Friday, January 15, 2010

A call from an old friend

Last week, I received a voice mail from my former teacher and coach Mr. Blackledge. He asked me and many other former cross country runners to write a letter about "how running has changed my life" for the 2009 High School Girls Cross Country STATE CHAMPS!
Back in 1993 was really the first year there was cross country, when I was a freshman in high school...and in 12 years, HH went from having NO team to having a state championship team.

To the team of 2009: Congratulations on your incredible achievement!!! To have nearly an entire team in the 19’s or below and 5 All-State runners is incredible and every one of you should be very proud of your victory! You all are such awesome runners and you have left your legacy for Hanover Horton High School. Younger runners will strive to have a team as good as yours! There are so many former runners who share this joy with you and I wish I could have been there to watch the race! My parents and sister (former runner Laura Rainey) went to the state meet and I got the phone call shortly after you won and the play by play of the race from my dad! I immediately emailed some of my former teammates to tell them the great news of your victory! Your win was celebrated by former runners all across the country! It’s been 12 years since I graduated high school and three “generations” of students have passed through Hanover Horton’s hallways since the class of 1997 graduated. And the cross country team has gone from winning a few meets to winning the ultimate meet; The State Meet. You build on each success as a team, first it was just getting individuals to the state meet, or winning the conference meet, now it’s knowing you *will* win the Conference Meet and gunning for the region or state. It has been a long journey to become number one in the state and I’d love to share with you how the Hanover Horton Cross Country Team got started on the path to success.

In the beginning:
My name is Jennifer Rainey (Jen) and I decided to run cross country my freshman year of high school way back in 1993. I was already in a lot of sports and band, and I didn’t really need another activity to participate in, but I had a huge crush on this cute boy on the team and I really wanted to join! Plus, I really liked running and figured it might be a fun new sport. I remember telling my parents that I wanted to join cross country. I expected them to be upset because I was already involved in so much, but they were supportive of the running; maybe because my dad and uncles were all marathon runners and they could see me following in their footsteps.
When I joined the team there was only one other girl runner, she was a senior named Susan Campbell; and she was really excited I was joining because she wouldn’t be the only girl on the team. Susan had trained all summer for this season and had high hopes of being an all conference runner and state qualifier. I still can remember my first day of cross country practice; I had to run one mile with Susan. It was a hot day in August and I had to run down Reynolds Road to the speed limit sign and come back. It was really hard, but my coach, Ms. Aldrich (Mrs. Richardson after she got married) was very impressed with my time (which I still remember was about 7:53ish) and that made me feel really good. It was great to impress Ms. Aldrich, she was so excited!
After a few weeks into the sport, I started to really enjoy it and began trying to recruit other runners for the team. Eventually I got two of my friends to join, one of them was my best friend Erin, and we had a whopping 4 girls on the team that year. I was hoping to get a whole team of runners or at least 5, but we had someone join and quit, and it was hard to get people to join a sport that no-one was in or even knew about.
As the season went on, I got better and better with each race! I started winning medals at some of the invitationals and started getting closer to Susan’s time each race. It was a lot of fun and motivated me to push myself even harder; ignorance was bliss as I got better with each race! Also, it was great to see my friend Erin enjoying a sport for the first time in her life and I was so glad that we could share a sport together after being friends for so many years! Erin wasn’t the best runner, but she was getting better and better each year and with each race, maybe she wasn’t running the greatest times, but she was achieving her own victories!
The night of the regional meet came; we all had dinner together as a team to talk about our goals and load up on carbs before the race. (We started the tradition of the regional meet dinner in 1993 and did it every year after that; do you still do team dinners the night of the regional meet?)
The day of regional’s came; we had all trained hard, done lots of intervals and ran many miles throughout the season. I was pretty nervous because I wanted to get my personal best time and I hoped to get into the 21’s but I didn’t even think about qualifying for the state meet, I just didn’t consider it to be possible.
During the regional race I felt really good; at the 1.5 mile mark at Ella Sharp Park I came up behind my teammate Susan. I couldn’t believe that I was up near the front with her; I ended up passing her and was shocked the whole race that she was behind me. As we rounded the trees at Ella Sharp Park for the long sprint to the finish line, my coach and teammates were jumping up and down and yelling at me to pass 2 people and I would qualify for the state meet, the top 20 would qualify and I was in 22nd place!!! I was shocked that I was this close to running in the state meet! I remember focusing my eyes on the girls ahead of me and I started sprinting as fast as I could. One girl I passed pretty easily; the second girl gave me a challenge, but I was going to beat her. And I did pass her, finishing in 20th place with a time of 21:11, my personal best by nearly 1 minute and the final qualifier for the 1993 State Meet.
It was at that regional meet, way back in 1993 that I really learned about mental toughness and what I could achieve if I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone. It was then, that I knew running was *my* sport and I looked forward to the years to come. My coach and inspiration, Mrs. Richardson, used to say to me running is “95% mental; 3% physical and 2% talent”. I definitely believe that to be true.
Over the next three years I trained year round, logged tens of thousands of miles and I ran everyday for nearly 1000 consecutive days. I can still remember every inch of those trails in the woods behind Hanover Horton School. (They have been changed a little since I graduated) I remember this stump that I used to hit with my shoes that would make me stumble and sometimes fall and we would crack up each time it happened, because I tripped on it *all* the time. And my favorite part of the course was coming out of the woods behind the track; there is that little dip in the ground and I would speed up there and loose any competitors behind me before going back into the woods.

