Laurel Jefferson is a senior team captain for the University of Maryland Women's Cross Country team. She is a graduate from Montgomery Blair High School where she achieved respectable pr's of 11:40 2-mile, 5:25 mile, 2:25 800m, and a 19:55 5k at Hereford. She was accepted as a walk-on for the Terps and has steadily improved to become the team's number one runner. During her junior year, she PRed in the 6k, running 21:08, in the 5k, running 17:08, and in the mile, running 4:55. Due in large part to her inpressive 21:08 6k at the Paul Short Invitational, she helped lead the lady Terps to their first ever cross country national ranking. Not only is she an outstanding athlete, but she is also a true scholar-athlete. Last year she was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference All-Academic Team for her 3.9 Cumulative GPA through three years of college while triple majoring. Read about her journey as a student athlete from high school to college and what it's like to be the star runner at the largest university in the state.
MoCoRunning: Looking back many, many years ago, what was the college decision process like for you? What did you consider when you were selecting a school? What schools did you look at and why did you select Maryland?
Jefferson: The most important factor that I had to consider was the financial factor. My parents had long since informed me that I would be paying for my own education (something about building character), so I knew I wanted to attend a school that would give me academic scholarships. Maryland, being an in-state school (and, in my opinion, the best public institution in the state), was definitely the best economic possibility. I also wanted to make sure I could walk on to the team at whatever school I selected, and Maryland's track program held annual try-outs. I looked at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but both were out of my price range-- and didn't really have any superior qualities to warrant the expense.
MoCoRunning: You were accepted as a walk-on to the UMD cross country team which means that you were not heavily recruited and they did not offer you any kind of athletic scholarship. What was it that made you feel that you could compete at that level? Did you ever doubt yourself?
Jefferson: When I first decided to run in college, I contacted the coach. I told him my high school times and he decided to e-mail me the team's summer training plan, which was harder training than I'd ever done in my life. I doubted myself from the beginning: whether I could even train at that level, whether I would be the slowest person on the team, etc. However, I used those doubts to fuel my training, telling myself that I had to run faster and harder every day so that I didn't embarrass myself in the fall. That summer, I had the good fortune to train with some other great Montgomery County alumni: Ana Gabriela Quesada (Gaby) (St. Joseph's), Beth Catherwood (B-CC/USNA), and being able to keep up with them boosted my confidence. Everyone doubts themselves; it's simply a matter of using that doubt constructively.
MoCoRunning: Freshman year, what was it like trying to prove yourself as a walk on?
Jefferson: It was very tough, especially in pre-season. The varsity girls on the team didn't accept me right away, as many walk-ons wind up quitting. They definitely kept their distance. The coach put me in the slower training groups at first-- separating me again from the varsity-- and I had to work my way out of them by proving myself in every single workout. I definitely continued to doubt myself throughout the season: I did well in the first couple meets, but at the Pre-National meet (a huge competition with all the top colleges) I psyched myself out. I finished close to last and was almost pulled from traveling to our school's conference meet, ACCs. Fortunately I was able to put that race behind me, focus on the amazing improvements I had already made that season, and keep moving forward.
MoCoRunning: What is your academic major and why did you choose it? What has it been like running year around for Maryland while trying to balance a full academic load? Do you have any advice for future college students to handle academics and athletics?
Jefferson: I'm a triple major in English Lit, French Lit, and American History. I always joke that I like to collect useless majors, but of course I believe that liberal arts majors are extremely important, or else I'd be wasting my money. Basically, I decided to major in the subjects I loved-- I've been a voracious reader since kindergarten, I've loved the French language since I attended an elementary school immersion program, and my favorite television channel is the history channel. Sometimes it's tough, especially with three majors, to balance running and school, but having to plan out a schedule so precisely forces me not to procrastinate and to do my work in increments. The only advice I can offer is time management, time management, time management. Don't leave a 15-page paper until the weekend before it's due when you know you're going to be traveling to a meet.
MoCoRunning: Describe a memorable college moment.
Jefferson: Well, I do have one good academic story. This past summer, I took a summer class entitled "The Ancient Roman Empire." It was four hours long with only one 15-minute break, all on the same subject. Needless to say, lectures got a bit dull. The teacher was very nice, but I just couldn't bear to sit in a cold classroom while it was absolutely beautiful outside, every day, for three weeks. Pretty soon, I hated the class with a burning vengeance. I hadn't opened a single book two weeks into class. The term paper was due the next day, but my best friends from high school were leaving for college in the morning. Feeling that friendship overrode class, I decided that I wasn't going to write my paper that night. I woke up at 7 AM in the morning, wrote my 7-page paper in two hours, and turned in what I thought was one of the worst pieces of writing in human history. That Friday, I got my paper back. When my teacher was handing it to me, he looked at me and started to open his mouth. I tried to snatch the paper and run before he could comment, but he held on tight and remarked, "You had the highest grade in the class." Shocked, I gaped at him, mumbled thanks, and rushed out before I gave away how undeserving I was. I felt extremely guilty, in an exhilarated sort of way.
