As sophomore Erin Huffman rounded the last corner of Saturday’s cross-country race, her mother looked on and cheered. She had counted every runner and if Erin could pull out one more sprint, she could clench the last medaled spot.
“Run, Erin! Run for all of us,” she yelled.
Passing a handful of runners, Erin crossed the line at 20 minutes, 51 seconds, beating her personal record and setting a new school record for the course.
It was enough that Erin had beat her time, she didn’t even care if she had placed, said Erin’s mother, Joanna Huffman.
When the results went up, the family screamed with joy — Erin had taken 21st, the last spot to receive a medal at the Division III girls state cross country meet at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix.
Erin is the only Payson athlete to medal in this weekend’s championship games. Fellow Payson runner Abby Greenleaf took 35th at the state meet.
For the Huffmans, the win was bittersweet. Joanna had just undergone neck surgery and her younger daughter, Nikki, had her neck fused this past year.
Although they could no longer run, the family walked the entire course to cheer on Erin.
Erin said she could not believe she had done so well or that her mother, neck brace and all, had made it to the finish line.
Months earlier, Erin did not know if she would stay on the team. But something had changed in Erin over the summer, Joanna said. Instead of hanging out with friends all day, Erin would wake up early and run for hours.
Ask Erin where the motivation to run came from and she jokes that she wanted to outrun the zombies during the zombie apocalypse. But Joanna believes it was her escape from the troubles and health issues going on in the family.
“It was her outlet,” she said.
And the work paid off with Erin, 16, excelling in cross country. At an earlier race in Mesa, Erin placed second, despite forgetting her running shoes and having to run in borrowed soles two sizes too small.
“This is about her drive,” Joanna said.
Erin says she only discovered she could run well in the past few years.
In sixth grade, Erin said she joined the running team on a whim.
“But I started getting good,” she said.
By eighth grade, Erin had figured out her running style, which often featured quick starts.
For example, in this weekend’s match, coach Jonathan Ball asked Erin to run her first mile in 6 minutes 45 seconds. Too amped up, Erin said she decided to run it in 6 minutes.
“I pretty much sprinted the whole way,” she said.
Although she got cramps, Erin said she worked past it.
“Running is all mental,” she said. “You have to be mentally strong.”
She said running two, three times a day this summer helped her get strong mentally and physically.
Erin shaved seconds off her mile; her quickest pace 5 minutes, 57 seconds.
In Saturday’s race, Erin averaged 6 minutes, 43 seconds.
Greenleaf averaged 6 minutes, 55 seconds, taking 35th in Saturday’s race. Greenleaf and Erin were the only cross country runners to qualify for state from Payson.
In the Section I finals, Greenleaf finished 16th in 21:18.51 and Huffman was 21st in 21:51.11.
Athletic Director Don Heizer also made the trip to the Valley to cheer the team on and Superintendent Ron Hitchcock called before the race to wish them good luck.
Heizer made a huge impact on Erin, keeping her on the team and supporting her throughout, Joanna said.
Next year, Erin says she plans to run track and cross country.
Coach Jonathan Ball said he was impressed with the performances by both Huffman and Greenleaf at the state race. Both beat the school’s existing course record, which Rhea Cosay had set at 21:44 several years ago.
“I feel it is a big win for Payson cross country,” Ball said.
This is the first time Payson has taken home a cross country medal at state since joining Division III three years ago.
With two sophomores and five freshmen making up the varsity team this year, Ball said the team has a great opportunity to develop in the coming years.