks and I wanted to make sure I was ready. Every day the heat was unbearable, but looking back we definitely could have worked harder than we did. It was only middle school so “practicing hard” was kind of nonexistent. Most of us didn’t even know what we were capable of yet.
The meet came faster than I can remember. I was distracted by the beginning of school, that’s always a hectic time. The meet was only a couple of days away and I was more nervous than getting on my first roller coaster ride. I had never done it before and many of my teammates hadn’t either.
In middle school, there’s an A-Team, B-Team, and C-Team. A-Team would be equivalent to varsity for high school, B-Team would be JV, and C-Team would be comparable to a freshman team. Being on A-team wasn’t something I really worried about, I was aware I was one of our top runners. Most of the other guys just had some more experience than I did.
What really started to get to me was how good the competition was going to be. I knew we didn’t have the best team, but in the back of my mind, I also knew we had the ability to make something great happen.
The meet was hosted by Fort Osage High School and our team was the favorite against the three other schools: Osage Trail, Bingham, and Nowlin. We had more of an overall solid team than the rest. There were a couple of guys we had that were definitely capable of winning it. However, I didn’t necessarily believe I was one of them. The girls ran first and I can’t say watching them made me any less nervous. Our teammate, Rian Caswell, won the girls’ race. This made me start feeling the pressure in greater strides.
My mom came to the meet, she told me to just go out there and run, don’t be too self-conscious. Hearing her helped a little bit, but, I still had so many scenarios running through my mind. What if I get out too fast and bonk? What if I don’t get out fast enough and can’t cover enough ground to catch up?
We started our warm-up run. My teammates weren’t really acting like they cared very much, so I tried to do the same. I figured the less I thought about it, the less nervous I would be. It worked all the way up until we got to the starting line. During warm ups Coach Stockdale came to me and said, “Your talent is there, now it’s time to combine all your hard training with it and I know it will turn into success.” I looked to my left and to my right, I didn’t know there were so many runners in our race. Despite my nerves, I was ready.
The starter said, “runners on your mark,” we stepped up to the line. He shot the gun. We all took off but someone had fallen and we had to start all over. This agitated me even more and my nervousness reached its peak. All the runners came back and we did it again. This time, once the gunshot off I slipped and almost fell within the first twenty feet of the race which would’ve resulted in a disqualification and, essentially, heartbreak. The slip up put me behind and nowhere near I wanted to be. My beginning strategy had been to get out in front early. That plan was already out the window. After that, I had mentally reached a point of total isolation, like nothing was around me. I was completely focused. It was just me and the mile-long path to the finish line.
I caught back up after about a quarter mile and saw one of our guys, Austin Lewis, in first place. Austin and I had been going back and forth all year between winning races but this one was mine to take. I got right up to him and smiled, I think he may have saw it out of the corner of his eye. I picked up the pace and left him behind with the rest of the competition. There was still a half mile left but I had no signs of slowing down. There was a sharp right turn and as I turned I did something they tell every runner not to do: look back at the rest of the runners. I took the turn as I looked over my left shoulder. As I did that, I went shin-deep into a hole in the ground and turned my ankle. I was at least one hundred meters ahead with a little under a half mile left, however, every step shooting pain up my leg. I was fortunate that pretty much the rest of the course was flat ground.
Once I came up a small hill about one hundred fifty meters from the finish line I started running almost full sprint while grimacing in pain. I came across the finish line and heard everyone clapping and cheering. Once I got out of the shoot I dropped to the ground. I started to unlace my shoes as the trainer attending the meet ran up to me. “Leave the shoe on, it will prevent swelling,” she said as she taped an ice pack around my ankle. I left the shoe on and made my first attempt to stand on my own. Right back down I went. The trainer helped me to my feet and assisted me to our team’s tent. I laid with the ice pack on for about ten minutes before I decided to try and stand on my own. This time I was able to stand up and hobble off the pain. I sat back down and pulled off my shoe and sock to take a look. My ankle had swollen up the size of a tennis ball and started to turn a dark purple color.
