By Gary Kalahar (Photo by Ryan Kerwin, JTV Sports)
As Judy Rector sat out her sophomore season on the Hanover-Horton High School track and field team with an injury, one of her coaches encouraged her to learn something from the experience.
It’s pretty clear she was listening, and learning.
Months later, Rector was back competing for the Comets’ cross country team with a new attitude, a clearer sense of purpose and a stronger determination. That propelled her to all-state honors in cross country, and she has kept up the pace this track season, emerging as one of the top middle-distance runners in the state.
Talk to the Hanover-Horton junior now about missing last spring with a painful rib condition, and one word continues to pop up.
“I’m just really grateful to be able to compete,” Rector says. “I’ve always loved running, but they say time away from things makes the return that much sweeter. I’m just grateful to be able to run again.”
As a freshman, Rector was one of Hanover-Horton’s top cross country runners, finishing fourth in the Division 3 regional and 62nd in the state meet. She earned all-state in track with a fourth-place state meet finish in the 800 meters and set the school record in that event. But she realizes now the difference between running and running.
“Before, I was an OK runner,” Rector says. “I didn’t really understand how lucky I was to be able to compete. I think I took that for granted my freshman year, and sophomore year of cross country. People always told me, ‘You have talent, you’re wasting it.’ My attitude has completely changed. When cross country came this year, I decided I wasn’t going to waste my talent any more. I was going to develop it and see how far I could go.”
Toward the end of her sophomore cross country season, Rector began having severe pain in her midsection that caused her to drop out of the Jensen meet and kept her from qualifying for the state meet. She said doctors initially had difficulty with a diagnosis and advised her to take time off from running. When she tried in March to prepare for track season, the pain returned. She was diagnosed with slipping rib syndrome, in which the cartilage that holds the lower ribs moves, causing sharp pain. She was unable to compete that spring as she began five months of physical therapy to treat a condition that Hanover-Horton cross country and assistant track coach Dean Blackledge said he had never seen an athlete deal with in 52 years.
“It was a long time, and it was really upsetting, because (running) was what I had spent my time doing, and to have that taken away … I did not feel like myself at all,” she says.
Physical therapy aimed at strengthening her core, back and hip muscles and improving her overall balance was not exactly her cup of tea.
“I hated it at first,” she said. “It was awful. But I was lucky, my therapist was an absolute godsend. A month in, I told him, ‘I don’t want to do this any more. It’s stupid, you’re not helping me at all.’ He said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to get better, you have to want to get better. You’re going to be OK, you just have to throw yourself into it. You have to give your best effort to get better.’ ”
Rector acknowledges it was difficult to remain positive, but she tried to support her teammates while she sat out. She said Blackledge helped keep her in the right frame of mind.
“He told me,” Rector says. “ ‘I know this is really hard for you. But you’re more than just a runner. You’re a good person. If you can take anything out of this experience, make sure you learn from it, and don’t let it change you as a person.’ That made a big impact.”
Rector saw improvement as the spring progressed and even got to the point where she thought the exercises were fun. She began training again just as the season ended.
“The day of the state track meet, I got up and ran five miles, and it was the slowest I’ve ever run,” Rector says. “I was huffing and puffing trying to make it down the road. It hurt so bad (from inactivity), and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I have such a long road ahead of me.’ ”
Turned out to be not that long. Last fall, Rector won the Cascades Conference and regional meets, finished second in the Jensen and placed 10th in the state meet in 19:00. A week later, she blazed to a personal-best of 18:21 in a Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association meet.
And this from someone who hadn’t even cared for cross country since she began competing in seventh grade.
“I was not that good,” she says. “Then track hit, and I loved it. I loved every second of track. I started to break some records. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really fun.’ I was still not a fan of cross country.”
Again, the time away altered her perspective. Making up for lost time, she ran much more over the summer than she ever had previously. Now she’s looking forward to her senior season of cross country, with an eye on Lindsey Burdette’s school record of 17:43.
“It’s within her reach,” Blackledge said. “She’s such a strong runner, and so driven. She has a great attitude and a lot of talent to go with it, and that’s a rare combination. Every day, she becomes a better runner.”
Training and competing this winter in indoor meets this winter for the first time, Rector placed seventh in the indoor state meet in the 800, qualified for the New Balance national meet in New York in March and hit the outdoor season more ready than ever.
“I met my goals for cross country, so I was thinking I really want to go after it for track season, since I didn’t run track last year and I really wanted to set myself up to have a good season,” Rector says.
The renewed enthusiasm for training was apparent to Hanover-Horton track coach Dan Draper.
“She views each day of practice or competition as a reward, knowing how fast it can be taken away,” Draper said.
Rector’s first goal was to break Burdette’s record in the 1,600 and get under the 5:00 mark, which she achieved with a 4:59.64 on April 27 at Mason.
“I look up to her a lot,” Rector says. “She’s a big name around here.”
Rector has lowered her own school record in the 800 to 2:14.81. She is shooting for 2:13 in that race, which she calls her favorite, and a state championship in one of the two races.
“The sky is the limit for Judy in both of those races,” Draper said. “With her passion for competing and her drive for improvement, she will get better at anything she does.”
She says she is pain-free, but that doesn’t mean she is in the clear. She is required to undertake a twice-a-day regimen of exercises that has her coaches shaking their heads.
“She showed me (one of the exercises),” Blackledge said. “She said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to see you do it again!’ ”
“It is unbelievable how much she has to do just to maintain,” Draper said. “I don’t know of any other athlete who would go through such daily rehab just to compete.”
Rector found out the necessity of the exercises last fall when she says she “got lazy” and stopped the routine. Within a couple weeks, she was finishing a race with the familiar pain.
“I was laying on the ground, crying,” she says. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to run again, it hurts so bad.”
A return to the exercises got her back in stride, and she has been faithful since.
“It’s all preventative, which is something I had no clue was important,” she says. “Once you figure it out, you kind of get scared. There’s so many injuries that happen with running, if you can prevent them, it’s really important.”