The difference between very good runners and those that are worthy of elite status is evident.
While very good runners can consistently run times that will keep them among the upper-echelon of talent, it’s the elite runners that can bring it up a notch when the competition is at its best; can elevate their game when the pressure appears unsurmountable.
In just her second season of running, Sarah Kettel can put herself into that category.
Unbeaten on the dirt trails throughout the fall, the home-schooled junior from Michigan pieced together one of the finest races of her young career at the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) Midwest Regionals on Nov. 16. She not only clocked a fast 5K time of 17 minutes, 28.8 seconds at Indiana State’s LaVern Gibson Championship XC Course, but beat a field that included Birmingham Seaholm’s Audrey Belf, an All-American track runner and two-time Michigan cross-country state champion.
“I never even thought about winning,” Kettel said. “It was after probably one and a half miles into the race when it started to enter my mind that maybe I could win it. I started gaining on the leaders, felt fine and decided to keep going.”
The 16-year-old runner has kept going and been on cruise control since she captured the season-opening Laingsburg Early Burg Invitational on Aug. 22 with the country’s fastest clocking at the time of 17:28. That effort was more than 17 seconds under her track personal best and almost a full minute quicker that what she did the previous year in cross country.
Her performance at the Burg Invite also began a string of 11 straight victories this fall, including a convincing win at the MiHS (Michigan Home School) Championship just three weeks prior to Nike where she crossed the line two-plus minutes ahead of her closest rival with a PB of 17:24.97!
Increased mileage over the summer has made a difference, according to Kettel.
“I think I started off with a God-given talent and over the summer I was able to develop it,” she said. “The coach gave me 40 to 50 miles a week and it worked. Prior to the summer, I was probably doing 35 miles less. And during cross country, I was probably running 35 miles (a week).”
After Kettel’s initial season of cross country last year, where she generally ran in the mid 18-minute to 19-minute range, head coach, Rev. Kevin Shoemaker, felt a change was due to get his runner to the next level.
“Once we figured out how good she was,” he said, “we put her to work.”
Kettel competes for Capital Homeschool. Like other athletes that are home-schooled, she’s in a unique situation. She is not allowed to participate in meets that are run by the MHSAA, a league that has produced the No. 3 runner in the country and defending Foot Locker boys’ champion Grant Fisher and Belf, a second-place finisher in the two mile (10:10.90) at last year’s New Balance National Indoor Championships.
To make up their schedule, Capital Homeschool and other home-schooled squads are allowed to enter invitational meets. According to Kettel, the meet directors have been more than accommodating. The gifted runner and her team, which also includes Shoemaker’s two daughters, Annika and Kyria, participated in nine invitationals this season.
“We are really thankful for the welcome we had,” Kettel said.
Capital Homeschool consists of boys’ and girls’ high school and junior high squads. Team members are required to attend three practices, which are all done together on Hawk Island, a small park in Lansing that is centrally located.
Even though Kettel has a 45-minute drive, the long commute to practice is well worth it.
“The cool thing is we are all together,” she said. “I also practice with the boys, who can push me.”
In winning this year’s NXN regional, Kettel took lead for good over the front-running Belf and eventual third-place finisher, Anna Sophia Keller of St. Anthony’s in Illinois, with about 800-meters remaining.
“I felt like I had something left,” she said. “Going into the race, I missed church. Coach said to use the race as an act of worship for God. It gave me the extra strength to push pass them. The rest of the race it was all about keeping my lead and getting as much space on them as possible.”
“We never even talked about her winning,” admitted Shoemaker, whose star runner will head to Portland, Oregon for the finals on Dec. 6. “The race goal all along was to qualify for the national meet. The goal was to see how she could compete with Audrey Belf. They never raced heat-to-head.”
For two thirds of the race, Belf and Keller did the pace-setting. Kettel snuck into contention during the closing mile.
“We were happily surprised with how Sarah ran,” Shoemaker said. “She made a move at the right time. It was an incline that she caught up with the girls (Belf and Keller). I don’t think they ever knew anyone was coming. She caught them about two and a quarter miles and took the lead with about 800 to go. She opened up about a 15-meter lead and they were able to close the gap the home stretch.”
Kettel will be competing in two national meets this year. Just like 2013, she is also entered in the upcoming Foot Locker Midwest Regionals this Friday at the University of Wisconsin. A top-10 finish at that meet will earn her a spot in the finals, to be held Dec. 13 in San Diego.
The only difference from a year ago is that Kettel has great potential to not only qualify for both finals, but compete with the lead pack.
“We are excited to find out the answer,” Shoemaker said. “With the right competition, I think she can run 17 (minutes) flat. I don’t think she has reached her peak yet.”