Out of nowhere.
It's a phrase used on occasion in sports to describe an athlete who puts on a performance that virtually no one expects. And not just a good performance. An extraordinary one.
Finishing 9th at Foot Locker Northeast Regional 11/26
But "nowhere" is always somewhere. It can be both a physical location, or it could be a description of an athletic accomplishment.
In this case, it's both.
The location is the small AA school known as Boiling Springs… situated in a bucolic little village nestled in the shadow of South Mountain in south-central Pennsylvania.
There's a nearly 180-year-old tavern in town. There are historic homes with both federalist and victorian design. And there is the lake – which during the winter seems to "boil" as water from the natural artesian springs keeps the lake at a constant 52 degrees.
Hence, the school became known as The Bubblers.
Also situated at about the halfway point of the famous Maine-to-Georgia Appalachian Trail, Boiling Springs has a treasure trove of scenic trails and country roads. Trails and roads that provide the perfect setting for running*.
So for Boiling Springs senior and newly minted Foot Locker Finalist Meredith Speakman – nowhere is actually home.
That's the location part of the story.
But it is also her incredible rise from middle of the pack in cross country, to front-runner status that earns her the respect and amazement of her coaches, her family, her teammates and her competitors.
The out-of-nowhere athletic accomplishment? Try going from 193rd in the state AA race as a junior, to 4th this year.
Then Foot Locker Nationals.
The talent pool has been deep at Boiling Springs.
It seems Boiling Springs has a lot to offer the running community. Simply put, Meredith is not the first runner from this tiny school to achieve great things.
More recently, 2006 grad Mary Dell won two state titles in the sprints, and then went on to become an all-American distance runner at Shippensburg University. And 2008 grad Kara Millhouse would win a state title in the 3200 as a high school sophomore, beating a future state champ and future two-time Foot Locker All-American. She then went on to win a Big 10 title in the 10K at Penn State.
What's different with Speakman is that she is the first girl in Boiling Springs history to qualify for the Foot Locker National Championships – the race for individual honors against 39 of the best runners in the US in any given year. This is the prestigious event's 33rd year.
No one saw Speakman coming.
In fact, standing on the line at Northeast Regionals on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Speakman says she glanced up and down the row of many of the most talented harriers from the entire Northeast and thought to herself that she had only a slight hope of making the coveted top ten – and then only if her race was absolutely perfect.
Finishing 2nd at the Gettysburg Invitational 10/8
If it hadn't been for a neighbor – who also happened to be the middle school cross country coach at the time – she might never have found the sport. Kathleen Fulfer was that neighbor, and asked Speakman if she had ever thought about running cross country. She hadn't… but she was willing to give it a try. And she stuck with the sport in outdoor both years of middle school as well, running the 2 mile in cross, and the mile, 800 and 4x400 in track.
Speakman had been an athlete in quite a few sports growing up. Her dad, Thomas, had run a little his senior year of high school to get in shape for baseball – his sport of choice throughout college.
So Meredith adopted softball, a sport she would pursue from 3rd through 6th grades. "I was good at running the bases, but I wasn't a good hitter" she admits. "So they would either have me bunt, or I'd be the pinch runner."
Notice the common word – runner.
Speakman also played basketball and tried swimming. "I didn't like swimming, but I stuck with basketball through 9th grade."
She says she was just OK at this running thing in middle school. She hadn't yet made the connection between work and performance. But she liked her teammates, and she kinda liked the running part, too.
Speakman chose to stay with cross country as she entered her freshman year. Fulfer would be her coach through her junior year in both cross and track.
And Speakman trained. But the first official week of practice in August, she lost her season.
Running what is locally known as the "A Trail" (Appalachian Trail), she felt something pop in her foot. But she kept running on it.
Returning home, she could barely walk. A bone scan revealed a X-mas tree type stress fracture.
She recovered in time for her last season of basketball… and then hit the track – without much training – and ultimately ran a season-best of 5:52.56 for the 1600 at the Mid-Penn Conference Championships.
Finishing 2nd at Bulldog Invitational at Big Spring 9/17
Just as her competitive nature kept her running on a stress fracture as a freshman, she had a somewhat similar learning experience in 10th grade.
During cross country she had stomach problems. She was tired. But she didn't tell her parents or coaches until halfway through the season. She was ultimately diagnosed with a polyp… had surgery, and spent the rest of the cross country season recovering.
In track, she was inconsistent, with a good race followed by a bad one. She just couldn't crack the 5:50's all season until the meet that had been her high point as a freshman – Mid-Penns. She popped a PR of 5:33.64, but ultimately did not advance from the District 3 race. People noticed, though.
