Sydney Ellen was not completely sure what she was doing. The then-seventh-grader on the Heathwood Hall cross country team just knew she needed to work.
The newcomer to the sport had been running for one season. The results were a steady work in progress that were waiting to see their first on-course success. She planned on taking matters into her own hands, which started with a rigorous summer training session that featured a 300-mile goal.
“It took her a full year just to get used to running cross country and track,” said coach Willis Ware, a runner who competed at Missouri. “I knew in seventh grade that if she stuck with it and worked hard that she would be really good.”
Ellen’s first event as a sixth-grader culminated in a 32-minute finish. After a slow climb that season, she marveled upon seeing two minutes shaved off her time following her first race as a seventh-grader.
The plan was set. She understood what she needed to do in order to maintain her progression.
“I realized summer training was the key,” she said. “From there, my times kept dropping.”
The Highlanders’ senior standout looks back now at that first summer as her turning point. It helped set the standard for the hard work that defines her, a characteristic which led to her second straight individual SCISA championship in October. The latest gave her the distinction of being the first to win back-to-back 3A titles in eight years.
She has come a long way from the middle schooler who did not know what cross country was before being advised to compete by a physical education teacher.
“It was really putting the miles down that resulted in the most improvement,” she said. “I think once I saw that, I realized – beyond natural ability – it was just working hard and getting my miles in.”
Her 18:03 finish in Charleston’s Lowcountry Invitational was good for the second-fastest 5K in the state this year and 13th all-time in the state, according to SCRunners.com.
She has met USmilesplit.com’s National Gold Standard and led Heathwood Hall to consecutive runner-up finishes behind Pinewood Prep.
“She has, I think, an uncanny combination of speed and endurance,” Ware said. “She has the fast twitch muscles that permit her to be able to run extremely fast over 400 meters, 800 meters. But she also has the cardiovascular system, the endurance to be able to run extremely fast over long periods of time.”
That combination was never more apparent than in the past two SCISA championships, where Ellen rallied to overtake Pinewood Prep’s Maryah Nasir each time.
The first came in 2013, when as a junior she rallied from nearly 150 meters back over the final half-time to win by over 16 seconds before edging her again by 10.77 this time around.
“She was definitely someone I was worried about,” Ellen said. “She led the whole (2013) race. I just tried to keep her in sight, and I was just kind of hoping the whole time I could pull her back in.”
She has been contacted by both Clemson and South Carolina — as well as a host of smaller in-state programs — but she knows little about what’s in store for her.
Only her dedication to the sport and constant training seem predetermined.