Remembering how to run

Pearl Vercruysse and Olivia Smith push through injury to persevere in their best track performances yet.

MVRHS runners Pearl Vercruysse, left, and Olivia Smith, right, have put a challenging season behind them. —Emily Gazzaniga

While it may be true that running is a natural instinct, the urge to compete is something you’re born with. This urge, combined with dedication and perseverance, have made Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) seniors Pearl Vercruysse and Olivia Smith track superstars this year. Pearl and Olivia have proved the extent of their runner’s grit this past season, despite amassing injuries and being forced to take long breaks from running. The star runners sat down with The Times to talk about their experiences bouncing from stellar seasons to injury and back again.

Back on the bench

Senior captain Olivia Smith came out of the gate sprinting when she joined the track team her freshman year. In her first track and field meet ever, she broke the school high jump record and qualified in the Division 4 state championships with a jump of 5 feet, 1 inch. She has yet to clear that height again.

Olivia continued to be a track and field powerhouse during all four years of high school. She joined outdoor track as a freshman after dominating the running events, hurdles, and the long jump in middle school while competing for West Tisbury. She placed consistently in the top three, often winning league competitions in both the 100- and 400-meter hurdles, while also excelling in the high jump. These events have continued to be some of her best throughout high school.

Since that start, Olivia qualified for the outdoor Division 4 State Championships for all four years and the All-State Meet twice. She qualified for the indoor Division 5 State Championships three times and All-State Meet twice.

Last fall Olivia began her season on a high note. She was named captain of the track and field team after a grueling season as the MVRHS soccer captain. Her joy was short-lived, however, as she soon discovered that she had plantar fasciitis, which is a foot injury caused by straining the ligament that supports the arch, leading to pain and swelling. Olivia had been playing with the injury unknowingly for some time. As a result, she began the indoor track season on the bench, focused on physical therapy.

“It was slightly frustrating, running average times for myself during the beginning of the season, but I guess that was to be expected,” Olivia said.

More than a month into the season, Olivia returned to competition, beginning with just the long jump and later adding hurdles for the last regular meet of the season. Her marks in the hurdles and the long jump were well below what she had accomplished in previous years. This is not how many envision their senior year.

Olivia started to get back on track in time for the Eastern Athletic Conference (EAC) meet at the end of January. She placed second in the 55 hurdles, and won an EAC championship title in the long jump.

At the Division 5 State Championships, Olivia made MVRHS history by becoming the first student to qualify for the All-State meet in two events. She broke her own school and personal records in the 55 hurdles with a time of 8.81, then qualified in the long jump with a huge jump of 17 feet, 4 inches.

Olivia’s comeback may have been unexpectedly quick for those who don’t know her, but with four years of experience, she was ready to tackle anything to get back to her competitive times and marks.

“I wasn’t surprised I was able to start where I left off the year before,” she said. “Once my foot stopped hurting, I was overall very healthy. When my times did improve, it was luckily at state finals, the ideal moment to produce better results.”

Playing catch-up

Pearl started running competitively in the spring of her freshman year of high school. She ran her first mile in a time of 6:25.00, more than a minute slower than her personal record, which she achieved this past indoor season: 5:20.79.

“I started running competitively when I joined the middle school track and field team,” Pearl said. “But I started running when I was younger with my dad. It’s always been something I’ve enjoyed doing.”

Pearl’s junior year she took a break from competitive running when she studied abroad in France. While there, many parts of her life changed. She was immersed in a new culture and surrounded by people who spoke a different language.

One thing didn’t change, however. Running was always in her thoughts. “I thought about running a lot,” she said. “I would be in a study hall at school and change into running clothes and run in a park for the 30 or so minutes that I had. By the end of that year, I really longed to get back into a competitive atmosphere.”

When she returned from her year abroad, she came into the cross-country season with a mindset and an expectation for herself that was more serious than in her freshman and sophomore years. “Because it was my junior year that I missed, I kind of went from an underclassman situation, in which improvement is the name of the game, to senior year, where you know it’s the last shot to make what you want happen,” she said.

When she returned, she was excited to jump back into the adrenaline rush of competition.

Coming back to cross-country was not an easy transition. Pearl didn’t know what to expect of herself because of the long layoff from competition. However, there was a more severe obstacle in her way than matching her previous performance.

Pearl found herself tired when she should have felt well rested, and getting running times that were slower than what she thought she was capable of.

“At first there was just doubt that I just wasn’t going to be where I wanted to be in terms of my strength or my success,” Pearl said. “My coach really made it clear that my times at the meets didn’t reflect what they should have, considering the intense workouts I was getting through every day in practice.”

Pearl found out toward the end of her cross-country season that she had iron deficiency anemia. An insufficient amount of iron keeps the body from producing enough hemoglobin for the red blood cells, which can cause severe fatigue.

“It was upsetting, because I really had been so frustrated with myself for my performances at meets, and I didn’t find out until the season was winding down,” Pearl said. “I started taking iron supplements, and naturally my times improved because my body was capable of more. But I think it also allowed me to become mentally tougher, and ready to work hard for the rest of the cross-country season and the indoor season.”

Pearl won EAC indoor track and field titles in the mile (5:24.38) and the two-mile (11:52.63) during her 2017 season. Three weeks later, she ran in the Division 5 State Championships. She placed fourth in the 1,000-meter run (3:06.47) and fifth in the one-mile run (5:20.79, her personal best). By the end of her indoor season, she held MVRHS indoor records for all the distance events; the two-mile run, the one-mile run, and the 1,000-meter run. Pearl also set a record in the 600-meter run, a middle-distance sprinting event.

Back on track

Both runners have worked hard to return to their pre-injury performances. They’ve taken their roadblocks in stride, and have their sights on the future.

“My injury reminded me of how grateful I am for this sport,” Olivia said. “There’s a lot of time and effort that have gone into improving my abilities. It has been hard at times, especially during this season. But I’m really lucky to have something in my life that is always pushing me.”

Pearl is hoping to run in college, but believes that no matter what, she will always run for herself. Her final high school year will draw to a close with the outdoor track season, in which many teams in the EAC will be challenged to top her well-proven abilities.

“The better you get, the more you realize you have left to learn. That’s a mindset that is really crucial for me,” Pearl said. “It’s really exciting to think of how far I have come up until this point, but to realize I still have the outdoor season left to capitalize on my high school running career.”

In recent races against Bishop Stang, Pearl won both the two-mile and the 800-meter run. Olivia won the long jump, the 100-meter run, and the the 100-meter hurdles.