Maranacook distance runner Molly McGrail runs the 400-meters at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B championships last year at McMann Field in Bath. Kennebec Journal file photo

READFIELD — Distance running is never easy, for anyone.

For few, however, it is more of an ordeal than it was for Maranacook’s Molly McGrail last fall.

When my coach would be like ‘OK, Molly, it’s time to race,’ I would have mental breakdowns,” she said. “And I would have to have my mom come over and cradle me and be like ‘Molly, it’s OK.’ And every time I would give the same answer, ‘I’m too scared to run.’ Because of the pain.”

The pain was all due to a hip injury that hurt McGrail one year, got worse the next, and ultimately forced an early end — thanks to the coronavirus — to her excellent running career at Maranacook, one that saw her become one of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s best cross country runners and a state record-challenging sprinter in the 400-meter dash.

It was a dark chapter. Fortunately, for McGrail, there are many left to her story. She’s headed to run Division I track and cross country at the University of Hartford, where she’ll be competing on a partial scholarship.

And thanks to 12 weeks of physical therapy, she’s ready.

It was hard to overcome that mentally. It was definitely a hard time. … I got so frustrated at times. I was like ‘Is this ever going to go away? Am I ever going to be able to get over this?’ ” McGrail said. “But my parents and my grandparents and my lovely teammates and my coaches were all there, giving me that big mental push I needed to get over it. And I did.”

Marancook’s Molly McGrail heads out of the woods during the 2018 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship meet at Cony High in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo

Stacie Wentz, who coaches both teams for Hartford, isn’t fazed by McGrail’s physical history, and is instead eager to see what she can bring to the program.

“You don’t see someone who has really strong times in the 400, 800, who also has pretty strong times in cross country at the high school level,” she said. “It’s nice to see that. She seems to be a pretty strong runner and a true athlete, and she has a really good range. I think that’s what we really need when we’re a smaller program.”

McGrail was second in the Class C state cross country meet as a junior in 2018, and her time of 58.79 in the 400 at the Class C state track meet was just 0.32 seconds off the state record. But while McGrail’s talent was indisputable, there were signs of trouble ahead. Her hips started to hurt during the New England cross country meet in 2018, and when she returned to cross country last fall — with its road running and hills, meaning pounding downhill runs — the problem resurfaced, and this time was unbearable.

You step on the ground and it’s almost like a shock wave coming up,” she said. “It would start at your ankles and then it would shoot to your knee, and then it would go to your hip and would burn, but it would also stab and throb. When I was finished, my legs would shake really bad and I would be limping, my hips would lock and I would get stuck.”

She had to go to extreme measures to manage both the injury and its effects.

“My hips would be so inflamed that I would have to walk around with massive bags of ice tucked into my spandex to get the swelling to go down so I would be able to walk,” she said. “It was honestly just the dumbest thing you’d ever see.”

McGrail laughed as she described the scene, but it was a miserable experience. As the pain grew and doctors advised her to shut herself down, she stopped running just as the conference and state meets were coming up.

“That’s what it came down to, what could she tolerate for pain? And she can tolerate a lot,” Maranacook coach Jay Nutting said. “But I think it got to the point where it was an everyday, nagging thing. … She runs hard, and running hard really aggravates it.”

Soon after the season, McGrail started her therapy. It began with around two months of leg strengthening exercises, followed by another two months on an elliptical. By the time her doctor gave her permission to get back on a treadmill, McGrail could feel optimism growing that she’d be ready for the spring.

It was almost like a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It was almost the moment I stepped on that treadmill that I was like ‘I made it, I did it, and I can do this.’ “

McGrail was driven to come back in time for the spring, and was on target for a return — until word came that the spring season was canceled.

Still, she knows she’s got plenty to shoot for.

Maranacook’s Molly McGrail will head to the University of Hartford in the fall. Kennebec Journal file photo

“I feel like I’m 100 percent ready to go,” she said. “My goals are just to grow and get better and see where it can take me. I’m excited to go into a different state and meet new teammates and get this opportunity to run against some really amazing people.”

Wentz said McGrail’s impact could come down the road, but she’s eager to see what her ceiling can be.

“You can’t have that expectation of freshmen. … I’m not looking for a chance to put that pressure on them to have an immediate impact,” she said. “If she’s up to the challenge, which I think she is, I think she’ll thrive.”

McGrail’s former coach feels the same way.

“Having that range is a rare thing,” Nutting said. “I don’t think she’s fully hit her potential. … She has tremendous natural ability, an amazing stride, and she’s a fighter. I think she can do very well.”

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