October 9, 2019

Sparked by Gilmore’s Positive Approach, PHS Girls’ Cross Country Running Happy

By Bill Alden

Charlotte Gilmore and the Princeton High girls’ cross country team are running happy this fall.

It’s a goal they set after a disappointing ending last year for PHS in the sectionals. It’s a goal that they have gone back to over and over, although it’s hard to quantify.

“We went to a running camp for a week in the middle of summer training,” said Gilmore, a junior who has paced the Tigers this season.

“All of the teams there were saying, qualify for nationals and all these huge goals. Our main goal was to run happy which was funny because of the juxtaposition between that and going to nationals. I think by focusing on that goal we didn’t expect for it to come together this well and we still have work to do, but after the first dual meet when we all crossed the line and we had all PR’d by a lot and had a pretty good pack forming, we were all pretty surprised, but excited. We had some injuries and little dips in the past couple weeks, but it’s all coming together and we’re still excited and working for that.”

PHS confirmed that it has grown plenty over the last year by taking fourth place with 107 points in the Varsity B race at the Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park last Saturday in a division won by Ridge with a score of 55.

It had been 11 months, countless miles, and a newly adopted attitude since a heartbreaking sectional at Holmdel when the Tigers failed to advance to the group meet for the first time in more than a decade.

“It was more than a little disappointing,” said Gilmore. “Humbling is a good word. I don’t know if we want to say we fell apart that race, but we fell apart that race. It definitely made us aware of what we’re doing and what we do need to work on and not just saying, we’ll be great. We think we can be great because we’ll work on the things we need to work on. Just having that last year is definitely part of the motivation because we know it could happen, but it won’t because we’re working to make it not happen.”

PHS returned to Holmdel in the Shore Coaches meet with a 20:42 average per runner, 43 seconds faster per runner than it ran at last year’s sectionals.

“I was looking at the overall results and we came in 12th out of 120 teams which I did not expect whatsoever,” said Gilmore, who placed 10th individually in 20:09 over the 5,000-meter course.

“That was really encouraging, especially because it’s so much better than we’ve been able to put together in this race before and we didn’t even have all seven cross the line. We’re really looking forward to counties and championship season. I would say it was pretty encouraging.”

Following Gilmore for PHS, freshman Lucy Kreipke ran 20:31 to take 18th, freshman Robin Roth clocked 20:49 for 26th pace, junior Emma Lips finished 31st in 20:57 and junior Sofia Dacruz ran 21:04 to come in 34th to give PHS five scoring runners. Senior Elizabeth Hare placed 54th in 21:55.

“I’m thrilled with how the girls ran,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk, reflecting on the meet.

“A year ago, it was the first time I ever had a girls team not make it out of a sectional to groups. Everybody on the team today was on that team last year. Siena (Moran) graduated and then we had two incoming freshmen. Of our seven, five of these girls were on that team last year and they felt that sting.”

PHS resolved to train harder, to dedicate themselves to improving and to set their goals higher and not settle for anything less than their best. Their first major invitational with their top seven on the line showed the payoff. Gilmore was only five seconds off her fastest finish ever at Holmdel and pleased with what she saw of the team.

“My freshman year, at the end of that year we graduated a bunch of seniors and then last year the team was basically made up of totally different people,” said Gilmore.

“That year was more about building the team aspect, and this year we all sort of came to the conclusion we all want to do this, and we know what we have to do and the work we have to put in. This past summer, our training definitely helped us build the team aspect. Our success has come from us acknowledging where we need to work and discussing it as a team and working off each other and with each other as opposed to being individuals.”

PHS will look to continue to build on Saturday’s performance. Last year, they took fifth in the B race at Shore Coaches, but went on to run slower and finish seventh at sectionals. The Tigers have followed Gilmore’s lead into transforming themselves into a stronger unit.

“Charlotte as our No. 1 has been the voice,” said Smirk. “She’s said, let’s take on this challenge and let’s get better. The entire group of girls that’s working with her has accepted it and every day in practice is exciting. They are ready to go, even on easy days they’re focused and they’re exciting. A year ago, we’d get on the line and look like deer in headlights. Today they’re dancing before the race. It’s just phenomenal to watch a group of girls transform that way and take ownership over their own success and be willing to put the work in day in and day out to find that success.”

Gilmore has been a contributor from her first day with the PHS squad as she fit in with a more veteran team. Now she’s a leader for an up-and-coming group that has made a commitment to each other.

“My sophomore year, I was used to deferring to the seniors as to how I should run and looking to them for leadership,” said Gilmore.

“This year, the current juniors and seniors are working together to take on that leadership role. That’s showed me I have to be confident in myself to inspire others which has helped. I’ve been a lot better this year at working together with people within races. We’ve been working hard in workouts together too. The team aspect is definitely what has helped individually as well, leaning into that team aspect.”

While Gilmore’s example has helped to foster a stronger team attitude and better team, she credits her teammates for being so willing to adopt a new mindset.

“We all agreed we’re willing to put the work in to do what it takes,” said Gilmore.

“That was in the back of our minds last year, but it wasn’t as central to all the work we were doing. Now, on our everyday runs, we’ll go through goals for upcoming workouts, goals for upcoming races or discuss past workouts and races and what we can do to improve those. Being really open and aware of what we need to work on and being really intentional about everything is the biggest change.”

It’s part of significant development since a year ago although Smirk always believed in the potential of the team.

“We had meetings and conversations a couple times during the year last year and it ended with me saying, there’s no way I can see more talent in you than you can see in yourself,” recalled Smirk.

“It’s impossible. There’s no way I can believe in you to do anything when you can’t, not if we’re going to be successful. And to their credit, every time it didn’t work out, they didn’t hang their heads, they just said what do we need to do next? They continued to grow. Some of it was physical maturity – they had to put the miles in. Some of it was attitude – not being satisfied with anything less than what they had available to themselves. Some of it was the belief that they could put together a full lineup and it wasn’t just one or two people doing the work, so everybody was accountable.”

The changes have transformed the team; it started at the top with Gilmore, and now Smirk is seeing her move to another level and the impact that has on the rest of the squad.

“I think the big difference is maybe her first and second year it was always that she was maybe worried about taking a risk or making a mistake and letting the team down,” said Smirk.

“She’s running with a new identity. She’s taken on the perspective that I am capable of running the best race that I can and as a result my team will be there with me and we’ll have success. That mindset has been a big difference for us. It’s not to say she didn’t put in great efforts in the past – she certainly did – it’s that she was always worried in the back of her mind about what if…She’s let that go and turned that what if question around and said, what if we have a big race, what comes of that, how good can we be? To their credit, they have real specific goals. If you asked the team a year ago about being top five in Varsity B and top 12 or whatever at the merge, I think they would have looked at you like you had nine heads and said, we’re not that team. They are now and all credit to Charlotte and her team attitude and how she’s taking on that confident racing mindset and how it’s been spreading on our team like wildfire.”

It all comes back to a simple goal that has developed for the Tigers that covers everything that they want to do and how they want to finish this season.

“Run happy is the main goal,” said Gilmore. “Whatever other goals we have, we want to win counties and qualifying for Meet of Champs would be amazing. All of that would come from running happy, so that’s still our main goal.”