Apparently lightning can strike twice. At the very least, one could hardly blame Cambrian College cross country coach Eric Leishman for believing this is the case.
Last year at this time, the former varsity runner and Golden Shield Male Athlete of the Year inherited a post-secondary transfer in the form of Sudbury native Emily Marcolini. The St Benedict graduate would go on to capture gold at the OCAA championships, in addition to becoming the first runner in program history to medal at cross country nationals, earning bronze in Brockville.
Fast forward twelve months, and coach Leishman is once again smiling at his good fortune. Celebrating her 22nd birthday this past weekend, Fort Frances native Mary Strain ran away from the field at the Fanshawe Invitational in London, finishing first and posting a personal best time in the process.
If the possibility of a successful surge for Marcolini had been at least the subject of local chatter, to some degree, in local running circles last summer, the emergence of Strain has been far more a product of happen-stance, on so many levels.
“I applied to Cambrian the day before the application was due this summer,” said Strain. “I was a little bit lost, not sure if I wanted to take a year off, or go back to university, or see what I could do with the degree I already had. I figured why not apply?”
One of four athletically inclined children in the family, Strain played basketball throughout high school. Perhaps she was genetically pre-disposed, as all four siblings suited up with the Fort Frances High School Muskies hard court teams at some time or another.
“I ran cross country in elementary school, and always participated in the small track meets that we had,” she said. “But it was in high school where I excelled at track and really enjoyed it. When I was in grade 12, I was spoken to by the Lakehead university coach at a track meet.”
“That’s kind of when I realized that I should push myself and start training a little more, so that I could do this at the post-secondary level.” Never one to be accused of over-confidence, Strain eased her way into the Thunderwolves varsity sports family, maintaining full eligibility in her first year at the Thunder Bay campus, after joining coach Kip Segsworth and the runners relatively late in the year.
“I wanted just to get into the groove of school, and then decide if I wanted to run,” she explained. During a pair of competitive seasons with her OUA squad, Strain enjoyed some success, and was named Female Team MVP in 2014. While she is not one to flash it openly, there is clearly an inner desire that burns within the soft-spoken student athlete.
“I was always my own motivator,” she said. “I didn’t really have anybody pushing me as a runner. I think I just kind of found it in myself, discovered it on my own. It’s a matter of just trusting the training, and trusting myself, and knowing that I had been disciplining myself and training enough to compete with the other girls in the race.”
All of which was pretty much the opposite of what Strain was sensing this past Saturday. “Once I was accepted into Cambrian, I got in touch with Eric (Leishman) and basically told him that I was kind of interested in running, but hadn’t run competitively in over a year, and really didn’t know where I was at.”
“I had kind of lost interest, and just wanted to get that interest back, to run for the love of the sport again.” Becoming ever more comfortable in his role as a cross country coach, Leishman provided the perfect match for Strain.
“He said to just run easy, take my time, that there was no rush,” recalled the Social Service Work program student of her initial phone conversation with her new mentor. “The different atmosphere and the different coaching technique, from Lakehead, was what I needed at the time. It fits me.”
And while Strain had maintained essentially her varsity running weight, the lack of mileage was going to be evident, as she resumed some training this past summer. “I felt really slow,” she said with a laugh. “I was just trying to get back into the routine, being used to being sore and tired, and that was a little bit difficult.”
In fact, she acknowledged that she truthfully did not feel completely comfortable, like her old self or better, until reaching roughly the quarter-pole of Saturday’s race. “I went into the race so nervous, wondering what I was doing there,” she said.
“Typically on the start line, I can remind myself to just trust the training. On Saturday, I didn’t know where I was at. This is a new competition, a new environment. I had to just settle myself down and convince myself to just run for me. It’s about having fun.”
“When the gun went off, I just relaxed for the first kilometre. There were probably 15 girls ahead of me. But after that first kilometre, I felt that need to go. That came out of nowhere. I took the lead and didn’t stop – it was amazing.”
“I came out of some bushes on the course, and I could see the finish line, and I thought to myself that I could run another two kilometres. It felt so good. I don’t know what happened.” Still, she can’t help but to think that there is an element of “mind over matter” at play in this situation, with coach Leishman creating the ideal mental environment that allows her to shine.
“The laid back approach that Eric and I have taken with this, trying to enjoy running again, really works for me,” said Strain. The challenge, moving forward, is that expectations are the obvious by-product of success. Strain is not oblivious to the height of the bar that she has set.
“Taking the expectations and the positive energy from everybody, and channeling that into my racing and my training, that should help me. I feel excited to race again, I’m not nervous at all.” That may just be the maturity speaking; the wisdom that comes from just a few extra years beyond high school.
All of that, mixed in with a slightly different perspective. “I want to go to nationals and do well at nationals,” acknowledged Strain. “I don’t want to put a specific placing on it, but I want to run well and enjoy it.”
“This is my final year of school, and probably my final year of running, so I just want to make the best of it.” And Leishman is just fine with that – at least until lightning strikes once more next fall.