It was the last lap, the one that would determine which Forsyth Central boys cross country runners qualified for the team’s trip to the Disney Cross Country Classic in Orlando in October, and the first Bulldogs runners were coming around the final turn toward the finish line. Central head coach Shannon Hays billed this time trial as the culmination of a summer’s worth of 6:30 a.m. practices, five days a week. "I don’t think any team in the state has worked as hard as you this summer," she told them before the start. This was the first chance to see what all that work could produce.
As the boys runners strained in the steady rain for one last sprint toward the finish, Hays called out to the Central girls team watching nearby. They stood in a line on the edge of a concrete sidewalk in the middle of the school campus, streams of water pouring off the tin roof right in front of them.
"Get really loud for this last lap," Hays said.
Careful to stay dry, the girls erupted in a cacophony of encouragement. Except Bonnie McKinnon. A junior, McKinnon walked out from under the covered walkway. She took four steps forward as the boys crossed the finish line one by one, the Lady Bulldogs’ leader yelling the longest and loudest.
"She’s been the inspiration for the team this summer," Hays said.
This has been the summer McKinnon devoted herself to cross country to a greater degree than she hasn’t since she first started running in the sixth grade. The sport caught her like it does the majority of high school runners: She ran the mandatory mile in her P.E. class, but she ran it faster than most girls her age. Impressed, her teacher told her to give the sport a try.
McKinnon instantly loved it.
"It’s just the difficulty of it," McKinnon said. "It’s something to push yourself with, and you feel very accomplished with it."
McKinnon didn’t give herself to the sport at first. It just piled on to all her other priorities. Her freshman year at Central, McKinnon ran cross country and played softball in the fall, played basketball in the winter and ran track in the spring. She was in the STEM Academy, a rigorous academic program focused in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Lady Bulldogs had just five runners on the team and finished last at every regular season meet, but McKinnon wanted something more. She had qualified for the state championship. It gave her a glimpse of what could be.
Enter Hays. She came from Peachtree Ridge that next summer and promptly overhauled Central’s program. Summer workouts were five days a week instead of three. Practices included cross-training. The best runners went to camps in Asheville, N.C., and at Furman University.
McKinnon’s progress showed. She finished in the top 10 four times, including a first-place finish at the Charlotte XC Invitational. Her times started to creep closer toward 20:00. Last season, McKinnon took a month off after track was done. This summer, she went straight from track to summer cross country practices.
"I’ve really taken it to the next level," McKinnon said.
Indeed, McKinnon has juggled her priorities this athletic year to fit in the time she needs to reach the elite levels of high school cross country. She’s trading the STEM Academy for a job at Chick-fil-A. She’s dropped softball. Instead of playing basketball this winter, McKinnon will run with FoRCE, a running club in Forsyth County.
"The thing with cross country is you can lose conditioning, everything you’ve done, if you don’t run for one week," McKinnon said. "If you want to be dedicated, you have to run year-round. My mistake freshman year was I didn’t."
McKinnon has more company this season. Along with Hays, she went to Otwell Middle School to recruit new runners this season. They played a promotional video and spoke to morning classes. As many as 20 girls attended practices this summer.
McKinnon is buoyed by the infusion of teammates, by her plans to run harder and run more than she has in her high school career. She wants to get her time down to 19:30, maybe even into the high 18s, she said. She wants to get the Lady Bulldogs back to the state championship meet for the first time since 2003.
Now she knows exactly what it’s going to take.
"It’s waking up in the morning and saying, ‘I want to do this. I have to do this,’" McKinnon said. "Because if you look at state champions … they’re dedicated. Their diet, their sleep, just everything about them, their training. That’s really what it takes. It’s a hard sport. It’s not easy."