In the midst of an eight-mile route, junior Maddie Willson runs in the middle of the boys’ varsity cross country team. She’s flanked by 10 boys. Several tower almost six inches over her.
“Okay boys, time to pick up the pace!” one of them shouts, and the group of runners accelerates, almost to a race-pace.
Maddie glances around, confused, then grins as she sees the cause for the change in tempo — a group of girls running by. Once Maddie and the runners pull out of sight of the girls, they relax back to their conversation pace.
It’s an everyday part of running with the boys’ varsity team.
Maddie runs with these boys to push herself. As the seventh best runner in the state, Maddie needs the push — she is constantly striving to improve, to shave seconds from her time.
This is her year. Maddie is the fastest runner at East, a school record holder, ranked second in the league. She’s on track to place in the top five runners at state.
Almost a year ago — hunched over a pair of crutches, her leg bound in a cast — Maddie never would have imagined being here.
Slow. She was running so slow.
That’s all sophomore Maddie could focus on. She didn’t feel pain — not yet — but she could feel the drag in her legs as she pushed up the hill at Rim Rock farm.
All season, she had fought through pain. And now, at the league championship meet, Maddie’s body was falling apart.
She kept her body moving, all the way into the final downhill, across the finish line. Maddie finally felt the pain — slicing her knee, shooting up her thigh. Her head swam.
“I can’t walk,” Maddie thought. Then she repeated it out loud. “I can’t walk.”
Then she collapsed.
She hardly remembers the stranger who carried her back to the East tent. She remembers trying not to cry as her mom drove her to doctor after doctor, as they saw the first x-ray revealing the hair-line fracture in her right knee, as they fitted a cast onto her leg.
For the next week, Maddie attended every cross country practice, even though she couldn’t run. She checked in with the trainer, then slowly maneuvered down the stairs to the track on her crutches.
“I needed to be with them,” Maddie said. “I wanted to still feel like I was part of the team, like I wasn’t forgotten. I’d sit with them stretching for maybe 20 minutes, but once they started running, they were gone, and I couldn’t go with them. It was hard.”
The day of regionals was Maddie’s hardest day. The girls’ team hadn’t advanced to state in 10 years.
And then they came in second. The entire team exploded, cheering and hugging each other, already looking forward to the state championship.
Maddie leaned on her crutches, watching from the side. She tried to smile.
That day, Maddie made a decision. As soon as the cast was removed, she would run again. She would make her way back to league. And she would win.
To keep in shape, Maddie rode an exercise bike in her cast every day until she was cleared for physical activity. When the cast was removed, she started running again.
“At first, everything felt weird, like I wasn’t running in my own body,” Maddie said. “I was going terribly slow — at around a nine-minute mile pace — and I hated it. But slowly, I felt that speed come back, and I knew that I could get better, better than I had even started at.”
By the time Maddie reached summer break, something felt whole, more complete than it had been before she collapsed in pain at Rim Rock.
At first, Maddie ran on her own. But after a few weeks, Maddie needed a push. She started tagging along with the varsity boys, running half a block behind them to avoid annoying them. She wasn’t part of their pack, but their faster pace pushed Maddie’s endurance and made her a stronger runner.
“When she came back in the summer, it’s like a light had been switched on inside of [Maddie],” head cross country coach Tricia Beaham said. “She was running faster, her stride was better, but most importantly she seemed determined to push herself beyond her abilities on a day-to-day basis.”
At the beginning of the school year, Maddie’s stride was more natural. After two weeks of running with the girls, Tricia asked her to start running with the boys again.
“She was coming back from runs, and she wasn’t even out of breath,” Tricia said. “Everything just seemed effortless for her, and I knew she needed something to keep it fresh, to keep challenging her so that she would grow.
Although Maddie and her coaches knew that she was faster, the real test was the first meet of the season. Maddie followed a new strategy, not forcing herself to lead the pack at the start and instead passing each person in front of her.
At the end of the race, Maddie stumbled from the finish line and glanced at her time.
She had broken 15 minutes. She was running at a state pace.
“I could hardly believe it was me running that race,” Maddie said. “I just kept thinking how it didn’t feel like me, how it couldn’t have been me running that race.”
As Maddie accepted her 11th place medal after the race, she scanned the faces around her. She was already thinking about her next race. She watched the girls who beat her, memorizing their faces so that she could pace herself with them in the next race.
Next Saturday, Maddie will return to Rim Rock for the league championships. It’s been a full year since her injury. She hasn’t had a moment of pain since.
This year, Maddie won’t be on the sidelines. This year, she will be the star.
“I firmly believe that she will place in the top five runners at state,” Tricia said. “Sometimes, you get a setback, and it teaches you to appreciate what you love, and to fight for it. Maddie is fighting out there, and she’s not going to give up.”