LSA junior Taylor Manett isn’t 300 pounds of muscle or covered in tattoos. She doesn’t talk trash or throw punches on the field. She doesn’t have 25,000 Twitter followers like former Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. But she has one thing that all big-time athletes need: the drive to succeed. Motivated athletically, academically and mentally, she competes on the national scale with the Michigan women’s cross country team.

Between traveling each weekend to different meets — this season, they competed in Boston, Indiana and Iowa, among other places — she majors in Neuroscience and hopes to go to medical school. But according to Manett, her ability to balance a rigorous academic schedule with running competitively is natural for most runners.

“It’s definitely hard,” she said. “You have to manage your time very well.”

Before racing during championship season in November, Manett had goals of earning All Big Ten, All-Regionals and All American titles — that’s top 14, 25 and 40 in each race, respectively. Though Manett did not achieve this feat, it’s hard to believe running is a mechanism for maintaining sanity.

As a Division I athlete with high expectations to meet, Manett’s commitment to the sport would expectedly cause more stress rather than reduce it.

“For me, I really enjoy the physical act of running,” she explained with a grin. “Whenever I’m getting stressed out, or thinking about goals or races in the future, I usually come back to my teammates and that’s usually how I think about it.”

The runner’s high

On a brisk October morning, thousands of exhausted runners crossed the finish line of the 2014 Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon. As they limped through the recovery area spanning West Fort Street in downtown Detroit, each entrant had the same expression that encapsulated simultaneous elation, exhaustion and happiness. Crying and falling into the arms of loved ones, the runners felt something those cheering on the sidelines did not: the runner’s high.

Runner’s high is a sense of euphoria, peace and relaxation experienced after running or working out. And the runner’s high is no myth. Dr. Henning Boecker of the University of Bonn in Germany measured endorphin levels in 10 long distance runners’ brains to see if they were different before and after they completed long runs. The research found there was a noticeable increase of opioids — chemicals that are associated with the suppression of pain and euphoria — after their two-hour long runs.

While the Detroit Marathon runners were exhausted, the feeling of accomplishment only amplified their runner’s high. Just after crossing the marathon finish line, Detroit resident Randall Brown immediately melted into tears. Catching his breath, Brown said he chose to run the marathon in honor of his close friend who passed away earlier this year.

While Brown didn’t consider himself a competitive runner before training for the Detroit Marathon, his finish time rang in at 3:27:29 — significantly lower than the 4:16:00 average finish time for men across all 2013 marathons.

But for Brown, the marathon was not about the finishing time; it was about honoring his friend.

“It’s worth it,” he said as his friends and family surrounded him minutes after he finished. Though his hands were pressed against his knees leaning forward and tears were flowing down his cheeks, his smile overcame any other emotion he felt. The runner’s high had enveloped him.

At 66, Brighton, Mich. resident Tom Claflin began running marathons eight years ago to challenge his sons who consistently compete in the Boston Marathon each year.

After running 20 marathons, Claflin is drawn to Detroit each year by the race’s unique course. Each year, thousands of marathoners funnel through a starting line on W. Fort Street, travel over the Ambassador Bridge, into Canada, through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, through Mexicantown, Corktown, Greektown, Indian Village and Belle Isle. With this tour of a city under such intense criticism throughout the U.S., Claflin noticed its beauty.

More specifically, Claflin pointed to the beginning of the race. With a 7 a.m. start time, runners approach mile three and glide across the Ambassador Bridge as the sun rises.

“It’s terrific,” he said at the finish line. “Over the bridge with the sunrise and back through the tunnel, it’s much better than anybody who would go through with a car would know.”

It’s simple. Runners go places. Both physically and mentally, runners attain new heights, and for University alum Zach Ornelas, who ran on the men’s cross country team as a student, running certainly has taken him far.

Beyond traveling with the varsity team in college, he competed for the United States in the Mountain Running World Championships in Poland, finished several ultra marathons — ranging from 50 to 100 mile courses — and won the 2013 Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon (He was edged out to finish second this year by 14 seconds in the final quarter mile of the race).

Before the marathon on Oct. 19, Ornelas described how his relationship with running has changed. Moving from a hyper-competitive atmosphere with a very specific training regimen to coaching himself as he trains for these endurance-based races, he still makes running a priority. As an alum of the University’s School of Education undergraduate program, he works from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Detroit at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy — a teaching job he said he earned with the help of the story he told about his 2013 Detroit Marathon win. And when he gets home, the first thing he does is put on his running shoes.

“I can’t miss a run,” he said.

With a competitive background and impressive 2:20:11 marathon time, Ornelas is, of course, not your average runner. But despite his nearly elite status, he said running is a national phenomenon.

At the end of the Detroit Marathon, racers run miles 22 through 24 along the Detroit Riverwalk, and they only emulate the kind of running done throughout the whole year.

“Detroit is a city that understands running and understands it’s a hard thing anyone can do,” Ornelas said with a smile as his vocal pace quickened.

