Snow toward the end of fall cross country season is not the norm, but Avon High School’s second-fastest runner, Sara Stokesbury was not too phased by the early change in climate.
“I run better in the cold,” said Stokesbury, a sophomore, who made all-conference and all-state athlete this season after finishing third at the NCCC championship (19:45) in Windsor Locks and fourth at states in Manchester’s Wickham Park (19:47), both five-kilometer runs.
The cold is one of the reasons she likes the Nonnewaug Cross Country Invite, which was held Oct. 15 this year when it started getting cold. She finished third (19:25). In fact, most of the team does better at Nonnewaug. The course is flat and passes through farms and around the school’s track a couple times. It’s all downhill on the final leg, leading to a flat stretch to the finish line.
Despite many hurdles, from to a bad run of weather, Avon closed strong. They went undefeated in the NCCC to claim the conference title and placed second overall at the CIAC Class MM Division Championship on the first day of the pre-Halloween nor’easter.
“Avon has not won the NCCC conference in a few years, so that was nice,” Stokesbury said. "This year everyone picked up the pace."
After Oct. 29, the team went about a week and a half without having practice or school during extensive power outages. It was difficult for the girls to even run on their own time because of all the downed trees and wires that not only obstructed running routes, but made it unsafe. While the girls went back to school Nov. 9, others in town were without power for as long as 12 days.
“One of our teammates still didn’t have power,” Stokesbury said of when team practices started up again.
To make matters worse, the Oct. 29 snowfall ruined the Wickham Park course, so it was closed early for the season. The state open meet, which was held on Election Day, before Avon schools reopened, was moved to Hammonasset State Park in Madison
“We didn’t have time to walk the course, so we weren't sure of where the relative distances were between any two points, so we were kind of just following the crowd the entire way and didn't really know when to start picking up the pace or where the mile was,” Stokesbury said, who placed 89th (21:06) in the statewide meet, the second fastest Avon result. Her teammate, Molly Hamel was Avon’s top finisher that race (20:18).
Yet, obstacles aside, Stokesbury said she had her best season yet. She emulated one of her favorite athletic quotes by runner Steve Prefontaine, who said, “To give anything less than the best is to sacrifice the gift.”
She credits her improvement to attending Nike-sponsored Green Mountain Running Camp in Vermont with teammate Rachael Rosow, Avon's top runner, one to two weeks leading up to the start of the school year in September.
“It was very hilly,” she said, recalling the terrain. “It really helped me start the season in shape.”
She and Rosow are trying to rally their young team to join them at the camp next year.
Keeping a competitive pace is also strategic, said Stokesbury, which is something her coach, Al Dadario helps her with by telling her the times of other runners close to her performance-wise.
“I try to run with someone and try to pass a lot of people at the end,” Stokesbury said.
She does get nervous before races, but she is comforted by the fact there are a lot of other girls at her pace.
There is also a lot of camaraderie in running, Stokesbury said, and it is not uncommon for competitors to “turn to the person next to them and say good luck.” That also applies to the moral support the Avon girls get from the boys team, which has a different coach.
Stokesbury did track in middle school, but freshman year was her first time doing cross country.
“It’s such a great feeling you get when you cross the finish line, a rewarding feeling,” Stokesbury said.
She will resume running in the spring, hoping to improve in individual races like the 800 and the mile after success last year when the 4-by-800-meter relay team made it to the State Open. Rosow was on the team with her, as well as two seniors.
Stokesbury does not do indoor track because that is when she devotes her time to her other love, dance, which she has done since she was four. She practices ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical at Dance Connection in Unionville four days a week and competes.
“I think that’s where my endurance came from,” she said.
Running remains her passion and she hopes to run in college.
But Stokesbury has two more years before her chance to run at the collegiate level, so her focus is on the present. The Falcons are poised to continue a strong season next year, graduating few seniors on varsity.
“High school would have been so different if I hadn’t done cross country,” she said.