Cross country is a numbers game — whether it’s placing, qualifying marks, times, splits or any other numeric value that runners place so much importance on, there’s a number for pretty much everything in the sport.
La Salle-Peru senior Rachel Hickey knows that better than anyone.
Several numbers define Hickey’s senior cross country season as Hickey placed first and set a meet record (17:54) at the Princeton Invitational, placed fourth at the Class 2A Crete-Monee Regional (18:57) and sixth at the Normal sectional (18:06).
The most important number for Hickey this season was a 15th-place finish at the Class 2A IHSA State Meet finals in Peoria, where she posted a time of 17:41 — a personal record and the fastest time ever ran by an L-P cross country runner.
For all of her accomplishments this season, Hickey is the 2017 NewsTribune Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
“All of this is definitely something I never could have imagined walking in here my first day freshman year,” Hickey said. “I came into cross country just kind of hoping to make state and just get there, not do anything necessarily. That was the same in track, too. I didn’t really do anything special in middle school.
“So to come here and have done what I’ve done is really astonishing to me.”
The award is Hickey’s fifth NT Player of the Year Award, her third in cross country with the other two in track and field.
Hickey set a two-pronged goal at the beginning of the season to finally crack the top 10 at state this year and have her state time close to the 17:30 range. Although she did not make the top 10, Hickey became the first L-P runner — boys or girls — to finish better than 20th place at the state final, and learned several lessons along the way.
Already holding the title of the area’s top runner coming into the season, it would seem improvement from her junior year would be marginal at best.
Instead, Hickey used 2017 to cement herself as the greatest runner in L-P history.
“There’s definitely diminishing returns when you’re at the higher end of the curve like Rachel is,” said L-P cross country coach John Beatty. “You don’t see as big of a time drop off, but there’s not as many people up there too, so if you’re able to beat two or three people that you couldn’t beat last season, that’s big percentage of the field.”
Hickey emerged at a time that saw several successful L-P runners, such as former NT Players of the Year Megan Krolak and Lesly Rocha, and was part of a team her freshman season that finished 11that state.
Beatty said Hickey’s work ethic and durability have separated her from all of the runners before her. One key to injury prevention is preparation — another of Hickey’s many strong suits — and part of preparation is setting goals and mapping out how a race will break down.
That’s where numbers come in.
Athletes in any sport can get wrapped up in numbers, figures and statistics so much so that it can be a distraction. Hickey tries to avoid this as much as possible in a numbers-laden sport, something she credits this season’s success to.
“I really try not to,” Hickey said. “I’ve found a lot of times when I do focus on the numbers, it becomes a little bit stressful. I always cite this race two years ago at the state meet my sophomore year. I went out at a 5:30 and I absolutely panicked, because I saw that clock and I’m like, ‘That’s way too fast.’ Since then I’ve tried not to focus too much on numbers. I’ve beat myself up about it sometimes.
“What I’ve found when I don’t focus on the numbers, things come a little more easily. This year at state I went through the first mile faster than I meant to and I was totally fine with that. I just focused on place rather than time.”
This season’s sectionals race was an important turning point for Hickey just before state. Hickey found herself in the middle of a pack of runners and was caught by surprise, as about eight runners were behind her and another eight were in front. Hickey accepted the numbers game within the race, and it paid off.
“I just tried to stay with the top 10 because that’s what Beatty told me to do,” Hickey said. “The top 10 automatically qualify to state no matter what and when I just went with the top 10 girls, the rest of the pack dropped off.”
Hickey also credited Beatty with establishing a consistent tapering program before big races, another part of her extensive preparation.
Hickey has had several numbers represent her career, from state finishes to meet records. She told the NewsTribune about some of the more interesting ones not found on the stat sheet.
Number of times thought about state: Probably almost daily, honestly. It makes me happy to think about it.
Number of running shoes gone through: I’m in the double digits somewhere. By the end of my senior year I should have gone through 12 pairs of running shoes.
Number of miles ran since beginning the sport: I didn’t start tracking my miles until junior year, so freshman year and sophomore year are just completely off the grid. But I know one thing for sure, I never hit 25 miles per week before junior year and this year, I was hitting 40 miles a week for my max, so I’m guessing it would add up to about 1000.
Number of practice runs done alone: There were a number of times this season. It can be really difficult sometimes to find motivation to go out there and run by yourself because I like to chase after the guys on my team. Not having them there is tough, but those kind of days gave me opportunities to have my rest days where I could just run my own race.
Number of hours spent on the sport: As far as daily, at least three hours and some days four. I take one day off every week, so it’s about anywhere from 18-24 a week, which is like a part-time job.
Number of people who helped along the way: Definitely coach Beatty for sure. Everything he’s done for me over the last four years, I cannot thank him enough for that. Also Randy Kaler, I have to give credit to him especially for track. I have to give credit to my swim coaches, they’ve kept me in shape in the offseason. Every single one of my teammates over the last four years, they just made it fun, and of course my parents.
Number of times wanted to quit the sport: I wanted to quit a lot freshman year. I was the only freshman girl on the team at that time, so it was very intimidating and I hated the summer practices. I was like, ‘I’ve never ran over two miles continuously coming into this.’ So coming into my first practice running six miles I was like, ‘Yep, I’m going to quit.’ But since then it’s decreased a lot, I don’t I think I thought of quitting at all this season.
Number of memories made: Countless. There’s no one number to define that at all.
Hickey’s efforts this season and over her career helped her obtain a scholarship to attend Illinois State once her four years at L-P finally comes to an end.
Beatty said the number of runners they have on the team from year to year is still not quite where he wants it to be, but hopes Hickey’s success will attract more students to the sport. Above all, though, Beatty said he was fortunate to have a runner, student and friend over the last four years.
“You get to know somebody a lot over the course of four years and with my athletes and the fact that I train with them, it’s kind of like having a training partner or multiple training partners,” Beatty said. “You have a lot of conversations about life while you’re out there while you’re on a long run, and you get to know somebody and what their aspirations are, what their fears are in some cases and what they really like and enjoy.
“You just try to push them in as positive of a direction as you can get them to go. They’ve certainly had a positive impact on my experience and training as well.”
For Hickey, this is the third time she can call herself NT Cross Country Player of the Year, though it’s also the last time. She has one more track and field season and then it’s four more years — another number — at ISU.
She doesn’t take that lightly.
“I owe everything to this sport and I owe a lot of it to the coaches and support staff I’ve had here at L-P,” Hickey said. “This sport taught me how to find a passion for something like this and the importance of putting in hard work. Everything you put in, you get out if you believe in yourself and trust in your training.
“It really is the end of an era and it’s so scary to think that. I’m really nervous for what the next four to five years hold for me, but I’m also super excited.”
Beau Troutman can be reached at 220-6939, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsBeau.