IT’S 7:45 a.m. on a Monday in the middle of summer break and members of the Jefferson cross country teams face a seven-mile run — one they’ll complete before some of their classmates even roll out of bed.
Then a nine-mile jaunt awaits them Wednesday, followed by a 10-miler Friday.
Clearly, this isn’t an offseason program for the faint of heart.
“It’s really painful,” said Lady Dragon runner Morgan Mitchell, who aims to finish in the top 25 at state individually this year as a junior. “But afterwards, you feel really good about yourself … and it makes you more confident going into the school year knowing that you put in all those miles.”
Mitchell and her fellow distance runners are following in a summertime tradition of sorts for the Jefferson cross country program.
For the past five years, the boys’ and girls’ teams have spent the offseason traversing the back roads of Jefferson, building up to a half marathon distance by late July in order to increase endurance for competitive running in the fall.
The team has been at it since June 2 and will culminate the summer with the 13.1-mile distance on July 26 (the middle school runs a modified program in which its runners build to four miles).
Jefferson coach Katie Sellers said the cross country season is built upon such long summer runs. Covering these distances in June and July instills the foundation runners need before moving on to shorter distances and speed work in August.
“I always tell these kids, ‘I know it’s your summer, but you wait, you’ll have kids that show up day one at practice and you’re going to be able to run circles around them,’” said Sellers, who coached both the boys’ and girls’ programs to top 10 finishes in Class AA last year.
The program is arduous and voluntary, but runners like Justin Harrison continue to show up for these early-morning sessions, though there are times when he’s tempted to hit the snooze button instead.
“Yeah, this morning,” Harrison answered when asked if there are those moments when he just doesn’t feel like doing it. “Waking up at 7 a.m. to get ready to come here … But it’s worth it.”
Harrison, a rising senior who hopes to be a solid varsity contributor this year, said there’s a noticeable difference once the season starts after having conquered the half marathon.
“These miles really give you the good foundation to just actually get to the speed (work) so you don’t have to work at building up the endurance in the season,” he said.
The half-marathon program also serves as an introduction to the high school ranks for younger runners like rising freshman Maggie Dyer, who competed for the middle school program last year. Dyer had never run further than five miles prior to this summer but has already built up to nine miles.
“It’s a lot different,” Dyer said. “You have to (make the) jump. But I feel like I’m getting better at running since I’ve run more.”
Sellers makes the half marathon run at the end of July into something of an event. Parent volunteers hand out water along the course, which begins at The Preserve subdivision in Jefferson and crosses the Hwy. 129 bypass (under Seller’s supervision) to Holder’s Siding Road and follows a path from Benton Road to the Jefferson Recreation Department down to Old Swimming Pool Road and then back across to the main part of town. At the end of the run, Sellers holds a team breakfast. Those who complete the 13.1 miles also receive a commemorative T-shirt.
And there seems to be a level of loyalty amongst these half marathoners.
Sellers said most of her seniors have been doing this program dutifully since their freshman years. Some who have moved on to the collegiate level — like Reese Bowles (North Georgia Tech) and Alec Jameson (Piedmont) — have even returned to join in the workouts.
The coach said runners who commit to this amount of mileage in the summer are “different kids.”
“You’ve got to be really dedicated and determined to something if you’re going to come out at 7:45 three days a week and run seven miles, 10 miles, 13 miles,” Sellers said. “That takes a special kid to do that.”