Dashing up grassy hills and paved walkways, trailing behind runners until the perfect moment comes to pass them and gaining that last bit of energy to sprint to the finish, cross-country racing calls for extreme focus as well as enduring strength. The ultimate reward in such a demanding sport is only experienced by a select few runners every season—the reward of taking first place. Senior Sophia Mills earned that very title in the first league race of the season on Sept. 18.
“She doesn’t come off as a competitive person,” cross-country coach Jeanine Holmlund said. “She’s very low-key and extremely humble, but she’s got nerves of steel.”
Mills, who has been a member of the varsity team since her freshman year and is currently co-captain of the team, ran three miles in 19.09.
“It was the first time I’d ever won a cross-country race,” Mills said. “I was really surprised because I had no idea what the competition was going to be like. It was surprising, exciting and rewarding.”
The race took place at Hayward High School, where 12 high schools participated. There were two varsity women’s raceswith Mills’s time the best out of both.
“Usually my strategy is to spend the first mile finding a place within the pack, not pushing myself too hard,” Mills said. “I try to pick a girl and then stay with her until I speed up in the last mile and pass her.”
This was not Mills’s first time running at Hayward, the course that is often used for both league and NCS championships. This being the first race of the league, however, meant that the competition was yet to be tested.
“Once I realized what the competition was like for this race, I thought I might as well just stay with the girl running in first the whole time,” Mills said. “For most of the race I was in second place, kind of pacing myself off her.”
Mills was in control the entire three miles. When the last stretch of the race came in, she picked up the pace and finished nearly 12 seconds before the original leading runner.
“Having Sophia on the team makes everyone else look bad became she is so fast,” senior Graham Dean said.
Holmlund said she particularly loved watching the girls race at Hayward because they came in so close together. Excluding 4th place, Piedmont runners took up all the spots from 3rd to 9th place.
“I love watching the train in purple,” Holmlund said. “I hadn’t ever seen a group of girls from high school run like that before.”
Mills said that her favorite part about cross-country is the competition.
“She’s a racer,” Holmlund said. “If she has to gut it out, she’s willing to do that. I’d call it a high pain tolerance.”
Both her coach and teammates have high hopes for Mills and the rest of the varsity team this season.
“I think that she’s going to do great this season because she has put in a ton of summer conditioning and is already running faster than her times,” Dean said. “She could continue to improve by drinking more chocolate milk and working on her rap flow.”
Mills did indeed show improvement when, a week later, she ran a 5K (3.11 miles) in 18 minutes and 59 seconds at the Stanford Invitational meet, finishing 16th out of 250 runners.
“I’m really excited about this year,” Mills said. “It’s been so great over the years seeing more and more people join cross country. This year is the first year we’ve had enough girls to field more than a varsity and half of a JV team.”
Mills said that another great thing about the team this year was that the kids were participating in something called Tie-Dye Friday.
“Every other year I’ve been one of the only people to do it, but this year I convinced our coach to have a bonding activity where everyone made a tie-dye shirt,” Mills said. “So now if you see us on Fridays, we’re probably all going to be running in tie-dye.”