MONTICELLO — Mabry Bruhn’s time as a cross-country runner didn’t begin with family connections to the sport.
It didn’t open with an impressive physical-education class mile time. Nor with a strong, out-of-nowhere race.
The Monticello sophomore’s distance running career really didn’t even start with much running.
Asked by lifelong friend Katie Mesplay and encouraged by mother, Lynne, to give cross-country a shot as a sixth-grader, Bruhn and Mesplay would go to Monticello’s Lodge Park twice a week.
“We’d start over here, and Katie and I would run, not very fast, to the trail over there,” said Bruhn while pointing out a couple spots at the park. “And when we got to the trail, we’d make sure nobody was around and we’d start walking. So we’d walk and we’d talk, and we walked throughout all the trails.
“We did that the whole summer before my sixth-grade year. I definitely had not run 2 miles straight, for sure.”
Bruhn eventually had to face the music, however, in the form of a 2-mile time trial around the middle school building as summer turned to fall.
“(Coach Bryan Hartman) told us, ‘The top seven make varsity.’ And that sounded pretty good to me, because I’m a very competitive person,” Bruhn said. “So I think I scraped by in the fifth spot.”
The Sages rolled to third place in their sectional that year, qualifying for state. Walking trails no longer was on Bruhn’s radar.
“It is crazy to look back and see how far I’ve come,” Bruhn said. “I’ve learned that champions are born in practice.”
As is being the 2020 All-Area girls’ cross-country Runner of the Year.
Bruhn won nearly every race she entered during a pandemic-affected season, breaking the 18-minute mark seven times over the course of 3 miles. She guided Monticello to a Class 1A sectional title and finished third in the unsanctioned ShaZam Racing Division I state meet.
“All the work you put in, it really does matter,” Bruhn said. “If you put no work in, it shows.”
Bruhn never had an issue exerting herself during races. Monticello High coach Dave Remmert recalls as much from watching Bruhn compete as a middle-schooler.
“A lot of runners when they’re young, they’re very timid and they’re very conservative at the start,” Remmert said, “and she wasn’t like that at all. She would rocket out.”
That was sustainable over the IESA’s 2-mile distance. Bruhn proved it by placing third during her eighth-grade state meet.
Three miles is a different story. But Bruhn said she felt her stamina improving through her freshman season, in which she helped the Sages to second place in Class 1A by taking 13th individually at state.
“I’m pretty happy with how she runs, because eventually she will be strong enough to last the whole race that way,” Remmert said. “You kind of saw that this year.”
Indeed, Bruhn’s regularity under the 18-minute barrier is otherwise unheard of locally. The only racers who can claim victory over her this year are Uni High’s Kate Ahmari in the 1A St. Teresa Sectional, along with Eureka’s Anna Perry and Rosary’s Lianna Surtz at unofficial state.
Two non-running factors make this statistic even more impressive.
The first is that Bruhn suffered from a severely deviated septum during her freshman year. She underwent surgery after the cross-country season but found out afterward she also was allergic “to most trees, nature and other things.”
So Bruhn receives both weekly and monthly shots to ward off that issue.
“I would battle an ear infection that turned into a sinus infection (because of the deviated septum),” Bruhn said. “I have felt much better running this year.”
The second factor is in Bruhn’s control. She also swims during the fall for the Sages, whose only meet — barring state qualification — is the local sectional.
This year’s Champaign Central Sectional coincided with Bruhn’s cross-country regional in Decatur. So Bruhn won that race, drove to Champaign to warm up at a YMCA pool and went on to post three top-nine finishes in the sectional.
Efforts such as that are one way in which the typically soft-spoken Bruhn provides her own brand of leadership.
“Oftentimes we’ll have someone that is kind of a work leader. They’re a grinder,” Remmert said. “They put in the miles and work really hard in the offseason and they race really well, which is kind of like Mabry.”