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Late start, miles ahead: Madison Cornelius off to hot start in cross country career

Miles and miles and miles.

Madison Cornelius wasn’t sure she was into the idea. She was a basketball player and ran the 4×800 and 400-meter in track, but long distance?

“I didn’t like the thought of miles, plural, instead of just a mile.”

Her perceptions have changed.

Madison Cornelius (Sr.) has finished first, second and third in her first three career cross country races. (Photographer/Shelly Holinsworth)

Madison Cornelius (Sr.) has finished first, second and third in her first three career cross country races. (Photographer/Shelly Holinsworth)

The Mustang senior made her cross country debut on Aug. 27 at the Deer Creek Varsity 5K, nearly cracking the 20-minute mark while finishing third. She followed up with her first-ever individual gold medal at the Mustang Harrier Sept. 1 and nabbed her first silver at the Putnam City North Open Run last week.

A late start, but for a first-year runner, she’s miles ahead.

Teammate Tyler Schwemley made the pitch this summer, convincing Cornelius to join her and others during summer runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Wild Horse Park. Cornelius’ mother, Kesha, also had a hand in the decision. She was a cross country star for Midwest City in high school and always knew her daughter had the same potential, encouraging her from the start even when she was set on basketball.

“My mom was a very good runner,” Cornelius said. “She constantly pushed me to try it and Tyler told me they were running every Tuesday and Thursday at 7 p.m. and to come out. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to do it. So I decided I’d give it a shot.

“I ended up falling in love with the sport.”

Cornelius knew it was time to start focusing on scholarship opportunities. So she quit basketball and focused on her new love, changing her lifestyle, including workouts and eating habits. She quickly realized the differences between track and cross country.

“I used to think track practice was horrid, but then I got to cross country,” she said. “We’d run up to 10 miles one day then the next day run four then the next day back to long distance. All that mileage and getting faster each mile was tough. You have to constantly push yourself to go faster and faster over a longer distance.”

She quickly changed her gym routine, adding more upper-body workouts for endurance. She also changed her diet, cutting out sugar for more protein and less soda for more water. She would go to restaurants with friends, but would wait to eat until she got home and started packing healthy lunches for school.

“It was hard for me because I loved to just veg out on the weekends,” she said. “I would hang out with friends and eat whatever. But I knew I had to change those habits and start working hard for cross country. You have to be dedicated to those things for long distance running.”

She quickly reaped the benefits, crossing the finish line at Wild Horse Park for her first high school win in the Mustang Harrier. She posted a faster time than individuals from powerhouse programs Jenks, Edmond Santa Fe and Stillwater.

“I was pretty shocked,” Cornelius said of her first victory. “I didn’t believe in myself that much to win a meet or a race. It was definitely humbling, but at the same time it was like wow, all that hard work we put in and the healthy eating I had to do was for that.”

Cornelius says she runs for her teammates and family. Kesha has gone from advocate to her daughter’s biggest supporter, along with her father Kelly. And Cornelius’ teammates have become the inspiration for her accomplishments.

“I call my mom after almost every single practice. I know she’s there for words of encouragement and to help me with advice,” she said. “I’ve never seen my dad so proud of something before. He told me he was proud of me because of how hard I’ve pushed, especially for it being my first year.

“I’m definitely out there for my girls too and I love being around them. It’s a team-sport because you go through the struggles every day and you know you couldn’t do it without their encouragement. We run individually, but we’re in this together. It’s become my second family.”

Mustang coach Vickie Bailey sees her newest runner as a natural leader.

“When she came out, she already had the work ethic,” Bailey said. “It was really exciting to see how he would do with it being her first year. She owned it and decided this is what she wants to do. Not much is going to stand in her way.”

Cornelius has seven more meets left in her short high school career. But she’s eyeing a future in the sport and has a solid grasp on why she decided to join the team on those summer runs at Wild Horse Park.

“Not matter how much I hate it, I love it, she said. “I look back to when I decided to run and think about how I really do get excited for it more and more each race.

“And sometimes I may not know why I do it, but at the end of the day I feel accomplished.”

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