"I guess I was serious about running, because I would get upset with my place or my time. I was always harder on myself than others were on me. I soon realized that at some point you can't do that."
In 11th grade, she started to understand the connection between training and results a bit more. She worked harder in practices.
And she had two very talented teammates with whom to train, and chase. Then-sophomore Lillie Brown was the top runner on the team. And senior Lauren Lehman was not far behind. Speakman would settle in as the team's third runner. She would run a season best of 22:19 to get 23rd at the PIAA District 3 Championships. Brown would win, with Lehman taking runner-up honors. The team qualified for states, where both Brown (10th), and Lehman (21st) would medal.
Speakman struggled in at 193rd with a time of 22:43.
"I did NOT have an awesome year."
So over the winter, she decided to put more effort into the training aspect of the sport.
The result was a breakthrough spring. Joining Brown, Lehman and Charlotte Searle on the 4x800 Relay, Speakman helped the team to a 9:29.73 and a school and AA District 3 record. Not only that, but she popped a big PR of 5:20.60 in the 1600 to get third and qualify individually for the PIAA State Championships for the first time.
The relay at State didn't go as planned for the top seeds, but they did get a medal for their 5th place finish. Speakman didn't have the same wheels in the prelims of the 1600 and did not advance to the finals.
But the 5:20… the district and school records, and the state medal did something to Speakman.
"I ran over the winter. I got faster. So I thought that if I train over the summer, maybe I could get better in cross country. Basically, I just decided I wanted to be good."
It's nice to know people.
Thomas Speakman, Meredith's dad, is the Dean of Admissions at Shippensburg University. So the family knows the Spence family - Steve, Kirstin, Neely, Margeaux and Reynah. There is plenty of digital and actual ink on the Spence clan. Suffice it to say that Meredith is friends with the twins, who are now also seniors. And Thomas is a friend of Steve's.
So when his oldest daughter told him she wanted to get a lot better as a runner, he asked the advise of one of the best coaches in the country in Steve Spence. The coach gave him a basic outline of a summer plan. (read Meredith's PennTrackXC.com journal following the Foot Locker Championships to see the training.)
And Coach Spence also said something else that impacted Meredith directly. "He told my dad that he saw potential in me. That's a big deal when an Olympian says you have potential."
So Meredith was off and running on her new goal of improving as a runner. By a lot.
"I am living the running lifestyle," Meredith says.
She started getting enough sleep.
She started eating right.
"I eat pasta and veggies and fruits. Mostly fresh stuff and drink lots of milk" she says rather enthusiastically.
She even does a lot of the cooking herself. And she had a good teacher.
"My mom is a good cook, and she has one great recipe with pasta, ham, walnuts and pepper that I cook all the time." (Look for this recipe in Meredith's Foot Locker journal, as well.)
And she stuck to the plan, running five to six days per week.
On her first really long run; one she previously defined as over six miles; she was accompanied by fellow senior and one of her good friends on the team, Ben Grove. The run didn’t go exactly as planned. “It was like 12 miles in the mountains, and we actually got lost and I was really mad because he didn’t know where we were at about 9 miles out." “We finally found out where we were, but it was a good long run."
And living the running life showed, because during the summer, she ran a 5K in 19:43. "My best cross country time last year was 21 minutes plus or 22 minutes.”
Speakman was about to take PA by storm.
As the season approached, first year head coach Jim Boyer knew he had a good runner in returning district champ and state medalist Lillie Brown. He didn't know what to expect from Speakman. What he did know was that parents were telling him that Speakman had "really, really improved."
As the season started, Boyer was really, really impressed. “She was strong the whole season, and it was evident that she was ready to do big things at the end of the season,” he said. “In distance running, they say you get out of it what you put in. She’s one of those examples because she really did that.”
The two runners dominated each dual meet, and the district race, going one-two by over a minute each time.
Finishing as runner-up to teammate Lillie Brown 10/26 at the District 3 Championships
Speakman was the team's number one runner for much of the season. She and Brown scored low points for the Bubblers in each invitational. But Speakman, while winning some dual meets, did not notch an invitational win. And her best chance – the District 3 Championships – saw she and Brown run stride for stride the entire way, with Brown pulling out the sprint win for a repeat of her title.
Finishing 4th at the PIAA State Championships 11/5
Speakman credits Brown for being a great friend and the reason she has improved so dramatically. "I think we helped each other this year. We have been friends for the longest time, and she was always trying to help me with my running." In fact, as individual awards were handed out at the PIAA State Meet on November 5th, Speakman took her 4th place medal and headed straight for her teammate in line at 14th, instead of taking the place reserved for her.
Speakman was about to take the Northeast by storm.
