Athletes who compete in distant running often do so for reasons the casual observer often doesn’t, or can’t, comprehend.
It could be for the camaraderie. Or so says Center Grove High School junior Alexa Kovacs.
Another draw is the endless challenge of self-improvement. At least that’s what attracts former Greenwood standout David Dalton.
Those who truly love cross-country and/or distance events in track and field, who are willing to run themselves to exhaustion on a daily basis through training and/or competition, have myriad reasons for going the distance.
“Young athletes generally start the sport for social reasons or have a sibling who runs. I know that’s why I started,” said former Center Grove distance runner Tori Schoettmer, now a sophomore on the University of Louisville women’s cross-country and track programs. “It’s easy to fall in love with running once you start.
“It’s a very rewarding sport, and I think that’s a huge reason athletes stay with it. Plus, I think distance running comes with a happy atmosphere in general. I haven’t met many runners I didn’t like.”
Dalton’s run as a runner began in sixth grade. Intrigued by the idea of producing a new personal-best time and then putting in the work necessary to lower it before starting the process anew, he established himself as of one of Indiana’s elite talents.
In November, Dalton — who is continuing his running career at Purdue — maximized his first trip to the IHSAA State Cross-Country Finals, where, with a time of 15 minutes, 37 seconds, he placed a close second to Jackson Bertoli of Terre Haute South.
“Ever since middle school I’ve kind of looked at it as a challenge. My parents, when I was in sixth grade, said they would buy me a pair of spikes if I beat all the other Greenwood runners (at a meet),” said Dalton, who failed to live up to his end but wound up getting his spikes the following year.
“I’ve always loved giving myself a challenge and then achieving those challenges,” Dalton said. “Last year before cross-country season I said I wanted to break myself without falling apart. You can’t give up mentally.”
Distance runners can be creatures of habit. Everything from how they train to pace to what constitutes a water break are engrained through years of trial and error. Running surfaces range from grass, dirt, mud, gravel, wood and asphalt during cross-country season to repeated tours of all-weather surface come spring.
“People look at runners as being crazy. For a lot of people a long run might be going to their mailbox or one lap around the track,” said Whiteland senior Landry Long, who decided prior to his sixth-grade school year he would give cross-country a try and has been hooked ever since. “I like running more in the mornings during summer.
“Whiteland is basically a ghost town. It’s just me and my friends.”
This sense of oneness is what initially drew Kovacs to the sport, as well.
“I started running when I was in fifth grade. My sister, Lindsey, ran and just seeing how happy she was if she ran a good race,” Kovacs said. “All of us on the team hang out together. There’s no drama. I enjoy practices and meets because it’s a really encouraging environment.”
Kovacs’ teammate, Trojans sophomore Val Clark, already knows the painful side of long-distance running having twice suffered a stress fracture in her right foot and one in her left foot.
“I don’t think anyone enjoys the pain you go through, but for me it’s seeing where you stand against others,” said Clark, who became enamored with running while going through basketball conditioning four years ago. “Initially, the hardest part of running is the mental part, but my teammates are always there for me.”
It’s not unusual for a high school athlete to claim his or her sport is the most challenging — physically and emotionally. Swimmers do it. Wrestlers do it. Football players do it.
Where long-distance running ranks remains up for debate.
“It’s definitely hard. But I look at it this way: The hardest sport is the sport you make the hardest,” said Dalton, who soon departs for Purdue University where he’ll run both cross-country and track for the Boilermakers. “It depends on how much time and effort you put into it.”