AUGUSTA — When Kyle Gunnells steps up to the starting line, it’s one of the loneliest feelings in sports.

“It’s definitely different,” said Gunnells, who is the sole member of the Monmouth Academy boys cross country team this season. “It’s pretty weird being up there all by myself.”

On Wednesday at the University of Maine at Augusta, Gunnells, a sophomore, placed in the top third of the field in a meet involving several area boys and girls teams from the Mountain Valley Conference. Winthrop’s Jacob Hickey won the boys race by more than a minute with a time of 17:29.8, and Faith Blethen of Boothbay won the girls race in 21:05.5.

But Hickey and Blethen, like so many of the more than 100 runners at the meet, was surrounded by teammates.

Carrabec senior Samantha Taylor can relate to Gunnells. She’s one of only two runners on the Cobras girls cross country team this season, the other being freshman Neveah Burnham. But Burnham has been battling injury in the early going, leaving Taylor to train and compete on an island.

“It’s definitely quiet,” Taylor said of stepping up to the starting line. “There’s no special tradition like the other big teams would have. There’s nothing really that you’re anticipating. It’s kind of like, ‘OK, let’s just get on with the race.'”

Getting to the race presents a different set of challenges for runners on small teams. Gunnells and Taylor, both, for instance spend most of their training during the week alone. Gunnells sometimes runs with one of Monmouth’s assistant coaches, while Taylor usually starts out with the Carrabec boys.

Gunnells works out at a faster pace than the Monmouth girls, and, conversely, the Carrabec boys run at a faster clip than Taylor. That means that even when training runs start out at the same time, Gunnells and Taylor are — predictably — alone.

“I’ll cross paths with the boys when they turn back… and then it’s back to being alone again for a while,” Taylor said with a laugh.

It takes self-motivated athletes to improve on small teams.

“You go up to a meet, and sometimes you can see they’re going up against the other teams and they see what they’re doing and they get discouraged mentally,” Carrabec coach Kirk Robinson said. “It’s just about providing the motivation to keep them confident in what they’re doing.”

“You’ve got to have an intrinsic desire to do it,” Monmouth coach Tom Menendez said. “If (Kyle) wasn’t as motivated as he is and he still wanted to run, that would be fine, but he wouldn’t be finding any success in terms of self-improvement. But he’s putting in the work and feeling successful.”

Races can be challenging for runners with no teammates, even after getting off the starting line. For Gunnells, he has learned to scout the competition ahead of time. He knows that he’d like to run in the sub-20-minute category by season’s end, place in the top 30 in the regional meet and qualify for the state meet. He knows which MVC runners are already in that ballpark.

“I kind of get a know-how of who I’m going to be running with ahead of time and I try to pace myself with them,” said Gunnells, who was on a full team with six other Mustangs a year ago, all of whom were seniors.

“He knows who’s fast, who’s slow, who beat him last time, and he goes in with a pretty good plan,” Menendez said. “Obviously, he’s going to change as the race develops, if somebody is faster or slower than he thought. But he has got to go in with some idea of keying off of other people, versus his teammates.”

Gunnells and Taylor both use the term “self-motivation” freely, as do their respective coaches. In the end, with no teammates to push you through a tough training session, a grueling hill in the middle of a race or the final sprint to the finish line, runners find motivation wherever they can.

“The guy who finished right in front of me said, ‘You must be the most popular guy here. I heard your name out there a lot,'” Gunnells said.

“It’s ‘grit,’ I guess is what we all call it, right?” Robinson said. “It doesn’t matter what your pace is, when you go out for a race, it hurts the same for all of us. They just have to grind through it, and when they’re out there on their own, they have to find that grit themselves.”

It’s their only choice. They won’t be able to look to their right or their left and find a teammate to provide the encouragement.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.