FAIRFIELD — Throughout her academic career, Jaden Gray has shown she can take on new challenges.

Gray’s study habits have helped her rank atop the junior class at Lawrence High School while also competing in three sports. This year, she decided to take a crash course in cross country. And despite competing in a handful of meets, she now ranks among the top runners in Class A.

This week, she is preparing to race in the state cross country championships on Saturday at Twin Brook in Cumberland.

Soccer is Gray’s primary fall sport. As a swing player for the Bulldogs, she played all over the field except in goal and scored two varsity goals this season.

Gray did both sports in junior high, but gave up cross country when she started high school so she could focus on her academics and still have time for soccer.

In the winter and spring, she runs distance events in track (she competed at states in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters last spring) for Tim Alberts, who also coaches cross country.

Alberts had always hoped for, and occasionally gently nudged, Gray to take up cross country. After her success in track and improvement running with her father, Stephen, over the summer, she decided to give it a shot.

Having run a 5-kilometer course in 23 minutes and knowing that she wouldn’t be practicing with the cross country team as long as the soccer season lasted, Gray went into cross country season with modest expectations.

“I was feeling pretty good about it and was coming into the season thinking I’d want to be at about 21 (minutes) at the end of the season,” she said.

She ran in a meet whenever it didn’t conflict with a soccer game, which limited her to three regular-season meets. At the prestigious Festival of Champions meet in Belfast on Oct. 3, she placed 66th out of 222 runners. Most pleasing to Gray was that she finished in 21:04.24, close to her goal for the end of the season.

“I always feel slow when I’m running, and then I’ll get to the finish line and I’ll see the time and I’m, like, ‘Wow, that was a great surprise,'” she said.

Lawrence played its last soccer game on Oct. 16. After a weekend of rest, Gray started practicing for cross country in the week leading up to the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship.

Soccer was a great way to build her endurance, but she still had a lot to learn about running cross country. And yet she ran a 21:40.90 while finishing ninth at KVACs at Cony High School.

Last week, she returned to Belfast for the Northern A championships. She shattered her personal best with her 20:12.02 and finished seventh.

That performance came on what has quickly become Gray’s favorite course. Saturday’s meet is on a considerably different type of course at Twin Brook, and Gray is adjusting her expectations accordingly.

“My next goal would be under 20 minutes, but knowing what Coach has told me about this course, it’s going to be a lot harder than Belfast,” Gray said.

Alberts is hoping Gray can repeat what she did the last couple of weeks — stay with the top runners from Northern Maine in this race.

“My goal for her is to end the race not saying, ‘Gee, my time is so much worse,’ but rather saying ‘I was still in that pack where I came from, and that’s a success,'” Alberts said.

In the meantime, the cross country crash course continues, with the lessons focusing on preparing for the hilly Twin Brook terrain.

“(Wednesday) at practice, we were working on using arms for power and getting that bigger stride for hills,” Gray said. “I think that’s probably going to be most difficult because I don’t really think about it when I’m running and trying to keep everyone around me in view.”

Alberts isn’t worried about giving Gray too much to think about too fast.

“Worst case scenario, she forgets what we talked about,” Alberts said. “And she’s still going to be OK.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.