There are inclines along the 3.1-mile race course at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City, the site of the cross country state championship races. Maybe not a Heartbreak Hill incline, but steep enough to ruin a good day for someone who lives and trains in, say, flat Manatee County.
You use different muscles while running up and down hills. You shorten your stride and pump your arms to pull yourself up an incline.
It’s not a difficult skill to learn, but it’s darn-near impossible when the closest thing to a hill along your training route is a speed bump.
Which is why, if you drive along Kay Road as it passes above Interstate 75 a few miles south of the Manatee River, you might find the Lakewood Ranch girls cross country getting in what passes for hill work in these parts.
“We’re so used to running on flat surfaces that this is a big difference,” freshman Olivia Ortiz said after a recent Kay Road hill workout.
Six Mustangs — sophomore Devin McDermott and freshman Kristin Zarrella, Natalie Novak, Ashley Platt, Ortiz and senior Kelsey Grimaldi — followed coach Mary Quinn up and down the overpass, running the uphills and walking the down hills.
The team had competed at the Pre-State meet the Saturday before at the Little Everglades Ranch, and Quinn was not completely happy with the performances.
“They didn’t have any pickup going up the hills,” Quinn said.
The Mustangs have run Kay Road once a week for the past few weeks to prepare for the state 3A meet, Nov. 21.
Of course, the Mustangs have to first negotiate the district and regional meets.
Districts are Friday morning in Englewood. The Mustangs are the defending district champs. The regionals are the following Friday in Port Charlotte. The heat played a role last season when Mustangs failed to get out of the regionals.
But the additions of Zarrella, who won the Manatee County championship and holds the program’s cross country record, Ortiz, Novak and Platt, the Mustangs are poised for a run at the 3A state title.
They see the districts and regionals as a formality. They see the “hills” at Little Everglades Ranch as something more.
“We have to work like we’re already going to state, but we know we have to get there,” McDermott said.
The Mustangs disappeared over the Kay Hill crest, and for a while, the road is a lonely stretch of asphalt. A black Ford Explorer went by, followed by a red minivan.
Finally, a dot appears on the horizon followed by a few more dots then shoulders and arms and finally legs.
The runners moved in a pack with Quinn out in front. Speed is not important. It’s the change from the norm the Mustangs sought.
They reached the bottom and opened the racks for the free papers and fliers that stand off the side of the road and reached for their water bottles kept safe from the late-afternoon heat.
The Mustangs were a long way from bumpy Dade City, but close enough to know they need more pickup going up the inclines on the state course if they hope to reach their goal this season. And that’s to return home as one of the top 3A teams in Florida.
They looked tired.
“I think this helps,” McDermott said. “It trains the muscles you’re going to use when you’re tired and you have to get up those hills at the state meet.”
So, Mustangs returned their water bottles to their makeshift cooler and head up hill running at a slow but determined pace.