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 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 star | avery clifton
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

Who was the last girl from Kansas to qualify for the Foot Locker Finals?  If you guessed Amanda Pape from Olathe South in 1999, go to the head of the class.  It’s been awhile … but a few girls from the Sunflower State will hope to change that this fall, led by a senior who 14 months ago had never run a cross-country race.

But 14 months ago, Avery Clifton was already a “runner” and she was certainly a top athlete as well – she just had been putting her attention into tennis.  A friend had talked her into trying to train for a half-marathon during the previous winter – her soph year of 2007-08 – and that had gone well, leading to entries into more road races and an eventual decision to give the harrier life a try last fall.  As good as Avery was in tennis – 6th in the state in singles – it was quickly clear she was even better in XC.  She was 5th at Rim Rock, 2nd in her region meet, then won the 6A state crown.  She won 1600 and 3200 titles in track, hitting a PR 10:40.09 in the latter while finishing 3rd at the Kansas Relays.

Now this fall, the Washburn Rural senior has been better still, running the fastest 4k in the nation so far this fall – 13:48 – and winning the Rim Rock title in 14:40.92.  And yes, she plans to be in Kenosha the last Saturday in November to see if she can become that first girl from Kansas to make it to San Diego this decade.

As she recovered from a moderate bout of the flu this week, Avery talked with DyeStat's SteveU about getting involved in the sport, and her quickly growing talent and love for it.

1) Avery, sorry to hear you’re under the weather, but it’s been a pretty great season for you so far.  What are some of your thoughts about it, in terms of what you might have expected or hoped for coming in?

I am very pleased with how my season has gone.  After a successful track season, I was anxious to see how much I could improve my 4k times in cross country from last year. Coming in, I had a goal to run 14:30 or better, and I have accomplished that, so I am excited.

2) What you’ve done is especially impressive being as it’s just your second season of cross-country.  But I understand your start in running came earlier, including training for and competing in a half-marathon with a friend when you were a sophomore.  Can you tell the story of this start in the sport?

Yes, I began jogging with my dad when I was younger in order to improve my endurance for long tennis matches. A friend and I started running together two years ago over the winter, and she was already planning on running a half-marathon, so I decided I would try it. It was a very challenging run, but that is when I discovered my love for the sport. After the half-marathon, I ran in a lot of road races here in town and had success. Coach Shufelberger contacted me about possibly trying to do both tennis and cross country that fall ('08). This was how it all began. 

3) Your coach also mentioned that when you were younger that you had a heart ailment that you had to deal with.  Can you tell me more specifically about that?  Did you have to have some special medical treatment or surgery?

I had supraventricular tachycardia. I first experienced it in the 4th grade. There was an extra pathway in the electrical make up of my heart and my heart rate would start racing - usually when I was playing tennis. It would get up to over 250 beats per minute. I had no side effects while this was happening, but it was a terrible feeling – like my heart was coming up my throat. I started getting to the point that I didn't even want to play tennis for fear my heart would start racing.  We went to a cardiologist who specializes in the electrical frequencies of the heart, and I had a radio frequency ablation done to cauterize the extra pathway that caused my heart to race. My heart surgeon explained that once this is done, the heart is healed and I would not have any more episodes.  I have not had any problems since.   

4) I’m told you were/are an excellent tennis player and placed 6th in the state last fall in singles while doing both sports.  How hard was that, and how hard to give tennis up this year? What made you decide to focus on running? Have you found that any aspect of your “career” as a tennis player has carried over to your “career” as a runner?

I think what made me decide I would rather become a cross-country runner over a tennis player is I realized in order to move up to the next level in tennis, I would need to become taller and bigger, so I could hit the ball harder and close out points quicker. I didn't see this happening. Also, in order to improve in tennis you really need to be hitting for three hours a day, seven days a week, and this was not a possibility.

So, running became my lifestyle. I look forward to it every day and my day is not complete until I have run. It is a time that I can clear my mind and set aside any worries I have at the time. It was very hard doing both sports last year. I would have cross country practice in the morning, then tennis practice after school. I managed it fine, but I think I am running so much faster this year because I don't have the extra stress of tennis.

I will always be a tennis fan and play later in life. Tennis taught me how to be mentally strong, whether you are winning or losing, and it taught me how to be a good competitor. I have been able to use this in cross country and track.   

5) Can you tell me some of what your first year in competitive running was like?  What do you remember about some of your first XC races, your first Rim Rock, your first state meet?  What were some of the highlights in track?  What were some of the feelings then, and how do you feel as a runner now compared to last fall?

