The Lonely Runner
Although twelve teams qualified for each race at the state cross-country meets held in Salem and The Plains, there were also 20 individuals from each Class who earned the right to run for a state championship.
None of the individuals won up at Great Meadow, but several earned first team All-State honors with top-seven finishes, including Wesley Bond of Landstown and Bryce Lentz of Colgan (2nd and 3rd in boys Class 6), Ellie Desmond of Broad Run (3rd in Class 4 girls), and Atlee's Rachel Mudd (7th in Class 5 girls).
Following an individual competitor at States is much different than cheering for a team. One of the more interesting sights at the state meet is the box reserved for individuals. While teams cheer and chant as a group before the race, the individuals' box looks like a cluster of strangers gathered to share a brief moment in time. There is little chatter, limited eye contact, and a lot of nerves.
Many are performing solo, and made the trip to States with a coach and family. Kiera Cleveland of Oscar Smith is a perfect example.
Cleveland has arguably been the best female distance athlete in the Southeastern District over the past two years, with top-three finishes in every high school district race, as well as seven wins in the past eight meets. With a best 5K time of 18:53, she is also one of top runners in Hampton Roads. Says her coach Rob Kirkman, "She's a workhorse."
But on her own team, among the Lady Tigers, she is usually at least a minute and spare change ahead of her nearest teammate. In that capacity, she has qualified for the Class 6 meet on three occasions, and each time has been the lone representative from her school.
For Cleveland, it's really not a big deal.
"It's a challenge being by myself, but we have always had a small team. They're awesome, so I'm not alone in training." Yet, her definition of small may differ from some other programs. This year, the Lady Tigers "dropped" to nine female runners, so there are plenty of teammates.
Just none that have qualified for States. Yet, Cleveland has been outstanding at the sport since she started.
As a sixth grader at Crestwood Middle in Chesapeake, she was a natural athlete who played softball, basketball, travel soccer, and swam competitively. Track and cross-country evolved later.
She recalled her first day of track practice. "I wanted to be a sprinter. But there were a couple of faster girls. So I got talked into running the 800 and the 4-by-400. Off the bat, her half-mile time hovered in the low 2:40's, flattening at 2:40 even. In seventh grade, it dropped to 2:34, and then three seconds better a year later. In the meantime, Cleveland upgraded to the mile and lowered her time to 5:34, winning the Chesapeake Middle School Championships in both events.
By seventh grade, softball was out. The following year, she stopped playing basketball. She had played some soccer, but admitted that "I was nervous and didn't want to get hurt for track." Swimming stayed on her plate, because "I like the individual and team aspects of both sports."
This year, Cleveland placed 21st among the Class 6 girls, with a time of 19:37, similar to last year's 19th place finish (19:43). She will have a future in distance running, although the location of her next academic and athletic pursuit is unknown at this time.
"I've been e-mailing coaches," she admits, also noting that the school has to be an academic fit. And this is tough because Cleveland's two future pursuits are in pre-med and engineering, and she freely admits that "the order switches." This brings up interesting school options. Along with the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, she has a keen eye on Johns Hopkins, especially since the school has recently added biomedical engineering as a major.
With a grin, she admits that it would be a good combination of the two.