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November 7, 2013

Making a run for It

By: Marc Mullen

Sarah Rapp struggled last year when the ACC Cross Country Championships were held on the Hokies’ home course, but after a 13th-place finish this year, she is almost back on pace for a return to the podium – a place she visited often during her high school days

Sarah Rapp finished a career-best 13th at the ACC Championships on a course where she won a state championship during her senior season of high school.

This story is not really a redemption story because, last year, Sarah Rapp redeemed herself with All-Region honors at the 2012 NCAA Southeast Regional Championships held in Charlotte, N.C., two weeks after ending one of the worst cross country races in which she had ever competed.

And it’s not really a homecoming story for the junior, who hails from Raleigh, N.C., because Kernersville, N.C. – the location of the 2013 ACC Cross Country Championships – is about 100 miles west of the Tar Heel state capital city.

However, this story had the feel of both.

The 2013 ACC Cross Country Championships were being held at the same place, Beeson Park, where Rapp had been three years earlier, a place where she won her third straight high school state cross country individual title. She said she even had flashbacks to that race while she and her Tech teammates were practicing there earlier this season.

She didn’t win the race this time around, finishing 13th against the ACC’s best female runners. Yet it’s a race she will cherish nonetheless.

“It was awesome getting to run at Kernersville, where I had success in the past,” Rapp said. “So I had a lot of positive vibes and thoughts going in. I stayed positive throughout the race and had it planned out [how to run it] for the past week.

“My mom came out and that added to my excitement and motivation, as well as all my teammates who were cheering me on from the side, and that pushed me to my finish. I couldn't have done it without them.”

After the first 2,000 meters, Rapp was out in the lead, but just one second separated her from Syracuse’s Margo Malone, who was in 14th place. In the wet and rainy conditions, Rapp fell back a bit, but continued to push on.

She’s admitted to needing better mental toughness when it comes to her races, stating that sometimes doubts wiggle their way into her mind when she’s competing. She stopped the clock in a personal-best time (for a 6K) of 20 minutes, 51.6 seconds, to finish 13th and earn All-ACC honors for the first time in her Hokie career.

“The race was empowering, and I learned a lot from it,” she said. “I knew I had to get out and be with the top pack in order to have a good race, and I accomplished that. I led the race for a little while, but after about halfway, I fell back. But something inside me got me going again.

“It's funny because, last year, I thought to myself, ‘I have to do really well this year since it will be harder to do so next year because of all the new schools coming into the ACC.’ I proved to myself that I have grown an exponential amount as a runner –mentally and physically – and that I can compete with the best in the conference.”

The 2012 ACC race for Rapp was a nightmare, as she placed 51st, 10 places worse than her 41st-place finish as a freshman. Many factors were weighing heavily on her mind going into that race. The opportunity to win was one of them. The race being held in Blacksburg was another, as she knew there would be a strong home crowd there to support her and all her teammates.

Also, maybe there was the pressure of being the most experienced of the six Tech runners in the field, a group that consisted of four freshmen. Several proven Hokie runners were taking redshirt years, including All-Region honorees Paige Kvartunas (2010) and Madalyn Nuckols (2011) and 2013 All-ACC performer Courtney Dobbs.

“One of the things I struggle with as a runner is mental toughness, and I completely psyched myself out for the [2012] ACCs,” Rapp said. “I knew I was running on my home course, the home crowd, my mom came – I put way too much pressure on myself.

Sarah Rapp (left) and Courtney Dobbs both earned All-ACC
honors for the Hokies at the ACC Championships. Dobbs
finished 11th at the meet, while Rapp came in 13th.

“I told myself I wanted to win and this was the year to win it because I knew, next year, there were going to be more teams in it. I remember I got out fast, and there was just something in my mind that just turned it [the race] off for me.

“It was hard, and even now, it’s hard to remember exactly what happened, but I just know that it wasn’t a good race, and I was just really upset after it was over. I had two weeks before ACCs and regionals to get myself together. Training wasn’t too hard, so I just focused. I just really worked on visualizing, and I got my act together and made it [All-Region]. So it was a good way to end the season.”

A view into her past would find that finishing and accepting a 25th-place finish as a good result at the 2012 NCAA Regionals showed great progress for Rapp.

Growing up, her dad started taking her on runs as far back as she can remember – and she hated it. She started running competitively, though, in elementary school and rarely lost a race while running for Durant Middle School.

It wasn’t much different running for Cardinal Gibbons High School, as she totaled 13 state titles to her list of accomplishments. That list included six indoor track titles and four outdoor titles, mostly in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races, with her three state cross country titles.

“The only time I really lost a race in high school was when we would have big invitationals, where runners would come from out of the state or from across the country,” Rapp recalled. “Like for example, Foot Locker [the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships], I never won that. The bigger national races, I never won one of those, but I think a lot of that goes to show that my conference [3-A] had no competition for me.

“I was always in the newspaper, but it was because the conference was kind of easy, looking back. And I’m not trying to sell the conference short because it was a competitive conference, more so than 2-A or 1-A but not as tough as 4-A.”

Rapp said that she was never arrogant with all of her success, but never really truly understood exactly the progression of going from high school to, say, the Olympics.

“I completely skipped this step [the NCAA level],” she said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going to the Olympics,’ and I’m not really from a sports family, so I didn’t really understand the idea. You have to be an ACC champion, and you have to make it to the NCAAs. You can’t just go to nationals. You actually have to make it there, and you’re running with the best of the best.

“And then there’s a whole other level above that, and then there’s the Olympics. So I was kind of ignorant when I was in high school. I was not cocky. I would never, ever consider myself cocky. But I was always thinking, ‘Oh yeah, the Olympics. That would be awesome.’ But I definitely don’t go around saying that now, obviously, because I realize that there’s another two steps before that.”

When she stepped onto the Blacksburg campus, she had one goal in mind.

“I knew coming in that I wanted to get my butt beat,” she said. “I wanted to. I wanted to get beat! Honestly, I got tired of winning. It was great, but I knew that there were people out there who were faster, people who could push me and make me better.

“That’s probably one of the biggest reasons for my improvements in my times coming down. Just knowing that I’m in a really good conference for running – to know that I’m running with the best of the best of the best, especially if you make the NCAAs. That’s the best field for your age right now. You can’t find anyone faster than those girls.”

That kind of adjustment – going from the big fish to the little fish – could cause some to wilt under the pressure and doubt themselves. But Rapp pointed to someone with a similar background – Erik Spjut, her boyfriend of almost two years – as a person who has helped her with that.

Spjut is a redshirt senior on the Hokies’ wrestling team He was a three-time 4A Texas state champion and compiled a 65-0 record as a senior. Since coming to Tech, the two-time NCAA qualifier has lived through a series of highs and lows.

“He really adds a lot to me and is definitely a positive influence on my life,” Rapp said. “He’s an athlete as well. He’s a wrestler, and it’s such an intense and tough sport, and I can be like, ‘Oh, I had such a hard running workout.’ Then he’ll tell me what he did, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to be quiet now.’

“He just reminds me that I have to stay tough, and I can’t let things get to me. He’s just a strong person, and he rubs off on me. I don’t think I would be as tough as I am if it wasn’t for him.”

A mentally stronger Rapp has one more cross country chance and two more years of both indoor and outdoor track to claim her first ACC individual title. She has been steadily improving on the track – she’s a multiple point scorer at the ACC Championships – and it’s conceivable that she can return the podium.

She was there many times during her high school days – and it’s a place where she’d like to return.