One of the best things about cross country is that there’s no place for the runners to hide.
It’s easy to spot the runner who pushes through the pain to cross the finish line. It’s easy to spot the runner who gives in to fatigue.
This fall there has been no questioning the mental and physical toughness of Olivia Shafer of Egg Harbor Township High School and Alexa Palmieri of Ocean City
Both have inspired their teams and other South Jersey runners by overcoming injuries on the way to stellar seasons.
Shafer won the South Jersey Group IV title at the South Jersey public school group championships at Delsea Regional last Saturday. Meanwhile, Palmieri finished second in the South Jersey Group III race and led the Red Raiders to their third-straight Group III team title.
Both will compete in the state group championships at Holmdel Park in Monmouth County on Saturday.
“I’m just glad I was able to run pain free,” Palmieri said after the South Jersey championships. “I’m feeling stronger each race.”
Shafer won the Atlantic County and Cape-Atlantic League championships last fall. But the senior missed last season’s indoor and outdoor track and field seasons with mononucleosis and POTS, or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which affects blood circulation.
“That was devastating for me,” she said.
Meanwhile, Palmieri won the South Jersey Group III championship last fall. The junior missed last spring’s outdoor season when she tore the labrum in her left hip. There was no specific incident when the injury occurred.
“It was kind of gradual,” she said. “One day after practice it started really bothering me.”
Shafer relied on rest to recover. Palmieri relied on physical therapy.
“I just knew that I had to go to therapy,” Palmieri said, “and trust that it would get better.”
Shafer returned to racing this fall. She repeated as Atlantic County and CAL champion. Her victory in the South Jersey championships was a bit of a surprise. Shafer was hoping to finish in the top three and run a personal best.
“I’m shocked with doing it,” she said. “I wasn’t running for two seasons, now I’m so happy with how it’s going.”
Palmieri began racing again in October. She finished second at the Cape May County and the CAL championships before her South Jersey effort.
“The amount of time she spent rehabbing in the training room and working herself back to this position is a testament to her commitment to the sport and the team,” Ocean City coach Trish Hopson said. “She did not want to miss championship season.”
Holmdel Park is one of the best venues for any high school sport in New Jersey.
There’s a buzz in the crowd as the starting gun sounds and runners charge up one of the park’s steep hills to begin the 3.1-mile race.
Fans watch the start and then line the grassy straightaway to see the runners emerge from the woods and surge toward the finish line.
Holmdel is considered the ultimate test for cross country runners. Shafer and Palmieri have already passed their tests.
Sometimes, the toughest part of the race is just getting to the starting line.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.