By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the ACC women’s cross country championships in 2013, University of Virginia runner Cleo Boyd placed 25th. She dipped to 45th last year.
A different Cleo Boyd is running this fall, and this one finished fourth at the ACC meet Friday in Tallahassee, Fla., helping UVA capture the team title for the first time since 1982.
“I owe it all to the surgery I had in January,” said Boyd, a Canadian who began her college career at Stony Brook before transferring to UVA in the summer of 2013.
For years, Boyd had endured pain in her left foot whenever she ran.
“Basically my whole running life, I’ve been able to train for like two weeks at a time before getting hurt and then having to cross-train,” she said. “So I think I did as much in the pool and on the elliptical as I did running in years past.”
For the first year and a half Boyd was at UVA, “I was only training her 80 percent,” head women’s cross country coach Todd Morgan said, “because we were always having to back off because of this problem she was having. I knew she the ability to be great. It was just we couldn’t do it.”
And so in January, after conferring with her family, Boyd took a bold step, opting to have an operation called a calcaneal osteotomy. Dr. Joseph S. Park, a foot and ankle specialist at the UVA Medical Center, performed the surgery.
“Basically, they cut my heel bone and moved it a couple inches and put a screw in the back, so it’s like I have a built-in orthotic in my foot now,” Boyd said.
“I felt like I was kind of taking a risk when I did it, because I didn’t know how it would work. But I was at the point where I knew I was never going to reach my potential doing what I was doing, always in this vicious cycle: training for a week and then being hurt.
“And every time I tried to race, I’d race in spikes, and then it would kind of blow [the ankle] out and I wouldn’t be able to run for a couple days after. So I just wasn’t getting any consistent training in.”
Boyd, who’s from Kingston, Ontario, was on crutches for nearly two months after her surgery. She didn’t start walking again until March. She was cleared to start running — “Baby steps,” Boyd said — in early April, and by May she was able to run almost every day.
Morgan and Boyd had discussed the possibility of her redshirting this fall, but over the summer it became clear she would be ready to compete in cross country at a high level.
“As soon as I came back, I could kind of tell that problem was fixed,” Boyd said. “The surgery foot still hurts me, just where the screw is and stuff, but it hasn’t been anything that stopped me.”
After runs, she ices down her left foot, “and I get a lot of treatment on it in the training room, so that helps a ton,” Boyd said. “But basically I haven’t had to take a day off since I started back running again. It was my first-ever summer of having consistent weeks of training.”
With Boyd leading the way, the Wahoos pulled out one of the closest victories in the history of the ACC women’s meet. UVA finished with 71 points, to 75 for runner-up NC State, which has won the ACC title 20 times, by far the most of any school.
Boyd, who’s in her final season of cross country, completed the 6-kilometer race in 20 minutes, 19.8 seconds. Also scoring for the `Hoos at Apalachee Regional Park were graduate student Iona Lake (11th overall), freshman Emily Mulhern (15th), graduate student Sarah Astin (19th) and sophomore Megan Rebholz (22nd).
Heading into the meet, Virginia was ranked No. 7 by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. NC State was No. 8.
“We went in as favorites because somebody has to be,” Morgan said. “I looked at it, and I think the team did too, like we were equals with State. We knew it was going to be a war, and we knew that [because the Wolfpack] has won so many before, that they were going to try to figure out a way to win it.”
With one kilometer to go, NC State led UVA, 58-73, but a late surge carried the `Hoos to only the third ACC title in program history. Each of the first two championships came in the early 1980s.
“None of these kids were even born,” Morgan said, laughing.
Boyd said: “I think we all left [the meet] really proud of ourselves. It was a really cool experience, and it feels good to be part of the team that kind of brought Virginia back to being good at women’s cross country.”
Of her performance, Boyd said, “I kind of wanted a top-3 finish, so I feel like I’m still a little bit unsatisfied. But I think I did exactly what I thought I could do based on what I’d been doing in training. So I think I met the expectations that I set for myself, but I’m looking forward to [upcoming] races.”
For most of the race, Boyd said, she ran alone.
“I was kind of in no man’s land the whole time,” she said. “I wasn’t with any girls from our team. I kind of had the sense that they were around me. For a while Iona was ahead of me, and then I passed her around 3k. And then I had a sense that the whole team was kind of right behind me, but I didn’t know exactly where, because I couldn’t see them.
“But I don’t mind races like that. Being around people makes it a little easier mentally, but I feel like I always get a lot out of myself, even if I’m on my own.”
In the latest USTFCCA poll, Virginia is a program-best No. 6. Since Morgan took over as women’s cross country coach in January 2012, the Cavaliers have finished sixth, second, third and, now, first at the ACC meet.
“It definitely shows that we’re going in the right direction,” Morgan said. “We want to be considered one of the schools that’s always good. There’s a distance between schools that one year are great and the next are not. We want to be one of those programs that’s a constant factor in the top 10.”
Next up for UVA is the NCAA Southeast Regional. The `Hoos will host that race Nov. 13 on their home course at Panorama Farms in Earlysville.
“I want to win regionals individually and as a team,” Boyd said. “That’s my next goal. And then at nationals, I want to be an All-American, and I hope our team can [get] a podium spot.”
Boyd carries a double major — American Studies and history — at UVA. She’s on track to graduate in December 2016, after which she hopes to continue her education at the University.
Had Boyd had her way, she would have begun her college career at Virginia. Morgan liked other prospects in her class better, though, and did not pursue her after she expressed interested in coming south. But the story ended happily for both parties.
“I got a second chance at her,” Morgan said, “which doesn’t happen often.”
At Stony Brook, Boyd said, “I just felt like the team wasn’t at the level I wanted to be training with.” And so, after one semester there, Boyd decided she needed a change, and she contacted Morgan, who this time offered her a spot on the team.
Boyd returned home to Ontario, where her home is not far from that of UVA football player Trent Corney, and trained for a semester. Then she enrolled at Virginia in the summer of 2013.
“I think as soon as I came here on my recruiting trip, I knew it was the place for me,” Boyd said.
And now that she’s healthy, she’s enjoying running more than ever.
“Everything for me at this point is just kind of fun,” Boyd said. “I’m not even that nervous going into races, because I feel like everything I’m doing now, it’s fun to be so far ahead of where I was in the past.”