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Endurance On and Off the Course

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In the near distance, cheers become more distinguishable, and as they round the final flag, they gasp for air in between the pain of their feet pounding increasingly faster into the ground. The finish line finds its way into their field of vision and with the crowd’s cheers fueling their last ounce of energy, they sprint until they reach the end.

This is the moment Melissa Manetsch and Alex Tam, both seniors, have been training for throughout their cross country careers. This year alone, Manetsch has won every race except for one and Tam has won all except for two big invitationals. Participating on both the cross country and track teams, both athletes have excelled greatly in their sports as well as in their academics.

THE BEGINNING

Tam started running in fifth grade, but his career sparked in middle school as he looked up to runner Max Roberts (LHS graduate of the Class of 2015). At the beginning of his career, Tam was nowhere close to his capabilities today.

“When I first started I actually kind of sucked… I could barely run a half mile,” Tam explained.

However, Tam continued to work on his endurance and would run before school, at recess and after school at practice.

Manetsch had a similar experience. Coming from a family of runners, it seemed natural for Manetsch to start running in elementary school. Her dad had been a runner and her sister, Hannah, participated on varsity cross country and track for four years at LHS. However, at the beginning of her career, Manetsch had trouble pacing herself and would have to walk throughout races.

THE SEASON

In order to improve their times, both Manetsch and Tam dedicate lots of time and energy into their varying practices. Some common workouts include tempo runs (where athletes push themselves at a race pace but go further so that a race seems easier), 400-meter track repeats and long runs that can range anywhere from 8-14 miles.

Aside from training during the season, both athletes put in immense work during their offseasons. Manetsch continues to increase her mileage and runs 8-12 miles most days. Tam does similar workouts to the ones during the season to keep in shape.

Their training has led to many improvements and impressive results. Last year at the State cross country meet, Tam placed 40th and ran a 14:57. Currently he runs a 14:47. This season, Tam aspires to be in the top five for State and qualify for nationals.

Manetsch currently runs a 17:08 for three miles. Additionally, she went to State for track sophomore year and placed 10th in the 3200-meter race with a time of 10:52 and placed 21st in the 1600-meter run with a time of 5:11. Junior year she qualified for the 3200m and 1600m, but decided to run only the 3200m, where she placed sixth with a time of 10:46. Even though there are a lot of external factors that impact race times, Manetsch regularly aims to work on her “mental posture towards running” as well as positively influencing her team.

WHY IT’S WORTH THE PAIN

Cross country and track are both very taxing sports that take a lot of physical and mental strength. Both athletes agree that suffering through the pain that accompanies workouts and long runs has helped build unexpected friendships.

Manetsch, who favors cross country because of the beautiful courses and the less intense crowds, likes the team camaraderie and bonding that allows her to “get to know [my  teammates] on a different level.”

Similarly, Tam’s favorite part is the team chemistry: “All the guys get along really well and it’s like a big friend group, pretty much.”

Both athletes also enjoy the feeling of “runner’s high,” a sense of euphoria after strenuous activity that is associated with the release of endorphins in the brain. After a long run or a track workout, Tam claimed he’s “super happy” and “bouncing of the walls.”

“I really like the feeling after a run… though you’re exhausted and you can barely move your limbs, it just feels like everything is peaceful and you just find your zen, I guess,” Tam explained.

Similarly, Manetsch experiences this feeling typically when she runs farther than six miles.

“You just feel a sense of well being and you are satisfied with everything you’ve done,” she said. “Everything is great and everything is wonderful. You’re just really happy.”

SUPPORTERS

Both athletes have a wide range of supporters who encourage them to become better as runners and people.

Since Manetsch’s older sister was also a runner at LHS, Manetsch explained how having her just a phone call away is extremely helpful because her sister has endured everything Manetsch is going through. In addition, two of Manetsch’s close friends run with her among the team’s top five performers and provide lots of support during practice and races.

“She does everything with passion and she does everything the best that she can, so she’s a good person or a good teammate to look up to and respect,” stated cross country and track coach William Etnyre.

Additionally, teammate Nora Tucker described how Manetsch always cheers on and watches the rest of the team finish races even if she has already been done for 10 minutes.

“She might not always be the most vocal leader, but she leads by example, and her hard work at practice every single day certainly inspires the rest of the team to keep pushing,” Tucker said.

Likewise, Tam’s teammates and family have been consistent with their encouragement and support throughout his career.  

“My parents are definitely my really big supporters; they’re there at every single meet and they’re always cheering me on and helping me accomplish my goals, and inspiring me to go faster,” Tam stated.

Furthermore, even though Tam’s teammates aren’t always running with him, he knows that they’re looking up to him, encouraging him to be the best he can be. Eddie Moy, one of Tam’s close teammates who joined him at State as a fan last year, looks up to Tam because “he has a really good work ethic and he never does anything wrong… It’s such a taxing sport to always do what you’re supposed to do and be dedicated to running, but he manages to do it all the time.”

Tam’s coach, Stuart Mendelson, acknowledged Tam’s leadership and described him as a “team captain.” Mendelson added, “His athleticism since freshman year indicates a strong work ethic, commitment and dedication.”

BALANCING ACADEMICS

Aside from athletics, both Manetsch and Tam are extremely passionate about academics. Finding enough time to train as well as challenge themselves in rigorous courses is hard to balance, but both athletes have made sacrifices to keep up with school and their sports.

When it comes to sleep for school and sports, Manetsch stated: “I feel like they kind of actually go hand in hand… so the sleep I’m getting for running also helps me focus better in school.”

Currently, Manetsch is leaning more towards a college because of academics and is looking at Washington University in St. Louis and John Hopkins University. She hopes to study biomedical engineering and possibly go to medical school. Ultimately, she feels like if she does continue her running career, it will be at the University of Illinois.

“I’d love to run Division III, but they don’t give scholarships and Division I gives scholarships,” Manetsch said.

This past year, Manetsch, in her free time, has been researching a way to determine lactose concentration in food. She realized she was lactose intolerant and found it difficult to keep it out of her diet because of the insufficient nutritional data on food labels and at restaurants. She looked for a product that could help determine the concentration but couldn’t find anything. After researching the topic, Manetsch came up with the lactose assay (a kit used to detect lactose) that she uses today.   

On the other hand, Tam is interested in engineering because of the applications to the real world. He likes the idea that engineers can help shape the future. Tam intends to run in college and has been looking at the University of Iowa and the University of Notre Dame, and he wants to major in engineering and is interested in a pre-med track as well.

Despite the sacrifices made to excel academically and in their sports, both athletes have learned through experience how to make time for the activities they are passionate about.  With the State cross country meet approaching on Nov. 4, both runners have one last chance to give everything they have in the final weeks of their high school distance running careers.

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The student news publication of Libertyville High School
Endurance On and Off the Course