Our team grew from 4 runners my freshman year to a full team my sophomore year as we recruited more teammates, and by my junior year we had enough runners for a JV team! We started winning some meets and other runners started winning medals. We even won a team trophy! We continued to have team dinners the night before the regional meet, many at my house, and we all would go around the table and talk about our goals and personal bests that we planned to achieve. It was great to see my friends enjoying a sport that I loved and having a whole team to compete in meets was pretty awesome too! We weren’t very good compared to the *awesome* team of 2009, but we weren’t last either, and that was a big deal back then.
I continued to push myself more and more each year and got faster and more respected in the running community. I ended my high school cross country career with an All-State medal. I also earned all-conference, all-county, all-region and was a state qualifier all 4 years of cross country! Even though I wasn’t the best runner in the conference, region or state, I was the only runner in our conference and county that could list earning the above awards all 4 years of high school.

Now, how did all that change my life?
It’s been 12 years since I graduated from high school, but the lessons learned running have stuck with me.
After I graduated from High School, I really wanted to coach cross country and track. And what better place than to coach at Hanover Horton, the place where my love for running started? Mr. Blackledge was able to get me the job as head track coach for the middle school girls track team. They had lost every single meet the year prior and they were pretty defeated when I met them for the first day of the season.
The 7th grade team consisted of many talented runners such as; Betsy Adkins, my sister Laura Rainey, Jenny Phelan, and many other girls that you might have heard of. That year, and the next, the girls track team went from a 0-7, to winning 7-0 and all of the invitational’s that we participated in for 2 consecutive years! We didn’t even have a paved track back then! My girls broke numerous middle school track records, including the girls’ 1 mile record broken by Betsy Adkins that was 15 years old! Those girls learned a lot about being tough and pushing yourself beyond your limits from me during the two years I coached them, and they carried that attitude into high school…where Mr. Blackledge lead those same girls to take second place in the team cross country state meet, two years in a row!
Another milestone in my life happened while I was coaching track and a sophomore in college; I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. I asked my former HH cross country teammate, Robin Witherell if she wanted to join me. We trained all summer, logged many, many, many miles and ran our first marathon in East Lyme Connecticut, September 1999. Our former teammate and my best friend Erin even came from New York to watch us run the marathon and complete this goal in our life. Both Robin and I finished the marathon; and my time was 4 hours 30 minutes and 3 seconds. It was an incredible achievement and I hope to do another someday.

After college, I had a hard time finding a job in Michigan and decided to move to Colorado, a place that I have always wanted to live. I was sad to give up coaching and watching my sister's final years of high school cross country, but I needed to move on to new things in my life. It was about this time that I realized I needed something new to love in my life. I was kind of tired of running, but I liked doing something that required such toughness. I started reading more and more about the mountains of Colorado and learned that Colorado has 56 mountains that reach over 14,000 feet in elevation. They are called 14ers. I decided that I wanted to hike a 14er. Everything that I read made them sound really hard, but I knew I could do it. I mean, if I ran a marathon, and all those miles in high school, I could do anything, right?
I got all of my stuff together for the big hike, borrowed some gear from my friends and got new hiking boots. I remember standing in the parking lot that morning at the end of May, the mountain was so tall it was in the clouds and you couldn’t even see the top! This isn’t just a hike up a path, it’s a serious climb through snow, rocks and ice and you have to push yourself beyond your limits to make it to the top. You also have to deal with the lack of oxygen being so high up, the trail started at 10,500 feet in elevation.
I started the hike feeling pretty good, it was a 7 mile round trip hike, and I thought it should only take a few hours, boy was I wrong! It was about halfway up that I realized my water supply was compromised (long story) and if I was going to continue up the mountain, I would have no water. But there was no way I was going to turn back and I forged onward.
When hiking this high in elevation there is such little oxygen that walking 4 or 5 steps feels like sprinting 100 yards or the finish of a race. You breathe *really* hard. I started quoting cross country sayings in my head; “every day is a great day”, “pain is temporary, pride lasts forever”, “run hard when it’s hard to run”. “I feel like a million ducks**” (a team 1997 favorite quote by Erin Finnegan, see last page for reasoning)…… but I could barely walk, let alone run and I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the top.
I kept looking up at that peak in the distance, it seemed like it wasn’t getting any closer, I couldn’t believe it was less than 1 mile away…straight UP! I remember comparing my hike to the marathon that I ran, or one of my toughest cross country races, and I couldn’t decide which was harder.
Finally I reached the last difficult part, and then I would be at the top. I had to climb on my hands and knees up an icy slope of rock, with the wind howling, the snow coming down hard (and it was nearly June!), and to my right was a sheer cliff that dropped off hundreds of feet…but I finally made it to the top! After 5 hours of climbing I spent about 20 minutes checking out the incredible views in one of the highest places in the United States…then started my descent. Hiking down took about 3 hours, and the hike in total ended up taking 8 hours to hike just over 7 miles. I made it back to the car safely and proud that I had accomplished this goal.
There is no way I could have made it through that first climb in the snow without water if I hadn’t had cross country to fall back in when the going got tough, I just can’t quit anything, it’s not in my nature anymore. Since that first 14er, I have hiked 8 others, including one day when my group summited 3 peaks in one morning. I have gotten much faster at it too, my body as acclimated to the altitude and I feel right at home on the side of a mountain.
I am currently compiling content to write a Colorado hiking guide, and my newest goal is to hike Mt. Whitney in California the highest peak in the continental United States.

After reading all of this, hopefully it’s easy to see how running has changed my life. It has given me the tools to be positive when life gets tough, and it’s helped shape the life I have created for myself. Thank you for reading this far, I know it’s a bit long winded, but it’s also been a long time since I graduated high school .
Congratulations to the team of 2009, you have left your legacy at Hanover Horton as the first team to win a state championship and your win will always be in my heart.
~ Love and Light ~
Jennifer Rainey Mason

Josh and I on Grays Peak

Girrrl Power, Heather and I summiting our 3rd peak!

Sisters! Laura Rainey and me :)

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