Much like the three days before it, Dec. 6, 2014, dawned cloudy and wet in Louisville. Before it was over, nearly 2 inches of rain would fall. To say that running conditions at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park were sloppy would be like saying Dr. Margaret Mahoney has taught at Bellarmine for a while – a vast understatement. The course was so sodden, in fact, that officials with the 2014 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships shortened the planned 6K to 5.78K.
As she slogged toward the finish line, Bellarmine senior Emily Frith was spattered with mud from her red hair to her soggy size 8 ½ Saucony spikes.
“It was tough – the hardest race of my life,” she said. “But it was also special. That was my last race as a Bellarmine University runner for the cross country team. My whole team came out to support me. I was very emotional before the race, and all these emotions and memories were hitting me through the course, but it turned out great.”
Her fourth-place, 21:16.7 finish was more than great: It was record-setting, the best finish at the Championships in Bellarmine cross country history. The outing also secured her a second All-America honor, following a 31st-place finish at Nationals in 2012.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” she said.
Emily’s entire Bellarmine career could hardly have been more perfect. Among her other running honors: back-to-back first-place finishes and Runner of the Year honors at the Great Lakes Valley Conference Championships in 2013 and 2014; runner-up in the 2014 Midwest Regional, where she also set the Bellarmine record for the 6K; and a gold finish in the 2014 Greater Louisville Classic, where she broke the BU record for the 5K.
She didn’t leave that drive for excellence on the course. The Crab Orchard, Ky., exercise science major was also an Academic All-American and GLVC Scholar-Athlete of the Year both this year and last. Her cumulative GPA of 3.99 fell just short of perfection because of an A-minus in philosophy her freshman year. Rather than be bitter about it, she is, well, philosophical: “I did not pay attention as much as I should have.”
Always athletic, Emily played soccer from age 10 through high school. But it was running, which she began in seventh grade, where she really found her stride. “I like the personal satisfaction of doing well. ‘Runner’s high’ is definitely a real thing,” she said. “Running has taught me about life, about trying really hard. Sometimes it hurts so bad, and you want to give up, but you have to hang in there.”
Bellarmine was on her college short list for its exercise science program. “But also, Coach [Kris] Horton came and watched me at a meet that I did really badly in, and he still wanted me,” she said. “That meant a lot to me – that he saw something in me.”
Emily actually didn’t do that badly in that high school race, Coach Horton said. “She just didn’t do as well as she wanted to. I could see her competitive nature. It mattered to her to improve and keep improving. Those are the types of athletes who have the most success in our program: They have the drive and the determination to put in the work to get to the next level.”
By the end of her freshman year, Emily was one of the team’s top runners, capturing GLVC “Freshman of the Year” honors. “She had one of those years that in 16 years of coaching I don’t think I’ve seen more than one time: a personal best almost every race,” Coach Horton said. Yet she remained a humble and gracious teammate, he said, and maintained a good balance between running and studying. “Competing for those A’s was almost as important as competing for a win on the weekend.”
Her biggest challenge was a heartbreaking foot injury just two days before the 2013 NCAA Midwest Regional Championships. A shoo-in to finish in the Top 10, she instead limped through the race to help the team and finished 25th. “It put things in perspective for her,” Coach Horton said. “You hate to see any athlete go through that. But she bounced back very well. It was a testament to her strength.”
“I had to prove to myself and my coach and teammates that while bad things happen – nobody will do four years of this and not get hurt; we aren’t robots – you can come back and make it through injuries,” she said.
Emily heads next to the University of Kentucky, where she will enter the master’s program in kinesiology and health promotion and spend her last semester of eligibility in outdoor track. She hasn’t decided on a profession yet. “I just want to feel things out for the first year. I want to find a job that I am really passionate about.”
No matter where her career path leads, she is sure about one thing: She will always be passionate about running. “I feel closer to God when I’m running than at any other time.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org