When former South Forsyth cross country runner Savannah Carnahan prepared over the summer for her freshman season at Furman University, she trained hoping to be one of the Paladins’ top seven runners, good enough to travel to and compete in events. That would be enough, Carnahan thought: she’d get to contribute to Furman’s season right away while assimilating to college life without also shouldering heavy expectations.
All that changed after Carnahan won her first-ever college race. And her second.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to have to reset my goals,’” Carnahan said.
Carnahan’s instant success thrust her into a lead role for Furman and produced a remarkable first year of her college career. She was the Paladins’ top finisher in every race this past season, helping Furman win its fourth straight Southern Conference championship, where Carnahan placed second individually. The former South standout was named the SoCon Freshman of the Year and named to the All-SoCon First Team.
Buoyed by Carnahan and others from a large freshman recruiting class, the Paladins came within five team points at the NCAA Southeast Regional on Nov. 11 of qualifying for the NCAA Championships.
“It was definitely bittersweet,” Carnahan said. “We performed better than we were supposed to. But we all walked away feeling, ‘OK, this is real. We can do this.’”
In truth, Carnahan probably could have used the mental respite. Her senior year at South had been a demanding one. She took seven Advanced Placement classes and led a Lady War Eagles cross country team hoping to break through for a state championship. Carnahan herself hoped to win an individual state title.
Carnahan was mostly successful. She got a perfect score on her SAT. South finished second at the GHSA Cross Country Championships in Class 6A, and Carnahan placed second individually, her best finish in a decorated high school career that included being named the Forsyth County News’ Girls Runner of the Year three straight times. And, after a long pursuit, she qualified for the prestigious Footlocker National Championships in San Diego.
“Senior year I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well,” Carnahan said. “I really enjoyed getting to run my hardest.”
Life simplified for Carnahan this past summer. Her main task was to follow the training program from Furman head coach Robert Gary and get ready for college life. The Lady Paladins were coming off a third straight SoCon championship and bringing in a large recruiting class. The pressure was off Carnahan.
“I didn’t have a ton of expectations,” Carnahan said, “which was kind of nice.”
Furman opened its season with the Eye Opener Invitational on Sept. 2. It was casual, by comparison to later events. Only five teams competed. Ninety-eight runners finished the five-kilometer run, the shortest of the season. The race was in Spartanburg, South Carolina, just 40 minutes away from campus.
Carnahan finished in 17 minutes, 25 seconds to win by 28 seconds ahead of a senior teammate. A week later, Carnahan’s promise became undeniable when she won Furman’s own invitational, a 6-kilometer run, in 20:37 out 164 runners.
“I think my coach told me something like, ‘You know you’re not supposed to win your first two college races,’” Carnahan said.
She didn’t win again – the field of runners got larger, the competition better – but she continued to impress.
Carnahan wasn’t immune to having her “freshman moments.” At the Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 24, she burst out in front to start the race but faded later on, eventually finishing 27th out 335 runners in 22:24.
“That was a mistake,” Carnahan said. “I realized, ‘You can’t do that yet, but maybe one day.’”
Carnahan made a quick adjustment. In her next race, the Pre-NCAA Invitational on Oct. 15, Carnahan employed a more conservative plan: she would stay in the lead pack but be cautious of any who tried to pass. She finished 16th out of 285 runners in 20:30.
“It was a really great race,” Carnahan said. “I really had fun there.”
Carnahan went on to finish second at the SoCon Championships and 15th at the NCAA Southeast Regional to make the All-Region team, at which point her first college cross country season was done.
Carnahan was left with a mixed evaluation of herself. By her expectations three months before, she’d exceeded everything she thought possible. But those expectations morphed quickly, and by the end, Carnahan couldn’t help but wonder if a better finish at Regional could have put Furman over the top and into the NCAA Championships.
Three weeks removed from the season, Carnahan has settled somewhere in the middle.
“When I look back on the season, I have to remind myself you were successful by that standpoint,” Carnahan said. “Maybe you weren’t successful by the expectations at the end, but it was still a good season, a good step forward, and I’m excited about what I can do here.”