I remember my first cross country race last fall was a scary time, because I did not know what my abilities were. I followed the leaders of the race instead of taking the early lead. Rim Rock was an exciting experience, but again, I really did not know who my competition was. I was running in the same race as Emily Sisson and Diane Robison, as well as other top runners, but I wasn't aware of this at the time, so I didn't stay near them during the race.

At the state meet, I didn't know how it would turn out because the week before I had gotten beat by Marley Crusch of Manhattan at our regional, so I knew I would have some competition. I think not knowing that I was capable of winning state helped me to run harder and not worry about anything. I feel like a much more experienced runner now, because I know who is out there and I am able to feel how fast I am actually running.

Then the 2009 track season was my first time to compete on the track and the first time I focused solely on running. The first time I ran the 3200, I ran 11:07, and that race gave me a good sense of what my capabilities were – because I didn't feel like I was going all out. At the Kansas Relays, I set my PR of 10:40 in the 3200. Emily Sisson and Megan Yohe finished in front of me. I tried to stay right on them during that whole race. They definitely helped me to run that time. Winning state in the 1600 and 3200 was exciting. The stadium where the state meet is held is enormous and there are so many people that come to watch, so it makes it an incredible experience!       

6) Coming back to this fall, was it still a big thrill winning Rim Rock, even without Emily Sisson and Diane Robison there?  More exciting than state?  Or was the most exciting race for you running the 13:48 4k?

Winning Rim Rock was really awesome, because it is known as one of the more prestigious meets. I found out the week before that Emily and Diane wouldn't be there, but I still figured I would have people to run with. I ended up running the whole race by myself, but I still pushed myself the whole time and broke both of my times on that course last year. I think winning state is still more exciting than winning this meet, just because it is State! Running the 13:48 4k in Wichita is probably the highlight of my season so far, because I was pushed to my limits.   

7) I understand you really enjoy biking and “cross-training.”  Tell me a little about your training there.  Have you ever considered competing in a duathlon or triathlon?

My dad is a physical therapist, so he encourages me to cross train often so I am not pounding my legs all the time. We will go on long bike rides out on the country roads, where there are some good hills. It changes things up a bit and renews my love for running. I could see myself competing in a duathlon someday!   

8) One of the stories I read talked about how “nervous” you are before meets, even easy ones.  Can you say some more about that?  What do you think it is that leads you to have that reaction?  Do you think maybe it actually helps you run better – or no?

I guess my nerves stem from the fact that I am still so new to this sport, and I think about all the things that could go wrong before a race. I would always get very nervous before my tennis matches, so I am used to it. I try not to expect to win any of my races, because I think there could always be someone who has a better day than me. I think the nerves do help me run better because they give me a lot of adrenaline and I am able to run harder. 

9) Would you share some about your training this year, and what you’ve gained from Coaches Shufelberger and Weins?  What has been the highest mileage you’ve reached?  What are some of your favorite workouts?

Like Coach Shufelberger always says, the winter and summer training is what really matters, so I put in a lot of miles during both of those seasons. I came into cross country season this fall with a solid aerobic base and was ready to do some hard workouts! Coach Shufelberger and Coach Wiens have helped me so much because they can read me well and can tell when I need to back off a little, or when I am feeling good and can go hard. For mileage, I stay right around 35-40.

Earlier this year, we would do two-mile tempo runs on the track every Friday. One week, we even extended it to a three mile tempo. I love these workouts because I can control myself, and they are hard, but comfortable. I would always feel like I could go a little harder each lap.

10)  Can you tell me a little about Avery off the track and XC course?  What are some of your non-athletic interests?  I’ve heard church and volunteer work are important to you.  What kind of volunteer work do you do?  Also, tell me a little about your family and their support of you as a student-athlete.

At school, I am a member of two choirs. Music has always been a big part of my life. I am also a member of National Honors Society. Over the summer, I volunteered at the Topeka Rescue Mission, and I helped serve a lunch to mentally challenged people every week at my church. The cross-country team also went to Greensburg, Kansas this spring to help with clean-up after a destructive tornado.

My parents attend all of my cross country meets and run from point to point, cheering me on. My grandparents also make it to all of my events and love watching me. My family helps me so much during the week when I have a lot of homework and I am very tired. They encourage me and help me in any way that they can. I am very thankful to have such a wonderful family.

Photos (from top): 1st, 2nd and 4th photos by Brandon Daniels from KS State Meet 08; 3rd photo from Rim Rock 09, submitted by Clifton family