Coach Stockdale came over to me, “Are you going to be okay? We need you this season,” he said with a giggle. “It looks a lot worse than it feels right now, the ice has helped numb out the pain. I’ll be fine,” I replied. He then congratulated me, “I knew you had it in you, you’re going to be special one day if you keep this up.” I thanked him as he helped me to my feet to go inside for the award ceremony.
Our team sat around a table talking away when the guy on the microphone came on and announced we would be starting awards. They did the girls first and our best runner, Rian, got her first place medal. Not only did Rian win, but the girls’ team took home first place as city champions. He got to us and as they shuffled through each runner in the top fifteen until they got down to the top three We already had four guys up there. It wasn’t official yet, but we had a good feeling the city championship was ours.
In third was a guy from Bingham Middle School, Tanner Jolley, that would eventually become my biggest running rival in high school. Second place was claimed by Austin, who also came close to winning the previous season. Then it was me, the announcer went on to declare“ in first place and your 2015 boys city champion, Hunter Donelson!” It caught me off guard when he didn’t stop after that, “I also thought it would be worth mentioning that Mr. Donelson has also set a new course record with a time of 5:26.” In the moment I didn’t really know what to think. Everyone in the cafeteria clapped as I walked up to get my medal, my teammates were the most hyped with all their yelling and dancing.
Even after that, the celebration wasn’t over. Team awards were given out and we found out we had swept across the board. Coach Stockdale told us it could have easily been the best performance Pioneer Ridge has ever had in its 15 years of existence, and I was the winning runner.
As the season went along I learned that the harder you work, the better you will become and the more success you will have. This realization is a big step forward for any athlete. By the end of my eighth-grade cross country season, I racked up six top-five finishes and two wins. It wasn’t really until high school where I started to figure out that hard work is not only a big factor in the running world but in the real world as well. I started applying that to my school work, family, and faith. If it weren’t for cross country, I wouldn’t be the same runner or person as I am today. I worked harder than ever during that cross country season. Everyone saw the talent I had when running, but I wanted to take it one step farther. I began training as hard as I could so I could combine my talent and training. That’s when athletes reach their peak, even the pros.
Going into high school my freshman year, I didn’t completely know what to expect. All I knew was the races were longer. They went from a little over a mile in middle school to 3.1 miles in high school. I also heard that the practices weren’t necessarily harder, just a lot more intense. What I did know for sure is that I would do whatever I had to do to continue my progression as a runner.
After we started racking up practices I could feel myself getting better. Then a recurring injury I had in the past got to me again, back spasms. Shortly after my eighth-grade season, I was in physical therapy for around four months due to these spasms. I struggled accepting what had happened, but there was nothing I could do about it except continue telling myself to work hard in recovery and come back better than ever.
I returned to running in the spring for track season and worked my tail off because I knew I was out of shape from my injury. The very first meet of the season, and my track career, I ran a 6:01 mile, the worst I had ever run. I didn’t know what to think. Should I be upset that I ran that slow even though what happened was out of my control? Or should I brush it off and hope for better on the next one? Of course, I did the first one.
I slowly progressed each meet of the year until we got down to the last few meets. Our next one was in Gardner, Kansas. Although some would argue that it was too cold outside, for me personally, it was the perfect running weather. During warm ups I had a pretty good feeling I could have a good race because I didn’t have any nerves, it was just another race to me.
There wasn’t really a strategy, if I had to pick something it would be to stay with the guys up front. I put that in action and ran the fastest mile I had ever run before at 5:18. Coach Summers was proud of me and recognized the work I put in. “Keep working at it and one day I believe you will be on your way to state,” he told me. I took his advice and used it throughout my sophomore season to hit another big PR (personal record) in the two mile.
I realized that people should never have doubt or set limits to what they can and can’t do, not only as runners but anyone with a life. I’m not a big superstar or anything. However, once you realize this aspect and apply it to everything you do, you can go do anything you want. Hard work really does pay off. That will be what I tell myself for the rest of my life.