For four seniors, as the cross-country season draws to a close, it’s more than just the end of another fall of running—it’s the end of their competitive careers.
Economics major Bailey Bell and nursing majors BethAnne Davis and Julia Berends have run for the Bulldogs every year they’ve been in college, but their running careers started much earlier.
Bell grew up going to a small school with only three sports, and he joined the cross-country team for another chance to compete. Over time, he fell in love with the sport and came to Union his freshman year excited to compete at the collegiate level. Though he knew he loved running, one aspect of being part of a collegiate team he didn’t anticipate was how much they would feel like family, he said.
The runners bond through grueling 5:30 a.m. practices, road trips to meets all over the Southeast and celebrations over victories like last year’s conference win for the women’s team. Bell said he will miss ordinary aspects of the day in, day out grind it takes to be a collegiate athlete as much as he will miss competing.
“We had our last track practice this week, and it’s crazy to think that’s the last time I’ll be on a track with my team,” he said. “At my last race, coming down the last mile of the course I’ll probably have some feelings I’ve never had before knowing that’s my last competitive mile.”
Running has been part of Davis’ life since even before her birth. Her dad was a cross-country runner and then coach when she was born.
“My birth was literally planned around cross-country meets,” she said with a laugh.
Her own running career started with a “Munchkin Run” her Alaskan hometown hosted every Tuesday night. She began running in it weekly with her grandfather as an elementary school student and went on to join the cross-country and track teams at her middle school and high schools.
She said the greatest thing she is taking away from her running career is self-discipline, and as she looks toward her last race her focus is on running her hardest one last time. Running is “in her blood,” and the sadness she felt watching it draw to a close surprised her, she said.
“I expected it to be more of a balance of bittersweet, but it’s really just bitter,” she said.
Like Davis, Berends grew up in a family that helped her cultivate a love of running. She never planned on being a collegiate athlete, until she met Coach Gary Johnson during her tour of Union. He persuaded her to try out for the team, and she credits the four years of competitive running that followed with teaching her discipline and how to persevere even when her goals seemed out of reach.
For example, she worked all four seasons to get her 5K time under 20 minutes, and then she finally did at the conference meet just a few weeks ago. Overall, Berends said her time running for the Bulldogs has been challenging but fruitful.
“It wasn’t something that was planned, but there are definitely good things that have come out of it,” she said.
Christian Winter is the only senior whose passion for cross-country is relatively new. The Christian studies major started running at the end of his sophomore year, and he said his goal in being on the team was to reach his potential in athletics. He graduated high school at 16, and being significantly younger than other high school athletes meant he never really got to see how he measured up, he said.
A stress fracture over the summer limited his chances to compete this season, however, and he said he feels his time on the team is unfinished. However, he enjoyed the time he spent with the team—especially Berends, his fiancée.
The two started dating their sophomore year after exchanging letters the previous summer. Winter proposed to her this past summer in a similar way her dad proposed to her mom. They went to a play in Berends’ hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and then he popped the question as they sat on her porch. The ring was hidden in a Bible, and after she said yes, he gave her another Bible with her soon-to-be married name on it.
“Julia’s wonderful,” he said. “Cross-country gave us more shared common experiences and we got to spend more time together over the weekends.”
Berends said she is looking forward to starting a life with Winter after their June wedding. The couple plans to stay in Jackson while she completes her residency program and he interns at a local church.