JEFFERSON — For anyone oblivious to a Jefferson cross country race early in the season, they might have missed Mariah Linse leading the pack, roughly 20 seconds ahead of her closest competitor near the third mile.
Linse got used to chasing after a golf cart or four-wheeler as she won six of her seven races to begin on the season.
It was a challenge Jefferson head coach Megan Carstens was fully aware of, knowing that top runners should be challenged prior to the postseason in an attempt to see just how far they can push themselves.
Linse is the last athlete that would be willing to take anything for granted, but heading into the Rock Valley Conference cross country meet hosted by Whitewater at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on Thursday at 4:15 p.m., she is the runner to beat in the girls field.
The senior has put enough work in to be the first runner across the finish line in her first six races of her senior season.
At the Stoughton Invitational on Sat., Sept. 29, Linse was locked into a top-five finish but caught behind lead runners. Nevertheless, she pushed forward and made her way into second place.
The extra kick she has this year is the latest step in her mental development, according to Carstens. Carstens always has characterized Linse as a mentally-tough runner, but there’s an extra kick this year.
“She has this desire that’s unlike anybody I’ve coached,” said Carstens, who is coaching her sixth Linse in 10 years. “She both has the desire, the want and will and the natural talent. It’s this perfect combination that makes her so deadly on the course.”
And that desire is fueled by a love for running. Jefferson didn’t enter either team in the Koshkonong Klassic hosted at Fort Atkinson, but Linse was there to root on Fort Atkinson junior Jenna Lovejoy.
“That was really important to her to go to that meet,” Carstens said. “I think she makes connections with people — real connections with people, and those are really important to her.”
Whether it was the support of Linse or not, Lovejoy won the race.
“I respect a lot of runners in our conference and outside of our conference,” Linse said. “There are so many runners that work hard, and I’m inspired by the other runners who work hard. The running community is amazing to be part of. There’s so many great people involved and I love learning from all of them.”
After completing the Ladish Invitational at East Troy on Thurs., Sept. 6, Linse, Lovejoy and Fort Atkinson sophomore Lauren Haas sat in the Jefferson tent and discussed running routine, race pace and general work ethic for 20 minutes after the competition.
Since then, Linse and Lovejoy have exchanged information about other runners and opponent race strategies, which Lovejoy said is helpful.
“She gets what I’m going through with running, and we could talk about putting things off with friends and having to get organized so that we can make sure to get our runs in,” Lovejoy said. “The one thing that was really interesting was she didn’t understand how people could be really focused on running, but not want to work hard with school and stuff. ...
“Overall, I would just say she’s very positive about running and very bright.”
Lovejoy took second place in the meet after completing the Ladish Invitational in 19 minutes, 56 seconds. Linse, who finished in a time of 19:38, was there to greet Lovejoy after the race.
That hasn’t been the only connection she’s made.
Linse recognized other runners at Badger Girls State hosted at UW-Oshkosh this summer. Shortly thereafter, they were finding opportunities to get workouts in together. Viroqua senior Jillian Weston was one that has remained in contact throughout the season despite being 2.5 hours away.
Then, when Linse was struggling to pull away from the front pack at the Stoughton Invitational as she always had done in meets this season, she didn’t panic. Her mental toughness came into play.
“I just trusted my training,” Linse said. “I tried to put myself in a position that was right for me. I didn’t necessarily focus on my place, but on my pace. I tried to stay calm during the race and not let other peoples’ races affect mine too much.
“Everyone gets nervous and gets the butterflies, but that just means you care.”
It’s her preparation that keeps her at ease as she runs mindlessly in front of all of her competiton.
That preparation is a product of early-morning weight room sessions, which Carstens characterized as, “scary to watch” in a positive way; supplemental “aqua-jogging” in the pool which Linse says, “is like treading water with running form” and “it isn’t as (satisfying) as running”; and her mom on a bike as her “running partner.”
So, where’s all the preparation going to land Linse?
Well, she hopes a good school with a strong nursing program; but she has stipulations.
“I always tell my parents that they raised me wrong and made me like them too much, which really limits my college choices,” Linse said.
Before making that decision, she hopes to help lead the Eagles back to Wisconsin Rapids for the WIAA Division 2 state cross country meet. If she stays healthy, she’ll most likely return as an individual; but she learned a lesson from her older sister Calli when thinking about how she hopes the season will end.
“My sister’s senior year of track, she got fifth place at sectionals in the 800, and we expected to go over to her and find her in tears or upset, but she just told us that she gave everything she could and ran the best race she could, so she can’t be disappointed,” Mariah Linse recalled. “I look up to her a ton and she’s my best friend, she’s inspired me in sports and in life. I just want to finish every race with that feeling.”