By Joe Scalzo
As Youngstown State senior Samantha Hamilton prepared to run her first cross country race in nearly two years, she reminded herself that it was just a small meet, she’d run dozens of races on grass and there was no reason to be nervous.
“Going into this year, I sat down and said, ‘You’ve been doing this a long time. Being nervous is in the past. If you want to go to the big dance [NCAA nationals] at the end of the year, you’ve got to suck it up and run it,’” said Hamilton, a Jackson-Milton High graduate. “So, I was completely fine.”
And then she wasn’t. As she warmed up for Bowling Green’s Mel Brodt Invitational on Sept. 13, the nerves — and the pressure — kicked in. Although she was coming off a terrific 2011-12 season — and had spent a redshirt year building a foundation for a monster 2013 — she started thinking things like “What if I run slow? Redshirting last year will have been for nothing.”
It wasn’t a major meet, but it did feature some excellent runners, including Eastern Michigan junior Victoria Voronko, a Russian who placed 21st in the steeplechase in June’s NCAA championships.
Hamilton’s plan was to stay with the leaders for the first half of the race, then, when she could see the finish, go for broke.
“About a half-mile into it, I just had the biggest smile on my face,” she said. “I just knew, ‘This is it. This is the year I was waiting for.’ I’d never felt so great in my life and cross country has never made more sense than it did at Bowling Green.
“It felt like this is what it should have been feeling like all along.”
Halfway through the race, Hamilton got the itch to take off. With one kilometer left, she passed assistant coach Scott Denham and gave him a thumbs-up.
“I could tell by listening to the girls breathing around me that they were trying a helluva lot harder than I was,” Hamilton said. “Even 800 meters into it, I knew I was the strongest one in the race.”
Hamilton finished in 16:52.67 to beat Voronko by 16 seconds. It was the second-fastest 5K time in the country at that point in the season (she’s now ninth) and it shattered her own 5K record by 75 seconds.
“It was the first time I felt really happy about cross country in a long time,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s next race is Friday’s Notre Dame Invitational, followed by the Disney World Cross Country Classic (a relatively minor meet with the relatively major bonus of being in Florida) on Oct. 12 and the Pre-National Invitational (her first 6K of the year) in Terre Haute, Ind. on Oct. 19.
Then YSU will compete in the Horizon League championships on Nov. 2 and the Great Lakes regional on Nov. 15.
“And hopefully one more after that,” Hamilton said, referring to the Nov. 23 NCAA championships. “I don’t want to jinx it.”
While Hamilton was a standout runner in high school, she’s made huge jumps as a collegian, no guarantee for any runner, particularly a female. Her secret — aside from good genes — is that she’s slowly built up her mileage year by year, rather than making big jumps.
“I was lucky enough to end up here with a coach [Brian Gorby] that’s always from the beginning kind of let me … I don’t want to say do my own thing, but he stuck to the game plan with me,” said Hamilton, whose mileage has gradually grown from 30 miles a week as a high schooler to 70 miles a week. “He never pushed me into doing something I wasn’t ready for.
“A lot of people ask me what I’m doing different now. I’m not doing anything different than what I did in high school. I’m just doing more and doing it faster. I’m really, really lucky that he’s allowed me to stick to that game plan, because it’s obviously worked with me.”