Cross country runners set themselves apart

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By Scott Akanewich

Before the sun has even begun its ascent in the eastern morning sky, they’re all out there.

Warming up, stretching, then hitting the road, trails or track – whatever is on the training schedule for that particular day.

Senior Kevin Berber is one of the Panther athletes out running at the crack of dawn in order to beat the heat on this day.

“I get up every morning at 5:30, so you really can’t be staying up all that late,” said the senior, who also runs track in the spring. “I still try to get seven or eight hours sleep.”

But, that’s not always easy to do when you have homework, not to mention everything else going on in a typical teenager’s existence.

Liberty Hill head cross country Coach Kim Holt realizes her athletes are in for a long day – every day.

“Well, these kids are up here every morning at 6 a.m. for practice, then they go to school until 4 p.m.,” she said. “Then they do their homework. So, I believe these are some pretty tough kids.”

Which is why cross country isn’t just your typical sport, which means it’s not for your typical athlete, requiring not only a passion for the sport, but a strong-minded individual, as well, said Holt.

“You have to love to run and you have to love to compete,” she said. “You also need to be mentally tough.”

According to Holt, one of the most difficult adjustments for runners once they reach high school is the extra road work, which must be put in while training, in order to run longer races.

“The biggest challenge I would think is the amount of miles they run per week in practice,” said Holt.  “The boys only compete at two miles in junior high, so the jump to a 5K for them at the high school level can sometimes be difficult.”

Berber had dreams of running much shorter distances as a youngster in Houston before he and his family moved out of the city.

“When I started running track, I wanted to be a sprinter and run the 100 and 200 meters,” he said. “But, then one day one of the coaches said to everyone, ‘All the kids with muscular legs, get over here and all the kids with skinny legs go over there.’ The skinny kids got to be distance runners, while the others were sprinters.”

So much for his sprinting career.

Berber attended Glenn High School in Leander his freshman year, then finally donned the Purple and Gold as a sophomore and has worn it ever since.

Another senior on the squad, Hannah Johnson, is a converted track athlete who instantly took to trail running.

“I always wanted to run hurdles,” she said. “But, then in seventh grade, I started running cross country and fell in love with the entire sport.”

Cross country appeals to many athletes due to the family atmosphere it creates, said Holt.

“I think the team part sells the sport. They’re competing on a team and they realize their teammates are depending on them to do their best for the team score,” she said. “The cross country team is a big family-type atmosphere. These kids are up here together every morning and they bond through that. They have team dinners every week together and just enjoy being together as a team.”

Berber agreed.

“Every team is close,” he said. “But, I think we’re closer.”

Speaking of food, a big part of an endurance athlete’s regimen must be focused on getting enough fuel and the right kind, said Berber.

“During the season, I don’t drink any soda – I stick with lemonade or water,” he said. “As a result, I don’t really watch what I eat, but I also have to remind myself to drink plenty of water.”

Continuing the all-for-one, one-for-all theme, when the district meet is held each year in Lampasas, the Panthers have a particular gathering place for cheering on their teammates, said Berber.

“We all stand together on a rock,” he said. “We call it ‘The Liberty Hill Rock.’ It’s really reassuring.”

Johnson said it’s definitely Liberty Hill territory, although they’re okay with sharing it if someone insists, she said.

“The other teams know it’s ours,” said Johnson. “We just out-cheer them.”

The location of the rock is quite strategic, as it’s on the final stretch of the course.

“There’s no shade right there,” she said. “So, it’s tough, but we want our teammates to know we’re there for them.”

However, despite the fact the entire squad is so close-knit, there are always battles going on for spots on the varsity side, said Holt.

“Every week the kids compete for a time,” she said. “If they beat someone on varsity, then they get to move up to varsity for the next meet. So the competition to make varsity helps with motivating the kids to do their best.”

Johnson said she lost some of that motivation her sophomore and junior years, but has regained it since, with some help from her younger sister, Haley, a junior.

“I’m really worried about my little sister,” said Johnson. “If I ever let her beat me, our family would never let me live it down.”

But, with the pleasure comes the pain – something Berber is all too familiar with.

“You have to have a strong mental ability and be able to fight through the pain during a race,” he said. “All I do is pick out the guy in front of me and say, ‘I’m going to catch him,’ then the next guy and the next. Finally, when you get near the end, it’s the most painful and your body is screaming for you to stop.”

However, relief is waiting just beyond the finish line – even if it isn’t immediate.

“After you finish, it still hurts for about a minute,” said Berber. “But, then your heart rate goes down and you start looking for water.”

After all that, the numbers on the clock can also provide validation of it all, he said.

“When you set a new PR and you know you’re getting better, it’s great,” said Berber.

Even so, at times it seems as though you’re on a mental treadmill – running and running and running – without getting anywhere, but there’s always the carrot to chase, said Holt.

“Sometimes, they’re tired from the week’s practice and it’s hard,” she said. “But, most of the time they want to be in the top group to try to make varsity, so they stay motivated and competitive.”

As a coach, Holt gets satisfaction when her runners push themselves to levels they didn’t think they were capable of, which enables them to achieve more than they ever imagined possible.

“I love it when I see the kids meet their goals and do well,” she said. 

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