CUMBERLAND – On a foggy and misty morning, Nyajock Pan ran from under the shadow cast by a young woman thousands of miles away.
“It was overwhelming,” said Pan. “I had no one to follow.”
For the first time in since 2007, the top female distance runners from Maine’s biggest schools weren’t chasing Abbey Leonardi, the four-time state champion from Kennebunk. Leonardi is now a freshman on the nationally ranked University of Oregon cross country team. She was out of sight, but not out of mind at Saturday’s Western Maine Class A cross country championships.
Certainly, Pan didn’t peer through the fog at the Twin Brook Recreation Area, imagining Leonardi was somewhere ahead. But it must have seemed like a new day dawning for the South Portland High senior. She finished 14th behind Leonardi in the 2009 state meet. A year later Pan was seventh and last year was sixth. In fact, Saturday’s regional championship was her first win in a big race.
“I tried not to think too much (during the race). I tried not to think about the conditions or who was around me. You can feel a lot of pressure running in first. What if I got tired and someone was trying to pass me?”
She’s a long-legged senior standing about 5-foot-10 who once thought she’d be a basketball player at South Portland. Her strategy used to be focused on not getting too far behind Leonardi. Saturday was a new role for Pan and judging by her infectious smile, she liked it.
Pan has a relatively short stride. A light stride, said other coaches watching her run over a rolling course that was saturated from Friday night’s rain. The Class A girls were the second group to tackle a course that eventually loops through woods.
Run? Pan looked like she was skipping over the mud, holding off Thornton Academy freshman Katie LeBlanc by about 8 seconds.
As a freshman at the 2009 state meet, Pan startled everyone by sprinting to a lead of 50 yards or so at the start. Leonardi and Emily Durgin of Cheverus, another top runner, were eating her dust. So to speak. The two and a dozen others later caught the tiring Pan.
“She had no clue,” said Karen Reardon, the South Portland coach. “She was totally oblivious. It was all so new to her. She was a little more cautious the next time. But she always has that I-want-to-win attitude.
Even when she knew she couldn’t beat Leonardi. “Abbey made everyone better,” said Reardon. “You had to try to beat her.”
Distance runners will say they’re running against the clock, not the opponent. “It’s true,” said Shannon Conley, a junior who finished third Saturday, behind Pan and LeBlanc. “If your time is a personal best, you’ve won. You can think that.”
Every coach asks that of their athlete: Do your best. But every runner who finished behind Leonardi knew the sting of disappointment. Their best wasn’t good enough.
Leonardi was the state’s dominant female runner in all Maine classes for four years, although Durgin did beat her in the 2009 Western Maine Class A meet. So dominant, those who pay close attention to this sport can’t suggest who might be the next Abbey. She set the standard so high.
Leonardi is Oregon’s seventh runner, which speaks more to the Ducks’ great depth and the level of competition at this elite level.
Oregon is ranked third in the country. Last week, Leonardi finished 52nd in a field of 265 runners in the Pre-Nationals Meet in Louisville, Ky. Oregon was runner-up to top-ranked Florida State. Defending champion Georgetown was fourth.
In the four-year cycle of school sports, everyone exits stage left. Bethanie Brown, Waterville senior, may be the state’s best, say college coaches watching Saturday’s regional meet at Twin Brook. She and Erzsebet Nagy of Lawrence competed in the Eastern Maine meet.
Kirstin Sandreuter, a Greely High junior, won the Western Maine Class B race in a time about 5 seconds slower than Pan. By the time Sandreuter ran, the course was muckier.
But it was Pan who pushed Leonardi’s legacy aside on this day. The girl who didn’t want to think too much became the runner who all but shouted: It’s my turn.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: