Cross country is a demanding sport, physically and mentally, and sometimes success doesn’t come quickly.
The 5K (3.1-mile) distance wasn’t Corey Conner’s specialty as a high school runner in North Townsend, Mass., yet her personal best on the cross country trails was a solid 19 minutes, 54 seconds.
Conner has improved tremendously since arriving on the University of Maine campus a year ago, blossoming into one of the top runners in the Northeast, and she’ll be on center stage Saturday as the Black Bears compete in the Open New England Championships at Franklin Park in Boston.
The women’s 5K race will go off at noon while the men follow with their 8K race at 12:45.
Conner, whose main race was the 800 meters at North Middlesex High, had no idea she’d become a top collegiate cross country runner so fast.
“I didn’t have any expectations [coming here], I wasn’t sure if I was going to run [cross country] originally,” Conner said.
However, when she got some positive feedback from her sister, Allison, currently a junior for UMaine, Corey decided to follow suit and join the team, and she’s happy she did.
“I was more focused on track because that’s what I enjoyed more, [but] that’s kind of switched to cross country now,” Corey said.
Conner has improved vastly over the course of her sophomore campaign, with three second-place runs, including a blistering 17:15 at the Murray Keatinge Invitational in Orono last weekend.
Conner also has one individual victory under her belt, clocking a 17:35 in a home meet against New Hampshire.
She also had a whirlwind spring, competing in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Junior National track championships at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in July, which helped her mentally prepare for her sophomore season.
“I think as a freshman everyone goes through [nerves] because it’s so different than high school, you run against all these teams that you hear about when you’re in high school, like Boston College and Duke,” she said. “I think as a sophomore you’re a little more used to it, it’s a little more calming.”
Conner’s achievements on the track last spring included winning the America East crown in the 1,500 in 4:28.31 while she was an impressive fifth in the Junior National meet, running 4:33.76 in a fast field that included Jordan Hasay, who competed in the Olympic Trials in 2008.
After what had been a long spring season, Maine coach Mark Lech had Conner tone down her training a bit through most of the summer while a majority of her teammates were hitting peak mileage.
“Mark didn’t want me running that much, I did three miles a day for a couple weeks,” she said. “I didn’t get to 40-45 [miles a week] until the end of the summer.”
Corey and Allison Conner both went back to North Townsend over the summer and trained with one another while Allison went to Oregon to watch her sister compete there in July.
Corey will see more big-time competition Saturday in BC freshman Jillian King, the Murray Keatinge Invitational champ, and reigning America East winner Andrea Walkonen of Boston University.
The meet will consist of not only Division I foes, but Division II and III talent from around the region.
“It’s going to be a big race, we haven’t had many meets where we’ve raced against this many teams,” Conner said.
While the Franklin Park course is fairly flat, its trails are narrow, so Conner will be looking to get into her race pace right from the gun.
“If you don’t get out you’ll be stuck where you are for a lot of the race,” she said.
Conner attributes a great deal of her success to sister Allison, parents Candice and Timothy Conner, Lech and other teammates as well.
“[Freshman] year and Hilary Maxim and I worked well together, I owe her everything too,” Conner said.
Plus, its not a bad thing when you’re training partner’s hometown is literally a tempo run from campus.
“She knows all the trails, it’s really helpful when we go for runs around here,” Conner said of Maxim, a sophomore from Old Town.
Conner also feels the Black Bears can have a strong team showing at New Englands, as senior Jordan Daniel of Corinna, senior Vanessa Letourneau of Fairfield, sophomores Maxim and Jennie Lucy of Bangor, Allison Conner, junior Cynthia Hunter of Waterville and senior Brenna Walsh of Nova Scotia are packing in nicely.
“The team dynamic this year is so great, we’ve all just made these big improvements,” Conner said. “It’s exciting to have everyone improving, our team is so much stronger this year.”
Pendale race Friday
PVC teams will be on the move Friday as Hermon High School will host the Pendale Invitational.
Racing starts with the boys and girls combined JV race at 3:30 p.m., the varsity girls at 4:15 p.m. and varsity boys at 5 p.m.
This meet, along with the Mt. Blue Relays in Farmington, also Friday, will serve as the final tune-up for KVAC and PVC squads before conference championship meets next weekend.
Top-10 finishers in the varsity races at Pendale will earn medals while JV runners who come in the top 10 will receive ribbons. Team champions in all races will receive trophies, along with runners-up in the varsity events.
T-shirts will be on sale at the meet for $15.