The possibility of running the Foot Locker Regional had come up after the first invite of the season at Big Spring, where Speakman took 2nd to Reynah Spence, with Brown finishing 5th. "We told both Meredith and Lillie then that they should think about post-season possibilities" Boyer says.
While Brown decided to move onto training for track – after all, she had a state title in the AA 800 – Speakman was ready to try her newfound strength at the Foot Locker Northeast Championships.
She took off a couple of days after the state meet. And coach Boyer and assistant Josh Foulds, stayed on the job to help her prepare. They held regular practices on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And on Tuesday and Thursday she had her long runs.
What impressed Speakman the most was that her coaches put together a Sunken Meadow State Park (site of the Northeast Regional) style workout to simulate the layout and the pacing of the course. Her goal was to run faster than race pace with 30 second rests in between the three one-mile repeats. She started with a fast mile on the track - took 30 seconds - then did a mile of hills - rested 30 seconds - and then launched into a downhill and flat final mile. Each split was faster than the last.
Doing course simulation workouts ten days prior to a major meet is something the two recent Millersville University grads and former Mechanicsburg High School teammates had experienced first hand. "Both Josh and I have a very similar training philosophy, and that helped to get the team to buy in to the training. We try to explain why we're doing something – whether plyometrics or a workout – and they responded."
"The hay was in the barn"
Best of all for Speakman, not only did her family accompany her to New York for the race, but her two coaches as well.
Speakman was rightfully nervous. Seeing the course for the first time the day before, she thought to herself "I'm gonna die. It's going to be even harder than (the difficult state course at) Hershey."
Nearing the top of Cardiac Hill 11/26 at the Foot Locker NE Regional
Saturday morning as she stood on the line and saw the likes of several returning Foot Locker finalists – including PA AA state champ Angel Piccirillo of Homer Center – she was nervous. But her coaches stayed with her and kept her focused.
"They told me that it would be an awesome experience. And no matter what, they'd be proud of me. And to remember the course simulation workout."
Speakman got off to a conservative start with the flat first 600 and the slight rise to the increasingly difficult top of Snake Hill, just past the mile. She found herself in the top 20-25.
Then she surprised herself a bit.
"Going up Snake, I started passing people. And I kept passing people throughout the race. People were screaming 'there's 8 - 9 - 10'" "And I'm thinking, that's crazy."
"Going up Cardiac, no one passed me, even though I was moving like a snail. I got to the top and just flew down the hill. Then all of a sudden it hit me, 'I can make it. I have enough left.'"
And make it she did… cruising in at 18:36.8 for 9th place, just 35 seconds behind Northeast champion Piccirillo, and less than four seconds ahead of fellow Pennsylvanian Tori Gerlach of Pennridge, the sole PA AAA representative in the top ten. Her time was three seconds closer to Piccirillo than she had been at the state championships three weeks earlier.
Returning from New York to Boiling Springs, Speakman had congratulations waiting for her at every turn. Margeaux Spence wrote on her Facebook. Kirsten Spence sent her an email. And her teammates and friends were thrilled.
"One boy on my team asked me what I did to get so good. So I gave him Coach Spence's plan."
On Friday, eight days prior to the upcoming finals, Coaches Boyer and Foulds had another simulation planned to prepare Meredith for San Diego's Balboa Park.
The workout consisted of a hard 400 with 2 minutes of a moving recovery, followed by 1000 meters on the track at 5:46 pace, a jog recovery to a hill on their home XC course, then an uphill and downhill 400 meter loop; recovery; then two 1000's at 87 second pace; then a 400 meter hill; recovery; and then a closing 800 meters up a hill, on a ridge, and then finishing on an uphill.
Neither coach has ever seen the San Diego layout, but the workout is a pretty close approximation of what the athletes will face. Boyer says his star is as prepared as she can be.
Meredith's father, Thomas, mother Carole, and her younger sister Morgan (who will run hurdles for the team in this, her junior season), along with assistant coach Foulds, will be making a short vacation of the Foot Locker experience and are heading to California this week.
"I'm going to do my best. I have enough left in me, and my confidence is up," Meredith says.
That could be the understatement of the season… because getting from nowhere to the Foot Locker Finals is as long a trip as 193rd in the state to 4th.
It is an accomplishment that has opened doors. Having completed one official visit to Shippensburg, Speakman is keeping her options open for the rest of her college visits.
Then, after San Diego, it's on to track, and she hopes, more big PRs.
But one thing is for certain. This athlete is going somewhere.
Photos by Don Rich, Marleen Van den Neste, Megan Zeller and Lex Mercado
*(Full disclosure: Our family lived in Boiling Springs from 1978 through 1987 - and I miss the scenery, the Seafood Bisque at the tavern, and the drive beside the lake, daily).