Up to the Challenge
Jessica Cunningham's first competitive track race was the 200 meters in middle school. She reluctantly had registered for track at the urging of a friend from her Algebra class. Previously, she invested her free time on school and music. Track was her first foray into sports.
She lost that first race. Badly.
"I signed up for the two mile for the next meet, placed third and haven't stopped since," said the exercise science major from Loveland, Colo. "I fell in love with it. I enjoy competing in a sport that most people find grueling or impossible."
"I run because most of the world chooses not to, and I gladly take on challenges like that," she said.
Jessica chose Hastings College to pursue her passion for running with the Bronco Women's Cross Country and Track and Field teams. During this, her senior year, she has set rather ambitious goals in cross country, including breaking her personal record and qualifying for the national meet.
This fall, she did both. With an 11th place finish at the November 3, 2012, GPAC Cross Country Championship in Sioux City, Iowa, Jessica Cunningham ’13 qualified for the NAIA Cross Country Meet in Vancouver, Wash. Her time of 18:28.02 was not only a personal best, it also catapulted her to second on the Hastings College Women’s Cross Country list of top performances, behind Scottie (Shaw) Heil '09.
"I worked very hard over the summer and, at some points, was running 80 miles per week to build a good foundation for the cross country season," she said. "The physical part was easy because I trusted Coach [Kendrick Clay] to write workouts that helped me to reach my goals."
Jessica continued, "The mental part was where I tried to put a majority of my focus. I fought to push past the thought that a 19-minute 5k is good enough. I was striving for something much better and ultimately my mind let my feet take over in order for me to attain my goals."
Coach Clay is impressed with how her preparations paid off.
"She has developed a high level of competitive focus," said Clay, who graduated from Hastings College in 1996. "To be a successful distance runner you need not just ability but the desire to live a certain lifestyle and to keep the belief that you desire to compete and push towards your potential with everything you do from training, diet, studies and sleep patterns. She has started to put the entire package together."
Nationals – The Ultimate Challenge
On November 17, 2012, the day of the NAIA Cross Country Meet, Jessica awoke to the sound of a downpour. That’s not what many runners want to hear before a big race, but for Jessica, the precipitation was welcome.
“Somehow the rain helps me calm down and look at the big picture,” she said. “I was able to relax and realize that this is the race where I just needed to go out and run – nothing else.”
Jessica described the course, plotted on the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, as featuring hills and tall grass. Because it was on a former fort, the race began with canon fire rather than the usual gun start. Due to muddy conditions, she had to focus to avoid slipping on the turns.
“The race was breathtaking. There were cheers and cowbells echoing in the distance, but the only things I could distinctly hear were heavy breaths from all the runners,” Jessica explained.
“Crossing the finish line was such an amazing feeling: covered in mud and a big smile. I wouldn’t have wanted to end my cross country career any other way.”
After graduating in May 2013, Jessica plans to pursue a master's degree in K-6 education at the University of Northern Colorado. Her long term goals include returning to her hometown, teaching 2nd grade and continuing to run.