Olympian, Fitch legend spread wisdom to area runners

BAZETTA – Mental toughness. It’s something in a distance runner that is as essential as putting in 10, 50 or even 100 miles per week.

Physically, it always pays to be well prepared, but for runners like McDonald senior Bobby Johnson, a strong mental approach is the difference between fading near districts and staying strong throughout the cross country season.

Running out in front, something Johnson has done many times this season, can take a toll by season’s end. That’s why the McDonald senior is picking and choosing his spots to go at his top level during a race.

“A lot of times my coach likes me to hold back during those times because it can be physically and mentally draining as the season goes on – you’re pushing by yourself a lot,” said Johnson, who won Saturday’s Division III boys race at The Legends in 16 minutes, 35.7 seconds.

He stayed in front of second-place Logan Smith of Mineral Ridge (16:48.8).

“We look for the opportunities like we did for Trumbull County. You look for the opportunities like that,” Johnson said.

But Saturday wasn’t a normal race. The Legends honors former Ohio high school standouts. This year, it was former Austintown Fitch legend Bob Lunn and Crestwood great Bridget Franek, who ran in the 2012 Olympics.

Lunn was part of the epic Fitch cross country teams that won two state titles and finished runners-up twice from 1970-75 in Class AAA. His coach, Mike Garcia, was a huge part of the team’s success. After graduating from Bowling Green, he became a part of the Frank Shorter Racing team.

“You don’t see too many coaches like that,” said Lunn, who graduated in 1974. “He really taught us about the mental part of the race, even the mental part of life. We would have workouts where we didn’t run. We would read mental toughness articles, think big for big results and Norman Vincent Peale-type stuff. It made a huge impact. I call it ‘the intangible advantage’ that we had because of that. When we got to the starting line, we were always mentally well prepared.

“When you’re one of the top teams in the state, everyone’s pointing for you. Certainly if you’re running out individually, there’s guys on your back that are gunning for you. The mental toughness makes a huge difference. It really helped me in all of my success. It was because of what Mike taught us in high school.”

As for Franek, she was a legendary runner in her own right. She had a Division II individual state title her senior year and went on to capture state gold in the 4×800-meter relay, 800, 1,600 and 3,200 in state track and field. Most recently, she was on the U.S. Olympic team in the steeplechase.

“London was amazing. London held an amazing Olympic games,” she said. “It was definitely special because my coach was from the U.K., sentimental value there. The Olympics is something you hear about for so many years. To be there is pretty special.”

McDonald sophomore runner Heidi Hoffman said she is happy someone like Franek is there interacting with the runners.

“I’d like to know how they go out, how they stay strong and positive,” Hoffman said. “Seeing Bridget Franek, she’s in so many major things. She’s a person I can look at and know she has goals. She has the course record at our Billy Goat home course. Looking at her, knowing how good she is, is awesome to look at.”

The best piece of advice Franek has for younger runners is to stay positive.

“Continue to keep it fun,” she said. “The more you have fun with it and the more you want to be better and better at the higher and higher levels, that’s really the fuel you’ll need to carry you through without getting burned out. Keep it fun. Keep consistent. Search for new and improved ways to improve yourself.”

Personally, she’ll look to improve in the steeplechase and set a goal for the 2016 Games in Rio.

“Up until now, I continue to build this foundation in the sport,” Franek said. “Continue to be more comfortable at higher and higher levels. I made it to the Olympics last year. I was pretty overwhelmed. I was pretty star struck. I hope to make it back so I can be over all that overwhelmed feeling and really be able to compete and focus on my race and nailing it real good in competition.”

Maplewood boys coach Dave Deeter, whose team finished second behind CVCA (61-66) in the Division II boys race, said having someone like Franek, who grew up in northeast Ohio, is great for the high school runners.

“It’s amazing having somebody who is from this local area,” Deeter said. “It shows them what they can do. Maybe it’s not going to be everyone’s goal to go to an Olympic meet. But it shows you if you really work, you can reach a higher potential than you think you can hit.”

Johnson said he wants to strive for bigger and better things, just like Lunn and Franek.

“It makes you strive to go above and beyond to do great things because you know people are going above and beyond to use what they have to do great things,” he said. “That’s what I want to do in life, keep on moving on to college and, who knows, beyond and keep on running strong.”

DIVISION I: Canfield held off Mount Lebanon for the boys title, 42-45. Canfield’s Alec Kennedy took second (16:33.5).