Injured for several months after his marathon debut last year, Ornelas felt a need to get back to running — just like Manett, just like Brown and just like Chaflin.

“Once I didn’t have it I realized what a big part of my life it is,” he said. “It gets rid of my stress. No matter how late it is, I can’t skip my run. It’s the one thing I do completely by choice.”

High stakes, low stress

When Ornelas was on the University of Michigan’s cross country team, the amount of time or distance he would run each day was certainly not an individual choice. With training schedules issued to the team each week, each member works in a coordinated, focused and driven fashion, with respect for the team dynamic of the sport.

At the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City on Nov. 2, the women’s cross country team did not do as well as they anticipated. Ranked as the first place team nationally early in the season, the team was expected to finish either first or second, with their biggest rival being Michigan State. Due to an injury keeping their LSA sophomore Erin Finn, their top runner, out of the race and sub-par performances from the rest of the runners, the team placed third — which, to them, wasn’t quite satisfactory.

The disappointment continued as the team placed third and 18th in NCAA regionals and championships, respectively. With high hopes at the beginning of the season, the team had hoped to beat their 2013 performance of fourth place. But a championship remained elusive as LSA junior Shannon Osika, another top runner, joined Finn with an injury.

After NCAA Championships on Nov. 23, Michigan coach Mike McGuire recognized the injuries, noting he would’ve hoped for a healthier season for his student-athletes. However, he said the team still pushed through.

“I think that the seven that were out there showed a lot of resiliency,” McGuire said. “We could’ve folded our cards and finished 25th or 26th.”

In varsity college cross country races, men and women run 8Ks and 6Ks, respectively, with seven athletes in for each team. These seven runners score points for their team based on his or her finishing place. This means if the first runner for the team finishes fifth, he or she scores five points and that number will be added to the total score of the team.

Each team’s score is the sum of the finishing places of its first five runners and the lowest score wins. A team’s sixth and seventh finishers work as support or tiebreakers.

In the NCAA Championships for the women’s cross country team, the women’s team placed 18th, with their runners coming in at 68, 82, 95, 104 and 125 — totaling to 424 points. Michigan State University’s women’s cross country team won with 85 points.

Because of the importance of placement — which oftentimes is so close that a few seconds in a race could mean a 30 point difference — coaches, including Manett’s, encourage athletes to run in packs.

McGuire said this as he watched five of the nine championship team girls run circles around the track on a brisk November afternoon several days after the Big Ten Championships. These top runners were doing their first track workout after the Big Ten meet, and it was a hard one. Separated into different segments, they ran at “tempo” pace — moderately difficult pace — for 10 minutes, six minutes, four minutes and another four minutes, with a minute break between each set. The tempo was progressive: each set had to be faster than the first.

“It’s to see if you can eat an elephant one bite at a time,” McGuire said, preparing his stopwatch.

The track was busy that day, but with the sun shining directly on it, the ambiance was calm.

The five girls were separated into packs of two and three depending on their speed. Manett, one of the two in the faster pack, is typically the third fastest runner on the team. In the final meets of the season, however, Manett ranked sixth or seventh on the team. Despite this, McGuire urged her to keep pushing. Their intensity and determination on the track was palpable.

The sun settled as the runners picked up their pace, looping the track.

“Just go; don’t care anymore,” McGuire yelled as they ran by. Manett was trailing behind the pack. “Just go.”

For Manett, the pack mentality is crucial. Even while running in practice, the team works off of each other; having another person to run with is not only motivating, but also gives each runner a person to talk to. Even Manett, enthralled in this hyper-competitive sport, finds practice to be relaxing and a social time to talk to her friends.

As the team circled, Manett exchanged brief back-and-forths with her teammate Kinesiology senior Megan Weschler: “Keep going,” or “Push.” Though Manett trailed behind Weschler every few laps, she pushed harder while McGuire yelled, “Stay with the pack” as they curved around the track for the last time.

Manett said her commitment to running — and to her team — does not add to her stress. With a busy academic schedule as Neuroscience major, Manett depends on her teammates for help. After all, they all are going through the same stress as they work to reach the same goal.

“Having teammates help you means you can shoulder that weight together — the expectations and pressure of what you have to do as a team,” she said.

For Ornelas, running serves the same purpose. Even though he is no longer on a formal team, he tries his best to ensure that he can have a running partner each day. It keeps him motivated.

“At any level, someone to run with keeps you in check,” he said. “If it’s just you, you can make up excuses for yourself. Running should be a social thing.”

Other runners agree. Why would over 200 students sign up for MRun, the University’s running club? Presumably, they want to run with someone else. Runners need these partners not only to have someone to talk to on those lonely 20 mile training runs, but also to push them when necessary.

Keeping fellow runners close is part of the dynamic of the sport as well. With barely any fan base, the women’s cross country team depends on each other for support, Manett said.

Soon, running no longer becomes an obligation or task for the day, but a necessary time for both self-determination and self-reflection. And this feeling may be only relevant for runners who understand the mental effects of the sport. With so much emotion involved, it’s difficult to see why the fans don’t show up.

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