Entering her senior cross country season, Cuthbertson’s Madison Simmons is one of the top Class 2A runners. Last year, Simmons finished second at the state meet after leading the first 2 ½ miles of the race. A week later, she set a personal record while finishing fifth at the Foot Locker Invitational South Region meet. This season, she joins Class 3A Weddington’s Mallory Price as one of Union County’s top contenders for a state title.
And it’s only the third year Simmons ever has run competitively.
Simmons began her time at Cuthbertson as a cheerleader, but her interest was piqued as a freshman when then-cross country coach David Malady approached her during art class about running for the team. Early the following summer, Simmons attended some workouts to gauge her interest in the sport.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “It was fun.”
The following fall, as a sophomore, Simmons placed second in her first cross country meet, which served as an omen for the upcoming season. By the end of the fall, she finished 13th (with a time of 20 minutes,12.22 seconds) at the state meet, just three spots away from an all-state bid.
So new to the sport was Simmons that she thought her finish was good enough for an all-state nod as it fell within the window of top-15 finishers.
“Nope,” she says now with a laugh. “Just the top 10 (are named all-state).”
Despite the precocious beginning to her career, Simmons said missing out on all-state honors fueled her the following summer. She attended a running camp at Brevard College, which proved pivotal in her development as a runner.
“After I went there, I realized I could run more at home on my own,” said Simmons, who took the lesson to heart and racked up 175 miles of training that summer.
The hard work paid dividends. Last year, as a junior, Simmons improved her finish to third (and eventually second after another runner was disqualified) in the state competition with a time of 19:20.51.
“I was happy because I knew I could come in and be all-state and it was only my second year of running cross country,” Simmons said.
But for Simmons, being happy with her finish hardly meant she was content. This summer, she upped her training to 310 miles, even running during a vacation to Ocean Isle.
“But not a lot,” said Simmons, who estimated that she ran roughly eight miles each day she was on vacation.
“But then you go sit on the beach,” she reasoned.
Her sweat equity isn’t just about a love for her newfound talent; it comes with a concrete goal for her senior season.
“I want to be the first in the 2A competition at states,” Simmons said. “Then I want to keep improving my time in the 5K.”
First-year Cuthbertson coach Margie Kiss, who also trains various runners across the area while also working as a certified personal trainer, said Simmons, quite simply, is a natural to the sport.
“She has the natural build for a runner, she’s got the stride, the form and she’s got the speed,” said Kiss. “She also has the strong mental drive and the competitiveness that you really need as a cross country endurance runner.”
Perhaps more important, said Kiss, is Simmons’ mental makeup, which would lend itself to just about any competitive venture – but especially distance running.
“She gets on that line and she knows what she wants to accomplish,” said Kiss. “(She knows) what place she wants to focus on, and she just runs.”
For Simmons, however, it’s simpler than that. For Simmons, running cross country gives her roughly 20 quiet minutes in an otherwise hectic day.
“After a race, people always ask me, ‘So, what do you think about?’” Simmons said. “This is going to sound really dumb, but nothing. (My mind) is just blank.”
While Simmons might excuse the practice with a self-effacing shrug, Kiss pointed out that the ability to block out the mental hurdles is a practice many runners take years to perfect.
“I think that’s one of the hardest aspects of endurance running: getting the mental part of it under control to use it to your benefit,” Kiss said. “It’s either going to help you or demolish your efforts.”
It’s the main reason Simmons also has been able to branch out into both the winter and spring track and field seasons, placing third in the 3,200 (11:41.23) at last year’s indoor state meet. It’s also the reason she’s transformed from cheerleader to state-title hopeful in just two years, and why she’s received recruiting interest from schools such as N.C. State, Clemson and Florida State.
And Kiss, who’s been running for more than 20 years, finds Simmons’ rapid ascent surprising.
“Yeah, I do, and that just confirms the fact that (Simmons) is a natural runner,” Kiss said. “This is her sport, definitely.”
Kiss also hopes that Simmons – along with teammates Megan Kiss, Jenna Louis and Simmons’ twin sister, Alex – will help the Cavs reach new heights as a team.
“These four girls are really going to propel our team higher in the state rankings on the 2A level,” said Kiss.
But Simmons knows none of this would even be a possibility if she hadn’t considered Malady’s notion plausible when he approached her in art class that day. As a result, she has some advice for any high school athletes who are thinking of stepping outside their comfort zones to try something new.
“Maybe there’s something (other students) want to do but they’re embarrassed (to try) or they feel they’d be good at it but don’t know if someone would be OK with them doing it,” said Simmons. “I would tell them to try it. Maybe they’ll like it, and maybe it will stick.”
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a natural.