LHHS cross country, track athletes meet pandemic challenge head-on

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By Scott Akanewich

Running is the most basic of athletic endeavors, in which humans challenge themselves both physically and mentally as the miles pass by – be it on trails, a track or wherever else.

However, during the current global pandemic, this most ancient of activities has taken on an entirely new meaning among those who practice it.

There might not be a way to run away from the problem, but running around during it provides some form of solace.

For Liberty Hill sophomore Ayanna Donwerth, her chosen sport provides a welcome release – and a purpose each day – and she has found ways to continue churning out the miles.

“Running has been a getaway since this global pandemic has happened. During March and April when we were all supposed to stay in our houses, the only thing that kept me going was running,” she said. “Since we weren’t allowed to run anywhere, I would run on my treadmill or run in circles in my yard over and over again – that was the only thing I would be looking towards on those days. Running takes all the drama and stress in my life away, because when I’m in that moment where it’s just my running shoes, me and a long road, that’s when I forget everything going on. It’s like the whole world has paused and the only thing I’m focused on is my run.”

According to senior Kevin Berber, the mental side has certainly affected him more than the physical, he said.

“This current situation really does affect athletes mentally. For me, when the shutdown happened, I didn’t know if we were going to resume the season or if they were going to shut it down completely – that really affected me a lot because I’ve been training since freshman year to run at state and not knowing if they were going to have the meet or not made me question if I should really keep training,” said Berber. “This year was my senior year and I think I would’ve had a good chance at going to state because I had the second-fastest time in the 1600 and the third- fastest in the 3200 in the region by three seconds. The top two in each event advance to state. But since all athletic activities were canceled by the UIL, the only thing I’m going for are school records.”

Pandemic restrictions or not, the Panthers’ runners must still report ready when practice begins on July 27, said Liberty Hill cross country head coach Kim Holt.

“I sent out a running plan last week for kids that didn’t have a plan yet. If they have their own plan, then that’s great and they can go with that,” she said. “We would just like the kids to be running over the summer so when they show up to practice, they have a base. If they don’t run over the summer, then when they show up, they’ll be out of shape and prone to injuries.”

Both Donwerth and Berber are missing a critical element of their training – teammates who push them to be better.

In Donwerth’s case, freshman Zaila Smith has been her foil while the miles are being racked up, with each of them bringing the best out of the other.

“Lately, it has been a challenge training on my own because the only one pushing me is myself,” said Donwerth. “It has been different because you don’t have the excitement and competitiveness you have in practice with your team when you’re by yourself. It’s been a little difficult to be motivated without my teammates, but I’m still motivated to finish my goals during every run. I love when Zaila and I are in practice together because we both learn from each other. We get so competitive during practice because we both want to be the best runner we possibly can be. It’s hard not having her to run with every day because you kind of get a boost of adrenaline when someone’s with you the whole way.”

According to Berber, fellow senior Gabe Diaz is the one who motivates him to strive for further excellence.

“At the beginning, it was mentally demanding because I was so used to Gabe and I pushing each other to get faster,” said Berber. “Running long distance is a mental sport because you just have to tell yourself to keep going even when your body is screaming at you to stop and rest for a bit. But, running with Gabe eased that aspect of running and with nobody there to push me, it was challenging.”

Berber added he never realized before exactly how much of an impact his teammates have on him when training, especially when it comes to the intangible aspects that foster a family atmosphere beneficial to both parties.

“Training alone these past couple weeks has been a bit tough. I think I got so used to the fact I always trained with my teammates I never knew how much they actually affect me when I run,” he said. “I notice the difference a lot more when I’m warming up and cooling down because that’s the time when I’m actually able to talk to my teammates and them not being there really does make it kind of lonely. With them there, it gave me motivation to run faster for them because I knew they looked up to me as being a top dog and it was also my chance to help them push themselves.”

Donwerth said she has now had to find different things to keep her motivated.

“There’s a lot of things that go through my mind when I’m running, such as singing a song to keep me pushing or thinking of a memory about a race so I can run faster,” she said. “But, it’s very different running alone than running with teammates because we’re a team that likes to be successful and have fun. But when you’re running by yourself, the only fun you have is if you find a cool running spot or a treasure to carry back from your run and show your parents.”

But, Berber said one thing is similar – not having anyone in front of him.

“The only thing on my mind when I’m training are my splits and whether or not I’m going too fast or too slow,” he said. “Usually, I’m up in the front when we’re training, so it really is kind of the same as if I had my teammates there.”

Holt has used the extra time she has had away from coaching and teaching duties to actually run more herself.

“I like to work out and I try to as much as I can,” she said. “Since all this happened, I’ve been able to run almost every day. It’s harder to run every day when school is normal because I get home late. I’ve always felt better when I get to run and work out. I think it’s important for people to stay active during this time. I know I feel better when I go outside and walk or run around my neighborhood.”

Donwerth is hopeful for a return to normalcy, but is also realistic.

“I have no idea how school and athletics will be,” she said. “I would love for those things to go back to how they used to be, but I know everything will be different.”

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