The cross country life can be a solitary one. It appeals to its share of introverts and lone wolves, for often the runner may find himself or herself all alone, slogging away with nothing but the chirping crickets for accompaniment.
But it’s about to get real crowded. And even in socially distant 2020, that’s OK for Robinson standouts Rachael Hartley and Alex Speer.
Hartley and Speer will be among 56 Central Texas runners who will take on hundreds of the top runners from around the state at the UIL State Cross Country Championships Monday and Tuesday at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. Classes 1A, 3A and 5A will compete Monday, while Classes 2A, 4A and 6A will go Tuesday.
These Rocket runners don’t have the same shoe size, but they’re both tracking a similar path. Both are returning to state for a second straight year, and they should feel good about their chances, since they both dropped personal-best times at last year’s state meet. (Hartley has since bettered her personal record, or PR, this season.)
“They’re key components to the team’s success,” Robinson cross country coach Cain Quiroz said. “(The other runners) all look up to them. As much as they are introverts, because they are, they keep to themselves a lot. But the rest of the team looks up to them and since the summer time, since we started running, we had discussions with them about, ‘The ultimate goal is in November.’ The expectations are always high, especially for elite athletes like they are.”
Speer, a senior, posted the best finish of any Centex runner at the 2019 state meet. He powered to a 5,000-meter time of 15:35.4, finishing fifth in the Class 4A boys’ race, barely a minute behind champion Judson Green of Melissa.
Speer is looking to return to the scene of that crime and steal away even more precious seconds from his top career stopwatch showing.
“My goal is just to break what I ran last year at state,” said Speer, who finished third at the Region III-4A meet earlier this month to qualify for state again. “That was the race of my life. Obviously I haven’t run that many fast times this year, so I’m looking to throw down a monster time at state and get in the top three.”
Speer said his parents signed him up for Waco’s summer track program when he was little. He started out as a sprinter before eventually transitioning into longer distances. He’s hoping to extend his running career into college, but he’s currently undecided on a destination.
And though Speer advanced to state as an individual, he’s grateful for the support of his Rocket teammates.
“I love running with my teammates here at school and the teammates in my select program, and just the knowledge you can gain from your coaches, and the joy after you get done running, words can’t explain it,” Speer said.
Hartley, a junior, started running the mile and two-mile races in track as a freshman. She fared well, and had heard good things about the cross country program, so she came out for that team in 2019.
Turned out to be a sage decision, since she advanced all the way to state. She finished 49th overall in that race, but couldn’t help but be proud of her effort, as her 3,200-meter time of 12:35.5 was her PR by a full 25 seconds.
Now she’s headed back for a second straight year, and she’s hoping now that she knows the lay of the land she’ll climb her way up the leaderboard.
“It definitely does (help), knowing where the course is at least once I can visualize what I can do,” Hartley said. “I can start preparing my mind weeks in advance as far as what my strategy will be.”
Hartley said her goal for state is to drop her PR time “by a significant amount.” She’s shooting for a top-three finish and also has her eye on Robinson’s school record time of 12:12. “I’m hoping at least 12:11,” said Hartley, her eyes revealing a smile behind her COVID-approved mask.
Given that his top runners don’t mind being pushed, Quiroz thinks both Speer and Hartley are fully capable of throwing down some turbo-boosted times at state.
“At regionals, where Alex ran his best, he was really challenged,” Quiroz said. “If you saw his standing at other races, I think he finished first in every other race. But he didn’t have many kids challenging him. It’s hard to gauge when you don’t have that competition.
“Rachael, she’s been there before, she knows the competition. She’s going to push herself to get the numbers that she wants to get. So, I think that with the competitiveness that’s inside of her, it’s within reach, of course.”
Not everyone looks at a long run as a reason for gratitude. The average jogger may view it as a chore. But when you’re a state-bound cross country runner in 2020, you’re filled with appreciation for one more chance to stretch your legs.
“I am definitely thankful for it,” Hartley said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have this community of people, if I wasn’t able to push myself.”
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