Katherine Lee could be considered among the cross-country runners who have a love-hate relationship with Sunken Meadow State Park’s demanding five-kilometer course in Kings Park.
The Shoreham-Wading River High School senior has run plenty of races at Sunken Meadow ever since she was an eighth-grader. But what Lee may remember more than the actual course itself are the people who go to it — fellow competitors, coaches and spectators.
“If there were any other people at the Meadow, I would hate it so much,” she said. “But just the environment here that’s created by the runners and parents and coaches of Section XI just make this a special place.”
Asked if she had a Sunken Meadow memory that stood out, Lee spoke of last year’s Section XI Championships when she clocked the fastest time ever by a Suffolk County girl on the course: 18 minutes, 10.37 seconds. After that race she was watching another race when “someone I didn’t know said: ‘It’s OK, you’ll get it next time.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I just pr’d. I had the race of my life.’ And they were like, ‘Of course you must have wanted to break 18.’ You know, that really spoke to me in two ways. It spoke to me like, ‘Wow, I really got to up my game.’ Also, it just made me feel really great to know that there are people just around me that I don’t know that are still pulling for me and pulling for the other runners in the section.”
Lee bid farewell to Sunken Meadow in fitting fashion Friday. Running her final race on the course as a member of the Wildcats, Lee, as expected, blew away the field, winning the Class B title in the Section XI Championships for a fourth straight year. Unseasonably warm, humid weather, with temperatures hitting the mid-70s, didn’t help runners’ times. Lee still clocked 18:42.20. The Class B runner-up, Mount Sinai’s Sarah Connelly, finished in 19:27.73.
“Today has been a day full of challenges, but nothing says challenging like Sunken Meadow, right?” Lee, who will run for Georgetown University next year, told reporters afterward. “I’m kind of glad that today was kind of a rough day because it’s going to remind me that not only was racing in Section XI so challenging, every single race against awesome competitors, but also you just feel the support system around you.”
Lee, who last year won her second state title in three years, will make her fifth appearance in the state meet, which will be held Nov. 11 at Wayne Central School in Ontario Center. She will by joined upstate by a teammate, junior Alexandra Smith, who was seventh in 20:47.88.
Like many runners, Lee is no fan of heat and humidity, which slows down times. “I have never been one to like racing in the heat,” she said. “Everyone wants those perfect weather conditions where it’s right around like 55, 60 degrees and no wind … but you know you’re not always going to get that, so you just have to do what you can.”
Making Lee’s latest achievement all the more impressive is she wasn’t pushed from behind. That is often the case.
So, how do you push yourself when you’re not being pushed?
“Most of the time it’s a fear factor,” Lee answered. “Me, I get really nervous during races sometimes. I get a little skittish. With races like this I get a little nervous and I tell myself, ‘[Someone] could be like two steps behind you.’ Sometimes on the moat I swear I hear footsteps right behind me, like breathing in my ear and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ”
That imaginary threat aside, Lee and her bouncy stride appear on an unstoppable path toward another state title.
Shoreham coach Paul Koretzki, whose team took second place to Mount Sinai in the team scoring (29-82), dismissed the notion that Lee’s last race at Sunken Meadow was a sad thing. “It’s evolution,” he said. “It’s time. People got to move on.”
So, Katherine, is it sad saying goodbye to Sunken Meadow, the course runners love to hate?
“I’m really upset,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to feel like this. I thought I’d be jumping for joy like, ‘Yes! I never have to run up Cardiac [Hill] again.’ I’m really going to miss this place and the people. This place is truly a home course, but for everyone. You feel really at home here.”
Mercy pair headed upstate. Two Bishop McGann-Mercy runners, sophomore Grace Hayes and freshman Lola Anderson, qualified for the state meet in Class C. Hayes was third in 22:20.33 and Anderson was seventh in 23:09.28.
“I’m obviously speechless,” Hayes said. “I can’t find the words right now, but it’s a big deal. I’m just really proud to be on such a great team. All the girls on my team were so supportive. They’re some of the best teammates you could ask for.”
Mercy coach Brian Manghan said, “They’re going upstate!” He added: “This is what we train for all year. … This is what we’re working for, this day.”
The top Riverhead finisher in the Class A race was sophomore Christina Yakaboski (15th in 21:01.93).
Riverhead sophomore Megan Kielbasa (24th in 21:30.63) isn’t a fan of the sectional meet. “It’s really tough,” she said. “The competition’s tough, the hills are tough, the people in your ears in the crowd is really just tough to deal with.”
Photo caption: Shoreham-Wading River senior Katherine Lee raced to her fourth straight Class B title in the Section XI Championships in her final race at Sunken Meadow State Park. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)