MoCoRunning: At what point would you say that it all came together athletically? That is, when did you get so blazing fast!? Was it a gradual improvement or can you point to one day when it all clicked?
Jefferson: Gradual improvement. I obviously had major PR's my freshman year, but those simply put me at the level of most other incoming recruited freshmen. From that point, each season, each year, I took time off my personal bests. My 5k PR freshman year was 18:12; sophomore year it was 18:06-- but that was after a serious injury and three months of not training, so I knew I was much faster; this past year it was 17:08. I guess it did really all come together this past year, yet it feels like each year I gained experience and new levels of mental toughness. My sophomore year PR wasn't huge, yet after not training it showed how much stronger I was mentally, to run a faster time when I was in much worse shape. Last year, obviously, was my fastest; each year, however, taught me important lessons about racing and training.
MoCoRunning: Describe your most memorable race.
Jefferson: One of my most memorable races was the DMR this past year at Virginia Tech. I hadn't exactly set myself up to have a great race: the night before I didn't sleep because of some personal problems. The race was delayed two hours and did not go off until 10 PM. I was yawning the entire warm-up, I was starving, and the last thing I wanted to do was run the mile anchor leg. When I received the baton, my thoughts were completely negative. We were in second place and fell to fourth in the first 400m of my leg. But, as I ran by my coach, I heard him yell "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and race!" and I completely changed my thinking. I decided that I was going to run fast despite everything that had happened, not use it as an excuse. The 800m mark came around and we were still in fourth. Picking up the pace, I caught one girl, then another, and set my sights on Boston College and Georgetown: the two teams still ahead of us. In the last 200, I ran like I was a sprinter and passed Georgetown at the line.
MoCoRunning: I've heard that you are a camp counselor at one of the popular cross country camps that many MoCo athletes attend. What made you decide to get involved with that?
Jefferson: I originally attended the camp way back when I was in high school, after meeting the camp director, Coach Tom Arnold from Good Counsel. I've trained with him every summer that I've been in college, so we know each other well. He offered me the position to work at camp, and I leapt at the opportunity to get paid to run!
MoCoRunning: What is it like working at the cross country camp? Do you have any good stories… Any juicy stories that you shouldn't tell?
Jefferson: Of course there are stories I shouldn't tell-- and they won't get told online! Working at the camp is basically my vacation: I love it. Since I work non-stop all summer as a waitress and can't afford to go anywhere unpaid, it's nice to be able to take a break from the day-to-day insanity of my life and focus on just running. Plus, every year I make new friends in the new counselors and in the campers staying in my cabins. Sorry, I know everybody wants to know the juicy gossip... but you'll have to wait until you graduate for that.
MoCoRunning: What kind of summer training do your coaches ask you to do to prepare for cross country season? What kind of summer training do you actually do?
Jefferson: I do the training the coaches ask. Each athlete has an individualized plan; mine definitely would not be the plan of any incoming freshman. I start my summer at about 40 miles a week, get up to 55 miles, which is my X mileage, then I peak at X+20%. Each week, I try to incorporate two workouts: one tempo run, and one fartlek workout. I'm also supposed to do a modified lifting routine twice a week, which is my one point of serious slacking. I hate abs and I hate push-ups. Still, summer training is essential to a good cross-country season. My coach always said that the cross-country NCAA title is won in July and August.
MoCoRunning: Describe a typical workout week during the middle of cross country season at Maryland.
Jefferson: Sunday: long run (12 miles for me)
Monday: workout-- 4x1mile repeats with 2 minutes recovery in between
Tuesday: Recovery run
Wednesday: workout-- tempo run (4+ miles tempo, 3 mile warm-up, 3 mile cool-down)
Thursday: Recovery run
Friday: Pre-meet (30-45 minute easy run followed by 6-8 200m strides)
Saturday: RACE DAY!!!!!!!
MoCoRunning: What are your goals for this upcoming year in cross country and/or track?
Jefferson: My goals are to lead my team to its first-ever cross-country national championship and to qualify individually for the NCAA's, to break 20:45 in the 6k, to break 16:45 in the 5k in track, and to break 4:50 in the mile. I also hope to qualify for NCAA's in the 3k/5k in indoor and outdoor track.
MoCoRunning: What is the best part about running for Maryland?
Jefferson: The best part is probably the team. My teammates are my closest friends and we share an irreplaceable bond. Five of my closest friends graduated last year and all of them were cross-country runners. We still talk almost every day. College is a big, scary place and it's nice to have a pseudo-family on campus. Everybody looks out for each other and is there for each other, whenever, wherever.
MoCoRunning: Are there any burdens that come with running for a large DI school?
Jefferson: The main burden is expectations. At a highly competitive athletic school like Maryland, every team is expected to score points at the national championships, no exceptions. Yet I look at the expectations as a bonus rather than a burden: here, we are constantly pushed to succeed at the highest level. If we make it to nationals, we make it to the highest level of collegiate competition possible-- and I've always wanted to run with the best.