Runners for Life

Cross country girls pursue excellence and build resilience

Department: Athletics

Elli Brady ’13 has been a cross country champion since she was a freshman – she made local headlines when she won her fourth straight individual ILH title last October – but it was a race she didn’t win that stands as her proudest achievement.

A week after her news-making run, Buff ’n Blue girls reclaimed the state championship title from Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy, blazing through HPA’s difficult course with a score of 42, a full 30 points ahead of the competition. Elli finished second, but she still calls it “probably the best day of my life – winning the team championship.” After the race, the 10 team members spontaneously linked arms, exhausted but thrilled. “We were in this circle and a lot of us are tearing up, especially the seniors,” Elli said. “We were so overwhelmed and happy and we’re saying how we worked so hard and that the title belongs to all of us.”

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Melissa Wong ’13 and Teri Brady ’16 were part of the winning team that led the Punahou girls’ cross country team to ILH and State victories this season.

Elli’s story highlights the fact that while cross country tallies individual effort, it thrives on teamwork. That’s part of the winning formula behind girls cross country at Punahou. Over the last five years, the team has claimed five ILH and four state titles, making it one of the top-ranked programs in the state. What started in 1972 as a six-member team has grown to include 93 girls from the intermediate through varsity levels. The Punahou team is big, but it is also deep, reflecting a well-coached program that promotes inclusion, teamwork and personal grit.

Head coach Duncan Macdonald, who’s coached the girls since 1999, explained the team’s “no-cut” policy this way: “There’s room for everybody. Anybody can compete and we don’t judge them on how well they do – we delight in coaching people to improve during the year.” Todd Iacovelli ’02, a former state champion and boys’ assistant coach, agreed. “We don’t make decisions on whether to keep a runner based on how fast they can run but rather on how committed they are to a process of growing throughout the season. If somebody wants to be there, we want them there.”

Workouts are grueling, from core-stabilizing, strength and agility exercises to long runs of five or more miles that build endurance and short-run repetitions that build speed. Unlike other sports in which athletes are assigned different positions and training regimens, cross country runners train together and race the same, three-mile course in competition. It’s a routine that builds teamwork.

Hallie Lam ’14, a varsity runner, said she looks forward to practice because “seeing each other and hanging out is the best part – we just love each other. I feel like I run for my teammates and not for myself. It’s more fun to do it that way.” Courses vary in topography, with Punahou’s campus offering an ideal mix of hilly and flat surfaces.

The girls train in groups of four to five, grouped by ability. “We all have our strengths and we help each other,” Lam explained. “We’ll motivate each other to keep up so as a group we’ll finish better even though individually you might be able to outdo your friend. We care more about the end result of the team score versus your own.” That cohesion gave the girls a keen edge, resulting in both ILH and state crowns. “This was probably the closest group that I’ve ever been a part of,” Brady said of her 2012 teammates, “so I think that had a huge impact on how we performed at states.”

Punahou’s cross country program begins with a strong intermediate program led by seventh-grade English teacher Tom Earle ’65 that ensures a pipeline of raw, eager talent. Chloe Saracco ’17, an exuberant first-time runner, claimed she was “terrible” to begin with but dedicated herself to practice. “What made it fun was that I was with my friends and you go around Manoa, around Punahou School, you’re not just going around the track,” she said. “You also know you’re getting better; you’re being fit; you’re getting good exercise.” She was elated to see her meet times fall from 22 to 19 minutes on the intermediate’s two-mile course.

Training improves runners’ physical performance, but it also builds emotional resilience. Lam said she recognizes that while hard work pays off, it won’t guarantee success. “Sometimes I work really hard and I still get beat by other people. It makes me realize that I shouldn’t base my performance off of someone else. I can’t help what they do; I can only help what I do.”

As former competitive runners, all the coaches understand what it takes to navigate the pressures of racing. For them, success is not about titles or championships, but about growth. “Neither Duncan nor I view success based on the results of wins and losses on the cross country course,” Iacovelli said. “We measure success by the experiences the kids have and the development we see. The thing that gives us the passion and drive to carry on is to see this development as an individual and as a collective – that’s true success.”

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